For kids, summer tends to mean watermelon seed spitting contests in the back yard, followed by cannonball challenges in the swimming pool. For adults, summer means high AC bills (in Texas, at least), beautiful sunsets, and a seat belt buckle hot enough to serve as a branding iron. Or a frying pan. (I’ve heard it both ways.)
For me, working at a youth camp as I do, summer is go, go, go time, which means both my writing and my blog tend to slacken off a bit from May to August. So last summer, as I was gearing up to dive into an awesome three and a half months of long days, short nights, and endless weeks, I decided I had to come up with something to keep my blog from becoming a ghost town in my absence.
Run a serial story with a “choose your own adventure” flair where the readers get to vote on how to begin the next installment. Posting once a week meant it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to keep up with, and if I missed a week or two here and there, it wasn’t the end of the world. It struck me as a unique way to keep the conversation going and keep people coming back when there wasn’t much else going on.
So I launched into a fantasy story set in a late 1600’s-early 1700’s like time period in which a young man–by the unfortunate name of Alexander Mitus Scott Beauford III–discovers that his legendary family curse is actually real and is forced to forsake his military dreams and follow the path of a mysterious woman named Destiny. Each installment follows the adventures of Alexander and Destiny (and a few new companions they meet along the way) and typically ends with a cliffhanger or intriguing statement of some sort, followed by three options for the beginning of the next scene.
Though I failed my rather ambitious “once a week” posting plan, running a serial story has been loads of fun. So I decided to share some of the things I learned along the way for any of you who might be interested in trying something similar.
Hold Your Story Loosely
When I started When Destiny Comes Calling, I took the faintest spark of an idea and ran with it. After establishing a few main plot points that we still may or may not hit, I didn’t try to plan out the rest of the story or guide it in a specific direction. I wanted it to have that feel of wild spontaneity that first drafts generally have, to help include the readers in the whole process.
As the author, you can occasionally steer the voting process through the options you present your readers. But all too often, I’ve discovered that the readers will choose an option I didn’t anticipate … and it makes the story that much more fun and exciting for me, as well as for them.
Don’t Discard Your Other Ideas
At the end of each installment, I try to present the readers with three very different beginnings to the next, each of which could swing the story in a wildly different direction. Coming up with three different plot points each time can be a bit tough. So (shhh!) I’ve learned to save my discarded ideas and bring them back in new ways later. The readers are none the wiser, and you make sure to use every ounce of the brilliance you dreamed up.
Waste not, want not, right?
Tell Your Readers Up Front That This Is Rough Draft Material
One of my biggest worries when I published that first post was that my readers were going to expect all the spit and polish of a published book, which simply wasn’t possible with my schedule. Rather than agonize over every word like I normally do, I decided to tell my readers up front that this was first draft material that had never seen a red pen and was written tongue in cheek purely for their enjoyment and mine.
Change up the Voting Process Now and Then
Coming up with three very different options each time can be a bit of a drain on the imagination, so every now and then I like to change up the voting process. Some other ideas I’ve used have been presenting the readers with several new character or setting options and asking them to vote or allowing them to come up with and vote on suggestions for the next dialogue exchange. Changing things up both keeps me from falling into a rut and is fun for the readers.
Keep the Installments Short
As with anything online, shorter tends to be better. Readers tend to gloss over long sections of text. So keeping your installments shorter allows you to stretch the storyline over a longer period of time and also ensures that your readers are more likely to read all the way to the end. Unfortunately, brevity is not my strong suit …
Something Needs to Happen in Each Installment
Have you ever watched one of those TV shows where nothing ever seems to happen? The characters hit road block after road block that keep them from achieving their main goal and never seem to get anywhere? Don’t fall into the same trap with your serial short story. Something noteworthy should happen in each installment to keep your readers clamoring for the next.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned along the way. Have you ever run (or considered running) a serial story on your blog? If so, I would love to hear what you have learned as well!
Author Bio: GILLIAN BRONTE ADAMS is a sword-wielding, horse-riding, coffee-loving speculative fiction author from the great state of Texas. During the day, she manages the equestrian program at a youth camp. But at night, she kicks off her boots and spurs, pulls out her trusty laptop, and transforms into a novelist. She is the author of Orphan’s Song, book one of the Songkeeper Chronicles, and Out of Darkness Rising. Visit Gillian online at her blog, Twitter, or Facebook page.