The Episodic Novel: The Good, the Bad, and the Semi-marketable

Episodic novels have been around for a long, long time. They were quite the rage in the 1800s (thanks to Dickens and Dumas and the proliferation of periodicals), but with the advancement of book publishing technologies and the availability of printed books to the average Pip, the episodic novel has become somewhat of a rare duck. Despite their current lack of popularity, however, I decided to write my first novel, Fell’s Hollow, as an episodic novel. The choice was both a good one and a bad one.

As for the good…

Designing Fell’s Hollow as an episodic novel allowed me to focus on writing one particular episode for each of my MFA workshops. Most MFA students submit short stories to a workshop, as that format allows the reviewers to comment on both the technical quality of their writing AND their storytelling ability, for the short story is a complete piece of art. As a reviewer, if you aren’t working with a complete piece (say the writer submitted a single chapter of a novel), it’s very difficult to comment on storytelling aspects such as developing plot, character, setting, overall style, etc. You never know if the writer missed something, or if s/he is planning on adding it in a subsequent chapter. By designing Fell’s Hollow as an episodic novel, I was able to maximize the benefits of the MFA program and receive as full a set of useful comments and suggestions as I could, while still making progress on a longer art form.

Designing Fell’s Hollow as an episodic novel also provided me with an open framework to guide the development of the novel itself. Meaning, I wasn’t working with a blank slate from beginning to end, nor was I working with an overly detailed outline from beginning to end. I was working with ten episodes (think of them as containers) in which I knew some of the high-level details that had to occur in each episode to assure they would come together and work as a novel. But the details of the individual characters and story within each episode remained open for discovery. Thus, the episodic form gave me a loose structure in which to work, a structure that wasn’t too open (I didn’t wander aimlessly) nor too restrictive (it didn’t completely kill the magic of the writing process).

By publishing some of the episodes of Fell’s Hollow individually as I finished them, I was able to learn the business (and technologies) of independent publishing, i.e. the processes, files, and formats required to get a literary product onto the market. This was critical. Each publishing medium (print, Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, et al) uses a different publishing process and requires a differently formatted source file. By publishing episodes individually, I was able to work out the kinks before publishing the complete novel (which will occur in the next few months). (EDIT: Was published this spring.) As it happened, I already used this knowledge to streamline the publishing of The NORTAV Method for Writers, which I wrote concurrently with Fell’s Hollow.

Finally, by creating and publishing Fell’s Hollow in an episodic format, I was able to avoid the dreaded analysis paralysis. When Episode I hit the street, I was far less tempted to go back and tweak it to death based on unforeseen events that popped up in Episode VII, for instance. If you’re someone like me, a retentive perfectionist, it’s easy to get caught in an endless loop of write-revise-write-rerevise-write-rererevise-write-rerererevise, etc… For me, the act of revision is highly addictive. The episodic format turned out to be my methadone.

As for the bad…

Well, there’s really only one potential drawback to writing an episodic novel. As I mentioned, the episodic format is no longer widely used. Unless it’s written by a bestseller like J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, it seems people are no longer interested in buying and reading a novel one episode at a time. (Sure, there are bound to be exceptions to the rule, but I’m talking for the vast majority of readers and writers.) In today’s world of instant gratification, people have a hard enough time waiting for the next full novel from their favorite author (ask George R. R. Martin if you don’t believe me). Waiting for each part of a novel to be published makes the reader wait many more times for the same amount of material, even if the total time they waited for the complete novel is the same. Increasing the number of times a reader has to wait for something, even if the total waiting time doesn’t increase, only enflames today’s readers’ ADHD. So, writing and publishing an episodic novel is fine. Publishing the episodes individually is a waste of time unless you have another reason (or reasons, as in my case) for doing so.

Would I recommend the episodic form to writers?

Absolutely…especially if you’re a new writer and want a great way to learn the business and technologies by publishing the episodes as you go. Or if you have a tendency to never finish a work due to an addiction to revision. Or if you find that you need some kind of structure to keep you moving forward, but you don’t want that structure to limit you or strangle your muse. Or if you belong to a workshop or a writers’ group and want comprehensive critiques as you go. Or, or, or…

There are plenty of valid reasons a writer might want to choose the episodic form.

So try it…but don’t expect to sell many individual episodes. If you do, great! You’re exceptional. For us mere mortals, our hope for making an impact on the market lies with the completed package, i.e. the completed novel. With luck, by next spring I’ll be able to compare the sales figures of the individual Fell’s Hollow episodes to the complete Fell’s Hollow novel and report back with some empirical data.

Until then…keep creatin’!

–Jim

1 comment for “The Episodic Novel: The Good, the Bad, and the Semi-marketable

  1. Samantha Togiatama
    January 12, 2015 at 5:10 am

    Thank you for this very useful reading about episodic novels.
    I’m closer to sorting myself out now.

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