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On reading serialized novels

When I was a kid, I used to gulp down entire novels in one go. I'd make a game of it: can I read this entire thing before Mom gets back from grocery shopping? and the answer was usually yes. And this mode of reading continued up until I hit college, so I basically spent my entire childhood practicing speed-reading.

This sometimes came in handy in college, where I once had occasion to read 400+ pages in two hours (George Elliot's Middlemarch; that was an interesting experience). But college is where I learned the value of reading slowly, of returning to particular passages again and again, finding something new each time. (Of course, given that my reading list was pretty heavily slated toward philosophy, theology, and political/economic theory, sometimes heavy rereading was necessary just to make any kind of sense out of it.)

Out of college, I never really got back into the habit of reading voraciously. Well, fanfiction, yes, but with most long fanfics I wind up hitting the middle, saying, 'eh, let's just skip to the end', and then having done with it. My post-college reading career is where I became both highly sensitized to the quality of a work, and half-way willing to ignore poor prose for decent plot. For at least a little while; when something's 150,000+ pages, you need more than just plot to sustain it.

Most of them don't.

But the few that I have found (and I can almost count them on one hand) have reminded me how rewarding it can be to read thoroughly and not just fast. Particularly those that I've read chapter by chapter, as they're posted. There are only a handful of these, and most (the vast majority) of them are by miss_porcupine, but they all have one thing in common: every time I reread what's been posted, I get something new out of it, and nearly every time a chapter is posted, it sheds new light on the previous ones. It's more than just "this happened, and then this, and then this". Which is fine in a context like Rocky and Bullwinkle, but a serialized novel needs to move beyond that--at least if it wants to keep me as a reader.

The time factor is pretty important, too. Apparently, the perfect obsessing time for me is one week, at least if you're posting ~20,000 word chapters. (Just ask seperis--I'm leaving an inordinate number of really long comments on It's the Stars That Lie, and comments on comments, and creating threads that are too long to show in their entirety, and it's great fun but sort of time-consuming.) Posting every other day means there's not enough time to really ruminate on each chapter, while more than a week between means that the readers lose track of what happened previously. Or they realize they don't care enough to continue reading. (That's happened to me a number of times.)

Um. I think I had some conclusion I was aiming for when I started writing things, but I lost track of it somewhere and now don't remember. So, random thoughts: 1) The Count of Monte Cristo must have been absolute muder to read as it was coming out (so many characters! So many plot-threads! A COMPLETELY opaque protagonist!), but it holds up quite well when read straight through (though it does take about a week to do so). 2) I really need to get back into the swing of devouring books--to go back and read and reread some of the classics I know I love, instead of trawling around the internet and winding up with disappointment 99% of the time. 3) Things Already Seen is definitely getting written. It'll probably wind up being my SGA swan-song, but it's definitely happening, and I'm hoping that it'll be long enough to release in serial format. We'll see.

Oh, here's sort of a conclusion, although I don't think it's what I originally had in mind: there is a definite difference between WIPs and serial novels. WIPs are when the reading audience winds up hanging for an indefinite (seemingly infinite) amount of time between chapters. Serial novels release on schedule--perhaps with minor hiccups, perhaps with the occasional revision, but they're reliable. And that's part of what makes them enjoyable to read: you can actually anticipate each chapter, instead of having to forget about the story because a surprise is better than ever-mounting frustration. Speaking from bitter experience.

Fulfilled anticipation is a sweet, sweet thing. Alas that it is also so rare.
Indexing:
20k word chapters on a weekly schedule! Wow! Please tell me the fix is pre-written...
Yes, it is. :)

If I understand correctly, it's been in the works for at least 2 years. The main reason for posting only weekly is that it's giving the author a chance to double-check each chapter for continuity, given that it's gone through 10+ drafts.
There is another reason but it's more esoteric.

Let's say I took the lesson from How I Met Your Mother this year on blind spots; that actually was the reason I started seriously thinking of what I was doing and why I was doing it and if it actually still worked and started worrying.

This is a problem with most book series; knowing your ending and writing toward it is fine, but sometimes the writing doesn't go there even if you want it to and you have to be willing to change or the story stops (or ends up How I Met Your Mother, worse fate imo). And for that matter, see it isn't going there and keep trucking, which for me is nightmare fuel. The trees distract from the forest.

Readers will tell me in heroin-like long commentary (so far, God willing they keep doing it, seriously, it's amazing, I feel like an addict) exactly what the forest looks like on their side and I have all the time in the world to pull future pieces apart and put it together right, no one currently will even notice a hiccup in posting, and everyone will think I was intuitive like whoa and I will not have to admit maybe someone's comment made me frantically check my notes and rewrite an entire freaking two chapters because oh God, they're right, how did I miss that?* Sure, there's artistic integrity whatever, then there's staying the course to the rocks.

