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April 21, 2010

Patrick Carman: Expect the Unexpected

Posted by Marisa Emralino


With works of fantasy (Land of Elyon), dystopian science fiction (Atherton) and even an interactive ghost story or two (Skeleton Creek) under his belt, it's clear that as an author, Patrick Carman doesn't shy away from trying his hand at new genres.  Today, he joins us to talk a bit about his latest book --- a superhero novel / love story called  THIRTEEN DAYS TO MIDNIGHT --- and reflects back on his seemingly roundabout route to finding his groove as a writer. 


I sometimes envy the steady-as-she-goes romance writers who've found the magic formula to churn out one great weeper after another. Or the mystery writers who nail the format over and over again. For some reason, I have never been able to get into that kind of groove as a writer. When I think about writing a story, it's like walking down the candy isle: Snickers or Three Musketeers? Reese's peanut butter cup or gummy worms? I'd like to try them all at least once.
By way of evidence.....
When I finished writing the last Land of Elyon book, I was confident I could write respectable first-person middle-grade-fantasy stories for the rest of my life. I knew how to do it without really thinking about it. It wasn't that the books were predictable, I'd simply learned how to craft a strong FPMGF (first-person-middle-grade-fantasy). Regardless of what story I told, I could make it work in that genre.
So I moved down the isle, searching for something totally different I could sink my teeth into, something that would really stretch me as a writer.
The challenge arrived in the form of Atherton, a dystopian sci-fi trilogy full of monsters, mad scientists, and hidden mysteries galore. I used shifting narrative perspectives colliding unexpectedly from one section to the next. That'll learn me I thought, and did it ever. I think I spent as much time editing the Atherton trilogy as I did writing the first draft. Thankfully, the story worked. I was still being asked to write books when it was over.
Then I really went off the deep end and set about writing and producing Skeleton Creek. Half book and half movie, Skeleton Creek taught me how to collaborate with a large group of creative people and push the limits of what a book could be. It was a whole new way of writing, and after two years in the woods on that project, I was sure it would be my undoing. I began plotting out a first-person middle-grade fantasy as a backup plan for when the whole darn thing blew up in my face. Many establishment reviewers didn't get Skeleton Creek and I honestly thought I'd failed. I'd tried to create a new pallet to paint a story on and bit the dust. But a funny thing happened while I was blowing my entire advance on this wild idea: it actually worked. 5 million videos and 500,000 copies later isn't what tells me Skeleton Creek was a successful story, it's the thousands of emails from librarians, teachers, reading specialists, and young readers. Skeleton Creek wasn't perfect, but it was important. Wired readers who hadn't turned a page for fun in months or years were reading again. Teachers and media specialists were using it as a lifeline back to books. A brand new way of telling a story had been invented, and I'd been lucky enough to write and produce it.
My latest book is a YA superhero novel, THIRTEEN DAYS TO MIDNIGHT. I should clarify that the idea to change direction is always mine, but where the direction leads is some sort of Voodoo I can't explain. Why YA and why a superhero? I think, more than anything else, I wanted to write a story about a guy and a girl who fall in love and the dark forces that try to keep them apart --- these were big challenge I hadn't tried.
Probably the real reason THIRTEEN DAYS TO MIDNIGHT ended up YA is because the power I chose meant kids were going to have to try and kill each other a lot in order to figure out how the power works. It's not the damns or the hells (that's about as racy as the language gets, although my sister-in-law told me this morning there's an ass in there, which I forgot about). It's not for all the making out between Jacob and Oh, the fateful main characters (although they do share a smoldering moment or two in the falling rain). Nope, it's pretty much the killing that did it. If you have the power of indestructibility, you're going to want to run some extensive tests with darkly humorous results.  
THIRTEEN DAYS TO MIDNIGHT pushed me in some new ways. I think I'd already gotten pretty good at developing a mythology, making characters unique and interesting, pacing, mood, and setting. All the other books I've written taught me those things in one way or another. The brand new things were the love story between two teen characters and effectively turning a power into a curse (a hopeless romantic growing up, I drew on my own experience as a teen when it came to the tragic love story between Jacob and Oh). What I can promise is that THIRTEEN DAYS TO MIDNIGHT challenged me. I put a lot of hard work and a lot of soul into this story and while it might not be perfect, it is what I hoped it would be. I hoped it would make my heart race, hurt, laugh, and long for something I couldn't quite get my hands on. I feel as if I accomplished those things.
I can't tell for sure, but I have a feeling I'm going to swing back around and start the whole journey over at some point. Fantasy, then sci-fi, then something no one's ever tried before, then a teen love story...or maybe I'll end up down some completely unexpected path instead.
Maybe I do have a groove after all: always pushing forward into uncharted territory.

-- Patrick Carman