(With apologies for the title to Stephen King and The Langoliers, but it was the worst line I think I’ve ever heard uttered in a mini-series…)
There is more than one way to raise a Zombie (at least according to some references) and more than one way to take a wayward Zombie out according to others. What we can learn from this as writers is that with all of the crazy changes happening in publishing today, there must be more than one way to get published, but those alternate paths may come inherent with certain risks. What they have in common, however, is a serial format. The serial (which never really left) is back with a vengeance.
A simple trip to a Big Box bookstore can emphasize the “new” options gone wild. One should resist the urge to think in terms of format inferiority, or of being quaint-but-dated. It may not be the “traditional” route to publishing in a world with a chronic problem of revising history, but “pulp” and illustrated forms of fiction have a long, glorious – sometimes profitable – and continuing tradition. One of the few growing segments of publishing is reflected in the current trend in graphic novels, comics, and serial fiction (primarily YA, but the genres of Science Fiction and Mystery have been utilizing it for decades). There is a hunger out there for it (pardon the YA pun) that is even evident in the Horror genre…Take a look at the current slough of anthologies and short story collections and try to keep count of the number of works currently “borrowing” characters, setting, or themes from earlier Horror greats – most noticeably Lovecraft, who has spawned a new subgenre of Horror: Lovecraftian fiction.
This is good news for those novice writers who find the Yellow Brick Road to traditional publishing blocked by economic hazards, publishing instability, and overwhelmed magazine venues but don’t want to give up their dreams of writing professionally. Perhaps you are having difficulty finding markets in general, or perhaps you just don’t write literary fiction in any of its forms and have no desire to. Either way, a novice writer would be remiss to ignore these wonderful subgenres that are finally gaining some critical traction and are occupying large chunks of that valuable remaining book store shelf space.
Relax: Pulp Is In Our Genes
This is not a bad thing. It’s also part of our cultural tradition, extending well back into the Olden Days (not to be confused with my childhood) and which includes some of the most prominent authors of the English language. Most commonly recalled as an example and for his uncommon tale-telling abilities is Charles Dickens, whose works were published piecemeal in newspapers of his day. But we must also look at the Penny Dreadful and those underground presses that blossomed into classics in retrospect, like Weird Tales (all things Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy), Fortean Times (originally based on the rediscovered work of Science Fiction writer Charles Fort), Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog), The Strand (first publisher of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, still largely Mystery genre) and Amazing Stories (Science Fiction). We must look at our collective history of small publications created and distributed among limited audiences (sometimes by their own authors) which became heralds to some of our earliest examples of genre fiction. One could say serials helped create genre fiction as we know it, starting in periodicals and expanding into minor publishing lines of major publishing houses. There is a rich literary history there which should serve to encourage writers and publishers alike in their ability to discover raw genre talent.
This is important history to keep in mind. H.P. Lovecraft – today considered the father of modern Horror and an honored, founding member of the canon – did not see traditional publication in his day; he wrote outside the desired norm of general fiction, about scary, distasteful things. So he founded his own publications and traded his stories with other Weird writers of his time who also published their own, limited edition literary magazines which largely remained in the exclusive galaxy of writer’s circles. It was only through the action of August Derluth and Donald Wandrei, who by founding what was to become Arkham House publishers that his works were saved at all… Proof in itself that there are even now probably iconic writers lost to the literary establishment for want of a venue.
Pulp fiction, then takes two forms: the underdog literary magazine, and the self-published collection or novel. Pulp is like the old B-movies: the writer churns out fiction and the venues are less-expensive, less-respected formats that may or may not evolve into “classics.” They do not typically have the financing to optimize marketing, nor the glamour to make a writer a rock star. However, paychecks are to be had, and professional happiness may be relative. Choose wisely. Writers must keep aware of trends in publishing as well as opinions, especially now that search engines like Google are awake and cataloging the internet. Have a “fame destination” in mind and accept its limitations and restrictions: there is a good chance you can’t have it all.
Self-publishing is not just frowned upon… it has been marginalized by publishers and writers of every day. But it is also tolerated and recognized as a minor force to be dealt with – even critics occasionally take the time to criticize the format and the writers who self-publish. Yet again, had some writers in the past not self-published, we might not have seen their work at all. What needs to be remembered however, is that there are many authors who we do not know who also have self-published, and we don’t know them precisely because they are not so good. Self-publishing is a gambit that reveals gems as well as flawed stones. As a self-published writer you will keep company with literary greats and literary embarrassments. There is no telling who you will be associated with, but you will be pre-judged (fairly or not). Modern Horror publishers worry that too much bad writing will misrepresent the genre – a worry other genres share. So walking that fuzzy historical line is risky, since we are rarely the best judges of our own work. But it is also a way to find an audience and a career…a temptation when it seems like four out of five venues are “not currently accepting submissions.”
Back to the “Internet Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing” Argument
This puts a nice, shiny new spin on the whole internet publishing aspect, doesn’t it?
