Guest Post: Anthony Lee Collins on the Art of Serial Fiction

I’m thrilled to host prolific blogger and serial fiction author Anthony Lee Collins.

Unlike most novelists working today, Anthony publishes chapters of his novels online as he’s writing them. It’s the lost art of serialization made fresh and new on the Internet. He beganย STEVIE ONE, his latest story, on January 30, so catch up now so you can savor the anticipation of each new section of this work-in-progress.

Anthony’s voice is well-suited to online serial fiction. His prose is lean. His dialogue is sharp. His characters are compelling. And he reels out the details of STEVIE ONE in a way that builds a delicious kind of suspense. It’s the kind of authorial confidence that tells readers, “Story this way. Come with me.” That’s even more amazing when you realize he’s still writing what will happen next.

Thanks for being a guest author today, Anthony!

Writing and Publishing Fiction One Piece at a Time

By Anthony Lee Collins

Thanks to Laura for asking me to do this guest post about my writing process.

I’ve been writing and publishing serial fiction for about 22 years. I started by publishing A SANE WOMAN, my first novel, in little monthly chapbooks. Since then, I’ve been doing it online.

Most recently I’ve been writing a series of mystery stories featuring a detective named Jan Sleet, who appears in everything I write. With some stories, I had a pretty good idea when I started what the mystery was going to be (and what the solution was). In other cases, I had very little plan at all when I started posting. For example, in “The School Mystery,” the detective comes into a classroom and meets the students, who I describe one by one. The natural thing would have been to start by saying how many students there were in the room, then go on to describe them individually. But when I started the descriptions I didn’t know how many there were going to be, so I couldn’t have said.

I think of it as building a wall of bricks. Each part of the story that’s posted online is a brick. I go over and over each installment to make it as good as I can, then I put it in place and set it firmly in the mortar. Then I start to get the next brick ready. And, since everything I write takes place in the same world with the same ever-expanding cast of characters, each novel and story is a brick, too, in a larger wall.

I think one good thing about not over-planning is that you stay open to new possibilities. For example, at the beginning of “The College Mystery” I introduced a girl named Ron, a runaway. I knew she was going to get in trouble and Jan Sleet was going to get her out of it. At the end, Ron calls the detective “Mom.” This is played for laughs, but I quickly saw the possibilities, and the rest of the series became the story of Jan and Marshall (her assistant and husband) and Ron becoming a family.

Which was certainly never part of any plan, I can tell you that, but people who have read the series generally agree that the relationship between the three of them is the one of the best things about the stories. I’m considering publishing the series in book form (it’s currently in the hands of some excellent beta readers), and one thing I know I want to do is reorder the stories so Ron is introduced earlier.

I’m so used to posting piece-by-piece that it amazes me that people can sit down and write an entire draft from beginning to end, or revise one. I go back and forth between drafting and editing constantly, and I always think it would be arduous to do only one or the other for months and months. But of course that is what most people do.

I do go back and fix things in the stories if I see problems. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, but also little tweaks of dialogue and description. For example, in the story I’m writing now, STEVIE ONE, I had two characters coming home from a long trip. They’re tired, and they sit down in their living room and have a drink. Well, they’re smokers, so they would have had cigarettes, too, but I didn’t think of it at first, so I had to go back and put that in. I try to do that sort of thing as little as possible, but I do it when it’s necessary.

My general guideline is not to change anything that would require a reader to backtrack to understand the plot. Only once did I have to change anything of substance. A timeline just didn’t work in one mystery, so I had to rewrite one scene. Even so, I’m not sure anybody but me would have noticed the problem.

A friend of mine was reading a book on the human brain once, and he called up and asked, “Do you write with the front of your brain?” My response was, “I write by the seat of my pants.”

I have found, though, that there has to be a balance between planning and winging it. U-TOWN, my second novel, was pretty much completely pantsed for the first half, and then I had to start to make a plan or I’d probably still be writing it. Orson Welles said he hated the “Rosebud” gimmick in Citizen Kane, but he couldn’t get rid of it because it was the only way to get out of the story.

So, since U-TOWN, I usually have some sort of plan, and then I develop it as I go along. With STEVIE ONE, for example, I knew generally how I wanted the first part to go (the story is going to have four parts, or maybe five), and the second part is based on characters and situations I’ve been wanting to use for a while, but the rest is pretty fuzzy so far. However, I do have an idea of how the mystery itself will play out, both the crime and the eventual solution. So, it’s a bit like building a bridge with a hazy view of the far shore, which is very different from building a bridge with no specific destination in mind.

And I think in general that writing in genre helps keep things from getting completely out of control. This was the other thing that I learned from U-TOWN, which was the only thing I’ve ever published that wasn’t some form of mystery. (Actually, there was a murder mystery in that book, and a detective, but the detective never paid much attention to the mystery and it was eventually solved by someone else. Which tells you something. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

But if you’re writing a real mystery, there needs to be a mystery, and a detective, and suspects, and a solution. And then, when the solution is revealed, the story is over (sometimes after a short coda). This provides a structure that you can work within.

What I’m working on now is concision. This comes from having structure, for one thing, but also from evaluating which things can be left out. For example, Part Two of STEVIE ONE covers 24 hours, from one evening to the next one. I know a lot about what the four characters do during those 24 hours, but I evaluated as I went along how much needed to be included for the reader. I had the beginning and ending written first, then I’ve been filling in the middle, adding and removing scenes as I go.

For another example, there were two pretty good scenes that got cut from Part One, scenes I probably would have included if I’d been writing it a few years ago. But one took us out of the third person limited that the rest of the part was in (and didn’t provide any vital information). The other introduced (or, for regular readers, reintroduced) a character who I decided to hold back for a while. And didn’t provide any vital information.

