Serial Thriller – How Writing “The Ties That Bind” Has Been A Whole New Experience

About a year ago, SF author Tony Ballantyne sounded me out, explaining his plans for an ebook serial magazine for SF&Fantasy. He’d be committing to a year-long run of 12 monthly instalments, though individual stories could and should vary in length, so the mix for each issue would vary. Was I interested in being involved?

Yes, I was. ‘Always take the chance to try something new’ is a piece of advice from a famous author which I took to heart early on in my writing career. That said, I know very well that serial fiction is nothing new. Many of our greatest novelists’ works were originally published in magazines and newspapers; Dickens, Dumas, Conan Doyle, Scott. That’s how publishing popular fiction worked in their day. SF&F magazines continued that tradition through their heyday. Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang” is merely one genre novel arising from linked, collected short stories. Even now, Alexander McCall Smith first publishes his ‘Scotland Street’ novels as daily serials in The Scotsman newspaper. Since the best way of learning about something is always to give it a go, I was interested to learn first-hand what the idiosyncrasies of this particular writing style might be.

Once I’d agreed to be involved, I had a few decisions to make. I considered some of the story ideas I have jotted down in notebooks and found one that seemed well suited to episodic telling. Looking in more detail at that particular tale’s structure and arc, I found it fell nicely into eight instalments. Looking at the other commitments in my diary for 2013, I was confident I could deliver the equivalent of a short story a month, which is to say, five to six thousand words. So I drew up a more detailed outline and began work. Though only on the first few episodes. One thing I recalled from A level Eng.Lit. days is that Dickens in particular took a flexible approach to his writing, taking note of reader feedback as his stories developed. Would I get such feedback, especially in this Internet age? I had absolutely no clue but I wanted to be open to that possibility. I also had a vague sense that if I was writing a story to be read in instalments, that’s how I should work.

Well, the feedback I’ve had has been very enthusiastic, which is splendid. However it’s not been story-specific and that turns out to be perfectly fine with me. Looking back, I think I’d have struggled to adapt what I was writing, episode by episode, to satisfy detailed questions or suggestions. I was already finding I had to revise the outlines which I’d drawn up for each episode. A lot of that was trimming my ideas back to focus on the central character’s narrative, and not just to keep within the agreed word count. If this had been a novel, I’d have been happily expanding the world and the story with sub-plots as I went along. However I soon realised that, never mind the readers, as the author, I’d have trouble keeping track of too many subsidiary characters and events, as I was coming back to the story after a month’s gap each time.

Add to that, if I’d been writing a novel, I’d have been able to go back over those sub-plots and loose threads as I revised and rewrote to produce the final draft. Ideas that hadn’t worked out could be discarded. Background characters who showed unforeseen promise, or who proved unexpectedly useful for later plot purposes could be drawn into the foreground. Here I soon became well aware, that once each month’s episode was published, I was committed to those words on the page. I couldn’t go back and tweak things to fit ideas where I’d changed my mind. I especially couldn’t go back and slip in something important which I’d decided I needed for plot purposes later on. So if something was going to be crucial to the final unfolding of the story, I absolutely needed to make sure it was there in the early stages. That really did focus my mind, and makes me very grateful that as a writer, I am naturally inclined to preplanning and plot-outlining.

In some ways, writing each episode was more akin to writing a short story; it had to be complete in itself in a quite different way to a novel’s chapter. At the same time though, each instalment also needed a certain amount of recapping in the initial paragraphs. That’s one way this has been the closest thing I’ve done to writing for radio or TV. I did need to open each month with the equivalent of ‘Previously on…’ though in more subtle fashion.

The end of each instalment was also subtly different to the end of chapters in a novel. Obviously, those are natural break points for writer and reader alike. As such I’m used to rounding up novel chapters by setting a bit of a hook, or with an eye to a smooth transition to a different narrative strand, things like that. But it is still up to the reader whether they chose to close the book at that point or carry on for just a few pages more… This time though, I had absolute control over where the reader would stop reading. At the same time, I had to make sure they’d come back to find out what happened next. Consequently I found I was writing each chapter towards a distinct crescendo. Very swiftly after that, I realised the perils of leaving the reader with overly melodramatic cliff-hangers. That was a temptation I must resist or the narrative would spiral out of control.

As I drew towards the end of the story as a whole, I discovered something else entirely unexpected. I simply didn’t want to stop. I really, really didn’t want to write the final episode and leave these characters and this world behind, even though I’d known all along how this story would unfold to its conclusion. This was a wholly different sensation to reaching the end of a novel. I’ll be honest; as well as the great sense of achievement at wrapping up a hundred and fifty thousand words of multi-layered epic prose, there’s also a huge surge of relief. Phew, that’s done. I’m out from under the story that’s been filling my every working day, and by that stage, every waking moment. Including those moments when I’m pounding the keyboard with the grim resolve of a Slayer with a stake, determined that this interminable, bloody story must die!

Not this time, and I think that’s because I was coming back to the story month by month, after doing other things in between each episode. I was always keen to get back to it, to reacquaint myself with what was going on and to focus on what must happen next. I now have far more understanding and sympathy for TV scriptwriters who get such howls of outrage when they seize on loopholes in their plotlines in search of escape hatches. “You thought this was the end of the story you’ve invested so much time and emotion in? But no! Look over here!” I could very easily have gone back and picked some plot thread loose, in order to continue this story… But that’s not what I’d agreed to do, so I didn’t.
Which is as it should be, I keep telling myself…
Even as keen readers are already starting to ask what happened to Deyris next…

Will I satisfy their curiosity? That honestly depends how many people ask me. Will I write more stories set in this world? Quite likely, as it’s my preferred setting for non-themed short fiction at the moment. Will I write something novel length? That very much depends on the vagaries of the publishing business and at the moment, those vagaries are pretty damn challenging for midlist authors like me. I will be putting out the whole story as an ebook early next year, and am discussing a modest hardcopy print run with a small press. Seeing how well those ventures do will give me, my agent and potential editors, some indication of the River Kingdom’s wider commercial potential. Meantime, I’ll be working on some other projects which will hopefully enable me to continue writing full-time.

Meantime, Aethernet Magazine itself has four more issues yet to come, and given the quality and variety of the writing so far, each one will be well worth your time and money. If you haven’t been reading the magazine up to now, you can still catch up with all the previous issues any time you like. You only need to click over to to get started. Enjoy!

3 comments

  1. I haven’t read the final installment yet because I want to go back and read it all from the beginning – and at the moment, I’m in the throes of writing yet another story of my own (Sword and Sorcery style – what? How’d that happen!), which means persuading my brain to take time off to read anything is not easy! But I’ll get there – and I’m looking forward to it very much!

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