Serial Writing, An FAQ

What’s serial fiction?

Serial fiction is any form of fiction that’s published serially, rather than all at once. Technically speaking, any long series of books is serial fiction, but here, it mostly means something that’s put out chapter-by-chapter, and usually written that way as well. This practice is seeing a resurgence in the web era, but actually dates back a long, long time: many of the classics of English literature were published serially, including most of Dickens stuff. This FAQ concerns itself with only serial web fiction, since that’s pretty much the only game in town.

Why would I write serial fiction?

There are two components here. The first is writing serially, the second is publishing online.

The primary argument for writing serially is that you can get feedback as you go, improving the work as you do and avoiding some missteps. This is also one of the big drawbacks: editing is a godly power, allowing you to unmake mistakes, and you have less of that power if you’re publishing as you go. Another plus side of serial publishing is that you can abandon things if they’re not working out, and rather than investing the time and effort into writing a 100K word novel that no one reads, you can instead write five 2K word chapters that no one reads, then go back to the drawing board without a lot of wasted effort. The initial investment is much lower. (Though note that there’s nothing stopping you from writing a full work, then releasing it serially.)

Further, you can get more interest and discussion by going serially, something that’s very clear to see if you look at discussion for television shows that are released weekly when compared to those that are released one season at a time. A weekly series will have more discussion, theories, and conversations. A full season will have less, because there’s less to talk about: the mysteries or conflicts set up at the start of the season will largely have been resolved. Writing a serial allows you to insert yourself into the rhythm of someone’s consumption of media, staying in their head for much longer than you otherwise might.

Writing online is a different question entirely. The two biggest benefits are 1) the low barrier to entry and 2) immediate response. If you wanted to, you could put your novel up online right now with only a few clicks of some buttons. There would be no querying of agents, no rejection letters from publishers, no waiting for people to get back to you, no process, just the purity of your words being available to read. If that sounds attractive, then I should issue two words of caution. The first is that “immediate response” sometimes isn’t: you can put things up online and watch them flounder, with no readers and no feedback. It’s a terrible feeling. Second, if you publish online, you’re destroying value to some future publisher. It’s extremely rare that web fiction makes it to a “real” publisher, and it also kills value for self-published e-book versions of the story. A book that could have been polished and sold to a publisher might instead turn into something that will only ever languish online, without any advertising or marketing that would allow more people to read it. Maybe you don’t care about that, but that’s something that you should be aware of.

Putting those two together mostly amplifies the benefits and the drawbacks of each. Aside from short stories or flash fiction, writing an online serial is the lowest initial investment that you can make, with a disproportionate audience for that effort. If you really wanted to, you could spend the next two hours after reading this FAQ writing a first chapter of a serial, and have people reading it not long after that. You have the ability to increase “production value” just about as much as you have the time or interest, spending more effort on editing, or getting beta readers, or moving to your own website, but the floor of investment is as much time as that first chapter takes you to write and as much technical knowledge as you need to copy and paste text into an input box.

How do I get started?

Write, then publish somewhere, and hope that people read. That’s pretty much it. If your first step isn’t writing or planning out something to write, you’re doing it wrong.

How much do I need to start publishing?

Opinions vary. Some people are proponents of having a backlog of chapters so that you’ll have a buffer to eat through in case of various life events. Personally, I’ve seen a lot of people with backlogs chew through them at a steady pace until they’re writing as they go with no backlog to speak of. I would recommend writing enough that you know what you’re doing with the story and trying not to go by the seat of your pants, but that doesn’t mean that you need a backlog. Some of this will depend on your release schedule.

What should my release schedule be?

Conventional wisdom is that you should post once or twice a week, because otherwise people will forget about you. I don’t really think that’s true, and my posting “schedule” is therefore more like once a month, with no set dates. I also happen to think that this is better for me creatively. To my way of thinking, this encourages people to automate their consumption, either joining my Discord so they can get a ping when it’s up, setting an e-mail alert, or hooking up to an RSS feed.

If you’re not going to do it my way, then best to follow conventional wisdom. Figure out how much you write in the average week, then figure out how long your chapters will be, and try to create a release schedule that will allow you some wiggle room for putting out what you can. Consistency is king.

How long should chapters be?

