Ten Chapters In: Thoughts on Online Serial Novel Writing

What are you going to do with your long weekend? Maybe you’d like to read the first ten short chapters of a serialized novel about a twelve-year-old girl who suspects something funny is going on in her small town of Gale Harbour, Newfoundland.  If so, you will find this novel, Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, over here.

So far, the process of serializing a novel has been 1. inspiring and 2. discouraging, in about equal measure.  I’m considering taking a break from the serial in order to reassess my decision to self-publish in serial form.  Here are some of the considerations.

1. Publishing in installments, giving myself deadlines, and knowing that someone is reading what I write as I write it: this is an approach that works very well for me.  Having struggled with long manuscripts throughout my writing life, I know that I become easily bogged down and demotivated. A slow and steady pace, out where people can see me working, is ideal. Blogging here on Classroom as Microcosm taught me this, and for some time now, I’ve been wondering if blogging a novel would have the same effect.  It has.

2. It is hard not to be a bit disappointed with the lack of response that an online novel receives in contrast to, say, a blog about education and pedagogy.  To give some perspective: when I was publishing posts weekly on Classroom as Microcosm, hits averaged at about 10,000 views a month; even now, the blog receives about 300 random views of archived posts per day, despite the fact that new posts are rare.  This is a drop in the bucket in the blogosphere, but it’s enough for me to feel that the blog is meaningful to others and not just me.  In contrast, when I publish a new chapter on Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, it receives about 30 hits that day, and a sprinkling in the days following.  The novel has 30 subscribed followers, most of whom are family and friends.  I am extremely grateful for these views and followers, and for the occasional encouraging messages I get through email, Facebook and face-to-face conversation.  At the same time, I feel that there MIGHT be other people out in the world who would enjoy this little story, and I have no idea how to get it to them.  Yes, I’ve built Classroom as Microcosm over many years and I’ve been blogging my novel for only a couple of months, but I realize now that I was expecting a bit more cross-pollination.

3. This leads to the question of promotion.  I am not comfortable with self-promotion, and I know I need to just suck it up and do it.  I share the links on StumbleUpon, Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve tried listing the novel with curators of serials, like Muse’s Success, WebFictionGuide, and Tuesday Serial. Some friends have kindly shared and retweeted links to the novel, and this has brought in some new readers, but none of these methods have been successful in increasing readership very much.  I have searched in vain for blogs that review self-published online serial fiction; they must be out there, and I’ll keep looking.  I’m even toying with the idea of starting my own, but I can only stretch myself so thin.

4. For the above reasons, I’m considering moving my online novel to a platform like Jukepop or Wattpad, forums that exist exclusively for publishing, promoting and communicating about serial online fiction.  It’s fantastic that sites like this exist, and I know a lot of writers get a huge boost from them. Here’s the catch, though: I have explored these platforms and browsed their offerings, and a lot of what is published there is…just not my thing.  I click on book covers and summaries and I have not yet felt the impulse to read more; when I’ve made the deliberate decision to read a first chapter, it’s felt like a duty rather than a pleasure, and I’m struck by how different the aesthetic is from mine.  I’m not sure my story fits in these places. On the surface, there’s no reason why not: it is, or will be, a genre novel, a YA/middle-grade adventure novel with a fantasy bent – but it’s quiet, slow and character-driven, in contrast to the most popular Jukepop and Wattpad stories, which seem to be big on plot and not so concerned about, say, the quality of the prose.  I’m SURE there are stories I’d love on these platforms, but I haven’t found them yet, which suggests that they may be…hard to find.

5. On a similar note: I should be reading lots of serialized online fiction, to get a sense of that community, but as a writer, I can’t invest my hours in reading fiction unless it’s really good, and finding the really good stuff seems to take an enormous amount of time.  I have a coffee table and a Kobo full of awesome library books; I need someone out there to put all the terrific online fiction in one place so I don’t have to waste my reading hours combing through everything ever published online.  Again: if I were a better person, this would be me. It probably won’t be me.  Has someone else done it?

6. Why don’t I just submit the novel to a traditional publisher, you ask? Don’t even get me started.  Well, do, if you’re really interested; I’ll be happy to get into it in the comments if you want.

