‘A Killer Serial’ – Guest Post by Hart Johnson

I am delighted to host a guest post by Hart Johnson, familiar to bloggers from her delicious (and quite informative) blog:

Hart had the idea to write a serial. She speaks of this in her post, so I will not steal her thunder. I will, however, give a thought or two of my own on serials. In past centuries, many writers were published in serial form. Dickens, specifically, wrote in a format that lent itself for serialization. Typically, a family would subscribe to a publication and that publication would feature an ongoing story. Each issue would contain an installment, which would be read, exclaimed over, discussed at great length. The younger members would be on the lookout for the next installment. When the process was through, the book would be published in its complete, monumental form.

That practice fell out of use nearly a century ago. We are now seeing it again. Hart’s is the first I’ve seen among writers I know, but there are others.

So… What does a serial have to offer over a ‘brick’, as we call non-serialized publications. I have my own thoughts on that issue, and they surprised me. I have The Pickwick Papers in serialized form, and it was impressed upon me when I read it that way that I was being drawn more thoroughly into the story. My enjoyment was deeper. If Mr. Pickwick at the end of the most recent installment was on a coach about to head to Dingley Dell for Christmas, I had a month or so to reflect on what he had been doing, what he was about to do, my thoughts on the character of the residents and visitors at Dingley Dell. Would Alfred Jingle (the cad!) be up to his caddish tricks? Would he charm, say, the maiden aunt? My thoughts would deepen my enjoyment, something that doesn’t happen in these days of novels you plow through.

Is it working? I will say that my reading of the installments has made me ponder what will happen next, frown over what seems to be about to happen, and argue with others over what will happen.  It’s a little more leisurely and (I won’t hide the fact) annoying to some people.  But I think the format is back to stay.  I think it’s a good thing. – Diana

…And now Hart, in her own words.

Serial Madness
First, I really want to thank Diana for hosting me! I’m happy to be here!  (It’s good to have you, Hart…)
To give you just a bit of background so you know where I’m coming from:
For the last ten months I’ve been serially releasing a very long book—there have thus far been 11 parts (of 12) and they are about 100 pages each. I’m here to share my thoughts on the good, the bad, and what I would have done differently in relation to serial publication. 
Moth to Flame 
First:  why I was so DRAWN to this idea… I have always had a love for door-stopping stories (physical door-stoppers, I mean—the 1000+ pagers). When I began trying to publish the hardest thing I had to do was learn how to rein in a long, complicated tale. Then, almost two years ago I had a friend announce she was serially releasing a story and I fell in love with the idea… Heck, follow in the footsteps of Dickens and Dumas? I could tell the stories I wanted to tell—the LONG complicated ones! I had a nearly finished book that I was frustrated with because it needed more, but at 600 pages, it needed LESS, if you know what I mean, so I decided to take on the rewrite, not to TRIM it, but to fill it in—give it more points of view so the stuff I was having trouble getting across because of the PoV limitation could be told and a good ending would no longer seem out of the blue.
Man, talk about a project to keep a person on their writing pace. I have written SO MANY words in the last year. (the 120K thing I HAD became a 330K thing, and that doesn’t even account for old version stuff I had to lose)
I have learned SO MUCH! It was trial by fire and I had to just get in there and do it. One of the BIGGEST things, and I think this is why I managed to be an Amazon semi-finalist with Parts 1-4, is having not just one climax, but regular mini-climaxes so each section was satisfying and the tension always remained high.
I think it worked to get a great story out there that was as long as I wanted it to be. 
The BAD 
I REALLY strained my first and second readers—it is too much to ask people to read 100 pages EVERY MONTH (which was the gap I ended up with between episodes after the first couple)
Readers, apparently, don’t TRUST serials. I didn’t know this because I thought it sounded so awesome, but I’ve heard this several times now—they will wait for it to be done. And no matter HOW up front you are that you are serially releasing, they grumble about SHORT or about ‘is this all’?
I am REALLY worn out. The monthly marketing effort is GINORMOUS and I think I had either too long or short between to be really effective. If it was shorter, I could build momentum, if it was longer, I could rest up between. One month is the WRONG distance.
The REVIEWS are all on the individual episodes, but once they are bundled, the BUNDLES are what I have been focusing on selling because it is easier to talk about…. yet there they sit, reviewless…
What I would Do DIFFERENTLY 
The VERY most important is I would finish the full first draft AND get first and second reader feedback before I started the polish to publish cycle. I had a few life stress cycles that really stopped up the original writing end of things—I think 6 weeks is the longest between episodes, but I think 2 weeks may in fact be ideal. I REALLY should only have had copyediting left to do.
If I do it again, I will either try to go through Amazon’s formal serial arm (they require a finished product before they take you, then they sell subscriptions) or I may just say, “Hey, let’s make it a trilogy” (that is the version I am working with on my current book—three books with three acts each, to be published as a trilogy)
I would have self-published a standalone before committing to a serial. I’ve traditionally published, but the publisher does all the technical stuff, so part of my learning curve was THAT. I really should have mastered all that before I started shouting and creating expectations. And then I had to repeat it regularly, but there wasn’t enough time between to master OTHER formats (Nook, iTunes)–I really felt like I scrambled a bit. (read:  a lot) 
Volumes 1 – 4
Volumes 5 – 8

