Sunday, 3 April 2016

Serializing in the Dark - Umberto Tosi

Author Lewis Perdue
A long-time friend from my San Francisco magazine days, author Lewis Perdue, recently began serializing his latest novel, The Nassau Directives, online, as a work-in-progress. The premise, typical of Perdue's techno-Machiavellian plots, involves a rogue drug-war agency cabal to poison millions of addicts as the “final solution” to narco-crime. The tag line reads: “A serial thriller from NY Times bestselling author Lewis Perdue. Even Lew doesn't yet know how it ends.” I perked up at the news – a high-wire digital writing act to be sure, just the kind of creative enterprise that my colleagues here at Authors Electric might relish, if not already practice (or think of practicing) in some form or another, myself included.

Lew comes the closest to being a contemporary Renaissance man that I know. Quick, loquacious, energetic, a gourmet who is always down-to-earth, he never makes a big deal of being accomplished in technology, science, history, oenology and investigative journalism, with a successful string of ingeniously inventive thrillers among his twenty-two published books. Frankly, I would always wonder where he finds the time and energy for all his pursuits – which include his Wine Industry Insight newsletter and having launched a couple of significant startups as a high-tech entrepreneur – keep writing books and still enjoy our occasional sunny lunches at a garden bistro near his home in Sonoma when I still lived in California.

His best known hair-raisers – all based upon terrifyingly plausible political and meticulously researched technological what-ifs – include Slatewiper, Die by Wire, The Tesla Bequest and Perfect KillerLew is known for enlivening his novels with painstakingly accurate settings, events and paraphernalia. Occasionally, he likes to borrow the names of friends and associates – with permission – for minor characters he intends to kill off. I became a member of that select club when a Zurich shopkeeper named Umberto Tosi met a grisly end in Perdue's 1988 thriller, The Linz Testament.


His 2000 novel, Daughter of God, an “art and Vatican conspiracy thriller” about the lost goddess of Christianity anticipates Dan Brown's best-selling 2003 best-seller, The Da Vinci Code in extraordinary detail. The similarities – not only of plot ideas, but of specifics – became the subject of a noted 2006 legal battle– detailed in Vanity Fair – between Purdue and Brown's publisher Random House, whose lawyers hit Purdue with a preemptive suit after he brought the similarities up in an online article. The case ended in Random House's favor, essentially quashed by pretrial judicial rulings, and never went to court – Purdue having run out of funding to appeal. It makes for a cautionary tale for authors dealing with corporate publishers.

The prologue and first chapter of Lew's latest novel-in-progress whet my appetite as a reader along with sparking my professional curiosity. Lew explains that although the online published material is new, the Nassau Directive stems from an idea that came to him in 1988 – during "my early Ludum” period. The idea became something of "an undead novel" that followed him over the decades. He would take it up from time to time, writing fragments, playing with plot twists and characters while he published other works. By 2016, he could ignore it no longer.  “To avoid being distracted from it again," he went ahead with writing it in sequence, publishing chapter-by-chapter, singly or in groups. "I figure fans will hold my feet to the fire.” He says he'll offer each chapter to readers for free, but set the rest of the text behind a paywall as he goes – with a one-time-only charge.

I asked him about the creative aspects of publishing The Nassau Directives piece-by-piece without knowing outcomes. Was it stimulating or scary or both? What about writing oneself into labyrinths or cul-de-sacs? Lew answered, “This is so totally new that I really don't have anything intelligent to say right now. I'm figuring it out as I go."

Perdue isn't the first to serialize a novel online, although the only one I know thus far - at least on my radar - to do it creatively on the fly. Breaking novels and novellas into bite-sized serial segments feeds the insatiable appetite for snackable content online - although most of that is in the form of video clips and social media posts. I serialized my novella “Our Own Kind” in condensed form over most of last year for Boryana Books. But I had already completed and published it in full as a digital book the previous year.

Amazon launched its Kindle Serials in 2012, spoon-feeding bite-sized sections of titles it selects that can be purchased singly or as a whole. The program, however, is not open to submissions by independent writers and publishers. Indie author-publishers certainly are able to offer longer works in serial form on their own through Kindle and other ebook platforms, but presentational options offered currently for this purpose tend to be awkward - this for a strategy that should be a natural for digital publishers. Perdue's strategy of running the segments on his own  WordPress-created Website before moving it to another platform appears to be more flexible and attractive than other venues available for that purpose right now. Plus it allows for creative changes as the author goes along, and free updates to readers under the control of the writer without as much intermediation as going through Amazon or other ebook entitites. Lew says he plans to publish the work on wider, more commercial platforms after he completes his direct, initial serialization process, establishes a readership and gets the final work tuned to his satisfaction. 

