Roberto Calas, author of The Scourge, talks about what it was like trying to produce between 8,000 and 10,000 words of perfect storytelling every two weeks, without the option of editing the whole work at the end. ‘Hell’ is one word that comes to mind, he says, but he also maintains that the discipline imposed by stark deadlines made him a better writer.
The idea of publishing a novel in instalments isn’t new, but it certainly got a big shot in the arm when Amazon launched Kindle Serials in September last year. Roberto (right) has got in on the ground floor of this development in publishing – as have I in my own small way, since I copyedited his serial and have been working on other Kindle Serials, too. The jury has given its verdict on the quality of Roberto’s book – it’s received nearly 90 reviews on Amazon.com so far, over 70 of which give The Scourge a four-star or five-star rating. But writing a book in chunks against the clock is hard work. Here, Roberto discusses what it was like and offers advice to other writers who would like to emulate him.
MT: Thanks for agreeing to talk about writing a Kindle Serial, Roberto. The obvious first question is how did you come to do it?
RC: Thanks for hosting me on your site, Marcus. I never set out to write a serial. I set out to write a short story for an anthology project. But as I wrote the story, I realised that it was turning out to be a really special piece. The characters were coming to life and the story took control, and I realised that this could be much more than a short story. I put it aside to think about it and, while researching some marketing techniques for my first novel, The Beast of Maug Maurai, I stumbled on the Kindle Serials page. So, on a whim, at 3 a.m. after a full night of writing I wrote a query (with typos in it), a synopsis and a short bio. I sent all of it off with three sample chapters from the unfinished short story and forgot about it. Two weeks later, I had an email from one of the acquisitions editors at 47North telling me they loved it and asking if I could make it into a 90,000-word novel.
MT: Please tell us a little about both you and The Scourge.
RC: I’ve rumbled from one thing to another all my life, but the one constant has been writing – and reading. I graduated from the University of Connecticut’s journalism programme with a concentration in creative writing and worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years. But there is nothing creative about newspapers. So I turned to magazines, which were marginally better. I left writing for a while and returned to school for graphic design. I’d been working as a graphic designer for about ten years before writing my first novel. The Scourge came after I was laid off from my job. It helps me remember that saying which states that sometimes when things seem to be falling apart, they are actually just falling into place.
The Scourge is a novel about a man’s attempts to rescue his woman. It takes place at the end of the fourteenth century, forty years after the Black Death. A new plague has swept across England, and this one turns its victims into mindless, flesh-eating demons. Edward and two of his knights, Tristan and Morgan, must travel from Bodiam, in the south of England, to St Edmund’s Bury, in East Anglia, where his wife was when the plague broke out. The knights have to cut their way through the demonic hordes, but it is their fellow humans that cause the greatest misery for them.
MT: The way Kindle Serials work is readers pay up front for the entire book, then each episode is delivered to them when it’s ready. In your case, the final episode winged its way to readers at the beginning of February. Is that correct?
RC: That’s right. Readers paid $1.99 up front for all eight episodes. After that, the episodes were beamed into their Kindles every two weeks without any other payments.
MT: Now, I know that you wrote the story during the period the episodes were published. In other words, this wasn’t a case of your having a finished book ready and releasing it in chunks. You actually wrote it during the period in which the instalments were sent to readers, and you had to write between 8,000 and 10,000 words every two weeks. A word springs to mind here: ‘pressure’.
RC: Yes, ‘pressure’ is a good word. I had other words for it: ‘hell’ is one that comes to mind; ‘career change’ are two others. Yes, there was definitely pressure on me. But there was also excitement. It was dynamic. I knew that readers would see what I had written only a few weeks after I wrote it. We talk about pressure and hell and truck-driving school, but the word that best summarises it is ‘motivation’. There was no ‘I can fix it later.’ There was no ‘I’ll think about this for a week and get back to it.’ It was simply ‘The readers are waiting for this. I have to make it the best I possibly can.’ It really helped that the readers were giving me constant feedback in the discussion forums and my blog. It made the pressure less about the time frame and more about not wanting to disappoint them.
MT: That’s interesting you say that. One of the problems inherent in being an author is the loneliness of it. What you did was a more collaborative type of writing in that you were more connected with readers than you might otherwise have been. Maybe it’s healthier for fiction writers to be closely involved with readers, like you were, and not so isolated.
RC: God, yes. Writing can be like a marathon that you run by yourself. There’s no one watching, so no one will see you if you give up and take a cab home. No one will care if you sit down and take a two-hour break. Sometimes you wonder why you are running at all. But this was different. It was like having a cheering crowd waving me on, encouraging me, challenging me to go faster. I finished the marathon in record time and ran my best race ever with The Scourge.
MT: You started from the point of having written some material and having planned out the rest. Could you talk about what the mix was there at the outset – how much you’d written and how much you’d planned.
