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On Serial Fiction: A Brief History

Yesterday I started talking about serial publication. “Serial publication” may be a new concept to you, but if you’ve been around for a while, you probably remember I’ve tried it out before, writing (and publishing) a novel as a blog.

You probably don’t know that, forΒ  a while, I was working on making a business out of the idea. I wanted to build a website,, dedicated to serial publication projects. The plan was to enlist quality writers to provide free, ongoing stories for readers’ entertainment (ad-supported, of course), and pass that wealth along to the writers.

That model is actually a really good one for writers and, as I said yesterday, one like it gave rise to some of the most famous works in Western Literature. Back then it wasn’t blogs that carried the weekly chapters, of course, but newspapers and periodicals.

Learning from the Greats

Yesterday I talked about Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The way I’d originally heard that story, it was the result of a fan outcry at the death of Athelstane when Scott published that chapter (albeit a fan outcry strongly supported by a grief-stricken editor). It just made sense, then, that Ivanhoe was a serial novel. I try to do at least rudimentary fact-checking before sharing my brilliance with you, though, and if Ivanhoe was serial fiction, Wikipedia doesn’t know about it.

Regardless, I could name countless other authors who did find their fame (or at least a significant portion of it) in serial format — authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, and Alexandre Dumas. The latter wrote one of my all-time favorite series, The Three Musketeers, as a long-running serial. Most people have heard of The Man in the Iron Mask but many don’t realize it was (for all intents and purposes) the series finale of a story that had run through seven full seasons (1844-1850).

Many of the authors who made their names in serial publication are famous not only for the quality but also for the quantity of their work. That’s not a coincidence. Serial publication (whether you’re writing a novel or just blogging) teaches you to put words on paper, and to think of yourself as a productive writer all the time. It’s a great way to become prolific.

In addition, it helps you avoid one of the biggest challenges of storytelling in the novel format — bounding your story. You don’t have to guess where to start your story. Just start where you want, and go back after the fact to pull together scenes to make a manuscript.

Does that sound familiar? It’s the foundation of the stories blogbook (and one of the principles in my recent guide, How to Build an e-Book.

A lot of authors balk at the idea, wondering why an audience would buy a book that’s just a compilation of previously-published posts. Buyers have been doing just that for hundreds of years, though. If they hadn’t, you probably would never have heard the name Sherlock Holmes.

Learning from Mistakes

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out. My first big attempt at serialized fiction, Sleeping Kings, was deliberately meant to become a novel (or, actually, a series of four or five), but it was slow to get started, and over time it became a different kind of story than it started out.

I’ve spent years since then trying to shape a novel or two out of the nearly 200,000 words I wrote on that blog, but it just doesn’t work. I’ve got a compelling story trapped in there, and another 120,000-word sequel already finished (with a third fully outlined). Even with all that to lose, I’ve spent the last couple months realizing Sleeping Kings is a lost cause.

That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time, though. It was a profound learning experience, yielding lessons I’ve applied directly in the design and structure of every novel I’ve written since then, and even some serial-specific practices that I’m using to great effect in my newest project, The Girl Who Stayed the Same.

Among other things, I’ve learned the noble art of the retcon. I talked about that a little bit yesterday, with Athelstane’s unlikely resurrection, but I’ve painted myself into similar corners more than once.

During Josh’s story in Sleeping Kings, I introduced a character, Henson, who showed up with a really badass toy. Or possibly not. Here’s how I explained it in my post-mortem review of the writing process:

Probably more confusing was the issue of Henson’s helicopter. The first time Josh shows up at Wright-Patt, the general offers him a helicopter crew. Then Josh leaves heading toward the crazy governor near Pennsylvania, but the helicopter isn’t quite prepped yet, so it’s going to catch up to them on the road. When it shows up, it’s a big deal. Josh’s convoy is getting fired on by some thugs up on an overpass. Suddenly Henson arrives to save the day.

If you go back to that story, it says something like: “Josh had expected some lunky helicopter, maybe with a deck-mounted machinegun in the back, but this was something altogether cooler. It was a gunship, with heavy machineguns on both sides, and it made short work of the bad guys.”

