Of Sequels and Serials: The Serialized Novel Is Back (Or Was It Ever Gone?)

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When you think of a novel, you think of a thick book, bound tightly, surrounded by an attention-grabbing cover, a sparkling spine…and bursting with meaningful ink. You picture hundreds, no, thousands of book spines displayed in perfect rows along miles of shelves in libraries and bookstores. You see gold leaf titles embossed on red and green leather stretching into imaginary libraries of the gods. This is the world of books: volumes, editions, series, bestsellers, paperback, hardback, pocketbook, coffee table book…these are entities that you can pick up and thumb through, read at your leisure and use as paperweights when you’re finished with them.

But not all books started off as potential paperweights. Some of the best novels started off a chapter at a time in magazines and newspaper supplements. You had to wait a week or more to read the next chapter.

No one seems to be sure exactly when this started, but most fingers point to Dickens, who published The Pickwick Papers in 19 installments between 1836 and 1837. It wasn’t his best novel, and some critics point to its serialization as the reason for its rambling unfocused nature, but he did much better in 1860 with his serialization of Great Expectations.

So, what is a serial novel? Wikipedia defines it as “In literature, a serial is a printing format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in smaller, sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and may be released either as separate publications or within sequential issues of a periodical publication, such as a magazine or newspaper.”

Whew!

My definition of a serialized novel: “I’m going to publish one episode of The Weekly Man every day for two and a half months or until I go crazy.”

So much for my definition.

But let’s look at other novels that tiptoed into the literary world a ‘fascicle’ at a time: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Madame Bovary, A Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment, Treasure Island, The War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Phantom of the Opera, Ulysses, The Secret Garden, A Farewell to Arms, In Cold Blood and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s something about being involved in an ongoing activity that attracts us: the weekly poker game, the weekly date night, the daily horoscope…how many TV series can you count on your fingers and toes? Here’s a hint: A lot more that you have fingers and toes! And more on the way. It’s not enough to give us a one to two hour movie anymore; it has to be a series of ten or more episodes culminating with a victory by the good guys and followed up by another series next season after it’s learned that the good guys weren’t really victorious because…look…the problem’s back for another season.

When you think of it…baseball, hockey, basketball…these are all serialized episodes in a team-writing story of victory and loss culminating in a grand finale called the championship game.

We’re very much a serial society. If something pleases or interests us, we want more of it. It’s not enough to go back and re-read a book or re-watch a movie or sports event; we want more. This explains all those bad sequels to movies that weren’t all that great to begin with. How many sequels did Dumb and Dumber really merit? It boils down to the “want more of this” urge that proliferates in a world where everybody milks the moment to squeeze out a little more.

But with the serialized novel, we’re talking about one story spread over equal intervals leading to one inexorable ending, not the kind of story “add-on” that comes with sequels.

Unless, of course, the serialized novel has a sequel.

Hmm.

Come to think of it…a sequel to The Weekly Man. It would be the world’s second free daily serialized coffee break novel.

(Read The Weekly Man)

Coffee Shops and the Single Writer

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I’m a coffee shop writer. I’ve written five novels in coffee shops because they’re the only place I can write fiction. There’s something about the atmosphere and the availability of coffee that burrows deep into the headlands of my creativity and starts a stampede of words and ideas. I write for about an hour to an hour and a half each evening and get one to two pages (yep, I’m no Stephen King). Anywhere else and I might get a paragraph or two and on very rare occasions, a whole page. Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter what coffee shop or where it is…if it’s a coffee shop, the trail to the headlands is a six lane highway into story telling.

And yes, I’ve written about writing in coffee shops before; in fact, my last post covered some of the hurdles to overcome. But this post is about single writers who write in coffee shops and why they’re likely to remain single forever.

To begin with…being a writer is a sentence to singleness. I mean it. Most of the writers I know are single…and not necessarily happy about it. Some have fond memories of those days when they had someone special in their lives, someone who understood them and stuck in there in spite of long hours alone while their writer mate disappeared into the jowls of a coffee shop (we’re talking just about coffee shop writers here) to do mysterious things with words. They put up with the roller coaster of moods and lifestyle that brand writers as persona non cool. They looked the other way when the writer, foaming at the mouth and crazy-eyed, tried to explain the world-shaking ramifications of not being able to find the right word to describe Sam’s blue shirt.

“Just say it’s blue,” she says.

“But how will they know the blue?” he responds.

“By the use of the word blue,” she says.

“But how will they feel the blue,” he says.

“You only feel blue when you’re sad,” she says.

“You don’t understand me,” he cries.

“You’re making a mountain out of…” she tries to say.

“You’re just like the rest of them,” he yells.

And suddenly, he’s single. And not necessarily happy about it.

The same things happen to female coffee shop writers, proving there’s no gender inequality when it comes to losing at love, especially if you can sneak a bit of the loss into a story.

There’s something about creating worlds with words that takes you out of everybody else’s world and plops you into a place that only exists in your own mind, like when I was talking to a group of co-workers while I was working on my first novel. I started talking about a man called Baxter. The others looked at me in a strange way, like my head had just fallen off. One of them said, “Who’s Baxter?”

