It’s November 2016 and I write the first chapter of my new book, The Mechanical Crown. After a spot of editing, I immediately post the chapter online. The next week I write chapter two and upload that, too.
It’s September 2019 and I’ve just posted the final chapter of the book. I’ve been writing and publishing consistently, every week, for three years. The book has accumulated 20,000 reads. I’ve received over 700 comments, feedback which has been instrumental in improving the book even while it was still being created. Many of those readers were there from the start and stuck with it for almost three years, every week, as if they were watching a favourite TV show.
The book is 250,000 words long. Even though it’s a fantasy epic, that’s still probably a bit too long. But the critical thing is that the project is finished; the story is told. And there’s absolutely no way I could have managed any of that before I started writing in a serialised format online.
When I talk to other writers about writing my first drafts in public like this they tend to react with abject horror, as if I’ve accidentally confessed to an awful crime.
Writing is so often done behind closed doors, only permitted into the light at the very last moment when a publisher pries it from the creator’s hands. Many books never escape into the world. At times I suspect that some writers would far prefer if there were no need to have readers.
Recently I spoke at the Primadonna Festival in the UK. A common thread through multiple discussions and Q&As centred around the myriad anxieties many authors face, not least the pressure to ‘write every day’. That’s never worked for me and anyone who has an unavoidably busy life — which is most of us — will struggle to stick to that mantra.
Rather than get stressed about this, I instead flipped it on its head and approached it from the other angle. Instead of worrying about how to maximise my writing time and hit that magical daily routine, instead I looked at what the minimum writing time might be. It was the Minimum Viable Product approach to writing. Once I factored in looking after my son, doing the cooking, washing up, family time etc etc etc, it worked out at one evening a week. That’s how much I could spend exclusively on writing without being selfish.
I chose not to worry about this and instead embrace it. Four years later I have two completed novels to show for it, lots of readers and boosts to both my writing confidence and my overall level of experience.
The process is very simple:
- I write a new chapter each week and publish it immediately (after some proofing). I use Wattpad as a quick and simple way to reach thousands of readers.
- Beta (alpha?) readers then give me ‘live’ feedback on the book as it emerges, week-by-week. This acts as a kind of engagement barometer throughout the writing and provides useful insight.
- Once the book is complete, I then let it rest for a while before then editing it up into a polished, final work that can be published traditionally or via indie routes.
My first book, A Day of Faces, was a sprightly 90,000 words and took just over a year. The Mechanical Crown is a behemoth of over 250,000 words. In either case, if I’d set out to write these books while shut away in my study, I’d never have completed them — especially in the case of TMC, which turned out to be an enormous undertaking.
In essence: a novel feels almost impossible; but doing one more chapter feels simple by comparison. Repeat that enough times, each week, and you end up with a novel almost by accident.
I’ve learned a lot by doing this for the last four years. For example…
Readers are kind
Many creators avoid online spaces for fear of the toxic environment so often encountered on YouTube, Twitter et al. The good news is that the reader community is very different, especially on Wattpad where I share my work. Perhaps it’s because reading is a more active activity with a higher bar for entry — at least in terms of patience — and thus attracts a subtly different mindset. You can’t click on a Wattpad book, become immediately enraged and post a stupid comment, as you can with video.
I suspect the friendliness and constructive nature of the Wattpad community is more down to it being predominantly female, though. Remove a certain subset of Internet Men and the world gets better, basically.
Serialisation is a great productivity hack
I started writing online to try out the notion of serialisation. It’s how Dickens got started, after all, so there had to be something in it, despite it not really being A Thing these days, at least not outside of comics. Writing in a serial form is definitely rewarding and fun, feeling at times more like you’re showrunner on a TV show.
What I wasn’t expecting was for serialisation — or, specifically, writing and publishing in public, every week — to become the most effective productivity tool I’d ever tried. I immediately went from someone who wrote in fits and starts and always got stuck at the 20,000 word mark to someone who has written consistently for over four years. It was a remarkable transformation, mostly thanks to the rewarding feedback loop from readers.
Be an agile plotter
To write online in such a public way does require a particular approach, if you’re to avoid falling into your own plot holes and dead ends. People tend toward being either ‘pantsers’ or ‘plotters’, depending on how much prep work they do in advance of the actual writing.
