What if, instead of releasing my World of Ere books as ebooks and then posting serialized chapters for free on the site, I released each one of those chapters by themselves and expected you to pay me 99 cents for them?
No, I’m not going to do that. Unlike the last time, this question on strategy is strictly rhetorical because that idea sounds completely awful to me. I’d effectively be charging $13 for A Girl and Her Monster alone. Which is pretty good for a small press paperback, but we’re talking ebooks here.
And yet, that’s what a lot of my fellow authors are doing.
I’ll skip the gory details, but here’s the plot: A certain giant internet company released a new program several months ago that did ebooks by subscription service. From the consumer side, at the outset, it’s a pretty good deal: $10 a month for all the books you can eat… read… well maybe eat, I’m not here to judge. And you know, when you check the main page, it’s got Harry Potter and Hunger Games and such in there, so hey– those for $10 ain’t so bad, right?
If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know a curveball is coming. And it’s coming from the author side of things. Now, JK Rowling and the Hunger Games author (Susanne Katniss?) they get paid in the shade: same amount as they make on selling a book. Folks like me? Hahahahaha! Well first, you have to make your books exclusive to said company for 90 days at a time (hey, remember when some of you were asking for Kobo and Nook versions of the ebooks and I said I couldn’t because I was stuck in an awful exclusivity contract that was severely stunting my business? Same contract!) and then you get paid on your book out of a fluctuating pool based on how many total books were ‘borrowed’ as part of the program.
For those of you playing our home version, this means that 1) None of the authors who aren’t big names even know how much they’re going to make per book, 2) They get paid WORSE per book the better the overall program is doing, and 3) All books are paid the same.
Number 3 is the big sticking point. A 250k word brick is making the same money as a 5k word short. I’m not going to say one is inherently better or more difficult to produce than the other, but keep in mind that neither book’s creator gets to set a base asking price. They just get paid (poorly) the same random amount.
But then someone noticed something. Namely, they noticed that there were already people breaking their books up into series even though they weren’t written as one. Then they noticed that a 60k word novel could also be 12 5k short stories. You know, if you squint. And lie. And call it a ‘serial’.
So that’s happening. And when, on author forums I point out ‘hell no’, people respond one of two ways. One: “Capitalism!”, because any evil you do can be justified if it’s for money because commies were the villains in out action movies thirty years ago. Or two: “DICKENS”, because they have no goddamn idea what they’re talking about.
This in turn has opened up a discussion on what really constitutes a serial vs a serialized work, vs a series. And that in turn led to this series (ha!) of posts about the care and feeding of an actual serial; their various forms, the techniques a writer should understand, etc.
Yes, Virginia (one of you is named, Virginia, right?) that means we’re back into doing some real writing theory posts. Let’s do this thang!
First, some clarification. This site and -most- of the works on it are serials published in a serialized manner. That means I do, in fact, just post chapters of the larger stories and arcs as part of my updates, but I collect all of those into issues and minis so that people reading straight through are reading the complete serial entries (issues on this site). Some people might jump on this as hypocrisy when I’m so vehemently against publishing pieces of work… but this site is free. I’m not asking for your money for those individual chapters and I never will (I -might- do the ‘get early chapters via Patreon’ thing next year, but that’s paying for early content and in the spirit of Patreon, that would be paying to support my work, not specifically for the content (which would still come out for free the next week).
But anyway, this week, I’ll be exploring and discussing the forms of serial writing. Starting with one type that… isn’t.
I think a big problem people run into when talking about this form is one of terminology. A series is not a serial and a serialized work is not either of those.
When people defend selling chopped up novels, they inevitably cite Charles Dickens, who famously published his work in serialized form in magazines and was paid by the word, explaining why his descriptions could go on for pages like this run-on sentence posing as a paragraph.
What they don’t seem to realize is that while yes, serialized works existed and have become classics, they were never sold by themselves. No one is going to produce three pages stapled together sold as Part 4 of Great Expectations because that didn’t happen. Serialized works are almost always presented as part of a package, say an anthology or a magazine with plenty of other stories (including complete short stories—which by the way I’m not knocking with this, they also need to find their new marketing format in the new ‘nothing below 99-cents’ world of writing). The same is true for film serials (not a typo, serialized bits of a movie story are just called ‘film serials’ because language is inefficient like that), which hale from the days of ‘a day at the theater’ where you didn’t just got to see a movie, you went to see the movie, some newsreels, a few short films and a cartoon or two.
