Friday, June 11, 2010

Lessons Learned From Writing a Serialized Story...

A couple of months ago, after revamping my blog to mimic a website, I started to seriously look at including samples of my writing. I researched what the experts in the Blogosphere thought about putting unpublished fiction up on a blog or website and ended up being even more confused than when I started. Seems there’s a lot of opinion on both sides of the coin and the "Don’t Do It" camp suggested that any fiction on a blog or website was actually considered published!

Well, I certainly didn’t want to have something on my blog that if, at a later time, I decided to submit would be rejected for the simple fact that it was already ‘published’. But I also felt it was necessary (in my opinion) that I did have some examples of my writing. So I came up with Friday Fiction – a day dedicated to showcasing my work.

After a few short stories, I decided to try my hand at a serialized story. This would give me focus for my Friday Fiction and I would be able to explore an idea that I didn’t think would be ‘publishable’. Something I could experiment with and not worry about the conventions that sometimes limit an unpublished author. Mickey Spencer, AC was born.

Who knew that I would learn so much about writing just from that little experiment!

1. Chapter Hooks – I write the story in short instalments so as not to have my readers groan at the length of fiction they have to read (see ‘chunk writing’ below). And I’ve learned to always end with a hook! A hook will get your readers coming back. Just like in novels when that chapter ending leaves you desperate to find out what happens and you will forgo turning off the light and going to bed, even though it’s way past your bedtime and you’re going to be a bear tomorrow when that alarm goes off. Now you don’t want to do this with every chapter ending, and you can’t have every chapter end with a murder – but think about ‘chapter hooks’ the next time you pick up your manuscript. Would a reader dog-ear the page, turn out the light and go to bed? Or would she dive into the next chapter in order to satisfy her curiosity?

2. Chunk Writing – as mentioned above, I want to keep my instalments relatively short. This has proved to be very beneficial for me as well. I don’t fret at that blank computer screen (mostly) because I know I only have to write between 650 and 800 words. I know how long it takes me, so I don’t worry about the other things to do on my "To Do" list. And I can do it in one sitting, keeping everything about the scene fresh in my mind for the next instalment. And because I end on a hook, I’m constantly thinking about how the next instalment will play out making the task of getting back to the manuscript one of eager anticipation instead of dread.

3. Go for the unusual – Really, all of these lessons-learned tie into one another. As I do chunk writing and leave the reader with a hook, the comments have proved invaluable for showing that a writer should always try to go for something different, something unexpected. What I think will happen next is usually what my readers are thinking, too. So, I like to change it up. No one wants predictable in a story. So when you end in a hook, ask yourself what is the strangest thing that could happen next. You don’t have to go there – just like you don’t have to end every chapter in a hook – but you should be willing to take your reader somewhere new and exciting.

4. Writing produces words, which produce a story – Yes, even ‘chunk writing’. Since I started my little experiment I’ve produced almost 10,000 words (at around 700 words per sitting). This is every week – if I had been doing this daily, I would now be sitting at 10,000 words in 14 days (2 weeks). In 112 days (16 weeks or 4 months) I would have written an 80,000-word draft, 700 words at a time*. We’ve talked many times before, here on The Prairies, that you can’t edit a story you don’t have written. So, write those words, create a story!

5. Keep a character sheet – Mickey Spencer, AC is a bit of a ‘Who Dunnit?’ I need to keep track of the characters that I’ve created. The client who believes her husband is cheating on her. The husband who seems like a nice guy. The homeless guy who gets free meals at the husband’s bar. The mystery woman who has been seen with the husband. The heroine. The heroine’s grandfather. The busybody, who appeared out of nowhere a couple of weeks ago and was a delight to write. See – lots of characters and I need to keep track of who they are, their relationship to everyone else, their jobs, their hours of employment…I’ve never kept a character sheet before, I won’t make that mistake again.

6. Make crib notes – Like the character sheet, the crib notes are helping me discover the mystery that is unfolding before my eyes. I’m using a plain notebook, the kind with 3 subjects. The first section is dedicated to the characters (each character has a page). The second section, my crib notes. I write a new page for every instalment and I make sure I write down the gist of the scene, any relevant dialogue, any red herrings I’ve planted (don’t want to have to go looking for them at a later date), and my scene headings (which I do as crossword puzzles). And I use a highlighter – so anything that comes up that I think might be relevant later on gets highlighted. The third section is strictly for when the computer isn’t working for me and I have to sharpen the pencil and do some longhand writing.

