Friday, 29 March 2013

The Web Serial: How

This is a multi part blog series. Excuse me, a serial.
1- The History (What)
2- Teaching Now (Where)
3- My Contributions (Who)
4- *Writing One (How)

As for the why, read. As to when: The time is now. Jump on board.



So you want to write a web serial. Good news, you're kind of in the middle of reading one already, since you don't have to have read the previous parts to understand what I'll be going on about here. Which is the general idea.

HYPER: "Damn it, Para, it's funny in the context
of the previous parts, right?! I mean, really!"
Now, one early decision you'll have to make is whether you want to do it in a "static" sense (it's all scripted in advance) or "dynamic" sense (you make it up as you go). Dynamic/Static are my own terms, but let's look at some advantages of each:


1) Writing as you go, you don't have to invest as much time off of the front in planning, you just have to make sure you schedule in time as needed to make progress.

2) If a reader notices a problem, or asks a question regarding the setting or characters, you can address it in the narrative shortly after the issue came up. Similarly, you're not faced with revising (or throwing out) tons of stuff later on, based on an invalid assumption you made. (We likely all have times we Did Not Do the Bloody Research...)

3) Since it's dynamic, you can more easily change course according to reader input - not unlike being the GM during a D&D session. Readers become more invested in your work that way. (Though, at the same time, you're free to ignore huge deviations that would take you too far away from your plot...) 


1) With plot points laid out in advance, it's easier to plan and stick to a regular schedule. So readers know when to expect updates, and they'll keep coming back at those times.

2) Foreshadowing is easier, since you know essentially what the climax is going to look like. You can build appropriately, and are less likely to go off on pointless deviations that ultimately lead nowhere.

3) Collaboration is easier if we're talking about multiple authors. The serial can also continue if something happens such that you have to hand it off to someone else for a while... which in the extreme case is Author Existence Failure. (The thought only occurred thanks to Andrea's comment back in part 1...)

Either way, the whole point is - your story is out there. You can't go back to change it, even if you run into issues (even mundane ones such as the One Steve Limit). But it's harder than simply publishing the different chapters of a novel. See, the kicker is each part should (ideally) be SELF CONTAINED. (Not unlike a 3-act problem.) I should be able to read Chapter 3 and walk away content, perhaps even with a desire to read Chapter 1.


If I start reading, and very quickly I'm wondering 'who are these characters and what's going on?', I'll go elsewhere. But at the same time, if I'm a regular reader and you're introducing the main character to me for the third time, I'll go elsewhere. There's a fine line you have to walk. Fortunately, I have some ways you can approach this.

1) Character Archetypes. Sherlock Holmes was originally written as a set of serials. You didn't have to know about Holmes in order to appreciate a good mystery, but the more about him that you read, the more you learned about him.

Similarly, my "Taylor's Polynomials" series personifies mathematics. Does it make sense that a square root would be a bit bipolar? And you also don't have to know that Hyperbola is a mad scientist with eccentricity > 1 in order to appreciate the way she puns at ArcTan in this entry. (In fact, notice I was able to sneak in her coffee preference and Nat's medial background, for those who may have joined late, or forgotten.)

Another example is the very inspiration for my series: "Hetalia". That's an anime (former webcomic) which personifies different countries. So even before the show starts, you'd have some idea of the relationship between France and England.


2) Split the Party. Bad for role play, practically a necessity for serials. If Chapter 3 involves a completely separate group, why couldn't I start there? This also means when the groups meet up, they can compare notes, and a recap is sensible in the context of the story. Also, as an author, if you go back to work with an earlier group, and there's details you've forgotten, your audience probably did too; doing this forces you to reread what you wrote.

Back to "Taylor's Polynomials", my Series 4 actually had three separate groups, though only two I was using in depth. I toggled back and forth between them. (In a way I hope wasn't confusing, but I don't know, no one tells me this stuff.) Alternatively, in "Time Trippers" I followed one group to the end line: "Ten minutes later, the gun went off". Next part? Rewind 12 hours, follow a completely different set of people to the same event, and then beyond.

3) The New Guy. Someone else shows up in the story, and they don't know anything about the regulars. This doesn't have to be a new member of the team, it can be someone the characters want to interview, or an old mentor who's wondering what's new, that sort of thing. You can review current plot details or character traits through them.

