Good day everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Drew Hayes and I write a long running web-serial called Super Powereds, as well as a more recent spin-off call Corpies. I’m writing today because Starter Serials is not just a place where people new to the genre can post their work, but also where some of us who have been doing it for a while can warn you about pitfalls we ourselves have stumbled into along the path. As often we can wrangle it, Stater Serials will get advice columns from those with web-serial experience, ranging from technical topics to writing advice to just general mistakes they’ve realized they made. I encourage you to check into these, as you never know what bit of information will prove useful in the future
Now then, if you’re reading this then you already have started or are considering starting a web-serial. Kudos to all of you. Even now I remember how terrifying it was to first put my work on display for anyone to see, and that requires a courage that I genuinely commend. It is for you brave souls that I wrote this blog post, one meant the shed light on the shadowy world of just what it takes to make it in the web-serial world (hint: vodka). Thus, I present to you:
Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a Web-serial
Let’s set up one thing real fast: I am not the poster-child for web-serial success. There are folks out there with tens to hundreds of times the traffic I get on my site. This is not me claiming to be the best, nor offering instruction on how to become top of the heap. This post centers on the flip-side: things are by and large either super basics or complete mistakes and should be avoided, lest your new web-serial fall into neglect and obscurity. Most of these come from mistakes I’ve made, some are culled from other sites that I won’t be naming, but all of them are things that I would have really liked to have known to do or watch out for when I started this project all those years ago.
1. Set a Realistic Post Schedule
This might seem like a cart-before-the-horse thing, but it isn’t. Your post schedule is huge, it’s how often you offer new material, how often your readers get to interact with one another on the comments, how long a cliffhanger lingers for, how often life gets breathed into your serial. A serial without fresh material is fades away, links go unclicked. Your schedule is a contract with the reader. You promise to deliver new material at a certain time, and they promise to come back at that time to read it, assuming they enjoy the work. Post schedule is the architecture of the story’s pace. So, the best thing is to just post as often as possible, right? Go five-days a week?
Pump your brakes for a moment. Can you commit to five installments a week? With work, life, and other responsibilities, is that a realistic goal? If so, then what about when things go wrong? They will, of course, they always do. Personal emergencies, hangovers, work projects, all of these things will cut into your writing time. So really, if your post-schedule is five per week, you should be writing eight per week, to pad your buffer for the emergencies. Eight installments per week, that’s a hell of a lot. And remember, this isn’t a self-project that you can walk away from when you need a break. Always keep in mind the contract with the reader, you’ve got people waiting on your stuff.
There is no magic number here that I’m hinting toward. Your capacity to produce is something only you know. The point is that your post schedule should be something you can accommodate during even the worst weeks, and that you can work past in the best ones. Knowing what your quotas and deadlines are genuinely helps you when scheduling time for the writing.
2. Define an Installment
Most web-serials will post a chapter when they post something, like I do. However, not all of them conform to that. Some use subchapters, or post only until there’s a narrative switch. I’ve even see a highly successful one post a single page (a page is roughly 350 words), as if from a book. Of course, that last example had a high post schedule, which made it possible to move the story alone with that method.
This is something to look at when evaluating your post schedule. What constitutes an installment, for your project? There need to be some definitions; otherwise the posts will be wildly unbalanced. Using myself as an example: I have a minimum word count for all my SP chapters, 1000 words. I almost always exceed that, often by significantly so, but the point is that I have a quantity of content that must be reached for it to count. If I write a scene that comes up short, I switch narratives and write the next scene I have planned.
Again, my number is not the biblical standard, in fact I often see critiques for the comparatively short length of the chapters, when looked at through the lens of traditional books. But it is what I know I can produce, consistently and with quality, ever over the span of years. Even as my time freed up, I added more features and options to my site rather than commit to a new schedule for what is a temporary bubble of extra time. Define what qualifies as an installment to you, and accept nothing less.
3. Choosing a Platform
You folks who have already set-up a web-serial on Starter Serials are no doubt growing rapidly familiar with WordPress, but if you decide to start your own site one day then you’ll have to face this dilemma like many other. WordPress is a wonderful system, but it might not deliver everything you’re looking for. Besides, I understand there are different needs for different people, and it might not be the best fit for everyone’s project. That, of course, leads to the inevitable question: what platform should I publish on?
The easiest, simplest answer is that if you’re good with computers, build your own site. That gives you the level of control you’ll crave over every nuance of the site. Now, for the rest of us (yes, us, I’m a not that tech-savvy either) the options are a bit more limited.
Drupal is what my old sat ran off of, so I know it works well for the setup a web-serial requires. That said, it’s still pretty complicated monster, and that’s from the side of someone who just uses it. In this imaginary scenario, you’d be looking at setting the whole thing up. Still, it’s easier than building something from scratch, so that’s a point worth weighing in its favor, and there really are a lot of neat, built-in systems that are useful as a site’s readership grows.
