Serial Writing: Bitter Truths and Realities

Not quite five months ago, I decided to do something crazy and begin writing Zero, my science-fiction web serial. I think this sums it up the best: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided I wanted to try my hand at it. Could I write quality science fiction on a weekly basis? Could I make something legible with minor editing? On some weeks, I haven't managed any editing at all. This wasn't the exercise in perfection that I set out to create. It's more like a comedy of errors, stress, and self-loathing.

This isn't a bad thing. Week after week, I come up to bat, determined that I will get Zero online because that is what I set out to do. I failed once.

I was five minutes late.

That really bothers me, in a way. But, I'm also really proud of myself. I didn't meet my deadline, but I kept trying, and I tried quite hard. I swallowed my pride, admitted my failure, and life went on. No one cared I was late. Truth is, I think the fact that no one cared that I was late hurt my pride more than the fact I was late to begin with — even if I was only late by five minutes. Funny how that works out sometimes, isn't it?

I have learned something about myself as a writer through the experience of sitting down and writing Zero. I've also learned something about myself from working on the Romantic Fantasy and The Eye of God at the same time. This came as a bitter and harsh truth to me. Maybe I'll save you some anguish through sharing my experiences.

Zero has been a hard story to tell. I write at a stately 200 words an hour more often than not when I'm working on it. I struggle with it most weeks. I often come away feeling inferior. Worse, I often come away feeling like I have done my readers an injustice. When I set out to write Zero, I set out to write a final-form web-serial. Something I could be really proud of.

The truth is? This isn't much better than rough-raw draft for me. This is the most bitter truth of all, and the reality that once I'm done the story, I will be doing massive revisions to it prior to selling it on Amazon. (Yes, I would like to make money off of this work at some point… this is my career, after all!) This was an exercise in failure, in handling different types of pressure, and skewed perceptions.

Skewed perceptions?!

I went into this thinking about this story differently than I do my other novels. I went into this wanting to create the best story I possibly could while under pressure. The rule of threes promptly kicked my ass. Rule One: You can't have all three things. Pick two. Rule Two: The one thing you have to exclude is likely the one thing you'll regret most about excluding it. Rule Three: What will go wrong can go wrong.

In my set of three, I started off with these three things I wanted to accomplish: Updating on time. Polished writing. An entertaining story.

You guessed it, the one crossed off is the sacrifice to Rule One. Do I like that? No. I hope I'm telling an entertaining story, but the truth is, the fate of a serial writer is not knowing whether or not your readers are really enjoying it. 

I haven't even been able to get the whole ‘updating on time' thing perfect, either.

This is where the skewed perceptions bit comes to play hardball. Let's face it. If I hadn't set the expectation of polished writing, I wouldn't be lamenting. If I hadn't set myself up to update by a specific time each week, I wouldn't be stressed. The only thing I got right was trying to tell an entertaining story. That's what I want to do each and every time I pick up the pen. I want to take you on a journey with me. I want to step out my front door, hand-in-hand with each and every one of my readers, and go on a great adventure. I want to find out what is over the next hill, and I want to take you with me.

That's a big part of why I write. I went into Zero wanting to accomplish that. But, I made a few mistakes. I made a few big mistakes. I can't erase them, I won't hide them, and while I regret them a little, I'll see this through as I said I would see this through.

Because I changed how I thought about Zero, it impacted how I wrote it. That's not necessarily a good thing. What would normally only take me an hour to do, I'm spending six or more on. I'm pulling my hair. I'm stressing over it.

Worse, there is no tangible evidence that the extra time investment is actually making any difference whatsoever on the quality of the story. Some days, I'm only doing token edits because the big, heavy boulder of self-doubt and loathing comes crashing down on my head. Zero is a labor of love, and it's one I've made out to be far harder and difficult than it needs to be.

want Zero to be perfect, therefor it is not. This may not make sense to some of you, so I'll try to explain it. When I write, I often get lost in the story. I'm so busy wondering what my characters would do, wondering how they'd get themselves out of the trouble they're in, that I often wish I could leave the real world behind as I pursue theirs. Do I have characters talking to me in my head? No. I don't have a real muse either. All I have is me, the pen in my hand, the paper in front of me, and the desire to try to make these characters and events as real in the readers' mind as I possibly can. In the case of Zero, I'm typing directly to the computer, but the idea is generally the same.

The blunt truth is, the perception has changed the type of pressure I put on myself.

I have two serials. The Romantic Fantasy was never meant to be updated consistently. I write on it as I have time to write on it. Those who egged me on to write it knew this when I started posting updates. I try it no differently than I do The Eye of God. The pressure is gone. Zip. Zilch. Zadda. I don't edit it at all. I don't have any plans to edit it until the entire book has been drafted out.

To me, the romantic fantasy feels much more alive than Zero for this reason. It develops as it will. I'm under no pressure to work on it. I am allowed to let my creativity flourish on it as needed.

Zero is the bottom of the barrel, scrapping by week-by-week with the same determination as a starving peasant in search of scraps. It should have been the rising star of my writing career.

Once again, it is all a matter of perception, and because of how I set out to write Zero, I've shot myself in the foot several times.

If I could repeat this exercise again, I think I would finish the book first and then do a daily update. That way, I could watch it rise, grow, then fall as it finished, leaving behind a fun two or three months of dedicated readers coming back for more.

Because I put all of these expectations on myself, it comes as no surprise that I hope for a lot of feedback from readers. Every +1 the posts get are a huge boost to my ego / vanity / pride. At least I admit it, right? Each +1, tweet, or like on facebook validates the hard work and effort I put in. Is that a good mentality to have? Probably not, but that's the rub. Because I put that pressure to go out and write an awesome web serial, I want to see if that hard work was worth it to people.

I need to stop that. It's a fruitless endeavor, because I'm not going to stop writing even if no one likes my stuff (though I'll definitely be doing a lot more editing than writing…) and it isn't going to change whether or not people read my stuff.

All I can say is if you decide to try your hand at serial writing, go into it with a lot less pride and a lot more humility than I did. Go in wanting to tell an awesome story. Go in knowing when you're going to post, so that your readers can have their expectations. Go in knowing it won't be perfect, but that it doesn't need to be.

Go in as you are, because that is why people want to read your stories.

(This is not a claim stating that you don't need to improve as a writer. We all need to improve as writers.)

When I started Zero, I set myself up to fall. It shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone — myself included — that I have fallen. But, there is a silver lining in this cloud: I kept with it. Despite the internal frustrations, the self-loathing I feel that I can't reach that lofty goal of perfection, I keep going. As of today, Zero has 22,500 words. That's a fifth of a novel. Week after week, for almost five months, I've kept with it, even when my doubts keep telling me to give up and walk away — that no one will notice.

Next week, I am going to do something I should have done all along, catering to my rule of threes: I won't try so hard. I'll focus on the important thing, which I feel is telling an enjoyable story.

I took the first step three updates ago, when I let myself play with my love of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Two updates ago, I played with a different idea. This update, I punned.

Who knows where my next update will take me? Hopefully, to a better hill to climb over.

I hope you'll keep walking with me to see just where this road will go.

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