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Serial novels: new platforms for an old format

Launched this month, Amazon’s Kindle Serials will release stories in episodes. Chris Farnell looks at serialisation, past and present, and wonders if a new medium will be enough to bring an old format back into fashion.

More than a century before we were all standing around water coolers voicing our disappointment about the ending of Lost, our ancestors were doing the same about the weekly twists and turns in the likes of Wilkie Collins’ The Moon Stone, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and almost everything Charles Dickens ever wrote. They didn’t have water coolers back then, so they mostly stood around warm buckets of water, but the point is the same. It’s a format Amazon is currently attempting to bring back with its Kindle Serials – and like most brilliant revival ideas, it never really went away.

Tales of the City, the series of books that made millions of young gays realise they wanted to live in San Francisco in the 70s, started life as a series of installments in the San Francisco Chronicle, and later the San Francisco Examiner. As recently as 2008, Alexander McCall Smith serialised his book Corduroy Mansions in The Telegraph. The truth is, one way or another we’ve never really got over our love of being told a story a little bit at a time.

And yet, much the like the renaissance in choose your own adventure books, the current return to serial novels seems to have its roots in the way the Internet has been changing the way we read. Robert Brockway has recently put out his own serial e-book independently of Kindle’s “serials” idea, and he sees the format as uniquely suited to the way we read:

“I put Rx out as a serial novel because I saw the impending rise of eBooks starting up, and serial novels seem like such a natural fit for the format. It’s actually weird to me that there’s not more serial fiction and short stories in prominent places on the market today. Everything on the internet is primarily bite-sized text so people can consume pieces quickly; why on earth is that confined to stuff like non-fiction, reporting, and comedy? Shouldn’t fiction be following the same trend?”

To Brockway, the novel naturally fits the serial format:

“All stories naturally break down into segments. Their parts are iconic – beginnings, middles, climaxes, denouements, epilogues – why not give them to people as they come available? Why not let them read the parts in smaller pieces, because even readers are busy these days, and there are shiny things to chase.”

However, serial fiction is as much about how it’s written as how it’s published. While some of these books were written in their entirety, redrafted, put under the red pen of an editor and then redrafted again in their entirety before chapter one was allowed anywhere near the public, Charles Dickens was writing his books week to week on a deadline. Alexander McCall Smith wrote his recent serial novel at a rate of 1,000 words a day. Even Robert Brockway, who wrote and edited his book in its entirety before the first part went out, was still doing editorial passes on it right until the final part became available. For most novelists, who get to the last chapter only to realise they need a gun to go off, so nip back to put one on the mantelpiece in Chapter One, this sounds like a kind of hell.

As a legion of distraught Firefly fans will tell you, learning the story as it is created has its risks as well. The readers of The Mystery of Edwin Drood felt much the same on the 9th of June in 1870, on learning that said mystery would remain forever unsolved because the author had inconsiderately died the previous day.

Even if the author manages not to die, that’s no guarantee you’ll see the story end. Readers of Stephen King’s foray into the format, The Plant, have been waiting since December 18th, 2000 to get the next chapter.

But there’s an upside to all this. One of the worst things about writing is that in the time it takes to produce a first draft – whether it’s six months, a year or five, you are completely on your own. With social media you have an audience, an audience who’ll cheer you on, or slag you off, or if you’re really good get incredibly pissed off when something happens to a character that the audience didn’t want to happen. That may be worth sacrificing some planning for.

So is this where we’re headed next? Are we going to be sitting in pubs comparing theories as to what’s going to happen in the next chapter of a megablockbuster serial best seller? Brockway again:

“I’m not sure what the future of serial novels looks like. I think Rx was a success, for what it was, but I don’t think readers in general are fully aware of serial novels yet, much less eager to embrace them. But the only way we’re going to change that is to keep trying them; keep shoving them down reader’s faces until they learn to like the taste.”

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