Opinions vary, but most opinions fall between 2K and 6K words per chapter. Shorter chapters are easier to put out, but it’s harder for substantial things to happen in a shorter chapter, and some readers feel like they’re just getting into the groove of things when it ends. Go too long, however, and you’re asking for more time commitment from the reader. The average reading speed is about 200-300 words per minute, which means that 6K words is between 20-30 minutes of reading. That’s a good length of time, because it means that the average reader can read a chapter during their lunch break.

How long should my serial be?

Longer is better, so long as you have story to tell. The most successful web serials tend to be long runners, in part because if they’re above a certain retention/attraction rate, they just continue to gather more and more readers. That translates into more fans, more money, more fame, and more of pretty much anything else you’d want. At a certain point, the length of a story might become daunting, and if you’re selling e-books, a complete series will sell better than an incomplete one, but under current market conditions, I think there’s little doubt that you should run for as long as you possibly can. Consistency might be king, but it’s a coregency with length.

How should my serial be divided up?

That’s up to you, and the kind of thing you should do market research on, but the most common format is to have chapters collected into “books” or “arcs” that cover some major sequence of events. If you plan well enough, you can have each of these be roughly 100K words, which makes for a nice e-book. If you plan less well, you’ll need to do some editing or some unwieldy sizes. Even if you’re not planning for e-books, I think this is a sensible approach, but it depends a bit on what your plot looks like, and where the major divisions are.

“Interludes” are fairly common, where a chapter will be spent from an outside perspective, usually at the start or end of an arc/book, but sometimes in the middle, when that makes sense for the pacing. People who read web serials understand it, and won’t tend to bat an eye, so long as it’s interesting.

If you must, you can divide up chapters, making it clear that it’s “part 1/2”, which is helpful if you have chapters that need to end before having actually resolved anything. This is better deployed for finales or other special circumstances though, since people don’t need to like reading only half a chapter. If you do it, make sure that releases of the parts are relatively close together.

Where should I post?

There are lots of places, and pros and cons to them. Your own website (or WordPress site) is good, as you have full control … but then you need some way to drive traffic there, which is tough. It also takes a bit of technical know-how, which might not be in your wheelhouse. If you do this, make sure that you have RSS set up, proper pagination, good contrast, a table of contents, and ideally, night mode.

Aside from doing it yourself, RoyalRoad and WattPad are the other big names in the game, each with their own demographics. The major point in favor of posting to either of those places is that you get hooked into their built-in audiences and recommendation systems, which means that your quest for eyeballs is going to start off a lot better. The biggest downside is that you have to abide by their rules, and sometimes the audience you find won’t be to your liking.

There are also smaller sites, some of which are shady, some of which are janky. Archive of Our Own has a decent readerbase, but not so much for original fiction, and they don’t allow Patreon links. FictionPress is generally terrible, but I don’t know, maybe you hate yourself. If you’d like, you can post to a forum that has a Creative Writing section, but in my opinion it’s better to do that as cross-posting, rather than having a forum be your home. Similarly, it’s possible to post directly to reddit or other social media sites, but it’s much better to link to some central site (IMO).

If you’re posting to reddit, there are a few common ways to do it, one of which is to have your own dedicated subreddit that you try to draw people to, usually through cross-posts to other places. Subreddits tend to be pretty focused, so you have to make sure there’s actually a community there: a lot of subreddits are dead. /r/HFY is one of the big ones, for stories about humanity being a superior species, but /r/WritingPrompts is the largest subreddit for original writing by far, with 15 million subscribers. The traditional pipeline for /r/WritingPrompts is to reply to a bunch of prompts as they’re rising, hope that your submission ends up near the top, then continue the story at your own subreddit, hoping that people will stay. There are a few examples of people making this work, but it’s a bit of a difficult game.

If you do want to post to multiple places, keep in mind that it’s going to create more overhead for you.

How do I make money?

You don’t. Hardly anyone does. Best to put that thought out of your head and write because you want people to read it, or because you think you have a story to tell, or because you simply love writing.

But if you do want to make money, then the three primary ways are through donations, Patreon (which is just a donation on the subscription model), or selling collected books on Amazon. Patreon and Amazon are more likely to make you money than random donations, but they’re still not very likely to make you any money. The most likely outcome of creating a Patreon is that you get a few bucks a month from friends, family, and a one-off fan. The most likely outcome of posting a book to Amazon is that you get nothing from it because you don’t exceed the threshold for profit, or because no one buys it.

