Writing Serials

When done right, serials can be a good option for authors who would like to get more books out in a short amount of time. But the key is, it has to be done right.

Breaking up a novel into parts and publishing those parts is, in my opinion, a bad idea. I think most readers want an entire story when they read a book, regardless of the length. This means there needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end to the main plot.

That being said, the question then becomes…

How can you do a serial effectively?

I like to think of serials as TV shows. Each episode has its own plot. There is a conflict and a resolution in each episode. Now, there might be a deeper theme that connects each episode, but it doesn’t dominate the main plot in each episode, so it’s not the focus of each show.

As a quick example, I’m watching Z Nation right now. The goal for the season is to get the one man who has been bitten by zombies but lived to California. Each episode takes us closer to that goal, but each episode has its own unique plot to it. For example, in one episode, a bad storm is coming their way so they have to survive a series of tornadoes. The episode ends with them surviving the storm and continuing their journey to California.

I haven’t read any serials yet, so I don’t have a literary equivalent to compare this to.  But the layout of a good serial should work in a similar manner.

How long should each book be?

Usually, serials are composed of short books, but I’m guessing 15-20K words would be ideal.

How many episodes should be in the serial?

I’ve seen authors do miniseries which are about 3-4 books long and authors do 20 episodes per season with there being as many as 5 seasons. Usually, they box the seasons together for a discounted price when the season is finished.

I’d say there should be as many episodes that you need in order to complete the underlying story that connects all the episodes together. Like in the Z Nation series, I suspect the end will be when they either find a cure to the virus or realize they’re all doomed and nothing will save them.

One way or another, there has to be closure when your serial is done.

Something to keep in mind if you do a serial…

Make sure you will finish it. Some authors start it, get bored with it or get discouraged because of lack of sales, and quit. The problem is that someone out there invested their time and money into the serials. So be careful when deciding whether or not to start one.

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That’s all I can think of about serials.  I haven’t read them, nor have I written them. Does anyone who has experience writing or reading want to chime in with what works and what doesn’t when doing them?

38 Comments

  1. I remember reading a collected work of erotica fiction where before they were collected, each chapter was a complete story, and they were each around 15K-20K. It’s a good example of a serial, if you ask me. Thanks for the post, Ruth. It gives me something to think about.

    1. I heard they can work well in erotica fiction. I think they can also work well in other genres. I’ve seen zombie serials and end of the world serials. I’ve also seen romance serials, though I think these are usually one novel that is usually split up, and I don’t like that particular format, and from what I’ve heard (overall), readers aren’t that happy with it. Erotica fiction, however, is not the same as romance, and you can have greater flexibility in that genre.

      I definitely agree on the complete story. If you can do that, then readers won’t get annoyed by feeling cheated. They don’t mind paying $2.99 or more if the story is complete, but they do get annoyed if they end up paying $2.99, $2.99, and $2.99 for one story because then they’re really paying $8.97. That adds up pretty fast when you’re watching your budget.

      1. Very true. Maybe when I finally get around to writing erotica, I’l try a serial format. We’ll see.

        1. Just wanted you to know I’m at the part in your book where Snake has pretty much tossed hid dad out of his apartment. I’m curious. Do you explain more of what his dad is like and why he hates him so much? On another note, I’m pretending I’m the woman who does psychological profiles on killers. 😛 I love detective shows, so I’m enjoying that angle of the story the most. 🙂

          1. You’ll learn a bit more about him later on, and their twisted relationship. And Murtz is -one of my favorite characters as well. I hope to include her in future books with the Snake should I decide to write them.

            1. Cool! I enjoy learning what helped make a character the way they did. The fact that you’re delaying the explanation with the father is an excellent storytelling technique. You got great heart in the story, and by that, I mean you have found a way to pull the reader in while making them feel like they’re right there every step of the way. It’s hard to put the book down, but being a mom, I’m forced to. But I look forward to brushing my teeth each night because that’s when I start reading more. 🙂

              Yep, I’m pretending to be Murtz. LOL This is part of the fun of reading. I get to be one of the characters. 🙂

              1. Oh, I’m looking forward to hearing what you say next. A lot of people thought there were problems with the story at certain points, but that they liked it. I wonder what you’ll say.

