Why You Should Write Serialized Novels: Interview With Plympton Publishing

by Joe Bunting | 15 comments

Serialized novels are gaining popularity, both in the mass market and literary worlds.

Margaret Atwood is in the middle of her sci-fi novel Positron which is available for free on Byliner. (I read the first Episode. It was very fun!). Alexander McCall Smith, of The Ladies #1 Detective Agency fame, published his serial 44 Scotland Street in the Edinburugh newspaper The Scotsman a few years ago. (I read it much later, and enjoyed it immensely.) And Sean Platt and David Wright's series, Yesterday's Gone, was created by two well known writer's in the blogging world who leverage their platforms to publish their fiction.

However, what most people don't realize is that serialized novels have a long history, at least that's what Yael Goldstein Love of Plymtpon Publishing says.

About the Interview

Yael Goldstein Love

Yael Goldstein Love is the co-founder and editorial director of Plympton.

Plympton Publishing, which was started in 2012, publishes serialized fiction, and thus has a pulse on this exciting trend for authors. You can follow Plympton by signing up for updates on plympton.com or by following them on Twitter (@plympton). You can also receive serialized novels for free from their sister site, DailyLit.

Let's get into the interview.

JOE BUNTING

Hi Yael. Thanks so much for joining us today. First of all, what is a serialized novel?

YAEL GOLDSTEIN LOVE

A serialized novel is a novel delivered to readers in installments over time. Each installment is a satisfying read in itself, but it also leaves you wanting more. Any good serialized novel also reads well as an all-at-once book, whereas the reverse is not true. Not all good novels make good serials. A slow, lyrical novel where not much ever happens, for instance, might make a bad serial.

I say ‘might' because you never know what other charms this book might have to compensate and make it a perfect fit for serialization? Maybe each chapter is a perfect gem and you want to savor each slowly, and serialization heightens that experience. Maybe this book is actually Moby Dick and so it is phenomenal no matter how presented. Who knows.

Let me just stick with my first statement: a serialized novel is a novel delivered to readers in installments over time.

JOE

How long have serialized novels been around?

YAEL

The first proper serialized novel (that is, a novel written by one person and meant to be a novel—and, yes, I say this in order to exclude One Thousand and One Nights) was Honoré de Balzac's The Old Maid published in a French newspaper in 1836. This was actually the first daily newspaper in France, and the publisher included the serialized novel in order to lure people into buying his paper so much more frequently than they were used to buying newspapers. It was a good ploy, worked wonders for circulation, and soon everyone was doing it.

That same year in England Charles Dickens began to serially publish The Pickwick Papers, which no one much liked for the first three installments but everyone suddenly loved starting with the fourth installment. Dickens became a household name and every newspaper and magazine started scrambling to sign up writers to produce serial novels for them. Pretty soon, and for much of the 19th century, it was rare for a novel to be published as a book without first appearing as a serial.

Serialization was used to to test commercial viability and to build an audience.

JOE

Why do you think serialized novels growing in popularity amongst writers?

YAEL

It's a tough time for writers. I mean, it's always been a tough time for writers, but it's even tougher now. Shrinking book market, skittish publishers, demise of the bookstore, etc. I think we're all just looking for new ways to find an audience to appreciate what we produce.

Serialization once worked very well for connecting authors with readers, and there's reason to think it'll work again.

JOE

I love that. How about for readers? What are the advantages of serialized novels for readers?

YAEL

People are constantly telling me that they wished they read more books. When I ask them what's stopping them they always have the same answer: lack of time and not knowing what to read next. Serialization helps with both. If you feel like you don't have a lot of time to spare you don't want to pick up a 300 page novel. But who doesn't have half an hour to spare here and there for a serial installment? It's a great way to ease people into reading longer works.

It's similar to what happens to most of us when we watch TV shows on Netflix. I don't think I've ever sat down and said, “I feel like watching six hours of Breaking Bad.” I sit down to watch one hour like a reasonable human being and then I don't get up for a very long time.

