Writing online serial fiction

(Charles Dickens made the serial seem so easy…)

Indigo is complete. This was my first attempt at online serial fiction. It was quite an amazing experience.

There were a few things I knew from the beginning. The thing about online fiction is that it’s important to take people’s attention very quickly. I’m a very patient person in the outside world, but online I find myself sighing with annoyance if a page takes more than 5 seconds to load. If a piece of writing doesn’t grab my attention within the first few sentences, I’m away to another site – bumble bee style. On the other hand, if I’ve picked up a weighty Victorian novel, I might give it a hundred pages or so before I decide whether or not to continue. It hardly seems fair.

The result is that Indigo is extremely fast-paced. Essentially I wanted the pacing to have the feel of a weekly TV series rather than a novel.

The story wasn’t complete before the first post, or even the half-way mark. I let it unfold online. There’s definitely an element of free falling doing it this way. You have to trust that somewhere in the dark recesses of your brain you actually know the story all the way through – it’s simply in the process of emerging. At least, that’s what you tell yourself when you have a week’s deadline, a blank page and a supportive audience waiting for the next instalment.

One thing this genre definitely does is to help you build trust in yourself. Because if you write your story into a corner, you’re in quite a bit of trouble. It’s not like writing a novel where you can come to the realisation that Lara can’t possibly murder Jessica in the second chapter because this will throw the whole narrative out of whack. Once you’ve put it online, it’s fixed. People have read it. And there’s no way you can say – oops, sorry, just forget that whole Lara / Jessica scene there, I think I’m just going to pop it in later. In a way it brings writing a little step closer to the performing arts (the potential for a public fail is relatively high).

So I wrote honestly and intuitively and, at most, one or two steps ahead. This is where it became difficult. I didn’t know what the end would be. I didn’t know what the whole final third of the narrative would be. I was in suspense just like everyone else. I knew this wouldn’t quite work at the very end. The momentum had to build tightly to the final moments. The problem is I had to pause the story for some months in order to do a big review and to sketch out the ending that I wanted to the quality that I wanted (at last, my latent control freak was allowed free rein). Frustrating for readers. It’s a suspenseful, supernatural thriller. No one wants to be in suspense for over a week, let alone a few months.

So, what I learned …

I will have more of it completed the next time I put up an Indigo story, or any other serial. In fact, I’m writing the next one now and it’s emerging quite strangely as a series of random scenes from various parts of the story (beginning, middle, end) which I am piecing together as a kind of jigsaw, trusting again that my brain has a master plan. All signs are good. I’m looking at a July launch date. This one I plan to make available as a complete novel for a few dollars per download. It’s a no-risk proposition for readers, since Indigo is there to try for free.

The most important part of the experience was having the joy of communicating a story that would otherwise have stayed in my own imagination. To have people telling me they were reading and enjoying it (even better when they said they couldn’t read it when home alone – they were getting the heebie jeebies). I realised that it was not necessary to do the rounds of query letters, encouraging rejections, slush-pile readers and exhausted editors. I could instantly communicate with an audience.

The vision of your book with a pretty cover in a shop is an attractive one (and one any online writer would probably embrace), but at the heart of this dream is usually the desire to tell stories and have your imaginary worlds become part of the inner landscapes of your readers.

It required a lot of courage to write Indigo as a serial, but it was certainly one of my most rewarding writing experiences. So if you read and enjoyed Indigo – I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! And if you’re considering taking the plunge and writing an online serial – seize the day! You’ll be happy that you did.

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24 thoughts on “Writing online serial fiction

  1. I’ve never written a serial fiction story online before, but I have posted numerous shorts and novel ideas. The idea of writing a serial story is intriguing. Is it just like writing a TV show?

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    • I have over 700,000 words up. I post every night and my stuff passes the 6 month test (where u come back and read it months later to see if it’s really decent.) BUT we’ve only had just under 70,000 page views in about one year. It’s been running for two years. The first year we got less than 1,000 page views so it doesn’t count. (Don’t ask me how I kept going.) The trouble is getting recognized professionals to read it…agents…writers… They just will not (no exaggeration). And (sad truth) without recognized names behind you it’s awful hard to make anything happen….like ‘playing’ school and expecting to get paid for it. MENTORS! We need mentors! That’s it, Here’s my links ~~~ http://bit.ly/gw7fAE browse.feedreader.com/c/Billy_Kravitz_vampire_wonderland (not all vampires. just a name) OK, that’s it. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours… (blog, that is)

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      • We’re in a brave new publishing world. Find a way to make it work and you can be the mentor. It sounds like you’re building a strong platform for self-publishing.