If you’re writing behind closed doors then it doesn’t matter which approach you take, as the manuscript will go through multiple full edits before anyone ever sees it. Writing online in a serial format is a very different beast, in that you’re publishing as you go. That means you have to be confident about where you’re going, so that you don’t take the story in a direction you’ll regret.
I tend toward being an agile plotter. I plot, but loosely, with the plan becoming looser the further away it is from my current writing position. I always have the next 10 chapters worked out in detail, but beyond that it gets fuzzy. I also break the story down into ‘arcs’, similar to TV seasons, which comparmentalises particular themes and subplots.
Crucially, everything is fluid — even those next 10 chapters that I have planned out. If a better idea comes up everything can change, especially as the best ideas tend to pop up during writing rather than in planning stages. Allowing the story to evolve and mutant when you’re halfway through and people are already reading takes a certain courage, which brings me to my next point.
Theme is everything
This isn’t unique to online writing, of course. Keeping theme front and centre in your writing helps to give the book purpose and binds everything together, like a central spine from which your characters and plot can hang. If you’re writing an online serial this becomes extra useful, as it is your map to staying on track. It’s what enables you to stay nimble and adapt to better, newer ideas without getting lost in your own story.
First person is easier
My first serialised book was told in first person, with a very strong narrative voice. My second was a far more complicated, multi-viewpoint novel with all kinds of interlocking pieces which became very complicated to handle, increasingly so as the book progressed.
Of course, you should choose your voice and narrative structure based on the needs of the story. But I can’t deny that the first person perspective in A Day of Faces was a lot easier to track and write: given the weekly nature of the serial, it felt analogous to writing a diary. If you’ve got a bunch of different ideas you’re considering for serialisation, I’d recommend going for one which suits first person.
Endings are hard
Again, this is not unique to online serials. Writing online and publicly does raise the stakes, though, in that you have to nail it first time. More traditional writing and publishing affords you as much editing time as you need, so that you can tweak and rewrite and pull all the threads together. You don’t get that luxury when publishing as you go.
You can see the risks inherent in ‘live’ serialisation by looking to the Game of Thrones TV show. Any television show is telling its story ‘live’, unless it’s directly adapted from a pre-existing story. The early seasons of GoT benefited from that kind of adaptation, but the finale was fresh and untested — and proved unpopular with some viewers. Once you’ve release those episodes, or published those chapters, it’s very hard to go back and ‘fix’ anything which doesn’t work. The strain of not disappointing your long-term readers is palpable.
One reader is enough
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of readers find my work on Wattpad (although my numbers are miniscule compared to many writers on the platform, who boast of multi-million-strong readerships), but it’s not really about quantity.
A single engaged reader, who bothers to provide some occasional feedback, is all you really need for that productivity trick to kick in. If I know there’s just one person out there waiting for the next chapter it keeps me honest, and gets me back to the writing desk.
Oddly, for me it has to be a stranger, or someone relatively distant. That’s why simply showing a manuscript to friends or family doesn’t work: I need to know that someone unfamiliar to me has found and chosen to read my work. That then triggers the compulsion loop that keeps me writing regularly, and overrides any risk of writer’s block or other anxieties.
Perfect isn’t necessary
A book I publish in serial format online, writing and publishing week by week, is not going to be as polished as a book published by the Big 5 that you’ve picked up in your favourite bookshop. That’s the simple reality of the exchange, but my readers know and understand that and get value in other ways, such as having a direct connection to the writer and being there as the book is created.
You have to be prepared for your work to not be perfect, as writing never is. Nothing is stopping you from then taking the serial, editing it substantially — with the beta reader feedback there to help guide you — and then publishing it afresh in another form and venue. There are sufficient tales now of Wattpad and other online writers transitioning to self-publishing and major traditional publishing (not to mention Netflix and movie deals) to dispel any fear that putting your stuff up for free is a dead end.
As for what I’m doing next? I have four projects of varying sizes now on the go, only one of which is going to be making it to Wattpad. The others all have varying destinations, all of which are potentially very exciting.
If you’re back at the start of your writing journey and don’t know how to get off the starting line, or beyond that infamous 20,000 hump, then I can’t recommend enough the excitement and rewards of serialised writing and writing in a live, public manner. It’ll transform your relationship with those tricky words and you’ll have created a novel (or two) before you know it.