It suddenly dawned on me that Baxter was one of the characters in my novel. That’s how real he’d become and how unreal the world of my co-workers had become. Sadly, this didn’t discourage me from writing; in fact, it probably spurred me on. Something along the lines of OK, I’ve lost it with these people, so what do I have left? Oh right…Baxter and friends.

Writing is a deep uncharted pit with a shallow slope that slants ever more precariously as you slide into it. It leads into a place where a blue shirt is deep sea or sky blue, not just blue. A place where nothing is whole until the last draft, or until an editor has a better idea for blue. It’s a place where you can get lost, where you can drift away from everything that’s known into a great unknown that you get to arrange and rearrange until you’re satisfied that it’s the right color of blue.

Sound crazy?

It is. And it’s not like those writers who write at home where the better half (at least, saner half) can pop in say, “Hi, how’s it going?”

“What’s another way of saying blue?”

“Just write blue.  I think people will get it.”

“You don’t understand me.”

“Don’t stay up too late.” Door closes. Writer is alone to stew in blue. Until bed time.

But for some, the coffee shop calls out to us and off we go, single and bursting with words under the brilliant azure sky.

Writing Hurts Like Hell – Breaking the Story Board

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I encourage my writing students to create a story board before starting their novels. I stole the idea from Walt Disney, who created a visual story board for the animated cartoon movie Snow White. I think is was something like a half mile long. This isn’t exactly what I do, not having half a mile of wall space.

I use one large card for each scene. Each card indicates the names of the characters in the scene and, very briefly, what happens in each scene. The cards look something like this:

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The story board is a form of visual plotting. You can see how the story progresses. You can see where you might need more development, where scenes are missing, where you might need a previous scene to make a later scene make sense, and where you might need to delete a scene because it doesn’t advance the story. It gives you new ideas for more scenes and new directions for the story.

The story board creates a structure for your novel, so that when you start writing, you know where you’re going and how to get there. Starting off with that structure burned into your head saves a hell of a lot of time, cuts down the chances of getting writer’s block and makes it possible to get back into the writing if you’re away from it for a while. It also allows you to put together a realistic writing schedule because you can see what has to be done and the scope of what has to be done.

All this said, there may come a time when the story itself takes over, when the actual writing reaches a point where the story board doesn’t make any sense and you just have to write.

OK, the blood-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails anthologies, J, just said, “But Biff, you spent all that time sweating and suffering over a story board…and then…and then…you have nothing. Ha ha!”

And the fox said, “Ha ha!”

“Hey fox,” I said. “Guess how J writes a novel?”

“With brilliance, insight and feeling,” said the fox.

“Thanks, fox,” said J, smiling like a self-satisfied Canadian, who’s actually an American living in New Mexico.

“No!” I said. “He sleeps. Yes, he goes to sleep with a laptop in his lap and dreams. And while he’s dreaming, he records the dream and when he wakes up…presto…novel finished. And perfectly formatted.”

Just as J and the fox were about to say nasty things about me, I ran into my bedroom and crawled under my bed with my desktop computer. I can hear them shuffling around my apartment looking for me, but I know they’re afraid to look under my bed, fearing whatever stuff a writer hides under his bed. Like the stuff I got from my stag party about thirty years ago. I won’t get into details that might even scare me.

So yes, this just happened to me. I had the story board completed for my next novel, the details of which I won’t get into because they might even scare me. I estimated a short novel of about 60,000 words. I had everything worked out, plotted, carded, and on the wall at my studio.

But, as I approached the 60,000 word mark, things started to happen. The characters started doing things that I hadn’t planned. The story line started finding new paths that wandered far away from the story board. Tomorrow, I’m going to break the 80,000 word mark…and I’ll be nowhere near finished.

So, am I sorry I bothered putting all that time and effort into a story board?

No.

Now, I should mention one other thing. I created that story board three years ago. Then, I took three years off to study photography. I came back to the novel a few months ago. I had the story board to come back to for re-orientation. But more important, I had a structure in my head that had three years to simmer and evolve. I dumped the opening chapter for something that, after three years of second thought, worked much better, and then continued with the original plan.

But, like I said, around 60,000 words things started to get out of hand.

I think J and the fox are looking for me in my refrigerator, and eating everything in it as they look. I didn’t know foxes ate avocadoes. I didn’t know editors ate.

But get this. It’s working. Each day when I start to write, the words are gushing out. New ideas and new directions are falling into the manuscript line inspired rain.

The fox said, “Did someone just say ‘inspired rain’?”

“That sounds like something dumb that Biff would say,” said J. “He’s still here. The refrigerator is empty. Let’s find him.”

So I have to make this fast. The story board gives you a structure to start with. It organizes your brain, and your creative instincts, around that structure. And once you have that structure, you can toss it when the story goes its own way. Without the structure to begin with, you would never have gotten to that point where the story would have taken off on its own.

Now, having said all that, there are writers who never use a story board. I mean, some writers just all asleep with a laptop in their laps. The story board is meant for people like me…busy people with fulltime jobs and myriad other things to do.

If you’re not writing fulltime…take the time to do a story board, especially if it’s your first novel. Get that structure in your head and, if the time comes, dump it and just let your story take you where it will go.

“Hey J,” said the fox. “Biff’s under his bed. And…holy shit look at the stuff…oh…the stuff!

Oh, shit.