Serializing a Novel

Of late, Catherynne Valente and Tim Pratt have been serializing novels online for their readers. You should go read them, because they are good, but that isn’t what I want to talk about. Aside from being a brilliant fantasy novelist, (she said most modestly and with a slight flush of humbleness), I also have a PhD in Victorian literature. Which means I’ve read a whole lot of Charles Dickens, whose novels were frequently serialized. What that means is that he (and Catherynne and Tim) published his novels by chapter, as he wrote each one.

This is dreadfully dangerous.

As a writer, I draft the novel, knowing full well that I can go back and fix problems. Characters evolve and change as does the story, brilliant ideas strike toward the end, and then I have to go back and rebuild the beginning and shore up sagging part and tighten up loose strings and add characters and thicken plots . . . If I had to write a serial novel, I think it would be a huge pile of steaming crap.

Think about it. It’s the equivalent of performing live on stage. Except that the story has to be both well written and it has to connect and you can’t make any mistakes. There’s a shark tank underneath your tightrope and you’d better not get distracted. It’s extraordinarily exciting as a writer to watch their stories take shape and to think about how they might be planning their stories. How much preplanning went into the plot? Into each chapter? Into each character? Did they get ideas they have to discard because they come too late?

Recently I learned the value of writing through a draft quickly in order to stay connected to characters and to keep focused on the story. I think what I wrote was good and while it certainly will need revision, the experiment was successful and I will try to do so again. But I’m too chicken to try a serial novel. I just don’t know if I could juggle it with any skill.

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  1. 1. Stephen

    Sharon Lee and Steve Miller did this with a book called Fledgling in 2007. I’m not sure if they were releasing chapters as soon they were written, but close – certainly before the book finished. They did stress that it was a first draft, and the finished book would be different. That book is finally getting published in the next few weeks, and I know people who are waiting to read it to find out how it’s changed.

  2. 2. green_knight

    I think that you probably need to have a process that involves a fairly detailed outline and sticking to it if you want to hand over chapters as soon as they’re finished. My process is more organic, more chaotic, I occasionally need to back up because I’ve written myself into a corner – serial novels sound like a nightmare to me.

  3. 3. John Lenahan

    I podcasted my novel Shadowmagic as a serial and every week I had this one listener who tried to guess what was going to happen in the next chapter. Often her guesses where better than what I had written.

    John Lenahan

  4. 4. S. Megan Payne

    It’s funny because I got started in fanfiction (seriously, that is) before I progressed to my own work (seriously, that is). Unfortunately, it’s practically always written as serial fiction. Because that’s where I started, I have a hard time writing anything LONG without treating it the same way. But I have a beginning, an end, and a few key scenes in my head before I start. Then, I plow through.

    For me it works.

    As I write, more snippets for later show up. Themes appear and I start weaving. It helps that I rarely start in media res, ’cause I have time to think through the pieces and make them build on each other. I’m actually surprised at how well the method works.

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    I think green_knight is right that it’s going to be very process dependent. I’m a planner in the extreme, so serialization really isn’t that far off my process as it stands. I hand stuff in to my writers group a chapter or two at a time pretty much in first draft (read over once for typos). With the exception of chapter one, which always gets a goodly chunk of rewrite for clarifying foreshadowing and the like, I mostly use comments for clean up and to adjust stuff going forward. Actually, a few years back I did something very like a serial novel as part of a middle school physical science curriculum that the NSF funded.

  6. 6. Ian Pattinson

    I’ve spent the last ten months or so sporadically releasing my novella as chapters as they were written. It was explicitly a first draft, and now I’m asking people to read draft 1.1 and give me feedback on it. I’m crowdsourcing my editing, in effect. Getting feedback from some of my readers has helped keep me going until the end.

    The story’s called Sounds of Soldiers, and can be found under the Fiction label on my blog.

  7. 7. Rabia

    This might be a plotter vs. a pantster issue. I write terribly messy first drafts–and I love the freedom of knowing I can go back and change things. The only way I’d serialize a novel is if I had written the whole thing first and revised it, *lol*. Kudos to those who can put up chapters as they write them.

  8. 8. Rabia

    John,

    It’s funny that you should comment to this post because I recognize the novel you podcasted. My husband downloaded it off podiobooks.com and gave me daily summaries of what he’d listened to on his commute. Is there a sequel to Shadowmagic coming out soon?

