21st Century Serial: Thirty Five Weeks in Hell

Nature Abhors a VacuumDo you love late nights? Deadlines? Posting unedited first drafts online where everyone can see them? Then have I got a format for you! It’s called serialization, and it’s been around at least as long as there have been writers who get off on suffering. Between August 2014 and April 2015, I serialized a science fiction mystery story on the official blog of the Mid-Michigan Prose and Writing Group. The story is called Nature Abhors a Vacuum, and I describe it thus:

Pip is a minimally motivated, socially maladjusted college student with a ‘shroom-addicted roommate and a callous fiance. When her upstairs neighbor is murdered, Pip decides to investigate, drafting her younger brother and a local public radio host into service as her assistants. What they discover will forever change their views on space, time, and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen.

It’s an idea I’d been kicking around since 2007, when my then-boyfriend began selling for Kirby, manufacturers of high-end vacuums and workplace degradation. I won’t bother describing what a horrible experience it was–many of the gory details made it into the serial. (Although, if you’re hungry for more scandal, you can check out the “Litigation” section on Kirby’s Wikipedia page.) Anyway, when the leader of my writers’ group asked me to write for their blog, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to get this story out of my system.

And it was. But boy, did I learn some lessons along the way.

A Brief History of Serialization

Serialized literature has been around practically since the invention of moveable type, though it really took off in the Victorian era. Many of the novels we now consider classics–David Copperfield, The Count of Monte Cristo, Uncle Tom’s Cabin–were first published in serial form. When you read those books, you can see the influence of the medium. Each chapter is largely self-contained and ends with what I call a tonal interrobang: a sort of DUN DUN DUUHHH moment that would encourage a reader to “tune in” next week.

(90’s kids who haven’t read the classics but did read the Goosebumps series will also recognize this technique, though in R.L. Stine’s case it wasn’t entirely necessary. You already had the completed novel in your hands, the chapters were four pages long, and you were a dipshit child–what more encouragement did you need to slog through the remainder of My Hairiest Adventure?)

Goosebumps: My Hairiest Adventure

Yes, this is the one where they’re all dogs; and yes, I’ve been wanting to talk about it since I started this blog.

Serial writers also tended to be a bit long-winded. One possible reason for this is that they got paid by the word. Christ, no wonder Dickens rambled so much–I would too in his position!

David Copperfield

DICKENS: “and david was born with part of the amniotic sac wrapped around his head like a lil cap and everyone thought it was lucky and”
PUBLISHER: “Charles, what even-?”
DICKENS: “lol pay me”

Serialization started to fall out of favor with the rise of radio and television, both of which used serialized storytelling to what was apparently much more palatable effect. Some writers experimented with serialized novels (Stephen King with The Green Mile, Michael Chabon with Gentlemen of the Road, etc.) but they were just that: experiments. These days, the last remaining bastion of serialization is the world of fan fiction. Well…that, and idiots like me who choose to try their hand at an unfashionable art.

Five Facts About Writing a Serial

  1. You have to write fast. I committed myself to 1,000 words a week, which seemed like nothing at the time–I’ve barfed out longer narratives while drunk on boxed wine. Of course, it’s one thing to spout goofy nonsense in a vacuum; it’s quite another to stay interesting and consistent after twenty-thousand words, some of which actual other people might be actually reading. Also, what seems doable when you’ve got loads of free time becomes Draconian when you’ve got apartments to clean, funerals to attend, and cat shit to scoop.
  2. You have to end each installment with a bang. I’m no Charles Dickens, but I do like to spend some time developing characters and eavesdropping on their conversations. In other media, character moments are considered classy and respectable. In serialization, they become a liability. You want to use 1500 words to explain how the main character’s personality was shaped by her father’s abandonment? Too bad, loser! If you don’t keep the plot racing, your readers won’t be back the next week. Your protag better suck it up and move on, preferably to something exciting that will leave people thirsty for more.

    In a literary environment like today’s where brevity and “snappiness” are prized, this isn’t a bad exercise. It is, however, an unholy pain in the hemorrhoids.

  3. You’re bound to forget stuff. Well, I shouldn’t say “bound”: you can keep track of everything if you’re careful enough. Realistically, though, you’re unlikely to have enough time to comb the story for possible continuity errors every time you post a new installment. I couldn’t manage it, anyway. As a result, my story contains one too many brother-in-laws, and the main character pukes like, seven times over the course of 10 chapters.

    Now that I’ve put that out there, I really should go back and fix it. But…eh. I’m kind of tired. You know?

  4. You’ll surprise yourself. Serialization can be an unparalleled source of fun for “pantsers”: impulsive bastards like me who never met an outlining technique they wouldn’t shun. No matter how many respected figures recommend planning before you write, no matter how many times I think: yeah, that’s a good idea, I should do that next time–I won’t. I’ll always dive in head-first with reckless abandon and a lot of vague notions.

    “Yeah!” I’ll say. “Let’s see where this goes!”

    Bosch-Hell

    Huh. Not where I expected.

    Serials are perfect for that. A week isn’t enough time to thoroughly plan, but it is enough time to kinda-sorta figure out what you want–and then to change your mind five or six or eleven times. That, for me, is what keeps writing interesting.

  5. You’ll be glad you did it. There are a lot of downsides to serializing a story the way I did. Chief among them is the fact that you’re basically posting a first draft–minimal editing, no first readers, no long nights spent thinking about shifting that sentence or deleting that paragraph. It’s more or less a straight transfer from head to blog. This can be terrifying. After all, first drafts tend to be a bit…not good.

    We writers are forever carrying around a solid ton of anxiety. We want our work to be read, but we’re scared to have people read it. Somehow, it never feels quite polished enough for public consumption. Many a would-be writer has spent decades writing and rewriting a single story only to die before it ever sees the light of day. In view of that, it’s both useful and strangely freeing to put your stuff out there, especially when it’s not perfect. It’s a way of grabbing that anxiety, giving it a shot to the nards, and demanding that it stop controlling you. You’re going to write, damn it, and people are going to see it, and the world’s not going to end just because you belabored one metaphor or comma-spliced one sentence.

    And at the end of it all, you’ll have a completed novel in your hands. Do you know how many people’s bucket lists you will have annihilated with that accomplishment?  A whole novel. That you wrote. Won’t it feel good?

    Go on, then. Get writing!

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