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Thoughts on Writing Serials

May 22, 2017

At this stage I’m regularly getting emails and reddit PMs asking me questions and I’m giving the same sorts of answers to each.  In the interest of cutting back on the time spent answering those emails, as much as I’d like to personalize each response, I’m thinking I might write it out as a blog post and point people to it.

I’m thinking of writing a web serial.  Do you have any advice?  Any warnings or things you wish you’d known?

Okay, first off, you’ve got to figure out what you’re doing.  I really, really recommend writing yourself a backlog – 12 to 16 chapters you’ve already got done before you start uploading.  I encourage 12 or 16 because it’s what I did, and because I see an awful lot of serials get started and then stop around chapter ten.  Twelve to sixteen is enough that you’re testing yourself and seeing if you have what you need to really keep going.

The backlog serves a few purposes.  Above all else, a serial is like planning a year-long hike across North America.  You’re really plotting to jump into something for the long-term.  A goal here is to really test your ability and comfort level – getting a sense of the pace you can maintain.

My experience: I initially planned a short chapter every weekday, with interwoven storylines.  I thought twice about it, and considered about a chapter every other day, and then three a week.  I wrote the backlog and realized I’d burn out very quickly trying to do even that, and shifted to a twice-a-week schedule.

The second goal for the backlog is to really just allow yourself to weather the stumbles.  You will stumble, too, because you’re writing the serial while tending to your day to day life.  Stuff comes up.  Sickness, injury, weeks where you just don’t have time, family stuff, internet outages- the list goes on.  It’s not just valuable for yourself in a schedule sense, but in a psychological one too.  If you miss one day then it’s easier to miss the next, and so on, and before you know it you’ve got an inconsistent schedule and you’re not that committed.

You keep that backlog alive as long as you can.  If you have a twelve chapter backlog you release chapter one from it (possibly with revisions the day prior) as you get chapter thirteen written.  Release chapter two as you get chapter fourteen written.  The backlog will shrink over time – there will be those tough weeks.  It will eventually dwindle to nothing, but hopefully by then you’ll know the ins, outs, and your strengths and weaknesses, enabling you to maintain course.  You won’t lose heart and disappoint fans.  More importantly, perhaps, you won’t lose heart and disappoint yourself.

All of which ties into my general sentiment about setting expectations.  Being prepared and knowing your abilities is one thing, but know also what you’re getting into.  An analogy might be going on a strict diet to lose a lot of weight.

  • The initial part, where you most want feedback, is also going to be the part where people are least interested and impressed.  You might get a few rah-rahs or ‘that sounds cool’ lines but while you’re getting everything figured out, it’s a fairly lonely first few steps.  Some people might even be discouraging or believe you’ll fail.  Because a lot of people say ‘I’m going to go on a diet’ and get nowhere.  A lot of people say ‘I’m going to write something’ and few actually finish what they’re working on – if they even get started.
    _
  • You’re doing it for yourself, yes, and you might even tell yourself it’s solely for yourself, but a part of the motivation is external – you want some validation from people around you, and it can sometimes take a long time before you get that.  You’re a couple of months in and you’ve dropped a clothes size, and externally, not a lot of things have changed – people don’t treat you differently, they don’t say much if anything.  A lot of people want to write a serial because they want to get comments and fan involvement, but weeks and months go by and they see a few upticks on the blog stats screen, but no feedback.  Months become the first year and the comments, if they exist, are sporadic.  It can be discouraging!
    _
    …It’s at this point that I’ll stress that because so few people are commenting, the few people you do hear from are going to have a disproportionate weight.  Be wary of that one voice that gives you well-meaning advice that can derail you, and be wary of how hard that one negative voice can hit you if you’re really eager for feedback and it winds up being less constructive feedback.
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  • Real life gets in the way.  You’re trying to get into this new rhythm and flow, and shit happens.  You’ve got to travel to see people, or there are events, or stuff you’d worked into your plans for your diet/writing get discombobulated by circumstance.  It’s not always your ankle getting twisted and screwing up your exercise regime or your finger getting slammed in a car door, making typing a nightmare – it’s sometimes as simple as needing to keep doing what you’re doing when holidays happen and everyone else is relaxing from their usual plans & priorities.  (Holidays, in my personal experience, are as much a hassle for the regular writer as they are for the determined dieter.  I haven’t had nearly as much trouble with anything as I have had with holidays in particular)

The key to answering these issues is really just knowing what you’re getting into – start that diet or start that serial for the right reasons and keep those reasons in mind.  The old & tired adage of enjoying the journey rather than the destination is key.

