My Beef With Writing Serials

Some of you know that "Watchmage" is my first serial. I am used to writing the entire thing first and rewriting it several times before anyone sees it. That is my problem with serials.

What has been seen cannot be unseen. If you decide to change a character or plot point, or whatever with traditional writing, you just go and do it. With a serial, you best be sure that what you are posting is exactly how you want it, because once it's out there, it's permanent.

Has anyone else had this problem?


Well, for the most part yes. You're required to commit. Serial writing isn't exactly the same as traditional novel writing, and there's a certain risk and certain skillset involved that isn't required when you're writing something intending to finish it after the fact.

On the other hand, A Frequent Traveller's Guide to Jovan is a reboot, isn't it? I think that's the one. Sometimes it happens.

Yes, but I don't feel like it's a problem.

My basic attitude toward serial writing was formed more by running role-playing games (table top, not video games). In that situation, you as the game master or player have made your move, and there's no way to take it back. It happened. That's largely because RPG's are improvised fiction much like Jazz is improvised music. Once you've played a note, you can't take it back, and the best thing you can do is build on your mistake. In Jazz, that might mean coming back to a "wrong" note, and playing it again in your solo, possibly louder.

It's also a lot like a form of Japanese drawing. Basically you use a type of ink that dries quickly (and fragile paper) so anything you draw is automatically part of the finished project.

In short, a serial is not a novel. It is a different thing, and I come to it with that expectation rather than that of the traditional novel where you can fiddle around until it's right (or as right as you can get it based on your deadline).

That said, I also embrace a contradictory attitude where:

1. When you convert that serial into a novel, you can change anything you feel is necessary. It's a different product just like the movie version or graphic novel would be.

2. You can go back and change your serial. You can go back and change wording to make it clearer and remove grammatical (or other) errors, and you don't have to tell anybody about it. You can go back and change an important plot/character related mistake if you tell your current readers about it in a post, and provide links so that they can go and read the changed bits.

For all I've said about Jazz and drawing, a blog on the internet is still more malleable than either of those. The beauty of software is that you can change some things and future readers will never know the difference while past readers can easily be contacted, and the difference explained.

It's not something to do very often though because that's just irritating. Personally I've rewritten the ending of a story once, and it was definitely worth it. For the most part though, I accept my mistakes in the online draft, and plan to correct them for the novel/ebook.

at , after a couple years of serializing, the author is actually rewrite and reserializing it, to release on amazon, and making a few changes. Largely to properly forshadow plot points that came up later.

I am working on a novel version of "Watchmage" right now, because I look at the early chapters and want to punch myself.

I change things after they're posted, but you know... I mean it might annoy some people but I don't have that many readers to begin with and I'm not getting paid for this hehe Some of them are interested in the process, too. I figure as long as they're aware when/how things have changed it's ok. I think most people understand these are WIP's unless promised otherwise...? Maybe I'm being naive about it. Again.

I'll also admit to a one time "RetCon". In my case it was because my military advisor about blew a gasket when she finally read the chapter I had ~just~ pushed up online. So I made the change she wanted, made a note in the next update of the minor change to the story, and then moved on.

Now, if I had been further down the road, say 3 or 4 chapters later, I think I'd just have to let it run as it was because so much would have been built from that point.

Honestly though, I suck at revising. I can rewrite sentences, I can rework dialogue, but massive structural or plot changes are very hard for me to make. After NaNoWriMo I tried to re-write FantastiCon to cover five days instead of 3, add in more romance, and more stalker drama, and more more more everything. I worked for months trying to add stuff in and I just.. couldn't... do it.... Maybe that's my failing more than anything, but for me once it was written it was in there.

If you think online fiction is permanent, you're doing it wrong.

Traditional novels, once published, are permanent, "dead tree" artifacts. Even then, writers like Stephen King will rewrite books like the Gunslinger for new editions, but the old ones still exist.

The beauty of online serials is that you can post, get readers' insights into grammar, typos and plots, and then revise as needed. If a writer likes a set plot it stays, but bonus chapters showing more detail for supporting characters, details or "what if" divergences can be linked to.

You can read two different characters perspectives on the same event, in two different narratives, because of links and digital media, in ways that are different, fluid formats in comparison to the linear page structure of paper books.

In short, online can be a living, changing document. Readers get to interact with it as it changes and grows, instead of seeing a finished product. They're part of its journey.

A finished or polished draft has the advantage of regular updates and a planned ending, whereas serials will sometimes peter out, stall, or have improvised moments. But the experimentation can be fascinating.

Personally, I hate retcons. For me, serial writing is all about committing to what's already posted and running with it. I'll correct typos or clarify wording, but I don't let myself change anything. To me, that seems like cheating (or that I've seriously messed something up).

Sometimes, it forces me to be more creative to keep story going without making changes. Mostly, it stops me running on the spot, reworking the same thing over and over; it forces me to move on with the story, always looking forward.

Writing a serial is a process for me, and one I really enjoy. It's a challenge because I don't let myself go back and change things. And it's fun!

