Think of two recent, popular shows: The Walking Dead and Serial. One’s a fictional TV program about zombies, the other is a nonfiction podcast that’s deeply reported and researched. They couldn’t be more different, right?
Actually, they’re more alike than it appears. Both employ the hallmark of the serial novel — that is, each relies on cliffhangers at the end of each episode to keep you watching or listening until the next installment. It’s obviously an exciting way to watch TV and listen to radio.
But what about books? There’s Charles Dickens, of course. And Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” was actually a serial written for Rolling Stone before it was published. Michael Chabon’s “Gentlemen of the Road” appeared in fifteen installments in the New York Times Magazine.
But in the romance genre, series, not serials, are the popular choice. You know, full-length, standalone books set in a world or within a family. Each character gets their own book, and their own love interest. Occasionally past characters make walk-on appearances in subsequent books, toting wedding rings and babies and happy lives.
In 2016, when I was writing The Story Series in five episodes I had few examples in romance for inspiration. I wasn’t looking for books that had been chopped up and sold in chunks; I was seeking episodic stories that each had a beginning, middle and end, with the same characters. Beth Kery’s excellent novel Make Me was initially released as an eight-part serial, and she’s written many books in this format.
When I was writing my serial, I loved crafting story arcs for each of the five installments, and found it challenging to adhere to one big story arc for the entire narrative.
E-book readers loved the episodes, but they loved the complete novel even more. Understandable, because many e-book lovers like to binge read and dislike cliffhangers — and there are a couple of devastating cliffhangers in The Story Series.
I was itching to write another serial, but set aside all ideas because I was publishing Constant Craving this year.
In May of 2016, I posted The Story Series on Radish Fiction, an app that allows readers to pay for books by the chapter. The episodes gained traction, and I asked the Radish editors if it would make sense to pre-release Constant Craving five months before it’s release date, in serial installments. Sure, they said, let’s try it. That was July third.
By the end of July when I was at the Romance Writers of America conference in Orlando, the book was doing so well that Seung Yoon Lee, the CEO of Radish, turned to me over drinks and said, “you should write a second season to Constant Craving.”
I made a dismissive pfft sound. “That book was conceived as a standalone. Those characters are done.”
But over the weeklong conference I thought about it, and became more intrigued. I ran through some ideas with writer friends. What if I did extend Rafael and Justine’s story? What if they thought they’d achieved their happy-ever-after, only for it to be cruelly ripped away? Plot bunnies scampered through my mind, and multiplied. As they do.
In September, once Constant Craving-Season One was finished, I posted Season Two. It was the same story, from the hero’s POV — with a massive cliffhanger at the end. Not only is it a cliffhanger, but it’s a devastating secret that the hero is keeping from the heroine at the worst possible moment.
SQUEE. Literally, that was the noise I made when I wrote the final chapter of the second installment.
Readers went nuts. “Why are you so mean?” wrote one woman in my Facebook readers’ group. “My heart dropped,” wrote another. “I am over come with grief and shock…you are killing me, lady!” Another reader posted alternative versions of the story by writing fan fiction about one of the characters.
It was AWESOME.
I’d finally found what I was seeking in fiction: highly engaged readers who value well-told, sexy and emotional stories. I came to discover that many of the people who read on Radish adore the cliffhanger, and read the app for that very reason. They love the delicious thrill of anticipation in waiting for the next chapter.
The app is attracting some big-name romance authors like Kendall Ryan, Alessandra Torre, Tiffany Reisz and Alana Albertson. But it’s not all romance — books of all genres are available.
The Washington Post wrote an opinion piece a while ago, suggesting that it’s time to bring back the serial novel:
“In many ways, the novel is already designed to be delivered in serial form: Chapters and section breaks bring full stops to the narrative, while flashbacks and shifts in perspective and narration create time and space for momentum to build…But when we can freely turn to the next chapter in our novels, we can quash any suspense with the flip of a page. Slicing a novel into bits and slowly doling it out to the reading public takes control of that tension away from the reader, allowing it to ferment and blossom.”
Because the reception has been so great on Radish, I’m exclusively offering the Burning Secrets Series there starting December 1. Hot Shade, Into the Heat and Hot Fix will be available only on the Radish app. For my e-book readers, you can buy those at your favorite e-book vendor this week for just 0.99 each.
Hopefully, though, you’ll join me on Radish and allow my stories to ferment and blossom in your mind — after the cliffhangers, of course.
Read a story about my decision to publish on Radish in The Tampa Bay Times.