The Riddle of Writing Serials

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At the close of last year I received a phone call I’d always hoped for, but certainly never dared expect. Black Library, the publishing wing of wargaming giant Games Workshop, wanted me to write a novel for them. They’d been impressed by the work I’d already done for them – four short stories earlier that year – and wanted to take me to what one editor called “the next stage.”

There was just one twist. Before being released as a physical, printed hardback, the book – Legacy of Russ – was to be serialised into eight parts and released online over the course of six months.

Say “serialised novel” and some smart chap will immediately jump up and tell you that “that’s how Dickens did it.” And indeed he did. It was how I’d done it too, at least in novella format, for my Jukepop Serials hit Werekynd: Beasts of the Tanglewild. I strung that story out for almost a year. The perfect initiation, you’d think, for writing the eight parts of Legacy of Russ.

Except knowing that writing serialised novels was possible didn’t actually help with any of the problems inherent in such an undertaking. The difference between a “full” novel and serial installments is more or less the same as the difference between a television series and a feature-length film. There are a number of very important differences, most of which revolve around issues of plot and pacing.

In brief, a serial has to take into account considerations that don’t trouble a novel. Each “episode” has to be reasonably self-contained, and as gratifying to the reader as the last. The stakes are always high – one boring installment and readers will be lost. They’ll stop buying the follow-ups. There’s no danger of that after someone’s bought a novel. Because of this, writing serialised fiction can assume a somewhat frantic air. Not only must you spend at least a small amount of time setting the scene at the start of every installment (to jog memories that have lain dormant for a month or more), but the remaining word count is typically expected to fulfill the requirements of the genre, in this case set piece action and crunchy fight scenes. Dedicating an installment to calmer activity may work out, but it’s also a gamble. The loss of reader attention is a constant specter. Conversely, in a novel the writer can typically afford more coherent pacing – the ebb and flow around start, midpoint and ending give the reader respite and varies their experience. While this certainly isn’t impossible to achieve in serial form, it’s far trickier.

All this was compounded by the nature of the story I was trying to tell. It was  a contender for the title of “sweeping epic”, taking place on a grand total of three planets, two moons and more spaceships than I care to count, and viewed from the perspective of over a dozen point-of-view characters, including a shape-shifting daemon and a machine-man. Such feats would have been daunting in standard novel format, but getting it all into episodic installments meant I had to spend a lot of time in each story touching base with multiple characters and inching their individual development forward, all the while not exceeding the wordcount I’d been set.

If you’re thinking at this point that I had an unenviable task, you’d be wrong. It was still a privilege to be involved in writing something that was going to affect the universe I’d grown up reading about. I was more or less aware of all the challenges posed by serial fiction before I started writing. I made a decision early on to try and treat the project just as I would any other novel. I knew it would be released as a whole eventually, and that was the legacy I decided I should work towards – while the serials were fun, ultimately this was something that was going to be on people’s bookshelves.

If I had to choose between advising readers to follow the story in its serial format, or reading the whole thing as one novel, I’d have to go with the latter option. Hopefully, however, it’s enjoyable whichever way readers feel they wish to approach it.

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One response to “The Riddle of Writing Serials

  1. Pingback: The Novel in Disguise | Robbie MacNiven

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