But (since you’ve been reading the end of the novel, you’ll remember this), by the end of the book, I’m making a clear distinction between Henson’s helicopter, and “the gunships” which refers to the other two that they picked up (on their return trip through Wright-Patt, if I remember correctly).

There’s a simple reason for that. Henson was never planned, and air support was never really intended for Josh. It just sort of happened. When I had the helicopter show up, I immediately thought how badass it would be, in the movie, to have a Blackhawk or Apache or whatever suddenly crest the bridge from behind and blow the baddies away. Sweet! So I wrote that scene in.

Then, a couple pages later, Josh and his crew are trapped in the crazy governor’s military base, and need to make an escape, and the most expedient way to do that is for them to pile into the helicopter and fly away. Unfortunately, that means that Josh was wrong back at the bridge — it was a big clunky passenger transport helicopter with a machinegun mounted in the cargo section. *Sigh*

So I made the change. And, wouldn’t you know it, Josh’s air support became a major plot element for the rest of the story. As a result, I got to spend a lot of time in the blog’s comment section, for the rest of the story, explaining that, no, Henson wasn’t in the gunships. I’d changed that.

Making Something Great

I learned from that experience, though. And this week I found myself stuck in a similar position with this new project, but I’m prepared to handle it a lot better this time around.

It’s not just about learning to avoid the special difficulties of serial writing, though. The lessons I’ve learned help me in all my writing. I’m better at conceptualizing large plot constructs, at pacing scenes and planning volumes, at managing the careful balance between research and rough-drafting.

Yes, it’s got some difficulties of its own, but writing like this gives you opportunities to grow as a writer that are hard to find anywhere else. Come back tomorrow, when I’ll explain how to use serial writing to improve your fiction.

6 Responses to “On Serial Fiction: A Brief History”

  1. Thanks Aaron. You’ve just answered something that was bothering me about this thing I’ve started. Having never done it before, I wasn’t sure if it was accepted practice to just start and see where it goes. My husband (cheer leader rather than someone with any insider knowledge) suggested I should plan it all out very carefully first. I’m not great at planning. Well, I am great at planning but as a form of procrastination. I just needed to start πŸ˜‰

  2. I’m curious. What’s your dilemma with current project? (Or will you even divulge…?)

    Oh, and on my series, I totally just picked a point and began, with only a black hole for a future plan. πŸ™‚ Of course, after a few episodes, I had to sit down and start organizing. Mostly because I heart outlines. But I keep it fairly open, flexible. I know how it will end, but only stay about 3-4 chapters ahead with a definate plot outline.

    • That’s encouraging to know. Thanks Becca πŸ™‚

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      I covered about half of my dilemma in the following post (I’d intended Kelly to meet someone from an ad agency, not the art gallery).

      There was another problem, too, that didn’t get mentioned. When Jonas asked Kelly out on the spot, that was just something fun I wanted to do with his character (and when she responded the way she did, that was something fun with her character).

      They were already on the train, though, heading toward her destiny (whichever destiny it was) before I realized she hadn’t brought anything with her — her camera, her laptop, her photos….

      That was just a huge oversight on my part. I managed to handle it in (what I believe was) a reasonable way, but it had me a little worried for a little while.

  3. I started my story with no real idea where it was headed. I still am not sure entirely even though I have an idea. I like that sort of organic “as it comes” element to the story.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      I started this comment as a reply to Justin, but it became an answer to Eleanor’s first question, too (the one Justin and Becca had already effectively answered…).

      There can be real problems with following a story organically all the way through. That’s how I got into the trouble I mentioned in this article, with the mutant sort-of-four-book-series that I’ve finally decided to give up on altogether.

      Once you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to recognize (by intuition and “feel” more than anything else) when you’re messing around, setting things up, and then when you actually start telling a story. At whatever point you make that transition, it’s probably a good idea to start plotting.

      The only way to get to that point where you know what you’re doing, though, is with practice. Practice is your best friend.

      So either way, keep it up! I have no real regrets about Sleeping Kings getting shelved. It’s easy for that to feel like a huge setback when you’re caught up in it, but one or two projects down the line, you’ll see it as the stepping stone it really is.