I was lucky in that my expectations were nil as I wrote Worm.  Every new reader was a pleasant surprise, every uptick in views.  It didn’t matter that it took almost a year before comments were regular (and I stress that this was fairly fast as such things went), I was thrilled.  By contrast, people reading this post are liable to know who I am, they’ve likely seen Worm, and consequently they’re going to be aware of the fanbase and reader support it maintains.  I worry that even knowing this is happening elsewhere might adjust expectations when writing for the sake of writing and having no expectations at all might be better.

Either way, yeah, I do just want to communicate that it’s a tough and long road to travel and it’s often a lonely one to travel too.  There’s good to it, it feels great to be underway, it is supremely validating when someone gives you that thumbs up, and it really clarifies who has your back, while potentially introducing you to more people in the same vein.  That counts for a lot.

I think that mostly covers preparation and expectations.  Which leaves me floundering a bit when it comes to figuring out how to communicate some other stuff, because it’s not so tidy or easy to outline.  I’m just going to break up the sections here, in no particular order…
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Building a readership, key points to hit and ‘luck’.

Those who’ve followed my other posts on the subject are going to have heard these points before: Consistency, frequency, quality.

  • Consistency is king, in my book.  It’s why I stress the measures with the pre-written backlog to help manage stumbles and pitfalls.  Consistency means having a schedule and maintaining it.  It means providing your readers with an expectation and then holding yourself to that expectation.  It’s my experience that readers are very understanding and kind (it might be that I have awesome readers), but even as they clamor to tell me it’s fine if I take a break, I notice very real trends in readership numbers when I even make a shift from 2.5 chapters a week to just 2, for any length of time.The reality is that when you’re writing an online serial, you’re writing on the internet.  The internet has millions of webpages and countless games, countless other stories or webcomics or videos for readers to get involved with.  With consistency, you enable readers to make reading into a habit, which keeps them coming back.  With inconsistency, where you have hiatuses, delays, changing scheduling, you lead to readers losing track of you – and they’ll find other things to get invested in.
    _
    There’s a double-edged benefit, too.  When you write consistently, it really forms a kind of personal momentum.  Going back to the diet analogy, having a game plan and sticking to it is going to be wildly more successful than days of starvation and days of lavish eating.  There will be rough patches, days where it’s really a grind to get through, and being able to say ‘I don’t eat junk food anymore’ or ‘I always get a chapter out on Saturday’ really forms the absolute force necessary to move forward.  ‘I wrote a chapter on schedule the last 100 days, I’m going to get the next one out, or I’ll diminish all that effort’ leads to ‘I wrote a chapter on schedule the last 101 days, I’m going to get the next one out…’ and so on.
    _
  • Frequency plays into this.  While having a goal of one post a month is consistent, it’s 29.2 days between each update.  That’s a lot of time for readers to forget you exist.  Email notifications and RSS feeds, twitter campaigns and the like can help, but there’s no guarantee that when the RSS notification comes up that the reader is going to click it.  It’s very easy for a reader to put it off until tomorrow and forget, for distractions to win out, and so on.There’s a middle ground to strike here.  Chapter number and chapter size factor in.  A chapter every weekday might be too much, or it might demand softer cliffhangers or too many cliffhangers, making the story too fragmented.  Is it doable?  Sure.  But pay attention to what you’re doing and the following you’re cultivating as you do it.  Once a week might be too little, but again, I think it verges on the doable.  Something between is going to achieve an effect where readers are either reading your chapter or anticipating the next one.

Without being unkind or pointing to specific examples, I think there are shows and webcomics out there that maintain a steady readership simply through frequency and consistency alone, with a very low bar for quality.  Ideally, however, we do want quality.

  • Quality.  We put good stuff out there, that rewards and involves the audience.  We test our abilities and we grow, and we address our flaws and failings.

