Shop Talk #001 – How To Write Serial Fiction (Well)

Okay, I’ve had this category up here for a while, but haven’t really done anything with it because I’ve been too busy DOING to actually EXPLAIN what I was doing. I’ve done things like screen cap tutorials and such in the past, but this is going to be a bit different, because it’s going to be mostly written with maybe the occasional screen cap to illustrate my points.

CAVEATS
Caveat #1, it should go without saying, is that I’m not a famous author. That means, whatever I say here can easily be dismissed by asking, “Well yeah, but who the hell are you to say?” Short answer: no one of importance. I’m not Stephen King. I’m not a mid-list author, either. I’m not even internet famous, really. I’m just a struggling writer who is still trying to break even for the amount of time and effort I’ve put into my full time self-publishing career.

I HAVE successfully passed the million-words-mark that Stephen King said you have to write before you get to the good stuff. Not sure if that means I’m good now or not. Numbers like that are kind of arbitrary, really. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss today. Today’s topic is something that hasn’t really been addressed in modern How-To writing guides. It was something Cat Valente (author of several very good books I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet) said on Twitter yesterday. The conversation went like this:

Catherynne Valente
I’ve never found much writing advice or techniques on how to handle the challenges of an ongoing series. It’s all about the breakout book.

Lee Edward McIlmoyle
I think the assumption is, if you’re writing a series, you already know how to write your first novel. #thatmaybeafallacy

Catherynne Valente
But a first novel, an origin story, is a somewhat different set of skills and pitfalls.

Lee Edward McIlmoyle
I think writing a series/trilogy is exponentially more complicated (Captain Obvious, I know)…

Lee Edward McIlmoyle
…so writing an effective dummies guide isn’t as cheap and easy to do, I suspect.

Catherynne Valente
different than furthering the same characters multiple times, the same world, and keeping it fresh. 1sts are usually fresh.

Lee Edward McIlmoyle
I do believe you’ve located a market, though. Sadly, those who know how to teach it are all busy writing their next volume. 😉

Now, I didn’t take it personally that she didn’t reply after that. Professional authors are usually nice enough to say one or two things to me, usually while trying to correct me, but after that, they recognize that I am not ONE OF THEM, and move on. Such is life. I have hopes of changing that with time.

Anyway, the conversation, such as it is, might seem a bit disjointed, but I think my final statement nails it down. There’s an niche that needs filling. I doubt I’m qualified enough to do it. I’ve written some serial fiction. Even my longest novel, Terminal Monday, was in fact a form of serial fiction, as the chapters were written and posted on my Livejournal writing blog (which I no longer post to, since I started self-publishing). So serialized fiction is something I feel close to, but I can’t claim to be an expert.

But what I can do is start the conversation.

SERIAL FICTION 101: part one
Okay, so you’ve got an idea for a story, and maybe you’ve even outlined or, hell, maybe you’ve already written the first whole book. Then you realize, “Shit, I’m not done yet. These characters still have stories to tell. Little Fuckers! DIE!!!”

The problem is, the more you’ve written about them, imagined them, dreamed about them, and otherwise invested valuable Warcraft time into building them up, they have an uncanny tendency to mutiny and start doing stuff you hadn’t scripted. They start acting like collaborators instead of nice little protagonists. It’s like theater actors who start improvising new scenes together without a strong director to reign them in. A book isn’t the story. The story is what first grabbed you, and what you started working out before the raw sewage became refined on the page. Rarely are the two identical. And this means that it’s really hard to plan out everything to fit perfectly together. You leave a lot of flaws and the occasional plot hole (think ‘pot hole’, only vertical, so you can drive trucks through them) in because, frankly, writing novels is more art than science, and what you take out might be the magic ingredient that tied the whole chapter together without you knowing it until years later.

Okay, time to get to the point.

If you plan or write a full novel and then discover, either through starting the writing process and finding the page count is getting away from you, or, as often happens to many writers I’ve heard about (Mr. Martin… Courtesy White Phone for Mr. George R. R. Martin…), the sotry just gets away from you and you start finding all of this other stuff you hadn’t thought of during the plotting stage, then your book could bloom from a nice, tidy single volume into a Duology, Trilogy, or even a Quadrilogy (or in my case, a Quadriptych, but that’s another story), or worse, an entire Decology, and you will then begin crying. You don’t want that. A single novel is a mountain, but a series can look like the Alps, and suddenly, you start thinking that Warcraft is preferable, even with the gimped talent trees.