That's not to say that going back and changing stuff is wrong - it's just not how I do it. You've got to do what works for you (and your readers). If writing everything up front and spending the time to make it perfect is your thing, then do it. If you want to retcon stuff, then do it. It's your story.

I also fully intend to edit my serial pretty thoroughly before converting it into ebooks. I already know some stuff that I intend to change (because hindsight is awesome), but that doesn't detract from the original serial. Both versions will make their own internal sense. Editing and releasing in a different form is another part of the process, and that's fine too.

I had this problem so much when I was writing my serial. I think for some people a serial might be the 0 draft, but instead of keeping it hidden, they decide to share it. I personally like to see how stories evolve and progress, something that you don't get from other mediums of writing. I love being there from the beginning and seeing the story get more complex and deep. This is what happened with the Intimate History by Meilin Miranda and Above Ground by A.M. Harte. It seems they got to a certain point and just had to start from scratch. I like to see the thought process about how stories progress and I think their stories are stronger and I'm glad I got to watch the journey unfold.

I've made a few... not mistakes exactly, but things I'd rather have avoided, including characters with overly similar names and other, even worse errors. But yeah, I'm resigned to working around it for now, partly because Jukepop doesn't allow you to make changes to past chapters. Annoying at times, especially with typos, but at least it's forcing me to use my imagination.

But yeah, if I ever produce Hobson & Choi: The Director's Cut or something in eBook, there are things I will change, and that's only from the 9 chapters I've already published. Still, I'm enjoying working with the current version as it goes.

Three thoughts:

On revisions


For me, constant revision while serializing is a concern because it unsettles readers. Like Kess, I try not to ret-con because I've been part of many fandoms who hate retcons. I myself would be annoyed by a story that was constantly revising important conversations, plot points, or character relationships. (I probably would stop reading the story as it serialized and wait for the author to finish writing, if they finished writing, to read their work.)

On the other hand, I accept that I need to fix mistakes and clarify language when people say they're confused. It's bad form not to acknowledge the comments/questions/concerns of your readers. It makes them feel like their input is not being heard.

Are serials permanent?


Permanence, to me, is artificial as a construct. Technically speaking there is nothing keeping a serial writer or a digital publisher from making changes to their work. Even ebooks don't have permanence. Smashwords makes it easy to adjust ebook versions as does Amazon. (The idea that paper books are permanent is somewhat arguable. We did have multiple editions of the Hobbit that made somewhat significant changes to tie it to the main trilogy. )

Therefore, I have no problem with later revising my ebook. The first version is edited, revised slightly for consistency but more or less was pushed out quickly for fans and those who hate reading on the web but wanted to read the book. I see no problem with creating another revised edition down the line or an abridged one.

The serial writer: An underrated creature


I do think it does take a certain kind of temperament or flexibility to actively serialize. (By that I mean writing and posting in near real-time as opposed to finishing and publishing in chunks after completion.) It also takes another level of determination to keep posting and to finish.

I wish that these new startups trying to cash in on the buzz around serials appreciate that writing serials is an active approach to writing. To me, I think of serials as live storytelling. Ideally, a serial improvises a lot more, flexes according to feedback, and sometimes has to learn how to spin mistakes into new plot points.

I would prefer that serials move away from being synonymous with "carved up finished books." And I'd like to see traditional publishing get out of the way and hire manga and magazine editors to manage these departments. I think they are in a position to better understand serializing and how to work with creators to fix work based on response/sales/rankings.

Glad to see Amazon is pushing more in this direction. Hopefully the others do too.

And that ended up being more of an opinion post than a response...

Agree very much with SgL.

On the topic of SgL's thoughts re: the serial writer as something different, I very much agree. We had that ad from Big World whichever that cropped up here a bit ago, looking for feedback, and I said something in that vein. We've got companies like Big World whichever and Amazon who want to cash in on the buzz, but they're inevitably setting down restrictions for the author. Post this many times a day, post this amount.

1k words once a week works for some authors. But that's relatively few. What are you sacrificing by laying down the law like that? Who are you turning away? I write between 10k and 22k words a week; as much as 50k words on a special event week. That's me, it's how I write, and I personally prefer to let a chapter develop until it reaches a natural finishing point. I couldn't work within the constraints these guys are setting.

On the permanence - I see serials as permanent. I'm very much on the same page as SgL. I try to keep the audience in mind, and I think preserving the narrative is crucial unless the flaw is so major that it's worth fracturing your audience, the existing narrative and generating a crapton of confusion, I wouldn't go back to change something. 19 times out of 20, there's going to be some way to hash out a solution without going back. Maybe it won't be pretty, but it's bound to be better than the fallout of what occurs with a big revision.

I see serials as mostly permanent, but I'll happily go back and edit misspelled words, add missing words, remove duplicated words, etc. I will occasionally rework a sentence or two if I see something glaring. And once I changed a shed into a garage because it made more sense... but I made the retcon announcement in the comments for that one.

To me, serials are different beasts from novels and my friends who read/write serials tend to feel the same. They're sort of the 'live recording' of a finished book - more polished than a first draft, obviously, but a bit more raw and free flowing than a traditional novel.