(*Not that this has happened and I'm not mentioning names, but oh, that was, if it happened, the most exciting couple of days of my writing life. If it happened, it's also freakishly funny.)

It's like a nice compromise between the high of writing live and all your canon is very immediate and the satisfying stability of being able to really get into your story and make it work together as a whole as well as in parts. And hopefully, no one will HIMYM wtf'ing at how it ends.

(And truly believe I need six pages of Castiel and Dean staring at each other and talking and thinking about their feelings a few times (sometimes in separate chairs, don't ask). I feel now yes they damn well all stay, but surely sanity will hit eventually and I'll cut before I post. Stay tuned!)
This is (potentially) the huge advantage of digital publication over paper: the author can interact with their readers in real time instead of having weeks/months-long lag, by which time it's too late for them to tweak/fix things. Heck, if paper was still the only option, I'd probably have hardly anything written, because I need that near-instant response for the motivation to go and write the next thing. Or finish that story I started feeling ambivalent about halfway through. (Although sometimes it takes a couple of years, I must admit.)

And, as you say, it could/should help the writer avoid something not a lot of people talk about: weak endings. There's lots said about beginnings, but I can think of a whole lot of stories that started strong, began to taper off, and finished rather poorly. (Or, in the case of something like The Chronicles of Prydain, a little too strongly. It's too much of an ending.) But if the writer can track what matters to the audience, and the expectations building off the publishes chapters, they can, as you say, redirect if necessary. (I didn't watch HIMYM, but from what I understand the end basically wrecked everything previous, which is an awful thing to inflict on your audience.)

(*Not that this has happened and I'm not mentioning names, but oh, that was, if it happened, the most exciting couple of days of my writing life. If it happened, it's also freakishly funny.)

I would be glad you could laugh in retrospect, if it had happened.

(And truly believe I need six pages of Castiel and Dean staring at each other and talking and thinking about their feelings a few times (sometimes in separate chairs, don't ask). I feel now yes they damn well all stay, but surely sanity will hit eventually and I'll cut before I post. Stay tuned!)

So, are you going to share that ginormous document of all the cut bits you've been stockpiling? Because I will love you if you do. :D

(Augh, I just spent 15 minutes rereading the comments on Stars--they're almost as addictive as the novel itself.)
This is (potentially) the huge advantage of digital publication over paper: the author can interact with their readers in real time instead of having weeks/months-long lag, by which time it's too late for them to tweak/fix things.

This. In this case, with the bulk written, it's (hopefully) best case scenario of re-prioritizing and being able to clean up honestly labyrinthine plotting to something clearer and more concise. And at least a couple of times, rewrote something I didn't realize was too--different from the rest in style until it was up for posting and I was like "No, wait."

That's the other thing that is a problem and why I'm doing it like this. Emotional continuity is something that has to be checked; i wrote pieces at different times and non-linear going back and forth, so I've had to re-edit to make sure they aren't ahead of themselves.

Heck, if paper was still the only option, I'd probably have hardly anything written, because I need that near-instant response for the motivation to go and write the next thing. Or finish that story I started feeling ambivalent about halfway through. (Although sometimes it takes a couple of years, I must admit.)

Two year and 12 drafts later, I learned:

I personally recommend, I mean this, when you get stuck, writing your Id hard and shamelessly into it whether it makes sense or not. I mean, the stuff you would never publish ever because wow, that's a lot of yourself in there. For me, I leave it when I'm done and edit it out slowly as I go back for revisions, but it surprised me a lot once I removed the emoporn aspects, there was a reason I wanted to write it and it actually is what I need there. Just--not like that.

No one told me that when writing out my Id, but since I had the time (and no idea I'd ever get to the posting stage) when I'd come back to it, I'd cringe (sometimes, when I was sane) but also see why right here I needed to do that and strip back the flotsam for the idea beneath. One that usually was exactly what I needed to make the story work. (You'd be shocked how many multipage soliloquies on advanced navel gazing became actual necessary character and plot driving points and once I saw what I was trying to do there, it was painless to remove the extra stuff.

I would be glad you could laugh in retrospect, if it had happened.

Such a mess, you have no idea. And honestly, it was funny when I was doing it, too, like--I think I zoomed over it so many times while editing I was blind (and I'd very ruthlessly pruned stuff around it) that--wow.

