At Awesome Jeff writes, collaborates and co-creates with other writers to bring to publishers books that children want to read. In fact, Jeff sees his audience as so important that in his latest project, Alienated, he is working with children as 'beta readers' to inform and give feedback on the direction of the story.
Jeff was Senior Vice President at Chorion, where he developed new multiplatform brands, acquired new intellectual property and grew the Enid Blyton literary estate. Jeff created a new concept development initiative that has profitably developed over thirty additional book titles, including a spin-off series from Blyton’s books. Jeff also created and developed original concepts, including the hit Skate School franchise, a four book series from Usborne.
In 2003, Jeff optioned and acquired the entertainment rights to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, the biggest selling book series until Harry Potter. With a vision to “entertain, engage, and educate” children, Jeff produced the award-winning feature Choose Your Own Adventure: The Abominable Snowman, starring William H. Macy, Frankie Muniz and Felicity Huffman, which debuted in July 2006 to rave reviews. Jeff previously consulted to Regent Entertainment in feature film creative development and to The Jim Henson Company. He is also an independent filmmaker, and his recent film, The First Zombie, is currently playing the film festival circuit.
SSP was delighted to interview Jeff, who has generously provided information about creative development and insight into what it takes to write the best stories possible.
Firstly, thank you very much for this interview and congratulations on the success of your creative venture, Awesome Media & Entertainment. What inspired your decision to establish a cross-media company?
I’m media agnostic. I want to create stories without locking myself into one specific media because the landscape is changing so fast. Awesome’s focus is on the core story and not on the medium; that frees me up to simply focus on creating the greatest stories I can come up with and then figure out the best way to bring them to life. It keeps me nimble and not locked into any one “legacy” technology. I do, however, have a bias towards starting with books because a book creates such a personal, immersive space around the reader, a bubble that surrounds you with the story. That’s a very special privilege to create.
Can you share your overarching vision for your Awesome projects?
I’m inspired to create stories and worlds that people will lose themselves in. Great stories have a magical ability to take you out of your real world for a while but also to stay with you forever once you return. That’s the vision, to create the most immersive, unforgettable stories in the world.
What excites you most about your work?
Two things really; the ideas and the people. I love the moment when a big new idea comes to me. It’s both exciting and daunting: exciting because it’s new and unknown, but daunting because I know there’ll be a lot of work to turn that idea into a fully developed story, and even more to get it onto the book shelves. The second aspect is the people, it’s a true joy to surround myself with people who love stories and love what they do. Everyone I work with, co-writers, editors, publishing executives, wants the very best for the creative. I look for collaborators who want to go that extra 100 miles to make the book something truly special. I’m working with a very talented new author called Bridget Tyler on a YA book called Drummer Girl. Bridget is a staff writer on the hit TV series Burn Notice, and she’s written Drummer Girl, which will be her first published novel. She’s a joy to work with because she’s more than just professional, she’s passionate about making the book the very best it can be. When you collaborate with someone like that, anything’s possible.
Can you share some insight into the Creative Treatment that you apply to your writing projects?
I spend a lot of time, on average between six and eight months, crafting a story. It’s an involved and iterative process where I plot out and plan out every detail of the story. Each project is different. Sometimes I start with a character, sometimes I start with a premise, and sometimes I start with a plot idea. I write a lot of notes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes, and then I distil down the notes into what they call in television a “bible,” a type of master document that gives character biographies, plots the story, and reveals the rules of the world I’ve created. This document may run anywhere between fifty and a hundred pages.
How long might it take for a project to become a published novel?
Every project is different, but right now I spend about half a year crafting the characters, story, and world, then will typically seek to find a co-writer to collaborate with and together we’ll write a sample of the book to share with commissioning editors. Once a publishing company agrees to publish the book, the lead-time to hitting the shelves is averaging 14-18 months. Publishers plan very far in advance, driven by the retailers, but I do think that this long lead-time will have to change in the era of digital publishing.
