The thoughts and work of Sam Witt

On Writing Serial Fiction

When I started writing Half-Made Girls, I thought it would be a quick and breezy tale that tied elements of the mythology from my childhood with some of my favorite modern influences (the Vachss books, JustifiedBreaking Bad, and more) that I would knock out in a few months, one chapter at a time. I was wrong.

Serial fiction looks like it should be easier than sitting down and writing the novel in one big chunk – you only have to worry about a few thousand words each week, which is nothing if you do much writing at all. That’s exactly how I started writing HMG, one chapter at a time, write it on Monday, have my editor look it over on Tuesday, post it Tuesday night. Do it all again on Thursday.

As most writers with common sense will tell you, that’s a shitty way to write a book. It’s too easy to forget details or misremember how you intended to link one chapter to the next. It was the same old trap I’d fallen into a while back, when I thought just putting my ass in the chair and banging out the words I’d somehow end up with a novel someone would want to read. The result of that little experiment were three truly awful novels that had bunches of great chapters between them.

Whether you’re writing a serial novel or a regular book, you have to know where you’re going if you ever expect to get there. I take extensive notes and outline  my original intentions (no plot survives extended contact with your characters). If I feel like I’m hitting a roadblock, I’ll back up and check the map I’ve drawn for myself to see where I need to be going. Nine times out of ten, I was veering off course and screwing up my story. One look at the outline was enough to get me back on track.

I’ve also given up on the idea of writing HMG over an extended period of time. I’ll write as quickly as I’m used to and publish twice a week, which will help my editor and keep me from drifting out of the storyline before I find the end.

TL/DR: Changing your writing style to suit a particular type of writing may screw up your writing and your process. Stick with what you know, you can work out the little differences as you go since you’re already familiar with the big pieces.

Fellow serial fiction writers, have you found any unique challenges to this style of writing?

About Sam

I am the author of the popular Pitchfork County series of horror novels. I also write a newsletter with great reading suggestions and free fiction.

  • Hi Sam:

    “no plot survives extended contact with your characters”

    That’s a great line… and sums up why I disagree with your premise, although you do make some valid points. I’m all for outlining (a little bit) if it works for you as a writer. You need to keep some notes for consistency, etc., but to force your characters to adhere to a strict outline can be murder on them. I believe you need to give them a little bit of space and let the story write itself sometimes.

  • Sam

    Having strong characters that drive a story is a great thing for writers, don’t get me wrong, but many, many times it can lead out into the wilderness of the story, with no plot to be found. It may just be me, and I’m happy to admit my failings in this regard, but letting the characters take the wheel often ends up killing the narrative.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to give the impression that I think you should cram characters into a story and make them do dumb things just to keep the plot on track. I do plot, pretty extensively, but part of that plotting is getting all the characters lined up AND properly motivated to play the parts I’ve assigned them.

    I also think it’s important for writers to be able to let go of their plot, though. My quote about contact with the characters was a clumsy attempt to imply that – basically, you have to be ready to look at what’s happening in your story and realize when something just isn’t going to work or when a character points out that he’d really, really rather be doing something other than going into that dark cave, at night, with no gun.

    TL/DR: For me, it’s important to know what the story is and then I figure out how to create the characters and populate the plot to motivate those characters to do what I want.

    But writers are like cats, and ain’ nobody going to tell us how to do what we do; right?