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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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My First Experience with a Professional Editor

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Writing is not a lonely profession. Any author is frequently advised to seek assistance, be it from critique groups, beta readers or fully-fledged editors. Such advice is well-founded, because a fresh eye can assist with everything from overarching plot inconsistencies to the ever-curse that is the Hated Typo.

Editors in particular are much sought-after. The upsurge in independent publishing and small presses over the past decade has corresponded with a rise in people selling their services, sometimes at incredibly high prices, in order to give manuscripts a helping hand. It’s an oft-repeated adage among indy publishers that if you don’t shell out a bit of cash to have someone at least semi-professional look over your work, you’re doomed to failure even before you click “publish.”

I’m not here to question such received wisdom. Indeed, I think anyone seriously considering getting into independent publishing would do well to seek the assistance of a well-recommended editor. I’ve used one before, paying him over £250 for a reasonably thorough comb-through of one of my older attempts at a novel. I don’t feel the money was wasted, but at the same time it’s never fun pouring cash into something when the back of your mind is telling you that – despite all the advice – it isn’t worth it and you can do fine without the “pro” help.

The conundrum of paying an editor was thankfully one I recently managed to circumvent. You may remember that a few months back I had the honour of landing my first ever professionally-paid piece of short fiction with wargaming giants Games Workshop (or, more accurately, their publishing wing, Black Library). Boyhood dreams were swiftly swept aside by nervous waiting after I sent the first draft of my commissioned piece off for assessment by Black Library’s in-house editors.

This really was crunch time. Editing is famously one of the most painful processes involved in writing, and I couldn’t kick the feeling that I’d totally mucked up and the draft I received back would be so edit-heavy it’d be barely recognisable.

When it did eventually reappear in my inbox one afternoon there certainly were plenty of “red lines,” as the phrase goes. But what surprised me, after reading through all the suggested changes, was that there were no major overhauls. There was certainly a lot of work to be done, and my rooky effort required a lot of tightening up, but in everything my editor was polite, encouraging and, above all, his suggestions were extremely relevant. My second draft turned out so much better thanks to this. I couldn’t have done it alone.

The fact that I was getting a comprehensive, free editing service from my publisher  was a huge bonus. What was even more surprising than my near-painless first encounter with a professional in-house editor was the realisation that not all writers react so well to relevant criticism. Editors and writers are symbiotic creatures, and the successes of one breeds off of the other. Criticisms by professional editors are only levelled at manuscripts with an eye towards assisting the writer in improving on them. It’s certainly nothing personal, though seemingly that’s a fact that can be lost on some writers, new and old alike. Maybe I’m biased because my first proper editorial run went so smoothly, but it helps to think of writing as a boat with two oars. As the writer, you’re only going to go round in circles if you pull in the opposite direction to the editor. He/she will be aware of that fact as well, so give and take is important. Ultimately, all great books are team efforts, and the writer who is able to build a close working relationship with a good editor is privileged indeed. One day I hope to benefit from that on a more permanent basis.

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The Fear

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“Fear” by akirakirai on deviantART

When you sign up to be a writer you expect lots of difficulty. First drafts, redrafts, long days, sleepless nights and the full gamut from corrupt Word files to the plot not making any sense. If you know the game, you know that’s what you’re in store for whenever you set fingertips to keyboard. What you may not be anticipating, however, is the fear.

You’ve probably felt it if you’ve ever submitted your work to others, be they publishers, agents, beta readers or even just friends and family. It’s the fear that you’re no good. The fear that you’re a terrible writer. The fear that, even if your readers come back to you with praise, in reality they’re just trying to mask how God-awful you work is.

I’ve never really known that fear before now. Yeah, I’ve had things read by a whole range of people, and I’ve submitted plenty of stories to publishers and agents. For me the entire process feels too detached to inspire anything like genuine worry. Out of sight, out of mind, that’s me. Normally.

The thing is, it’s different when a publisher asks you to write something for them. Usually it’s the other way round. I submit things, unbidden, and they get accepted or (mostly) rejected. That’s the writing world. Responses take months, and one way or another you just forget to get too worked up. But when a publisher specifically commissions you, well, let me tell you, that’s a different game entirely.

It happened recently to me. I’m so glad it did. It’s literally a life goal realised. And yet, with it comes The Fear like I’ve never known it before. The first draft is done, dusted, sent. The waiting has begun. The silence is stretching. Against all advice, that first draft has been re-read half a dozen times already. Pointless now that it’s already been sent, right? That doesn’t stop me looking at it. Is it good? Is it terrible? I can’t tell. I’m now totally blind towards it. For all I know it’s no better than my early teenage fanfic, and a poor editor is currently trying to work out how to salvage something, anything, from the wreckage. Maybe, heaven forbid, it’s so bad I’ll never be commissioned again.

These are worst-case scenarios, but a writer’s mind should always be a febrile place, and mine has a habit of concocting disaster. There’s other work to be getting on with, of course, but I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t refreshing my inbox every 10 seconds.

Hopefully these are just newbie jitters. Hopefully I’m underestimating myself. Hopefully I haven’t blown my big break. Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, there’s always The Fear for company.

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History’s 8 Biggest Plot Holes

  • So the Americans create these super-weapons that they used to end Earth’s second global war, but then don’t use them in a single one of the dozens of conflicts since? I bet they’re keeping them for the season finale…

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  • Sixty six years from the first successful human flight to landing on the moon, year right!

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  • Right, so a “meteor” killed off ALL the dinosaurs, clearly the writer had no idea where to take the story.
  • They call the Titanic unsinkable, then it sinks on its first voyage. Far too much prophetic irony usage there!
  • C’mon, who would actually attack Russia in winter?
  • Are we seriously meant to believe Gavrilo Princip just happened to run into Archduke Franz Ferdinand – who he’d tried and failed to kill an hour earlier – whilst he’s ordering a sandwich?

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  • Napoleon Bonepart, recurring villain much? As though he’d be able to escape Elba that easily.
  • The whole WW2 being use to set up the USA vs Soviets thing was brilliant, but are we really meant to be satisfied with the whole “Cold War” just gradually petering out?

coldPlucked shamelessly from this post!

 

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May 30, 2014 · 4:44 pm