Again, consider the movie "The Avengers", where people from previous movies were brought together. Seeing the previous movies wasn't required, though it would have added to the experience. My "Time Trippers" story toes the line too, in that each chapter is a self contained experience adding to the whole - though I grant I don't reintroduce characters there as much as perhaps I should have. Which brings us to:

4) Recaps. A short blurb at the beginning of the chapter to explain key details of what came before. Sort of like the "LAST TIME ON" television serials of old. Dedicated readers can then choose to skip this, but it provides necessary context to newcomers, or those who missed a part. (Heck, even dedicated readers might need a reminder.)

If I had something like that in "Time Trippers", it would probably fix the character issue I mentioned. "Taylor's Polynomials" segments are really too short to warrant it, but I've been thinking of adding a link at the top of every entry to a generic info post, for clarity purposes.

Now, the other serial killer, in my opinion, is random updates. You need to have a regular schedule, something that people can rely on. Sort of like webcomics. If people get into the habit of always checking for your series at a particular time of day, eventually it becomes second nature... conversely, if they're never sure when the next part is coming out, at best they may be frustrated, and at worst, they may give up entirely.

You might hope that someone spots your new update in their reader as they're scrolling through, but don't count on it. Might even be part of why I don't get much traffic here. (Though I'm deluding myself if I think teachers follow me with a reader...)


It's not easy. Writing a serial is incredibly difficult. Sort of like doing improv comedy - writer's block is not an option. I've cobbled together some thoughts of others, including:
Claudia Hall Christian: "Even if you write a few chapters ahead, some day you're going to get to the moment when your chapter is due and... it's your birthday, you're sick, you're on vacation, your mother died, or fill in the blank."
Dani Amore: "Conventional wisdom has it that if you introduce a character early in the book, that character had better play a part later. Not necessarily with serials. Depending on how many episodes a serial has, if every character with a sizeable role were to play a part in the finale, it could potentially be a cast of hundreds."
Andrew Eckhart: "Creating work with the explicit thought that someone will soon be reading what you've written fundamentally changes the sort of writing you're doing. A few writers I've told that to say that makes writing stressful, hard work."
Icy Sedgwick: "Unless you write a chunk in one go and then break it up into installments, make sure you go back and re-read your last few installments before writing the next one. If you don't, you risk introducing elements that you never use again."
Sheri Gormley: "The first and most essential component of a good e-serial is the ending hook. Each and every issue must start off with a bang and end with a cliffhanger. Most readers will try a new serial for a few issues before committing to a longer subscription."

I agree. In fact, you pretty much need a separate document to track everything that you're doing. You also need to be able to "kill your ideas" as it were, if it looks like that climax you were building to... just isn't going to work out anymore. Or perhaps some symbolism you were using now actually has to represent something completely different... but what? (True story, the very name for the manga/anime series "Marmalade Boy" is based on changed symbolism. The show is also a good example of something you may want diagrams to track. In fact, seems that manga itself is a graphic variant on this sort of writing.)

Of course, since a lot of this describes how I write ANYWAY... it's kind of a natural fit, bizarrely enough. (Even my NaNoWriMo had distinct serial-style sections as Melissa Virga worked through her cases!!) Regrettably though, there's no way I have the time to devote to going pro with it. Besides, I enjoy my day job of teaching just as much. Euh, well, some days.


If you're in it for the money, you're doing it wrong. (Does blogging make money?) That said, it might, if you're willing to invest a lot more time and effort into it than simple internet posts. However, my first part in this series, about the History, mentioned a few publishers who are looking at using this format. Most lean "static" in that they want a large chunk of the story (if not all of it?) at the outset - which makes sense when you consider that it's a rather big gamble for them. Kindle Serials might be something to look into for the future too; not sure.

A couple final notes. During my searches, I turned up a (40 min) podcast featuring Sean Platt about Writing and Making a Success of Serial Fiction. Some good points there. There's also a website, Tuesday Serial, that seems dedicated to the genre (leaning to updates of 1000 words). They're also on Twitter.


Going forwards, I hope I find more time to check this stuff out. That is, after parent interviews. And the school play. And report cards. And the conference where I'm presenting. So, Mid-May. Maybe I'll have time in Mid-May. Or maybe you can chime in here with more information - or simply to tell me if any of this made sense?

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