As for the ‘what to read next' problem, serialization helps with that in two ways. First, because you can keep returning to the same book again and again, as it comes out over time. And second because the stakes are so much lower each time you start a book. Don't like the first installment? Don't get the second.

It makes choosing your next read a less daunting task.

JOE

I completely agree. That makes a lot of sense. Serializing can't be easy, though. What are you learning about how to serialize a novel at Plympton?

YAEL

One thing we're learning is that it is hard to figure out what rhythm people like for the release of their installments. They hate monthly, I'll tell you that. A month might as well be a decade as far as serial reading goes. But is weekly ideal? Daily? Release everything all at once and let the reader choose their pace? That's what we do it for our library of classics on DailyLit, but it's harder to know if that'll fly with our original fiction. It seems to be working pretty well with the Netflix original series House of Cards, though, which is some evidence, but it's hard to know how heavily to weigh it.

Another thing we've learned is that in a serial novel the sense of stakes have to be apparent and gripping from the first few pages of the first installment. If they're not, the reader won't remember enough about the story to care about the second installment.

Then there's the “third episode problem”. It's a lot easier to write a great set-up than it is to carry it through. No surprise. We all have enough false starts to novels to know that. But it's something to be careful about when writing a serial, because you can finish two installments and feel pretty safe and then you get to the third and realize you have no idea where it's going. We've noticed it's pretty much always the third installment where this happens, and we've noticed that it's pretty much always because the writer didn't have a clear enough sense of stakes in mind. Now we never sign a serial until we've seen at least three installments.

JOE

Fascinating. If writers want to learn more about how to serialize their novels, where can they go?

YAEL

Actually looking at serialized novels is actually probably the best way to figure out how to do it. I highly recommend Margaret Atwood's Positron series, published by Byliner.

JOE

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Yael. This was fascinating. Readers, if you're interested in reading one of Plympton's serialized novels, you can check out The Many Lives of Lillith Lane

Have you ever considered writing a serialized novel?

PRACTICE

Write a scene that would hook a reader into your serial novel.

(For example, the hook of Positron by Margaret Atwood is when the protagonist realizes his wife might be having an affair with his “double.” The hook of Yesterday's Gone is when the protagonist realizes everyone has disappeared. In television, the hook of Lost, is when the plane crashes on the mysterious island.)

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

Happy writing!

(Some of the links above are affiliate links. By purchasing from them, a small percentage of your purchase goes to supporting this community. Thanks!)

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

15 Comments

  1. sefton-bowler

    The world of fan fiction is full of serialized novels. Readers love to get the notification that a new chapter is up, and writers love writing cliffhangers! I bet this is driving the trend.

    Reply
    • Colton Durbin

      My thoughts exactly, sefton. I’ve rarely ever seen fanfics posted all at once (unless they’re one-shots/short stories, of course), and reader feedback can have a huge impact on how future chapters/installments are written.

  2. Colton Durbin

    They had set up camp in the shadow of a rocky outcropping, at the side of a ravine enshrouded by trees. Silas had been thankful for the heavy shade, but even at sundown the air inside the tent was unbearably hot.

    Stripping off his vest and pitching it back into the darkness, Silas strode out into the dusk and unbuttoned his shirt to the chest. It gave him some reprieve from the heat, but even so his skin was still slick with perspiration. The thin cotton of his top had nearly soaked through, clinging uncomfortably to his back and shoulders, but Silas had resolved to maintain some dignity in front of his guards. He straightened his posture, rolled up his sleeves, and approached the fire.

    The horses had grown complacent since he had fallen asleep, swishing their tails by the corpse of a great oak and gnawing at patches of ragweed that sprouted up around its base. It seemed that Dirk really did have a way with the beasts. The animals had become increasingly skittish the closer they came to the Scar, but with a word or a stroke of the mane, the mercenary had somehow been able to render them calm again. It was one of the few things about the man that interested Silas. He would give him that much.

