Writing serial fiction

UntitledAlthough it’s not a popular form of writing any longer, I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to write a serial. It has been a fun experience that I hope will continue because I’ve come up with a few more ideas for serials while working on the six-part story called “The Anger of Innocence.”

The serial is a horror story running in The Catoctin Banner Newspaper in Frederick County, Md. I write and edit stories for the paper on a freelance basis. When the paper went through a major redesign earlier this year, I convinced the publisher to try out the serial in the Arts & Entertainment section. I write a few local history columns for newspapers, and I have noticed in my research many of the old newspapers used to run serial fiction. I saw it as a way to entertain readers and give them a more-rounded newspaper-reading experience.


While a serial can run for any number of parts, you should keep a few things in mind when planning to write a serial. Here’s what I learned:

  • Make sure your story has enough hooks. While I like to have my story parts end with a cliffhanger, I can’t always do that. However, you still need to keep the reader coming back whether it’s with a cliffhanger, unanswered questions, or a fascinating situation. I tend to use the old movie serials as my inspiration.
  • Serials work with all genres. While the serial I’m working on is horror, the other ideas have are a romance, a coming-of-age story, and a historical thriller. Since I write primarily in the history and historical fiction genre, I find it interesting that my serial ideas are from outside of my area of familiarity.
  • Find a way to recap each story. You can’t count on everyone reading your serial from the first part so you need to recap just enough to familiarize new readers with the situation, the characters, and what has come before without boring or turning off existing readers. You also need to consider how long the recap will be. Each of the story parts I’m writing for “The Anger of Innocence” is around 1,300 words. If I spend too much time summarizing what has happened, I won’t have time to move the story forward.
  • Each story should be complete. Even if I use a cliffhanger ending, the story part still feels complete. A situation happened and concluded. While I will use a cliffhanger to entice a reader back because they want to find out what happens, I don’t want readers to feel unsatisfied with the current part they are finishing.
  • Write the entire story before it starts running. Certainly, you can publish your story parts as you go. It definitely makes writing a serial more challenging that way but is it better for the reader? I started publishing “The Anger of Innocence” with two parts left unwritten and the last part not even planned. As I’ve written the last two parts, I have found things that I could change in previous parts before they were published. I have also found a few other things (luckily, nothing major) that were already set in stone because they were published. I’ve had to work around them. I’m all for challenging yourself to write better but only if those improvements make the reading experience better for your readers. Don’t give yourself an unnecessary headache because you find you have written yourself into a corner because you didn’t plan out how your serial would progress.

When this serial finishes, I’ll talk with my publisher to see if she wants me to do another one (I hope so). I will also look into bringing this story into print, most likely as an ebook.

You might also enjoy these posts:

Welcome to Peaceful Journey is now available in paperback!

Cover KindleA few years ago, I created a banner to use at the many festivals I attend for bookselling. I already had one for my history books that I write as James Rada, Jr., but I needed one for a new pen name I was using for YA, horror, and fantasy that I was starting to write. The design that I put together needed four covers, but I only had three paperbacks as J. R. Rada. So, I used the e-book cover for Welcome to Peaceful Journey.

Not surprisingly, people started asking me for a copy of the book, which didn’t exist. I looked into creating a paperback edition, but there wasn’t quite enough material for one. Meanwhile, the requests for copies kept coming in.

I looked back at my notes for short stories and found a couple for unwritten Peaceful Journey stories. I delved back into the world of Peaceful Journey and wrote some new material that I packaged with the Welcome to Peaceful Journey e-book to create a paperback edition with a new cover.

I had so much fun writing the new stories for the paperback that I may write some more in the future. I had a lot of potential stories when I reviewed my notes, although I can see that some probably wouldn’t work. Others, though, show potential. We’ll see what happens.

Anyway, the new Welcome to Peaceful Journey is out.

Peaceful Journey is more than a funeral home. It’s the place where the dead aren’t really dead, but where they can still go to find peace. While you won’t see that sentiment written on any of the ads for the place, it is what happens there. Trust me. I know.

In July 1993, my wife’s grandfather died, and we attended the viewing and funeral at a funeral home in Northern Virginia. I’d been to other funerals before, but I was always so wrapped up in grief, I was barely aware of what was going on. This time I was a bit more detached. I watched the people. Those who cried. Those who were respectful. Those who were afraid. I listened to their comments and conversations.

Funeral homes have always made me uneasy. I was particularly unsettled one time when I happened to look into a room before a viewing began and saw the body lying in an open casket. I don’t know why it struck me as creepier than it would have been if the room had been full of mourners, but it did.

For all the goosebumps that they make rise on my arms, I can’t imagine back in the day when bodies would be placed for viewing in a family’s parlor. The family had to pass by the body multiple times a day and wonder, as they cowered under their blankets in an upstairs bedroom, what they heard moving around downstairs.

I left the viewing room after a while and sat in the lobby, I began to look around and make notes about what the people were doing, how the place looked and how I felt. Then ideas came into my head. In a half an hour, I had four different ideas all set in a funeral home. So I decided to set them all in the same funeral home, and Peaceful Journey went into business. And people have just been dying to get in. Sorry…I had to write that.

E-books revitalized the short fiction market

Here is the short fiction that I’ve published electronically. Two are novellas and two are short collections. Two also have previews of novels with the same characters in them.

