It’s almost that time again: time to delve into the Writers’ Asylum, my day of writing challenges. It’s less than a week away now!
(All right, if I’m honest, it’s late this year, falling in May instead of April. This was due to some factors outside of my control and another event that cropped up; more on thay event later. But anyway!)
The pencils are sharpened, the straightjackets have been washed and pressed, and I’ve got the keys to all the doors. I think I’m just about ready!
Okay, I’m kidding. I haven’t really sharpened any pencils. Who gives asylum inmates sharp things to play with? Seriously.
This year, I’m trying something different. Following feedback last year that it might be fun to try linked challenges rather than standalone ones, I have created a series of challenges that builds upon a single, central story. It was both difficult and fun to write.
That’s part of why I love doing the Asylum: I get to write the challenges. It’s my challenge to myself, because they have to hit a particularly difficult line in specificity.
I read them out to a group of people (anything from 10 to 40 people, if previous years are anything to go by) and some people pick them up from this blog, which means that these challenges need to speak to a broad range of writers. They have to allow people to go into a world that they can connect and work with. This means that they can’t lean too heavily in a particular direction; they need to account for different time periods, magic and technology levels, genres, feels, and preferences.
At the same time, the challenges need to be focussed enough to guide the writers towards something that they can write, right there, on the spot. 1,000 words in an hour. So it has to be packed with sparks that can cross all those boundaries above. The challenge has to push them, and also be about something specific.
Broad, but directed. Allowing for different approaches and options, and yet on the same overall topic.
It’s not an easy target to hit. I’m not entirely sure how successful I am, most of the time, but I think I get there. This time, because the challenges are all linked, it’s harder because I can’t make any assumptions about what the previous challenge has set up.
It’s also immensely fun. It makes up for the fact that I’m so busy running the day, I don’t wind up doing the challenges myself.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t give me ideas. They do! Perhaps one day I’ll get around to writing them. Right now, I’m just happy that this year’s Asylum is all set up and ready to go. The challenges are written and scheduled up on this blog, ready to post in tandem with the live event.
What is this linked story going to be about, you ask? I’m not telling except that it has a name: Colonising Minds. Take from that what you will. True answers will emerge on Saturday, 2nd May. Join us!
I’m ready. Are you?
This week, I posted the final update for Book 4 of Starwalker.
It was a liberating experience. More than any other book of the story, this one feels like it has had the longest journey. It has taken the longest to write (over a year and a half, from August 2013 to April 2015) and had an unfortunate detour in the middle, so that feeling is probably right.
It’s nice to finally get to the conclusion, to reach that point I’ve been striving towards for so long. I can sit back and smile, because I finished another novel-length story, and I like how it came out in the end.
The end of Book 4 was also destined to be the end of Starwalker. I’m not sure how public I made that over the time I’ve been writing the web serial, but that was always the plan.
Similarly, The Apocalypse Blog was only ever supposed to run for a year. With that serial, I got to the end and I was done. For Starwalker, when I started it, I had three novels planned out, and an idea for a fourth. By the time I reached the end of the third book, I knew what the fourth one should be. That was the bonus extra story. That was supposed to be it.
This is the point when I’m supposed to be closing up the web serial and moving on to other projects. I have a whole list of things that I’m working on quietly in the background, most of which I don’t want to stay in the background. I have a list of things I have yet to get to. Characters that I haven’t drawn fully yet and want to meet. Worlds I have sketched in my head but haven’t walked in. Stories and plots that bubble away in the back of my brain and try to push to the surface.
And yet… and yet.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself less and less planning to say goodbye to Starry and her crew. I’ve found myself planning for a break instead (because after 5 years, I need a real break!). I’ve found myself pondering just where the story will go next, the paths that the ship will fly, and some of the things she’ll trip over on the way.
I probably shouldn’t have written in a freaky kitten and left it on the ship. Because who doesn’t want to find out what happens when you squeeze a black hole into a tiny, fuzzy cute thing?
Over these past few weeks, I have been second-guessing myself a lot. There has been a voice telling me that I should stick to the original plan and turn my focus to something else. Like those things that have been piling up, waiting for me to have time and energy.
Because why do I really want this story to continue? Is it sentimentality? I adore the characters in that story and I love poking them with sticks, but is that all I’ve got now? Is it that I don’t want to disappoint my readers by drawing the curtain closed and refusing to open it again, no matter how big their eyes get?
Or is it that I still have stories to tell here? Is there more in Starry’s journey that I want to explore?
This, really, is the crux of it. You see, I firmly believe that a story shouldn’t be drawn out past its natural end. I believe that if I don’t have a story to tell, I shouldn’t be writing it. I don’t want to write it because of pressure, or obligation, or to make a buck (my story is free; I’m referring to the books in a series that have clearly been written because someone wanted to sell more of the series, not because the writer had more to do there. You know the ones I mean.).
I don’t want to write the heart out of it. I don’t want the story to meander aimlessly, or for it to lose that spark that people connect with and love. I would rather end it with people wanting more, on a high note, than drive it into the ground and have it peter out before a dwindling and disinterested audience.
I want to be passionate about the story, and I want to be sure. That’s why this has taken me so long to figure this out. The short answer is: I am. I have more I want to explore here, and there are stories yet to tell.
[Warning: I’m going to get a bit spoilery here.]
When I think back over the four books of Starwalker, Starry’s journey has been a rollercoaster, but is it complete? In the first book, she figures out who and what she is; not an easy task, given her nature. The second book is about understanding where she stands in the bigger scheme of things and deciding to fight for her freedom. The third book is about setting things right and breaking free of the circles – and company – that made her.
The fourth book is less about Starry herself and more about how she and her crew might define themselves now. It’s something of a pause in Starry’s story, the place they stop to try to put themselves back together again after the battles of Book 3. They’re not entirely successful, leaving the story almost as physically damaged as they started it. It’s really more about Cerces and who he is, when it comes down to it.
After four books, there are many questions left unanswered. Questions like: now that Starry is free of her company bonds, what will she do? What will her crew choose to do? Will they stay outlaws or try to build a life for themselves? The presence of Cerces opens up some options for them, most of which involve leaving human-settled space behind them. Will they honour their promise to him?
