Why write a serial?

Why write a serial?

Cogs: Blog

A couple of decades ago, I doubt I could have drawn a line between how I thought about “stories” and “books”.

They were one and the same thing.

Of course, I knew not all stories were packaged as books and not all books contained stories, but the things I was interested in were stories that were printed in books, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to create something that wasn’t that.

Like the two young fish in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech This is water who didn’t know what water was, it didn’t occur to me that written stories could exist in other formats. Or at least, if it did occur to me, I didn't care; books were the things I cared about.

When I started reading ebooks and later audiobooks, my mental model for written stories expanded to include digitized “books” that could be read on screen, or narrated “books” that could be listened to, but the base unit of a story was still, to me, a book.

Now I think of books as merely delivery systems for certain types of written stories, and if I’m honest, I don’t find books to be a particularly good format. I have bad eyes, and printed books aren’t backlit, you can’t change the font or the size of the text, there’s no lookup feature for unfamiliar words, search is woefully inefficient, there are no updates, and you can only carry so many paper books around with you.

Technology has moved beyond the printing press, but how many people think of books or novels still conforms to the limitations of that technology, even when you include ebooks and audiobooks.

Serials have been around for a long time, even web serials aren’t exactly new, and through they still seem kinda niche, they’re growing in popularity with services like Radish, WattPad, and Amazon’s upcoming Kindle Vella.

I also think serials published daily to a website or via email straight to the readers’ phone are a better fit for many people’s modern lives. And there are no compatibility issues. If you can view an email or a webpage, you can access the text.

Cogs is a serial because the format fits the shape of the story, that is short episodes that draw the reader through the story until they’re caught up with the published episodes, and then daily episodes that build (and escalate) over time and (hopefully) keep the reader intrigued about what’s coming next. The published episodes on the site are already the equivalent of a thousand printed pages with many more thousands of pages to come, but written in a way that doesn’t insist the reader wait until the entire story is finished or demand that I present them in a way that conforms to the physical limitations of a paper book.

This format also fits how I approach writing. Writing is important to me, working on these stories isn’t something I turn on and off, but something I plan to do for many years to come.

I try (even if I don’t always succeed) to write one finished episode a day. I like to think this mirrors the way readers consume the story, one episode at a time, wondering how tomorrow’s episode will resolve or further complicate the events of today’s episode, and how together, they build on everything that has come before them.

I think of the stories within the serial as story arcs (and those story arcs might eventually make their way into book-like packaging) but those arcs are part of the larger story, and it's the larger story that has my attention.

This slow and steady approach appeals to my personality. This isn’t something to be finished, but a process in which progress is made incrementally, one day at a time. There are no arbitrary deadlines or artificial events to work toward, just the joy of the work and the satisfaction of advancing the story every day.