Wimsey cogito

The serial comma is obviously awesome. Serial fiction gives me fits.

My question for you today is about serial fiction, everything from The Old Curiosity Shop to Arthur Conan Doyle to the latest 160-chapter Harry/Draco epic. It used to be more common in professional fiction than it is now. Fanfiction has a lot of it, and it's how television works routinely. What do you think about it? When does it work for you? What are its pitfalls? What are its strengths? Is it important to you that the writers know where they're going from the first moment? Can you tell if they don't?

This touches on some stuff we've talked about here earlier, when I realized that my readers knew more than I did about where I was going with one of my serials. I'm also watching a past master of the serially-told story, nwhepcat, approach the stopping point of her latest. I am thinking that there's craft to learn here.
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First: there is no wrong way to write, but there are wrong ways for you. In other words, the techniques that some people find absolutely essential are the techniques that kill all creativity for other people. This applies to every kind of writing imaginable.

Second: it is quite possible your hind-brain knows more about what's going on than you do. (This is probably what people are noticing--your hind-brain is leaving clues and the reason you're not is you're too intimately involved in writing it to stand back and see the big picture until you get to where you need to actually write that part.) It's not a sign that you don't know what you are doing. I could name several excellent writers, both fans and professionals, who write their best fic this way (synecdochic and Lois McMaster Bujold, to name two). It can be very unnerving, but it often winds up with a depth and breadth and richness of fic that you could not have consciously managed without it. The difficulty is when your hind-brain has an idea that doesn't pan out. And you then have lots of dangling threads and plot holes left. If you haven't posted it anywhere, you can then go back and tidy all of them up. This is why posting as you go can be problematic; it really is a form of performance art. Most professional fiction that has been published in serial format was written and edited/polished before the first chapter went to print. Some people can post-as-they-go and have it work excellently well; others can do a so-so job; others can't post-as-they-write to save their lives, but have to have everything written and polished before they can put it out there. And with some people it depends on the story. (See the first note.)
I like them if there's a guarantee that they'll be finished and all parts will be posted, although I limit the number I read because otherwise they all get jumbled in my head and I can't remember what's going on.
My cent (it's unlikely to be worth two cents):

1) I've read/seen great serial storytelling, and I've read/seen awful stuff. What works for me as a reader or viewer of serial fiction is a) a sense of progression rather than endless reiterations of the same moment or plot-point, b) a sense of purpose, a sense that there is a story here, and c) using what's come before in what seems to be an organic way. The second two points are more subjective than the first, I think.

2) As a writer, I love writing serially. Sometimes it's worked for me and I've carried a reading audience along -- sometimes my comment count goes down, and I realize I screwed something up in the telling (although often I'm not sure what, even a year or so later). But for me I have to know where I'm going, and I have to have a working sense of overall structure; I couldn't do the 160-part saga (and I confess that I can't read those either). Within that, I want to make a serial story a damn ride. ;-)

You should probably ask this question again after NaNoWriMo, when more folk might weigh in.
I've posted one two part story that I could not finish for the life of me. Forget about whether or not I liked how or what I wrote: I couldn't get past the feedback. And the lack of feedback. The whole thing weirded me out. I felt influenced by some things people were saying to me. And influenced by things people weren't saying. I wrote and rewrote the next piece over and over and finally couldn't finish it at all. I don't think I'd ever want to post something again until it was complete. I still might post it slowly, cause as a reader searching for something new every day, I enjoy the serial--something to look forward to. I want to be entertained daily. But I don't think I could stand doing the way I did before. Made me kind of sick to my stomach.

Writers don't have to know where they're going as long as the story continues to make sense. I've also seen people do rewrites. I don't think that's terrible either. I haven't read nwhepcat's latest, because I'm not a fan of the characters. But someday I might. Her Dawn story was one of the best I've read.
That was a little terse. I'm sitting here in my livingroom with said Huz and herself_nyc and we're being very scattered and sitting in a row with our laptops.
Not yet! There was Nicky watching, though! (I'm a real lightweight when it comes to drinking, since I seem to have an allergy.)
Hmm...*puts thinky hat on*

Well, serials are historically a narrative structure that's created by the technical/business limitations of the time, right? Rather like 30 and 60 minute TV shows. Dickens and Doyle published in magazines, and hooking readers into an ongoing story was a way to 1) fill X pages per issue, and 2) encourage readers to buy multiple issues.

