Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What I Learned From Writing An Online Serial.

My hemorroids are killing me. Leonid Pasternak.

Louis Shalako

Having completed my online serial rendition of The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue, there are some lessons to take away from the experience.

That’s because I didn’t have the book done. I only had the first two or three chapters when I accepted this self-imposed challenge.

At the time, writing 2,000 to 4,000 words, to be published once a week, in readable form, was definitely a challenge. I was not a hundred percent sure that I could finish it at all. However, I suspected that I could.

There was only one week when I was still writing on a Friday. Most weeks, the thing was locked and loaded on Blogger by Tuesday or Wednesday. By Thursday at the latest, all set to hit the firing button at the end of the week.

This allowed me to do other things at the same time. Usually I write a thousand or two thousand words a day and my conscience is clear, right? That’s how I wrote my third mystery novel, The Art of Murder, and edited it, and published it, in thirty-four days.

But it also allowed me to focus on just exactly what needed to be done in that particular chapter, and nothing else. Bear in mind I knew roughly where the story was supposed to go, so all I had to do, page by page, and chapter by chapter, was to lay sufficient ground work for the last two or three chapters to happen. 

Everything that went before had to make sense by the time I got there.

(Betty Blue is a love story. Everything else is just set-up.)

It doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece to be published as an online serial. It has to be readable, and yes, professional. It has to be fun, and more than anything, interesting. Other than that, the readers aren’t asking for all that much, but there’s plenty going on in the world and it’s nice to get away for awhile.

Chapter Nineteen, The Final Chapter, will be published Friday night. The serial came in at about 52,000 words, or a bit short for the first draft of a 60,000-word novel. But now it’s up to 59,200 words and I don’t see it going much more than that. What it is, ladies and gentlemen, is an extremely long novella or light novel.

My writing style is to wing it. Once I have the premise, the basic concept, I write by the seat of my pants. It’s a line of exploration as much as anything else. However, if you were the kind of writer who makes a time-line, and plans what will be in each and every chapter, you might find this challenge a bit easier than I did.

Brevity is King.

You would know what’s coming next when you completed a chapter, whereas I had to stop and figure it out. 

I had to ‘dead reckon’ how much time and space I had left, what sort of material was going into subsequent chapters, and basically figure out exactly what was needed, and then, write nothing more. When I had written my scenes for the week, if I had 2,500 words, I stopped. I saved a few ideas for the next episode. I made a few notes and then set it aside.

In serial form, the story is a bit thin on description, yet most chapters were at least 2,000 words and some were more like 4,000. The chapters were kind of long for online reading, and yet I brought the thing home in 19 episodes, or one less than I originally planned.

In terms of writing a novel manuscript, the experts will tell you that the thing is un-submittable by traditional publishing standards. They’ll tell you that I took my intellectual property and stood it up against the wall. 

Then I pissed all over it.

That may be true. However, education costs money, and at least I have learned how to write, which was my original goal.

A couple of more days with it, then it's done.
It was a limitation that I accepted before kicking that door in. They are not wrong. Neither am I. They have their perspective and their concerns, which are different than mine.

There are some other folks, who might also tell you that guys like me can’t write, and that we shouldn’t be writing, and that we will never succeed, and that we ought to quit.

My advice to those people is to try and develop a slightly-thicker skin, and let it roll off you like water off of a duck’s back. Bend like the reed, rather than snap like a twig.

Because it don’t mean nothing.

However, if you wanted to learn how to write a serial, the best way to do it is to write a serial. The best way to write a serial is in episodes. For each and every episode of a serial work of literature, is a work of art in its own right. It has to stand on its own, although naturally the reader is provided links to previous episodes.

The great thing about serials is the cliff-hangers. Man, do I ever love writing cliff-hangers.

It is a weird kind of discipline. It’s a performance, to go out there one night a week, have your material ready and do the gig, for better or worse, to jeers or applause. Whatever. But it’s something I had never done. Because it is a series, a longer work of art, whole, complete and sufficient unto itself, it’s different from a weekly column (which I have done) where you can tackle different subjects, week by week. A column is rarely fiction, although it may use fictive elements to get the story across.

My story writing process may differ from some other authors. I stopped writing chapters, (admittedly, one at a time) by about the fifth or sixth book. I began writing an entire novel, front to back, with scene breaks but no chapter headings or divisions. Only after the story was complete did I go back, estimate perhaps twenty-five or thirty chapters and then divide up the text using some esthetic and perceptual parameters. Psychological moments in the story are best.

So this time I had to decide, up front, usually in two or three short scenes, what was going to be in each chapter, and no more. Then I wrote it up, edited for typos, etc, and stuck it up on Blogger.

Then I could go off and write short stories, overhaul my system, or go to the beach and pretend to be cool.


So here’s the real news—if it actually happens. A year ago, I abandoned a project. It’s up to 36,000 words, and that’s a lot of effort to just walk away from.

Assuming I need a new mystery novel this year, (and I do), and assuming I want it in stores by Christmas, (and I do,) and assuming it really only takes a couple of months to write and publish such a project, then I really need to start that project pretty soon.

I need to start that by August 1, or shortly thereafter. In the meantime, I have a couple of weeks, and a kind of an incomplete zany thriller-parody that might just make a pretty good little online serial. That much material, posted once a week, two or three thousand words at a time, would give me essentially ten to twelve weeks before I absolutely must have the next chapter. Any asshole can write two or three thousand words in ten or twelve weeks, ladies and gentlemen. In the meantime, it builds site traffic, gives people something fun to read and maybe I get to learn something more along the way. (Louis is the perpetual student, ladies and gentlemen. He’s never graduated from anything in his entire life. – ed.) I haven’t really decided on that one yet, but at one time I did have some idea of where that story was supposed to be going. 

And I have a couple of weeks in hand before I worry too much about the next serious project.

I might even be able to do both at once, if I wrote like a bandit for the next couple of weeks and accepted whatever limitations are thrust upon me by an indifferent social context and the frickin’ bourgeoisie..

If you have the material, and aren’t all that worried about the fate of publishing, or what Deepak Chopra thinks of all this, then I say go for it. If not, then maybe you should be off somewhere, you know, somewhere trying to save literature and not reading this blog post.

As for me, I learned something new by doing it.

I also have my thirteenth novel.

And it’s really frickin’ good, ladies and gentlemen.

That’s the real thrill here.


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