So, are you going to share that ginormous document of all the cut bits you've been stockpiling? Because I will love you if you do. :D

As soon as I'm done. A lot of it is hilariously overwritten or discarded--paths to my final plot, you might say. And some you can see in the middle somewhere the part I ended up using in the story and are like "holy shit, that's how that started". And 300K words right now, by the way. I rarely delete anything, so there's actually versioning in there sometimes of single paragraphs or twenty page scenes.
You'd be shocked how many multipage soliloquies on advanced navel gazing became actual necessary character and plot driving points and once I saw what I was trying to do there, it was painless to remove the extra stuff.

I'm hoping the same is true for me, because I have the feeling I'm going to do get through some bits that are going to seem pretty repetitive to my poor beta reader(s) (if I manage to snag myself some). My first attempt at a novel died because of that, I think--I couldn't figure out what was under the wallowing that would be worth keeping. (Well, also, I didn't actually have a plot. At all.) 6 (7?) years later, I realized what I had was actually a short story, and rewrote it from scratch: less than a tenth of the length, but it actually works.

I don't think that's going to be an issue with Things, though. Just a suspicion. Given that Things started as a short story and then started getting too big. Seems auspicious.

Edited at 2014-08-28 11:40 am (UTC)
1) The Count of Monte Cristo must have been absolute muder to read as it was coming out (so many characters! So many plot-threads! A COMPLETELY opaque protagonist!), but it holds up quite well when read straight through (though it does take about a week to do so).

One--I can't imagine having to do that without writing my own character directory back then. Two--I was very young (read: fourth grade) and got a Reader's Digest condensed version, which shorter and definitely some unneeded trimming, made reading the full version far less frustrating and much more rewarding than I think I would have bothered with if I tried it cold.

It's not the story or complexity, it's the style itself that grates on me badly and it takes time to get used to it. It's like--in a completely different way--Charles Dickens. I'd read him in kid-version and even adult-condensed form before the full work and then tried to read Hard Times cold; one, that book was the worst possible choice of his to even try, and two, he really loved all the words (which makes sense, he was writing each one for literal money).

With the Charles Dickens example in mind: I don't think it's a weakness that some novels work better read serially and some don't (he does as a serial, oddly enough, and is as good as everyone believes), and I wish (futilely) that other than in fandom, that was an option in pro works more often. To deliberately write a novel in serial takes very different tools and has very different rewards as well and very different ways of thinking. If it works flawlessly together on straight read, that's good, but if it feels overwritten, that's fine, too, since the goal was to hold reader attention both in chapter and for the future and build a different kind of suspense. (A lot of novelists I've read who seem to be fighting their own narrative sometimes could benefit from thinking serially first and singular second.)

For one, with single-read novels, you can actually afford a certain amount of--I don't want to say boring, but maybe slightly tedious even if necessary for plot reasons and writers take advantage of that as long as you spread it out; with a serial, you don't have a lot of leeway there, and you have reader memory to worry about as well. But on the other hand, you really have them now and here and can do very interesting and fun things and involuntarily commit them to reading a million word story (and so many feelings) by offering it in tempting bite-size chunks wrapped in very plot relevant snuggies.

An example of a novel (I think) people call overwritten but I think works fine (I like long and longer the better) but could be considered a very good example of a voluntarily serial novel: The Stand by Stephen King.

If you break it down into pieces, he does something I think is fairly hard to do; you aren't trapped in that novel by endless suspense and action and how it ends; you can leave anytime you want, he tells you, soothingly, right here, go take a nap, while I talk about Character whose only function is to die but not of the superflu but shooting herself by accident, not important, why is this here, they aren't destined characters for the end game?

That sticks with you; so what does happen to non-destiny characters anyway?

And it's freaking long, so of course you take a break, all the side stories and world building and everything, you do have things to do, and that's a writer's greatest fear--lost interest--but King, no, he fears nothing. When you're done doing life things, you will indeed come back. To the Catholic guy who rides his bicycle to a heart attack and back to Stu and Fran and now someone else and you see an apocalypse in progress in tiny people-shaped pieces and holy shit you're seeing the possible end of the world.

The superflu is so big but it's also limited in a sense, and there's all the drama, but those tiny life stories make it very, very real and immediate. Fran burying her father was one way and heartbreaking but it was also telegraphed somewhat, so you didn't really see coming the shocker of one person putting their family in the freezer because they lived in an apartment and it had a walk-in freezer. Logic, yes, but...yeah. Freezer. Broken freezer, for God's sake.
It took me two tries to actually enjoy Monte Cristo--had to kind of force my way through it the first time. Second time I could sort of ... I don't know, get into the flow. The prose style does take some getting used to, though.

Er.