7. One response to all this could be: why are you so concerned about who is/how many people are reading? Why not just write because writing is fun, and audience be damned? Well, that’s a good question.  The answer is: I have spent many years writing stuff and putting it in a drawer, and it is NOT satisfying, it is NOT fulfilling, and it is killing my desire to write fiction at all.  As I tell my students sometimes: the tool of writing did not arise so that people could indulge themselves in self-expression in their own little isolated caves. We learned to write so we could communicate.

8. Of course, it’s possible that the novel is just not all that good.  The positive feedback has mostly been from people who know me, and anyone who makes art knows to take “Great job!”s from loved ones with big grains of salt.  That said: my friends and family are intelligent, discerning and artistically accomplished people. I take their good opinions seriously. This novel is flawed, for sure; I would love to have a professional editor polish every chapter before it goes up.  That said, I think there’s something there. If you read some of it and you agree, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  If you read some of it and decide it’s a big pile of garbage…well, my skin may not be thick enough to take that kind of commentary right now, but I’ll let you know when it is.

Do you have advice? If you’ve self-published online, or know something about that process, or have any thoughts at all about what to do with a novel like mine in the bizarre world of publishing today, or know of terrific online fiction that is well worth the investment of my and your precious reading hours…please give us your thoughts on any of this. Even if you have read some of my novel installments and think they’re terrible (again: please don’t tell me), I’m sure there are other fiction writers struggling with these questions who would like to hear your ideas. I feel like there are terrific opportunities about to open up in the world of online fiction, but they aren’t quite there yet, and I want to know which direction we should all face so we can see them as soon as they blossom.

To read Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, go here.

 

 

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17 responses

  1. Siobhan, I have tried sites like Wattpad as well and just feel so out of place…have you looked into writing workshops? I have taken a couple through school and I find that they can be very encouraging. The classes motivate me to write and the feedback I receive is more often than not very helpful. I have considered self-publishing via blog format too, but I get discouraged easily as I’m afraid I won’t have a lot of readers and feedback…

    Great questions, here and I hope someone else has some good advice!! 🙂

    – m.

    • Manuela: writing workshops is a great suggestion. I’ve done many. I have an MA in creative writing and have twice been a resident at the Banff Wired Writing Studio; I was also part of a small writing group that met regularly for years, and I miss that a lot; I’ve considered trying to form a new one. I especially miss the seriousness of studying creative writing at school; it’s quite a shock to come out into the wider world and discover that, even when you’ve published a couple of books, no one will ever again invest as much in your writing as your professors and classmates do! Maybe it’s time for me to start seriously shopping around for a new workshop group. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. I have been reading the chapters as they come out, secretly, deliciously. I think about them when I should be doing other things: the characters, the story, the setting, the mix of francophone and anglophone that is so much a part of my life, the essays used in one chapter to give us a taste of first person perspective, and what a great way to help us understand the teacher through her reactions to those assignments! I love the Newfoundland twang in Lake’s voice. I like the misery of starting someplace new, whether it is middle school or a new town, new culture, new friends. I was afraid to comment because I feel like writing something like this is a delicate thing and I would not wish to risk breaking it. Please keep the chapters coming.

  3. Sometimes I think all of these online platforms make publishing harder, as there is such a bounty of content (good and bad), and people who have a knack for writing aren’t always great at tooting their own horns. I have not published beyond freelance magazine pieces. I (for reasons both selfish and unselfish) wish I had some experiences to share. I writing buddy that I know in real life published a book about a year ago. She just did her taxes, and by the time she paid for gas to different promotion venues etc, she broke even. She said if she had to do it over again, she would have self-published. She didn’t feel the publisher did anything to promote the book, but yet they get a cut. The writing is good stuff. Keep hustling.

    • Ginjuh: I totally get what you’re saying. The problem with self-publishing is the “hustling” part, and the problem with traditional publishing is that publishers seem to be taking on less and less of the hustling. Lose-lose! I have fantasies of compromise deals I could strike (publish the novel online in installments, then close the blog once a publisher launches it in print, and repeat in the case of a series…) The future of publishing is so murky that it’s hard to know. I appreciate you reading! I keep telling myself that it’s worth putting it out there even if only a handful of people are reading and enjoying.