I waver back and forth as to whether I like e-books or physical books better. Both have their advantages, but one of e-books biggest advantages is that it has brought back the viability of short fiction.

I remember when I was writing a lot of short fiction back in the 1990s that a professional rate was considered 3 cents a word or more. That means you needed to get paid at least $75 on a 2,500 word short story. At the time, I was making at least 10 times that amount for a non-fiction article. Plus, the market for non-fiction is much larger.

While some novellas could be published as chapbooks, it could be costly, both for the publisher and the reader. I independently published a 65-page novella that I needed to retail at $5.99. That was really too much for a novella that size, but between the printing costs and the retailer cut, that’s what was needed to make it financially viable.

The one area that did work for short fiction was a collection or participating in an anthology. For me, anthologies were always iffy because I usually bought one because a favorite author of mine was part of it, but usually there were other stories in it that I really didn’t like. With short story collections, my impression is that they never seemed to be as big a seller as a novel by the same author.

Then along came e-books.

You can publish a novella and price it at a $1.99. You can publish a short-story collection, just a couple short stories, or even a single story and price them appropriately. Electronic publishing opened up a lot of new avenues for short fiction. These new avenues can pay royalties indefinitely, eventually making the author a lot more money than he or she would earn from publishing a single story in a magazine.

Short fiction e-publishing also makes a great marketing tool. First, these e-books are usually priced very affordably so that a reader would be willing to try out a new author. Second, these e-books can be offered as perma-free without the author feeling he or she is giving up a large royalty. Third, short e-books can be used to promote upcoming novels.

I have seen the latter happening more and more. The author has a new novel coming out in the fall. In the spring a short story is released for 99 cents. Besides the short story, there is usually a preview of the new novel attached at the back of the story. As an added benefit, publishing short fiction along with your novels helps keep your name out in front of readers.

As a reader as well as a writer, I’m happy to see the resurgence of short fiction. I’ve got quite a few on my e-reader that I read and enjoy.

How to Avoid the Rejection Blues


When I started out as a writer, rejection letters were commonplace and usually they were simply form letters. I got a sense of dread seeing them arrive in the mail. I didn’t want to read them, but I had to see if it was a rejection or acceptance.

I knew my writing was starting to get better when the editors started adding little notes to the rejection letters like “Almost” or “Keep trying”. Then the rejection letters started becoming specific to my submission.

Finally, I started getting those treasured acceptance letters. Nowadays, I get more acceptances than rejections and I even get editors asking me to take on assignment.

That doesn’t mean that I still don’t get rejection letters. They don’t bother me, though. I’ve developed ways of dealing with them over the years that work well at keeping me focused on the positive.


Keep things in the mail

When I started writing, I would send out a short story and then wait for three months before I heard back a rejection. I spent those months wondering and worrying about what the editor was going to say.

After I had a few stories written, I got into the habit of not worrying about the stories that were in the mail but finding markets for the new stories that I was writing.

As soon as a story would come back in the mail, I would simply send it back out to the next market. By not having to focus on the rejection and let it get to me, I started focusing on the future and finding new markets. With dozen of queries in the mail at any one time, I don’t have time to focus on a single rejection.


Have a list of markets

After I send a story out to the magazine I most wanted to see it published in, I would create a list of additional markets. When I would get a rejection letter, I would simply prepare the story for the next market on my list.

By keeping a list of my top five or ten markets, I didn’t have to look at an unsold story sitting on my desk.

I always have a new market to send my stories to so I don’t worry about a rejection.


Enjoy positive comments

When you do start getting personalized comments on your rejection letters or even personalized rejections, pay attention to the comments. Some of them can help you improve your writing. If the comments are positive, enjoy them. Let them inspire you to write more and write better.

If an editor is interested enough to write you something personal, it means that he or she is interested in your writing. It is a market worth trying again.


Keep writing to remind you why you do it

Don’t let an editor’s opinion make you doubt your writing ability. Write because you love it and want to do it. Keep at it. This is probably the best way to keep from feeling down because of rejection. Write because you love it. Write because you want to do better.


How e-books are revitalizing short fiction and other innovations

I’ve been publishing some of my work as e-books during the past year. Some of the projects have been full-length novels, but others have been shorter pieces, such as novellas, short stories and mini-collections.

The flexibility of the format is one of the things I like about e-publishing. It wouldn’t be profitable to publish a short story as a hard copy. You would have to price it way above the market in order to cover distributor cuts and printing. However, you can e-publish the same story and make a profit.

Authors are continuing to explore the format. Short stories are now often published with the first couple chapters of the author’s upcoming novel so that the affordably priced e-book also becomes a nice marketing piece for the author.  Other authors actually make the short story a prequel to the novel. I’ve seen James Rollins and Steve Berry do this.

Other authors are serializing stories. Dean Koontz did it this past summer with his Odd Interludes released in three parts. It also now appears that the single stories have been removed from sale and he’s selling them as a combined story so he gets double exposure.

Many of the non-fiction e-books have links within the copy that can take you right to the web site or source material. Other books have become interactive, which I’m guessing is being called an “enhanced e-book.”

I’m sure before too long some enterprising author will come up with another new way to market his or her work. I’m definitely using some of the formats to present my work, but mainly I’m enjoying the wide range of reading options.