In 1836-7, Charles Dickens’ novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in 19 issues over the course of 20 months. It was his first novel, but the success of it enabled him to continue his work as an author and create dozens of classic stories that are still enjoyed to this day.
And now, nearly two hundred years later, the idea of the serialised novel is beginning to come back into fashion.
In a big way.
It is becoming a real publishing trend now with many authors choosing to write their stories to suit publication in small, bite-sized chunks.
And I am one of them.
Unlike my DS Giles series, my latest project, Murder Under My Nose, has been commissioned by an online publishing company that deals exclusively with serialised stories, Senserial Publishing. As a result, I have had to completely rework how I approach my story writing and, as the ink begins to dry on the last few chapters of the series, I think I’m finally in a position to pass on a few hints and tips for any author thinking of exploring this new trend.
So, here is my advice for writing a serialised novel.
1. Plan ahead
It seems like a stupid thing to say, I know, but there are some authors out there who just plan out the beginning and the end and then muddle through the middle as they go along. There is nothing wrong with that – in fact I’ve done it several times myself – but it does present a small problem if you are trying to write a serialised story.
From the outset you will probably be faced with two options: writing each chapter (or episode if you will) and then publishing as you go, or writing the whole story and then setting a publishing date for each chapter afterwards.
Personally, I go for the latter. There is nothing more frustrating than getting to the end of a story and realising that you haven’t put in a key bit of information at the beginning, particularly when its already published.
But, if you are one of those people who like the challenge of writing each episode to a publishing deadline, then make sure everything is planned out ahead of time. You don’t want any nasty surprises when you find out you’ve left a massive plot hole by the time you get to your last chapter.
Which leads me smoothly to my next hint…
2. Stick to your deadlines
If you are writing each chapter and publishing as you go, make sure you are publishing regularly and to strict deadlines. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do to miss a deadline – hey, even Dickens did it with The Pickwick Papers (but then again that was due to the death of his sister-in-law so we can let him off on that one) – but you don’t want your audience to lose faith in you.
If they detect for a moment that you might not be able to deliver the whole story, they may well drop you in an instant so, basically, don’t give them the excuse…
3. Think of your novel like a television series
By this I mean that, even though you are writing an entire novel, you must make sure the bitesized episodes are still engaging in their own right. There is no point releasing a few chapters packed full of useful stuff that is integral to the plot, but where absolutely nothing happens.
I guarantee your reader will switch off and won’t stick around for the next instalment.
Every episode has to have it’s own story arc – it’s reason for existing or theme, if you will. With Murder Under My Nose, each episode reveals a little bit more about MJ’s attempt to track down her sister’s killer whilst also treating the reader to a little bit about her past at the same time. That way, I’m keeping the tension building throughout the story, but I’m also allowing keeping the background information flowing smoothly as well – allowing my readers to discover who this woman really is and where her priorities lie…
4. Keep the reader wanting more
And by this I mean cliffhangers.
Make sure there is something at the end of each instalment that makes the reader excited for the next chapter. Maybe someone has an accident or is found dead, or maybe someone discovers their spouse is cheating on them, or maybe a character meets up with a shadowy figure at the dead of night…
It doesn’t really matter what it is, just as long as it is a) relevant to the story and b) will get the reader intrigued for the next chapter.
And then, most important of all, make sure there is a pay-off in the next instalment.
Don’t be that writer who leaves an episode on a cliffhanger and then turns around in the next part and says ‘Oh, yeh, and then the wizard saved them’ or ‘and the wild wolves decided not to eat the main character and just went off for a sleep’ before moving on with the story.
Nothing will annoy a reader more…
5. Check out some serialised novels
There are plenty out there.
If you want something classical in nature, most of Dicken’s novels were published over periods of weeks or months, as were the Sherlock Holmes stories and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.
If you want to check out some more modern novelists playing with the form, you have the likes of Stephen King (The Green Mile was serialised), Harriet Evans or Ray Connolly.
You can even check out specific publishing sites that specialise in serialised fiction, such as Senserial, and see what other authors are doing – small hint: Senserial even lets you read some of the first episodes of the stories they publish for free so you can get an idea of it.
It doesn’t matter where you read them, just read some to get an idea of what others are doing. It doesn’t matter if you then go another way with it – writing is an art as much as a craft, so don’t feel you need to play by others’ rules – but it may help you to see the potential in the serialised form.
Check out this new trend now – you never know, it might be something that interests you.
Murder Under My Nose is due for release later this year.