Writing Episodically

As I said previously, one of the main things I want to do with this blog is serial writing – putting a novel into the world piece by piece. I’m not the sort of person who typically jumps into something without thinking it through and preparing, and this project is no exception. I will be reading and planning while outlining the story itself. The next few posts are going to be about this process. Hopefully, my experience will be useful for others.

Ancient History

From the moment of their invention, books were a luxury good. They were hard and time-consuming to make by hand. Only the rich and privileged could afford them. Then, along came the technologies that enabled mass printing. It suddenly became cheaper to produce books in quantity. Societal changes, including greater literacy, provided a mass market.

In the British Victorian era, all of this came together. Serial fiction took off, and eventually made its way across Europe and America. Novels by Dickens, Dumas, Melville, and many others were released in weekly or monthly installments.

Over time, serial fiction in periodicals and papers faded from glory. Serial fiction moved to radio, which was usurped in turn by television.

Serials Today

There are a few places to look for inspiration in modern times.

  • TV – This remains the place where most serial fiction is made. Episodic shows with at least some sort of overarching narrative are more popular than ever before.
  • Podcasts – After nearly fading into obscurity, radio serials have found fresh new life in the form of podcasts. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of fiction podcasts with ongoing stories.
  • Magazines – The world of magazine fiction has fallen a long way from the heyday of Harpers and The Atlantic, but fiction magazines still exist. Most of the pages these days are dedicated to self-contained short fiction, but serialized longer works still occasionally appear. Manga is a notable exception across the pond.
  • Video Games – Games, and their more literary cousin, interactive fiction, have typically been delivered in a single package, but have dabbled with serialization and episodes. Modern web-based interactive fiction games like Fallen London deliver ongoing narrative.
  • Web Fiction – As far as the written word goes, this is the modern mother lode. The web fractures everything and everyone into little tribes of interest, and this is no exception. The fan fiction writers have websites where they post their episodes, stories, and novels. Users on Tumblr and Medium and various blogs write serialized fiction. Relatively new sites like SerialBox seem to be making a go of professional-level serial fiction tailored for mobile, but I think it’s too early to tell how successful that business model will be. There seems to actually be quite a bit out there, but without big gatekeepers, it takes some effort to go out and find it.

If I’m going to write an original, free, serialized novel, as a writer who isn’t a household name, posting it to a blog seems like as good a choice as any. The market for original serial fiction (if you can even say there is such a thing) is messy and confusing. Publishers and magazines have little interest, and sites and apps like Wattpad and SerialBox seem like unproven novelties.

Advice

Unsurprisingly, writers love to give writing advice. After all, if you love to write, why wouldn’t you love to write about writing? Despite the relative unpopularity of modern serial fiction (at least in comparison to other forms), a quick web search brings up plenty of articles about writing it.

It’s an appealing format – the initial effort seems low, the feedback is fast, and it’s tailored to the modern attention span.

From reading about others’ experiences, there seem to be a few key decisions that factor into writing a serial. How episodic is it (vs. a single narrative simply split into parts)? Is it written solo, or collaboratively? Is it all written before release, or released as a work-in-progress? What should the episode size and frequency of release be?

Size Matters

I want to write as I go. If I write the whole thing in advance, then I might as well just write it as a novel. That doesn’t mean I don’t intend to be prepared, but I’d like to have as much of the “serial experience” as I can, within my own limitations.

The frequency that I update is going to largely be a function of how much work I can devote in a given week. I’d rather start small and potentially ramp up, than worry about having to scale back an overly-ambitious start. My current plan is to start with weekly updates, with a single writing session and a shorter editing session per post.

With those limitations in mind, I’m probably not going to be able to finish more than 3-4,000 words per week. It looks like the big money sites like SerialBox trend more toward 8-10,000 words per episode, which means I’ll be breaking down into smaller chunks than they do.

However, I know my own work, and I write fairly short chapters, averaging around 2,000 words, and rarely more than 4,000. That fits pretty nicely within the weekly range I’m looking at. The question that I don’t yet know how to answer is whether those chapters will work nicely as “episodes,” or if they’ll feel too short. I suspect the only good way to figure that out will be to write them and see how it feels, once I’ve done it a few dozen times.