Cerces himself has a lot of adjustment and growth ahead of him, and his journey will be pretty important to the ship and her people. Plus there are some other dangling threads to be cleaned up, like the issue of the pirates and the evacuation of Earth.
You may start to see how, when I think about where the story of Starwalker will go and how much I want to write, I am starting to suspect that there are another two books in it.
Right now, it’s just a suspicion. What I am sure about is that there will be a Book 5, because I want to write it.
I have some work to do before I start, though. My approach to planning is loose at best, but I do like to do at least some. Book 4 suffered from a lack of it, I think, and wound up with a retcon to get it back on track. I don’t want to do that again. I need to get my head straight, have a clear idea about where this story is going, because it has a habit of blasting ahead regardless. (I blame Starry.)
To get the necessary pondering and planning done, I’m going to take some time out. I’m going to line up the next set of storylines so that Book 5 starts fresh and fast, with energy and purpose.
First, though, I’m going to take a break. I’m going to do my best not to think about Starwalker too much for the next few weeks, and focus on some other projects that are clamouring for some attention. I’ve got a few irons currently in the fire, and I’ll be posting about them very soon. I’ve got ebooks to re-release. Promotion to do. I might look at editing Starwalker Books 1-4 and publishing options.
I’m definitely not going to be idle!
I’m not going to rush things, which means that it’s going to take some time to get through my backlog and set up the next phase of the web serial. Like I said over on the announcement post on the Starwalker site: the story will be back in more than a month but less than a year. Right now, I’m not putting anything more accurate on it; let’s just see how things go.
The best thing is that I’m feeling really good about where my writing is right now. I’m so happy with how the end of Starwalker Book 4 came together, and I’m confident and optimistic about where it’s going in the future. I’m enjoying the release from the weekly deadline (though I’m still writing like crazy when I can), and I’m enthusiastic about the other stuff currently lining up to be written. Plus I’ve got some fun events coming up, a bustling social calendar with my writer friends, and I might get the chance to beat the publishing beast with a stick again.
So yes, the end of Starwalker Book 4 feels like the end of an era, but it’s also the start of something good. I hope to come back to writing the serial with this feeling (and who knows, maybe even a buffer!).
Like I said over on the serial site, thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read Starwalker. I write for you: it makes me happy, and I am incredibly grateful to have you as a reader. I hope you’ll join me when the story returns, and maybe enjoy some of the other stuff I’ll be working on in the meantime.
Onwards, dear friends! May the words dance to your bidding.
Changes abound in my end of the world, changes that I have been planning for some time.
To tell the truth, it’s a relief to get started. Last year was something of a marsh for me: every step sucked and progress was slow, heavy work. I had a to-do list that only grew, and pretty much fought just to break even.
This year, it’s a different story. I didn’t set out to find a way out of the marsh, though I definitely wanted it. I threw myself into the yoke the same way I always do at the start of a new year, laying out the paths I want to tread and pushing to see how many of them I make it to. On I plod, one foot in front of the other.
It’s the things that come out of left field that are making the difference right now. It’s the publishing platform that asked for my input and help, which I’m using to get a new project out through, and which in turn has made me give that project a focus it hasn’t ever had before.* It’s the bad idea that turned into a pile of silly fun, and which is now turning into an experiment and an exploration.* It’s frustration and determination that is finally tipping me over the end of a problem and into the long slog of solving that problem.
Maybe it’s the looming end of Starwalker, too, the toil of five years of my life now. After struggling through the climax of Book 4, it is hurrying towards the end at a startling pace. Sometime soon, it’ll be done, and I will have to find something else to push me to write every week.
Change is coming whether I like it or not. But I do like it.
After all, I do have a to-do list as long as my arm. I have projects clamouring for attention, things I am itching to write, that I am excited to write. I won’t be short of things to do for some time to come.
But that change is for the future. I have a few more Starwalker posts yet to write.
A change I can make now is to move my web hosting, from its current home to a new, better one. I have been with the same web host for several years, but the cost and reliability aren’t suitable any more. It’s not cheap hosting and it has too much downtime for my liking.
I have been pondering a change for a while, done some research and found a good alternative. But it’s a big job. I have several websites that I maintain, including this writing blog, the Apocalypse Blog site, and Starwalker. There’s all that data to transfer, plus email addresses and DNS updates, new websites to set up, imports to do, making sure everything is running properly on the new server.
I’m taking it one step at a time. One site at a time. Over the last couple of days, I made a start and it was with this blog. The site has been copied and set up. All the data is there, from posts to pictures to comments. Right now, you’re reading it in its new home.
Of course, this blog has previously been a sub-domain of the main Apocalypse Blog site (writer.apocalypseblog.com). To move it on its own, and to get the new server set up, I had to use a different domain. So I finally activated a domain I registered ages ago but never used: my own name, melanieedmonds.com.
So update your bookmarks! I have forwarded the old address to the new one, so existing links and bookmarks will work. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll gradually move all my other stuff over too. If a site goes own for a little while, it’s probably in flux.
Things are changing. Slowly, patiently. It feels good. I hope you all come along for the ride.
* There’ll be more about those in the near future. Wheels are turning!
All right, so you know how to pace your story and how to pace your production of each post. The last things to think about when it comes to pacing are the frequency of your posts (or updates or chapters; whatever you want to call them), and how big each one is.
Your posting frequency is going to depend a lot on how you write it. Some writers prefer to write it all up front and schedule it out; others prefer to work with a nice, fat buffer; others work much closer to the raggedy edge, writing and posting and writing and posting (yes, this last one is me!). You need to work out what works for you and fits with your comfort levels.
Your posting frequency may or may not be dictated by the pace of your writing schedule. Most writers have a direct correlation between the two (and I’m pretty much nailed to it), so it’s a good place to start.
While I am currently running on the edge with my schedule, I will note that it sometimes hurts me (and my posting schedule). If I have a bad week, get sick, or am simply too busy and stressed to do anything good with my writing, it impacts the story immediately. I usually start a serial with a buffer and that’s good, but it never lasts for me. Being ahead just isn’t something I can maintain.
Everyone is different. The looming deadline is part of what works for me but I know plenty of writers who are terrified by that kind of pressure. There is no right answer; just what’s right for you.