By and far, the most common and popular option seems to be WordPress. Standardly, it doesn’t work great with the web-serial format, however there are tweaks that can be done to bring it in line. Luckily, fellow web-serial writer Jeff, who writes The Enchanced Series (and is a mentor and writer here at Starter Serials), did two posts about exactly how he reformatted it to suit his web-serial needs. You can read it right here: http://thepeninthestone.com/blog/updated-creating-a-serial-novel-in-wordpress/
The last one I’ll mention is Squarespace. Though by far the priciest of the bunch, it also delivers a lot of ease of use and aesthetic appeal. If you’re not terribly tech-savvy and have the extra cash, it does offer an excellent range of capabilities.
You can always use other options out there, I think I even saw a web-serial on blogger ages ago, just keep in mind that the goal is to build a user-friendly experience. When you’re got a hundred installments to read through, will it be easy for the reader to start at the beginning and seamlessly go from chapter to chapter? The easier it is, the less it breaks them out of the story, the more drawn into the world they become.
4. Promoting Your Site
I won’t get into doing ads and what not, because other people have said way smarter things than I could. However, you should take down this site right now:
That’s the main one to be aware of and concerned with, as someone just starting out. Yes, once you have a little content and established patterns you may want to sign up with tuesdayserial.com or make a banner for topwebfiction.com, but that all comes a bit later on. Webfictionguide.com takes all comers, and they are pretty much the standard for cataloging web-serials. In my 4 years, they’re also the only one who was around when I started that’s still kicking. I’m not saying there aren’t other sites to register with, I’m just saying you do yourself a large injustice if you skip that one. Trust me, this is one of those mistakes I made firsthand.
Beyond that, the easiest method to spread the word of your existence is with joining the web-serial community. Please note: this does not mean spamming other established works to links of your site. That will actually have the exact opposite effect of what’s intended. I mean connecting with other web-serial writers on things like twitter, facebook, the webfictionguide.com forums, or here in your own forums. The benefit of meeting others doing the same thing as you is that it will give you people to talk to when you hit issues and have questions. Part of why I was so thankful for digital novelists (where I started) was the built-in community aspect, so I had people I could turn to when I had trouble. Again I emphasize, the goal of this isn’t to pester folks with encouragement to read your site, but rather to join the community for the sake of being part of it. After all, you’re in the same boat now. As time goes on, linking to one another and making recommendations, just like I did earlier with Jeff’s blog post, are things that will happen naturally.
5. Understand the Commitment
Maybe this should have been the first bit of advice, but I wanted to close with it so it would be the last thing on your mind. When you start a web-serial, go into it with a mindset of what you’re trying to accomplish, because this will inform on almost every aspect of your site. Are you doing it in order to finally put yourself out there and show others your work, more concerned with building bravery than a readership? Are you trying to build a following, generating an actual revenue stream through ad-clicks and merchandise? Are you hoping to create a buzz and a readership around your work, using this as a springboard for a more traditional writing career? Any of these are fine reasons to start a web-serial, but I would recommend you know what you want to do before starting it.
Since I’ve said most of these lessons came from my mistakes, I’ll use myself as an example. The first incarnation of my site was No More Ramen, and during it I was mostly writing just to find the bravery to let other people see my work. As time went on, and I realized I had people actually following my stuff, I began to understand that I wasn’t putting this out there only for me anymore. That led to me slowly shifting my intentions, and with that, increasing the amount of responsibility I owed to the site.
When I say you should understand the commitment, I mean that running your own web-serial often involves more than just writing. It involves comment moderation, adding site features the readers clearly want, managing revenue streams, and, of course, interaction with readers. Now I like some of those things, and I fucking Love the interaction part, but that doesn’t change the fact that each of them requires time to do. Much like being a traditional writer involves a lot more than just writing, so does running a site in the digital landscape.
Obviously, you can choose not to do these things, that is totally in your control. Comments can be disabled, e-mails ignored, features left uncreated. But you’ll lose a lot of opportunity for gaining readers and creating a community. So, going back to the examples I gave, if you’re writing just to let others see your work, then that’s a legitimate option for you. You’re not trying to build anything, so all you have to do is write and post, and that is totally okay. I’m not pissing on the way you choose to present your art. I’m just saying that with a project like a web-serial, you get back what you put in. That’s why you should at least try to figure out what you want out of it when starting it up. It will allow you to set the right tone from the get-go, not re-cobble things together on the fly like I had to.
In closing, I just want to say that while I’ve made it clear there’s a lot of work that goes into a web-serial, I also cannot recommend hard enough that you undertake one, if you haven’t already. It is not an exaggeration to say that doing one changed my life. It gave me the confidence, practice, and exposure to release books people seem to like, and to even make a few steps into traditional publishing. It put me on the road toward my dream job, which is making a living as a writer. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t signed on and started posting all those years ago. So if you’ve got the web-serial itch, I’d recommend you scratch it.
Who knows where it might lead?