Serialisation is the key

Going back to the mountain metaphor from the previous article for a moment, if you’ll indulge me: the thing about mountains is that they’re big. Really big. So big that when you stand at the bottom it’s hard to see the top.

Climbing a mountain means taking a lot of bold steps forward. The thing about individual steps is that they’re small. Really small. And easy — it’s just one after another. Anyone can do that. To get to the top of that mountain all you need to do is string a lot of steps together, one after another. To climb Mount Everest would apparently take over 26,000 steps, but thankfully we’re only dealing in metaphor here.

Point is, any major project will seem daunting when taken as a whole, which is why you need to break them down into smaller, manageable components. The problem I’ve always had is that no matter how I deconstructed the creation of a novel, it always came down to two primary chunks of activity: writing the first draft, and then editing it. Sure, each of these can be further segmented into bite-sized chapters, but there’s no avoiding the challenge inherent in writing a long form story.

Writing the first draft is the comparatively easy bit, at least initially, because you’re still full of passion and excitement. You’re discovering your own fictional world and characters for the very first time! You can’t wait for people to read the finished book!

Months slip by. You make progress, and the word count grows, but still nobody has read any of it. You get to the end of the first draft — an enormous achievement — and still nobody has experienced the work. You’re operating in a vacuum. You’re tired and your creative spirit has been sapped, and all the while the next projects are calling to you — but now you have to go back and edit the entire book, from the start.

I’ll just start on the next project, you think. It’ll give me a creative break and refresh my mind, before I come back to do the editing.

You never go back.

I’m writing ‘you’ but I actually mean ‘me’. Perhaps I’m unique in this experience, in which case this book won’t be of much use to anyone — but I suspect I’m not alone. This was my writing life until early 2015.

So, how to break down a novel into properly approachable components? How to avoid the feeling of a monolith bearing down upon you?

Serialisation has the answer. It encourages rapid writing, editing and publishing — to varying degrees of intensity, depending on your style. Each chapter becomes its own self-contained project: planned, created and released into the wild as soon as it’s ready. You don’t need to complete the entire text before anybody gets to read it; instead, it slips out piece by piece, as you build it. Chapters become mini-projects, with the eventual book coalescing almost incidentally, as a cumulative result.

The history of the novel is one of serialisation, something which is easy to forget given the way literature evolved in the second half of the 20th century. Rewind back to the 1800s and you have Charles Dickens publishing The Pickwick Papers in serialised form, while The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo also began life in a different form to how we regard them today. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga, now considered a defining work of grand SF, started off as a series of loosely connected short stories in the pulp magazines of the 1940s before being combined into books.

Point is, serialisation used to be the norm. It changed with the shifting entertainment economy, as radio, cinema and then television took hold, while at the same time print technology was increasingly able to cope with larger tomes.

It’s with the growth of the internet that serialised fiction has seen a resurgence. People like to consume content in bite-sized chunks online; they are often reading on the train to work, or waiting in line somewhere, or over dinner. The serialised novel, delivered in manageable chunks, suddenly makes sense again.

It took me a while to realise this, though, only really clicking when I discovered the publishing platform called Wattpad.

I originally decided to try writing a serialised story not because I thought it would help my productivity and overcome procrastination but because I realised Wattpad was built primarily for the serial and wanted to explore that form. What initially seemed like the best way to build an online readership eventually transformed my entire writing process.

What’s your favourite book that began life in serialised form?

Next up: Discovering Wattpad