What I Learned from Writing a Web Serial
A couple months ago, the first season of my very first web serial, Venison, came to a close. I learned some things. Before I get to what I learned, let me share some of my vision for the project.
Close to a year ago, an uncle of mine told me about a disease that is becoming more common in deer—both in the wild and in reserves. The disease is called Chronic Wasting Disease and is a prionic disease that affects the brain of infected animals. So far, the disease has yet to spread to humans, but there is little known about the disease and what it could be capable of.
I was instantly hooked.
I began to research the disease and concoct this world where humans are affected and become zombie-like. In fact, about three weeks after I began publishing Venison, news outlets began referring to CWD as "Zombie Deer Disease." I'd love to be able to take partial credit for that, but even though a Google term search shows nobody used it until a few weeks after I started Venison, my serial just isn't that popular.
I also had a specific vision for the mechanics of the serial.
What I had in mind was something that felt and functioned more like a TV show than a book. For example, many web serials are described as synonymous with the term "web novel" but that's not what I wanted to shoot for. I wanted true episodic fiction. Unfortunately, I got carried away, and completely failed in that endeavor, but more on that later.
With that vision in mind, I set a word count for each episode at 4000 words +/- 150. I wanted each episode to release at a predictable time, with a predictable commitment for the reader. Other web serials I looked at very wildly in length of episodes, so one day I'd read an episode in about 10 minutes, others it would take me half an hour.
So that's the scope. The task I set before me. With that in mind, here are some things I learned.
It's Not As Easy As It Looks
I looked at dozens of other web serials and thought to myself, "Yeah, I can do that." But in all honesty, I think I took the challenge too lightly.
Web serials are basically complete books, only released at intervals. I didn't prepare myself for that. I got behind. I had to scramble. I had to retcon. Writing a book takes a lot of time, energy, and effort[Citation Needed] and I really underestimated that.
Is Venison something I'm really proud of? Absolutely. I love the story. I love the world. Is it the best I can do? I'm not sure (how's that for a marketing pitch?) but I am editing right now to make it even better before I release it as a novel next month.
For a specific example of where I underestimated the task, I present my characters. I think they're mostly okay, but they're not nearly as deep as I'd like. In fact, some of the secondary and tertiary characters have a far more interesting character arc than the main characters. Not great for a first-person piece. Whoops.
Not to say the main character doesn't have a journey and a place to go, but I just don't feel as if I developed it the way I should.
How I'll fix it for Season 2: In Season 2, I want to focus on characters. Before I even to draft Season 2, I'm going to spend some time studying my characters and working up bios. I want to take this approach: Indentity informs action. Action doesn't create identity. I often approach characters the second way: what they do reveals who they are to me. As the author, I need to find out who they are and use that to determine what they do.
I started with a grand idea to create true episodic fiction. And then quickly wrote a book and broke it into episodes. I got lost in the weeds on some different plots and ideas—far more than I'd like. On the one hand, it was good because there was a lot of tension and "What's next?" for the reader. On the other hand... I feel like it may have gotten tiresome for the reader. Cliffhanger after cliffhanger can really fatigue, and that's not what I'm going for.
How I'll fix it for Season 2: Let it breathe. I need to allow some time to pass between episodes occasionally. I'm also going to revisit story structure. Broad season focus, narrow episode focus. In Season 1, I often tried to tackle too many things in a single episode. Season 2 will address this (hopefully).
I'll also loosen up on my episode word count goal. I'll just tell stories, and see where they land. I think focusing on that for Season 1 was a healthy exercise, but wasted effort and worked me into a box.
Find the Fun
Early readers of Venison (and the companion short story, Rest Stop, found in TL;DR) said one thing they loved is the light comedic feel, a la Zombieland. That's absolutely what I was going for. A story set in a zombie apocalypse that doesn't take itself too seriously, is a little bit self-aware, and simply fun. I feel like early episodes captured that idea well. Later episodes began to take themselves a little too seriously.
This is a natural progression. As the stakes rise, the tension rises and the humor drops off. Watch any Marvel movie featuring Iron Man. Tony Stark is all jokes and sarcasm until the 3rd act, and then he buckles down and settles in for the action.
How I'll fix it for Season 2: With Venison, I think I went a little too far. The feel of the story changed, in my opinion. With Season 2, I'm getting back to my roots. If it doesn't make me smile, I'm doing it wrong.
Consistency is Key
I've talked a lot about things I can do better, but now let's talk about observations and the advice I have based on that.
Consistency. If you're thinking about doing a serial, be consistent. Write as much of the thing as possible before you launch—you don't want to get behind. Release each episode/chapter at the same time on the same day of the week. Be predictable. I wanted people to wake up every Thursday like "Oh hey, Venison comes out today!"
The first 4 or 5 weeks, I'd have readership in the tens on a good release day. Then all the sudden, something happened and by the sixth week, I had over half a hundred readership average (which, for starting out, isn't bad) and it grew, for the most part, throughout the season.
Be consistent and reliable, it pays off in the long haul.
What I'll do differently for Season 2: I released episodes for Season 1 at 6pm CST. (That harkens back to my TV show thing) The problem is that went against my initial vision and reason for being consistent. There's a few serials and webcomics I keep tabs on, and I almost always read them first thing in the morning. I suspect I'm not alone. Look for Season 2 episodes to release in the morning. Probably. That might change though, who knows?
Venison Season 1 rounded out right around 53,000 words. In 13 episodes. The problem with a 13 episode run is that about the time people got used to checking in, the season was through. So for the next season, you can probably expect episodes to be a little shorter, and I'm hoping for more of them. Really, if I could shoot for somewhere between 60-80k words for the next season, but shorter episodes. Ideally 20-24 episodes, or more. I also don't want to cram stuff in if it doesn't need to be there, but I think writing a little more episodically will help with that.
It'd be great to run a full January to June schedule next year. We'll see if I can pull it off.
Am I taking this serial too seriously by studying it and analyzing it to death? Probably. But I'm hoping to take it to the next level next year and really make it sing. There are a lot of weird, crazy, and possibly disturbing ideas I'd hoped to include in Season 1 that will absolutely make an appearance in Season 2.
So buckle up. It's going to be wild. Until then, get ready for Venison Season 1 in print and eBook next month. Oh yeah, here's the cover: