Wednesday, 6 February 2013

How to write a serial for People's Friend

I am nearing the end of writing a serial for People's Friend and thought it might be of interest to some to know how it differed from writing a pocket novel.

The serial entitled 'The Lemon Grove' is set in Sorrento, Italy and I hope it will issue some time this summer. I am still only on instalment 6 of 8 instalments but it is going well. It has been a total pleasure in these cold and wet months to take myself away to somewhere sunny. I believe the setting may well have helped in getting my proposal accepted. Many readers will have been to Sorrento and the Island of Ischia, and fantasised about going to live in a holiday destination. Don't we all wonder as we come back home what it might be like to have stayed on and made a life in a place we have grown to love, possibly with a handsome stranger, even after only two short weeks?

When I was pitching the serial to People's Friend, I had two possibilities up my sleeve. Knowing that D C Thomson are based in Scotland and have many Scottish readers, my other idea was to set a serial in a search and rescue helicopter base somewhere in the Highlands. This I felt would have ample possibilities for hunky heroes and emotional situations. My first choice though was Italy and luckily the editor agreed to go for it. One of the best things about this setting for a writer has been the ability to appeal to the senses to transport a reader to my destination. Writing about the food of Italy, the scent of its herbs and the sheer joy of Italian ice cream has all hopefully added colour and life to the story (I've been on a diet the whole time I was writing it so perhaps that has something to do with it!) The other thing I felt was essential to include was characters of all ages. The hero and heroine are in their twenties, there is a young niece of fourteen and a storyline involving the grandmother of the hero, Nana Bonetti. Women's magazines which carry fiction often appeal to an extremely wide age range. I remember as a teenager reading the stories in my mother's magazines and if you can include a variety of ages you will appeal to a variety of readers.

On the sharper plot points there are elements of crime - something which I love. This also gave me the excuse to include a very sexy Italian policeman influenced not a little by the actor who plays Inspector Montalbano in the TV series set in Sicily (pictured above). My character is of course a perfect gentleman but he does have an open topped sports car and nothing's more exhilarating than being whizzed around those scary Italian cliffside roads.

The main difference in writing a serial to writing a pocket novel is that you do have to be somewhat more disciplined and more guided by an editor AT EACH INSTALMENT. Other writers with more experience may submit all 8 instalments and have the whole lot accepted. My experience though has been to submit the first instalment with a synopsis and then wait for the comments and any amendments/rewrites on each instalment before I go ahead and write the rest. It means I have come to know my characters very well as I reread what went before to refresh my memory. With the six pocket novels I have had published, the pacing has been largely up to me. I can have a fast moving beginning, a slightly more gently paced middle with incidents happening whenever I personally felt the pace was flagging. The pocket novel editors certainly ask for rewrites but not as you're writing every 5000 words or so. With a serial however, each 5,300 word plus instalment has to have it's own story arc and carry it's own emotional punch and a hook at the end. This is the cliffhanger ending to induce the reader to make absolutely sure to buy next week's magazine. That's not to say the cliffhanger needs to be over dramatic but it does need to make the reader burn to know what will happen next. Like pocket novels however, it is the characters which really make the reader want to know how the story ends. In that respect a serial is no different. All of which I think is the perfect excuse to post a pic of the wonderful Luca Zingaretti - a great inspiration for my Italian policeman - looking suitably dashing as Inspector Montalbano, and proving that hair loss is no bar to being seriously fanciable!


  1. This post couldn't have come at a better time, Cara. My writing contact at The People's Friend has said that they think my writing has enough depth for me to try a serial. I have had all the guidelines but I have to admit I am really nervous about starting. Part of the problem for me is that I am not a planner - I hardly ever know what is going to happen when I start writing. This of course would cause problems with writing a synopsis. Your post was very helpful - I shall have to sit down and have a serious think about this.

