If you’re unfamiliar, serialized fiction is when a fictional work, usually a novel, is published in short installments over the course of weeks or months or years. The practice has been around for centuries, but became particularly popular during the Victorian Era in Britain. Charles Dickens is often credited as being the first in that time period to use the format when he published The Pickwick Papers serially between 1836-37. He did, in fact, serialize virtually all of his other novels as well, and was followed by the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (to name a few). In the twentieth century, authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Truman Capote, and even Stephen King published serialized novels. And, of course, in more recent times serialization is frequently found on fanfiction sites, where writers continually add to existing stories.
Because of the Internet and the ease of blogging, some modern original fiction authors have also dabbled in serialization. I’ve known several writers who’ve built amazing readerships by posting their novels on their blogs, a chapter at a time, as they write them, and then pulling them down when the books are complete and selling them to a publisher (often a small press, but not always). Some authors have earned amazing deals from big publishers this way. Andy Weir, author of The Martian, originally put chapters of that book on his blog as he wrote it. His readers gave him lots of feedback, which he took to heart and used to polish the piece, and eventually it attracted the attention of Crown Publishing, who contracted the book. And the rest, as they say, is history, including a sweet movie deal where Matt Damon played the title character.
Another method modern-day authors use for serializing their work is to post it on platforms such as Patreon, where they receive monthly financial support from “patrons” in exchange for new, patron-only content. Others occasionally sell each installment separately in ebook format through vendors like Amazon.
There’s no doubt that for some authors this model of writing/publishing works well. I’m not an expert, but from observing over the years, it seems to me the modern authors who have the most success with it are those who are prolific and write very quickly. For them it appears to be easy-peasy to write and post a new chapter or two or three each week.
I’ll admit, I gave into the lure to serialize back in late 2018. Due to a day job that had become increasingly more time consuming, some health scares in my immediate family, and then a death in the family that pretty much consumed an entire year of my life due to grief and family commitments, I had been out of the writing game for quite a while. After years of fairly consistently having two or three or, occasionally, four new releases per year, I had a huge dry spell. My publisher had closed in 2016, leaving my books orphaned. In 2017 and 2018, as I was finally able to focus on writing once again, I was working on getting some of my older books cleaned up and re-released. But I also, desperately, wanted to write something new, something fresh and unrelated to the series I’d been working on forever, to prove to myself I could still take a book from start to finish without getting stuck in a mire. I began writing a holiday-set romance with the idea of having it done and published before Christmas in 2018. I was indie publishing at that point, so I could set my own release dates. But by the time November rolled around, I knew I wasn’t going to have it finished in time. Close, but not quite. I was bummed because I didn’t want to wait until the next year’s holiday season to publish it.
I came up with this wild idea to post chapters of it on my blog. That way people could start reading it and, even if it wasn’t finished until January or February, they’d at least have some of it during the appropriate season. Also, I felt like it was a good way to get my foot back in the door of writing and publishing. At that point it had been over five years since my last new release (not counting re-releases of my older books). Five. Years. That’s a loooooong empty stretch in the land of book publishing. I thought serializing the novel would be a good way to remind my old readers I was still around and writing again, and maybe even draw in some new readers. Plus, I had the book 3/4 finished and knew exactly where it was going and how it was going to end, so I wasn’t worried about running out of material or getting stuck.
In mid-December of 2018, I began posting a chapter a day of Hometown Hearts, and continued until I was done writing it the end of January. I kept the completed story up on my blog for another couple of weeks, so readers who’d been following along had time to finish reading it. Then, I took it all down, sent it off to my editor, and published it for real the end of March.
It was a terrific experience! I got some excellent feedback from readers that allowed me to improve a few scenes. Readers seemed to enjoy it. And when the book was released, it did okay considering it was a Christmas-themed romance coming out in the spring, not to mention my first published book in a very, very long time.
Because Hometown had worked out so well, I got another wild idea. I had been working on the fifth book in my Draegan Lords series for…ugh…years. I had gotten bogged down in the overall series story arc as it became more and more dense, with lots of characters, lots of fantasy world building, and lots of plot. The series had grown so big and complicated that after the third book I’d realized I was going to have to add in the points of view of two other main characters and write a couple of additional books to fully realize the extended story that needed to be told. So, yeah, I’d been working on the series a long damn time. And then, shortly after the fourth book was published, all of the aforementioned upheavals in life began, and from there, in spite of my best intentions and multiple attempts to write in spite of everything, I wasn’t able to do more than pick and poke at the manuscript for years. A chapter here. A chapter there. It had been painfully slow going. But by 2018, at the same time I’d been writing Hometown Hearts, I’d also dug back into that 5th series book, Dark Magick Rising. And once Hometown was finished, Dark Magick became my focus. I knew it was going to be a long book. And by long, I mean HUGE. Epic fantasy huge. At the end of 2018 I figured I was probably half finished with it. But halfway meant it was already 100K words (almost as long as Hometown Hearts was completed). Readers had been waiting so long for the next book in the series to come out, I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to give them a taste of it now rather than wait until it’s done, edited, and published? I knew, realistically, the end was still months if not a year or more away, and serializing it would get it to readers far more quickly. I figured if I posted one or two chapters a week as I was writing the second half, I’d be in good shape and would stay ahead and finish the book. Meanwhile, readers could be following along.
