Writing Serials (Part One)


Indie authors today have an abundance of options when it comes to choosing what to write. Sure, they can all be ebooks (and print), but depending on the length, they go by different names. There are novels, blog books, novellas, essays, collections of short stories, children’s books (picture, middle grade, and YA), poetry, long form journalism, short form (generally 5,000 to 30,000 words, depending on who you ask), short stories (up to 5,000 words), box sets containing series, and the list could go on.

But there is also a new(ish) form of writing/publishing: serials. Technically, it’s an old art—Charles Dickens is famous for writing serial novels (and for self-publishing), including The Pickwick PapersDavid Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. But now with blogs and ebooks, the art of writing serials has been revived. One successful example of a modern serial is Susan Kay Quinn‘s The Debt Collector.

Susan has written many posts about serials, but she was also kind enough to answer some of my own questions. This post will focus more on the basics of serials, but click here for part two and the interview!

UPDATE: Jane Friedman wrote an excellent piece on Writer Unboxed about serials that explains the challenges and trends, called “Beyond Dickens: Trends and Tech in Serial Fiction.”

What Are Serials?

A serial is a group of related short stories that tell a bigger story. You can think of it like a TV season, where each short story is like a new episode. Readers tend to like the episodic format because they can consume it in one sitting.

In an excerpt from her Indie Author Survival Guide, Susan wrote on her blog that serials are not merely chopped up novels:

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.

Episodes in Serials

Strong episodes contain a good beginning and an arc. Cliffhangers, however, are not necessary. Each episode can dig deeper into the characters and story than a regular novel, but they should be fast-paced. Additionally, like with many TV shows, each new episode needs to remind the reader of what happened in previous episodes, since they are all connected.

Part of writing a serial is being able to shape the story according to reader feedback. In the comments section on Romance Writer Beth Fred’s Blog, Susan said:

And I’m already glad, even with just 1 episode out (the second just released) that I’m doing the serial, precisely for the reader feedback. For example, I see reviewers asking certain kinds of questions already in the first episode—one I was planning on answering, but later, maybe in ep 4 or 5. Now, I’ve moved that up to ep3, because I know they’re looking for it – and it doesn’t change the narrative arc in a substantial way. That kind of reader-interaction (as well as other fun stuff, like giveaways and FB posts), really inspires the writing as well. But it’s something you need to have a certain confidence level to jump into—or just craziness.

Because of the way serials are structured, Zachary Bonelli wrote on Lindsay Buroker’s blog that writers have more control over how readers consume the story. It can also be more lucrative, he wrote:

Let’s say you’ve got a 100,000 word epic novel. If it’s possible to break that epic into 10 episodes of 10,000 words each, then you can charge $.99 for each one as opposed to $3.99-$6.99 for the whole thing. And, you can still market the collected epic after the individual episodes have run their course.

Length of Serials

Though The Debt Collector is about 125,000 words, there are no real rules when it comes to word count and release dates. Some serials have new episodes out every week, others every two weeks, or each month. Some serials have five episodes, others nine, or even 15. And sometimes serials are as short as 5,000 words, or as long as a full length novel.

In her post, “Susan Kay Quinn on Serials” on Romance Writer Beth Fred’s Blog, Susan wrote that she’s “convinced none of this matters, with the slight caveat that the most successful serials to date have released every 1—3 weeks.”

In terms of how she decided to write nine episodes for her serial, Susan wrote in the comments of the same post that having the three-act structure combined “with episodes actually allows me to go in-depth a little more than I could in a novel framework, while still maintaining the tension and pacing over the longer story arc.”

Planning Ahead

This may be the most crucial aspect of writing serial, or else the whole process will get messy and stressful. In Susan’s case, she wrote the first three episodes before launching the series, but as she was writing she released new episodes every two weeks.

In “All About Serials,” she wrote:

Once the first draft of an episode was done, I did a quick second draft, then sent it off to my three critique partners. As soon as that episode was off, I started writing the next one. My crit partners were wicked fast in turning the eps around—I seriously couldn’t have done this without them. Once I had their feedback, I revised—there were only a couple episodes where entire chapters had to be rewritten, so for the most part, revisions went quickly. Then I read through once more out-loud for line editing, formatted and read the episode on my kindle for proofing, and it was time to upload. Episodes took from a week to three weeks to draft, depending on my level of discipline.

She said it helped to exchange pages with a friend every week to keep her on track.

Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli wrote on her site that because of the huge commitment, writing serials has helped her grow as a writer:

What can I say? Writing a serialised novel was for me a real turning point in my commitment as a writer and no doubt I recommend it to anyone who seriously wants to undertake this art, indeed, this job.
Not only those who have the time should try this (nobody has got time), but all those who are willing to find that time. Serialised writing is certainly one of the many tricks that can help a writer in this aim.

Serial Cover Art

Another important aspect to plan ahead is the cover art. It takes time to develop new covers, but they still need to be released on schedule with the ebooks. Each new episode needs a cover, as well as any packages and audio versions you may sell. The covers should also fit into a general theme or brand.

Susan wrote on her blog post, “All About Serials” that she worked with Steven Novak for all her covers.

Marketing Serials

There are a few different strategies to marketing serials:

  • Releasing new episodes regularly (Susan posted a schedule to let her readers know, and emailed subscribers as soon as they were published)
  • Price the first episode as free (similar to pricing the first book in a series free)
  • Sell the episodes in different packages (single episodes, groups of episodes, and the whole “season”)
  • Have multiple seasons, like a TV show, to keep readers satisfied

Susan also wrote in the comments section of her post “All About Serials” that it’s harder to get reviews and ads for serials. “Also, the pace of writing/publishing cuts into marketing time—which is actually ok, because I think a lot of the marketing will come AFTER the series is complete,” she wrote.

Another thing to do is make sure readers know what they are getting in to. I’ve run into this problem with my novella, The 13th Cycle. A few readers wrote reviews that they were disappointed the story wasn’t long enough, so I should have been more clear that it was not a full-length novel when I released it.

Read more tomorrow in Writing Serials Part Two: An Interview with Susan Kay Quinn.


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