  2. The only thing that bothers me about serials is, by the time you get the final one, it has probably gotten pretty expensive. I would never price one more than .99. That’s just me, though. I tend to under price rather than overprice. LOL

    1. I agree. The price can be an issue. Depending on how many books go into the complete serial, it might turn a reader off. I think it’s why there’s a backlash in romance when authors break up one novel into serials. Readers feel like they’ve been taken advantage of. I guess if I was to do one, I’d make it a miniseries with 3-5 shorts, make the first one free, then the others no more than $0.99. I can’t see charging a lot for 15-20K anyway. But then my full-length novels are $2.99 these days. I keep thinking that some people are struggling to pay the bills. This isn’t always a popular opinion. I’ve been criticized for not charging more. 🙂

      1. Nothing of mine is more than 2.99

        1. Same here. I can’t bring myself to ask $3.99 when the price of food has been going up.

          1. Thats how I feel! I want readers to be able to afford my books.

  3. As Rami puts it, I know of one erotica writer who initially released a couple of her most recent books as serials, something like divided into five parts for ebooks exclusively, before releasing the whole as a proper book in paperback.

    1. I hadn’t thought about this until this morning, but was this erotica serial in KU? If so, I can see why this would work there. People can subscribe to KU and get as many books as they want, so serials that are a broken up novel wouldn’t be a hinderance from them being able to download all the books in the serials without having to pay for each one. On the other hand, erotica readers might be used to this format and even like it, so they’d be willing to pay for them. I notice erotica goes for a higher price than other genres, so it might be the particular market that is open to buying more.

  4. M. Howalt says:

    Interesting post and observations. I’d like to add that when I think of “serials”, I think of serialised novels in much smaller chunks than the novella form you’re talking about. Probably between 1,500 and 4,000 words per episode/chapter. But then I don’t think in terms of publishing them seperately for sale (at least not until enough is out to make up a complete novella/novel). I serialise my current novel on a publishing site called JukePop (jukepop.com if anyone is curious) and find it a great way to get feedback and establish an audience before publishing it in its entirety as an ebook or paperback.

    1. Are you charging for these episodes? If you are doing this for free, I can see it being a popular way to gain exposure and pick up a good fanbase. I used to do a first draft blog where I’d post 500 words a day, and that was one of the best ways I was able to get an audience for my work. After I finished the first draft, I’d edit it then publish it. And when I published it, I would ask the price for it. It sounds like this is similar to what I did. But I’ll go to jukepop.com to see how this format works because it is interesting.

      1. M. Howalt says:

        Yes, what you did with the blog seems a lot like how JukePop can be used. I am not currently charging anything at all, but it is possible to set up donations or lock the story at a certain point and require readers to pay to keep reading. There is also a monthly Top 30 (based on votes given by readers) and occasional competitions which rewards authors with payment and the opportunity to use the site for crowdfunding for publication when a novel is done. For my purposes it’s a great platform.

        1. Okay, so it is what I was thinking. In that case, I can see how it can be used to build a platform, and this would be a good way of serializing any book in any genre.

          1. M. Howalt says:

            I definitely think it’s worth it. Please feel free to get in touch if you need any information on details. 🙂 I’m @mhowalt on Twitter and howalt here on WP. 🙂

  5. I’m undecided on this one. I think it could be fun to write, but I agree with Lauralynn–I’d never price them higher than $.99. I initially considered it because I’ve read and heard that these days, more and more people suffer from extremely short attention spans.

    1. I heard that, too, but some romance readers I’ve come across read a whole novel in one day. If I write anything under 30,000 words, they say it’s too short and they want more. So I try to make my shorts at least 30,000 words. Maybe this is a genre thing. I don’t know enough about the other genres to know if those audiences read a couple hundred books a year. One friend who writes science fiction and fantasy said that audience is picky about what they read, and they don’t read as many books. So it’s possible depending on the genre you’re in, you might consider serials because of shorter attention spans.

  6. ronfritsch says:

    Thanks for another interesting post. I was confused at first. I wrote a “series” of four novels. Some of your points apply to them. Such as: Each novel should have a proper beginning and ending and still fit into the larger story. But your “serials” and a “series” are truly two different things. I doubt that I would wish to serialize my current WIP, a 70K novel. I’d rather the reader had access to the whole damned thing for $2.99. Some readers even like to peek at the end before they’re supposed to. Cheating like that sometimes intensifies this reader’s interest in the book.

    1. I like to look at the end of the book, too. I know we’re not supposed to, but I like to get an idea of what to expect before I begin.