In fandom, serial writing seems driven more by the writer's preference, than by a business model or reader demand.

(This all reminds me of a talk I heard by Alex Wright who wrote the recent book "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages" -- he's an information architect that writes about the evolutionary dynamic of information -- ie how social changes drive technical inventions which then have new information needs -- agriculture results in villages, which then need to store grain, and thus track grain by household, thus driving the need for writing/records of trade etc...

But I digress.)

Serials. Well, all chaptered books are serials, in one sense; the main story arc is broken into stages, each of which has an internal arc/emotional swing of its own. So longer stories inevitably have internal cycles which can lend themselves to being published serially.

In Robert McKee's "Story" (book & seminar), he talks about the 3-5 "acts" in a movie, and that there's a pattern to the plot & emotional swing -- the hero goes from high to low, or low to high, from the beginning of an act to the end of that act. That to me is an example of an effective serialization of a story; the story itself has a rhythm that plays out in the chapters/acts.

What I don't like about serials, is when it feels like the chapter length is artificial rather than determined by the story. And some LJ & email list serial fics do feel that way to me....that people are (intentionally or not) writing in small pieces of 1-3 pages, and that rhythm can make the story feel like a see-saw polka band - ooompa, ooompa -- like the chapter length is what's driving the story, rather than the story finding its own rhythm. If that makes sense.

(this post is getting long...tbc)

Replying by piecemeal:

That to me is an example of an effective serialization of a story; the story itself has a rhythm that plays out in the chapters/acts.

I have seen serials that had the rhythm problem you describe. I would guess that the pressure to update somehow anyhow can move an author to write something, even if it's not quite the correct thing for the story. Or vamp, until he or she figures out where the story is really going. Only unlike with music, we don't have an understood 12-bar structure to play inside, so we can spend one turn around the progression figuring out where the improvisation's going next.

My rule for myself is that something irrevocable must change in each chapter of a serial. Each must be a story in itself, and a story is (by definition) something that can only happen once. The plot and therefore the characters must develop in a significant way that means the next chapter is forced to cover different territory.
Oh, I like your "minimum one irrevocable change per chapter" rule.

Also like your comments about character development. Good characterization is my own personal essential for enjoying fic: I can sail past bad grammar, misspellings, plot holes, weird pacing, crackfic, whatever -- but the characters have to ring true, in a psychological sense (which doesn't mean that they're true to canon - only that they feel true within the context of that fic's world). You do lovely character, btw. :-)

( sidebar -- per "the characters have to feel real" -- there's social sciences speculation that our human love of storytelling and fictional characters is a byproduct of our evolution. We're tuned for reading other people's intentions, predicting their actions: empathy and character reading are evolutionarily advantageous skills for such a social species.

Thus story-telling "feels good" to us -- it's a form of play for our social monkey brains. Like cats love chasing twitchy ends of string because teh Twitchy tickles their mouse-chasing module, we humans love making up stories about fake people that feel real because it tickles our people-reading module. )
And yes! There's more!

Another thing about serials: my own experience (so YMMV, of course) is that writing and publishing serially reduced my ability to do the higher-level literary meta stuff in my writing.

No matter how well I think I've planned out a story, inevitably when I'm writing it, I find things I want to go back and edit in prior pages. It's usually the deeper/more subtle stuff: set-ups for later events, themes to weave in, imagery, etc. I love it when that stuff pops into my head in the process of writing, and I love going back and mixing it into the story. Can't do that when I've already published the earlier serial chapters.

(Altho I have seen fic authors who did publish serially and who then went back and did a final version entire, with new edits, rather like doing a Director's Cut, after the original movie has been released.)

