Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Serial Killers....or Killer Serials

When I submitted my last proposal, I envisioned following my usual pattern: spend three (or four if I'm lucky) months crafting a novel of about 90,000 words, polishing it for a couple of weeks (if I'm lucky), working with an editor to revise it, then going through copyedits and, finally, the final proofs. Somewhere in that process, discussions about covers arise, and there's the excitement of making cover decisions (if I'm lucky), or at least seeing something that looks like a book.

But the last proposal came back from my publisher with a "we want it but..." and the "but" turned out to be a wild ride through the new world of publishing.

For those of you who haven't witnessed my recent manic Facebook posts or emails, my publisher asked me to write my proposed novel as a serial. Since serials seem to be making a comeback, I thought I'd share some of the mechanics of how the process works.

EPISODES. The novel is written in episodes. For STORM FORCE, I was asked to write nine episodes of approximately 9,000-11,000 words each. At the end of the ninth episode, the reader will have a complete novel. For some authors an episode might be two chapters. I tend to write shorter chapters, though, so for me, 10,000 words is four chapters. So each episode is four chapters.

CLIFFHANGERS. Each episode, or every fourth chapter for me, has to end on a cliffhanger. I'll admit I'm being a bit liberal in my interpretation of what constitutes a cliffhanger, but I'm trying to end them on a moment of high tension. Of course, as authors we try to do that with our chapters anyway.

FAST TURNAROUND. Three weeks after I signed the contract, the first three episodes (about 30,000 words) were due to my editor...and I hadn't started. After that, an episode is due every two weeks through May 13. (Which happens to be my birthday, and if you think I won't be hoisting a cold one on that day, think again, sisters!)

WRITE IT CLEAN. The usual process with this publisher is that my manuscript goes to a developmental editor, who works with me on revisions, and then to my acquisitions editor, who shepherds it through production. (With my other publisher I work with my acquisitions editor throughout the process). But the fast turnaround of a serial means the developmental/revision stage will be skipped. That puppy goes straight from me to copyediting. Gulp.

THE 'LIVING NOVEL.' The idea of the serial, as it was explained to me, is that it is a "living novel." When the first episode of the novel is released to the public, I'll only be writing episode five. A discussion group will be set up where readers can talk about the book as it develops, theoretically influencing how the book ends (in other words, if everyone hates the hero I need to do some work on him, or if everyone guesses the mystery, I better throw in some red herrings). I can't tell you how much this idea freaks me out!

WHAT THE READER GETS. This serial will be released beginning on March 19 and will run through July 9, with a new episode released every other week. A reader will "subscribe" for $1.99, and that will be the only price she ever pays--each download will come automatically to Kindle as soon as it's released, and she'll get an email saying it's there. If a subscriber signs up on the day episode four is released, she'll get the first four episodes and then receive the rest as they come out. Once the serial is done, on July 9, the price will go up and it will be released in print, digital and audio just like any other book. At that point, it will no longer be exclusive to Kindle or Amazon.

Yowza! I'm working on Episode Four right now, with a deadline of March 15. This format plays to some of my strengths. I'm a dedicated plotter, and I think anyone trying to pants their way through this--with no chance to go back and revise--would have a breakdown. I work as an editor, so my copy is usually pretty clean, although I do find proofing my own stuff hard. I've also worked as a journalist for years so deadlines motivate me rather than paralyze me (within reason).

Will people want to read my serial? I honestly don't know. I'm not sure it's a format that particularly appeals to me as a reader, since I like to bury myself in a book and plow through. Fans of the format liken it to a TV show where a story line carries over from week to week, and you can't wait until the next episode airs.

All I can say is, hold your breath. STORM FORCE (a loose spinoff from my Penton Legacy series) is coming!


Lexi said...

OMG, Suzanne, this makes me want to take a Xanax. I am a plotser, so I could not do it. Nope. No. Way.

You're training, editorial and journalistic skills will hold you in good stead. You will totally rock this, I know!

Cari Hislop said...

Being a pantser, I don't think I could write to a two or three week deadline. It doesn't allow time for my "head banging on nearest wall exercises".