What can you tell us about Drummer Girl and the Metawars novels?
MetaWars is going to be incredible. I just reread and signed off on the final proof of the book and it gave me chills. It’s a non-stop, full adrenaline ride of a read. It’s about a young hero called Jonah Delacroix who, in a post peak-oil, “dystopian” future where we interface in a global virtual world, discovers the online avatar of his dead father and assumes his identity, unleashing a deadly, global battle for control of the virtual world. It’s for readers aged 9 to 90! It’s got the potential to be The Hunger Games for a core male readership.
Drummer Girl is something completely different but with equally massive potential. It’s a glamorous, gritty, YA book for teen readers. It’s inspired by my favourite book, The Great Gatsby, and plays with the themes from that book, but in a transatlantic, teenage environment. The book focuses on Lucy Gosling, the drummer for Crush, the rock band formed by five London private school girls and red-hot winner of the U.K.’s biggest TV talent contest. But when the band lands in Hollywood, things are not as they seem. The band’s lead singer and Lucy’s once b.f.f., Harper, has just one thing on her mind, winning back her ex-boyfriend, and Harper will use sex, drugs, and rock & roll to get him back. And Lucy must decide whether she’s playing to Harper’s tune, or should she be setting the rhythm for the whole band before it’s too late. It’s kind of the evil twin of GLEE.
For your new story Alienated, you are using beta-readers as part of the project development. Can you explain the idea behind involving beta-readers and what this method has taught you?
Alienated is a blast. We’re still finalising the book, but it’s laugh out loud funny, and taps into the insecurity we’ve all experienced when moving to a new school, expect in this case, our hero, Sherman Capote, just happens to be the only human boy in the high school for aliens at Alien 51!
The inspiration to share the creative process as it unfolds comes from Pixar. I was recently exposed to Pixar’s creative development process and have become obsessed with learning from their best-in-class creative process to create better stories at Awesome. Each film Pixar produces will be constructed 5-7 times before it hits cinemas. They create a fully working prototype of the film (using voice over and moving storyboards) and share it with both their “brain trust” (the collection of Pixar directors) and the Pixar employees. Each time, the director on the film takes the notes and feedback and choses which notes to address. It’s a iterative, collaborative process that throws away the old fashioned notion that you get it right the first time.
Since Alienated is such a huge idea, resonating with everyone who hears it, I’m focused on replicating that Pixar model of iterative creativity to make the best book I can. I’m not arrogant enough to say that the first draft is perfect. We’ll write the book over and over until it is perfect.
Is the feedback you receive from your beta-readers generally consistent?
Thus far, the feedback has been surprisingly positive and very consistent. That said, there are always areas for improvement and we’ve made a number of changes to the story based on the reader feedback. The first big change was making the protagonist, Sherman Capote, and his family American. A few readers just didn’t buy that a British family would be sent away to Nevada after Sherman nearly causes World War 3. It was a good lesson, because originally I had crafted Sherman to be British because I expected to share the manuscript first with British publishers, but the readers didn’t care about that. The beta readers care about what’s right for the story, and rightfully challenged me on it. It’s much more organic that Sherman and his family are American, and get sent home to America. The amazing thing is that all of the British readers have a sense, even from afar, what American high school is like from other books and television.
How much do you take on board in terms of allowing their feedback to shape the story?
I’m very open and will incorporate a good idea from anywhere. The only area where I’m not wavering is theme and tone. If someone wants Alienated to be a dark, depressing book, then they should be reading another story. Plot wise, however, if something will enhance the book, I’ll seek to incorporate the feedback. The biggest area where I’m making adjustments is language. For example, we had a number of readers tell us that they just had no idea what “hallucinogenic” meant. Sometimes it’s okay if a word goes over the head of the reader, but in this case, it was central to a character’s development and we’ve changed it now based on the feedback.
