18 June 2011 - 3:10 pm

How a Web Serial Helped me Write

This is a guest post that I did for the lovely Sharon T. Rose, over at Lilyfields, cross-posted here for your enjoyment. Many thanks to Sharon for letting me play in her sandbox!

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I have always struggled to find time to write. I know I’m not the only person who battles with this; full-time writers are a rare breed! I’m always studying or working full-time, juggling commitments and chores at home, and have some desire for a social life around the edges. Squeezing something like writing into a busy schedule isn’t easy; too often, it loses out to ‘more important’ things and gets sidelined.

Without a schedule for my writing time, I used to binge-write: splurge on one story while the iron was hot, get as far as a particularly tricky part, get distracted or waylaid, find I’ve lost momentum on the story, and move on to one of the many shiny new ideas that cropped up in the meantime. Rinse, repeat. I’ve started lots of stories and many of them continue to be tantalising beginnings, full of possibilities and tied shoelaces. But I’ve finished only two novels.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or NaNo to its friends)  went a long way towards helping me gain the time and focus to really get my head down and write. It’s all about making time and getting it done, and it’s a wonderful excuse to put all distractions aside for a month and just write. It was exactly what I needed.

The first time I did NaNo, I aimed for the target (50,000 words) and stopped there, with much relief and self-congratulations. In my second NaNo, I aimed for the end of the story, and that became completed novel number two. Huzzah! I had found something that worked for me.

But NaNo only happens once a year, and as my fellow Wrimos will attest, it’s somewhat exhausting. As fun as it is to write a novel in a month, I wanted something more sustainable, even if it took slightly longer to reach the end of the story. I wanted to maintain the discipline and momentum of NaNo without burning out. So how to apply that to everyday life?

NaNo encourages its Wrimos to put pen to paper every day, and I had discovered that my hour-long commute was an ideal time to write for me, shoehorned in between work and home. In the feverish post-NaNo celebrations, I started to toss around ideas for how keep that up, and the best one I came up with was to start a web serial. Specifically: a fictional blog in which the main character wrote a post every day, to make me write a post every day.

It was nuts. I had no idea if I could do it or not, but enthusiasm and determination distracted me with web hosting, domain registration, website setup, and advertising, and then shoved me over the cliff while I was still giddy. All of a sudden, I was sprinting down the cliff-face, strewing posts around me with feverish abandon and generally trying not to fall on my head. Thus, the Apocalypse Blog was born.

I set myself a goal and a schedule: a year-long story, posted (and edited) every day. With no time to lose, I barrelled right over obstacles (though my poor characters often had to go around the long way) and kept piling through my list of plot ideas. Hip-deep in the story, I wrote off-the-cuff about characters I was living right alongside. Stepping back and taking stock was for after it was finished!

It was the best fun. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but a big part of letting go to something like this is saying to yourself “that’s okay”. Just go with it and enjoy the ride. Put it out there and see what happens. Sometimes when I think about it, I still get a little giddy.

When the Apocalypse Blog kicked off, I had a week’s worth of buffer: I was always a week ahead in the posts I was writing, which gave me some flexibility. That lasted for the first four months, until I fell sick with pneumonia (don’t try this at home, folks). My lovely buffer was coughed away, and I wound up writing, editing and posting in the same day.

Sounds insane? It was. And yet, it worked, for the remaining eight months of the Apocalypse Blog’s life. I didn’t miss a day.

I often wonder why it worked so well for me. Part of it was being so involved in the story; after a while, it was hard not to write it. I wanted to know what happened next!

A big part of it was the extra pressure to deliver: I had committed to a post every day, so that’s what I did.

On top of that, I don’t like the idea of putting a half-finished piece of work out into the world; the failure would have been very public and disappointed all those who had joined me on the journey. I hate to break promises and knowing that I had readers waiting for the next post, the next revelation, the next arc of the plot, pushed me on. I had to get to the finish.

Best of all, I got feedback. Readers cared enough to send me emails and I wasn’t writing into a void any more. My writing mattered to more than just me, and there’s nothing more wonderful than knowing people want to read your work! I got reviews and ratings on various sites. I also discovered supportive communities of web fiction writers, always willing to give help and advice. All of that encouraged me to keep going, to keep up the pace, and to my surprise, I found I could.

Now, I have a completed story number three. It wound up as long as three traditional novels (over 340,000 words!) written over the course of a year, and I’m absurdly proud of it.

I couldn’t just let that be the end of it, though. A month after the Apocalypse Blog finished, I started a new project: Starwalker, another web serial and fictional blog. I’m posting weekly rather than every day (I couldn’t keep that up forever!), I still don’t have a buffer, and I’m still loving it.

Having that fixed schedule pushes me and makes me push myself. I make room for my writing because I have a commitment to deliver on; it’s no longer ‘just for me’ and losing out to other parts of my life. I’m not only writing more now than I ever have in the past, I’m also pleased with what I’m creating and having a great time doing it. In the process, I’ve discovered a new format that works for me.

Web serials are not for everyone. I know that the kind of pressure it offers isn’t to everyone’s liking – especially the bufferless seat-of-the-pants pressure that apparently works for me. Other writers I know prefer to have months of buffer built up, so that deadline is there but less stressful. Others like to have the whole thing finished first. It’s really up to you and what you want to get out of it.

There are lots of great reasons to start a web serial (and I have many more than I’ve shared here!); this is just one to consider. Have a problem with writing? Try something different and see what works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and don’t be reluctant to push yourself.

If you go for it, who knows what you’ll be able to do?

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