Pacing a Serial: the Posts

What frequency will you go for? (Picture by geralt)

What frequency will you go for?
(Picture by geralt)

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!

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Pacing a Serial: the Writing

How fast do you want to write? (Picture by cactusowa)

How fast do you want to write?
(Picture by cactusowa)

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

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Pacing a Serial: the Story

Writing a serial is a bit like tackling a marathon.

Writing a serial is a bit like tackling a marathon.

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:

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.

Story Shape

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.

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