How To Be A (Serial) Killer
Notes on serial fiction
I’m part of this group called ‘Dragon Rocketship’ on Facebook and whilst I’m not that active within the group, I do see the other writer’s posts in my timeline and occasionally I will comment or hit Like where needed.
Well, today a very lovely lady called Fiona Skye posted to the Dragon Rocketship page asking for input about serializing a work. As many of the writers who know me will certify, I’m always on-hand to help someone out, if I’m able to. I’ve had a lot of success with ‘Far From Home’ and all of that started with serializing it to begin with. So I’m going with ‘What worked for me, might work for you’ on this one. I’ll tell you everything I did, and my advice is to take it as a Best Practice guide. Do your own thing, but use what I did to help you along the way.
1. Get fixed on your story, your characters and work out how many episodes it will take for you to tell your story. I went with 12, writing down brief notes on what would (most likely) happen in each episode in a notebook, along with similarly brief character notes. I know a lot of writers like to shoot from the hip and make it up as they go along, but when it comes to a serial I firmly believe you need to have a plan, you need to know where you’re going, who’s going along with you and the kind of ride you want your readers to experience.
In brief: Who are your characters, what is your story and how many episodes do you need to tell it?
2. Aim for anywhere from 10,000 words to 30,000 words per episode. I personally went no more than 20,000 words per episode. This is a pretty fair length – enough to tell a small-scale story, further the plot and have significant character moments along the way. Think of your favourite TV show. How does it get you coming back every week? Because you don’t get the ‘absolute’ fix you get from a movie. You don’t get a complete beginning, middle and an end. You get a bit of those. Consider Breaking Bad – it had everyone sitting on the edge of their seats because you craved information, you wanted so desperately to know what was going to happen. Serialized entertainment is like a carrot on a stick. Which I guess makes us all donkeys.
In brief: Don’t make it too short, but don’t make it too long either. Find that right length. Enough to do what you’ve gotta do, keep the reader gagging for the next installment.
3. Have a brand. You see this advice everywhere, but I’m reiterating it because I see so many writers getting it completely wrong. A brand means: the same cover template for EVERY episode, no excuses. Same title font, same title placement (if you can get away with it, depending on your background image or design), same author font, same author text placement . . . you see where I’m going with this. A reader needs to look on amazon and say: “Ah, yeah, The Sorcerer’s Ring by Morgan Rice” or “Ah, yeah, Far From Home by that hack Tony Healey.” Rice is a good example of branding. The covers differ slightly in imagery, but their highly consistent in terms of font, font size, how they’re placed. Bravo Miss Rice, cause she’s doing it right. I would argue that your brand extends to what is inside the book, too.
Use a template for your text. This way all of your front matter (Title page, copyright, etc) and end matter (About page, ‘Also by Joe Bloggs . . .’, etc) are exactly the same. At the end of every episode of Far From Home I put ‘The Adventure Continues with . . .’ and added the next title in the series. It lets the reader know there’s more to come, and what it will be called.
In brief: Presentation is 99.9% of the sale – and it’s also what keeps people coming back. A great story is one thing, but making it hard for readers to even recognize your work will leave you dead in the water. There’s a lot of people on amazon trying the same thing – YOU NEED TO STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD. Be innovative with your covers. Don’t settle for meh.
4. You need to be places. Sounds strange, right? But you do. A site, or a blog, anywhere you can list all the entries in your series and when readers can expect them. Link to this in your front matter so that readers can navigate straight to it via their e-reader. Set yourself up with a Facebook page and a twitter account, link to those too. Remember what I said above? If the presentation of your book is 99.9% of the sale, making yourself accessible to your readership is 99.9% of building an audience. I couldn’t tell you how many mornings I wake up to emails, inboxes, messages and comments on my site from readers. I try to answer every single one where I can. Often it’s these readers who’ve gone the extra mile to contact you personally that I end up sending free copies to. It’s my way of saying thanks for them reading my work, for spending their hard-earned cash on what I’ve got to say – and coming back for more every time. I even named a few characters in my series after those constant readers who messaged me time and again to give feedback on the series. Free copies and cameo appearances are the least a writer can do for his/her readers.