RC: When I started writing The Scourge, it was going to be a short story. I wrote most of the story and ended up with a word count of about 12,000. For comparison, that is just a little more than one episode of the book. I knew the story was something special when I wrote it. All the elements came together in such a fun way. So I submitted it to 47North, and when they expressed interest it was equal parts ‘Yay’ and ‘Shit’. I had to turn a 12k short story into a 90k book in just a few months. There’s pressure for you. I took about two days to think about what else could happen to our knights on their quest. And once I had the ideas for each scene, the story really wrote itself. I had the map in front of me; Edward, Morgan and Tristan just followed it in their own peculiar way. And, as in any trip, they misread the map a few times and made some side excursions before finding their way back.
MT: You’ve already mentioned that you interacted with your readers all through the writing of the instalments. Did you adjust the story’s trajectory on the basis of what readers had to say? How did that interaction affect your writing?
RC: The readers had a big impact on me. More so on my motivation, but I definitely adjusted parts of the book based on reader comments. I learned fairly quickly that the readers couldn’t get enough of Tristan. He and I struggled a lot during the writing of the novel. He would try to take over and I would try to stifle him. So when the readers kept telling me they wanted more from him, he turned to me smugly and became insufferable for two months. I had to loosen his yoke and let him have more fun, and I think the readers enjoyed that. Readers also pointed out details that I hadn’t thought about. One reader wanted to know more about Morgan’s daughter, and I realised I had neglected that aspect of the story so made a few more mentions of the girl. Other readers pointed out minor mistakes that I went back and fixed before the print edition came out. Probably the most fascinating thing as a writer was seeing reader reaction to controversial scenes. The feedback came very soon after I wrote those scenes, and it really helped me understand the readers’ mindsets as they read the novel – something that is invaluable as a writer.
MT: Could you tell us about one of those scenes, how readers reacted to it, and how you reacted to their reactions.
RC: Sure. Let me preface this by giving readers a big ***SPOILER ALERT*** sign. If you haven’t read The Scourge, skip to the next question. One of the episodes ended with both of Edward’s knights, Tristan and Morgan, seemingly getting afflicted. It was a cruel thing to do to the readers, because I ended the episode just as I revealed the probability of it. So the readers had to wait for the next instalment. I had a lot of people telling me how horrible it was, how they weren’t sure they liked the story any more, how their hearts were breaking. It was really awful as a writer to see it, to know I had made them so unhappy. But it was also a very positive sign. As a writer, your main goal is to elicit emotion in the reader. And when you get such intense evidence of reader emotions, you know you have done your job.
Even if you feel like shit for a couple weeks.
MT: Each instalment has a cliffhanger ending. Did you feel more compelled to end each episode with a cliffhanger than you might have done if you hadn’t been writing a serial?
RC: Yes. My editor at 47North and I spoke about the cliffhangers before I started writing. The cliffhanger keeps the audience wanting more, as TV producers have known for years. It wasn’t that hard to do, because in recent years I have really focused on ending my chapters with mini-cliffhangers to goad the reader on just a little more even though it’s 1 a.m. and they have to get up for work in six hours. So I added mini-cliffhangers to the chapters and major cliffhangers to the ends of all the episodes. I worked very hard to make them natural cliffhangers, though. I think it is easy for these things to feel contrived if they are done quickly.
MT: Presumably you had to think in a different way creatively from how you might be used to thinking when writing a novel conventionally. Obviously you didn’t have the option of reaching the end, then revising and reshaping your story. Could you talk about the advantages and disadvantage of that, and how you handled the fact that you had to get it right first time.
RC: You’ve hit upon what was both the greatest challenge and the most liberating aspect of writing a novel in this way. When I have written books in the past, I could stumble on a technique or a theme that really worked and go back to weave it through the entire story. Not so with a serial. This was, at first, really frustrating and scary. But I became more efficient because of it. I don’t know if you like ice hockey, but the players didn’t use to wear helmets, and there weren’t a ton of injuries. Sticks, shots and elbows were usually kept low. As soon as helmets came in, shots, sticks and elbows began rising. Players became a little careless.
It’s the same with this sort of writing. If you know that you can go back and fix things, you let yourself get a little careless. You know that there will be time later, so you don’t worry so much. You accept a bit of procrastination. I was terrified for much of the time when I was writing The Scourge, absolutely panic stricken that I would screw something up. And because of that I thought about every scene carefully as I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. But once a scene was completed, I knew it was done. There was nothing else I could do to it. I had no say in the matter. And that was really liberating. It took me three years to write all three books of The Beast of Maug Maurai, and I am still tinkering with the second and third books in that series. I finished The Scourge in three months. And I think The Scourge is probably the better book. Read into that what you will.