  2. Brilliant news Wendy, so pleased they've given you the opportunity. I'll let you into a secret - I find it impossible to plan as well. I often start and find that basically I'm writing the thing! What I thought were notes turn out to be a first draft. I do a synopsis because that is what is required but I have to say my original synopsis changed fairly drastically as the instalments went on. I really don't think it matters all they are looking for is a good story but primarily great characters - people you can feel for. People with dilemmas, wants, needs, hopes. The satisfaction for the reader is in seeing resolution. Resolution doesn't mean everything turning out in apple pie order. People don't always get what they want and I have one particular minor character who I'm already feeling rather wistful about because all her dreams won't come true but some will.... Here, I do have a bit of a plan because I am hoping perhaps to write her story one day. I think the key is, don't be afraid. You have a story in you, get on and put it on paper. If the People's Friend editors have seen promise in your work, give them your best and they will let you know where it needs tweaking. They are super to work with and they know their readers inside out. Don't worry about not being a planner, the story will find its way once you get going. Good luck!!

    1. Thank you so much for your detailed answer, Cara, and to Rena for asking additional useful questions. I agree with you that the PF editors are lovely to work with - even for short stories - so I'm sure that part of it would not be a problem at all. Just one quickie - how long was your synopsis? I am really looking forward to reading your serial when it comes out. Still dancing?

  3. Absolutely fascinating post, Cara. I was wondering how you were getting on with your serial, so thanks for keeping us in the picture. Writing serials is something I've been fancying doing myself, so lots of good tips here.
    The 8 instalments x 3,400 word count requirement is about the same as a pocket novel, yet it seems so much more daunting. I imagine you have to keep a tight reign on the twists and turns of the plot in each episode. You can't just sit back and let the story take over.

    I have a few questions -
    a) Did you have an overall plot plan (as per pocket novel) or a more detailed one for each individual instalment?(although I think you've just answered this in your reply to Wendy)
    b) Was it helpful / frustrating working so closely with an editor?
    c) Would you write another serial?

    I hope your post gets lots of comments. It would be good to read others serial writers' views.
    I'll link to it in my blog, if that's OK, Cara.
    Great to see the Pocketeers back again, by the way - and how!!

  4. I agree with the others, a fascinating article. Interesting to see how you put it together Cara and well done for branching out. The only time I tried to pitch a serial, I was told there wasn't enough in it. I then wrote it as five pocket novels! Maybe it's time I tried another ... though I'm currently writing yet another PN!(Have gone anonymous again!) Chrissie

  5. Brilliant post, thanks, and well done on such an appealing serial! I have great trouble plotting in advance, yet I'm beginning to think I need to. And thanks for posting a picture of that gorgeous hunk - I love Montalbano and never miss an episode.

  6. Hi Rena. I have seen pocket novels issued which first appeared as serials, so yes, they are a similar length. It's true you have to keep a careful eye on the plot, particularly as you near the end, but of course each instalment has to have a central theme or issue except perhaps for the last where I guess the theme is, 'resolution'. I haven't got there yet but I'm sure all will become clear! In answer to your questions, I really didn't have a detailed plot plan and certainly no plot for each individual instalment. Whether I'm starting a pocket novel or a serial I know the beginning and the end and I work out the middle bits as I go along. I do however chew a lot of things over in my head. As I'm writing one instalment, I make notes on what will form the skeleton of the next instalment so I am at least a little bit ahead. On whether working so closely with an editor is helpful, the editors at PF are so kind and pleasant it's never been a problem. One does take a huge breath and then a sigh when one sees the changes requested (quite a list for the first instalment, less thankfully as I've gone along) but I've found them all to be valid and the instalments have worked better in the end. I would indeed write another serial if they would like one. It's a slow burn (certainly in my case, I'm sure other writers are much quicker) but fun to do if you choose a lovely setting and characters you like. I don't actually want to see the back of these ones whereas with some of my stories I've been very happy to wave a fond farewell.

    I think Chrissie, you did better in the end with your five pocket novels than with one serial. It just goes to show, nothing one writes is ever wasted!

    Hi Rosemary, nice to chat to another Montalbano fan. As well as the character and the actor, I absolutely love the setting. All that heat and white hot sun. Although, my sister went to Sicily in February and absolutely froze, most of the buildings are apparently very old with dodgy heating systems. As far as plotting in advance is concerned I think crime, even cosy crime, absolutely demands it otherwise you get very lost over who did what to whom!