No, this is really helpful, what you've written--you've pretty much nailed what I was flailingly trying to get at. Which makes sense, since you've actually done it, while I'm only contemplating doing so. So, thanks? :P
It took me two tries to actually enjoy Monte Cristo--had to kind of force my way through it the first time. Second time I could sort of ... I don't know, get into the flow. The prose style does take some getting used to, though.

Yes, that book is--yeah, and I'm glad you mentioned that one specifically as an example because that was one of those "great idea but holy hell what" when you hit it That's why I'm glad I did the condensed first; it was much much easier to--adjust, I guess. I also think it's such a very specific, almost idiosyncratic style; it's not badly written by any means, the author meant to do it just like that. It's like reading John Updike or some of the modern classic; it's very much a mental adjustment.

(I still am determined to one day get Finnegan's Wake. I try and then stop and can't deal, but every so often, I feel like I'm almost there. House of Leaves is another one. That one I genuinely love, but every time, I get to glazed-eyes in the marathon level reading. Rewarding yes, but I need more stamina.)

No, this is really helpful, what you've written--you've pretty much nailed what I was flailingly trying to get at. Which makes sense, since you've actually done it, while I'm only contemplating doing so. So, thanks? :P

I want SGA fic I can read. I miss my fandom and want more. *brightly* I can't beta well on line-edit (When I'm writing, I can and will try to edit you into weirdness by sheer accident), but I can do for overall plot, theme, and probably pretty good continuity (that I have practice at). You know. Whatever.
Line-editing isn't much of an issue for me (it's instinctual; I line-edit professionally published works as I'm reading them, and the results are sometimes painful. There's one devotional that I really like, but they obviously didn't hire a copy-editor and it's really distracting), but plot, theme, and continuity? Yeah, given that the longest finished story I've done is <15,000 words, probably going to need some major help there.

...I was about to make the disclaimer about how you've got your own project going, and I don't want to get in the way of that, but then I realized how ridiculously optimistic that is. Like I'll need to worry about continuity any time soon. :P
...I was about to make the disclaimer about how you've got your own project going, and I don't want to get in the way of that, but then I realized how ridiculously optimistic that is. Like I'll need to worry about continuity any time soon. :P

*G* A big release is coming up (our big releases at work are quarterly: I do my posting in the margins) so in the next three-four months, if I'm not posting, I'll have time and it'll keep me from doing it too soon.

And this is a sincere offer, btw; if I can't do it for whatever reason, I'll tell you immediately or give you a precise timeline so you can decide yes or no or get someone else. I'm very curious, and I haven't beta'ed for a while.

(Reason: for the first three books, at least, I really don't want to miss a week during if I can help it because the chapters build off each other and I need a week before each one to make sure it's very clean and continuity is continuous and like you said, completion rate. These first three build the baseline for the series but won't drive the reader crazy if there's a delay between books. I'm still checking my work schedule for when I can do Book Three (still untitled, gah) without breaking for work stuff.

Just in case you need more eyes. And pressure! I cna do pressure.
I definitely accept your offer--after reading this comment, I went and spent 20 minutes typing up a list of questions I'll need to keep in mind as I'm rewatching episodes/reading through the transcripts. Which goes to show, I suppose, how far a little bit of support goes in getting/keeping me focused. I also dug up the original post I made on sga_flashfic 6 years ago and was shocked to realize it was 6 years ago. I mean, I knew it had been a while, but not that long.

So, yeah. As soon as I have more than just elliptic scribbles that make sense only to me, I'll start emailing you. Logistics question: what have you found works best for this sort of thing. Google documents? Just emailing marked documents back and forth? The last time I had someone helping me write/edit was my Dad, back in college, so I'm kind of clueless.

And pressure! I cna do pressure.

That's what I'm going to need, I suspect. >_o

Book Three (still untitled, gah)

If you're willing to divulge themes/general direction of Book Three, I'd be happy to do another round of brainstorming for you. Maybe I'll get another unexpected poem out of it. :D
I used googledocs with my betas, and I invited them with comment privileges (or editing privileges, it didn't matter).

Googledocs has one invaluable feature that offsets the disadvantages; it versions forever, so my betas could do editing to the document itself sometimes and I could see the changes, not just their comments. It does, however, have limitations in document size, and not the one that's semi-official; sixty thousand words is the ceiling for being able to load, edit, and read comments. I tried to keep below forty and failed, which is why when I got to a certain point, I created entire new document drafts.

I'm going to add you to my twelfth draft of Part 1 (about first half of Maps, called The New Age, VII, Part 1) so you can see how it looks and will act. Poke around, edit, add comments, looking at the versioning function, whatever; this is posted, so it won't matter what you do with it. I don't think the links will work for you since you aren't added to those, so ignore them; you don't want to be spoiled, do you? *g*

There's also live chat in there you can do, it's not great but it's functional. You should get the email now for a test drive.

