Writing on the Stage: Coming to Terms with Serials

Jeff Somers’ The Electric Church intrigued me because it messed with my world view. No, no, not the whole “church that converts you by putting you into a cyborg body because eternity is required to properly understand God” thing, I was with that.

No, it was the fact that the whole damn thing was a serial.

I love order. I’m an order-lovin’ gal. You won’t find me anywhere on the side of organic writing, no siree. I always believed that I couldn’t write a coherent novel without some overarching plan, even if I had to kick it into a different shape from time to time, and NaNoWriMo 2007 seemed to bear that out.

I read The Electric Church just after it was released, and loved it in a way that I usually reserve for Warren Ellis’ screeds.

And then I read Ficlet’s Big Idea with Jeff Somers. My mind was so blown that I just sort of babbled about it (“He wrote it all as a serial! Isn’t that something?”). Not through all of November did I think about the implications because November was, well, insane.

After November I’d completed 140,000 words worth of work. Yet I considered my drafts failures; they fell apart where the novel-length outline cracked. On the other hand, my work was strongest at the beginning, when the outline seemed the most stable landmark in my writing landscape. Nothing new, right?

At this point life threw me a curve ball, which knocked me into thinking in all sorts of new ways, mostly out of creative desperation.

I decided that my problem during NaNoWriMo was my inability to face the nightmare auditorium and improvise properly on my feet. Yes; writing on the stage is organic writing.

So I started working on getting my improvisation skills–no, I could not bear to call it organic writing–up to snuff: by blogging as seriously as if I were in journalism, and even go pro; and by taking on more immediate forms of fiction.

It was the Twitter fic that finally drove me over the edge.

Even before November I had started up a small web serial mystery, punningly named Crime & Violins, to try to see how it worked. Before now, my serial mystery was just play; I dropped it in November just because of all the crazy writing around (if I had been serious, I would have stayed with it).

Now I considered it in a new and critical light.

I had a hard time admitting it, but I loved writing the characters of Arcady and Zene, far more than I enjoyed any part of NaNoWriMo. In many senses they’re more real to me than any number of characters I’ve had a chance to write about in NaNoWriMo (and 140k covers a LOT of ground). They developed the most naturally, which helped quite a bit to forming story around them. I was surprised when even secondary characters came to life.

My NaNoWriMo characters, on the other hand, were very often just placeholders for characteristics and histories. My main characters often came partly to life, but my secondary characters were not nearly so appealing.

Of course, I’m still a creature of order.

When my NaNoWriMo plots took off for the skies, I was in denial at the time, but that was the death knell for the story. I couldn’t bring them back to ground properly, and I couldn’t correct the story flow, and my endings were forced… very forced.

That seemed most damning. An organic writer wouldn’t have a problem with that.

But during the middle of the book, I didn’t always cleave exactly to the outline. I would plan out sprints of a couple of chapters or so, and write them, then continue onwards. I think that was how I progressed so quickly over the storytelling ground.

And of course it’s natural that, over time, this would cause the real storyline to diverge from The Great Plan. And at some point, I couldn’t go back.

In other words, I had been naturally writing my novel in a serial fashion, but then tried to shoehorn its development into an overall structure that no longer fit what was going on in the undergrowth.

I could tell you about software projects with similar properties… but getting back to writing.

Perhaps I’m a natural serial writer. I’m not completely organic, in that I can’t simply write for long periods without a short sprint of planning. And I’m not completely an outliner, either because I don’t have the foresight yet needed to adapt the outline in time, or because… I just am not. In fact, I couldn’t even call myself an outliner, because even a loose outline (and the one for NaNoWriMo was fairly loose) ended up crippling me.

Maybe when I’m older.

For now I’ll keep writing my serial and see where it takes me. I know that I’m in good company.

The Electric Church - Jeff SomersGreen MileCrimson Petal and the WhiteDavid CopperfieldA Study in Scarlet

And now for a word…

For a history of the serial novel and the literary forces that shaped it and eventually drove it out of fashion, for a while anyways, see “No time to be idle: the serial novel and popular imagination” by Shawn Crawford.


Articles in the “Writing on the Stage” series:

Photography credits:
Silica Borg by jurvetson
Poppies & bees by a

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