When it comes to frequency, the most important thing by far is reliability. Readers like to know when they can log on and read the latest entry. Irregular postings make it more difficult for readers to follow your story, and the harder it is, the more who will simply forget or decide not to bother any more. Therefore, it’s important to find a sustainable cadence for yourself.
The second thing to note is that there is no minimum or maximum posting frequency. You can post daily, weekly, monthly, or even every few months. You should do what’s good for you and your sustainability. In many ways, if you build it, they will come.
When you have a reliable schedule, it’s a good idea to make it easy to remember. As a rule of thumb, weekly is good because every Friday is much easier to remember than every other Friday. The first day of every month is also easy to remember than, say, the last Friday of the month. These are not ‘preferred’ dates; they’re just examples. The human brain is better at remembering patterns, so use it!
It’s worth thinking about your post length in conjunction with your posting schedule. This is a topic that comes up pretty frequently on the Web Fiction Guide forums, and I get asked about it in person as well.
The guidelines for post length are the same as for chapters in a novel: they should be the length that fits the needs of the story, the genre, the pace, and the audience. There is no maximum or minimum length. There are serials that post 500 words at a time, and others that post 10,000-word chunks.
There is the question of reader fatigue to consider, but this can be as much a matter of presentation as it is length. Reader fatigue can be caused by many things (too many to go into here), and post length is only one of these things. The right site design and presentation can go a long way to help! I was honestly surprised at readers’ willingness to read long posts on a screen; this wasn’t as much of a concern as I had assumed when I started out.
It’s worth considering your post length in conjunction with your posting schedule, though. Asking readers to chew through 5,000 words twice a day is going to mean that those without the time to keep up fall behind. Would you consider 500 words once a month enough? You’ll find readers who love this, while making it easier for others to move on to other stories.
Personally, I aim for my posts to be around 2,000 words each. I post Starwalker weekly, and that’s a reasonable chunk for me to write and readers to get through. I know that if I’m getting over 3,000 words, the scene is too long and I’m trying to do too much.
Occasionally, it’s perfectly natural to have a very long post and I have to split it, but that’s pretty rare. Splitting it helps prevent long action sequences from being too fatiguing to the reader (to split it, I have to write in breaks to top and tail the posts), and also I don’t wind up killing myself to get 8,000 words done in a single week.
Aiming for roughly 2,000 words works for me. I try not to vary it too widely, because my readers are used to getting a certain amount of story in each update. Longer than usual doesn’t bother them (they’ll gobble it up!), but too short can raise eyebrows. Sometimes it works for the story and I can use that impact to my advantage, but that’s very rare (maybe twice in four books?). It’s worth being aware of your readers’ expectations – and remember, you’re the one who sets that up!
So there you go: my whirlwind guide to pacing a web serial. There are a lot of factors and some of them will change over time, and that’s fine. If you’re not sure what will work for you, experiment!
Most of all: don’t forget to have fun. Good luck!
Remakes seem very in fashion in recent years, and Dredd is but one of many. As is usual for me, I only tend to write reviews when I feel I have something particular to say about a piece of fiction (whether it is on screen or page).
I was late to the Dredd train, sadly missing it on the big screen and only picking it up when I saw it randomly on sale in the store. Once I got it home, I thought I’d amuse myself by watching the previous incarnation of the character on screen – Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone as the titular character – followed by the newer movie. It turned out to be an interesting contrast; they are very different movies.
(Note: I don’t read the 2000 AD comics that the character of Dredd is originally from, so won’t compare to the original source much. I’ll stick to what I know of the comics – the broad strokes – and leave the details to those who know more about that side of things than me.)
Honestly, the two movies are so different that it is hard to compare them. I enjoyed them both a lot, but for very different reasons. Could I pick a favourite? Probably not!
When I think about comparing these two movies, I have to say that it’s easier to say what was the same than what was different. The main character – the inimical and intimidating Judge Dredd – is there, his uniform and equipment are similar, it’s set in a city of the same name, and there’s an important relationship with a female Judge in it. Beyond those things, however, they are almost completely different.
Let’s start with the big picture. They are both action flicks, but where Judge Dredd injects humour to lighten the load, Dredd is quite prepared to makes friends with the bloody dark and take you down into it. The 1995 movie is much more what I tend to refer to as an action romp, the kind you go into knowing you’re going to be entertained and probably grinning half the time. The 2012 movie, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything as light as entertainment: it’s gritty, violent, and doesn’t shy away from the downright nastiness and ruthlessness of the world the Dredd is trying to police.
Personally, I don’t see either of these things as more or less than the other: the movies have very different tones and seem to have set out to be very different beasts.
The plot of the movies couldn’t be more different, too. The scope is vastly different (and here I’m going to get very spoilery – you have been warned).
In Judge Dredd, the plot is so broad that it threatens the stability and order of the entire city/metropolis/megapolis (it’s the size of a small country), with world-shaping ramifications. There are secrets and twists in the plot, peeling back layers of conspiracy to reveal villains in places they’re not supposed to be. It also delves deeply into the main character’s background, raising (and answering) fundamental questions about who Dredd is and where he came from.
Dredd himself goes on a sweeping character arc, as he has to deal with being stripped of his Judge-ship (yes, that is a word, shh) and exiled from the city he dedicated his life to protecting and serving. He also has to deal with the ramifications of the revelations about his origin, a close personal betrayal, and the unbending of the stick up his ass. Long story short: he’s a changed character by the end of the movie.
Dredd, on the other hand, has a much narrower focus. We’re shown the situation in Mega-City through the lens of a single residential building. Granted, it’s a huge building, but almost the entire movie occurs within its walls. The villain is known from the start, there aren’t any real surprises as far as motives go (only a pretty minor betrayal, shown as an instance of corruption), and the plot is much more of a straight line compared to Judge Dredd‘s squiggling journey.
Dredd is a concentrated look at what daily life is like for these Judges, and shows just how dangerous and almost futile their position is. It doesn’t have anything like the breadth of vision of the earlier movie, and it doesn’t seem to need it.
