What I knew before I started writing a serial novel

In 2013 I submitted the first chapter of my very first (to-be-published) novel to the BigWorldNetwork, in the firm belief that it was about time to take the next step in my career and actually submit something somewhere. ‘Cause you can’t be a published author without actually publishing, everyone knows that.

They sounded interesting, they looked enthusiastic and they just spelled innovation all around. Also, I loved the idea of serial novels in general – and this would be a commitment which would get me to finish writing a novel and not go over to another one midway because that one is more interesting. Which was win-win-win.

Here’s what I knew about serial fiction before I started writing it:

  • you can’t go back to change what you’ve just written – and this can become very annoying and very problematic. (Neil Gaiman recommends that you don’t, in fact, write serial fiction, because of this very reason – I’d find a reference, but I can’t remember on what occasion he said it)
  • you have to make sure that everything sounds great to start with, because of the previous point
  • you need to have at least some things planned if you want foreshadowing. Or consistency. Consistency is good.
  • you must never write yourself into a corner
  • you need to be the sort of person who has good tricks for beating writer’s block, or the weekly deadline will spell ‘dead’ a lot more enthusiastically
  • creating a world that’s sufficiently rich in details ensures that later on you’ll be able to grab a few of those details and use them in cool ways. If you don’t use them, they still count as atmosphere
  • the serial novel may not be the best novel you can write, since you might wish you’d done something differently later, or you might have a few bad weeks in which things go badly, or because of Unforeseen Events. Of which there are plenty in life.

Due to all of the above, I decided that the novel which was the most suitable for this experiment was Flight from Hell, because it’s about Hell, literally, so I had flexible scenery to toy around with in case I ran out of ideas, I had flexibility in choosing the rules of the world – and it wasn’t one of my most dearly loved ideas. There are some things I want to write which are so cool that I cry myself to sleep over, because I’m still not good enough to write them. No way I’m experimenting anything with those. Those need to be perfection.

So, Flight from Hell. I already knew everything about Sara, since she’s a character in an unwritten-yet story. I had a solid idea about where she comes from and what her world is like. I knew approximately what the novel would be about. Sounds good? Sounds good. I wrote Chapter 1 in bed at night for about two nights, then I spent some extra time – during the night – considering how to phrase the e-mail.

I eventually sent a stiff, official-sounding e-mail to the managing editor, Amanda Meuwissen, along with the first chapter of Flight from Hell and a summary which… wouldn’t go exactly as planned later. Luckily, I doubt she looked over the summary twice, so that little subject never got mentioned again.

In case you’re wondering, this is what I wrote on May 13, 2013:

The series follows two characters: Nakir, the angel who tests the faith of the dead in their graves, and whose own faith was questioned and proven faulty; and Sara, a part-human magician, who tried to dabble in necromancy and failed in her rituals. They are both in Hell now, in a specific region which is home to sex demons such as succubi and incubi and they’ve joined forces in the hopes of maybe escaping Hell.

In the first episode we get a glance of the region of succubi and incubi, but later ones become more oriented towards actions[2014 note: actions?! wtf, me, it’s supposed to be action], plots, developments and complications. Sara’s recklessness shows in an outlandish development [2014 note: on the other hand, I think I sent this at an ungodly hour of the night, which explains why I sound weird]. She acquires demonic traits and tries to counter them before she becomes a demon herself – she starts out by having a part-werewolf identity, which gets shown when fighting against incubi. At the end of the battle, still in wolf form, she eats an incubus and gets his powers, as well as the ability to shape-shift into a male form. This eventually allows her to become a Catholic priest, when she encounters a pilgrim bishop willing to spread the faith in Hell.

Meanwhile, Nakir is trying hard to fight against the devils who used to be angels and who would wish to see him fallen or dead. He encounters old ‘friends’ and downright enemies and has to think on his feet to keep most of Hell’s attention elsewhere than on himself and Sara. His approach, less forceful, more subtle, is aimed at finding an escape and negotiating possibilities.

Sara is actually saner and more well-adjusted in the novel than I initially planned for her to be. Also, I wrote all of it from Nakir’s point of view, which means that we don’t really get to see her inner struggles. Especially since she doesn’t share much. But shite happens.

Now, the last paragraph is… *cough* not very similar to what actually happens. The truth of the matter is that my first idea about Nakir-the-angel was of him as a diplomat, a mediator, a subtle politician. You can see signs of that in the first few episodes, when he’s talking to the devil Ashmedai, and you can see signs of it here and there in the way in which he relates to people. He very rarely confronts them directly, and when he does he’s either deeply provoked, or he’s not himself. He’s not aware that what he’s doing is maintaining relations and calculating the costs of breaking them versus the cost of keeping them going, but that’s somewhere deep inside him.

The thing I wasn’t expecting was for him to start falling deeper and deeper, but, as a friend so neatly put it when I was discussing my initial plans for the novel: “There’s no such thing as an innocent in hell, not in the Christian one.” So Nakir started falling, which entirely messed up my initial plans.

But that’s another story.

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