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  2. I guess it’s like writing a tv show, because you have to grab people at the beginning and hook them at the end of each instalment. At the same time I didn’t want to make it feel rushed. I really recommend it as an experience that pushes you to write regularly. Let me know if you start one – I’ll be excited to read it! A novel’s such a painstaking process, and once you finish, the hard work of selling it begins. I thought the serial form (like the shorts you’ve done) was a great way to test the waters and get feedback before you commit to and start promoting a chunky novel. (Having said that, I have a few novels in drawers). Anway, it was a good experience and I’m sure many writers would really enjoy it.

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    • At the moment I’m writing my first ever rough draft of a novel idea (well, not first ever, more like first ever to be completed in the near, not-four-years-from-now future). After I get done with that I’m interested in serial fiction. I just made a blog specifically for my writing I think a week ago and it doesn’t get too, too bad of traffic. No comments though. Anyway, I figured I might be able to liven the place up with serial fiction.

      That and I get to test my ability to be consistent, something I’ve always struggled with. I’ll let you know if I actually end up doing it.

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      • Absolutely, Elisa – I’ve noticed it takes people a while to comment – sometimes it seems like they feel happier commenting when there are already comments, which is a bit of a catch-22. Many people I know prefer to email about Indigo, or have a chat about it in person, but I know there are more (mysterious) people who are downloading it. It would be fascinating to hear from them.

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  3. I am planning the serial publication my book. It is poetry with a fictional concordance for each poem. Not exactly an easy sell to a publisher, let alone an agent. So why bother, I asked myself.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. You give me hope!

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    • The wonderful thing is that you only need to please yourself and your readers. It sounds very interesting – let me know how you find it!

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  4. Just about to enter this scenario myself. Hopefully within a week or so. It certainly a different experience from some other things I’ve done. I am looking forward to finding new things about my writing, and my self.

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  5. I wish I had read your piece back in the summer when my own serial fiction blog lapsed for the same reasons yours did! It’s been nearly 6 months but I’m determined to resume! Thank you for trail-blazing and sharing your experience writing online serial fiction.

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    • so glad to hear it, Leslie! It feels like it’s taken my about six months to answer you – blame it on christmas… I enjoyed visiting your blog. Regular writing is good for the soul.

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  6. Pingback: Let’s get serial | Disrupted Narrative

  7. Thank you for this. I know it’s over a year old, but now that I’m starting my own serial fiction blog, I’ll be sure to keep your advice in mind. I’ve found that the hardest part for me is striking a balance between making an entry “too short” and making an entry “too long.” I hit a ballpark number my first week of six single-spaced pages, and now I feel obligated to hit somewhere in that ballpark for my subsequent entries. Also, it’s discouraging to start off with no reader base, but I keep telling myself that as long as I put out quality content and continue to meet my weekly deadline, subscribers will come. Thanks for the blog post!

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    • I didn’t have a weekly deadline, or a standard size for entries – but I’m very impressed by people who can do that! I’m sure people will come, I’ve already visited!

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  8. Hi Ophelia,
    I came across your blog while searching Google for other serial fiction bloggers. I have been blogging my own serial fictional drama for about 7 or months now and it’s a hoot! However, I wish I had researched the ‘how-tos’ sooner. Your post has helped to give me some of the advice I have been seeking – i.e. your idea that you want the story to be more like a TV series rather than a novel. I’m also going to check out Indigo as it sounds very intriguing. Thanks for your post!!

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  9. I just happened to stumble across your blog and have to say it’s nice to see there’s a serial-fiction blogging community out there! I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly a decade. Having had some mild-success getting my stuff read, I have mostly stuck to a “traditional” format – then at the suggestion of my agent, I decided that I might try a fiction blog with some of my previously tabled material. Blogging is a “very new” endeavor for me but I am happy to hear that you’ve had some great success! I do enjoy the freedom of the blog format! I can’t wait to check out your story for myself! Best of luck to you! Noah at http://babylonroad.wordpress.com

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  10. There’s a few sites that have good serials on them. I especially like sparkatale.com as it looks beautiful.

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