But modern internet publications and their writers are largely shunned by traditional publishers and for the novice writer the reasons eventually cease to matter. So moving forward should remain a cautionary tale; making one decision to publish on the internet may have unexpected ramifications for the novice writer with regard to traditional publishing houses. It may also have unexpected reward. One should simply be aware that there is contention afoot, and you or your writing may absorb a few body blows while the Publishing Experts battle it out. At this moment, the publishing establishment is sending horribly mixed messages. Hopeful, starry-eyed writers beware.
Graphic Novels and Comics
Aficionados of the comics genre have taken it on the arts chin for years. Although most frequently associated with the Y chromosome, this is not just a guy’s game. I think we can all confess to remembering a time when comic books commanded a certain portion of our attention. Checking out the long lines of superhero movies should be a tip-off to our continued interest, because we have to admit to ourselves – whether we are soap opera fans, wax poetically over reruns of Dallas, or are glued to our favorite “shows” at a certain time of a certain day of every week – we are susceptible to serial addiction. We like to be at home with familiar characters and carefully selected situations. This is why we can’t seem to shake these publishing ruts we all notice and are annoyed by: familiarity sells. Comics have survived for decades past their creators’ original imaginings for the same reason.
Therefore, you owe it to yourself to take a good look at what is taking up shelf space these days at your local bookstore. What graphic artists are doing today is nothing short of phenomenal. Thumb through any graphic novel or quality comic and you will have no doubt that what you are looking at is art at its innovative best. If you are an artist or a writer looking for a place to gain publishing traction, these two genres may be your ticket. The catch here is the need to learn some pretty sophisticated software – like Adobe, Quark, and other industry-specific programs. If you’re not tech-savvy, this is definitely threatening. But it is not insurmountable. Never say “I can’t.” Say, “I can’t YET.” Graphic novels are a force to be reckoned with, issuing sometimes simultaneously with movies, games or novels, sometimes deliciously afterward. Comics show no sign of waning popularity, spawning all manner of spin-off merchandising. Gamers are starting to impact both. Writers really can’t afford to dismiss these formats; one honest look and you shouldn’t want to.
So if you are an artist/graphic novelist/comics creator with potential, you need to go to that comic book store and talk to the owner. Join a group in your community that can offer support if not advice. Start digging for any connection, network or school that can help flesh out your talents and get you pointed in the right direction. You might just be surprised.
Meanwhile, of course, there are the rest of us, who probably just write, and think in terms of text-heavy novels. Do not despair; the serial is back in full force, including in regular fiction genres.
Serial Novels, Seriously
There are three types of serial novels most of us are familiar with:
· Novels based on established characters
· Novels based on a specific setting
· The Saga
Established characters can be provided by established authors and already-existing series titles. We all remember the books published as continuations of the Star Trek series, Star Wars, X-Files, etc. These tend to mushroom as rights are released and the full brunt of commercialization and merchandising machinery is unleashed. Books based on game characters are also in full bloom, as well as the occasional television series. There are criteria and copyright restrictions that require the writer’s attention. A query to the publisher may be necessary. Networking is crucial.
Novels can also belong to a series that holds a specific setting restriction. Realms of Fantasy and Seven Realms are two series names that come to mind. These tend to be fantasy (high, low and sometimes dark, sword-and-sorcery), but they can spring up in any genre. Writing serials in this vein typically means the story must adhere to some specific rules, and that means the writer needs to read everything he or she can find on the chosen series in order to submit a likely candidate for publication to a specific publisher. Doing one’s homework is imperative.
The third type of series has a much higher profile: that of the saga. Sagas may be trilogies or longer, and may come to dominate the imagination, Hollywood, or a genre for a while. This should never be interpreted to mean that a multi-volume saga is desired or expected; one should always write to tell the tale, even if it is “only” one book. However, some writers have elevated their status to new heights by continuing to write in their own series: Charles DeLint and his continuing tales of Newford comes to mind, as does Ann McCaffrey (Dragon Riders of Pern), Ursula LeGuin, (The Earthsea Cycle), Roger Zelazny, (The Amber Chronicles), Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles, The Lives of the Mayfair Witches) and of course Stephen King (The Dark Tower). For a writer this means that there will be an incredible amount of research and world building that has to happen. As the series creator one must be prepared to carry whole histories, genealogies and timelines in the head. If you are not a lover of details, this may prove a difficult venture, as writers in this form of serial must rule with an iron fist of consistency.
Graphic novels can fall into any of the above serial types. Sometimes they stand alone, sometimes they appear after a novel or series has reached prominence and reissue with a new representation of the story. Once again, there are copyright, style, and other restrictions which would apply and require investigation. Do research. See what has come before so you understand what tradition you are trying to become a part of. Remember that as a writer you must be prepared to make sacrifices; as a Horror writer, human sacrifices. But always remember that being a productive member of the arts community means you must be proactive in your own education of the art form you choose and the practice it requires. Reader expectations are more technologically sophisticated in today’s revived serial market, but it is up to the writer to orchestrate the telling of the tale. There may be no crying in baseball, but there is no free lunch in the humanities…