I am happy with the outcome though. The LAST ONE comes out next week. If you are curious, the bundled first four are still just 99 cents—once all of them are out, I will figure out a pricing strategy. Volumes 5-8 are also bundled, and sometime in August I will bundle the last.

You can find the first bundle, parts 1 – 4 here, and the second, 5 – 8, here
…and here are the covers so far:

Hart Johnson is a social scientist by day and plots murder in her bathtub at night. If you want to learn more about her, you can find her at Confessions of a Watery Tart: 

About Hart Johnson by Hart Johnson (and myself)

Hart at a book signing – note the covers…

I ‘met’ Hart Johnson in the halls of Amazon during one of the past ABNA (Amazon Breakout Novel Award) competitions.  It is a wonderful experience, and what made it worthwhile for me was the sheer amount of good advice and camaraderie that I encountered.  It was priceless. 

Writers are a generous lot.  We like to share – experiences, tips, advice, commiseration and cheering.  Hart definitely did her share then and now, with a very enjoyable, signature smile.

If you like good writing, she does it, whether you encounter it on her blog, her facebook page or in the pages of her books.  Since she has another installment in her Cozy Mystery series (Penguin) coming out, I asked her if I might feature her on my blog.  She gave a gracious ‘yes’ response, and here she is.

Hart is very visible (links and information are at the end of this interview) and others better than me have interviewed her.  I thought I’d just pose some random questions.  I’m glad I did:

You’re a writer. Why?

I think because reality never quite follows my plan. Then again my fiction doesn’t always follow my plan either, but at least when it doesn’t, I’m in charge of the punishment.

Hobby, distraction or job – what is Writing to you?

I would SO love this to be my job, but sadly, I’ve reached a position of power in my household and now all these needy people depend on ME for a regular income *cough* Hopefully AT LEAST by the time my son finishes college (he is a high school freshman now) and that particular bill is off the table and two dependents are off my insurance, I will be able to make the switch.

If you’re like many of the writers I know, you do something else to put bread on the table, at least for the moment. That takes a large chunk out of the day. How do you squeeze writing time in?
It started with filling the time that was formerly the ‘read with childings’ time—first my daughter, then my son, as they hit middle school, gave up reading with me and I’d been stealing just a little time to write before that, but I took first the one 45 minutes, then the other, and suddenly I had two hours a night… and I mean EVERY night. (and nobody even missed it)–And yes… initially it was almost ALL in the bathtub.

The bathtub?  When I think of the wasteland of dunked books I managed to generate during my attempts to read and soak, I am in awe! 

A word utterly escapes you. You know what you want and it is not popping into your head. The perfect word – AWOL! What do you do?
See, this is one of the reasons I love writing… I write my long description of the word I’m looking for and can’t find and know it will come to me as I fall asleep or in the shower or on a power walk and I can fill it in later. This doesn’t work NEARLY as well in face to face conversations, though I DO try.