With such a focussed plot, Karl Urban’s character journey can’t go anywhere near the heights and troughs that Stalone’s Dredd did. Instead, it’s quite the opposite: Urban’s Dredd is pretty much the same man walking out of the movie as he was going in. You don’t learn much about him or his background; you learn about what a badass he is and he has a shift of opinion about the rookie he’s mentoring through the war zone they’re trapped in, but that’s about it.
Normally, this would bother me (the lack of character arc is a big problem for me in Kill Bill). In this case, though, it doesn’t. It fits the movie, and it fits the kind of character that Dredd is. Anderson, Dredd’s rookie companion, goes through a metamorphosis and she has a distinct character arc, so the movie isn’t devoid of growth. It’s through the lens of her that we see into Dredd and it’s because of her that he shows some loosening of his grimness at the end.
For me, Dredd felt like the pilot to a new TV series. And let me tell you, I’d watch the shit out of that show. The movie was a slice of life, a glimpse into a huge world with a lot of scope and story just waiting for someone to film and give us. Don’t get me wrong: it was a complete story in itself, but I was definitely left with an enthusiasm for more.
Judge Dredd was definitely a movie in scope and story. The story packed in there was enough for a TV show to spend a season or two unpeeling for us. It didn’t leave a lot of room for more to follow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just different.
Earlier, I mentioned that both movies involve a relationship with a female Judge. Even this manages to be a difference between the movies.
In Judge Dredd, that relationship winds up becoming romantic (at the very, very end). The woman in question, Hershey, is a fully-qualified and battle-proven Judge, very much on a par with Dredd. It works because of the journey that Dredd has gone through by that point, both in himself and with Hershey.
In Dredd, the female Judge is the rookie he’s escorting for her first day on the streets (Anderson). The dynamic between them is quite different to that between other-Dredd and Hershey: here, he’s in the role of mentor, superior to Anderson, and she is established early on as a sub-par Judge recruit, promoted to the streets on the merits of the psychic abilities she has. Through the movie, Dredd moves from dark pessimism about her ability to survive the day to grudging respect, but at no point does it sniff anywhere near romance (or lust).
I found the lack of romance a relief. The default behaviour of movies to demand a romantic plot is tiresome, particularly action movies where the hero has to get the girl as if he needs that to be truly manly. Sometimes it fits the feel and plot of the movie, sometimes it’s a natural outcome for the characters, and that’s all good. But too often, it is shoehorned in as an afterthought. It wouldn’t have fit in Dredd for many reasons, and they didn’t force it. I applaud this decision. (I had the same reaction to the end of Pacific Rim for the same reason.)
I suppose you can’t talk about Judge Dredd and not mention the helmet. I remember when the 1995 movie came out, and the outcry from comic fans because Stalone removes the iconic helmet (and he’s without it for a lengthy swathe of the story). Apparently, this Does Not Happen Ever in the comics. I’m sure the fans were greatly relieved that Urban didn’t remove the helmet once, not even a glimpse of the man beneath the mantle of Judge beyond his constantly down-turned mouth.
It’s a big metaphor about the character of Dredd and what the movies did with him, but I’ve already talked about the respective character arcs, so I won’t hammer it again. You get the idea.
I guess I should talk about the cinematography of the movies, too. I’m no film technician or expert, so this will be brief, but even my amateur eyes noticed a few things worth mentioning.
In Judge Dredd, the breadth of the story is such that the visuals and aesthetic have a wide range, from scifi city and hover-bikes, to desert and dust, to rusted chains and a hovel in a cave. It’s pretty standard 90s scifi fare.
In Dredd, the focus is much narrower but that doesn’t make the visuals any less stunning. In fact, the aesthetic of the movie seems more crafted for the world it’s depicting and does a lot more work than the visuals in the 1995 movie.
It feels like they worked even harder to make the most of what was a fairly limited canvas, and you definitely get the gritty, grubby, hard atmosphere that is life in Mega-City. In comparison, the slow motion glimpses of the Slo-Mo drugged state are oddly terrifying and beautiful, diamonds against a dirty backdrop. Which is, of course, why that drug is so popular.
I find it curious that the same source material has produced such different movies. I haven’t even got to mention the comedic element that Rob Schneider brought to Judge Dredd, or the darkness of Lena Headey (of Game of Thrones fame) as Ma Ma in Dredd.
Even after all this consideration, I can’t pick a favourite from the two; it comes down to what mood I’m in. I still hope that they make a sequel to Dredd, though. I think there’s more (darkness and) fun to be had there.
We’ve talked about how to pace your serial story; now let’s talk about you, the writer.
Serials are long-running commitments and reliability is important, so it’s a good idea to figure out how to pace yourself. You don’t want to burn yourself out and wind up never finishing the story (your readers don’t want this, either!). You might not want to sign up for a ten-year project, either.
The pace with which you produce each post, chapter, or entry in your serial is going to depend on a lot of factors, all of them incredibly personal. Our lives are full of many demands, commitments, distractions, and desires. Where your serial writing fits into that is up to you.
When it comes to figuring out a good pace for producing your serial, one of the important things is to allow for more than just writing. The actual writing part might be the biggest chunk of work, but it’s not all you need to do! Here are just some of the things you might need to build into the time you allow for producing your serial posts:
- Planning. Plotting, scheming, staring into space. You might be pondering the next big plot arc, turning over ideas for the next post, or restructuring an entire section of your plan.
- Research. You might have everything figured out up-front, but you also might stumble across something new on the path through your serial that you need to work out. Fact-checking, research, even worldbuilding might be something you want to allow for.
- Writing. Well, duh.
- Redrafting. As much as we’d all like to produce gold in the first draft, there isn’t a writer in the world who doesn’t need to redraft their work before it’s suitable for public consumption. Personally, I do at least three read-throughs of each post, the first one or two of which is for redrafting. It could be restructuring the post, filling out parts, removing unnecessary waffle, or reworking a section.
- Editing. Also very important if you want to produce a quality product. Once I’m happy with the big picture and flow of a post, I’ll do an editing pass, checking sentence structure and things that just sound weird. It’s also a chance to make sure that the redrafted pieces make sense in context. A last pass over the post is for proofing, for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
- Formatting. I do all of the above off-line, and thanks to the complex format of my current serial, when I come to upload it into the website, there’s a chunk of formatting I have to do (the things I do to myself!). This is going to vary widely between serials, but do include time to check the output on the website and correct any weird display glitches (depending on your platform, this might be easy or hard).