I’ve learned a lot about how to be concise from listening to movie directors’ commentary tracks about why they decided to delete specific scenes. I talked about that on my blog in a post called “Learning from Deleted Scenes.”

Anyway, if I’m working on concision, I guess I’d better end it here. ๐Ÿ™‚

Thanks again to Laura for having me.

Anthony Lee Collins has been writing fiction for more than 40 years, and he has been self-publishing in various forms for more than 20 years. His first novel, A SANE WOMAN, is a mystery story. His second novel, U-TOWN, is a gritty, urban, magical realist story. He is currently writing a story called STEVIE ONE. His blog, at www.u-town.com,ย has been up for six and a half years and is updated once a week. The posts are focused on writing, movies, Robert Altman, and Thomas Pynchon, among other subjects.

Shortlink:ย http://wp.me/p1bhaB-Ct

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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30 Responses to Guest Post: Anthony Lee Collins on the Art of Serial Fiction

  1. Emma Burcart says:

    I can’t imagine publishing in small pieces. I think I would be way too nervous to put something out there before it was completely finished. It almost reminds me of the radio shows I’ve heard about and seen depicted in movies. It really does seem like you’re bringing back a classic.

    • Emma, this is a very good point. People who write prose fiction these days find this way of working to be unusual, but it’s pretty standard in television and comic books (and in the old days of radio drama, as you say).

  2. Maggie says:

    I eventually want to try publishing in a more serial way. It’s fun to leave readers waiting for the next story.

  3. Anthony, speaking of radio … Boston Blackie; Inner Sanctum, The Shadow … I think Charlie Chan started as a serial story on radio … unlike the soap opera … the cliff hanging, nail biting serial is the stuff that gave me a thrill growing up. It is so much like the old days of Hollywood, the noir style of hard boiled detectives and impossible circumstances the hero always overcomes. I’ll have to check into one of your on-going serials to see how much nostaglia you ring in my ears ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks so much for this visit … what I also know is that what you do is a heck of a lot of work!!

    • Radio, definitely. As I write this, I happen to be listening to an MP3 of The Adventures of Sam Spade from 1948. (Before I was born, I hasten to add.)

      My detective is not the noir type, though. She’s more the well-dressed “gather all the suspects” type who speaks several languages. Not hard-boiled at all. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. great interview, laura. i think it would be tremendously challenging to write a serial story and publish bit before i knew the next step. sometimes challenges can sharpen our skills, though. it would be an interesting and terrifying exercise.

    • Well said, Valerie! I’m especially impressed that Anthony does mysteries this way, since that genre is so dependent on a series of plot steps leading to a specific, usually surprising, conclusion.ย 

  5. Anthony, I’m particularly fascinated by the fact that you edit each piece–write it and then revise it–before posting it. Some people say editing as you go can lead to trouble (especially loss of momentum), but certainly when publishing each segment online, editing-as-you-go is a must-do. I actually work on novels the same way, by revising a chapter until it feels right, and then going on to the next. Unlike you, though, I often go back and radically change what seemed finished a few months before. That’s what I’m doing now with Chapter 2 of my novel–and what I’ll blog about next week.

    • The standard thing in comic books is to script the whole issue, then lay out the entire issue, then pencils, then inks, then colors, then lettering, etc. Dave Sim, who did the comic book Cerebus (300 issues, by far the longest-running independent comic book ever) said that would have driven him crazy. Pencils day after day, then inks, and so on. He did one page, from script to finished, then he moved on to the second page. I know how he felt.

      I think the danger with revising while writing is that it can end up going on forever. Posting takes care of that — it keeps the whole process moving forward.

      • Great comic book analogy. There’s something to be said for having one complete page, or chapter, and moving forward from there. There’s risk to it, too, I suppose, compared to scripting the issue and proceeding methodically. Which is probably why it’s exciting to read serial fiction. How is the author going to pull the story off?

        Moving forward. Yes, that’s the key! I’m stranded at a particular spot in my novel and, while I’m resolving issues, it would be nice to call it done and move on.

  6. Aly Hughes says:

    Great post by Anthony! And thanks for leading me to Laura’s blog, which I’m enjoying. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Sara Flower says:

    Great post! I liked what Anthony had to say about watching deleted scene commentaries for movies. Good tip!

  8. I have heard other writers swear by this. Scott Sigler comes to mind. Though, it’s a bit different from your approach. You’ve given me something to think about.

  9. Pingback: Tuesday’s Top 5 | The Happy Logophile

  10. Pingback: Guest Post: Anthony Lee Collins on the Art of Serial Fiction | Serial Fiction | Scoop.it

  11. What a treat to hear from someone who actually writes serial fiction!! YEA!! So often people who wrote a novel are out there talking about their ‘serials’. This was delight to read Anthony!

    I’m totally humbled by you! I’ve been writing the Denver Cereal for almost 4 years. I’m blown away that you’ve done it for twenty-two. My question to you is how you keep going. I love writing the serials (I’m just finishing up a year contract for one in Fort Worth, Texas), but there’s a moment,. one I’m sure you know, where I’m tired and have a chapter due. What do you do in those moments?

    Thanks for writing Anthony! Again – what a joy to read from someone who’s really doing it.

    • Denver Cereal is such a great name, Claudia! I wonder how many folks are writing serials these days. They’re such a treat for readers, I think. I look forward to checking out your site!

    • Claudia, I’m an amateur, so I never have deadlines except those I set myself. I post on my blog once a week, but my fiction has no schedule.

      In the immortal words of Rooster Cogburn, “There is no clock on my business.” ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Lovely post, Anthony! I especially liked the part about your friend asking you if you wrote with the front of your brain and you said, by the seat of your pants! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Seriously though, you make me want to publish someone serially online. You’re an inspiration. Really. ๐Ÿ™‚

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