MT: Once you embarked on writing the serial, the deadlines you were given were as concrete as it’s possible for them to be. Your readers were expecting that next instalment on a specified date, and 47North had to have it in advance of that, of course. You couldn’t let either your readers or your publisher down without it being a really big deal. It’s one thing to set your own deadline or have an editor at a publishing house set you one for delivering a manuscript – both of which are deadlines that can be broken – but quite another to have a deadline pretty much set in stone. I know you’re an ex-journalist, as am I, and journalism is about having to meet strict deadlines, too. A fair few commentators who’ve talked about the emergence of serials in the e-book age have pointed out that we’re revisiting the way Charles Dickens produced works such as The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, which were published in instalments. Dickens was also a journalist. Do you think the experience of working as a journalist helped prepare you for writing a serial, and that maybe journalists and ex-journalists are going to find writing serials a little easier than other writers might?
RC: Absolutely. I hated being a newspaper journalist. Hated it. It ruined my writing style for years, and I just wasn’t cut out for it. Magazines were better, but still not what I wanted. That said, journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, gave me a type of writing and mental discipline that I don’t think you can get anywhere else. There is no writer’s block. There is no procrastination. There is an editor screaming at you to hit the Send button now and a guy on the phone telling you that you missed a crucial part of the meeting and don’t have all the facts, and a fellow reporter putting syringes in your Coke can as a joke, and a half-dozen reporters screaming at each other and laughing, and you can’t hear anything the guy on the phone is saying any more, and your poor brain feels like withering and sobbing, and somehow, through it all, you have to write a lucid, well thought out piece of journalism – with your name at the top – that will be read by thousands in eight hours. It is Lucifer’s Boot Camp for writers and I promise you, nothing will stiffen your literary backbone more than that.
MT: Now that you’ve written a book in instalments like this, how do you feel about the idea of going back to writing one the conventional way, all in one go?
RC: I think there are many benefits in writing a novel in the conventional way, and I would be fine writing another one that way. But the lessons I have learned from serials will follow me. I will continue to write quickly and use cliffhangers and keep up a fast pace. The only difference is that I will be able to go back and add a few things here and there when I have finished. Although, surprisingly, when I look at The Scourge, there are few things I would go back and add. I think of all those old-school writers hacking away at typewriters. I imagine they didn’t go back and change too much. Maybe serials are taking us back to that sort of technique for writing.
MT: What advice would you give other authors thinking about writing a serial?
RC: Writing serials is like writing any other type of novel but more so. Keep the pacing brisk. Keep the tension high. Make sure the storyline isn’t too complicated. Polish your dialogue until it shines. And, like Elmore Leonard says, take out the parts that readers skip.
MT: We’ve spoken about the creative aspects of writing a Kindle Serial; let’s now talk about the business side a little. You confirmed at the outset that the entire serial sold for $1.99. Does pricing the serial so low still allow you to get compensated adequately for all your hard work?
RC: At $1.99 you aren’t making a ton on each book, but 47North has decent royalty rates, so you aren’t too far from what you would normally make per book at traditional publishers, who give you lower royalty rates. The price of the book has jumped up to $3.99 now that it is a complete e-book novel, and the paperback is $8.97, so I can make a little more money now. But really the exposure I received with 47North and the Kindle Serials programme was unbelievable. My book was in the top 500 rankings overall on Amazon at one point. There weren’t a lot of serials when the first episode of The Scourge went up, so I had a really broad range of readers exposed to my writing. This was good and bad. Good because a lot of people who normally would never have picked up my novel did and found that they loved it. And bad because a few people who would never have picked up my novel did and hated it and left nasty reviews.
MT: You’re one of the first authors to produce a Kindle Serial. Do you feel that’s paying off for you in terms of building your profile as an author?
RC: Yes, without a doubt. The Kindle Serials were a novelty and a huge cross section of readers decided to try them. Since there weren’t many choices at first, they bought whatever was available, as mentioned above. I think once people got into the story they realised that the book was about three good friends facing adversity more than it was about zombies. I had a lot of readers start their comments on the discussions and reviews by saying ‘I never thought I would read a book with zombies in it, but I loved this!’ or something similar. And really, the zombies could have been anything: Nazis or Frenchmen or vampires or Stay Puft Marshmallow Men. The writing is what’s important. The story, the humour, the love, the dialogue, the passion. Fans of The Walking Dead will tell you the same thing.
The whole of The Scourge is now available at Amazon.com as a paperback and Kindle edition. It’s also available at Amazon.co.uk as a paperback and Kindle edition. Read Roberto Calas’s blog here.
WANT TO WRITE A KINDLE SERIAL?
Amazon are looking for work to publish. Their full submissions guidelines are here. Basically, you need to send them two episodes, a synopsis, a bio and a pitch saying why you think your story will work well as a serial. Good luck!
Photos: © http://www.123rf.com; Roberto Calas. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, a coded message secreted in the clothing of your squire, a messenger pigeon, watchtower-to-watchtower semaphore . . .
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