Updated: Jul 29, 2021
I've only recently learned about Vella, Radish, and other ways of releasing books serially. My understanding is that readers subscribe to books and pay per chapter/section/episode, which are released one at a time. Like Dickens meets fanfiction. I both get it and I don't get it—as someone recently said to me, "sounds like a very expensive way to read a book," but I also do love the thrill of getting that email that says that your favorite fic has been updated.
Someone in one of the writing groups I'm part of asked for advice on how to write something that will be released serially, and I think that's a great question, because it's a very different way of writing.
I've spent the last three years trying to unlearn all the serial writing habits I've developed over the last ten, so I figured I could reverse engineer everything I've been working against to write out some advice to get folks started.
If you've only ever written books or shorts meant to be read all at once, or in big chunks (like most books), here's my advice on how to write a successful serial:
My biggest piece of advice is still to write the whole thing before you publish it. Which may seem counterintuitive, but the very worst thing is when you’ve already published a chapter, and then you realize there’s something you want to go back and change. A name, a character, a motivation, a pacing issue. Especially if you’re not used to writing in that format, you’re not going to want to publish as you go. It's so tempting to drop a chapter and watch the accolades roll in, but that's not going to result in the best book.
Finish it! You also don't want to lose steam for writing after you've started publishing. There's a reason most books and fanfics are unfinished: finishing is hard! Make sure this story has the legs to get all the way to the end before you start publishing it. If you start languishing in the middle, maybe the idea needs a serious tweak, maybe it should be a novella instead of novel length, maybe it should go on the shelf for a while. All options are good, but not after you've started publishing it!
Where chapters start and end is different in serials. The goal in a serial is for the readers to be hooked enough to pay for the next chapter—to wait with bated breath until the next chapter is released, to feel compelled to learn what happens next. This means that you're probably going to want to do that thing a lot of mystery novels do, where each chapter break is a bit of a cliffhanger, or at a natural genre-appropriate ending point. Each chapter should be a bit more self-contained than in a traditionally released book. Of course if there’s a very long event it can be split into two chapters, but you want each chapter to have a rise and fall, a real arc, not just whatever the next 3,000 or 5,000 words are.
Keeping the reader hooked means each chapter needs to be emotionally fulfilling on its own. Not that each chapter needs to end happily, or resolve things, but the story needs to move forward and the emotional beats need to be satisfying in each chapter. This one chapter is their whole reading experience for the day, and they paid for it specifically, so it needs to be enough all on its own. This means no filler chapters, no purely worldbuilding chapters. Think of each chapter as a self-contained one course meal, which needs to serve as appetizer, main course, and dessert. The challenges there are making sure you don't get too formulaic, which will become boring after a while, and keeping the arc of the larger book intact. This is another reason to write the whole thing in advance, so that you can check the pacing of the big arc, while also attending to the arc in each chapter.
Hook and retain readers so they keep reading. With traditional paper books, of course we want people to keep reading through the end, but after someone has bought it, I have no idea if they (a) read it at all, or (b) finished it. But with serials, that's the entire point. I can only imagine that paying per chapter means that people are probably much more likely to not finish the book after a slow chapter or two (what folks in the writing community call DNF, "did not finish"). To prevent DNFs, each chapter is going to need to be compelling enough to hook readers, and have enough momentum that readers will be eagerly awaiting the next installment. If a chapter doesn't move the story forward, readers might think they aren't getting their money's worth, and they might DNF. This is likely especially true for the first few chapters, and the first paid chapter.
For example, Vella has the first 3 chapters free, so you'll need to make sure chapter 3 is especially compelling so that people will pay for chapter 4.
Stop when you get to the end. I cannot count the number of serials I've seen that go on and on and on and on because the author likes the praise and the process. Yes, writing serials, especially popular ones, is fun! But people will drop off once the plot is clearly resolved and you're just adding fluff, or you're creating conflicts that don't serve the story. Readers can tell when you're meandering through Act 5 when it should have ended in Act 3. End the story when it's over, and use that energy to start a new one. You can do a sequel, or write something totally new. But don't keep drawing this one out for so long that people end up DNFing.
People on Vella can follow, like, or fav your work, just like on your favorite fanfic website. You can also write author's notes for each chapter. I really caution you against overusing your author's notes! You want to appear professional and confident in your work. We don't need to see any notes like, "IDK this chapter isn't exactly what I wanted, so here you go." This is published work—don't publish if you aren't confident, and don't denigrate yourself. Don't put worldbuilding details in the notes, don't make excuses. Set a regular publishing timeline, publish predictably (which is easy since you already wrote the whole thing, remember?), and use the notes sparingly to thank your readers or let them know about other projects of yours they can follow.
Vella will let you publish the book all at once after the final chapter is posted. This is another reason to do my favorite thing and write the whole thing in advance, so that you can make sure it reads smoothly both serially and all at once.
What else would you add?