- Responding to reader comments. This is something that I take great pleasure in! It is, however, another chunk of time that you should allow for.
Be prepared to deal with spam comments, too. I spend more time filtering out and removing spam comments than I do responding to readers! There are tools that can help with this, depending on the platform you’re using for your serial.
- Marketing. You’ve got to get the word out somehow, right? I usually spend a bit of time at the beginning of the serial to do this, because I like having readers, and then I tend to slack off. I’m terrible at self-marketing.
If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is! (It’s totally worth it, though I might be biased.)
For a long-term commitment like a serial, it’s important to be realistic with what you can achieve. There will be times when you get ahead and times when you fall behind. There’ll be parts that are harder to write than others, for various reasons, and some that rush out of your fingers.
So when you’re thinking about what kind of pace will work for you, think about your good and bad weeks. Allow yourself some wiggle room for those more difficult weeks. And don’t forget to allow yourself time to breathe!
Which brings me to the idea of taking breaks: hiatuses. There are pros and cons to taking a hiatus from your serial, but the one I want to call out here is that they negatively impact your readership. Some people will simply forget to come back, or may get distracted by another serial.
Ideally, you want to minimise your hiatuses. It’s another reason to find a realistic and reasonable pace; the fewer breaks you feel you need, the fewer hiatuses you’ll take, and the fewer disruptions to your serial.
All that said, if you’re anything like me, keep in mind what drew you to writing a serial in the first place. For me, part of it was the discipline and the challenge. I wanted to push myself, which is why the Apocalypse Blog was written, edited, and posted every day (for a year). Now, for Starwalker, posting every week can be a stretch, but that stretch is usually good for me. I try to keep my hiatuses to the gaps between books and emergencies.
This is what works for me. I don’t think I could match the pace of the Apocalypse Blog again; I adjust my pace as I move forward. Life changes and changes us. Work out what works for you!
Next up: posting cadence
Silences are powerful things. We see it every day, in life and in fiction: weighted silences, pregnant pauses, comfortable quiet, air so taut that sound doesn’t dare disturb it.
Lately, I’ve been using silences in my fiction more and more. I’m finding that it’s a fascinating tool, and a way to look at a character that offers information even when they’re trying not to give anything away. Silences, in and of themselves, say something.
A rule that I try to hold myself to is that everything must have a purpose in my writing. If I can, I make a single element in a scene do double- or even triple-duty.
It is very easy to get into the flow of dialogue and forget just how useful the lack of a response can be. I’ve seen examples of discussions where the participants spill everything, answer every query no matter how uncomfortable, simply because they are in a place where they are supposed to speak. Ask yourself: would they really answer that question? Would they really reveal all these things, or is it the author pushing them to do it because they need to move the plot along? Question everything. Make every reaction and lack of reaction earn its place on your page.
Silence is a choice, and this is why is it such a powerful tool for a writer. Every choice our characters make tells us something about them.
Think about the impact of the person who falls quiet, or looks away, or is suddenly busy doing something else. A person can give an entire response in just a glance, whether it is framed with ice or a smile. Or they may choose the more subtle avoidance of not answering a question, by changing the subject or commenting on something tangential, shifting verbally towards more comfortable subjects. Their silence may hide in a punch or a kiss. A more obvious silence is left in the wake of the one who walks away, with or without dramatic door-slamming.
All of these reactions tell us something. Maybe we don’t know exactly where mother’s best china is, but do we really need to? Now we know that the character doesn’t want to talk about the china or its current location. Perhaps they’re ashamed, or guilty, or secretly have it being restored to its former glory as a surprise.
Sometimes, the most fascinating character is the one who isn’t yelling like the rest. Sometimes, they’re the most dangerous. Perhaps they’re bored, or considering their options, or waiting for an opening to coldly stick a knife in, or so furious that it’s better for everyone if they don’t let it out.
When the building is falling down, the image of the woman on the ground standing still, looking up, not screaming or even trying to get out of the way, speaks more loudly than all the screeching steel and crunching concrete.
And when someone stops dead, frozen in place by the words or actions of another, we may not need to see any more. The fact that they have stopped, that what they have heard or seen has touched them in a deep or shocking way, tells us something.
I have a deep love of mouthy characters, who will go off on a rant when pressed the right way and let everyone know exactly what they’re thinking. No holds barred, their inner selves bared and daring anyone to counter them. Starry is this type of character: when she’s pushed in certain ways, a switch will flip and she’ll lose her shit in many different ways (mouthing off is just one of them). She has torn open time and space, threatened pirates, and blown up half a moon in fits of temper. I absolutely love pushing her buttons.
Similarly, Rosie has no qualms about letting people know exactly what she thinks, loudly and in the most crass language she knows. It’s actually an effort for her to keep her mouth shut, usually prompted by a superior on the ship. She expresses herself baldly and is quiet cheerful about punching people in the face, and I love that about her.
At the same time, I adore the quieter characters on the Starwalker. Elliott is a good example: for all his foul-mouthed-ness, he’ll close down if things get uncomfortably personal and all you’ll get out of him is a scowl. There might be a relationship building between him and someone else, but if anyone mentioned it directly, he’d avoid the whole subject, probably scoff it away. Put a hand in his in private and he’ll be fine, just as long as you’re not vocal about it.
Dr Valdimir only ever speaks about professional or crew-related matters, never about himself or his past. He also refuses to display personal affections in public, though for different reasons to Elliott, going so far as to ignore or pull away from his lover when other people are around.
In a similar vein, Cameron only tends to talk about professional matters. She’s probably the most carefully-spoken of the crew, and only ever speaks when she has something of value to offer to the situation. Otherwise, she falls into observer mode, to absorb as much information as possible. She, in particular, knows the value of other people’s silences and the weight of what they’re not saying. As the Chief of Security, it’s part of her job, and she has been bitten enough to know the importance of it.
As part of building my characters, I usually work out this type of thing. What would make them uncomfortable? Shut down? Clam up? Knowing what would make them close their mouth can be just as useful as knowing what would make them explode.
