"…Make them Wait": Writing in Serial Form

This week I’ve started posting chapters of my first novel on this blog [no longer available here]. The idea was simply that the blog was an easy way to share this work with others without making a bunch of hard copies. I’ve decided that I’ll do another revising pass on each chapter before I post it, knowing full well that the work is far from finished and needs all the help I can give it before I show it to anyone. That having been said, I’m also working on Novel #2, which I’m really enjoying writing, so I’m a bit slow on revising and then posting new chapters of Novel #1.
That reality became very clear when I received a message from my dear friend Heather saying simply “Chapter 2… Please!”
Somehow that note got me thinking about my process, which oddly led me to think about my favorite author, Charles Dickens, and how he published almost all of his works serially. For those non-Dickens fans out there, most of his works were published in 20 monthly installments of around 32 pages each. This was a fairly common practice in the day, so much so that publishers would often tout the phrase “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait!” The benefit to the publication (and the authors themselves) was that it was much more affordable for people to buy the novel on the installment plan rather than pay a larger sum of money up front for a complete novel. Simple economics, right?
Not quite. While I’m sure Dickens was appreciative of the way serial publishing gave him more readers. I tend to think there’s more to the story of why he continued to publish that way. See, an interesting fact about Dickens that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries was that he not only published serially, but he wroteserially as well.
Think about that for a moment. The way I see it, Dickens would write the first 32 pages—maybe even the first 64 pages—and then he’d wait for the reaction of the audience before writing the next installment. If, for example, the audience hated the main character, Dickens could change things up so that an originally more secondary character would take the lead in the next installment. If a character died and the audience took it poorly, SURPRISE! The character wasn’t really dead at all—it justseemed that way! The audience was intimately factored into every one of Dickens’ novels.
I cannot imagine writing that way, being continually beholden to the variability of readers’ opinions. I’d be afraid the final product wouldn’t be mine at all but would be a complicated collaboration with my ideas bending and bowing to others’ input. In practical terms, whose name would go on the cover?
It’s an interesting idea, though, isn’t it? In some ways, I think everything I write is a complicated compilation of everyone I know and everything I’ve heard and experienced. Although I’m not as brave as Dickens, I appreciate the overt way he used the audience to shape his books.
One of my favorite pieces of Dickens’ work is a seldom-read unfinished novel called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Remember that installment plan? The problem with that modus operandi was that Dickens died with only 6 of 12 planned installments of his final novel complete. To this day, although many have ventured guesses, no one really knows who killed Edwin Drood. Given what I know of Dickens, though, maybe he didn’t even yet know himself.
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