The idea for my future-noir serial, Debt Collector, struck me out-of-the-blue mid-January. I cast other projects aside and started writing immediately (because I just. couldn’t. stop.). I ended up prewriting three episodes before I decide I actually had to publish this thing, it would be nine episodes in the first season, and it would be a complete story. I also decided to start publishing with only the three episodes pre-written, so I could have fan interaction as I went. Was this smart? It was certainly fun and hectic! And I know calmer heads probably would have pre-written the entire thing. But… I was anxious to share it with readers. I wanted to hear what they thought! It was just that kind of story. Hard to explain, but the fan interaction part was important to me. I ended up bundling episodes as I went – three at a time – and then bundling the entire season.
I may not have had the entire season written, but before I published the first episode, I made sure I understood what serials were, what I was embarking on, and most importantly, what I was trying to accomplish with it, as a writer.
Doing My Research
I read serials. I thought about what makes a serial. I wrote about serials. Before I embarked on this journey, I had a myriad of questions: how many episodes? How often? How long/short should the stories be? How does this whole “episodic storytelling” work? And most importantly: does anyone actually read these things?
Must Read TV
People are actually very familiar with episodic storytelling via TV. We watch everything from self-contained series like Law and Order and House to broad-story-arc series like Lost or Heroes. Some like the week-by-week suspense of Must Watch TV; others would rather wait until the season is done and get it from netflix so they can watch it back-to-back.
Ok, that’s TV. What about books?
Ebook serials are a new thing, because ebooks are a new thing – but serials have been around since Charles Dickens wrote and released Great Expectations (self-published through his own literary magazine!) in 6k “installments” every week for nine months. Readers today aren’t accustomed to reading in serial format because publishing serials was restricted to magazines, which were missing two key factors: 1) wide circulation (most magazines don’t have it), and 2) a paying market (many ezines are free, and many paper magazines don’t pay much for content).
Enter ebooks: low cost of transmission and access to a wide circulation. They’re a natural for shorter works. At first, authors dusted off their short stories or wrote new ones… and sometimes those thrived. But for the most part, readers raised on novels craved longer works and more in-depth stories… which made serialization the next natural step.
How Long? How Many? How Often?
Sounds like a smexy ad for… okay, we’re keeping this PG.
Authors are experimenting like crazy with serialization in 2013. I’ve seen releases 1 week, 1 month, and 1 quarter apart. Number of episodes range from 5 to 15, length of episodes ranging from 6k to 40k. Forty thousand words! That’s… a novel, people. (Note: SFWA defines a novel as 40,000+ words, which is about 160 pages.) So you can see that experimentation is all over the map. I’m convinced none of that matters, with the slight caveat that the most successful serials to date have released every 1-3 weeks.
Who Are The Successful Serials?
Part of the eagerness to experiment with serials is no doubt attributable to the success of Hugh Howey’s Wool – a serial that propelled him to rockstar status. Unforunately, people once again are getting causality backward with his success with that serial. Wool wasn’t a success because it was a serial; the story was serialized because it was a success. Hugh wrote the first episode as a stand alone short story. It was so wildly popular, that fans demanded more. And he wrote more, releasing more of the story to keep up with fan demand. The episodes grew progressively longer (the first is 50 pages; the last 250 pages). Wool came out as a serial because fans demanded it and Hugh gave them what they wanted. In the process, he proved that people were willing to read serialized fiction – in spite of the unfamiliar form – for a story they loved.
So, let’s look at a few popular serials.
(note: trad-pub authors are also experimenting… see John Scalzi’s Human Division)
Hugh Howey’s Wool
5 episodes, 50 – 250 pages each, across three months
First Book/Season is Wool, second is Shift, third is Dust, which was released as a single book, even though written serially
RaShelle Workman’s Blood and Snow
12 episodes, 12k (~50 pages) each, released 2-3 weeks apart
She’s writing a companion serial now, The Cindy Chronicles
Platt and Wright’s Yesterday’s Gone
Six episodes, 100+ pages each, released 1-2 weeks apart
Three Seasons so far (fourth on the way)
It’s All About Story
The question of “what makes a successful serial?” is the same as “what makes a successful book?” And the answer is the same: THE STORY
Hugh Howey’s serial started as a short story, but he listened to reader demand and wrote more. RaShelle’s Fairy-Tale-Turned-Vampire stories brilliantly captured the wave of demand for both those genres. Platt and Wright’s post-apoc tale does the same. But all are successful because readers were drawn into the story, not because the format has some special pixie dust that made them successful. The only caveat is that readers can sample a series by trying the first episode or two – if they’re hooked, they keep coming back. But as authors, this cuts both ways – readers can also stop buying the next installment at any time.
Once again: it’s all about story. If readers like it, they will return. Which is why serialization is not the easy way out (see below).
Can I Sell My Novel In Pieces And Make More Money?
A serial is not a chopped up novel, just like a TV episode is not a chopped up movie. It’s a different way of telling stories. In a way, it’s more demanding than novels – you need to immediately draw the reader in, you have to reach some kind of reader-satisfaction-level by the end of the episode (even if you have a cliff-hanger), and you have to maintain that pace and storytelling arc over multiple episodes. You can pre-write all your episodes (and some people do), but the successful authors above all wrote-as-they-went, listening to reader feedback along the way.
Remember how repeating something over and over trains your intuition (see Training Your Intuition)? Writing nine tightly-plotting, fast-paced serial episodes that had to each contain their own story arcs, plus story arcs over the three-episode sets, plus story arcs over the entire season? That was some serious intuition training. Writing that serial definitely took my storytelling skills to another level.
Story is a Harmonic Waveform
For the non-geek among you, some visual assistance:
Do you find your readers are more engaged with your serial than your novels?
This is hard to tell – with a serial, I get feedback along the way. The equivalent would be if readers of my novels stopped every few chapters and said, “This is my favorite chapter so far!” I’ve actually had a few readers who will tweet their way through a book like that, but very few. So, yes, more feedback from the serial, just because of the nature of the thing. Now that the season is done, people don’t do that anymore.
What do you like best about writing serial? (benefits?)
I enjoy the fast pace and energy of the writing. And that I’m freer to dive into side characters and storylines within an episode, not always on the relentless march forward that a novel can require.
What are some of the disadvantages of writing serial?
They are more difficult to market than novels, mostly because readers are unfamiliar with the form.
Serials are the toughest writing I’ve ever loved. And they’re harder to sell than novels, because of reader unfamiliarity with the form and the lack of advertisers who will accept them. But none of that will stop me from tackling Season Two of Debt Collector next year. I enjoy the story, and the pacing, too much.