As with all elements of building characters (and worlds), I wind up with way more material than I can ever use. For example, with Elliott, no-one has tried to mention the budding romance going on, not even the person he’s having it with. It might come up one day, but it hasn’t yet. And that’s okay. The Lieutenant hasn’t confronted Dr Valdimir about being ignored, either (at least, not on the page). But I know those moments are there as options, should they become appropriate and necessary for the story at any point.
I feel compelled to add that not wanting to reveal something (as the writer) isn’t a good enough reason to make a character silent. Too often, I’ve seen stories that stretch themselves out by refusing to have characters exchange appropriate information. Just like having characters spilling too much, too easily, this doesn’t do the characterisation or the story any good. It’s a cheap and lazy way to maintain tension and make the story longer without having to do something creative and interesting.
The best rule of thumb is that if a character would say something, have them say it. But know when they would be silent. Use that. Make your readers join the dots. Hint at things. Tease.
Because those silences can say so much more than whatever words they might trot out will. Embrace the power of your silences. Use them. Wallow in them. Enjoy the quiet of life and all it can do for you.
I promised recently that I would start to post more stuff from my writing group discussions. I have been asked many times about pacing and writing a serial story, so it seemed like a good place to start.
I tend to put together some base material for the group to talk about from a mixture of experience, study, and research. This content was mostly gleaned from personal experience and the wonderful advice available from the Web Fiction Guide forums, where serial writers get together to swap this sort of information.
Like other writing advice I post here, this is a collection of tools and information for you to use. It’s up to you how and when you use it, and which parts you simply don’t care about. I hope you find it useful!
Pacing is pretty important to a story, and can mean the difference between a good and a bad story. It’s a mixture of a lot of things: speed, cadence, tension, urgency, mood, length, or relief.
The format of a serial adds another level of considerations to those of a non-serial writer, giving us a three-way challenge when it comes to pacing:
- The story itself: the events, flow, action, rest, shape, and progression.
- The cadence of the posting schedule: how often readers get access to updates.
- The writing of the story: pacing yourself as the writer.
Tip: Serial writing has very similar challenges and principles as web comics. If you’re familiar with creating or consuming those, use that experience!
This got scarily long and rambly, so I’m splitting it up into multiple posts. For now, let’s talk about pacing the story itself.
Pacing the Story
Many guidelines and best practice for non-serial stories apply to serials as well. Let’s get them out of the way first:
- Each post, like each scene in a story, must progress something important: plot, character development, motivation, etc. Beware of fillers and tangents; they tend to interrupt or bog down the pace of the story.
- Be aware of the level of your pacing. There are a number of ways to chart it, so find one that works for you.
- Avoid reader boredom. If the pace is too slow, readers will get bored. Remember that you want them to keep coming back to your serial regularly. Spice it up!
- Avoid reader fatigue. If the pace is too fast or hectic, and readers may find it jarring or exhausting. Give them a break.
- In a similar vein, vary the pacing to keep it fresh, don’t lull your readers into a pattern. Monotony, at any level, is bad.
- Be wary of lingering too long in the same place: scene, situation, mood, etc. If readers feel like a story is ‘stuck’, they’ll lose interest and move on.
- Cliffhangers are good but don’t overuse them. Readers are savvy and will get frustrated if forced to wait for a cliffhanger’s resolution for too long, or too often. This particularly applies to serials, as readers might have to wait days or weeks to get to the resolution. The further apart your posts are (in real-time), the more annoying cliffhangers are for your readers. (My readers gripe at me about this sometimes. I’m sorry! Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)
- Know the expectations of your genre. For example, horror, action, and romance are going to have quite different demands and expectations when it comes to pace.
- Cater to your audience preferences. This one can be hard to gauge, as you need an audience before you can ask them. But think about the typical audience for a story of your genre and type. Age is a factor (YA), as is time available (chicklit for working mums). See what’s out there and try to judge from that. It’s a place to start; you can always refine later.
- Pace according to the needs of the story. Have an action sequence? Then pace it like one!
The breaks between posts comes up a couple of times in that list, and it’s important to keep in mind. Whatever posting schedule you choose (more on that later), there will be time when a reader is forced to wait for the next bit. This is one of the few formats of textual fiction where the writer can control how quickly a reader can progress.
It gets trickier than that, though. We can’t assume that a reader is going to keep up-to-date and jump on each update according to our schedule. We can control how quickly they read the story, but not how slowly. Different readers have different preferences, and we should try to cater for them, too. The truth is:
- Some readers prefer to read in chunks and will ‘save’ posts up so they can read several at once.
- Life interferes and even those who prefer to read post-by-post as they go live sometimes need to catch up.
- New readers need to catch up to where you’re posting right now. The longer the serial goes on, the more they have to read. This isn’t a bad thing!
- You might want to publish the serial in books or collections, to allow readers to consume it in a different format (I know some readers prefer to wait for the ebook version to come out!).
It puts serial writers in a curious position, trying to cater for continuous and broken reading at the same time. It’s something we should try to keep in mind, especially when thinking about pattens in the pacing of the story. Something that might not be obvious when looking post-to-post becomes blindingly obvious when reading stretches of the story, like an action scene that goes on for pages and pages, or a journey that takes forever to get somewhere.
There are lots of posts around about the kind of shape a story should have (Kurt Vonnegut famously did a lecture on this). The ‘shape’ could refer to anything you like: tension, mood, pace, happiness of the protagonist, or the progress of a plot arc.
I’m only talking about pace here, so let’s focus on that. When it comes to the overall pacing of the story, a lot depends on the form and purpose of the serial. There are several main variations:
- Serialised novels, which follow the same guidelines as a regular novel
- Soap opera-style serials, such as fictional blogs or ongoing stories
- Collections of vignettes or short stories, which may or may not be linked to each other.
The form that is peculiar to serials is the soap opera-style, because they’re designed to never end, and their shape can be quite different to other forms. For example, let’s look at the pattern of the plot arcs (as progress through a plot can be a big indicator of pace).
Novels and shorts tend to have a single major plot arc (or several overlapping, entwined ones), with potentially some smaller plot arcs (or sub-plots) happening at the same time, and all of them come to some kind of resolution at the end.
