What I learned from writing serialised fiction

As some of you know, aside from being away from blogging for a while, I’ve been writing a serial. At the end of the year I will be releasing the epidsodes, or installments, as a complete season. In preparation for that, and the next season, which I hope to release next year, I’ve been considering the valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way. The first and most important, is the frequency between episodes. Next time they will be weekly, rather than monthly. A compromise to the suggestion that I should post a daily installment.

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Here are my top five tips:

1: Find your inner-architect: I’m going to start with the obvious first, and for those of you who are planners, you can sit back and give yourself a nice pat on the back for having this one in the bag. For those of us who go with the flow, more like an errant butterfly flitting from one place to another, it can be a little tough. Loose notes become a thing of the past, and basic outlines…nope – not happening. That means digging back through all those extremely helpful posts about the best way to map your characters, etc. because there are just some things Excel can’t do. Even my whiteboard, which covers an entire wall (I kid you not) doesn’t meet the requirements when so many timelines are happening at once. And though post-it notes are useful, the novelty wears off when you’re buried beneath them trying to dig your way through  to the prize – that being information pertinent to the plot.

2. Learn from TV Shows: I chose to post my episodes monthly, and given there is a lot of action, plus more characters than it is safe to use in a novel (see point 3), it isn’t surprising that readers lose the thread because they have to wait for the next installment. It wasn’t until I was watching one of my favourite shows that it hit me like Homer Simpson’s palm at the back of my head…no wait, that’s Gibbs from NCIS – I’m getting my shows mixed up. Anyway, I digress. The point I’m trying to make is those two helpful words at the beginning of any show – ‘Previously on…’ As easy as that, by adding a summary, readers are caught up. It might seem obvious, but it never occurred to me. D’oh!

3. Arm you Beta Readers: I have a few loyal beta readers who are familiar with my work, but who aren’t necessarily familiar with serialised fiction in this format. I failed to explain that, like a television show, the series has a regular cast of characters and they don’t all get to shine at once. Like a TV series, it can be overwhelming to get to know so many new ‘faces’ and unlike a novel when it is advisable to limit the number of interactions, this type of series (in my opinion) relies on a diverse cast who each get their own story arc.

4. Don’t let your characters lead you astray: Going back to my earlier point, and my errant tendencies, I found myself becoming easily distracted by the number of sub-plots that emerged as I was writing an episode. As writers we know our characters, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their secrets. We might know their backstory, might even be intimately familiar with them and think we know what direction they will take, but that isn’t always the case. Our characters like to take us by surprise, and reveal details of their past that threaten to pull us in an entirely different direction. It wasn’t until my ‘notes’ on a character’s backstory became a twenty thousand word story in its own right that I caught myself!

5. Plan for the journey, regardless of the destination: This again seems like an obvious point, but it’s not enough to rely on a strong beginning to a readers journey, because, even if you’ve hinted at their final destination, what comes in between must contribute to the trip itself. I did a lot of research before committing to the serial and the best tips I found relate to writers falling short around episode 3. We’re all familiar with those filler episodes in a TV show that don’t seem to progress the story, and though they are harmless enough, you must have a strong following before you can throw readers/viewers a curve ball and expect them to catch it.

I also found it useful to read serialised novels before I began, and there are some great examples. I won’t lie, there were times I wondered if I chose the right format, but overall I’m happy I decided on sharing the story in bite-sized chunks.

If you’re interested in any other part of this particular writing journey, feel free to pick my brain as it were.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Mel

 

 

Writing Dialogue

We’ve all dipped into them: books whose plots zip along well enough but whose dialogue makes you want to slit your wrists. Or maybe the authors’ wrists. The kind where characters stand around telling each other what they already know, as if they have one eye on the reader and want desperately to clue in. Or whose characters don’t sound quite like they’re from this planet because something’s off in the rhythm of their speech.

Dialogue’s one of those places where your characters make themselves known directly, without the interpretation of the narrator. Or, let’s face it, the writer. So it needs to convince.

Great dialogue comes naturally to a few writers, and if you’re one of them, go read something that’ll be more useful to you. Me, though? I had to struggle with it, so if you’re not a natural, let me make a few recommendations:

Listen. Seriously. Listen to a short snippet of conversation. Then go away and write down as much it as you remember. It may not be much, so do it again, and then do it some more. Tune yourself to the rhythm of your own speech and the speech of people around you. Listen not just for the content of what people say but for the words, the phrases, the rhythms, the grammar, the oddities. Listen for anything that marks one person’s speech as particularly their own. In some speakers, you’ll find a peculiar strength and poetry once you learn to hear it.

Tape conversations. This is a variant on the last exercise. Tape a short bit of conversation, then transcribe it. Keep it short, because transcription’s a slow process. Again, you’re tuning your ear. A student of mine did this once and learned that her four-year-old had been tracking an entirely different set of events than the adults were.

Read your dialogue out loud. This feels strange at first, but do it anyway. If you have trouble speaking the words you’ve written, so will your characters. If something feels wrong, you don’t necessarily need to know what the problem is, just try something else. You don’t have to limit this to dialogue. Reading everything you write aloud will tune your writing to your speech patterns.

Redefine dialogue.  Dialogue isn’t just about speech. Listen for the pauses. Notice who interrupts and who gets interrupted. Watch for gestures and the ways they add to the conversation, and detract. Watch what people do with their hands and with the things they have in their hands. Or with their heads, their faces, their feet, and anything else you can think of. Watch where they breathe. Watch where you breathe, and how and why. Listen to the sound of their voices as well as the content. When you write down your snippet of dialogue, you don’t have to limit yourself to words alone. You may want to, but you can also use silence, visual information, and anything else that helps get the interchange on paper.

