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How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Serials
And Love the Reader
I spent a long time, some might say too long, researching the habits of serial writers. Going all the way back to the days of Worm by Wildbow, coming in at 1.6 million words! I was fascinated (to say the least) and wanted to figure out that formula. I was obsessed. This was back in the early 2010’s. Well, here we are over a decade later and it seems the obsession has taken on a new coat of paint but it’s the same nonetheless. How can we do that?
I found myself doing a rinse and repeat on different attempts at writing a serial and looking to deliver it to the masses. Once a month. Once a week. Twice a week. Every other day. When will the madness end!
And believe me, it was madness. Save yourself the trouble and just don’t do it!
I then realized I was going about this all the wrong way. Instead of looking at the writer and trying to figure out their secret ingredients for the sauce, I needed to look at the reader. Or a better way to put it, the person consuming the sauce. What kind of individual is willing to stay with a story for years (decades even) and the only promise is that the story will come often and never end? That’s gotta take a special kind of reader. One who is dedicated. One who is devoted. And one who, as much as we may like to believe otherwise, actually can handle upwards of 5k words with each chapter and multiple times a week (if you please).
It turns out these voracious readers are not as few and far between as you might think and they are a lot easier to seek out. I will refrain from a Star Trek phrase here, though I find myself knee deep in multiple series these days and loving every minute of it.
And so, I bring you:
THE STAR TREK PHENOMENA
Are you a Trekkie? I am a diehard trekkie, though I might get called out on that title because I hold Voyager in my top 3 favorites of all time. But I digress…
It is because of my admiration and attention to detail of the vast space and time that exists within the Star Trek universe that I immediately found myself in the shoes of a reader of serials. It is someone who, like me, lives for the endless stories. For the new addition to the world that interconnects and weaves new characters with old so seamlessly. The story that manages to branch off into its own and still managing to hold even the thinnest of threads to the “other” all at once.
What fascinates me about this phenomena is not that such a vast universe exists in the real world to watch and read and nourish. But that I, but a mere human, am able to contain it all in my brain and bring it forth whenever necessary even if vasts amounts of months or years go by since I’ve seen it last. How? Why?
And trust me, you can ask my wife for verification on this, when it comes to my ability to binge watch tv shows that could not be more different from each other, I rank highly. At the moment I am watching Criminal Minds, Star Trek Discovery, So Help Me Todd, The Great British Bake-Off, and Whitstable Pearl, to name but a few. I am also watching Call the Midwife. A show I love and will go years between “playing catch-up” and yet when it is on all the memories of past episodes and seasons come flooding back. It is like I was watching it only yesterday and continuing the story.
The same can be said of literature. I go years between picking up the next Redwall or Discworld book and yet, when I read the words it all comes back to me. And no matter how much time has past since I last read it, I will always know where I left off and pick it right up like I never left it.
It is in our nature to retain that which entertains us.
ARE YOU BEING ENTERTAINING (ENOUGH)?
This is a gotcha question but also, it isn’t. It’s a real one. Let’s be real with each other for a moment.
So, you want to write a book. Heck, maybe you want to serialize it and share it weekly or whatever. Great. Good for you. Have you written it yet? No. Well, let me stop you here. I suggest you write the damn thing first before you go announcing it from the rooftops.
Okay, so you have written it? Even better.
Who’s gonna read it? This is a trick question. Don’t fall for it cause your immediate answer should be, you. You are going to read it. Cause you wouldn’t write a story that you would never read, amiright?
And if you are the reader, how do you discover books just like this one? Oh, let me guess, there’s never been a book written quite like this one before. Then perhaps you need to find one. No, seriously. Cause the best way to find someone to read your “never been written before” book is to find the people who read what you read and love what you love. Cause chances are they are looking for the one you have just written.
DON’T GO TO THE PARTY EMPTY HANDED
Let’s imagine I’ve been invited to a party. It’s a stretch even for me to do but stick with me on this, I promise I’m going to make a point. I have every intention on going to the party. Do I bring something? What do I bring? Too many choices to get into, but, I must bring something even if that thing is never consumed or seen by the other guests at the party. Why?
This is where my next point comes into play. One step requires being found and we agonize over how to find these elusive readers. For years we research those who’ve done it before and are in the middle of doing it now. We pine to have their readership. But very few of us spend any time on what they will see when we’ve got their attention. Let’s take a poll with a show of hands:
How many of us have a portfolio of work dating back several years with quality content that is at least similar to what you are looking to show off today? Let’s be honest here! Even I can’t raise my hand fully on this one. Sure, I have “some” content from years back but I have the opposite problem. None of my work is fresh and new and recent. The point, if I hadn’t made it yet, is to have something to show.
So what if you’ve got a serial you want to put out into the world right now. You can’t expect strangers to just come on in and read it without at least seeing a few of your samplings from before. It’s easy to say “a chapter a week” if you’ve got the goods ready to go. But the average serial reader is adept to this and will expect you to at least have another serial somewhere that no one’s read before to show you’ve done the work on it and released consistently for a decade.
Remember, as cliche as the saying goes, but even the most popular serial writers today (like Wildbow) had zero writers when they started out but it was through their consistency that they grew an audience that became a following and eventually superfans.
My metaphor to not come to the party (ie the place where your readers are located) empty handed is not silly, just good business sense. It’s a point I can’t stress enough. Don’t tell me about what you got going now, tell me about what you’ve done consistently before. Otherwise, you’ll find the hundreds of subscribers you managed to grab in a short amount of time will eventually dwindle or never actually read what little work you share with them.
IT’S NOT SILLY IT’S GOOD BUSINESS
If this sounds silly to you then perhaps you’re in the wrong business. But if you get what I’m saying, welcome to the silly train! Because you’ve just cracked the very simple and easy code to find and keep readers of your serial that could just as easily translate into financial growth if you just do these three things along the way:
Play the long game.
Produce quality content.
That’s it! Do those three things and over an extended period of time you will get readers for your work. And they will want to buy your books. And those sales will one day translate into monthly subscriptions.
But mark my words: Should you falter on any of the three, none of them will succeed. And your goal will crumble before it’s even begun. You must get good at all three to make it all work.
My next post will go into detail on how to set out implementing these three things using the desire to serialize a novel (or write a serial or any piece of fiction) and have readers to boot! It is a journey I am currently on.
Let’s try this social experiment together.