    Dirk himself was seated on the ground by the fire, limned in orange by the faint sunlight that managed to pierce the canopy. He was hunched over a metal pot, stirring something within it that vaguely resembled a stew. Other than the banging of the spoon and the occasional nickering of the horses, the woods were silent.

    “Our dinner?” Silas’ hands settled on his hips, over the smooth leather of his belt. A gentle breeze picked up, blowing the scent of the meal towards him, and Silas wrinkled his nose in anticipation. To his surprise, it smelled far less unappealing than he would have imagined.

    Dirk’s hands stilled for a moment, and he glanced over his shoulder. A ghostly smile played at his lips, revealing a hint of teeth too white and straight for a man of his class. “Why Mr. Crawford, you’re awake. Have yourself a good nap?”

    Silas ignored the question, wiping away a trickle of sweat that had crept over his brow. “It’s too damned hot for autumn.” How Dirk was still clothed in his heavy gray wool, Silas could not possibly fathom. “What are we eating?”

    Dirk smiled again. “Stew.” He chuckled and gestured to a nearby log. “Now come on and have a seat, Mr. Crawford. Why don’t you tell me more about this here business you got in the Scar? Food and weather is strangers’ talk, after all.” Again, that ghostly smile.

    Silas snorted. Dirk had a way of speaking that implied some wry sense of humor. He didn’t much care for it. “Well I’m not your friend. If that makes us strangers I’d be more than happy to play the part.” Silas swept his gaze over the entirety of the campsite, past the horses and the wagons and the tents. Someone was missing. “Where the hell is Brooks?”

    “Scouting.” Dirk shrugged.

    “Still?” Silas narrowed his eyes.

    “He’ll be back soon enough.”

    “It’s been hours, Dirk.”

    “You want to walk into a trap? He’s just doin’ a good job is
    all.”

    Silas ground his teeth. “I would rather have my guards
    protecting me here.”

    “Well he’ll be back. Just give ‘im a little more time.” Dirk set the pot of stew back on a hook over the fire and wiped his hands on his cloak. “Now relax. Sit down, chat a while.”

    Silas grumbled and seated himself on the log. Brooks’ absence was irritating, but what could he do? Besides, he wasn’t about to go traipsing off into the forest in search of the man. “I’m not paying you for the pleasure of your company, nor am I paying you to pry into the specifics of my business.” Silas paused to readjust one of his sleeves. “I am paying you—and damned well, at that—to do your job:
    providing me with safe passage and defense from those who would do me harm.” Silas gave a condescending smile for added effect. “Am I clear?”

    To Silas’ chagrin, Dirk only chuckled. He reached over to
    the stew, withdrew the spoon, and took a quick taste before setting it back in
    place. “As a mountain spring in the light of the sun. But you can’t blame a man for wantin’ to pass the time with a little polite conversation, can you? Them automatons woulda been a lot quieter. Why didn’t you bring some o’ them along instead of old Brooks and I?”

    Silas smirked. “Because, as much as I would have loved that, there are some things most automatons cannot do.” He glanced at the bubbling stew. “Like cook a decent meal. But I say that with all due faith in human ingenuity. Perhaps in a few years I won’t need people like you and Brooks.”

    Dirk did not seem insulted by the comment. He tasted the stew once more, nodded, and scooped two generous helpings into a pair of bowls. Silas eyed them warily before accepting one. “All I’m wondering is, what’s a man like yourself want in the Scar? Don’t rich folk like you have people to do this kind of work for you?”

    Silas helped himself to the stew. It was thick, creamy, and surprisingly pleasant. Perhaps a good cook was worth a few extra words. He covered his mouth as he spoke. “The debtor’s prison tied up most of my father’s funds. The Arcana in the scar is worth more than gold. You do the math.”