  4. I’m probably of the wrong generation to be expressing thoughts about online serial novels. However, so be it, I have a problem with getting ‘attached’ to online novels. I’m new to the concept, and like much of the online stuff, I remain skeptical for an extended period; there’s very little that I can immediately appreciate as a replacement , or even complementary, application to my ‘proven’ methodology of applied reading. I’ve viewed online text applications for a long time as being used more for information and ‘work’ purposes than for good, creative, enjoyable and relaxing, reading. I accepted, and now enjoy, the Kindle but I don’t make the connection between my Kindle and online reading (and I don’t appreciate the newest versions of Kindle with the extra gadgets and shortened battery life). And I also find that most of the titles I download to Kindle are because I’ve seen and been attracted to the hardcover versions either through perusing at the bookstore or Amazon or other advertising. Perhaps the newest tablets and such will convince me at some future time when most of the world has accepted them for basic reading, but not for a while yet. All to say from an old fogy that you may be well ahead of your time in advancing the concept, the price for which you have to pay is to accept fewer people applauding your efforts.

    • Doug: in some ways, I’m totally with you on this. I don’t like reading books on a computer screen (I abandoned reading on my iPad for this reason), although I’ve grown more comfortable with eBook screens over time. Short posts like a chapter, though – something I can gobble up in a few minutes – are fine for me. My understanding is that many young people are in the habit of reading from screen; my students often ask me if they really have to buy print copies of the books we read in class, because they’d rather read them on their computers or phones. On their phones! And the burgeoning world of fanfiction and sites like Wattpad suggests that serial online reading is very much alive and growing stronger…

      • …and this might all be an argument for moving the novel to a place like Wattpad, where serializing online is the name of the game, and everyone is there exactly because that’s how they want to read…!

  5. Three possible strategies come to mind.

    1. Write some short stories or flash fiction, especially involving the characters and/or world from your novel. A novel involves a significant commitment of time and energy – as a writer, certainly, but also as a reader. Reading requires more effort than listening to music or watching a TV show. When you’ve got a new potential-reader, someone who isn’t already into your stories and characters, you’re asking for a major investment from them. If you have something they can cut their teeth on, something short and complete, they’re more likely to go “hey, I can manage that.”

    2. Write about the process. Your readers will be more invested in your stories if they feel like they know you. Adding an author’s note or journal entry at the end of each chapter – or as a sideblog – can build this type of rapport. You could talk about the struggles in this particular scene (it’s so encouraging to read about SOMEONE ELSE having trouble!) or realizations you’ve had about characters or plot developments, or make connections to other works you thought of as you were writing. This rewards readers for going through the process with you.

    3. Finish the story. Tying in to the first point, there are a LOT of abandoned half-novels floating around in cyberspace. If this is your first online serial, new readers may be reluctant to get involved in a story that might stop in the middle with no warning.

    Good luck!

    • Clix: these are good suggestions; thank you! Your second point makes me wonder if a link at the end of each post, back to Classroom as Microcosm, where I could blog about the process, might be a good strategy…

      • I think that could be helpful! I’d make the links go both ways, though; I think your process posts here could have links back to the story. I’d put three – one to the first chapter, one to the most recent chapter, and one directly to the chapter you were talking about in the post..

  6. Finding readers for your novel can be hard work, however you chose to publish it – even if it’s free! You really need readers who are not too busy with their own novels/blog/Facebook/Twitter….. and so on. You want people who can sit back and enjoy reading your novel. But finding those people must be very hard, so many people today do so much on the internet they’ve barely got time to read anything than very short posts, so keeping chapters very short is a good idea.