Solo or Collaborative

Episodic television shows, some episodic podcasts, and even some serial fiction use a model with multiple writers, often under the overarching control of a show-runner. This is a model that is designed for speed and consistency, where the art is also a commercial product, usually backed by a corporation that needs to turn a profit.

I’ve never written collaboratively. Many years ago, I played around with shared worlds on message boards, but it was messy and uncoordinated, adn I got turned off by what felt like poor writing from my “collaborators.” Those experiments fizzled quickly.

More recently, I’ve taken to playing table-top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. These are a form of collaborative fiction, but a very different one that lives within the framework of the game elements. Unless you’re playing for an audience (which is more and more popular these days), the only people you have to worry about pleasing are yourselves. Deep characterization works great here, but it’s very difficult to create plot arcs that would seem elegant to someone outside the game.

For now, I like the control of being a solo author. I think I have enough to figure out to get this project rolling, and adding collaborators and an unfamiliar workflow will only make it more difficult. That said, I’d like to try it, perhaps with a smaller project, some time in the future.

Planning or “Pantsing”

I don’t know the origin of this term, but it seems prevalent among online writers. “Pantsing” comes from the phrase “by the seat of your pants” – that is, just starting a project without a complete plan, and seeing where it goes.

I think a more accurate term might be “outlining vs. exploratory writing”. This just might be the most contentious topic among writers: is it better to start with an exhaustive outline and follow it, limiting the possibility of incorporating serendipitous ideas? Or is it better to let the story “flow,” and fix any resulting structural issues or inconsistencies through more extensive rewrites and editing?

At one point, I certainly believed in exploratory writing. I rarely did much outlining, simply because I didn’t know how to do it well. I still appreciate “discovering” things about a story as I write it, but as I’ve written more, I’ve tended to outline more as well. It’s ultimately a matter of results: I find that I get a better product with less work and frustration.

This is a big topic, and I plan to dig deeper in a future post. For now, suffice to say that I think a solid outline is a necessity for me, personally, to be able to succeed at this project.

Putting the Episode in Episodic

One of the unifying factors across TV, podcasts, and web fiction is episodic content. It may seem obvious, but these shows aren’t just 25-hour movies split into one-hour chunks. When I first thought about writing a serialized novel, that was more or less how I thought about it: a novel split into chapters, or possibly even smaller sections.

Obviously, a novel typically has both overarching plots and arcs within and across chapters. However, novels don’t usually feel obligated to make each chapter a self-contained story. In episodic television and podcasts, the episode is more often of primary importance. Even when the plot continues across a season, or many years, the episode needs to be its own, discrete entity. It needs to be a first-class citizen of the story.

What I take from this is that a serialized novel needs to be a novel across its entirety, but episodes have special needs. For each episode, I need to craft something that can stand on its own. Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be a self-contained short story, in terms of plot. It means an episode has to be emotionally self-contained. It needs to have the feeling of rising tension and resolution.

These episodes also need the connective tissue to pull the reader from one to the next. For this, my plan was always to use mysteries to pull the reader along. I think this still works, even when there’s a greater emphasis on individual episodes. A few open questions keep the larger plot moving. Episodes with their own plot arcs can still pose these questions and provide clues. Ideally, the end of an episode’s arc will align with resolving larger questions, posing new ones, or both.

There are dangers with this style. But just to prove how effective a good mystery can be, I’m going to save that discussion for another post.

Where Does That Leave Us?

I’ve now learned a bit about the history of serial fiction. I scoured the web for more modern examples, and found more than I expected. Looking at TV, podcasts, and modern web serials, it has become clear that serialized fiction needs to focus on satisfying episodes, even if the end-goal is a cohesive novel.

I’ve determined my posting schedule: one fiction post per week, with each post being a chapter or episode. I also intend to post one blog post per week, leaving open the possibility of more. I think Friday morning is a good time to post fiction, and Monday morning is a good spot for the blog. That gives me the opportunity to do the bulk of my writing during the weekend, and personally, I find that I’m most likely to slack off work and read a blog on those days.

Finally, I have a couple more blog topics to cover in the lead-up to this project. I’m getting deeper into the outlining and prep. I’m figuring out the structure of the story, and also looking for opportunities to make it more episodic.

Further Reading

I’ll leave you with some of the things I found interesting in my research this week.