    Dirk blinked, considering the information. “Debtor’s prison? Then what about that Church of yours? Didn’t think them phoenix worshippers’d let someone with that kind of reputation go diggin’ around on ‘sacred ground’.”

    Silas allowed himself to grin. “Who said I was selling to the Church?” He scooped more of the stew into his mouth, taking it in small, gentlemanly bites. “No, Phoros has enough artifacts to go around, I think. There’s more demand elsewhere. And more money to be had from… alternate clients.”

    Dirk let out a hearty laugh. “You’re talkin’ about the dark market, Mr. Crawford. Now that I can abide.”

    They finished the rest of their meal in silence, and when
    Dirk had set aside his fourth bowl, he spoke again. “Still, I don’t think you
    know what you’re gettin’ into, Mr. Crawford. These lands, they eat them
    that aren’t prepared.”

    “So I’ve heard.” Silas stifled a burp and set his own bowl
    aside. “But what choice do I have?”

    “There’s always a choice, son.” Dirk shook his head lightly.

    Silas overlooked the small slip in formality. “Perhaps, but
    if so I’ve made mine. Besides, I’m not afraid of wolves or tribals.”

    Dirk fixed Silas with an intense gaze, and for the first
    time that night, his eyes bore no hint of amusement. “Did you hear the wolves
    howlin’ last night, Mr. Crawford?”

    Silas frowned, his left hand brushing almost unconsciously against
    the butt of his pistol, secure in its holster. “I just told you, I’m not afraid
    of wolves.”

    “You ‘aint answered my question. Did you hear the wolves howling last night?”

    Silas was quiet for a moment, a sudden tendril of unease
    creeping into his gut. “No.” The word came out in whisper. He hadn’t heard
    them. The woods had been silent, as usual.

    Dirk rose to his feet and stared off into the shadows beyond
    the trees. Night had fallen. Brooks was still gone. “There’s things out here
    that even wolves are afraid of, Mr. Crawford. And in the Scar, it only gets
    worse.”

    Reply
    • Colton Durbin

      Not sure how “hooking” this is, but it was fun to write!

    • LolaZabeth

      Great dialogue! Also the setting is well-described. I felt like I was right there.

    • Colton Durbin

      Thanks, Lola! My writing can use a lot of improvement, but I’m actually pretty happy with how this piece turned out 🙂

  3. LolaZabeth

    I think it needs stronger hook at this point, but here’s my practice:

    She hated him. Hated his beautiful face. Hated his unflinching eyes. Hated the way he could say so much to her without uttering a single word. Hated his hands and their sense of entitlement to her body. Hated that her body belonged more to him than to herself. Mostly she hated herself for allowing the pure pleasure of him. Having him on her, in her.

    She was never one to play the victim, but as she sat up and rolled her now grass-stained dress down from her waist, she felt nothing less than one. She did whenever he was within proximity. Bronwen stood up with a finality that was lost on him. Although Alexander was scarcely aware, this was the last time. Not by her own volition, but the last all the same.

    She followed the path back home and he trailed a few paces behind her. They passed by the kitchen, which was now a frenzied hive of various aunts, cousins and neighbors, and headed down the long hall to the still room. The room, equal parts apothecary, distillery and pantry, was an odd place to serve a meal but she knew he’d appreciate the privacy.

    She cleared the small working table that was littered with dried herbs and small vials of oils and covered it was a fresh table cloth. As she motioned for him to have a seat, she arranged his place setting with special care making sure the utensils were perfectly parallel to each other. She laid a heavy linen napkin in his lap and poured steaming hot brah careful not to splash as she thoughtfully poured this last cup. Never again would she both relish and abhor the task of serving his meal.

    She spooned a generous helping of suzon peppers, onions and chilled prawn left over from last night’s supper onto his plate. He sat silently waiting and watching her. When his daandu was served, she kissed him on the forehead, as was customary, to bring blessings to the recipient of the meal. She was careful not to meet his eyes. If she did, he would know immediately that things would change. That things were changing.

