Serialised writing: a step forward in your commitment as a writer

The cover of the third episode of "Deserto rosso" The idea of writing in instalments started going through my head in 2011, when I came across a serialized fiction by a pair of American independent authors, titled “Yesterday’s Gone”. As TV series fan I’ve seen in this project something to get excited about, perhaps more as a writer than as a reader.
Months later, in early January 2012, I found myself starting one. It happened by chance. I wanted to write a short story, which was then transformed into a novella, until I realised that I had material for another two or three episodes.
Thus “Deserto rosso” (Red Desert) was born. When I started, however, it was more like a necessity and not something carefully planned. I was in fact coming from the first draft of my first novel “L’isola di Gaia” (The Isle of Gaia, of which I am now taking care of the editing), which took more than three years, and I was eager to create something shorter to test digital self-publishing.
Only after publishing “Punto di non ritorno” (Point of No Return), the first episode, I realised the implications of this kind of literary project.

Beside the fun of it, for an author there are a lot of advantages when publishing in series. I am not referring to the economic ones, which have very short ranges at least in Italy for the moment, as the e-book market has begun to take hold by the end of 2011, that is, with the arrival of the Kindle.
What I talk about are the creative and productive advantages.
Writing the first episode of a series is easy. You know it does not have to be long, you know it should not have a true ending, but only an ending twist (the so-called cliff-hanger); concerning the rest you are free to do as you please. You can spend all the time you want (which is still little, given the length of the text) to refine the style, build scenes that engage the reader. In short, you can have fun, without obligation.
Once you publish the first episode, the music changes.
It is as if from that moment a chronometer starts. You did in fact take a very serious commitment towards yourself, but, above all, towards your readers. You can no longer rely on the inspiration of the moment, you cannot procrastinate waiting to have time. No.
You must get organized. You have to decide when the next episode comes out, which cannot happen too late, and then you write it, do the editing, think about the cover, book trailer, promotion of the previous episode (it does not sells by itself) and all the rest with a limited time. And you have to do it, absolutely.
It may seem very difficult, in fact it is not. Having made a commitment gives you more motivation. You concentrate, therefore, to find the best way to maximize your efforts. You write pages and pages of notes (possibly you’ve already started doing it while you were editing the first episode). You make schemes, prepare an outline. In short, you plan your work. For the first time you act like a real author.
The nice thing is that, incredibly, you succeed to perform each of these steps, which gives you heart and facilitates the performance of the next ones. Every time you reach a single goal of your plan you are galvanized and certain to be able to do the same with the next ones.
All this concerns the purely productive aspect. As for your creativity, there are a whole series of interesting conditions. First of all the feedback of your readers.
You read the reviews, talk to them in social networks or chat rooms, and receive their e-mails. All these elements affect you and help you in writing the continuation of the story, because they are a kind of litmus test for the liking of some aspects of the plot. They allow you to figure out what works best and which direction to take.
Of course, when you write a series, you still have to have a general plot always in mind, which you then develop gradually and in doing so, your only desire should be to follow your inspiration, your emotion. But an external support, in a more or less indirect way, gives you help in finding the right path, also because they allow you to gain greater confidence in your creative skills.

Writing a novel in instalments, however, is not the same thing as writing a novel divided into parts, but that is published all at once. The instalments must be done in a certain way, so that they entertain the reader and at the same time push them to read the following ones.
Each episode, as the story does not end, has to have its own narrative arc. It must be a distinguishable unit, inside which it must still answer to some questions.
This is especially true for the first episode, which starts from nothing and, except for the cliff-hanger that denotes the non-ending, it should be almost self-conclusive. This does not mean that new plot elements should not be born to be developed in subsequent episodes. There must be many, definitely, but for the most part they do not need to have a predominant role. They must be small seeds, which will sprout and bloom later, but, if there were no continuation, the reader would hardly notice them. They will remember those seeds, in fact, later.
Moreover, each episode must have at least two other important elements: a destabilising beginning and, as already said, an ending that leaves you suspended.
The destabilising beginning serves as hook, i.e. it must engage the reader and force them to move forward. All novels must have a beginning with these characteristics, but all this must be much stronger in an episode of a serialised novel. Having to make a similarity with a TV show, the beginning must be like the prologue, which precedes even the main title. After it, the story can continue from that point, or (as I like) move backward or forward in time, to eventually reach back the beginning point towards the end or at least in the second half, thus bringing together all the threads.
The start of the first episode may be a bit softer, that is more similar to that of any novel, but the one of the next ones must be more emphasised. The purpose of the latter is not to push the reader to continue reading. The reader is at least at the second episode, and then they want to read on, there is no need for you to convince them. Its purpose is to give them a slap in the face  (metaphorically) just as they open the e-book, putting in doubt all the assumptions made during the waiting period between the two episodes and knocking them into something totally different from what expected.
The ending with the cliff-hanger, however, just has to be with a bang. It must be unexpected and at the same time give suddenly rise to new questions, to which the reader might not have thought before (because they did not have the clues or because the latter were well hidden), ending the episode immediately after. For a moment they will be suspended between love and hate against you, but most of the time, if you’ve played your cards right, in the end they will be thrilled.
The last episode, for obvious reasons, cannot have a cliff-hanger, since at that point every thread of the story will have reached its conclusion. This however does not mean it must be a definitive ending. Ideally, however, it must leave some small openings, leading the reader to try to imagine what happens next. In many normal novels is this kind of ending but in serials, because of their special nature, it works even better, as the reader, accustomed to read something that does not end, even at the last episode will retain this feeling, which will reduce a bit the displeasure (hoping there is any) of being at the very end of the novel.
This kind of feeling, moreover, involves the author themselves, who, like the reader, becomes attached to the characters and the world they have created and it’s hard for them to separate from all that.
And do not forget that, as a series, nobody prevents the author to plan a second season! However, this is only possible if you leave an open door.