Soaps, on the other hand, have overlapping plot arcs that don’t coordinate their starts and ends, and they don’t tend to have a single ‘main’ arc. The idea is to create a constant reason for readers to come back, through stories that are never ‘finished’ and new questions raised as soon as answers are given.
What does this means in terms of pacing? It means that the story should avoid natural pauses, places where a reader might take a breath and call it done. It is a rolling train, rumbling and rattling at times, swaying around corners, speeding up and slowing down, but never truly stopping.
This is not to say that soaps have arcs that never end. Plots should still be resolved and questions should be answered, but there’s usually something else picking up the slack as soon as that happens.
Personally, I don’t write soaps. I plan my serials in novel-length chunks, so I know the rough shape before I start. There is a distinct arc and an end in sight. If there’s more than one novel, there are threads that lead between the books, encouraging readers to come back, but I let there be those natural pauses.
This is because I much prefer to write with an end in mind; the notion of an open-ended story terrifies me. The chances of wandering around aimlessly are just too high! I give kudos to those who can pull it off. To maintain my own happiness and sanity, I won’t start writing a story until I know the core plot that’s driving it (which is why there is yet to be any Tales from the Screw Loose), and I won’t push a story past what I feel is the natural end of the stories I have to tell (not even if my readers beg) (Apocalypse Blog, I’m looking at you).
Figure out what kind of story you’re aiming for, and that will help you work out what might be a good pace for it.
Next up: pacing yourself.
A strange thing happened to me in October last year. I found myself in a position that I had never been before: a story I was writing was off-track and I couldn’t see any way to pull it back.
I pride myself on not doing that. I’m strict about continuity and sticking to the precedents and events that I have written into the story. The destination might change, but never the journey walked thus far. I push myself to be creative enough to write my way out of any particular gnarly situation I throw my characters into.
All of a sudden, that wasn’t working for Starwalker. I knew where I wanted the story to go, the things I wanted to have happen, and it seemed to make sense on the surface. But the more I wrote it, the more it felt wrong. The tone was off, sliding into darkness and despair. There’s a place for that kind of tone and I’ve played with it more than once, but this was different. It was like the whole story was sliding down a dark hole (or, appropriately, being sucked into a black hole).
More than that, I found I was pushing the characters harder than I liked. They were resisting the path I wanted them to take, and it was increasingly the fault of a big, looming being that they were facing down. More and more, the characters were becoming helpless, and the crew of the Starwalker are all capable, strong-willed people. Satisfying the outcomes are a result of at least some level of agency, not a lack of options that looks and feel a lot like railroading.
When it comes down to it, I just didn’t like the feel of it or where it was going. The more posts I wrote, the more I couldn’t see it coming to a ‘good’ end (by which I mean an ending that would be satisfying for me and my readers).
My readers were very kind. Some voiced concerns over the path the story was taking. Some expressed their unhappiness with the tone. None of them gave me a hard time about it.
Eventually, I had to admit that I’d got the story into a place that it couldn’t recover from gracefully and put a stop to it. Maybe it took me longer than it should have to come to that realisation, because I’m stubborn about these things and I didn’t want to admit it. I despise retcons. But to save the story, that’s exactly what I was going to have to do.
It’s not easy to admit that you’ve messed something up. When I wrote the post that let my readers know that I was going to reassess the path of the story and make some changes before moving forward, I was fraught with nerves. As supportive and forgiving as my readers are, this was going to be embarrassing at best, it was going to invite vitriol and criticism, and, at worse, lose me some of my readership.
To their credit (not mine), my readers were wonderfully understanding and supportive. Some expressed concerns they hadn’t voiced before, concerns that gelled with my own feelings, and some gladness that I was addressing it. I cannot say how much of a relief that was, especially after how much I’d beaten myself up about it all. With that particular worry behind me, I was able to turn to the task of fixing up the story with a lighter heart.
Throughout this process, I have thought long and hard about how I got into that place to begin with. How did things get so far off-track? How did I not spot it earlier and fix it?
I don’t think there was any one cause. I can’t point at a single thing and say ‘you were the problem’.
Part of it was that I was too committed to where I wanted the story to go. I’ve had something similar happen before, when I’ve had a clear idea of something I wanted to have happen, usually linked to a specific character, but it just didn’t work the way I thought it would. A character would have a particular need or drive that was at odds with my end goal, and either refused to do what I want or turned the tone sour. I could see that continuing would put them in an emotional place that wouldn’t work for a satisfying end, or it would taint that whole part of a story (for example, a character doing something because they have no choice, rather than being fired up and driven to do it under their own agency).
When it happened that time, this feeling was my cue to adjust my plan. I rolled out the implications of what I could see, didn’t like where it was headed, and adjusted before it got mired into the wrong path.
So why didn’t that happen this time? I think I pushed too hard, was too stubbornly holding onto my vision. I believed I could make it work. And, to an extent, I couldn’t predict just how dark and depressing the tone would get.
My personal frame of mind at the time had a lot to do with that. That’s not to say that I was in a dark or depressed place: I’ve never been truly depressed in my life, and I’m immensely grateful for that. But I was in a difficult place, emotionally and mentally.
My health around that time was not good. I was struggling with the fatigue (more than usual), and when that happens, my mental energy and attention span shrinks. I was pushing myself to keep up with everything, the serial included.
On top of that, my work had become very busy and stressful. I was asked to change teams to help sort out an issue, and had to switch projects in the middle of a release, which meant a huge amount of catch-up for me, including lot of rapid upskiling in a new area of our product (to me). (I wrote about this recently.)
Then there was the run-up to NaNoWriMo. Organising events, getting stuff in place, sounding enthusiastic and energetic on the forums, and being ready to hit the ground running from the Kick-off Party onwards. I had loads of help, but there were a lot of balls to keep an eye on. The Writer’s Retreat was a worry, because we weren’t getting the number of bookings that we were counting on (we wound up losing money on it in the end, but that’s another story).
So when I say that my frame of mind might have impacted my ability to troubleshoot Starwalker’s plotlines, that’s what I mean. Juggling varying sources of stress and distraction while dealing with soul-sucking fatigue is going to have an impact, no matter how much I push to stop it from showing.