Notice the grammar of the spoken language: Very few of us use officially approved grammar when we’re talking. Example? Would you say “who interrupts whom”? It’s grammatically correct, but the spoken language is abandoning whom, and many of the people who still use it struggle to keep the rules straight because they don’t hear it enough for it to come naturally. Another example, and one I’m fond of, is the double is: “the fact is, is that….” I think it’s an Americanism, but how or when that got started I have no idea. We also speak in half sentences, in non-sentences, in sentences that on paper would go on for half a page. We change our minds halfway through what we’re saying and end up pairing a singular verb with a plural subject. We do all kinds of things that would drive a grammar teacher to tears, and we don’t notice most of them. Teach yourself to notice, and instead of disapproving, love the oddities.

Notice word choice: Listen to the actual words people use, not just what they’re trying to say. Who says, “That’s the way we speak” and who says, “That’s the way we talk”? What impact does that difference have? The more closely you listen, the less predictable your dialogue will be, and the more real.

Respect the speakers: Don’t try to make everyone sound the same. Respect the differences in their speech, but don’t exaggerate them. Treat all accents with respect—especially the ones that are different from your own. Be very careful about trying to catch an accent by misspelling words. A very few writers have managed to make this work, but the odds are good that you’ll make the character look ignorant—and make yourself look even more ignorant in the process. If you’re trying to capture an accent that is (or that you consider to be) nonstandard, use a very light hand or you’ll sink.

And finally, enjoy it. The spoken language is beautiful in all its oddities and unpredictabilities. Love it.


Ellen HawleyEllen Hawley is the author of three novels, The Divorce Diet (2014), Open Line  (2008), and Trip Sheets  (1998). She has taught fiction writing and has worked as an editor, a cab driver, a radio talk show host, and several other improbable things. Her blog, Notes from the UK, is about the oddities of living as an American in Britain. Stop by and see what she’s up to.

Let’s try a little experiment

In my last post I gave tips on writing comedy, gathered from resources I’d found and felt worthy of sharing. Armed with these tools I began to experiment. I’ve hit a few snags. Mainly my reluctance to plan, because comedy, it seems, is a genre which requires careful planning.

The next problem relates to finding a suitable sounding board, and then I thought of you –  my audience. What better way to gauge what works and what doesn’t than seeking the advice of my WordPress family.

So, I would welcome advice and feedback on what I’ve got so far. I must warn you, I’ve fallen into some of the usual traps, but I’m confident I can turn it around with your help!

The Sequel

“It’s me. Again. If you’re trying to make me paranoid it’s working, because now I’m convinced you’re ignoring me. I’m tired of talking to this machine, Mikey, the Schwarzenegger impersonation can only go so far. Right now I want to hasta la vista your ass, and the fact you’re forcing me to make such a terrible joke just pisses me off. I’m not kidding. You might be the funniest thing since sliced bread right now, but I’m far from amused. Pick up the god damn phone and CALL ME BACK.”

The machine stuttered a little before it succumbed to the silence. It was probably age, either that or a deep-seated loathing for people who hung up in the midst of a temper tantrum.

“That didn’t even make sense,” I muttered to the machine, my new-found friend and fielder to the world, or at least my agent. “What’s so funny about sliced bread?”

“Exactly,” I said to the ensuing silence.

Unhealthy perhaps, but then I was living like a poor man’s Howard Hughes. I’d spent days, or maybe it was weeks, barricaded in my office. My only goal – to write a sentence that would evoke more than an uncomfortable grimace. I was going to be funny if it killed me. At this rate it probably would.

My desk was brimming with plastic cups, each loaded with the balled up remnants of my latest manuscript – a writer’s version of beer pong, only there was no alcohol and I definitely had no balls.

I’d gained my fame under false pretences. I was a one hit wonder. A fake. The critically acclaimed comedy was a sham of epic proportions. A happy accident. Basically, I was buggered.

Now I was expected to write the sequel, and I could feel the literary sharks circling, hungry for my blood. I tried to picture the headline, but that only made me want to bang my head against the desk because nothing came to mind. Still, it would be funny, as long as somebody else wrote it.

It would detail all the ways I’d failed; the comedy fell short, the gags were old, laughs cheap. And the saddest thing of all – it was all true. My current attempt was so forced it bordered on excruciatingly and it was about as funny as a punch to the face.

The keyboard had become my enemy, my pen an instrument of failure. My eyes were burning and my stomach was rumbling from a lack of nutrition coupled with the humiliation of succumbing to coulrophobia. Only clowns weren’t the real enemy. That was all on me.

This time I did bang my head against the desk, and when I was through, I kept my head down. Perhaps sleep would help, I thought desperately. Who could be funny when they were suffering from sleep deprivation? I didn’t really want to answer that and so I succumbed to the land of dreams.

By the time the machine kicked in again, I was floating on a wave of happy.

“I’m coming over, and if you don’t have anything ready for me I’ll kick you from there to Timbuktu…”

“Who even says that anymore?” I wondered, and what made her think she could follow through on the threat. She was five foot nothing with the grace of a dancer, though granted she had a serpents tongue… “Holy shit,” I muttered reaching for the phone. Why didn’t I think of it before?

****

Thanks in advance for your comments.

Mel