In brief: Let yourself be available to readers. With Far From Home I published one episode a month, but I kept my readers informed on a regular basis via my site as to what the cover for each one would look like, what they could expect from the story that month, etc etc. Takes us back to building a brand. It doesn’t just stop at the cover and the internal layout – your brand is YOU.
5. Find a good editor who charges a reasonable fee and hold on to them for dear life. My editor Laurie Laliberte knows my work back to front, and that’s a great thing. We were going through edits on one of the later episodes of Far From Home and she remembered something I’d missed that I’d mentioned way back at the beginning. I wouldn’t have caught that. She did because she’d been paying attention every month, taking mental note of what was going on and looking for inconsistencies along the way. That’s what you need. A good editor who knows what they’re doing, who doesn’t take prisoners, who is there to protect you and your work. It goes without saying they need to have a quick turn-around, too, in order for you to hit your deadline. On that note, my advice is to either release one episode every two months (to give yourself more time for editing) or to write slightly in advance. So you’re always ahead of yourself – both you and your editor – which takes the pressure off slightly when it comes to meeting the deadline you’ve committed yourself to.
I wasn’t clever enough to do that. I wrote like a madman to hit my deadline each month, and sometimes pushed Laurie to the point of jumping on a plane, crossing the atlantic and murdering me in my sleep.
It was fun, though. And it’s good practice. Back then I had to really go at it to complete 15,000 words every month. Now I manage double that. A novel takes me two months, with a month on top to revise and edit. Boom. When you set out to write a serial, you have to look at it as training. You’re working your writing muscles. Finding your way. And the whole time, your editor (if he or she is a good one like Laurie) will help you get in shape. They will keep hammering at you until you achieve the correct form. That’s writing.
In brief: Get an editor (you should have one anyway) and work to a strict deadline. If you say you’re going to publish episode 10 on a specific date, you’d better be ready to deliver it on time. Write to hit that deadline, push yourself. It teaches you resilience, perseverance and how to write tight.
6. Pricing. When I’d finished writing episode 1 of Far From Home and handed it over to Laurie, I looked at amazon and saw a whole section for FREE titles. I clicked on several and noticed that their ranking was very high, within the Free category of course. Case in point was Mike Hicks. He made the first book of each trilogy free, and when I clicked on to book 2, it always had a high ranking. I mean, really high. I knew from reading his blog that he was making very decent money from writing, so it didn’t take a genius to figure out how he’d done it. You give the first part away for nothing, because then the only thing the reader has invested is TIME. No money has left their account. Even at 99c an episode, that’s the pressure off. Once you have hooked your readers with the first, free installment of your thrilling new series, they are more apt to purchase the next one.
You have to think about pricing logically. You ‘buy’ part 1 for nothing. So you then buy part 2 for 99c. You think to yourself: ‘Both parts only cost me 99c’. Then you like part 2 so you go on to buy part 3 at another 99c. At which point you’re thinking: ‘It only cost me two bucks for three episodes. That’s not bad. That’s a three-for-two deal!’
And so it goes. I will tell you now, once someone has read a few episodes you will find them committed to seeing the whole affair through to the end.
When I mentioned this pricing scheme on Fiona Skye’s Facebook post, Debbie Manber Kupfer wondered how it would affect the eventual compilation of all the episodes. Would people come back to buy the whole thing in one volume?
They might. More than likely not, I’d say. BUT at that point you’re not looking to sell it to them. You’re looking to sell it to those people who have read the first, free installment and want a good deal on the rest of the series – and those who’ve bought the first two or three. In my case, I am sure readers looked and went: ‘If I buy all twelve it’s going to cost me over ten dollars to get the whole lot. But he’s selling a collection of all twelve for 2.99. I’ll do that.’
That’s how Far From Home: The Complete First Series ended up hitting the #1 spot in it’s category and staying there for two full months. It’s also why it hovers in the Top 20 even now, months later.
My good friend Bernard Schaffer says: ‘Offer great value at fair cost’. Your work has to be reasonably priced. It has to be competitive. At the moment the First Series of Far From Home is priced at 99c. Why? Because I have a Second Series out now, priced at 2.99. So the first collection drives the sales of the second.
