A month in bed – Part one – Serialization

By Evangeline Jennings

Back again – new and improved – we return to our irregularly programmed schedule. Yes, television is the drug of nation and for reasons that need not detain us, I’ve been watching a lot of that shit this past month or so. I’ve decided to call it research.

Previously on Pankhearst, we’ve talked about serialization. My viewing during April has given me a fresh perspective on the art of selling the same thing week after week. I’ve also picked up some pointers on storytelling. Let’s talk about serialization first.

In many ways, the all-singing, all-dancing, epublishing Kindle Select revolution is dragging us back to the days of Queen Victoria. Or maybe earlier. Wikipedia says that serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution. Does any of that sound familiar?

Sidestepping the temptation to joke about literacy levels in my two home markets, I shall instead point out that global literacy has never been higher and that technological advances and the subsequent improved economics of distribution mean that as writers we have access to a truly enormous market.

A significant majority of ‘original’ novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers. The wild success of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format. During that era, the line between “quality” and “commercial” literature was not distinct, and it wasn’t only Dickens who serialized his work. Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Herman Melville all did it too.

Ditto Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.

Not to mention Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

And, more recently, Tom Wolfe – Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in Rolling Stone – and Michael Chabon whose Gentlemen of the Road was first published over fifteen weeks in the New York Times.

So hell, if you decide to serialize you can claim to be in good company – if you ignore the gazillions of werewolf-vamp-BDSM hybrids all rolling off the production lines even as we speak.

Commercially, however, serialization raises as many issues as it promises to resolve. For example, let’s say you have – as I do – a 124,000 word novel sitting on your hard drive. You could serialize it in five novella sized chunks at 99c each. But then Amazon will take a massive share of your revenue as opposed to selling the novel at, for example, $3.99 in its entirety.

Hypothetically speaking and rounding up. if you sell 1000 serialized copies of your novel in five pieces at $1 each, your readers pay $5000. You get $1,750. Amazon gets $3,250.

To make the same profit, selling the whole thing in one go at $4 a throw, you only need to sell 437 copies. Food for thought.

Then, of course, you also have to package five versions, launch and promote them. All of which takes time and a toll on the nerves.

More importantly, you’ll have to restructure your unsold novel to fit the serialization model which relies, I believe, on finding a way to make your reader NEED the next installment. That way, sadly, lie the Penny Dreadfuls. For those of us who want to write something a little better than, say, Varney The Vampire – look it up, it’s real – this will be a very real challenge.

One problem is the lure of the cliffhanger. We can all laugh at the hackneyed hanger tactics of vintage radio and TV shows like Flash Gordon and Dick Barton, but modern sophisticated TV is barely doing it better. Especially when it comes to season finales. Last year we saw some truly awful examples.

Hawaii 5-0, for example, threw in everything but the cast’s collected kitchen sinks and stole the bigger part of its cliffhanger plot from Alias. While the NCIS family plowed two parallel clichéd furrows. And the less said about Grey’s Anatomy, the better. Although …

… Having already lost the lovely Lexi Grey – who had a plane fall on her but survived to see out a not entirely heart-rending death scene – we were left to wait to discover who else would die and how. Sadly I was wrong when I predicted Derek would be eaten by bears.

My point is not that Derek Thing Must Die – by bears or otherwise. It’s that the Grey’s finale careered way beyond comedy and cliché despite its unutterably somber subject matter. It insulted all the sentient beings – possibly not many – within its remaining eleven million viewers. Everyone I spoke with could see it. This is a show that has run out of ideas, but nobody has the balls to shut it down. Mind you, I’ve been saying that since Katherine Heigl killed her husband. And Meh Grey went to limbo. And … well, you get the point.

And yet, what do those shows all have in common? Yes, they were renewed for another season. Those motherfuckers make bank. During my April of TV excess, I noticed some that hadn’t come back after their first season. Ashley Judd’s Taken rip-off Missing was one. To be very fair, I enjoyed watching Judd as she Neesoned all around Europe in her struggle to rescue her son from his bad fairy godfather. But then in the very last scene, what happens? Having rescued her son and reconciled her family, Judd herself is taken. OMFG. It was a rare laugh-out-loud moment on ABC and now, as a result, I can’t look back at Missing without thinking Dude, What The Fuck? An otherwise decent show leaves a gnarly aftertaste because the producers were desperate for a cliffhanger ending.

Fly, You Fool
Fly, You Fool

That’s where I think TV too often goes wrong. You shouldn’t sacrifice the integrity of your story or characters by scrambling around for an ill-fitting cliffhanger. If the twist fits the plot – like the question of who was at the door in Veronica Mars – then by all means wear it. But there are other ways to captivate your readers. JK Rowling didn’t leave off The Half Blood Prince with Dumbledore mid-fall. PG Wodehouse never left Bertie Wooster hanging. Ditto Agatha Christie et Poirot.

Give people characters they can care about and stories they’ll remember and they will return for your next book. And the one after that. The same applies to a serial novel, I think. Don’t insult your readers with cheap tricks or invite them to laugh at you, give them characters and plotlines that intrigue them.

Next up: a few words about Storytelling and a quote from Sheldon Cooper

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One thought on “A month in bed – Part one – Serialization

  1. Nice timing! Struggling through my own ending for my book (first in a series), so I definitely appreciated this post! Will print this out and add it to my writer’s resource stash.

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