      I don’t have any plans to break up any of my books to make serials out of them either. I often do series, but serials hold no interest for me. I would lose interest the same main characters all the time, and after a while, I’d run out of interesting things to put them through.

  7. M T McGuire says:

    I like the idea of doing a serial. think I’d have to write the whole series first and release it in incremental steps though. Otherwise the pressure would get to me. I currently have a clean (I don’t like saying clean because it sounds a bit judgemental somehow but basically a not spicy) sci fi/fantasy romance out. Three of the four books end on cliff hangers. I think the plot arc is fine and I designed them like that. Most people like agree but a few think I’ve just broken up one huge book. It is something to bear in mind.

    Cheers

    MTM

    1. In my opinion, sci fi/fantasy type of stories are fine with cliffhangers. A straight up romance doesn’t seem to go over so well, but I think they can work well in other genres. I know you said this is a romance, but since you added elements from genres known for having series that have cliff hangers between books, it sounds like a mix that works.

      I agree. Finishing the serial first would be the best way to do this. That way you know it’s done. Plus, you can set up a publishing schedule that will (hopefully) maximize your ability to attract the most sales. I think they recommend one a month, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

      I know what people mean by clean romance. 🙂 It doesn’t bother me. I usually write the spicy romances, but they aren’t erotic. So it’s hard to define the heat level. The nice thing about people specifying clean (in my opinion) is that it makes it easier for readers to find romances with no sex if that’s what they’re looking for. And that makes my job of targeting my romances to readers who want spice since I don’t have the “clean” label on it. (Hope that makes sense.)

      1. M T McGuire says:

        Yes, it makes absolute sense. I’m pretty sure it’s me. I was a punk as a youngster and a little outrageous. Another phrase I really dislike is cosy mysteries. I appreciate what they mean but it just sounds so horribly … wholesome. Phnark. Clean isn’t as toe curling as that and it does make a lot of sense. I did have a go at writing spicy, just to see if I could do it more than anything. Unfortunately, it was completely hilarious… alas, in absolutely the wrong way.

        Mine’s a humorous science fiction fantasy adventure with romantic elements … because the main couple don’t meet until the second book.

        Cheers

        MTMM

        1. I hadn’t thought of the cosy mystery thing. I’ve heard it, but I have no interest in mysteries. Now that you mention it, I can see why it seems to be a contradiction in terms.

          It took me about two years before I was comfortable writing sex scenes. I had to find my comfort level. Now that I have, I found I can write anything from clean to explicit. It really depends on the characters and storyline. Sometimes nothing is needed, and I see no reason to add a filler scene.

          I love humor. What you write sounds like Piers Anthony. He mixes humor in with his fantasies. I’m thinking of the Xanth series. He introduced me to the world of fantasy. 🙂

          1. Okay, you two, don’t be putting down cozy mysteries. I LOVE them. LOL

            1. LOL It’s so cozy when someone gets killed. 🙂

              1. Ruth, I’m sticking my tongue out at you right now. *giggle* Seriously, the definition I’ve heard for cozy mystery is that there’s no graphic blood and gore, and the love story is clean. 🙂

                1. LOL on you sticking your tongue out.

                  Oh, so that’s what cozy means. I didn’t know that. I thought it meant it was a novella because it was short (or cozy).

                  1. I would consider something like the Diane Mott Davidson books and the Joanne Fluke books cozy mysteries. For some reason, lots of times, they involve food. LOL

                    1. I’m not familiar with these authors. 🙂 But I do find food very cozy, esp. chocolate (my weakness).

          2. M T McGuire says:

            Funny you should say that about Piers Anthony. Someone else said pretty much the same the other day. I have to look him up. To my shame, I’ve not read any of his work and it’s clear that I should!

            I wish I could write sex scenes but mine really are bad. 🙂 I’m not sure they could be improved with any amount of work either.

            Cheers

            MTM

            1. Since you love humor, I suggest the Xanth series. It was hilarious. I have a feeling he loved what he was writing. 🙂

              Not every book needs sex. Sometimes I think some are better without it. It just depends on the purpose of it being there.

              1. M T McGuire says:

                I’ll definitely check it out then. I love it when you just know that the author’s having as good a time as you are!

                1. There’s no doubt that he got a big kick out of writing it. I guess it is true when readers say they can pick up on whether or not the author liked what they were doing. It really shows in his books that he was having a blast. I think that’s why I still remember him with as much fondness as I do. (I haven’t read him in over ten years, but I remember the stories I read. I can’t say that about all authors.)

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