On Writing the Serial Novel


I would never be so reductive as to say there were two kinds of writers.

But there are two kinds of writers.

Every agent website warms against the first kind. “Don’t,” they plead, “scribble out 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo, type ‘the end’ and send us your work without editing.”

Today, however, I am interested in the other type. You know who you are. You have been writing and rewriting the first sentence of your novel for two years. If I put track changes on your manuscript, I would see that you have added and subtracted the same comma twelve times.

I won’t lie. I’m in this camp. My novel Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before comes out in fall 2014. I started it in 1996. In the last round of edits, my editors gave me five or six discrete tasks. I made 5422 changes, most of them commas.

If you’re like me, you should probably write a serial novel.

Here are the rules:

  • Whether your write once a month or every day, the deadline is set. You must post your chapter by midnight.
  • You can’t revise except to fix small typos.
  • You can’t write it all ahead of time and post it in installments.

Here is the bonus challenge:

This goes out to all you sensitive writers who write narratives in which smart people ponder the nuances of “self” in subtle, deeply interior prose.

(By the way, sensitive writers, I love you. You hold up the pillars of western culture. Don’t stop what you are doing, just take a break for a little while and write something smutty. It’s good for you.)

  • Include a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.

Cliffhangers are why people keep reading. It won’t feel artificial if you do it well.

The AdmirerTake my literary thriller, The Admirer, as an example. Each chapter ends with a question, a surprise, or a threat.

End of Chapter 1: Helen, the woman in bed with her lover, is president of the college where the body has been found. Surprise!

End of Chapter 2:  Helen is afraid of something bigger than a murder on campus. What is it?

End of Chapter 3: The woman who discovered the body, disappears in the blink of an eye.

End of Chapter 4: Even the police chief can’t fathom a murder this brutal.

End of Chapter 5: A secretary warns Helen that there is more to the theater professor than Helen suspects.

End of Chapter 6: Helen wonders if a loving man will notice her while outside her window the killer watches.

That represents less than fifty pages.

What do you stand to gain from the exercise of writing a serial novel with cliffhangers?

  • CREATIVITY   It forces you to work within the limitation of what you have already written. The early postmodernists argued that restriction is the birthplace of creativity.
  • VOICE   It forces you, as my drawing teacher would say, to “love your hand.” We all have a style, a tone that is naturally ours. Writing under pressure brings it out. You don’t have time to refashion yourself as the next Faulkner.
My drawing teacher says, “love your hand.”
  • SUSPENSE   It encourages you to focus on suspense, a skill that can serve you well, even if your usual genre is more subtle.

Remember, we read for the questions, not the answers. If we only read for the answers, we could tweet entire novels.

@mystery: The house-sitter killed the wife because she was in love with the husband.

@romance: Randolph DeVille married the singer with violet eyes, and they had a simultaneous orgasm.

Your Homework

Go on. Give it a try. (I mean it. Right now!) You’re not committing to anything yet. In the comments, write down your idea for a serial novel. What is the genre? What is the set-up? Who are the players? If you see a storyline you like, encourage that writer. Sometimes, all we need is a little push from a friend. If you take the plunge and start your serial novel, be sure to post a link here so everyone can check it out.

For more fiction by Karelia click here.

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3 thoughts on “On Writing the Serial Novel

  1. I have to run to pick up my son (I do!) so I’m not going to answer your questions, except to say I’m going to come back and read this post more thoughtfully because I am definitely in your camp. I was just thinking this morning that one of the unforeseen hard parts of finally publishing is not being able to continue to edit!


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