Serial fiction is not exactly a new form. Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Henry James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… they were all at it a long, long time ago. In the last few decades the serial story has been very much out of favour. Indeed, in most genres short fiction itself has dwindled to almost non-existence.
Short science fiction has persisted, and while short stories often return to previously-used characters and settings, true serial fiction has been a rarity.
Is the rise of the ebook changing this?
Serial fiction, and short fiction, have generally been viewed by commercial publishers as dead areas, but one significant change with the advent of e-publishing has been the rise of the long tail: previously unviable niches are now sustainable, with production costs minimised and global reach maximised.
For the writer, serial fiction is an intriguing proposition.
For starters, the form is different. Serial fiction isn’t just a novel cut into shorter blocks and published at intervals. With a novel, the reader has generally invested up front and is more likely to give a book a chance. With serial fiction, readers have only invested one episode at a time: if that chunk doesn’t deliver, and if it doesn’t hook the reader, then why should the reader bother with subsequent episodes? Think of serial TV drama: most aim for that Eastenders ending, the set-up for a big revelation or dramatic conflict that the viewer can’t afford to miss and then, duh, duh, d-d-duh the theme music kicks in.
Some writers will wing it with their serial fiction: write an episode, wait until it has been published and then write the next one – real seat-of-the-pants writing. Others take a more planned approach. But however you do it, the considerations are different, and for me that makes it fun.
It also lets you try new things. You’ll often find that writers really push the limits with their short fiction, while their novel-length work plays it a bit safer. This is partly a result of commercial pressures, of course, but is also because a one-off short story gives you the opportunity to push boundaries; failure with a short story does not usually end careers.
Serial fiction lies somewhere in between: in my Ragged People serial (written for teenagers with my Nick Gifford pen-name), I’ve started with a fairly self-contained story. I have some ideas for what will happen next, I have characters I want to write about, and I’d love to carry on, but then there are lots of writing projects I’d like to work on. By publishing the first story I can gauge response before committing to writing more. (Or, of course, I can ignore response and just plough on regardless…) My hope is that I’ll keep getting nudged for more episodes until I find that I’ve written a novel, almost by accident.
The new Aethernet Magazine showcases serial fiction from some fabulous writers (Eric Brown, Chris Becket and Tony Ballantyne for starters) taking a variety of approaches, from the carefully plotted to the winging it approach, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops. What’s more the Aethernet blog is publishing interviews with the authors about their approaches to serial fiction, which promises to be particularly interesting for writers interested in the form – most recently Chris Beckett, talking about his serialised sequel to Dark Eden (shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award).
As a writer, it’s great to see serial fiction getting a new opportunity. Let’s just hope that readers find it just as exciting!