One of the biggest challenges a writer faces is moving forward. Sounds simple, but it’s all too easy to get caught in a condition I’ll call “the endless loop of perfection.”
I have suffered from such a malady. The part of writing I like best is the shaping, shaving, and sculpting involved in revision. I can tweak a sentence or a first chapter endlessly, looping back, and then looping back again, caught in a state of near aesthetic paralysis until I have everything just right. I tend to get so ensnared (and outright dizzy) in the loop that I endanger “the next”—the second chapter, not to mention the rest of the book.
Now there’s a place for such perfectionist tendencies, and I don’t want to belittle them because obsessive fine-tuning is necessary to write subtle subtext, riveting dialogue, and surprising character development. But there’s also a lot to be said for moving a story forward with an urgent, fevered pace, and even showing it to readers chapter-by-chapter. That’s why I’m intrigued by the comeback of serialized fiction.
Comeback? Yes, there was a time when serialized novels actually dominated the publication of novels. A serial is a work that the author writes in progress—sometimes without a preconceived middle and ending—and publishes on a regular schedule, much like TV shows. In the Victorian era, a rise in literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution ushered in the serialization of novels in magazines and newspapers, not dissimilar from the growth of mobile- and tablet-based reading that is sparking serialization today. In the Victorian era, serialization wasn’t just a way to publish, it was the primary mode for novel publication. Think Charles Dickens, who published most of his novels in monthly or weekly installments. Think The Count of Monte Cristo, which included 139 installments. Among American writers, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote and published Uncle Tom’s Cabin over a 40-week period, and Henry James published several novels in serial form, including The Americans, The Turn of the Screw, and The Bostonians, which he then revised for publication as books.
Like most writers, I like to reflect on my writing process and enjoy experimenting with it (hence my love of NaNoWriMo’s “writing with abandon” approach and all of the creative moxie it spawns), so I’m intrigued by how serialization might enhance writers’ creative processes. One benefit is the built-in reader expectation of more, which puts the writer to a test that involves improvisation, derring-go, and stamina. In Victorian days, many writers made writing an extreme sport of sorts. Alexandre Dumas wrote twelve to fourteen hours a day, working on several novels for serialized publication at once. The main point was to keep the story moving forward—to tease out the plot in titillating episodes to meet reader demand. As Ray Bradbury said, “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him [or her]!” Serialization is all about that wild pursuit—the writer existing in a state of creative incipience.
The chase, though, doesn’t occur in a lonely writer’s office, but with readers practically looking over the writer’s shoulder. Because regular installments of stories created a nearly real-time environment of writing and reading, serial authors in the Victorian era heard immediate reader feedback and altered their tales to more deeply engage their audience. Dickens was especially known to keenly listen to reader reactions and then modify his story based on the feedback he heard. Writers and readers became collaborators, in effect.
The Internet obviously provides tools to amplify that sort of writer/reader “discussion” is many ways, making it the kind of give and take an author might hear from a writing group, or even an editor. Such reader input and demand can prod an author onward. Consider Hugh Howey, who on the eve of National Novel Writing Month in 2009, heard so much demand for his 12,000-word story Wool that he decided to add more segments to it over the next months. It became an informal serialized novel, with each installment building an avid discussion among a growing audience of readers clamoring for more. That “more” turned into a self-publishing phenomenon.
With an engaged audience and such immediate feedback, I think serialization can be an amazing tool to overcome writers’ no. 1 enemy: self-doubt. As Erica Jong said, “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged. I had pieces that were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.”
I wonder how many writers get trapped in the finishing instead of the giving of one’s story to the world? Deciding when a work is done will always be a tough decision, but serialization offers a pathway out of “the endless loop of perfection”—and perhaps toward a better novel, sparked by regular deadlines and constant reader feedback that can be used in not only story creation, but revision.
We write to move readers, but the story must move forward to do so.
This is a repost of an essay I wrote for JukePop a while back on serialization and how it can affect one’s writing process.