But if you think you can avoid those scenarios, then you should at least come away from this FAQ knowing the business models.

For Patreon, it’s pretty common for patronage to come with benefits, and the most common money-making benefit for serial fiction is being able to read some amount of chapters ahead. As an example, this means that “free” readers get chapters 1-70, while “premium” readers can access chapters 71-75. This means that as an author, you’re writing “ahead” and not getting any wide feedback until the “free” readers get to it. It also splits the community and risks spoilers. It will make you money though.

For Amazon, usually the serial gets split up into “books” with the first one typically free as an enticement for readers (something that a lot of fantasy and scifi series do these days). Putting books up on Amazon is probably easier than you would think it is, but getting them into the right format takes some work, and you’ll want a professional-looking cover, which means time and/or money invested. It’s not something that I would recommend until you think you’re likely to recoup, but it does pay to think about it when trying to decide what your serial is going to look like.

What should my serial be about?

That’s a tough question to answer, and to some extent, requires timing the market, which is always tricky, because that’s what everyone else is trying to do. LitRPG and isekai are both popular right now, and there are a few authors that have made it to the top of the charts (and some financial success) by writing in those genres on RoyalRoad. A lot of people enjoy theorizing about what a complete sell-out novel would look like, and usually it involves popcorn action, shonen protagonists, and a huge harem.

Mostly, I would say to write what you like and think you can sustain. Going into writing webfic with the intent to make money doesn’t seem to work out for most people, and doing that while also writing something you don’t like is going to be really tough.

How do I encourage a community?

Aside from getting as many readers as you can, the two big things I would suggest are having a place for people to talk, and being an active participant. This is venturing into matters of opinion, but I think it’s best to have a One True Location for people to come, so that everyone knows where to go if they want to talk about the latest chapter, share their theories, share fanart, fanfiction, memes, or whatnot. If you go long enough and get popular enough, people will make central places to talk, but you can make that happen faster by setting up places for discussion and taking part in them. The downside to this is that you have to do (some) community management on top of writing, which can be draining and a pain. You may also have to do advertisement, but that can be as simple as posting a link to places for discussion at the end of chapters. More likely, very few people will come and talk, and you’ll never have enough that you have “a community” (I’m not trying to be discouraging, just realistic). Discord is popular right now, but it might not be by this time next year, and there are lots of options, some of which depends on what you’re comfortable with. Doing it all on your own website works, but adds overhead and technical requirements, as well as making people sign up for yet another service (depending on implementation).

One of the number one things you can do to encourage that community, other than giving it a place to grow, is to be active in it. Reply to comments, shoot the shit, tell people thanks when they say you did a good job, and overall help develop parasocial relationships into actual relationships. There are a lot of pitfalls to interacting with readers though, probably beyond the bounds of this FAQ. My short version is that you should be gracious, empathetic, humble, funny, witty, and understanding. Don’t get defensive when people criticize. Don’t respond to trolls. Don’t spoil the story. Don’t shut down conversations with Word of God about what is or isn’t true.

How much should I listen to readers?

It depends on your story, your vision, and what kind of feedback you’re getting. If your audience is small, you can’t have the confidence that the little feedback you get is actually representative, so be careful about listening to anyone then. If the audience is large, then it’s a little bit easier to judge which way the wind is blowing, and make some course corrections that are actually useful. In general terms though, I think it’s very true that audiences don’t actually know what they want, because there’s a stark divorce between idea and implementation. Further, the audience doesn’t see the full story in a serial work, they see it a bit at a time, and it’s entirely possible for you to know better than your readers. If you lack confidence in your storytelling, you risk writing a story that lurches from place to place as you get feedback, losing a lot in the process.

Learning what feedback is worth listening to and what’s not is a difficult and personal skill, one which you have to learn over time. Writing is personal, sometimes intensely so, and it can be hard to resist the urge to defend something that you created, especially when people are showing poor reading comprehension or being inconsiderate in their feedback. Generally speaking, I think it’s best to commit to a vision and then stick with it, else you risk foreshadowing that never pays off, inconsistent themes, incoherent characterization, etc., all of which can be worse sins than whatever you’re trying to correct for, but it depends a lot of execution. If it’s early on enough, you can also do rewrites.

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Serial Writing, An FAQ

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