  7. I enjoyed reading your post, Cara. I suppose the main disadvantage of a serial is that you have only one book to sell to Linford and not five.

  8. Hi again, Cara here. Wendy you asked how long the synopsis was. About a page and a half of double spacing. You have to provide a revised synopsis each instalment if your story changes. But far from being extra work that is a good thing for a non-planner because it helped me gather my thoughts a bit - always a difficult task when you have a butterfly brain. That's possibly true Fenella although I have come to like my characters so much what I would really like to do is to write a series using the characters in The Lemon Grove. Perhaps it's because I've lived with this one so long that I'm keen to follow a number of the minor characters off on their paths so that they become major characters in their own stories. It would be really nice to pitch a follow on serial to PF once I've got this one in the bag! Rena - thank you so much for mentioning the Pocketeers on your blog. I loved the photo of the haggis by the way, always wondered what those little critters looked like!

  9. A very interesting post, Cara, thank you. We have never written a serial, but it sounds to be an exciting and enjoyable experience.

  10. This is very interesting, I'd like to have a go at pitching a serial to PF but do you have to have a lot of previous sales to them ie do they need to know you as a short story writer first? I have only sold them a handful of stories over the years and wonder whether I'd have to have a better writing 'cv' to stand a chance?

  11. Well done, Cara. I was approached to do a serial for PF but unfortunately I failed which was such a shame. The good part was I re-wrote the story as an MW pocket novel and they accepted it. I think it's a different discipline and as I'm not a planner either I found it difficult to do. The good thing was when I came to the re-write for a pocket novel, it went fairly quickly because I had made such (for me) detailed notes. It goes to prove no writing is ever wasted.

    Do let us know when it will be published. I can't wait to read it and see where I went wrong.

  12. Hi Cara here. Carol I'm sure you'd have enough experience to do a serial. Like you I had a handful of shorts and a clutch of pocket novels. I suppose the two proves that you can write short and long which is what a serial needs to be. If you're interested why not try studying the serials that are being published at present and try say three instalments and a synopsis. That will probably give you an idea of whether the discipline suits you. If you think it's going well, you could pitch it to the magazines. If you find it simply doesn't work for you you could do like Margaret and turn it into a pocket novel. Sorry you didn't do your serial in the end Margaret but you have so much success with pocket novels that's obviously your forte. Patricia, you could always have a go.....

  13. Cara, thank you for posting the update on your serial. I've read it with interest and enjoyed the follow up comments too. I think I need to aim for another pocket novel acceptance though my PF editor kindly emailed me the serial writing guidelines. Like others here, I fall into the non-planning, let the characters guide me category though of course the writer is always in charge :)

  14. You're right Sandra, the writer is always in charge but sometimes like this morning, you don't feel as if you are. I am struggling with instalment six because I need to put in red herrings (to take the reader off the scent on my crime storyline) and have just spent half an hour leading the reader to what really happened. Why on earth did I do that? Aaaargh. Back to the drawing board! Today it's been one step forward two steps back....

  15. Great post, Cara, and very opportune. I have written a long serial for My Weekly and was just contemplating approaching PF with another idea. The main thing I found difficult with MW was that over the two years (yes, two years!!!) it took to finalise a nine part serial, I couldn't go back as each installment was agreed, signed off and paid for as I went along. As I got to know the characters better, and the plot developed, I would have loved to have gone back and polished. However, I was able to do that when it sold to Magna as a large print book, and I'm just about to bring it out as an ebook, so it's all paid off! Thanks again.

  16. Hi Lyn so pleased to hear from you, it made me feel a lot better about my meagre efforts. Never having written a serial before, I thought it was just me that had caused it to take ages. Checking back, I have been astounded to see I started mine in August 2010! Thanks to your comment I realise that this is just the process - it's a very slow burn isn't it? The not going back thing is a real challenge. I have in the past tied myself in knots with plots but of course you can normally whizz back rewrite a bit and hey presto you've fixed it. It's such a different process knowing that whatever you do, you're stuck with things! So far I have been lucky and it seems to be working out ok but I thought the beginning installments were hard. Bringing it all together successfully is even scarier stuff! Cara