You’ve successfully created an online community for Alienated (www.alientatedbooks.com) pre-publication. Did this develop organically following the positive reception that Alienated has received from its beta-readers, or was this always the plan?
It grew organically. Our beta-readers have downloaded the sample chapters, and I send them additional chapters as we write them, and that’s engendered a real loyalty to the project. I think Sherman really resonates with readers – we’ve all felt alienated in one way or another. The feedback also gives me the confidence to push ahead with the project. When beta-readers compare Alienated with Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, it reinforces my belief that Alienated is something truly special. Those are great, seminal works, and if Alienated is striking the same chord, I know I’m onto a book that will have true longevity.
Do you think you might adapt this method of establishing an audience early on for your future projects?
Every project is different, but yes, I will certainly seek early feedback from a wide-range of beta readers and apply the discipline of iterative creativity. If there’s one thing we can all learn from Pixar, it’s keep iterating the creative until it’s perfect.
So many brilliant stories have been shared, and will be shared, as books. What makes a story 'perfectly pitched to make the leap from book to screen'?
Ultimately, it’s about the story, the characters, and the world. I’m a very visual thinker, and subsequently my stories are very visual; they don’t just play out in the main character’s head. That being said, no one can ever predict how Hollywood will react to material, but as someone who used to acquire books to turn into filmed entertainment, I feel I’ve got a sixth sense about what should work.
There have been numerous novels and fiction series that, while first successful as books, have gone on to achieve massive success as films which in turn further catapult book sales. Do you think this trend is likely to continue?
Films are really expensive to make and thus the people who finance them are always looking for ways to reduce risk. One way to reduce risk is to make a movie based on a popular book because the conventional wisdom is that there’s a built in audience that will pay to see the adaptation. This was true for Twilight, and I think it’ll be true for The Hunger Games. It’s not a guarantee, but it probably tips the odds in the financiers’ favour. Major motion pictures require a lot of marketing (called P&A, prints and advertising) and as such raise the profile of the source book beyond what any publisher’s marketing plan could ever achieve. I personally believe that books often have fuller, richer characters than many original screenplays, and lend themselves to make great films and television shows. Look at this year’s Oscar race and count the book adaptations!
Are the markets for these books and screen adaptations one and the same?
A book audience can afford to be a bit more niche. A film audience needs to be broader to cover the costs of production. All of my projects have an identifiable core audience but have the potential to cross over to broader audience. MetaWars is a great example, it’s core audience is boys 9-12, but I’ve had young males in their twenties miss their tube stops because it’s such a compelling read. Alienated will definitely be broad because it pulls on universal experiences of feeling out of place. Drummer Girl will be a major cross over hit in YA because it’s the ultimate fantasy.
When determining whether or not one of your potential projects is “awesome enough” to pursue, what are some of the key deciding factors?
The biggest factor is very personal: do I want to live with these characters for years and years? The writing and development process is at least two years, and then on top of that the publication commitment then goes on in perpetuity, I need to be in love with the characters, the story, and the world. At any one given time, I’ve got a bunch of really cool ideas, but maybe only one in forty or fifty are ones that I love enough to devote that much of my life to.
Can you share any details about your upcoming projects?
I’ve got a very big, very exciting series that will be announced shortly for young readers. It’s magical, expansive, and very compelling. But I promised the publisher I would let them make the announcement.
I’ve got about 20 core concepts in the “development pipeline” right now, but I only focus on one or two at a time. The two I’m focusing on developing now are very exciting: one is an epic, YA romance that will turn the world of YA fiction on its head, the other is a very dry comedy for middle grade readers.
I’ve also adapted one of my books entitled THE CALLING, a claustrophobic sci-fi thriller, into a feature film and attached a producer. We’re in pre-pre-production now and will shoot the film in late 2013. It’s kind of like The Breakfast Club meets Moon.
Thank you very much for such an insightful interview Jeff.
To find out more about Jeff Norton and Awesome, please visit his website.