    To get a big response on Wattpad you have to work pretty hard (reading and commenting on other writers work) and you won’t necessarily get a reply to your comment or a reading response back from the writer you commented on, but you will get noticed by others also commenting on the same piece. I’ve been on Wattpad for two years, mainly posting poetry (poetry is very popular). I haven’t put a great deal of effort into it as I have on my blog, because I don’t have the time and energy to spend on both and three thousand other things on the internet – and real life too!! It gets a bit mad after a while trying to do it all! 😀

    I have recently begun to post a chapters of a novella on Wattpad, I’ve had one of my poetry followers make some comments and votes and one other person who followed them across. It’s only been on there just over a week, so maybe it’s not so bad considering I’m not on there much. I have had one very good success on there and that was a Doctor Who poem, it’s all written in humour and I’m sure I just got lucky with that one. There are a terrific amount of teen romance novels, (Wattpad has a big teen readership) and also lots of crime and fantasy, so if you’re into general fiction like I am, it might be a struggle to get readers. I think the writers who have success on there practically eat, breathe and sleep on Wattpad – they’re rarely away from it. But, having said that, I still think it’s worth a try – you never know!

    One good thing about Wattpad is there is no way to copy and paste content from the posts, (they don’t allow it) so your story is less likely to get stolen by some foolish person who wants to post it elsewhere and pretend it’s theirs. I have met bloggers who have done that – unbelievable that anybody would, but they do!

    I’ve never self published any of my writing as a book – yet, but I know some people who have, and they all struggle to sell much at all. I have read recently that even if you have a book published by a main publishers you are still left to do most of the promotion of your own book. When you realise that, it hardly seems worth going to the trouble of finding a publisher. Getting published by a publishers doesn’t mean you would sell more, and they would pay you less than you would earn from your own self published work, but you still have to put in the same effort. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and might be why a lot of smaller publishers have been going out of business recently – so I’ve heard.

    I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, you just have to try different ideas, and see what works best. I hope you do find something that works for you. 🙂

    • Suzy: thank you so much for this long and thoughtful comment! It’s very interesting to get a response with someone who has experience with Wattpad. I’ve been considering Jukepop quite seriously – I’m not sure what the differences are from Wattpad, but the interface pleases me more. I will give everything you’ve said here some serious thought. I appreciate you taking the time!

  7. I love this post — it speaks to many of the same struggles I’ve experienced myself. Like you said in an earlier comment, the future of publishing is so murky, it’s hard to know where to go.

    I started my blog as a fiction serial — a dialogue-driven comedy in the vein of Neil Simon — and got no views for more than a year. It was only when I morphed the blog into a general humor site that I started getting reads. So the fiction itself was a hard sell, and didn’t attract readers. I think many new visitors are reluctant to start the story when it’s already well in progress.

    I love the idea of writing serialized fiction, because I also lose motivation when trying to write novels in one fell swoop. I have several half-finished manuscripts that I abandoned because I simply lost interest in them. With a serial, I can set an attainable goal of 1,000 words per post, and reaching a smaller goal incentivizes me to keep writing.

    The online fiction market is underserved, and I hope some more platforms emerge. My main issue with Wattpad is that you have to endlessly network to get noticed, which can be time-consuming. I intend to check out Jukepop in the near future.

    I think the literary landscape is changing online … it just seems to be a slow process, unfortunately.

  8. Fascinating Article. I found this because I am i the process of serializing my story: PONTIFUS and was curious as to who else was out there doing it. I read a very compelling argument for NOT blog serializing before finding this but it seems to me that a lot of great Nineteenth Century literature began as installments in penny papers. Charles Dickens is one name most of us would recognize as having worked in that medium.

    My self-imposed discipline is a bit different in that I make sure the story is essentially written before publishing installment one and I then flesh out a different structure in case it goes to a formally published work (more detail and character development, added dialogue and scene-setting).

    In any case, I believe in the power of small beginnings. My manuscript was not likely to have gone anywhere if it didn’t find its way into a blog, so there is happiness in having a small readership that actually get to enjoy it.

  9. Hi there,

    I came across this post and I think I’m beginning to realise that my blog is a serial. I agree with some of the posts that you have raised. My only suggestion is perhaps to try and use social media. I use it try and link back to my posts; I like to use quotes from my actual diary entry and hopefully they read it.

    But I think the thing that gets me through it is that ALL my life I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I always think about my dream first, and then if I get any followings from my blog, then that’s just a bonus. I try hard not to let the lack of readers demotivate me, because it’s really me who should be motivating me.

    Ultimately I will use my posts to create a book at some stage, and break down the 3rd wall. I’m not sure if I would ever self publish, but I think that an e-book would probably be the best way to go initially.

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