Where I’m Coming From
I’ve been writing professionally (or trying to write professionally) for almost fifteen years, but online serials are still new to me. When I started, the paradigm was print. Literary journals were the way to go, and they were all in paper and only taking the fanciest of the fancy. It was not an easy way to break in.
By the time that mags moved to the Internet, I was already convinced that I was awful and needed to get a real job (“get a real job” being the meanest thing that you can tell a writer), so I missed out on this initial orgy of zine activity. I got into it late, and I got in with reservations. Even now, I miss the scent of newly printed paper…sigh.
The Way We Write Now
It was last autumn. I had just finished my first novel, Song of Simon (due out Sept 1st, 2013, from Damnation Books), over the Summer, and I was looking for a new project. Song of Simon is an intense novel and writing it was emotionally draining. This time I wanted to write something a bit more lighthearted.
I guess I didn’t get out of that novel-writing state of mind. What began as a short story ballooned into a massive 16,000 word novelette, now known as The Watchmage of Old New York. I would’ve given up on it (it’s near impossible to sell something that size, and I have bills to pay), but I was having too much fun exploring the Watchmage world.
So now I was stuck with this albatross of a story hanging around my neck. No mag would have her, certainly no paying mag (I make it a point to only sell to paying mags. That magazines will pay nothing for our work and act like we should be grateful is a crime. But that is a different story).
I use Duotrope to find markets (you should too) and that’s where I found Jukepop Serials. A paying market that takes long stories? Sign me up. It hadn’t occurred to me to serialize Watchmage, but how could I resist?
I was biased against serials, I’m ashamed to say. I was a “professional” and serials were for fan fiction. I was an idiot.
Serials are not a new paradigm, they are the old one. Charles Dickens used to write serials, so did Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I never realized this until I immersed myself into one of my own.
Healthy, Whole Grain, Serial
If I was going to boil serial writing down to three rules (and I will), they would be these:
3)Keep a healthy buffer
Outline Everything: I believe in doing this for everything you write, even blog posts. But outlines are especially important when you’re writing a serial. Once you post an installment, it’s there forever. I feel that going back to previous entries and changing them is unfair to your readers. Make sure that what goes on that page is exactly what you want.
This includes noting the important aspects about characters, plot, and the world of the story. In Watchmage, I found that I was uncomfortable with some of the main character’s characteristics. Looking back, I would’ve written him differently (which I am doing in the novelized reboot). You can avoid my mistake with preparation.
Outlining doesn’t stop once you start writing. One of my favorite things about writing is all the interesting people, places, and things that naturally pop up as the story goes on. Make sure you add these to your notes. Don’t forget anything, because you never know what’s gonna be important a few story arcs down the line.
That said, don’t make your plot outside too rigid. Think of it more as drawing with dots, and then connecting the dots. As long as you get from plot point to plot point, it doesn’t matter how you got there.
Master Pacing: Reading online is different from reading in print. For some reason, readers will only read a certain amount before they fade out. The big complaint that I have heard is eye strain. Regardless, a good chapter in an online serial is shorter than one in a print book.
I think that 1000-1500 words is a good length for an installment. You should be able to end at the end of a scene or a cliffhanger. Don’t rely too much on either. Cliffhangers keep the reader coming back, but they get old quickly. Think “tension and release.”
The major difference between a serial and a novel is that a serial is ongoing, where a novel has a finite end. This does not, however, mean that a serial is an open-ended mess.
I grew up reading comic books and watching pro wrestling, both of which I still love. Both are great examples of serial structure. A comic might go on for decades, but it’s broken up into story arcs. A story might go on for a few months, reach its conclusion, and then move on to another arc. Wrestling is the same way. John Cena might be feuding with Daniel Bryan now, but in a couple of months (after Bryan does the J.O.B…wrestling fans get it) he might feud with Randy Orton or Fandango (yes, there is a wrestler called Fandango). This is the way that your serial should be constructed. It provides closure for the reader without ending it.
For example, Watchmage currently has two story arcs. I could easily write more, but I am rebooting it. You could read one arc and be satisfied, or you could keep going. Readers need closure. In other words: don’t get carried away by your own awesomeness.
Keep A Buffer:
Writers will argue about the length, but you should always keep a buffer of at least a few weeks. This means that you have a few weeks’ worth of story written ahead of your installments. For Watchmage, I kept an eight week buffer.
Writing is like starting a hose with your mouth: you have to do a lot of sucking before things flow. The problem is, too many serial writers post those first few sucks before they realize that they don’t fit. This is why I keep a buffer. It gives me a chance to look back and edit my work before posting it. Remember: what has been posted cannot be unposted (ok, maybe it can, but it shouldn’t).
Another reason is because life happens, and sometimes you won’t be able to hit your deadline. The buffer allows you wiggle room for when you get the flu or your dog eats a Cadbury bar.
I hope this little insight into my conversion to serial writing, and the methods to my madness, have helped. If you disagree, that’s fine too. Everyone works differently, don’t be ashamed of your own technique. Be brilliant.