Writing a Serial (when you haven't finished it yet)
This essay was originally posted to the writing community Get Your Words Out on March 29, 2019. Small edits have been made.
I'll be speaking from my own experience of writing and publishing a serialized novel, Fidele*. I'll also refer to other well-known series for examples, the Harry Potter series and A Song of Ice and Fire (one I have read and one I have read excerpts from.)
Why write a serial?
I wrote the rough draft of Fidele, about 30,000 words, over ten days in February 2015. This was a "telling myself the story" sort of draft, not anything I wanted to show anyone else. But I realized over the next year that the more I fiddled with it, the more I wanted to go back and rewrite what I'd written before, until the second draft became the third became the fourth. I'd never stop tinkering with it until I made it public, so I decided to post it to my website and AO3 just so I'd finish the darn thing.
There are many reasons to post a serial, of course, other than just "finish the thing." It can be a source of income: many novels from the Victorian era began as serials posted in newspapers or magazines, and there are still a few outlets that will publish serial fiction. Maybe you've got a big idea that's going to take several novels to write, because it covers many years of someone's life, has a cast of hundreds, or needs centuries of world-building.
Online platforms are made for serials. People can subscribe to a specific story or your account on AO3, track your journal on blog sites, or follow your RSS feed, to be notified of your updates.
By the way, I'm approaching a serial as a different beastie than a series. For our purposes here, a series is an ongoing set of stories using the same characters and setting, each with their own climax, that can be three installments or a dozen or more. (The James Bond novels, for instance, are a series.) A serial is a single story with an over-arcing plot and several installments that may or may not have their own subplots and climaxes, which culminate to a final conclusion.
Have an idea of your ending, no matter how vague.
A serial should have a question to carry the reader through from installment to installment. Will Harry Potter defeat Voldemort? Who will win the Game of Thrones? Who is haunting Fidele, and why do they torment the Thibodeaux family? This will enable you to use foreshadowing, plant clues, and let the smaller climaxes build up to the final one.
The final paragraphs of Fidele changed little from the rough draft to the final posting day. They were in my mind from the beginning and gave me an end goal to work towards, story-wise. JK Rowling has said she wrote the final scene of the Harry Potter series before she wrote any of the rest of it. We may never see what GRR Martin intends for the final scene of ASOIAF to be, but I would not be surprised to learn he has it scribbled down somewhere and stuck to the wall over his typewriter.
Set a posting schedule, but be prepared to be flexible
When I decided to post Fidele, I chose a two-week schedule. This would give me time to write, rewrite, and edit each chapter as necessary. Sometimes I was able to do this in a week; sometimes, there were delays due to life happening despite my plans (carpal tunnel surgery, holidays, a minor car accident, changes at my day job). I also took off three months from posting toward the end so I could write and edit the final chapters, and post them together on the day of my chosen deadline.
These deadlines will not be as flexible if you're publishing through a magazine or have specific dates on your contract. In these cases, planning ahead will be even more vital. If you're a bestselling author, your publisher will probably be forgiving about missed deadlines. (Your readers, though...)
Outlines are your friend
I cannot emphasize this enough: Have a plan. The plot needs to move forward in each installment, whether through subplots or as part of the overall plot. I know it's tempting to meander or do filler when you've got infinite word count and as much time as you've given yourself. Resist that temptation. Every scene should relate to the plot. In my Scrivener file for Fidele, I had three plot keywords: haunting, romance, family. Every scene had to be about one of these things, preferably two, or it was out. This kept me from meandering into filler.
Don't post the rough draft.
Back when I was writing X-Files fanfic, I wrote and posted three or four chapters of a story and then realized the setting, particularly the season, wasn't right for the atmosphere I wanted to create. So I took down those chapters, posted a note on my website that I would be reworking the beginning, and then posted new versions of the chapters when they were ready.
To avoid this situation, have the first few installments (I'd say no less than three) ready before you go public, to give yourself a head start. With Fidele, my first versions of the beginning focused on the hero, his current lover, and his lover's wife; when I reworked the story, I realized the beginning needed to focus on the hero's family and his past, so I didn't start publishing until I was satisfied with the first chapter. This gave me a much sturdier foundation to build my hero's wants and fears, and establish his motivation for making the changes in his life that will bring him into the over-arcing plot.
Have a fixed end date in mind.
You may be given this by your publisher. You may have to decide on this yourself. Having an end goal will help you fix your schedule and give you a tool against procrastination. It took me a year and a half to finish Fidele after I started publishing it, but once I decided on February 2018 as my end date, the time it took to finish it just felt right.
I had bad days, of course, when it was hard to write, but I've struck a bargain with myself about these: just write ten words. That's ten words more than I had yesterday, and that's enough. (Usually I end up writing a lot more than ten. It may not be a thousand, but it's still more than it would have been otherwise.)
Don't overstuff your cast... and if you do, do it carefully.
ASOIAF is notorious for its enormous cast, but GRR Martin handles this by titling his chapters by their POV character, and keeping certain groups of characters together. Even his infamous killing off of characters has a purpose: it brings the focus in tighter on the characters necessary for the final climax.
Fidele has a much smaller cast: three main characters, six or so secondary characters, and about two dozen minor characters; in addition to the focus of a single narrator in first person-POV, the reader can expect one group of characters to be in one location and another group of characters in another location. I brought them all together rarely, and when I did, it was for momentous occasions in the plot.
Getting to the end.
I'll talk more about endings in my next essay for GYWO, but I'll leave you with this: You are going to get there. It may take months or years, but you will get there. Start with a plan; draw yourself a roadmap; make realistic goals.
Serials are a great way to stretch your story-telling muscles. It can be hard, as with any work long or short, to keep going when you get bogged down, but hopefully your eagerly-awaiting readership will help you get through the rough times and remember why you wanted to tell this story in the first place.
*(Due to circumstances, Fidele is currently available only on AO3 to registered users.)