Today, the only real standalone serialized works you see come in the form of very rare television events such as the miniseries events of my youth (see also: The Tenth Kingdom, Gulliver’s Travels, and Arabian Nights) and shows that present one season as n story like True Detective, American Horror Story, or 24 (whose popularity makes recent news extra horrifying), and of course, comic books. In the later example, the practice of ‘decompression’, breaking up a story over 4-6 or more issues is controversial to say the least and it says something that so many people don’t follow the single issues anymore and just wait for the trade paperback.
I’m not going to go into any more depth with this, as I want to move on to true serials and go deeper with them. So let’s get to the first type…
In another example of how problematic the language is, this is the recently-eroding standard for broadcast television series. Think The Simpsons, and you’ll have a good idea of how these work: little to no continuity and people can jump on to any given episode and be relatively okay with understanding what’s going on even if long time fans will get more out of it.
Episodic serials are linked together largely by characters or even just setting. Taken as a whole, they don’t necessarily have a real beginning, middle and end, usually just a beginning ‘starter’ episode and whatever they choose to do for the series finale. The characters, if they change at all, do so either very gradually and organically, through an accumulation of events rather than from big events, or radically as their traits become exaggerated or distilled.
The advantage of Episodic series is the lack or scarcity of continuity, making it easy to keep straight for both writers and audience. This makes them ideal for traditional television because they use multiple writers, often working on multiple scripts at a time.
The disadvantage is the same as the advantage: a lack of continuity. On a certain level, you have to ‘reset’ the characters most of the time and so can’t really give them character arcs. Also, without that backbone dictating the form of future episodes, things have a tendency to become uneven—think of how many seasons of the Simpsons have been called ‘Worst Ever’ or ‘Getting Better’.
Obviously, when you have just one writer, these problems aren’t as pronounced, but you would be surprised how much guidance a writer ends up drawing from continuity. And speaking of continuity, the next type has the strictest of all:
The Big Story
The Big Story is a serial tale that, when all is said and done, is ultimately only telling one big story. Unlike a serialized work, however, the story unfolds in stages that in and of themselves give satisfying resolutions to some elements while advancing the story as a whole.
A lot of modern television, especially those biting off of Lost, use this model and it goes thusly: The reader is presented with a situation that will serve as the long-term goal (escape the island, let’s say). The characters, thereafter, will always be attempting to resolve that situation, but along the way other situations arise, both as part of their attempts to resolve the main plot and as part of personal character arcs (more on these later) that form the plot of a given entry. For example, a character getting over their fears so they can explore a certain area might be a single episode with that exploration advancing the main plot.
This is, I imagine, what a lot of people who think they can just chop a book up into parts think they’re doing, but they’re missing the ‘resolve a situation’ part.
As said, the Big Story is a slave to continuity as every episode flows into and builds upon the next. It’s easy to make a slip-up, forget something and then have to explain it away. This means that the longer a Big Story runs, the higher the chances of it slowly becoming a patched-up mess of retcons. They’re also prone to writers abusing cliffhangers like a Beiber on pills.
It also doesn’t help that this sort of tale is easy to extend well beyond its shelf life, leaving audiences demanding to know the Big Secrets and such promised months or even years ago and not delivered. If not addressed, people will lose faith like me after Season 1 of Lost.
If you can pull it off though, it is amazing. It immerses the audience in the story, leaving them constantly wanting to see what comes next. The heavy usage of this form is why I love anime so much because it leads to an epic tale that’s bigger than any movie or series could be.
A properly deployed Big Story is like…
Of course, I feel the same about…
Arc Series are probably the most common form of serial fiction with us today. Tons of TV shows, comics and even movies now use this form.
Now, an arc series may or may not have a larger, overarching plot that spans the serial (called a ‘Myth Arc’), but they will certainly have multiple smaller plots along the way that work exactly the same as a Big Story, only in mniature. Sometimes these arcs will comprise an entire ‘season’ or volume (or trade paperback), or the might only take up two or three entries. However, once again, each entry (barring two-part ‘to be continued’ entries) still sets up and resolves things within themselves.
My personal favorite thing about arc series is their flexibility: one arc can be serious, another can be fun—or there might be ‘breather’ episodes interspersed between arc entries. Most famously for fans of this blog, Teen Titans the animated series did this with every 13 episode season, having 5-6 arc episodes split up with character development episodes or ultra-silly breathers right before darker, more serious season finales that finished off the arc.