    Bronwen was about to sit beside him at the table when she became aware of another presence. Without turning to look, she knew that it was Julian standing in the doorway. She could feel her brother’s disapproving gaze. On any other day his disdain would have shamed her. But today, it barely registered.

    Today was the end, and the beginning. The sweet and bitter of it all was heavy on her heart. Nonetheless, it was hers alone, and she wasn’t willing to share it with anyone.

    Reply
    • Charmaine T. Davis

      I would definitely read more! You have succeeded in setting up questions I want answers to.

    • Adan Ramie

      This beginning definitely has a hook; it sunk its claws in my brain almost immediately. I would absolutely read more. I want to know who Bronwen and Alexander are to each other, and what will happen once he realizes it is over. Great job!

  4. Missaralee

    A new start for my WIP, Lindy and the Northern Lights.

    A rope of light sparked and snaked across grandmother’s bedroom. Shadow and firelight were competing armies waging war across the old woman’s face. Lindy was transfixed by fire in grandmother’s eyes. The veils of dementia and bitterness lifted to reveal the true Sasha Goldfeather in all her fiersome presence. She was indomnitable, a viking going out in a blaze of glory. Blaze. Lindy had to put the fire out. The flames from the shattered oil lamp climbed grandmother’s skirts like a ladder to heaven. The old woman was determined to ride those flames into the warm hereafter. Spurred into motion, Lindy dragged the coverlet from the bed and wrapped it tightly around the woman’s frail body, smothering the greedy tongues of fire. “Please Aurora,” she breathed. The flames quickly overwhelmed the room. Lindy pulled her grandmother through the flames and smashed through the hall window with her shoulder, dragging the old woman out onto the porch roof. Sasha was badly burned, and the flames still sprang to life here and there in the night breeze. Lindy shoveled snow onto the woman with bare hands, not even feeling the sting of cold in her palms. She quelled the flames on the woman’s clothes, but the house was lost. The barn would be lost.
    “We have to get down. I have to set the animals loose and pull back the poly from the greenhouse. If it catches, all our seed will go, too.”
    She pushed the woman ahead of her into the soft snow at the side of the roof – at least Lindy hoped it was soft – and followed after her grandmother, landing with a hard hwumf. She dragged her grandmother away from the house before running to the barn. She threw open the doors and every stall. Releasing the pigs from their night crates and setting loose the chickens. She led them all out the great domed door to the real outside, to the frigid cold, and ran back to the greenhouse. It was, in reality, a hoop house, set to create enough warmth for plants. After undoing the loops she pulled the light poly to herself and wrapped it all up into a ball no bigger than a load of laundry. Last she went back for grandmother and dragged her out to the real outside. She tented the poly over her grandmother and the dogs to protect them from the cold and sealed the dome doors shut. Opening the control panel she set the internal atmosphere to high nitrogen and high moisture. She would kill the fire if she could before it took down the dome. They would never make it to town and could not survive a night outside the dome.

    Reply
    • Colton Durbin

      I love your use of metaphor and simile with respect to the fire. The whole piece is well-written and intriguing, especially with the semi-sci-fi vibe near the end. Well done!

    • Missaralee

      Hey thanks, Colton! Writing about fire is tricky; so many clichés attached to it already! And it IS a sci-fi novel. After nuclear winter ravages the globe, one reclusive old woman holds the key to staving off the collapse of the northern colony that betrayed her.

    • Colton Durbin

      That sounds very interesting! Keep up the good work, and I’d love to read it when it’s done!

  5. Shelina Valmond

    I am actually strongly considering doing this. Just getting started though. I’m in the research phase, if anyone has any suggestions I’m open to them.

    Reply
    • Billy Smallwood

      absolutewriter.com

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Headspace
- J. D. Edwin
Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
The Girl Who Broke the Dark
- Evelyn Puerto
91
Share to...