It’s possible, as I insinuated above, to do just fine by hitting two key points.  Can you slowly build up a readership by having something amazing that comes out on the 5th of every month?  Sure.  Can you pepper readers with something fun and intense updates – some weeks with no updates or one update and some weeks with six?  Sure.  You might lose some by the wayside but you’ll probably pick up a fair number.

The reality is that readership doesn’t grow steadily, not really.  It might look that way when taken in at a distance, but in reality, it’s that one fan who links to you on a message board or that one guy who gives a recommendation that opens the door to thousands of people giving your work a look.  This is the ‘luck’ factor.

You might notice the curious emphasis I place on luck, with the single quotation marks.  I’ve unfortunately had a lot of people say that my success was due to luck.  My personal feeling, however, is that it’s through consistency, frequency and quality that luck happens – these are the things that open the door for luck to happen, should opportunity stroll on by.  You have to be singing for someone to notice you’re a good singer and sign you for a deal.  You have to have work out there for people to notice you and mention you to their two or ten or two thousand friends.

Can you get lucky without frequency, quality, or consistency?  Yes.  But that really is chance and coincidence, rather than the luck one creates with time and determination.
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Tending to Audience

I like to describe things using a diagram I ran into during my studies in University.  We draw a triangle and we put Audience, Author, and Text at different points.


There’s a degree of interaction between each.  The author to the audience, the author to the text, and the audience to the text, and vice versa for each.  Be mindful of this.

Author and Text: it’s easy to let this slip.  When schedule demands and real life gets in the way, we can let the story drop in priority.  Given that the story takes place over the long haul and real life goes on in the meantime, it oftentimes has to.  The key thing is to remind yourself why you’re writing the story, what you like about it, and to be sure that you’re writing things you enjoy and things that challenge you.

Audience and Text:  Fans will have their own interpretations of the work.  As the fandom grows and the triangle takes shape, memes happen, conversations will happen surrounding the work, and the work may be tested.  There’s not a lot I can really say on this off the top of my head, except that it’s very easy and very common for fans to be faced with this one side of the triangle and to make judgments about the other point, about you.  I’ve been called a robot, a girl, Asian, black, elderly, a teenager, a Nazi, an only child, the youngest child in a large family, and three feminists in league to a demon, all by people who thought they had divined something about me from the text.  Which leads me to…

Author & Audience: In a normal book it’s very hard for an author to communicate to fans outside of a foreword and afterword.  As a serial author, your involvement may well be a regular thing.

This plays out on a few levels.  I, for example, get financial support from readers.  I’ve had many, many readers tell me I don’t need to actually write the bonus chapters I do as a thank-you for the support, but I do it in part to shore up the left side of that triangle up there.  It’s very easy for the author to become faceless, for readers to feel like they’re throwing money into a well with no feedback to indicate it went anywhere.  It’s where I really liked doing the thank-yous I was doing prior, before numbers made that rather difficult.

On another level, it might be worth just communicating to fans about where you’re at.  A comment on your own chapters, with thoughts and preliminary sentiment.  It lets you put your face out there and it does give you a hand in the discourse.  The fact that serials can enable the author-audience interaction like they do is good for you too, because it lets you adjust the story to correct or respond to misconceptions or gauge the pulse of the greater readership.  Again, be careful you don’t let too small a sample size have too large a voice (as suggested in one of the bullet points up above).
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On the other side of Audience, or being tended to by Audience

It’s a tricky thing, audience.  Approaching the writing of serials, it’s very easy to think that you’ll write something and people will see it and then you’ll have usable feedback and things are good.

In reality, it can be tricky.  When you start out, you get nothing.  When you reach the point you think you’ve put enough in to start getting feedback… still mostly nothing.  Then you start to get a few isolated voices with strong feelings about what you’re creating, and some are positive and some are critical.  It’s very easy to let that small sample size and the loudness of negative voices push you to adjust and adapt.

As those voices pipe up, try to keep in mind your rationale for the story – why you’re writing it, what your tastes are, the empty space on bookshelves where this particular book hasn’t been written to fill them yet.  Write the things you enjoy and trust your instincts.  I’ve heard far more from authors who made changes early on to respond to their fledgling audience and who were unhappy with the result, than I’ve heard from the remainder.