Serialization is relatively new online – replete with graphic and other creative possibilities. But it has a long history in print, particularly going back to the heyday of serialized novels in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when many novels were offered in popular periodicals – at penny-prices that masses of readers could afford. Robert Lewis Stevenson first serialized Treasure Island using the pen name “Captain George North.” Leo Tolstoy published drafts of what was to become War and Peace under the title of “1805” in a periodical called “Russkiy Vesnik.” Mark Twain wrote stories for newspapers. Charles Dickens, of course, rose to fame serializing The Pickwick Papers and went on to serialize most of his celebrated novels thereafter. Same goes for George Eliot's Middlemarch, Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously serialized Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine.

Some publishing industry observers see the Internet as potentially birthing a revival of the mass serialized novel, which nearly went out of existence by the mid- 20th century with the advent of cheap pocket books, radio and then television. The Washingtonian writer Hillary Kelly, pointed to that revival in a Washington Post op-ed article. “Bring Back the Serialized Novel” last April. ...consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments [online]... So there’s reason to believe they would do the same with fiction. What the novel needs again is tension. And the best source for that tension is serialization...”

A few weeks back I watched the HBO special “Becoming Mike Nichols” featuring a series of droll interviews, film clips and laugh-out-loud segments from the brilliant Nichols and May that gave the great director (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Silkwood) his start in the 1950s. In it, Nichols kept returning to the theme of trusting to his unconscious and relying on the improvisational skills he acquired with actress, writer, director Elaine May and the Compass Players in 1950s Chicago. “We were terrified every time,” Nichols kept saying, but adding that he also learned all through his best years as a film director to “trust to the creative unconscious” over and over.

Serializing a novel-in-progress, even semi-improvisationally, offers lots of scary opportunities to cast one's creative fate to what comes up from the vault below – right out there for everyone to see. This can spice up storytelling and perhaps popularize ebooks even more than the graphic, commercial and technical advantages of online publishing that have intrigued authors and drawn readers by the millions in recent years. Whenever I read some publishing pundit opining that e-publishing has “plateaued” and is destined to becoming last year's fad, I remind myself that this is only the beginning, with possibilities barely explored.

I wish my good friend and colleague Lewis Perdue the best of luck with “The Nassau Directives” and look forward to reading future installments. Meanwhile, he's got me seriously thinking of following suit with my own work if I can get up the courage.

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Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review, where he is a contributing editor.  
He studied improvisational theater and played onstage with three groups in Northern California, where he was editor of San Francisco magazines and wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals nationally.

7 comments:

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Very interesting post, Umberto. I once started serializing a novel on my blog, but gave up quite quickly because people started to tell me what to do, and I can't write or edit by committee. But I still like the idea of serialization. And one thing it will do is make writers think about story and how it works. RLS was a master of the art and I think reading his work in serial form would be wonderful. You'd be champing at the bit waiting for the next episode! I've written dramatic serials for radio, and it gives you a definite feel for - not necessarily the cliffhanger ending - but trying to make people stay involved. I agree that we're only at the start of something very exciting with eBooks and publishing.

Mari Biella said...

Interesting post, Umberto (and what an amazing circle of friends you have!). I think serialization is certainly a valid option in the internet age, and indeed many independent authors and publishers already make use of it to some extent - though it was at its most popular, I understand, pre-Amazon KU2, before authors were paid for the number of pages read. But online serialization, outside the constraints imposed by Amazon, might well prove one of the many ways forward. We live in interesting times!

Lydia Bennet said...

Yes, serialisation as in the days of Dickens and Doyle is an interesting way to go with ereaders. my friend Chaz Brenchley is using Patreon.com to do a serial novel about a girls' boarding school on Mars, and subscribers get each chapter as it is written. Here's the link in case anyone else would like to try patreon. https://www.patreon.com/user?u=1002984&ty=h&u=1002984

Jan Needle said...

Fascinating stuff - but does everyone in the world have more energy than me? I'd love to try it, but I bet I don't! But I've filed it under 'definitely revisit!!' Thanks

Umberto Tosi said...

Thanks to all -- Catherine, Mari, Lydia and Jan -- for your comments and kind words. Catherine, I'll pass on your comment to Lew and check back to see if he too gets back-seat authors as he proceeds with his serial.I look fowrard to checking out Patreon, Lydia. Thanks. I hear you, Jan. I wish I had Lewis Perdue's energy -- or whatever he smokes.

HighFatContent said...

Engaging, informative read as always, Umberto. One of the things I love best about writing is the solitary pursuit. The luxury of enjoying my own thoughts without needing to share them. Writing in front of a live audience is impossible for me, though I admire anyone who pulls it off. I can see live serial storytelling working for many writers - just not this one.

Katherine Roberts said...

Interesting! I sort of did this with my 'I am the Great Horse' book, but backwards... serializing it in 10 low-cost parts for younger readers. Amazon readers, however, definitely seem to prefer the full book, so perhaps serialization works best if you publish the serial first? I didn't know Amazon had an official Kindle Serials.