The Art of Writing a Serial (Or: A Lesson in Surviving Hurdles)

Before embarking on the long adventure known as the serial story, I made sure to do my homework. I read everything I could from people who’d already done it. I scoured blogs and how-to ebooks and kboards (Amazon’s kindle boards, where you can find all kinds of awesome people living the dream…and ten times more trying to get there). I had my plan ready to go – I knew the size of each installment (15-20k), the frequency of release (every 2 weeks), and my intended pricing scheme. I knew I wanted to write it as I went, rather than writing it all up front, and was prepared to keep to the schedule. I created my pen name, had the basics of my brand, and launched my platform on my chosen social media outlets. My prep work was good.

I released the first book on a wave of self-accomplishment. I did it! I crowed to myself (and to my husband, though he wasn’t quite as excited). A new pen name, new world, new experiment, all begun and set to do great things. Best yet, I’d only spent $15 to do it. And I was flexing my very rusty Photoshop skills to create decent covers. (Admittedly, they’re not fantastic. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call them good; but for 15 bucks, I’m happy with them!) I swore to myself I wouldn’t tell anyone I was writing them until after Christmas (the first one went live just before Thanksgiving). Which became “nobody but my sister and my brother, who are now my beta readers.” And then I was so chuffed about my cover, I showed it off to the rest of the family over Christmas.

That was mistake #1. (Okay, noticeable mistake #1. I probably made plenty of others I don’t have enough experience to see yet.) There are gobs of professionals (and memes; so many memes!) who will tell you to keep your dreams to yourself. You know what? They’re totally right. Eventually, people will find out. But you really want something you can be proud of out in the world already before you invite the criticism of those you know (and love). My dad was bummed – “A pen name? Already?” he asked, clearly lamenting that I had cast off the family name. “What about my sci-fi?!” my cousin demanded. Even though I stood strong and didn’t really feel the need to defend my choice, there entered the seed of doubt. By the time I reached my “after Christmas” date, the damage was already done. I “went public” to everyone, and the pressure set in.

Pressure, apparently, makes writing a lot harder. Who knew? 😛

Mistake #2 came a few short weeks later when, instead of having a week all to myself when my husband and son were out of town, I came down with the flu. The horrible, awful, kill-me-now sort of flu. I was sick the entire week. One setback, though, wasn’t going to stop me. I have perseverance! I cried (inwardly, in a properly introverted fashion). Except then my yoga ball, which I used as my desk chair, exploded while I was sitting on it (thinking back still makes me giggle hysterically – if you can’t save your pride, you might as well laugh, right?), which also broke my desk. No matter how I tried to cobble together a better situation, I couldn’t get comfy enough to write. But no problem – I still had my laptop. Right? Wrong. My 8-year-old MacBook finally gave up the ghost the same week. I managed to save my covers, which weren’t in Dropbox, and called it a blessed bit of luck. (Mistake #2 was not writing long-hand and continuing the habit. I wouldn’t have written as quickly and I’d have used a ton of paper, but I’d have gotten it done sooner, and not lost momentum.)

So I had to wait. And wait. And wait…until our tax return came in. Because we’re broke. Like, beyond broke. So broke, in fact, that we moved in with my in-laws in May because we couldn’t support ourselves with the skyrocketing rental prices in Denver. Our pediatric office just broke up with us because we couldn’t pay our bills. I bought a new laptop, one of the new HP Streams that’s designed to function mostly online. So pretty! So perfect (and perfectly in my price range). I finished up the rough draft of Issue #5 and shifted gears to the publishing side of things. And that’s when I realized: I no longer have access to Photoshop. I had to actually pay for it. Which meant I couldn’t create a cover for a bundle of the first five issues like I had planned.

That was Mistake #3 – I let my disappointment (and, honestly, financially-rooted depression) get the better of me. I didn’t research Photoshop options or alternatives. I just sat and stewed. Which, given that we were down to the wire in deciding what to do with our lives by that point, I don’t really begrudge myself. I had more important things requiring my time. But if I had done a little idle research, I’d have discovered the 30-day free trial of Photoshop CC and gotten to de-stress playing with covers.

The fifth issue of Eternally Born was five months late. I’ve accepted my failures and determined to do better in future. Namely, I will focus on the habit instead of the output, have backups to my backups (not just files but also writing situations and implements), and maybe bring in a couple new cheerleaders to keep my spirits up when stuff falls apart. Because I don’t have a lot of experience in indie publishing yet, but what little I do has shown me how easily things do fall apart. To misquote Jurassic Park, “We have all the problems of a traditional publishing house and a moody creative professional, and the money’s not even coming in yet.”

Yes, a serial is quite difficult as an entry into self-publishing – it’s an insanely slow build, and there’s not really a good way to market it until you’re quite a ways in. (Despite being in KU with everything but #1, I’ve only ever had 3 borrows. I’ve given away several hundred copies of #1, but only had maybe the same number of sell-throughs.) With 4 issues on the market, I haven’t yet broken even on that initial $15. It’s a long, hard haul and something of a slog. Choosing to write one at a time means I have to be okay working on the same thing every month (month after month after month). That can be tough when my creativity wants to try something new, or doesn’t want to break from the other project I’m working on to come back to the serial. And I have a sneaking suspicion the majority of people who might be interesting in reading the serial are waiting for me to finish the whole thing before they read. Which is fair and completely understandable…but it’s not a big boost to the old ego, either. Nor is knowing ahead of time that I’m not going to sell any of the new issues when they’re released.

All of that said, however, I don’t regret choosing to write one issue at a time. I don’t regret any of my actual publishing choices.This is the way this story needed to be told. It’s the way I needed to work on it. It reinforces the process, keeps me in the short-term (I have a real problem with that), and keeps me writing. Doing the covers myself keeps me excited, because even if nobody reads the words inside, they will see the cover. It keeps me learning, keeps me trying new things, and uses my brain in ways that novels don’t (especially because it’s non-linear, but that’s a different topic). By the time I’m done with this arc, I will have a lot of basic experience under my belt. I’ll have 10 issues on the market with 3 bundles. I’ve been keeping an eye on my category the whole time, and how sales and borrows affect my ranks. And, more than that, it’s set my expectations low. They already were – I didn’t start this up expecting to sell any – but once I’m done, I’ll know that I can stick with my choices no matter what happens; that I can finish what I start even when there is pretty much zero positive reinforcement or enticement to continue.

Essentially, this is the part where I stamp down the dirt until it’s hard-packed and capable of supporting bigger goals for the long-term. I may feel like a giant failure because all I have is dirt, but I will have the confidence to know failure won’t kill me. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!

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Posted on July 6, 2015, in For the Writer, publishing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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