It seemed like a great idea at the time, so, in February of 2019 I began posting chapters of Dark Magick Rising on my blog. It went well for quite a while. Again, it’s a ginormous book, so for seven or eight months, all was good. I started by posting two chapters per week, but eventually switched to posting only one chapter a week as I began to catch up with where I was actively writing. Still, it was mostly smooth sailing.
Until…it wasn’t so smooth. You see, I don’t plot my books out ahead of time. I’m what’s known in the writing industry as a pantser–meaning I write mostly by the seat of my pants. I usually have a general idea where the story is going, or where it’s going to end, or maybe a few checkpoints along the way, but mostly I sit down to write and let the story unfold as the characters dictate it to me. Quite often even I’m surprised by what happens. And, usually, that’s fine. I’ve been writing that way for more than twenty-five years. It’s my process and it works for me. Granted, sometimes it works more smoothly than others, but ultimately, it gets me to the end of a book and that’s all that really matters.
Or, at least I *thought* that’s all that really mattered. It turns out, when you’re posting a novel in a serialized format on your blog, with readers following along every week…when you discover you’ve made a wrong turn in the story or you need to go back and change some things to mesh with the new material you’ve written, it’s not so easy to do when the chapters are already live. And by late fall of 2019 I knew that’s what was happening with Dark Magick Rising. Unfortunately, instead of stopping right there and saying, “Hold everything…I need to hit pause and sort out some stuff,” I decided to try to work with what I’d already posted, even though I knew instinctively I’d made a wrong turn and I *might* make everything worse if I kept pushing forward. I continued to write, albeit more slowly since I was struggling. But as the weeks passed, I got myself deeper and deeper into trouble. Finally, by January, everything had ground to a halt. And I knew why. It was because I didn’t like a lot of what I’d written for the past two or three months. Sure, there was some good stuff. But there were also big chunks that were just wrong. My storytelling senses were all tingling, and not in a good way. They were telling me, “Holy crap, ML, get this shit out of here, go back to where you got derailed, and start over!” The thing was, I hated to have to admit this to readers, and hated even more that to really fix it, it meant I was going to not only have to stop posting chapters for a while, I was going to have to pull down probably eight or ten chapters that were already online.
But, it’s what had to be done. So, in early January of 2020, I sucked it up, admitted on my blog that I’d gone way off track, and that I was going to have to yank a bunch of stuff and take however much time was necessary to rewrite. Readers mostly seemed to understand, though I’m sure many were disappointed. I also got a couple of “hate” emails about it, but I’ve been in this biz a long time and realize you can’t please everyone, no matter what you do or don’t do. I’m only human, I make mistakes, and all I can do is own up to it and try to fix it.
I began by cutting several of the last chapters I’d written out of the book and only retaining a few, which got rewrites. And then I began writing new material where I’d gone so badly off track. In February, I reposted a couple of chapters I’d pulled that had been reworked, and my plan was to continue to do that as I had revised chapters or brand new ones ready.
And then March arrived, along with Covid-19. Like most people, as I was locked down in my house with my husband, who was (and still is) working from home, and both of my twenty-something sons, life became fully about the pandemic. About trying to track down toilet paper and hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. About worrying constantly, and making plans for what we would do if one of us got sick. We cooked every meal at home, we started an indoor garden, we got our groceries either delivered or did curbside pickup for them once a week, and other than that, we never left the house. And it was stressful as hell. My anxiety disorder that had mostly been under control for years decided to rear its ugly head again, and is still giving me fits. I know I’m not alone in dealing with this kind of thing because this pandemic has affected all of us across the world. Fear, anxiety, depression, uncertainty have become most people’s constant companions.