So while I did try writing & publishing serially a couple of times, I decided to go back to my usual process of finishing the whole story, then chopping it into pieces and publishing it all at once (or one piece per day).

That said -- there are some wonderful authors out there who write in serial form and are amazing storytellers. Mrs Hamill, for example, whips out first-class first-draft prose, does very little editing, and her stories are great. So it does seem to be very dependent on the individual writer and his/her creative process. And if it helps some folks to write in pieces, versus never write or never finish/publish at all -- then hey, good for them -- do what works.
This, this, this! is why I regret writing serials when I do. The process of discovery through writing, and the deepening of the material with those discoveries. The kind of story I can tell in a serial is different from the kind I can tell in a written-as-a-whole piece. Which is okay, but I am finding I prefer the kind that has the subtle cues in the very first scene that pay off in the last.

The other approach is to leave hooks everywhere. Throw out lots of possibilities, some of which you'll pay off and some of which you won't. The choice happens later, as the process of discovery inevitably happens. I have done a bit of this in Reconnection part 2, where I tried not to box myself in. (Part 1, which was intended as a one-shot, closes off more than I would have chosen to close off if I'd been planning.)
Per writing and rewriting fic: I'm actually surprised that it doesn't happen more often. It's like fic writers are still constrained by the old mental model that once something was published, it was fixed in stone forever. There's no reason that an online fic should stay the same, or have only one version. One could certainly do multiple versions: an initial serial then a Directors Cut rewrite.

probably the reason has more to do with authors getting sick of a given fic and being relieved to declare it finished and done with. That's certainly been my feeling upon hitting a sense of completion with one of my fics. I've never really had the desire to go back and do a major rewrite, but stranger things have happened, it could yet occur.
Oh, and I also agree with what seldomifever said: that posting serially means that you're getting reader feedback while still in the process of writing. That can be great, or it can be very distracting.
Huh. I had not thought of posting-as-you-go as performance art before, but that strikes me as true in some way that I can't quite define.

All right, here's my thing (again). Once upon a time, I wrote a Harry Potter Epic. I posted as I went and it was all lots of fun and I got feedback and yay! Unfortunately, I didn't quite know where it was going. Which maybe was fine at first, but when I hit page five hundred or so and still didn't know? That was a problem. I ended up abandoning it for other reasons and then spent half a year writing short things I could post as stand-alones and ruing my inability to write plot.

I was nineteen. What can you do?

Then I started the co-writing project. We agreed at the beginning that, mostly due to the nature of co-writing and the amount of heavy editing involved to make it sound like it wasn't actually co-written, we would not post as we went. We'd finish, then post. So there was about a year when I posted nothing, and we just wrote. This was annoying at times - feedback is addictive and my co-writer got stuck on an action scene for something like four or five months, during which time we wrote the sequel, heh - but the experience of posting without worrying about, "Oh dear, I don't know where I'm going" and "will I use this random detail later? I dunno, better leave it in" was extraordinary. I don't necessarily need to have the whole thing beta'd and perfect before I post the first chapter, but there does need to be some faith both on my part and on the reader's part that it will be finished. (This is the huge difference, for instance, with firefly124's epic, which I know is roughed out and finished and which I am therefore willing to read, rather than random first chapters that get posted on the Pit of Voles and Fiction Alley.)

Stories written this way also tend to be shorter. I haven't seen this as much in Buffy fandom, but in HP fandom you tend to get these post-as-you monstrosities with hundred page chapters, etc. Do they need to be that long? No, but when you only post once a month or once every two months, you want to reward your readers. I feel like forcing yourself to finish the whole thing before you post cuts back on this sort of waste of time/energy/words - you want to finish and post and get the nice, addictive feedback, so you're much tighter in your storytelling, which inevitably makes for better storytelling all around. You lose some of the reader/writer interaction, but not entirely since you do, of course, have beta readers and they are exactly that - readers.

Anyway. That is how I learned to stop worrying and love . . . something.

Edited at 2007-11-22 11:00 am (UTC)