  9. 9. S. Megan Payne

    I don’t think it comes entirely down to planning. I’m such a nonoutline person, they invented the phrase for me. Doesn’t mean I’m not constantly thinking ahead into the rest of the story, but I hate with a passion outlines. If I dare to make one, I usually never revisit the story again. Sad, but true.

    So I don’t consider myself a planner. But I’m not entirely a pantser. I HAVE to have an idea of either the major turning point for the whole story or the end before I can begin.

    The chapters I turn in pretty much only require a final edit (the polish, so to speak). Ideas that come spur of the moment can usually be worked in to wherever the narrative is headed. So it’s not entirely up to planning.

    It’s more how much can you hold in your head and how much do you have to have on paper before you can finalize it.

  10. 10. Clare K. R. Miller

    MeiLin Miranda has actually written three of the novels in her… well… serialized series, and is now in the process of revising them, and I believe her plan is to release them in serial format when she’s finished. While they were still in first draft form she was writing each installment just before putting it up, though she does have a serious outline.

    Alexandra Erin, possibly the best-known online serial novelist and certainly the one making the most money from her work, and she’s said that she might write a chapter five minutes before it goes up on the site. I have no idea whether she outlines.

    I’m pleased to hear that more mainstream (as in, published outside of the web) authors are getting into online serialization! We’ll be in a legitimate medium yet!

  11. 11. Kristan

    With Charles Dickens in mind, I’m also attempting a serial, although I don’t think of it as a novel and maybe that helps. I think of it more like television: TV writers draft the arc of a series, and then they write one episode each week that fits with the series and ultimately will help drive the characters along their arc. So far it’s been a LOT of fun, and fairly successful with my (limited) readership both on my blog and on Amazon.

    http://kristanhoffman.com/works/twenty-somewhere/

  12. 12. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Stephen: I remember that. I’ll have to ask about how that worked for them overall in terms of changes. I wonder how they would have liked it to be published as was.

    green_knight: I agree on all accounts. I admire the ability of these writers tremendously, especially since it does seem to hang together and be good.

    John: And did you change it with that suggestion?

    S. Megan: I think I write similarly to you, though I tend to have ‘wrong’ beginnings, in so much as they aren’t the strong foundations (or strong enough) that they need to be

  13. 13. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kelly: what a cool project! Blog about that, will you? I would like to be a planner, but my mind resists. It feels like me trying to shove the wrong poles of a magnet together and they just sheer away from thinking about the project.

    Ian: how did that work for you? Was it difficult knowing that people were reading it as you went? That gives me the heebie jeebies.

    Rabia: I’d be freaking too

  14. 14. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    S. Megan: I usually am very much like that. But I’m finding more and more that each project seems to have its own demands as far as how much planning I can scrape up. This last book I could do none. I pantsed the entire thing. Still have no idea whether I like it or not.

    Clare: That notion of the legitimate is interesting. Because serialization doesn’t mean unworked and unpolished, it merely means walking a tightrope. In your underwear. With toilet paper sticking to your foot. Not that it makes me nervous.

  15. 15. Ace

    You could always wait until you have the novel in its final form before releasing it in installments. That way you have everything planned out ahead of time.

  16. 16. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Ace: That’s probably the way I would do it, but that isn’t really serializing. No risk. That’s what’s so amazing about these writers who do this–the nerves of steel

  17. 17. Ace

    Does serializing require risk?

    I recall Lois Bujold serializing one of the Vorkosigan novels in Analog prior to publication. Which leads me to think the novel was done prior to serialization. (I could be completely off-base, though.)

    I kinda pictured it in the same way as an hour-long TV series. The entire season is shot in full. Then when the show is released, we get one episode a week until the season is over.

  18. 18. Mel @ MoltenInk

    I used to write like that back when I wrote fanfiction. And what I wrote was okay, but it could have been a lot better, and I always ran out of steam somewhere.

  19. 19. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Mel: Isn’t that the danger? What if your story never arrives anywhere? Scary.

  20. 20. Kelly McCullough

    Di, I’ll think about blogging the experience. It was a really really cool project.

  21. 21. S.C. Butler

    I could never do it that way.

  22. 22. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Definitely Kelly. Do it.

    Sam–it would be cool to try, but not so publicly. Which of course defeats the whole point.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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