The reason you start crying is simple: suddenly, what read as fresh and exciting in one volume starts to feel like stale padding, because you’ve got to reintroduce characters over the course of several titles, and the juggling act of how to retell a character’s story without boring those who actually read the previous instalments begins. You can’t help it, really. The characters, the settings, the politics, the magic or science or metaphysics of the setting, the motivations.. all of that stuff sounds great when you write it once, but after third or fourth iteration, you start thinking of protagonicide as a very viable method of cutting the flab, even if that character still has a major part to play in volumes eight and nine. You figure you can either write them back in or create a new character to carry on where they left off, but in your heart of hearts, you know that fans of the character will know you cheated. And they would be right.

The trick of planning a serial fiction without sacrificing too much spontaneity is to only roughly work out the arc that your cast will take, and then figure out all of the intermediate stages to base your individual volumes on. There are tried-and-true dramatic formulae for this sort of thing, but it’s perhaps better if you come up with your own organic structure and just try to find your way from signpost to signpost. It helps if you’re task-oriented, but many of you may be muddlers like myself, winging it by the seat of the pants and hoping you left in enough magic goodies that you can return to later when you find yourself stuck for a final reveal. It helps if you don’t begrudge yourself the diversions that your burgeoning fandom objected to so strenuously. Often, it’s the side ventures that prove to be the key to unlocking the main story’s finale, and this is as it should be.

Now, let’s try an example, just to keep this from reading like a dry treatise. I started work on a single novel called The Uninvited Guest, and the story sort of danced out of my grasp pretty early on, forcing me to stop working on it and consider where it was going. What I learned, after much note-taking, was that I had a story that was going to take four 80-90K volumes to tell properly. Since the Uninvted Guest was meant to be a sort of lopsided mystery novel, I decided I couldn’t afford to make it all one volume, and I certainly couldn’t make each volume more than 100K, because mystery audiences tend not to go in for thick volumes, and I wanted this to look and feel like a proper mystery novel, even if it’s kinda not.

The question became, how could I tell my master story in four volumes without changing the time frame to take place over several weeks, instead of the two week period my original novel was set in. The answer came to me when I thought about those cool Alphonse Mucha dressing panels that came in sets of three and four, each depicting a different aspect or season. Now, I didn’t plan to tell each book in a different season. I just liked the word used to describe these panel sets: Triptych. I leaned that the word for a four-panel set was Quadriptych. And I came to realize that four novels telling different aspects of the same novel could be called a Quadriptych as well. Each volume would retell PART of the story, and leave the joining segments that explained how all of this happened around the same time just a little fuzzy, like digitally airbrushing over the underwear lines on a bikini model’s photograph to make her/him look like a comic book superhero/ine in their appropriate costume. The whole novel could be reassembled by following the timeline clues (Sterling Carcieri, my protagonist, tends to make mental note of the passage of time, a habit he picked up from his armed service days), but you didn’t need to reassemble it to appreciate each facet of the story individually.

Here’s a graphic that demonstrates part of the breakdown of The Uninvited Guest (which I did on a PowerBook G4 in OmniOutliner, before I realized I needed it to be done in Scrivener’s outliner… which I still haven’t done, because life is too short.):

When I started, it looked like that, but it quickly changed to look more like this, once I started getting a grip on the actual story:

However, the story was far from finished, and it took me a month or two to hammer it all into place, and of course, I forgot to screencap it, because it was too big and I was too tired. Reopening it now, it looks like this:

Okay, maybe I cheated a bit there. What it really looks like is this:

I don’t have a complete image of what the whole plot looks like, but if I did, it would stretch down about half a mile. And besides, I still want you to read the thing, so I can’t exactly give you the whole image. Well, I could, but I’d be a fool.

OVER-PLANNING
So that brings me back to the point about planning, which is, you CAN overdo it, but if you get some experience under your belt, you can figure out how far to plan a thing before you run the risk of sucking the last ounce of life from the story and making it pointless to actually write. That’s a trick we all, amateur and pro alike, must master before attempting to write anything longer than a short story or novella. Heck, I’ve written premises for short stories that were so involved, it denied me the urge to write the actual story, and I have notes for a trilogy that has been waiting twenty years for me to actually finish writing because I planned the novels so thoroughly that I smothered all three volumes in their cribs. I may resuscitate them some day, but it’ll have to be when I think of a damned good reason to dig them up again.

And let that be a lesson to you. 😉

Hopefully I’ll have a few more thoughts about this and start part two tomorrow. I’ll probably make some notes and figure out what I left out in this section, and see if I can’t formulate a series from there.

That was a hint, by the way.

Lee.

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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