But anything you want is fine, though I'd go with dropboxing your document if you don't want to use googledocs instead of email. We can discuss or even test several options when you're ready.
G-docs looks great--I like the comment feature, and as you say, having all the versions saved is a definite plus. I'd probably wind up breaking the story down into smaller chunks, anyway, just because of how I process things, so word-limit isn't something I'm worried about. Thanks for the demo!

you don't want to be spoiled, do you? *g*

Haha--yes. But I'm the kind of person who automatically reads the last chapter first, because I need to know if the ending will be worth it. Usually manage not to if the author's someone I know and trust, but yeah. Movies, TV, books--I am all for spoilers. My theory is if the story is actually spoiled by knowing the bones of it beforehand, it probably wasn't worth watching/reading. Good stories get better the better you know them.

WHICH IS NOT ME COMPLAINING. I want to make that clear. I will happily read along at whatever pace you set, and take whatever commentary you dish out in the comments, and not expect anything more than that. But I like knowing where things are headed, because it means I know how much emotional weight to put on things as they come along.

Actually, I'm pretty much the same as a writer. The stories I manage to finish are the ones where I know what the ending is, more or less, even if I'm not sure how I'm going to get there. Otherwise I don't know where I'm aiming at, and wind up floundering all over the place before either a) figuring the ending out or b) giving up because it's dead in the water. So there's going to be a lot of meta posted here, I'm guessing, before I start writing the story proper, just because I have to figure out what the story is first.
Speaking of line-editing, and how I can't not do it while I'm reading, during my reread of Maps I noticed some really small issues (missing periods, occasional confusion of pronouns). Would you like want me to email that over, or are you well and truly done with Maps?

Just asking so I know whether to save a copy with that stuff highlighted.
Oh God, if you want to, yes please. My inhibitions are making any changes big enough to influence how the reader reads the plotline so it makes sense.
Emailed! I hope the PDF comments come through; never tried with this file format before.
3) Things Already Seen is definitely getting written. It'll probably wind up being my SGA swan-song, but it's definitely happening, and I'm hoping that it'll be long enough to release in serial format. We'll see.

Ran out of rooom in the last comment (wow, I had no idea that could happen) so this part -- YES.

2) I really need to get back into the swing of devouring books--to go back and read and reread some of the classics I know I love, instead of trawling around the internet and winding up with disappointment 99% of the time

For fandom, just throwing these out:

Have you read Iolokus or Bowiehbarata? They're both by RivkaT and Mustang Sally, first X-Files (Mulder/Scully) and second Buffy (Buffy/Spike). Both are novel series and in the case of Iolokus, is serial novels that build off each other in both emotional fallout and plot, both novel-internal and over-arching. And when I say they have everything but the kitchen sink, I'm lying; there is in fact a kitchen sink in there somewhere. And it's very X-Files indeed. If you are (or were) into Voyager and didn't read them, i have a two part novel series and a supernovel (I mean, no lie, that thing is massive) and worldbuilding, culture-building and breathtaking in scope. It was posted serially, but that's like posting novel sized pieces to a greater supernovel. Just soulchangingly huge, is what I'm saying.
Ran out of rooom in the last comment

Ha! It's contagious.

so this part -- YES.

I've actually found someone willing to marathon at least season 1 of SGA with me, so that we can hash out what exactly can be 'fixed' by John and the potential fall-out of that, so I'm feeling pretty enthusiastic. Mostly because I can already sort of see the shape of it in my head--not the actual plot, not yet, but some of the issues that'll have to be dealt with (and there's a lotHave you read Iolokus or Bowiehbarata?

Nope. Never really got into X-Files, but I might take a look at the Buffy one. Well. Someday, when my head isn't being eaten by Agincourt as a reader and Things as a writer. (I was commiserating the other day with one of my coworkers on how taxing it is to run a side business, which this is slowly becoming for me, even though there's no money in it. Not yet, at least.)

Just soulchangingly huge, is what I'm saying.

I'm actually contemplating getting a Kindle just so I can read my slowly-accumulating folder of ginormous fanfic novels on something that's a little closer to an actual book. I was, in fact, into Voyager back in the day, though that was long before I knew fanfic was something other people wrote too.
The Voyager ones are by D'Alaire and it's been--Jesus, fourteen years?--and I still think The Word Painter kicks all the ass ever, and I mean on a level where it feels short and it's--well, not. It's not. It's the freaking Stand. It's one of those novels I want to throw at people at random because it's just amazing.