The serials are clearly nothing new. It is more a return to a practice already established in the past, when the authors used to publish in instalments in magazines. With the coming of e-books, now you no longer need an external box to present them to the public. Every single episode becomes a product of its own, sold separately at low prices, which stimulate curiosity.
This phenomenon was immediately noticed by Amazon, which recently launched KindleSerials. It deals, in fact, with serialized stories published exclusively on Amazon, which you pay once at the beginning and then see them regularly delivered to your Kindle.
Kindle Serials unfortunately I have not yet left the American market, but I’m willing to bet that they will soon arrive in Europe. The only drawback I see is the exclusivity, which prevents the author to publish the series outside of Amazon. I understand the need for retailers to protect themselves, but I’m not convinced that this is good for authors. Actually you can very well write novels with separated episodes without entering the automatic mechanism of the serials.
In any case, this is a symptom of how with the coming of digital publishing the enjoyment of written stories is increasingly changing, giving much more space to shorter texts, which consequently cost less and are more attractive to the reader.

For what concerns me, I published the first episode of “Deserto rosso” (Red Desert), titled “Punto di non ritorno” (Point of No Return), on June 7th, 2012 , the second was released on November 30th, 2012, with the title “Abitanti di Marte” (People of Mars) and the third, “Nemico invisibile” (Invisible Enemy; see cover in the first picture), on April 28th, 2013, while the finale is scheduled for September 30th, 2013.
Just today, June 7th, 2013, is the anniversary of “Deserto rosso” and I feel like doing a balance of this literary experiment, which, I must admit, has far exceeded my expectations. I sold more copies than I hoped (80% on Amazon, but recently there has been a growth in sales in other retailers). There was a peak at the beginning, thanks to the promotion I have done in the first months (almost all at no cost, I want to say), as well as to the novelty effect in the scope of the science fiction genre, that does not count many titles in Italy, but even now, after twelve months from the publication, I am pleased that the story continues to be sold at a steady pace. At least one of the three episodes is in the top 10 of Amazon science fiction charts (Italy), often all three of them. Each of them has been at least for eight days in the top 100 of Amazon Kindle Store (Italy), without ever resorting to the Select program. The release of the second episode recorded a towing effect on the first, favoured by the Christmas period, but it is with the release of the third episode, in particular, that there was a significant increase in sales, which showed how readers, while loving the series, tend to appreciate immersing into them, when they already have a lot of stuff to read. I’m curious now to see what will happen when the final episode is available.
Not only. The nicest thing has been, and continues to be, the feedback from readers, which literally pushed me in the drafting of “Abitanti di Marte” and “Nemico invisibile”, and now do the same with the final episode, whose title will be revealed today on my Italian blog. I can tell you: it is “Ritorno a casa” (Back Home).
In fact, the real triumph, from my point of view as a writer, is the fact that having embarked on a series meant a real leap forward in my creative productivity. Thanks to “Deserto rosso” I have written more than 215,000 words in a year and a half (counting also the novel with which I participated and won NaNoWriMo 2012), against 123,000 words of “L’isola di Gaia” in more than 3 years.

What can I say? Writing a serialised novel was for me a real turning point in my commitment as a writer and no doubt I recommend it to anyone who seriously wants to undertake this art, indeed, this job.
Not only those who have the time should try this (nobody has got time), but all those who are willing to find that time. Serialised writing is certainly one of the many tricks that can help a writer in this aim.


Just a final note. “Deserto rosso” will be released in English with the title Red Desert” in 2014.


A previous version of this article is available in Italian on Anakina.Net.