People like to read books that interest and entertain them. I have noticed, though, that an interesting and entertaining author also gets a following. What is there about you that people might like to follow? Don’t be shy.
Thus far, my only published stuff has a combo of humor and twisty plot. I think my characters are fun and likable, but each with an annoying quirk or two. I like smart female leads who stick up for themselves and more often rescue than having to be rescued. And while I appreciate beautiful PERFECT language choices, I think my language choice tends to be minimally intrusive… it is a story I’m telling, not a poem. Which I think makes me approachable for people who just want to take a break and escape a while.

Someone said once that a good book was a place to lose yourself happily for a space of time…

Speaking seriously about the craft of writing, what tools or procedures do you consider absolutely essential?

My advice is ALWAYS to let go a little. Just write and don’t worry if it’s good. No first draft is good already (well, there are probably some, but not nearly as many as there are writers confident in their first drafts)–write write write. Get the story out. Then SET IT ASIDE. Read something GOOD. Read something BAD. Give feedback to a friend. So when you come back to your work to edit you have cleansed your palette and hopefully learned a few things. You are more objective with some distance and can see what is both good and bad… Edit… THEN get feedback from somebody ELSE (and read good and bad and give feedback)… A few rounds of this is you are probably getting there. I really don’t think it is possible without TIME and FEEDBACK though.

What else is in the works for you? A sequel to Begonia Bribe, perhaps? Or anything else?
I’ve turned in a third Garden Society Mystery to my editor at Penguin, so there is at least that, and it’s DONE (well, other than copy editing). I hope they ask me to do a couple more—I have plots worked out for two others. But in the meantime, I have a couple YA novels in the editing stage, one mystery that is a little sassier than cozy (called What Ales Me—a Microbrewery based mystery in Portland: A reader called it a cross between Cozy and Noir). And then I have two Armageddon stories I am thinking about publishing serially (one adult, one YA)… the Microbrewery Mystery will probably be first out of the docket, as I think my agent and publisher will go for that as a series. The others, I have to start from scratch for selling.

OK, we have an open forum here: what would you like to say?
You know… writing is probably the greatest compulsion a person can get sucked into. It allows for escape and imagination, while encouraging us to open the wide filter on the world and see all the great possibilities. We get to push our brains into new places all the time, then rope them back in to create elegance. And unlike my former ‘dreams’ (first I wanted to be a trapeze artist, then a movie star) this one is largely in our control.
If we just keep working at it long enough, we will eventually be good enough to share… And not only that, it is one of the few undertakings that somebody ELSE creating something fabulous doesn’t threaten us. In fact it helps us. Because the more great stories there are out there, the more readers there will be looking for still more stories. So we can love and support each other in earnest.

(Thank you, Hart.  That last paragraph needs to be set aside and written in bold.  And, perhaps, memorized.  At least for this writer.)

The Begonia Bribe is Hart Johnson’s latest mystery in the Garden Club series.  For myself, aside from the interesting ‘blurb’, and the fact that I spent some years within smiling distance of Roanoke, I have to love a story with a radio-TV station named WONK!

Roanoke, Virginia, is home to some of the country’s most exquisite gardens, and it’s Camellia Harris’s job to promote them. But when a pint-sized beauty contest comes to town, someone decides to deliver a final judgment … 

A beauty pageant for little girls—the Little Miss Begonia Pageant—has decided to hold their event in a Roanoke park. Camellia is called in to help deal with the botanical details, the cute contestants, and their catty mothers. She soon realizes that the drama onstage is nothing compared to the judges row. There’s jealousy, betrayal, and a love triangle involving local newsman—and known lothario—Telly Stevens. And a mysterious saboteur is trying to stop the pageant from happening at all. 

But the drama turns deadly when Stevens is found dead, poisoned by some sort of plant. With a full flowerbed of potential suspects, Cam needs to dig through the evidence to uproot a killer with a deadly green thumb.
**   **   **

 Hart Johnson (aka: Alyse Carlson) writes books from her bathtub and can be found at:

Confessions of a Watery Tart: http://waterytart23.blogspot.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HartJohnson

Thanks, Hart!