Good luck with your story! I think it's a brilliant idea to get the reader hooked before the story's finished. I'm curious to know how you feel about the process after you've finished the story.

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Lexi...LOL. I'm actuallly enjoying it so far, in some perverse sort of way. I really do need deadlines, or I can't get anything done. It just took me six months to do a short story because I didn't have a deadline.

@Cari...It will be interesting, come mid-May, to see how I feel about the process and whether I'd do it again. It's too early to tell at this stage.

Marian Lanouette said...

I love meeting deadline, maybe it's the accountant in me but deadlines push me forward

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Marian...I like deadlines too. You might enjoy writing for the serial format, then!

Of course, one could always write the whole book out ahead of time and release it as a serial. I just got caught in my publisher's timetable.

Melissa Keir said...

Sounds like a rollercoaster exciting time! I'm excited to see how this goes for you and I'd love to hear from you again on the process as you move through it more.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks, Melissa--Maybe I'll do a followup in July when it's all done. I'll definitely have a better perspective on it by then!

shellbelle said...

As a reader I think that the serial book is interesting. I am following three serial books on Amazon right now and do look forward to the next installments. But not sure if I like reading a book this way.

I think this might give the writer a little more freedom with their book. So many writers have said their characters take over and want to go a different direction than originally intended, but the writer is somewhat locked into the storyline with the publisher. This gives the character a chance to dictate their own

I can't wait for Storm Force.

Anonymous said...

I don't like waiting for the next installment, as a reader/viewer. I have even gotten into the habit of recording my favorite shows for up to a whole season and then watching all the episodes in a week, or less. I am curious about your story, so I think I'll subscribe. But I won't read it until it's all there. Nope, can't do it. I also don't read excerpts for much the same reason - I don't feel anticipation, I feel irritation that I don't have the whole book. But then, I'm also that Dreadful Reader who usually will read the last few pages of a book by the time I'm halfway through it. I do admire the author's side, flying without a net essentially. I'll be curious about your thoughts on the process once its done. As a journalist, grant writer, teacher, etc., I'm used to deadlines, and agree they are helpful.
I like your pseudonym, too. :D
Susanna C.

Melinda B. Pierce said...

Very interesting! I'm like anonymous above, I like recording my episodes and watching in bulk, but my very fav tv shows I don't miss the weekly installment - and if serial caught me like that, I'd probably do the same. With the bebe I only get bathtub reading time now, about 30 mins. so the serials would probably work for me in that respect. I have to say I'm interested enough to try it :)


Suzanne Johnson said...

@Shellbelle--thank you! I think you're the first person I've come across who's tried the serials. I do think it will be interesting from a writing standpoint to get feedback as the book progresses. We shall see! I hope you enjoy Storm Force. I'm having fun with it so far.

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Susanna (yes, love your name--I stole mine from my ggg-grandmother!)...This is probably the way I'd "read" a serial too. I did subscribe to one and got into it, but then got busy and let the episodes pile up until now I'm just going to wait until it's complete. With TV shows, I sometimes do that as well.

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Melinda...My version of bathtime reading is bedtime reading--it's the only reading time I have left, and 45 minutes maximum. So in a lot of ways serial novels would make sense for me too. But if I like a book a lot, there's a point at which I'll drop other things to finish it, and not being able to do that might drive me nuts :-)

Louisa Cornell said...

I'm going to be very interested to see how this new interest in serial novels goes! It worked for Stephen King! (The Green Mile, anyone?) I, however, would be having a serious attack of the screaming meemies if I had to write so much so quickly. I write slowly. We're talking TOLSTOY slowly!

Suzanne Johnson said...

LOL, Louisa--I'm going to be very curious to see how it goes as well. I've been looking at the calendar and thinking, well, do I do a blog tour for the serial, or do I wait for the final book in July? How do I publicize and promote a serial? It's very bizarre. I'm trail-blazing!

Chris Bailey said...

I'm going to have to give it a try. I mean, as a reader, I can't lose! With any luck, the serials will have readers looking up your other books to fill the time between releases.