There’s a sweet middle ground where you’re starting to learn to pare out the good advice from the bad.  Some people think that negativity and criticism are the same thing when negativity is often something so omnipresent in a given person’s voice that you can’t pare out their good advice from the midst of it.  Beware the people who only ever have bad things to say, who want your work to be something it isn’t, or who take pride in tearing things down.  Find the positive voices and the middle ground becomes something you can learn from.  In my experience it was this time when I really grew.

It was also, I’ll stress, a time that was fairly short lived in my experience.  The audience grew further, in my case.  In others’ cases, where audience didn’t swell to the same degree, I’ve heard that the moderates lost out to the volume of the fanboys and especially to the critics.  Negative voices will always be louder and more determined, and over time they’ll drown out the others.

This is something I wish I’d known to brace myself for, and it’s a hard thing to articulate and really spell out.  With extreme success comes extremely high and loud populations – success I’ve not yet obtained but have seen in others.  I’ve seen online creators have breakdowns, lash out, get physically ill, and cut ties with audience completely, collapsing one end of the triangle, just because it’s such a constant thing.  I get several instances of criticism a day about one bad part of one story I put out three and a half years ago.  Thousands of emails at this stage.  Hundreds of orange envelopes on Reddit.  I expect to get thousands more before 2020 rolls around.

Just be aware that with time and success come a disproportionately high & loud population of negative voices.  It’s not a reflection on you, but just the way things go.
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Frequently asked question 1:  Should I have a donation button?

Put off the button for a bit, is my personal feeling.  Focus on the writing.  Focus on the consistency and frequency and quality, and on shoring up the author-text and author-audience relationships.  Focus on taking care of yourself first.

It’s very easy to include the button as a matter of course as you get your site set up, it’s very tempting, but I very frequently hear from people who do so and then feel discouraged when not only is their audience low in number, but the button goes unused.  It sets up a weird expectation.

If I were counseling my younger self, I’d say to keep doing what I was doing, and if people asked about it, I’d include a button.

As an aside, I try not to call it a donation button anymore, because Paypal is persnickety about the use of the language ‘donation’.  It implies charity which implies special taxation rights and rules, and when Paypal gets persnickety they often lock the paypal account and freeze the funds within.  Sometimes they freeze the bank account linked to the paypal account, and then you get into life-gets-harder territory.  I prefer to refer to it as reader support.

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Frequently asked question 2: Social media?  Advertising?

My stance is and will likely continue to be that I’d much rather spend time writing more and writing well than spending time fiddling with Twitter, Facebook, and banner ads.  I never really advertised or promoted myself, except to link to my work when asked about it, and I did okay.  I think it’s better to work toward producing something that sells itself than to try to sell something and hope it’s worthwhile.

Your feelings may vary – you may be an avid twitterer (twit?  I’m not sure of the lingo) who tweets like she breathes.  But my sentiment is that promoting your work like this is focusing overmuch on the destination rather than the journey, dwelling on audience overmuch (and often in a shallow way without lasting effect) rather than tending to the text.
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Frequently asked question 3: I wrote a book and I’ve decided to release it online.  Any thoughts?

So this is a complicated thing, because in all honesty it flies in the face of a lot of the advice I gave above.  I’ve reviewed a few web serials and it’s very easy to sort of classify them in two types.

  • There’s the organic web serial – chapters are written within a few weeks of them going live, they’re adjusted in reaction to the audience, and it’s all very fluid.  Quality can vary, real life gets in the way, there are factors to consider and measures to be taken to keep it all moving smoothly.
  • There’s the rigid web serial – the entire thing is written, and then it gets parceled out in chunks as a serial format.

My personal feeling, and I’m trying not to inject too much bias into this, is that you really do get major consistency points in the rigid serial, you can set things up in the initial week so it all gets released at set times and you don’t need to get yourself involved except to make sure things are running smoothly.  No fuss, no muss – you’ve already done the hard work.

The tradeoff, however, is that the rigid serial doesn’t feel like a serial in a way that really works.  Very frequently in works I’ve reviewed, you can tell that it was broken off at what felt like a good stopping point, instead of finding its way naturally to that point.  Cliffhangers may either feel shallow or forced.  The story is often well constructed and edited, but it doesn’t necessarily have a pulse, it doesn’t sprawl of its own volition or turn to face the sun when the sun shines on one part of it.  The author may be involved, but many rigid serials may struggle to really implement feedback in a way that causes ripples throughout everything that follows.  Changes and adjustments in reaction to the pressures and sentiments of the audience may be minor or feel mechanical.

