Writing public first drafts
...and why it isn't a completely terrible idea
Writing an online serial is a particularly public form of writing. You’ll probably be publishing a new chapter at least once a week, which means that you’re connecting directly with your readers on a weekly basis. It’s not the same as publishing a book traditionally, where the author maintains a certain distance from readers created by publishers and bookshops and only interacts with readers at festivals, or book launches, or voluntarily on social media. With serialisation there is no separation: you beam you words directly into the reader’s hands and they might share their thoughts in return.
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If you’re pre-written your material or have a significant buffer between the writing and the publishing then you have a slight distance from the work, but in my case I tend to write a chapter and publish it in the same week. It’s still a very raw manuscript, that has only just been birthed into the world.
I’m always sure to be very up-front with readers about this. The version of the story I put out in serialised form is not exactly a first draft but it’s certainly not a final, complete draft - after all, I haven’t written the rest of the story yet! It’s a version 1.5, perhaps. The good news is that most readers not only understand this but actively seek it - there’s a particular thrill to being the first people to have eyes on a new creation, and even to be an influence on its future shaping. This ‘live writing’ is a thrill for them and for me. The words are still red hot and steaming from the furnace when they reach people’s inboxes.
I have a background in copywriting which helps with being able to write swiftly and edit my own work (cue lots of embarrassing, inevitable typos in this very newsletter). The chapters I put up have usually gone through a couple of drafts, and I edit as I go as well as doing a proofing prior to publishing. Depending on your preferred writing style this may or may not be a viable approach - for example, I tend to write relatively linearly, which obviously suits serialisation. If you’re a writer who leaps around the book’s structure and timeline, building it up in a non-linear fashion, then you probably won’t be able to do a ‘live write’ in the same way I do - you’ll need to complete the entire manuscript prior to serialisation, or at least build up a sizeable buffer.
One concern people have is whether serialising online - whether for free or via some form of patronage - immediately precludes the possibility of publication elsewhere. In my observations of the industry and other writers, it seems that there’s little to worry about. Numerous authors have gone from online serialisation to traditional publication deals (and back again), with their online readerships serving more as a calling card and evidence that their work resonates. There’s nothing to stop you self-publishing the story as an edited, polished-up ebook or print-on-demand title once the serial run has completed, either - you’ll reach a different audience who prefer the sense of receiving a ‘complete product’, and some of your regular readers might like to own a ‘collector’ edition.
Then there’s the old fear: won’t people just steal my work? Well, sure. It’s the internet. Anyone can copy and paste some words. But they’re still copyrighted to you, as a creation, and it should be pretty easy to prove you have original ownership - in fact, by sharing them online you’ll have a very clear line of origin and ownership. Ultimately, if people think your work has enough value to be worth stealing, take it as a compliment - it shouldn’t really affect your own status or income.
Remember that it’s not all stress and complication, though. The most important element of writing my drafts in public is that I have built-in accountability. The knowledge that there is someone out there waiting for the next chapter is a big part of what gets me back to the desk, back to the keyboard. I’m not just telling a story to myself, I’m telling it to the world. As long as you approach that expectation as a healthy motivator, rather than a stressful burden, it’ll serve you well.
I’m having an especially busy couple of weeks, which is exactly when writing weekly newsletters becomes a challenge. I haven’t tripped up yet, fortunately. I will, however, keep this short.
Newsletter recommendation time! I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the SneakyArt newsletter, which features weekly ink sketches from artist Nishant Jain as well as podcasts and other insight into the creative process. I’m there mainly for the beautiful, stripped-down line art:
Right, I’ll be back on Friday for early access subscribers with the next chapter of Tales from the Triverse. This will kick off a brand new storyline, tentatively titled ‘The Ambassadors’. If you haven’t been reading, you can jump to the start (without needing to be a subscriber) here:
Oh, and don’t forget you can get 20% off an early access subscription at the moment, which gets you all of the sci-fi and fantasy fiction that goes out on my newsletter:
Simon K Jones