Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The 5 Lessons I Learned from writing Serial Fiction: What You can pick up from #GameOfThrones #GOT

Like so many of my ideas with which I later struggled, writing a serialized novella on Wattpad seemed like a good idea at the time. What's the big deal? Write. Edit. Publish. Repeat. From the standpoint of a writer trying to remain patient as his first novel slowly makes its way to the bookshelves (getting there!) the immediacy of it was the most appealing aspect. Write. Edit. Publish. Repeat. Nothing to it, right? Not so fast. Writing serial fiction challenges you in ways you may never have expected, and, in doing so, teaches you to become a better writer. Here are the five (hard) lessons I learned:

Lesson 1) Let me ask you something: What keeps you waiting for the next episode of your favorite series? I am willing to bet it is the characters. #GOT comes out in April (and I can't wait to be reaquainted with Lord Tyrion and Daenerys Stormborn (I would have said Ned and Rob Stark but... well, you know) even though I, having read the books, know what happens. My motivation is to spend more time with the characters that have pulled me in. When you are watching/reading something over a prolonged period of time, it is your love of the characters that keeps you going. Hard-earned lesson 1? The most important aspect of any work of fiction is the characters. You can have great prose, a thrilling plot, fast pacing, and crisp dialogue, but if your characters aren't well-developed, complex, rich and interesting, you haven't accomplished anything.

Lesson 2) There are two types of writers, plotters and pantsers. The plotter plans out the entire book before it is written, outlining each chapter before striking down word one of prose. The panster begins with a general premise, and then just writes by the seat of her pants, often ending up in a place where she never expected. I am a pantser. I start with the basic plot and the main character, and go from there. When I began The Intern, all I had in mind was a faceless young woman struggling to retain her ideals amidst the chaos of her internship. The first chapter basically wrote itself (always a good sign), the second chapter went well, and then the problems began.

In my mind, a good book, as it reads out, picks up on the small details mentioned in the first few chapters and develops them. I love to mention something in passing in the first chapter and then expound upon it later, and when you are not writing serial fiction, you can go back and add these details as you edit, with the luxury of knowing what details need to be sewn in--but you can't do that when you publish each chapter as you write it. So, my second--hard--lesson learned from writing serial fiction: A small amount of structure and organization goes a long way. Create a basic outline of your next work of fiction, and leave lots of space where you can pencil in ideas as you think of them. You are going to find that every minute you spend so doing will eliminate 5 minutes of editing time later on.

Lesson 3)  Have you ever watched an episode of a series on TV (my favorites are Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Homeland) and been disappointed? One of the reasons the three series I listed are such hits is their consistency. Serialized programs live or die by consistency. When there is an entire week (or more) going by before the next episode airs, you had better fire up the viewer to suffer the wait by creating a good episode. That's why the season finale is always such a doozie--the writer knows it's another 6 to 9 months before the next episode. A mediocre episode loses viewers. Period. A good episode keeps viewers. Period.

Serial fiction presents the same dilemma. In a book, a reader can just keep reading past a mediocre chapter, and the mediocre part is soon forgotten. Not so with serial fiction, especially when there was often several weeks or more in between chapters being posted. And I could see it as I reviewed the numbers of reads (one of the informative aspects of writing on Wattpad). Good chapter, reads remain consistent: mediocre chapter, reads go down. My third--hard--lesson: Every chapter has to be well-written; every chapter has to stand alone. This applies to writing anything, really: if a word or sentence or paragraph or page or chapter can't stand on it's own two feet, get rid of it.

Lesson 4) One of the unique aspects of serialization is that many viewers or readers will jump in the middle of the series. I started watching #GOT in the middle of Season 3--and other than driving my teenage son crazy with questions--I managed just fine. People hear about something, they tell other people, and those other people check out an episode or chapter or two--often times in the middle of something. The writer has to account for this, has to make sure that the reader/viewer can follow along and get drawn in without getting confused and frustrated and tossing in the towel. It's a good skill for a writer to acquire (I haven't mastered it yet, but I'm getting better) and it will pay dividends later on.

The trick is that you have to do it without using a lot of backstory or info dumping. And that's a great thing to practice because backstory and info dumping are manuscript killers. This is especially true in serialization because the people who have already read the previous chapters don't want to go over the same stuff again, they want the story to move forward. The fourth lesson: Always write forward. Too much backstory kills. This is sometimes difficult, I know, because we are taught to start in the middle of a story, and it so tempting--so easy--to plunk down the backstory. But don't do it--agents and editors sniff out this kind of thing like sharks sniff chum. Weave tiny threads of the backstory in--only when absolutely needed--and remember, readers are smart, they can figure a lot of stuff out as well.

Lesson 5) One of the best--and worst--aspects of #GOT is the risks that the author takes. What do I mean? I loved Ned Stark, couldn't wait for Sunday night to see him again, and then he loses his head. That's a risk--when you kill off a character that popular, it's risky. Same thing again with Rob Stark, and so on... BUT there is a lot gained as well. What could be worth that price you ask? Star Trek may have been a great show, but did you ever think that Captain Kirk was going to be vaporized? No, you didn't. Let me ask you: Do you feel the same way about any character in #GOT? (You haven't been paying enough attention if you said yes.) That's my point. George RR Martin got my attention, and he's keeping it. Lesson 5: Take risks. Be innovative. Surprise people. Otherwise you are going to lose them. The same applies to writing a book; a reader can shelf you at any time. Make it so they wouldn't dare.

Ok, thanks for your attention. If you would like to see how if I listened to my own advice, here is the link to The Intern on Wattpad. Wattpad is free and easy to join, and there are over 80 million stories to choose from. March should be an exciting month for me, as my literary agent, the wonderful and talented Liz Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates, is shopping my debut novel, ABSOLUTION. I will certainly keep you all informed when I have a publisher and a publishing date. Thanks again for your support.

Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at peter@peterhogenkamp.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at liz@kimberleycameron.com.