When is a novel not quite a novel? When it’s a serial!

- by Suzanne Johnson

I have a new book out today under my Susannah Sandlin pen name, sort of. But not really.

Welcome to the world of serial novels, where the processes we become accustomed to as authors no longer apply.

When one of my publishers responded to a new book proposal in February with “Great! Let’s do it as a Kindle Serial!” I thought, well, why not? I mean, a serial novel is still a novel, right? And it might be fun to try something new. Authors are just beginning to explore the “new” Kindle Serial program (because the idea of a serial novel is not at all new, of course).

My usual process for writing a novel probably doesn’t look very different from anyone else’s. For a couple of weeks after I’ve mentally committed to a novel, I  plot and plan and outline, getting the major plot points sorted out in my mind. Then comes six-to-eight weeks of torture as I push through the first draft. My first drafts tend to be short, fast, and ugly. Then I go back through it, layering in emotion and description and smoothing out any rough plot points. Finally, if schedule allows, I’ll continue to refine the language and edit up until the moment the manuscript is due.

A serial novel is simply a novel released in pieces, I thought.  Turns out, that’s not true–or at least it shouldn’t be. Here’s how the process worked, and how it differed:

EPISODES!  Serial novels have as much in common with a TV show as with a regular novel–maybe more. My serial novel was, as spelled out by my publisher, to be written in nine episodes, each of which would run from 8,000-12,000 words each.  I figure most of my novels end up at just over 90K, so I would shoot for 10K per episode. Most of my chapters tend to run about 2,500 words, so I’d make each episode four chapters long.

SUBSCRIBERS! Readers would subscribe to the serial novel, meaning that at whatever point they bought it, they’d get the episodes already released downloaded to their Kindles at once. Each week, as a new episode was released, it would automatically download and they’d get an email letting them know the new episode of Storm Force had arrived.

CLIFFHANGERS. Each episode, or every fourth chapter for me, had to end on a cliffhanger–just like a TV series with an ongoing storyline. This required a very different type of plotting than what I would normallly do. Each four-chapter episode was its own mini-novel, with a defined story arc that showed the consequences of the last episode’s cliffhanger, had a point of release, and then built to another point of tension at the end–and then left the reader hanging.

FAST TURNAROUND. Three weeks after I signed the contract, the first three episodes (about 30,000 words) were due to my editor. After that, an episode was due every week. That’s 10K a week, if anyone’s keeping track. Oy.

WRITE CLEAN. The usual process with this publisher is that my manuscript goes to a developmental editor, who works with me on revisions, and then to my acquisitions editor, who shepherds it through production. Then copyeditor. Then proofreader. The accelerated schedule, however, didn’t allow such leisure. Each episode went straight from me to the copyeditor and then was gone. So my usual layering and revision process was shot to hell and I layered and revised chapter by chapter instead…really, really fast.

THE ‘LIVING NOVEL.’ The idea of the serial is that it is a “living novel.” When the first episode of the novel was released to the public, I was only about midpoint in writing the book. A discussion group was set up online where readers could theoretically talk about the book as it developed and, again theoretically, I could respond.

LESSONS LEARNED. Writing Storm Force as a serial was intense. It was fun. I was on the verge of collapse by the time Episode Nine was released in mid-May. And here’s what I learned:

–Readers still aren’t quite sure what to make of the Kindle Serial. Even with the brightly colored text all over the buy page explaining how it worked, a lot of readers were surprised when they only got four chapters at a time. The negative reviews all had to do with the format, complaining because they had to wait a week for the next one, or because each episode ended on a cliffhanger (duh), etc.

–Get at least half that puppy written ahead of time, if not all of it. Now that I know how to structure a serial novel, I think it would be easier to do another. But I’d want at least half the book written before the episode release dates started. Getting out 10K polished words in seven days without a chance to revise is just too scary.

–How does the episodic nature of a serial play as a regular novel? That’s one I can’t answer yet. Today, Storm Force releases in print and, if I dare, I’ll sit down and read it through as a “real” book.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! I think it remains to be seen if serials will catch on again, however. Most readers who bought into Storm Force because they’d liked my other novels as Susannah Sandlin ended up liking the process despite initial doubts. Others just let all nine episodes download and then read it as a novel…which is what I’ve done with the two serials I’ve subscribed to.  Has anyone else tried writing a serial? If so, what was your experience like?

5 comments

  1. I read Storm Force as a serial and really enjoyed the format. The mini cliffhangers were fun. Had more cliffhangers as I had to wait for the next week. If I had the book I wouldn’t have stopped reading were the serial did. My paperback is in the mail according to Amazon. Great spinoff from the Penton Legacy series.

  2. Thanks, Roger! I hope to get a chance to do another one, for Robin. We’ll see :-)

  3. Robin would be great for your next serial. I just started to read the new serial by Seanan McGuire. I wouldn’t have tried it without knowing how Your serial worked.

  4. I’d heard Seanan McGuire was doing a couple of serials…I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of it!

  5. Haven’t read one yet. Don’t like cliffhangers