7. Voice – We all know I have struggled with my voice – what is it, where do I find it, how can I cultivate it! This writing has given me the freedom to explore and I’m actually finding and expanding my voice. Just having the freedom to write a story has allowed my natural voice to shine through. And as I continue with Friday Fiction, my brain has started to question what I’m writing for publication and suggesting other possible genres that would be better suited. Of course, a lot of that self-discovery has also come through blogging – but fiction wise, I have found my voice (and I like it).

8. Let it sit – Putting something up on a blog where people are reading it right away has taught me the value of letting your writing sit. If I were writing this story without ‘publishing’ it on my blog, I would have many opportunities to change my direction after letting the section sit and steep. For example – this last instalment ended with Mickey being hauled out of her car (chapter hook). She is obviously surprised, but I forgot that I had a perfect set up for her to use the Mace she bought in a previous instalment (and wasn’t that a fun shopping trip?). Had I not ‘published’ this instalment, I could go back in and edit so that Mickey maced whoever was hauling her out of her car.

Oh, well – at least I learned the lesson.

*I take no responsibility for the math figured in this blog post – I’m a writer, not a mathematician!

So, People of Blogland, any lessons you’d like to share with us today?



Joanne Brothwell said...

I tried this with a fan fiction story I wrote, and the reactions were mixed. Some people were salivating for more, others were annoyed that they had to wait. It was an interesting experiment, but not one I'll repeat.

Janet said...

Interesting, Joanne - I'm assuming your talking about the chapter hooks? As a reader, how do you feel?

I think with any serialized story the reader has to know what she's getting into. There are a couple I read every Friday and when I started, the authors were well into the story. But, they hooked me with the instalment and I went back and caught up. If they hadn't hooked me, I wouldn't have bothered. Now, even when the author leaves me 'hanging', I know I have to wait - and usually those are the first places I go to when I see the next instalment has been posted.

Silver James said...

Voice is so important. I'm glad you've found yours! I knew it was lurking there all along but you had to discover it for yourself and have faith in that discovery.

I grew up in a time of serializes TV shows. The iconic Disney's Wonderful World of Color did this many times and kept me running to the TV set on Sunday evenings. I love the Mickey Spencer, AC series and look forward to Fridays to see what delightful twist you've added.

I know several NYT best selling authors who put free reads on their websites--novellas or snippets designed to hook a reader or to further explore the world and characters they've created. I think it's a good thing and will be doing something of the sort eventually.

In the meantime, I rush every Friday to find out what trouble Mickey has gotten in to.

Karyn Good said...

Don't you love it when a plan comes together. And boy has it ever. I'm glad you're finding your voice and that you LIKE it. The rest of us LIKE it, too. Mickey is a hit!

I love all your lessons, especially the idea of a character sheet for secondary and bit players and crib notes and hook endings. And I swear by 'chunk writing'. Or 'chunk revising'. I can only wrap my head around so much at a time.

Personally, I LOVE free reads on websites and blogs. That's probably the biggest 'influencer' to me when looking for new authors to try.

Off to read Mickey.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, it sounds like you've figured out a way to work around the problem. Good for you.

I know several authors who post a chunk of a serialized story in their newsletter or in a special member's only section on their website. It's like a perk for loyal fans to make them feel special.

Great post.


Janet said...

Hey, Silver - yeah, I'm one of those people who need bumped over the head many times before something important sticks. Of course, you know there will be lots more said about voice (I may have found it, but doesn't mean I won't question it - or worry that it's not 'publishable'). Writers - angst ridden crazies ;)

I like going to an author's website and finding snippets and excerpts. Gives me a taste of their style and whether or not it would be something I'd like to read. I believe a lot of publishers want authors to post snippets on their websites, helps with promotion and marketing. But you can correct me if I'm wrong!

I'm looking forward to when you do something similar - I've always loved the little snippets you've posted, and the character 'bios'. And BTW, I loved Disney, too. Or the Sunday Night Mystery Hour (with Columbo, MacMillian and Wife, the guy who road the horse - what the hell was his name...oh, yeah, McLeod) - killed me when it came to the end of the hour and the "To be continued..." flashed up on the screne!

Thanks for your kind words about Mickey. I'm enjoying writing it and that, I think, is the biggest lesson of all!

Janet said...

Yes, even though the 'plan' really wasn't one when I started (action before thought - much like engaging mouth before brain thinks things through). But it all has worked out very well. Glad you're enjoying Mickey's story - hey, tell your friends (blatant marketing and promo slipped out).