With my current serial, I'm doing a lot of plotting ahead of time, but that's just the way I write. I like seeing a quick reaction to my work and the relative permanency of Jukepop's set-up makes the mistakes I do make sting enough to help me avoid them in the future.

For me, writing a serial is a bit more like performance art, letting me riff on ideas and get reactions much faster than would otherwise be possible.

I've made a couple of changes after the fact, but pretty much just to format and how the story was divided into parts. I wouldn't go back and make any major changes, which is part of the reason I actually decided to do a web series. I wanted to write something that I as a reader would enjoy (because doing so is when I have the most fun writing), and sometimes my tastes can verge a bit on the dramatic or soap-operay. Because of that I often second guess myself when I'm writing, I imagine what the people I know will think when they read a plot point, will they think it's silly? Somehow I can end up getting a bit embarrassed and so I take out whatever the plot point is and put in something else.

I once learned a lesson that in retrospect might not have been a very good one: if I'm having too much fun writing a particular plot, it's probably not a very good one.

But I realized I write because I love it and enjoy it and not really for other people to read (don't get me wrong, I *love* having people read and enjoy my work, but if all I had were readers who loved my writing and I didn't enjoy doing it I would stop, while I would, and do, write without readers), so really what does it matter if it's melodramatic or over the top or if someone else thinks it's silly, if I'm having a great time writing it. So I started a web series, there were a lot of reasons but part of it was permanence. Honestly there's a plot point coming up soon that in any other format I probably would have changed by now, or just not followed through on. But since it's a web series, and I'm putting it up online, I'm pretty committed to it. I actually went through in my head considering, not seriously but just for the fun of it, if I did want to change that plot thread now, with all the little hints and illusions that have been made to it at this point, what on earth I could change it too, to have it still make sense with what's been said. And I came up with nothing. I'm committed, for better or for worse, to writing the story I want to write. And that's actually something I kind of love about the format of web serials.

That being said I might go back and make a few minor changes to some earlier chapters at some point. For instance there is one line that could hint either at my main character's mother being dead or divorced. I was going for dead. However I have since written a dead sister into her back story, so a dead mother would seem rather excessive on top of that. I'd feel like Lady Bracknell from the Importance of Being Earnest when she says:

'To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.'.

To lose two close female family members would be very careless.

I never said the mother was dead, just in one line it's mentioned that some people go to church with the main character's father, which sort of begs the question what about the mother? But doesn't actually say she's dead, so I wouldn't feel it too huge if I go back and just throw in her mother into that line as well. Still considering what I want to do with her parents as a whole though so haven't done it yet.

I do have a plot outline written for the first 'book', I have diverged from it a bit but I'm very happy I have it and find it helps a lot and has saved me from making some mistakes that could have gotten be stuck.

To be honest, I see Hobson & Choi as more an ongoing series than a "carved up novel". The first case will probably take 30-40 "chapters" and then I'll probably launch into a new one, maybe something a bit shorter for a change of pace, before starting another epic. The whole thing will eventually end, of course, I feel all the best series have a conclusion, but for now I'm happy to be open-ended.

Permanent? Feh! To me, the whole raison d'etre of webserials is that the web medium can be treated as far from the printed medium as possible, and that includes a certain elasticity in how I deal with glitches or errors or even certain storyline/character changes. My material is potentially fluid -- and materialwise, I've got 15 years and 1.3 million words to play with.

Of course, I won't change things so that a new reader has an entirely different impression of a storyline from someone who's stuck with me through all fifteen years of installments ("Wait, Nora had THREE children? When did this happen?!"). But will I change things from my first season, originally written in 1997, if I realize the original take on the character doesn't mesh with what I later intended for him or her? Hell yes. Been there, done that. I've added scenes, changed one illness to make it more realistic, and changed dialogue when necessary. Readers are ALWAYS coming to my serial at any point in the narrative, and if I can improve the experience for newcomers without harming it for longtimers, I am absolutely gonna do it.

When I want things to stay as static as if inscribed on stone tablets I write a print novel. For interactivity, flexibility, thinking on my feet and nonlinear storytelling, I stick to my beloved webserial. Of course, each writer should do what s/he feels is right for the story s/he's telling. If you want to create a rule for yourself, that's entirely your prerogative and I wouldn't gainsay any author who felt different.

We've actually covered this topic in a recent EpiCast: Episode #009: Fixed vs. fluid. Co-host Michael and I have 30 years of webserial experience between us, so our conversation may be of interest (especially since he's more of the "write once, forget it" school, so there's a bit of debate there).

Ubersoft, AFTGTJ isn't a reboot. :)

There are a lot of annoying continuity/world building issues in the AFTGTJ back catalogue, but I have committed to living with them, at least until the massive continuity edit I've promised myself when book 3 is done.

I sit somewhere in the middle on the retcon thing. I generally try not to change anything for that would be confusing for people reading the story as it's posted, but I will change things to make them better if there isn't a material impact - because I want people going through and reading it new to read the best (possible) version of the story.

Apologies. AFTGTJ was one of the first serials I stumbled across and for some reason when I was reading the intro I got the impression it was a reboot.