Continuing a story over several books is serializing that story. Books that share a common setting, story arc or characters is a series. A series would books such as Nancy Drew, Border Town and The Babysitters Club while serialized fiction would include The Goddess Wars, Legend and Dorothy Must Die. Despite these technical differences, we tend to call books with characters and settings that extend over multiple books a ‘series’. To really learn about serialized fiction, I recently interviewed Malinda Lo.
Why do you think serialized fiction is so popular with young readers?
I think serialized fiction is popular with readers of all ages because we become attached to certain characters, and we want to follow their journeys through many stories. Reading serialized fiction is like revisiting old friends. There’s a comfort in it because you have a good idea of what you’re going to get, and if they’re old friends, you enjoy spending time with them.
Additionally, if you like epic tales of adventure, they often have to be in series format. It’s hard to fit saving the world into one book! So if you like big, sweeping narratives, that’s another reason to love series. You get to see much more of that fictionalized world.
How is it decided that a particular story should be serialized? How are the contracts usually negotiated? (one book at a time, or for the entire series at one?)
I’ve written two kinds of serialized fiction. My Adaptation series is two novels and a novella, and is the kind of serialized fiction you generally find in bookstores. The sequence of this series and the number of books in it was negotiated during the contract stage, when Little, Brown acquired it. Sometimes if a book is a standalone and it does really well, publishers will ask for a sequel or for more in the series. So it’s not always decided up front.
The other type of serialized fiction I’ve written is Tremontaine, a serialized ebook series from an ebook publisher called Serial Box. They release serialized ebook novellas weekly, like a TV series releases episodes. It’s actually quite an old kind of publishing. This is how Charles Dickens released his writing in the nineteenth century — by publishing it in newspapers serially. This was different from my novels because I was one writer on a team of writers, and we worked out the plot together. The overarching beats of the plot were created together before we started writing.
Is writing serialized fiction the same as writing a novel, or are there differences?
If your series consists of a series of novels, it’s like writing a series of novels. As many writers enjoy saying, every novel is different. At the same time, if you’re working with a series, it’s a good idea to know the whole plot (at least generally) before you start writing book one. Otherwise the resulting series will have continuity problems and plot holes. So while each novel on its own is simply (simply, ha!) writing a novel, you have the added issue of plotting across a series rather than only one book.
For Tremontaine, it was quite different from writing a novel because each “episode” was only about 14,000 words. That’s much shorter than a novel, so the structure of each episode was different. You had to limit what you could get done in one episode, and you had to work with the other writers by asking them to insert plot points in their episodes to lead up to yours, or to follow through afterward. The entire arc of the season felt more like a novel.
If someone were to develop an award for outstanding young adult series, what criteria do you think they should consider?
I think that would be a wonderful idea! There are so many series that are fantastic that don’t get recognized because most awards focus only on standalone novels. For example, Holly Black’s Curse Workers series is truly a work of art. She plants many seeds in the first book (White Cat) that don’t fully blossom until the climax of the third (Black Heart). That kind of multi-book planning — and its successful execution — is really hard to do. So I think a series award would need to look at the entire arc of all books in the series, and consider how well the narrative and characters develop over the course of all books.
Additionally, each book in the series should have its own inner cohesion. Because it’s a book within a series, however, there will necessarily be loose ends in all the books except the last one. But even with that caveat, each book should move the characters through a relatively contained story arc, and then also push the greater story forward. It’s a big challenge and I really admire writers who are able to juggle epic plots and multiple character threads.
What can we expect from you in 2016?
This year I’m hunkering down and doing a lot of writing. You won’t see much new from me this year because I’m working on stuff that won’t come out until after 2016. I will have some nonfiction published this year, including an essay in a collection for adults on the business of writing. And you never know, I might turn out some other essays as well. Stay tuned.
After reading Malinda’s description of what would make good, award winner series, I too wish there were an award! But, Malinda is such a good writer that she could convince me of almost anything. Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog. We’ll have to watch for her releases in 2017!