As I said to Silver - reading snippets on an author's website will probably get me to the buy the book much more than a review. And there are some authors I stalk just for that little glimpse into what they're working on OR backstory of the characters I've fallen in love with.

Perfect example - Suzanne Brockmann! I love when Sam and Alyssa make 'guest' appearances. Love catching up on their lives or learning something new about them before they became a couple.

"Chunk Revising" - thanks, going to see if that works for Lady Bells :)

Janet said...

Thanks, Anita! And if you checked out Mickey's story today, you'll see that I did get my 'rewrite' in anyway. Where there's a will, there's a way.

Good idea on the newsletter - if I subscribed to an author's newsletter, I would love to read fiction there (especially a serialized story where only those getting the newsletter get the story). What a great way to get people to sign up...hmm, having a little 'aha' moment. Need to go take some notes in my "When I get published, this is what I'm going to need to do for promotion and marketing".

x said...


Jennie Marsland said...

Janet, I think serial writing is agreat idea, especially for exploring new genres. I may give it a try. Lessons...I think the biggest one for me has been to trust my writing process to get me to 'The End' and stop angsting over it. You're right - crazy writers!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I think the most important lesson Mickey has taught you is that you can do it. You can write a story, better yet a serialized story, that people love and come back each week to read. And you've done it on a weekly deadline. Add to that the confidence you've gained in your natural writing voice, and it's a win-win-win situation!


Janet said...

Hey, Jennie - I never wrote that down as one of my lessons, but you're right about exploring new genres. It really gives you a freedom you don't have in WIPs with the intent to publish.

Thanks for sharing your lesson - it's a good one :)

Janet said...

Thanks, Jana - the support from the readers really does add to my confidence and love for the story! A writer writing in the solitude of home rarely gets that connection with the reader - I am blessed :)

You're right - it has been a win-win!

Janet said...

x - k!

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Great post, Janet. I've done two types of serialized fiction: completed novels that either weren't getting nibbles from agents (Steal Tomorrow) or that hadn't come together quite right and I wasn't going to pitch (Bella Diana). I've also done an on-the-fly serialization (Diana's Diary) that taught me so much I would end up hijacking this blog if I went into it.

Many of my discoveries were like yours - about the improvements that come with letting something sit before posting. A more satisfying realization was that yes, Virginia, you really can write even when the muse isn't calling. Diana's Diary was a daily serial, which meant I had to come up with something new each night - not always an easy trick, but great training.

Here is my LLR post on the Diana's Diary experience: Lessons Learned.

In sum, I think web serialization is coming into its own. You can do it for fun, for practice, or as a way to get readers for a story that didn't attract a publisher. Even published writers sometimes serialize and get nice donations from it. Check out Bone Shop, a serial that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Janet said...

Hey, Ann - thanks for coming over from Janet's Journal and talking about your experiences with serialized stories.

Diana's Diary was a daily serial,... Holy crap - I don't know what I'd do if I had to post Mickey's story every day - some weeks it's painful to sit at that computer and try and type when Muse is off watching Survivor reruns! But, like you said - you learn that you can do it.

And I agree with your thoughts that serialized stories on the web are becoming more prevelant - I googled serialized stories when I started writing this blog and couldn't believe how many hits I got. And a really great forum (sorry, can't remember where it was) that talked about marketing and promoting the story. Bottom line from that discussion was "Write it and they will come" - with the caveat that a little patience is in order.

Question - hopefully you come back to answer - you didn't mention the story Maelstrom. Was that a serialized story to start with?

And thanks for the links - off to check them out now :)

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Janet, Maelstrom was never serialized. I had a feeling from the beginning that I'd be able to find a publisher for it. I started writing the flash pieces as promo, but they're not part of the novel and aren't in any particular order in relation to anything that happens in the novel.

And yeah, daily on-the-fly serialization is a killer. Luckily DD was basically a road trip story, and when I got stuck, I just looked at a map and my available photos, and I'd get my ideas from there.

Julia Smith said...

Janet - I've experienced everything you've written about here, as I travel the serialized fiction route along with you. It's been fantastic for me as a writer and incredibly fun for me as a reader.

Janet said...

Thanks for coming back, Ann - the snippets you've posted in relation to Maelstrom are fabulous. I love the premise :)

And I did link over to read your Lessons Learned. Wow - that was some road trip diary!

Janet said...

Hey, Julia!! It has been fun, hasn't it? I think the best part is getting to read such varied genre and voice. I look forward to Fridays, not just for the writing pleasure I get from Mickey, but for the reader in me who anxiously awaits the next instalment to Scorpius' story :)