Thursday 30 January 2020

Serial writing by Penny Alexander part 2

Today's guest is Penny Alexander, who is back with part 2 of her very useful advice on writing serials for The People's Friend – although actually a lot of it applies to all types of womag writing. (Comments in purple are me interrupting.)

You can read part 1 here. 

 by Penny Alexander
part 2

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS...  cutting and shaping

So.  You've done the brainstorming, and the research (especially for anything historical),  created a list of fascinating and fully-described characters and perhaps kept going even after several rejections. Your waste-paper basket is overflowing, but your outline has been accepted. (See here for exactly how to submit your outline, and all the other technical details you'll need.) Now comes the hard bit!

In contrast to working with spidergrams and sticky notes everywhere, now I aim for a little coherence.  I divide each episode into scenes, and decide which character will take the point of view in each. Then I outline each scene in four or five complete (this is important) sentences. Since actions speak louder than words, I want these sentences to show the character doing something. Or perhaps more than one 'something.' For example, the heroine may be combing her hair, but she's also waiting for a knock at the door -
why? (Exciting delivery?) Or the hero may be discussing a project at a meeting, but with his mind still on that row he had with his wife earlier - how is he feeling? It depends on what best moves your narrative forward.

I also spend time choosing my characters' names carefully, and I like to feel I've given them the only name they could have.  But be aware that if names or titles are changed on publication, there's always a reason.  Perhaps there's a clash that week with two characters called by the same name, or there are two titles that sound too similar.  You just have learn to love your character's new name!

KEEP COUNTING...  size matters.

On the website, the length given for a first serial episode is 6000 words. This allows space for the introduction of the main characters, with 5000 words specified for subsequent episodes.  But my latest serial was a sequel, re-introducing existing characters, and I was asked to keep to 5000 words for each episode.  

It's your editor's job  to make final cuts or additions, of course, but it's far better if you can submit a story that is as close to the agreed count as possible. Most writers would prefer to decide for themselves which words to add in or leave out before submitting their work, I think. (I certainly do!)

NOT EXACTLY ALIKE...  a serial is not a short story.

A serial has to tell a story at a different pace, with different ups and downs within it. Each episode will carry narrative threads over to the next, and some of these may not be resolved until the final curtain. Added to this, each episode must somehow entice the reader onwards – the so-called 'cliffhanger' in the final paragraph.  Exciting endings are a good thing, but make sure they grow naturally from within the story. I feel it's best not to overdo the dramatics every time you come to the end of an episode. Keep it real. 

SLOWMAIL NOT EMAIL... don't worry, it'll get there!

These days, serial episodes printed by you are posted to Dundee. It's important, as with all submissions, to pay attention to layout (plain fonts and double spacing) grammar and spelling.  A computer spellcheck can prove a false friend. If in doubt about anything at all, look it up. (Old school grammar books have their uses!) Check you have the correct postage for its weight and size, and wish it good luck as you send it away.

WHY WRITE A SERIAL?... there must be easier ways to see your name in print!

It takes anything from eighteen months to two years (sometimes more) to complete a serial.  There will be email discussions and rewrites along the way.  You have the great advantage of professional help, but you need to accept that help willingly and be prepared to work with it.  

Incidentally, writing my current serial saw me through one house-move, one hospital stay, one family wedding and one horribly leaking roof. Thankfully, nothing worse!  But my impression has always been that once an outline is approved, your editor's commitment to your story will be solidly in place for as long as you wish. 

So, eat up those cornflakes to give you energy, and put the empty cardboard packet to good use!

Why write a serial?    Because human beings – readers and writers - need stories. Because you will learn a great deal. Because you will have time to develop your characters. But most of all, because writing a serial is fun!

Penny's serial, 'The Quest for The Dove Tree' is published by The People's Friend in seven parts from January 25th, and is the sequel to The Flower of Hope. Follow the adventures of Luke Hathern, a Victorian plant-hunter, and Caroline, his very practical and artistic wife, as they travel to the Far East in search of the Davidia Involucrata.

 Pictured is a real Dove Tree, which helped inspire Penny's writing.


Patricia G said...

Thank you so much, Penny, for sharing your valuable experience. Though I'm writing a pocket novel and not a serial, I'm grateful for the advice to split each episode into easily summarised scenes where the protagonist may be involved in doing something concrete while their thoughts are otherwise engaged. Thank you too, Patsy, for arranging the interview.

ados123 said...

Thank you, Penny. Interesting insights.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Penny. This is really interesting and useful. I still don't know if I'll try writing a serial, but if I do I will have a much better idea now of how to go about it.

And sorry, I forgot to give myself a nickname or number last time. I have remembered this time, even if I have not been very imaginative.

Anon 1

Penny A said...

Patricia G: Very glad you found it useful! There are many How To books (I keep returning to A J Palmer's 'Writing and Imagery') including, of course, invaluable ones by Patsy. In the end, it's whatever works for you, I think. Will look out for your next Pocket Novel :-)

Alyson: Thank you for reading!

Anon 1: Perhaps - if you haven't already done this - try a short story? Look at the guidelines, choose a length that suits, and go for it.
At first, I was advised to include 'more emotion' in my stories, which proved good. BUT I found that doesn't mean pouring out your own feelings as much as ((eliciting)) an emotional response from your reader. (More difficult, perhaps) Good luck.

Elizabeth McGinty said...

Thank you Penny and Patsy for this interview. I love finding out how writers plan their work and the time it takes for their story to come to life in print. Thank you for your wonderful stories Penny.

Penny A said...

Very kind, Elizabeth! I'm glad you like them.

Liz said...

These posts were really helpful, thank you, Penny.

I recently had my first two stories accepted by People's Friend, have a few more on submission, and would like to try writing a serial down the track. So I know I'll be coming back to re-read these posts if and when I do.

Penny A said...

Liz: that's great! Seems you've made a good start!

carrie said...

Fascinating to read - thanks Penny and Patsy. I've often wondered about trying a serial, so if I ever do decide to take the plunge, I'll make sure I reread your helpful advice first.

Penny A said...

Thanks, Carrie! For me, it's all about planning, although I know not everyone works that way. So really the advice is to 'do your own thing' but be guided by the rules.