Like many creative people, trying to stay creative during those initial weeks of the pandemic was nearly impossible for me. Writing was the last thing on my mind. When I was on my computer, I was reading news articles, watching in horror as the Covid cases increased around the world, trying to find the groceries I needed from the various stores in my area that delivered. And when I wasn’t fully focused on pandemic-related things, I was trying to drown it out by rewatching my favorite, comforting movies and TV shows. (It’s how I cope when things go to hell.) I’m pretty sure I didn’t even open a single manuscript file for more than two months. But, eventually, the urge to write crept up on me, and so, in May, I started reading, revising, and writing again.
Right around that time, I got an email with a Google alert about Dark Magick Rising. I discovered DMR had been posted on a pirate website. The bottom fell out of my stomach. I was furious and hurt, with a strong undercurrent of feeling betrayed.
Here I had this partially completed book that I’d been working on for literal YEARS already posted for free on my blog, but some jackass decided it’d be fun to cut and paste every single individual blog post/chapter, mush it all together with shitty-ass formatting, and then put it on a pirate site. First of all, this is MY WORK. MY INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY that someone helped themself to. Second, it was a work in fricking progress. Not a finished novel. Not even edited. Certainly not something that needed to be spread around to the masses anywhere except on my website where I had creative control over it. I even had this exact, word-for-word statement on my blog at the beginning of Dark Magick Rising: Please remember that all written content on my website, including and ESPECIALLY any book chapters I post for you are copyrighted by me, M.L. Rhodes, and all rights are reserved. This means you may NOT post this story elsewhere, you may NOT use any part of it, and you absolutely MAY NOT pirate it. It’s already going to be free on my blog for the next few months. After that, it will be published and, yes, it will be sold for money. I’m a creator, this is a job, and I have to get paid for my time just like anyone else. So, please, read and enjoy this for free now, but don’t steal it and put it up on some other site. Not only is doing that illegal, it’s just plain crappy. Play nice so I can keep doing things like this for my readers! And yet, whoever stole the book off my website didn’t give a shit. Worse, the book wasn’t finished, so what the person had stolen and reposted and passed off as a complete book…wasn’t. And, yes, this was a real pirate site, not just an identity phishing one, because I was able to download the damn file.
Before I began the serialization of Hometown, I did consider the possibility it could be pirated, but I decided it wasn’t worth being concerned over because, after all, I was already going to be offering it on my blog for free, so who would want or need to pirate it? It was also on my blog for less than two months from start to finish, so I figured it’d be there and gone before anyone unsavory noticed it. Dark Magick Rising was different because it was going to be there much longer by virtue of how big it is, which led me to be more concerned about e-piracy. That’s why I put the aforementioned notice on it. Still, it was there for free and it was incomplete, so I hoped for the best, hoped people would be honest and respectful. Nyeahhhhhh, in retrospect, that was obviously naive, and now that naiveté was coming back to bite me in the ass.
I sent a takedown notice to the site, and the download page disappeared, but I knew that was a temporary and mostly futile solution. Pirate sites and pirated copies of books are like cockroaches. For every one you see, there are dozens more scurrying about behind the wall. Thanks to pandemic anxiety, I didn’t have the energy to go hunting for more at that time. I did, however, consider pulling DMR off my blog to stop any more pirates from taking it. I hated to do it and was torn over it, so I chose not to take action at that time, hoping like crazy it was a one-time incident (though I knew it probably wouldn’t be). But lemme tell ya, that incident sure didn’t make me want to get back to work on Dark Magick Rising. Nothing like having someone steal your writing right out from under you to make you lose interest in actually completing that writing. It’s pretty damned disheartening. So, once again, I set the book aside.
However, as always happens, the urge to write began to return, so in mid June I dug out the manuscript yet again. Then, lo and behold, almost on cue, guess what happened? The end of June I got yet another Google alert about DMR. Yep, another pirate site. Different from the first. And this time, I still felt sick with hurt and betrayal, but mostly I was fucking pissed. Admittedly, I was pissed at myself, too, because I hadn’t taken the book down in May like I should have. This time, I didn’t delay. I pulled Dark Magick Rising off my blog. I’m sure some of my readers have already noticed the big empty spaces where the chapters used to be.
It makes me sad that it has to be this way. But, as an author, I have a right to protect my intellectual property to the best of my ability. And having someone pirate my book when it’s not even finished, allowing people to download and read it, people who probably have no idea they’re getting an incomplete book, and who will then leave bad reviews saying “it felt incomplete” or “it ended on an abrupt cliffhanger” or “there were character arcs and plots that were never resolved” is obviously not good for me.
This has certainly been a learning experience. I was jazzed at how well serialization went for Hometown Hearts and wanted to coast on that goodness. I’m glad I posted Hometown on my blog. I have no regrets about doing it. And, looking back on it, I realize it probably went well because it was short term–meaning I was able to post a chapter a day and it was up and done in a matter of weeks. Also, it helped immensely I was almost finished with the book before I ever started posting it.