When I say implement feedback, I should stress that I don’t mean deciding the story’s direction.  I mean more in the sense of a shift in tone or featuring more popular characters, answering questions or emphasizing different aspects.

There’s a lot to be said for what a story gains in consistency and quality this way – several stories that I believe were written this way have gone on to be picked up by major publishers.  But serial writing is a really unique and new form, and I think there’s a lot to be said for writing to the strengths of that form and seeing what happens.  That’s just me.

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From → About Writing, AW03

14 Comments
  1. Lou permalink

    A very interesting and thorough read- it’s great to get it upfront from someone with as much experience in this genre as you. I’ll be sure to come back to this if I write a serial of my own. Thank you for sharing, ‘Bow.

  2. Belac93 permalink

    Thanks for this, Wildblow. I’ve been considering turning my aspiring book into a web serial, and I’ll be sure to keep this in mind.

    I don’t think I’ve ever posted on any of your works before, but I wanted to let you know that your writing is what inspired me to start working on my own stories again, after quite a long slump. I’m incredibly grateful to you, and wish you all the best.

  3. Reblogged this on Writing In The Balance and commented:
    Great advice from the master of serials. For me I found that consistency was the hardest thing to keep. I started out with a small buffer, but that vanished very quickly. Wildbow’s commitment to consistency is pretty legendary.

  4. Thanks for writing this out, lots of useful advice here.

  5. Roguelike Trooper permalink

    I wish there was a easy way for more web serials to get volunteer audiobook adaptations. Worm’s audiobook project is the main reason I got hooked on Worm, and there really should be something similar for Pact and Twig.

    • Somnulous permalink

      I feel that this is more of a comment on the story itself. Worm has “it”. That special something that clicks in peoples heads and makes them stay up past their bedtimes reading “just one more page”.

      I feel that its that quality, in combination with the newness, the freshness and the non-commercial nature of the online serial format, that empowered fans to make the Audiobook. And that quality is what kept them going! Reading 1.68 million words took that group of fans 2 years! They deserve all the praise they get, they showed some solid determination and perseverance.

      That said, the best way to do this i can think of is for the author of the web serial to post a request on ACX.com.
      Which brings up another interesting idea: Why not use the audiobook to monetize your popular web serial. Offer the web serial for free, but sell the Audiobook. Then you could even pay the narrator a bit too 🙂

  6. Good stuff here! Do people really still bother you so much about the time-skip, or was it something else?

  7. I’ve recently just started a serial using some of my dog’s Instagram friends as characters. It’s a heap of fun.
    I do have some chapters up my sleeve but being that I’ve committed to twice weekly releases, I better get cracking on some more!
    Great advice here. Thanks for taking the time to educate us newbies. I’m gonna check out Worm now.

  8. This is incredibly useful and clearly stated. Thank you so much for taking the time to digest your experiences towards the benefit of the rest of us.

  9. I have to say that I really appreciate your insights as an established author in the web-series medium. Part of what holds me back on writing my ideas is my abnormal incapability to keep things consistent so I find that advice particularly illuminating. So, thank you.

    As a side note, I’m just starting Pact and I’m liking it so far. I’ll read Twig and whatever’s next right after it. Good luck on your work.𓋏

  10. caimthehero permalink

    Wow, like alway WB you’ve put a great amount of thought into something people would pare down to write a chapter once a week and upload it. I still believe you are the greatest author I’ve ever read even if you sometimes get too dark for me personally. I don’t know what to say about the people that give you grief about your writing style. I think its just one of those things where if someone doesn’t like something and wants to be destructive because they can’t articulate why they are upset. I hope it doesn’t get you down. You’re fantastic WB and your words have touched more people than you’d probably ever guess.

  11. This was exactly what I needed. Thanks so much for writing it up with such details and insights. Finding and reading Worm has introduced me to the world of web serials as medium with which to share my writing. Your wisdom is extremely helpful as I start out on this new journey. Best to Wildbow!

  12. Thanks for writing this. I started publishing my web serial in May and am decidedly in the “have a small and s-l-o-w-l-y growing readership but sporadic (if any) feedback” territory. Your words encourage me that it’s all normal and to just keep going!

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