Quickstart guide for Substack fiction writers
Things I've learned from 8 years of writing fiction online
I’ve been writing and publishing fiction online since about 2015, first on Wattpad and now on Substack. I’ve released three complete novels this way, chapter-by-chapter, week-by-week. It’s a rewarding and fun way to be more consistently productive.
What follows is my distilled advice for writing fiction online, aimed especially at new writers here on Substack.
Don't overwhelm your readers. It’s very easy to get over-excited and send multiple posts per day, but restraint is required. Remember that when you’re writing on Substack, you posts are going into your readers’ email inboxes (and/or the Substack app). Chances are they have other stuff to read in there as well, and if your name pings up too many times in a row they might get annoyed and unsubscribe. Give your readers time and space to actually read your work.
Aim for a consistent word count. This will vary depending on genre and style, of course, but it’s a good idea to settle into a regular word count. It lets your readers know what to expect, so that when your latest post appears in their inboxes they already have a sense of a time commitment. I go with a loose goal of 1,200 words per chapter, which is long enough to have some real substance, but short enough to be easily read in a single sitting during breakfast / the commute / before bed. As with all rules, this is one you should break frequently.
Don't over-commit. If you can't manage a new story every day, don't promise it! Figure out your natural cadence and what you can comfortably deliver without stressing yourself out. That might be one a month, one a week or something else. Then stick to it like glue. A healthy writer = better writing.
Pay attention to presentation. Substack doesn’t give you much flexibility in terms of design, which is mostly a good thing; it ensures that everyone’s Substack has a baseline quality. You can still add your personal touches, and make sure your writing is instantly recognisable. Create a book cover, design graphics to act as scene dividers, add a banner to the top of emails and so on. If you don’t have design expertise, try using Canva - a simple and useful online tool. Alternatively you can ask a friend or even hire someone to help out with creating those initial assets.
Be cautious of using AI generated images. This advice will inevitably change given the pace of developments in the AI space. I advise caution for two reasons, currently:
AI generated images still look like AI generated images. Even the newer MidJourney systems still produce overly perfect images that at a glance have a particular generated look and feel. Unless you’re really good at your prompts, this will mean that your images look like everyone else’s. Instead of defining a visual look, it can make you more generic.
Given the ongoing ethical questions and issues, AI images will actively dissuade some people from reading your work. Back when I was experimenting with MidJourney in 2022 I had at least one person who did not upgrade their subscription because I was using AI images at that time. You have to weigh up the equation: will AI images attract you more readers than they’ll lose?
Create an index. As the number of stories/chapters grows, it will become harder for new readers to jump on board and for old readers to navigate. Creating a central ‘hub’ post really helps here. You can check mine out here. It makes larger projects much more approachable.
Don’t include chapter numbers in your post headers. If you're writing a long-form story, or serialising a novel, don't include chapter numbers in the post titles. I did this for the first 70 chapters of Tales from the Triverse and realised that, over time, it becomes off-putting to new readers. They see an increasingly massive number and think ‘that looks like a lot of homework.’
Use sections. On Substack you can organise posts into ‘sections’. This can be use for collections of stories, or for ongoing serials. It makes it much easier for people to find and navigate, and Substack automatically adds previous/next buttons to the bottom of posts to aid with sequeential reading.
Include a Previously on… recap. For ongoing serials, consider including a TV-style 'previously on....' short paragraph at the top of each instalment. Useful as a reminder for regular readers, and some vital context for new arrivals. I use a small scene setting blurb, followed by a recap, as you can see here. A banner image then separates the recap from the main text.
Use custom buttons. These can be used to additional previous / next chapter links and to link through to your index. Plus, of course, to encourage subscriptions.
Join the Fictionistas community. We're a lovely bunch:
Good luck to all of you starting out! There's a wonderful, growing community of fiction writers here. Hopefully I'll get to meet some of you down in the comments - let me know what you’re working on!
Photo by Anton Sukhinov on Unsplash
I’m still figuring out how to not overcommit 🤣
Also I would add: share the process not just the finished chapters.
And also: Follow other writers you like and get into their works too. The community aspect is essential online!
Awesome advice, Simon! You hit on all the major ones I think about as well. My word count is usually in that 1200-1500 range, sometimes a little shorter, other times a little longer.