Dark Magick Rising is a very different kind of book. Not only is it the 5th in a dense fantasy series, it’s a really long book with a lot happening in it. It not only has to tell its own tale, it also has to fit into the overall timeline and story arc for the series, as well as properly set up the 6th book that will follow it. Series, even under the best of circumstances, are tricky to write. And, because of my writing process, I know generally where this book is going to end and the next one begins, but when I started blogging the book, I didn’t know what was going to happen in the second half of it. A plotter would probably be able to pull off serializing even a huge book because they know ahead of time exactly what’s going to happen, often in meticulous detail.
Though it’s been a hard pill for me to swallow, I’ve come to the realization that serializing is not a great thing to do for a pantser who constantly tweaks as she goes and circles back to rewrite. Like I said, my process has always stood me in good stead. I’ve always said that I’ve never written myself into a corner. And that’s true. What I didn’t realize is that I’ve never written myself into a corner because I’ve always had the freedom and flexibility to go back and change things as I’ve needed to, as new paths present themselves. But posting chapters for public consumption, setting them in stone as I go, is a whole different ball of wax!
Still, I was committed to finishing the book online, despite the writing issues I ran into. And then…pirates. I’m so damned sick of ebook piracy. Half the small press and indie authors I know are going broke in part from piracy, and it’s infuriating. But having a book stolen that wasn’t even finished yet, that I was already offering for free anyway, was the straw that finally broke me. It broke me so much, I spent most of the first week in July writing a detailed and, admittedly, fairly scathing article about ebook piracy. If you haven’t already read it, it’s here. And, yeah, when you get to the part where it says I’ve had to make some recent decisions about my own work…obviously I’m referring to Dark Magick Rising.
So, now what? What’s going to happen with Dark Magick Rising? Will you ever serialize a book again, ML? What does “a different ball of wax” mean anyway?
Well, I can answer at least some of those questions. Dark Magick Rising will continue to be written. I’ve actually been putting quite a bit of time into it this month. Progress is being made and I’m getting closer to the end. Right now, my tentative goal is to have the book finished by the end of the summer. I’d like to put it into my editor’s hands sometime in September, and have it published by the end of the year. That said, everything in life is uncertain right now for everyone. So, a lot depends on what additional bat-shittery pops up in the world over the next several months. Let’s face it, 2020 has been one vomit-inducing rollercoaster drop after another, a lot of people are hurting for so many reasons, and, sadly, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being out of the nightmare yet. And by nightmare, I’m not only talking about Covid-19. There is SO much wrong in the world right now. I suspect we’re all going to have to continue to be flexible about a LOT of things for the foreseeable future.
Will I ever serialize a book again? “Ever” is a long time. Things could change. But right now, I have to say no. Realistically, it’s not a good fit for my writing process. And, I can’t deny I’m feeling very burned, so my trust level isn’t super high at the moment. I think serialized fiction is a cool thing, and for some people it works. But despite the good experience I had with Hometown Hearts, I’m waving goodbye to serialization for now and walking away.
And damned if I know what the ball of wax thing is about or where it comes from. LOL! My mom used to always say it. If you know it’s origin, feel free to let me know!
On a personal note to my DMR readers… I appreciate you more than you could possibly know, and I’m sorry you can’t finish reading the book as I write it. I’m sorry I had to make this decision. I hate having to let you down. That’s part of what held me back from removing it in May when I got the first notification. For those of you who’ve been there loyally for so long, when DMR is released, I will make sure each of you who wants one gets a copy! It’s the very least I can do.
Until then, feel free to follow me on Twitter if you don’t already. And stay tuned to my blog. I’m on a roll with writing life and industry-related posts, it seems, so I may be doing more. Plus, I will certainly post updates on Dark Magick here and let you know how things are progressing. Unlike early in the pandemic, when I couldn’t even consider doing it, now, writing is becoming my escape. And that’s a good thing, I think.
Please be safe out there, friends! Wear masks. Keep your distance. Hug your loved ones. And toss a coin to your Witcher. Come on, you get the reference, yes? If not, get thee to Netflix! And then toss a coin to your fave authors by buying their books or downloading them in a legit way from a library or a subscription service like Kindle Unlimited.
A couple of last things before I go… Here’s a cool article about the history of serialized novels if you’re interested. I had no idea some of these books were serialized! And, if you’re curious to know more about how plotters and pantsers work, what their writing processes are like, I wrote a blog post some time ago about that very thing and you can find it here. 🙂
Talk to you soon!