Meeting Teens Where They’re At: An Experiment (and an introduction to Wattpad) – a guest post by author Heather Demetrios
My little brother, a seventeen-year-old high school senior, came to visit me in NYC over his spring break. Whenever we were on the subway or waiting in line for an attraction he’d whip out his phone and start reading intently. Finally, in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History I asked, What are you reading over there?! Is this about her? “Her” is a certain girl he’s been talking to. Ahem. That’s when I learned about Wattpad. If you’ve never heard of it, Wattpad is a reader’s and burgeoning writer’s dream: stories you can read or post online for free and get feedback and support from readers and writers all over the world. I was skeptical at first. I have three books out that are made of paper and that you can see on bookshelves and underline or dog-ear or lend to your friend. I’m a bit old-fashioned like that. But standing in a museum full of dinosaurs, I had a story epiphany: this is how a YA reader connects with her teen audience—by meeting them where they’re at. One thing’s for certain: I don’t want to be a dinosaur in my field, especially since a large portion of my audience is made up of the most tech savvy people in the world—teens. My brother’s an avid reader and Wattpad is no exception. There are thousands of stories on there, all for the reading. And when he told me that one of the girls in his high school has TWO MILLION readers, that was it. I want me some of that reader action.
So began The Lexie Project. Perfect for fans of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lexie’s novelized memoir is a multiplatform storytelling experience told in real time that reaches readers through social media, including weekly chapter installments on Wattpad. Daily updates on Lexie’s social media accounts will give readers the chance to interact directly with Lexie and have opportunities to influence the course of the story. It will take roughly a year to finish the novel and then, eventually, it will be in an old-school book format for readers eager to check out the story all at once. I have never written a story this way, and few authors have. This is something that could only have been done in this century. It’s the wild west of storytelling, where it’s difficult to predict the challenges. In fact, I’m starting a series on my personal author blog, “Lessons From Lexie.” Throughout the year, I’ll be posting about all the challenges I come across—in fact, I’ve already had more than a few and you can already read about them (these posts are especially useful for teachers, librarians, and fellow writers).
Lexie is a secondary character in my debut novel about reality stardom gone wrong, Something Real (Macmillan 2014). Unlike the protagonist of Something Real, Lexie loves the spotlight and feels right at home being in front of a camera 24-7. I quickly realized that Lexie wouldn’t tell her story in a traditional way. As her sister, Chloe, says in the forward to what I’m calling Lexie’s “novelized memoir”:
[Lexie] wants to tell her story through Wattpad and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Pinterest. She wants to show you pictures and videos and websites that crack her up. She wants to tell you whatever the heck comes into her mind in 140 characters or less.
Many teens are like Lexie. They long for recognition, stardom, to stand out from the crowd. Lexie is meeting teens where they’re at because she herself is a teen. She’s just as hungry to be seen by others, she’s just as confused about who she is and what she wants, and she’s just as uncertain about the future as the readers who are going to follow her story. Another reason TLP is perfect for teens in the twenty-first century is because all of it can be accessed on a cell phone. In fact, that’s where Wattpad really shines. Teen lives often revolve around social media. Multiplatform storytelling is a perfect vehicle for a contemporary YA novel. The YA fandom—which consists of both young adults and adults—is legion. They are eager to collaborate with the author and become a creator in the story’s world in any way they can, whether it’s writing fan fiction, creating fan art, or blogging and writing reviews about the story. If it’s a series, they have a chance to discuss their hopes for future stories with the author and other readers. In fact, a published author friend of mine regularly reads her Goodreads reviews in order to gauge reader reactions to her work, whether she’s writing in series or not. Their hopes for the sequel to her debut novel led this author to actually change the course she’d set for the story. Readers have power and we authors are listening.
This is one of the reasons I love being a YA author. My readers are invested in the stories I write. Their hearts are open, always ready to welcome new characters into it. They want to connect with the author, and authors often enjoy interacting with them, especially on Twitter and Tumblr. This is all very, very cool. It’s this relationship between author and reader that led me to the decision to crowd source as I’m writing Lexie. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, waiting until readers have gotten a chance to check out the next installment (which I’ll be posting every Wednesday from now until novel’s end) before I finish the next chapter in the story. I have the story arc and I know my characters really well, but I’m excited to make this story a group effort. The writing will be the same quality as that of my other work, but I have to move faster. I also have beta readers who’ve got my back and have the story’s best interest at heart. I’m a little terrified, I have to admit: this is a very unusual way to write. But then I remember that Dickens wrote Bleak House in serial form over the course of two years and I feel a little better. It’s a brave new world and my readers are already welcoming it with open arms—so I will, too.
I admit, up until my first book came out, I was a bit of a luddite. I still don’t own an e-reader. There will definitely be readers who won’t want to read a story on Wattpad, or in serial form. Or there will be some who only want to read the novel on Wattpad and not bother with all the other social media. Both responses are fine. Lexie will eventually be in print (I’d like to wave at her on my bookshelf now and again), so that will be yet another way readers can access the story. It’s also important to note that all the social media is extra. The story on Wattpad is the novel and everything else is just great fun to draw readers deeper into the world (J.K. Rowling’s already doing this with Pottermore). Imagine Jo March getting on Wattpad to share her latest story that we only hear about in passing in the actual novel, or blogging about Amy destroying her manuscript. Picture Huck Finn tweeting about life on the Mississippi as he’s experiencing it. I bet Anne Shirley would post Instagram pics of her wearing that dress with puffed sleeves. It’s a bit hard to go there, isn’t it? Those are stories of a different age. And yet. I wonder how that would have felt to be with Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, and Mark Twain as they created their iconic characters and stories (Hey, teachers—think of the fun assignments that can come out of that idea).
I’m eager to enter into this conversation with librarians and teachers, to find ways we can work together to bring teens books that will speak to them, books of their time and with characters that hold up a mirror to the culture they live in, and to themselves. If you’ve read my other books, then you know I enjoy asking tough questions. I like making my readers think. Hopefully, The Lexie Project is no exception. To my readers, I say: Oh, the places you’ll go!
Meet Heather Demetrios
When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, I’ll Meet You There and the multiplatform serial novel, The Lexie Project. She is the founder of Live Your What, a program dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.
Heather will be at ALA in San Francisco this year and would love to chat with teen librarians about the project and how you can get your readers on board. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time to meet.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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