In brief: box clever with your pricing points, and remember: great value at fair cost. So says Mr Schaffer . . . and he’s right. Run things like a business, but always have at the forefront of your mind that you offer your work to your readership at FAIR COST.
7. How to get the first episode listed as FREE – it’s very simple. You will need to sign up for both Smashwords and Wattpad. You will then publish your first episode on both of these. Also put it up on your site or blog. You will then publish it on amazon – more on that in the next step – and call on the help of your friends. Once live, scroll down your product listing page and you will see a link for something that says ‘Tell Us About A Lower Price?’ Click that and alert amazon to the fact you found your work listed for free at smashwords. Do the same for wattpad, your site, wherever the hell else you’ve published it. Get everyone you know to do this. Be patient. It can take a few weeks but if enough people tell them about it being free elsewhere, amazon will follow suit.
At which point you should be writing part 2 . . .
In brief: you’re basically getting amazon to price-match other outlets, in doing so having it listed as free indefinitely.
8. A few notes on publishing through amazon KDP.
– make your product description entice the reader. Don’t tell them the whole bloody plot. And keep it short and sweet. Nobody wants to be bored to death before they’ve even downloaded the sample of your work. The key word here is HOOK. You want to hook them in. Not scare them off.
– Pay attention to categories. For example there is Fiction>Fantasy & Science Fiction>Science Fiction. It doesn’t stop there, either. You then go into Science Fiction>Military, Science Fiction> Space Exploration, etc etc. But you won’t find these latter categories listed in KDP. You have to use keywords to get amazon to list your work where you want it. Your keywords drive people to your work – or work similar to yours.
For example, when I publish Far From Home I list it under
I will then make the first two keywords Space Exploration and Space Fleet. So in effect you are getting yourself listed in four categories at once.
You will want to look at who is in the Top 10 of your chosen category, and use appropriate keywords. So if someone is searching J. R. R. Tolkien they will also come across Morgan Rice (for example). You’re not misleading anyone. In fact you’re helping people find you, by saying ‘I’m like this person! Come read me too!’
– You should continually review your keywords so that they reflect the Top Guns in your categories. This will ensure readers continue to discover your work. Look at this as maintenance.
In brief: don’t bore anyone with your product description, pay close attention to categories, keywords and what your fellow authors are up to in the bestseller lists.
9. Sign up for Author Central – this will allow you to add review quotes to each listing, add series data, get creative with your description (italics and bolds, oh my!) and manage your Amazon Author Page. This is where, when you click on Stephen King, you find out who he is and what else he has written.
And if they’re doing that for King? Yep, they’ll do it for you, too.
10. Why have I mainly focused on amazon? Because to be frank, the others aren’t really worth bothering about. I have work on smashwords, which is distributed to apple, sony, the nook and kobo . . . but do I see many sales from it? No. A few hundred dollars every quarter. The real money (and the biggest audience) is with amazon KDP. There are millions of readers just waiting to discover your work there. By all means, try the other venues, but don’t hold your breath. Amazon’s where it’s at, in my opinion.
And their tools for authors are second-to-none. Some of the reports available through KDP are very useful in figuring out where you’re doing well, which titles are selling, and where you can improve.
In brief: why back anyone else? It’s like choosing cassettes in the age of CD. It’s just a ‘duh’ decision. And the authors I know who’ve tried the other venues have been met with similar disappointment. There must be writers finding success on kobo and nook – but I’ve yet to meet them.
Man oh man, this went on far longer than I thought it would. Still, if it helps anyone out, then it’s worthwhile. I think writing a serial is good because it helps to build an audience, it gets you into training for writing better, faster. It’s also just plain fun. You set out with a plot in mind. One for the series as a whole, and one for each episode. And it will amaze you how you course correct as you go along. How it changes because of something that occurred to you, or something that a character did. Readers will review your work as you go, and they won’t hold back in telling you where you’ve gone wrong – and where you’ve delighted them. If you look after your readers, I don’t see how you can fail. Take them on this journey with you, it’ll be worth it when you reach the end together . . .
Any questions on what I’ve mentioned here, feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org or for anything else, in fact. I’m always happy to help. Always look after each other; we’re all in this together, after all.