I’m not blaming any one thing. I am grateful for my job, and while I’m under a lot of scrutiny right now, the challenge is good for me (and my career). I wouldn’t switch being an ML for anything; the work is completely worth it. The fatigue is something I try to manage and deal with, and I have to be honest with myself about my capabilities.
It has also been almost five years since I started writing Starwalker. That’s a long time on a single project, and I think I was starting to get burned out on it. I have taken short breaks from it before – a month is the longest I’ve taken before, I believe – but spending that long on a single thing runs the risk of settling into unhealthy patterns. Ruts, habits, grooves, patterns: they can be good or bad, and with few mental resources to call on, I think I let momentum carry me forward in the week-by-week posting further than I should have. It’s telling that I had the mental capability to deal with other stuff but not Starwalker.
So I wound up in a place that I couldn’t see my way out of, and I was so mentally drained in relation to the project that I wasn’t sure what to do next. So I called a halt to it. I admitted the position I had found myself in and put the story on hold while I took a break. I didn’t set myself a return date – something I always make sure I do – and only promised to return.
I think I did the right thing. I put Starwalker on hold during the first week of NaNoWriMo, and freed myself to do something completely different for a month. I put up the author note and tried not to worry about it (I’m a worrier), and mostly succeeded.
It was a much-needed break. It wasn’t about rest; it was about needing to do something else, something not Starwalker. I knew that it was the right thing to do as soon as the hiatus post went up and I could feel the weight lift from my shoulders. I was still bracing for any potential fall-out (which didn’t happen, thank goodness), but I had given myself permission to turn my attention to something else for a while, and it made all the difference.
After NaNo ended and I put Vampire Electric aside again, I took a week to myself, then started looking over the troublesome parts of Starwalker. I wound up retconning seven posts – nearly two months of work – to get back to a place where I could adjust the story’s path sufficiently. All through the break, I had let my subconscious chew on the problem, as well as consciously pondered ideas and options from time to time. Once I had my restarting point settled, I was ready to get going. And I did.
The break wound up being about six weeks in the end; posts resumed on Christmas Eve. It was actually a little later than I had hoped, but work was still insane and I wanted to make sure I restarted Starwalker right. I took the time I needed and I think the story is better for it.
I still find the whole incident rather embarrassing. I strive to do better.
Right now, I’m still juggling a lot of story elements and figuring stuff out as I’m going. A part of me wishes that I had taken more time to plan out the end of Starwalker Book 4 more thoroughly, but I think that’s fear from what happened. Over-planning kills stories for me, so I try not to. I try to have faith in myself that I can do this; I can find the ending that I want this story to have.
So far, I think it’s going well. I have a good idea of where I want it to go, I’m adjusting things on the fly, and I’m excited to get the next part written. The tone is lighter, the pace is faster, and the stakes are higher.
Here’s hoping I can pull the end of this book off well. Wish me luck! And strap in, it’s going to be a rocky ride.
When I think about the possibility of selling a story to a movie studio and one day seeing my work up on the big screen, it seems like an impossibly exciting and terrifying thing. Of course, it’s a lot of work (if you happen to be involved), and they’re going to change stuff, and it might not match my own vision entirely, but still. My story. My name. Big screen.
I dare say I’m not the only writer who quivers at the thought. It’s hard to imagine being that lucky! Who wouldn’t be thrilled to sell the movie rights to a studio, particularly a big studio? (Sure, the chances of it actually being made into a movie might not be all that high; it might languish in pre-production hell for years and never wind up going anywhere. But it would still be thrilling to have the chance!)
It’s a tricky business to get into, though. Navigating the contract is the first minefield and you’ll need an expert to guide you through it safely. Selling rights to your work has many pitfalls, and if you want to retain any creative control, that adds more complications and potential barriers. How much control? What can we veto? What can we demand? When does the studio/director/creative controller get to tell us to pull our head in? We can’t all be George R.R. Martin and deeply involved in the adaptation. As the writer of the original work, we might not have any input at all.
We might not even have our name attached to it at all. Some writers might prefer that (particularly if the adaptation is vastly different from the original work), others might not care, while others might demand that the origin and inspiration of the work be attributed to them appropriately. If you want any kind of credit, you’ll have to specify it in the contract or risk missing out. You might even have to specify the placement of the credit as well, or risk winding up a footnote at the end of the end credits that only Marvel movie-goers sit through.
Like any contract, it’s best to get an expert to handle the details for you, someone who will defend your interests in the way that you want. I won’t pretend that the above is all you have to worry about; I’m sure there are many more details that will need to be worked out.
Until recently, I thought that once the contract was agreed, that would be it. Everyone signs the dotted line and the project goes along accordingly. Apparently, that’s not always the case, as Tess Gerritsen found out.
Tess Gerritsen has written many books and been adapted to screen a few times (for example, in the current TV show, Rissoli and Isles). She is currently embroiled in a law suit against Warner Bros. about the 2013 movie Gravity, because she believes that it was based off a story (with the same name) she sold to a different studio, New Line Productions. The original project died before fruition, and yet a few years later, after New Line was bought by Warner Bros., a very similar movie became a reality. Gerritsen was not involved in the Warner Bros. project, she wasn’t paid, and none of her original contract was honoured.
In a recent blog post, Gerritsen says that this could set a dangerous precedent for selling intellectual property (your story, project, or concept) in Hollywood. If the entity you sold that IP to is bought, the new owner inherits the contract, but they might not have to abide by the terms of that contract. This isn’t a case of plagiarism; it’s a case of breach of contract. In her words:
Warner Bros., through its ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. They had every right to make the movie — but they claim they have no obligation to honor my contract with New Line.
She’s right: writers who sell their work should be worried. We spend hours and hours of our lives on creating these stories; to have them stolen out of hand and profited from is unfair, immoral, and should be considered illegal (or whatever the civil breach-of-contract term is)*. Gerritsen’s case is not yet finished (she is in the process of re-filing her claim), and it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
I wish her luck, for her sake and for other writers who may find themselves in a similar position (and assuming that her claim is justified, of course, though I find her argument compelling). I hope this isn’t a symptom of another way creators are robbed by the industry.
If only it wasn’t so tempting (and potentially lucrative) to see our work on the screen!
* This doesn’t reflect my view on piracy, though it strikes me that the arguments are similar. That’s a whole other post for another time.