There can be issues with this format. For example, as much as I love Castle, it tries very hard to be an arc series, but only has about two arc episodes every 13+ episode season, often with the darker arcs being staunchly at odds with the show’s general light and fun feel. In this case, the needless addition of the arc dampens a good episodic serial.
Other problems can also stem from the arcs themselves, especially if they go on too long and wear out their welcome. Arc series also tend to pick up a LOT of continuity, just like the Big Story. Only here, you can put some of it in a box at the end of each arc once it stops being relevant. The problem there becomes one of complacency as a writer can easily forget something they set aside as no longer relevant that the audience still remembers.
In my experience, Arc Series are the easiest type of serial to do both because you have the opportunity to tell a variety of stories within the framework and because it allows the writer to ‘take time off’ as it were by writing a few one-off episodes without any great fear of causing arc fatigue. Audiences these days understand breather episodes and will accept them in this kind of serial.
The big problem (for me) is packaging an Arc Series. As there’s no standard for how long an arc is, or how much you can break it up with one-off episodes, unless you set out to package them for sale ahead of time, you can run into things where is it nearly impossible to produce nice, neat groups of episodes for sale. For example, I am screwed when it comes time to do Volume 5 because of how I set up the Beach House Arc. Actually, I’m just extra screwed there because of the over-use of Japanese in Shadow of the Kurounagi because I might have lost my translation notes…
You often see this problem also cropping up in certain DVD releases, especially animates shows that are sold broken up instead of by season. Witness ye Young Justice’s DVD release that completely skips the back quarter of the season, ye mighty and despair. (seriously, I still have not seen the episode ‘Image’ all the way through. The one episode featuring both my favorite characters and it just plain does not exist on DVD. I am Jack’s infinite sadness).
Of course, somewhere between the Big Story and the Arc Series, you get the odd little format I like to call…
A Meta Arc series is a mighty tricky beast. It’s part Big Story, part Arc Series and somehow all Episodic. If you have seen How I Met Your Mother, you have seen this thing in action and… it takes a master. I don’t know who the producers ont hat show are, but they know their kung-fu. Do not attempt unless you know just what the hell you’re doing because you will explode.
A Meta Arc serial does not have a plot goal in mind. Instead, like Lost retroactively claimed it was, the Meta Arc is about the journey, usually about the development of the characters or the setting. This is done by telling episodic stories that only really connect to each other in that those characters remember and learn from them, growing as they do.
For those of you who have not seen HIMYM… first of all, what are you waiting for? Go watch it! We’ll wait.
Second, let me explain a bit what the watching experience is like. Imagine if, in the Simpsons, that episode where Bart pretended to be a genius, in addition to being hilarious and the source of the word ‘kwijibo’, meant that in later episodes, Bart was more open and honest to Homer about things. Now imagine if that honesty became important to other plots of the show and the results of those in turn became important to other plots. The show is still irreverent and funny as ever, but you could actually go back in the series and pin-point the reasons why later things happen based on the characters’ experiences. No new over-plot or even little plots.
And yes, some might say that HIMYM shouldn’t count because ostensibly the whole plot is an explanation as to who the mother is, but I disagree: unless you watch certain episodes, you might not even be aware of the Frame Story (we’ll leave that for another time.
Needless to say, this takes some serious writerly mojo to work. All of the problems I listed for the others can leap out and tear you to shreds while you’re trying this. The reward, however is an organic tale that’s very much how real life works that’s just… pretty… for lack of a better word in terms of the writing craft that goes into it.
It’s a trick I’m not personally up to trying, but I feel like it’s the pinnacle of the form.
Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the techniques and concepts that make serial writing possible and awesome both for writer and audience.
Until then, as few announcements:
If you haven’t heard already, Children of Agmar (Soul Battery, #1) –the first book of the Rune Breaker sequel series—is now available for your purchasing pleasure, as is Strange Days (The Descendants Basic Collection, #5).
Also, if I could direct you to the top bar to the CafePress Store link, the store is now ready for people again with the new logo, the Liedecker Institute logo, a newer, better ‘I Believe in Peace Through Superior Superpowers’ T-shirt, and a brand new shirt ‘One Freak Lab Accident Away… From Immortality’
Coming soon: Rune Breaker logo, ‘Heh’, ‘I’d Rather Be In The World of Ere’, and posters from the Rune Breaker covers.
Just in time to be the perfect Christmas presents… and also let me afford Christmas presents. Also food.