Yesterday’s Gone: Serious about Serializing
by MF Wahl Views: 2557
The growth of the serial novel has given rise to the Kings of Serial. David Wright and Sean Platt have found unbounded success as co-authors of the bestselling “Yesterday’s Gone” serials. Together they have written five other serials: WhiteSpace, Z 2134, Available Darkness, ForNevermore, and Monstrous. They also co-host The Self-Publishing Podcast and Better Off Undead with fellow author, Johnny B. Truant.
With so many other authors contemplating the jump from standard novel format to serialized novel, it seems only natural to learn from the best. Here I pick at one half of the co-brain, David, to find out how they made “Yesterday’s Gone” a success.
MF Wahl: For the readers who aren’t familiar with your series, tell us a little bit about what it is.
David Wright: “Yesterday’s Gone” is a story about a group of people who wake to find that the rest of the world has vanished. Of course, nothing is quite what it seems, and the story takes many twists before you find out what’s really going on. Readers have compared it to “The Stand” and “Lost”. I hate to say too much because a lot of the fun is in learning, along with the survivors, what happened.
MF: How do you differentiate your work from a novel released chapter by chapter or part by part? The term “serialized fiction” seems to include both.
David: Our serials are designed more like TV shows. We said early on (in 2011) that we wanted to be the HBO, AMC, Showtime, etc of e-books. We wanted to write the kinds of stories we’d like to see on TV, with a focus on episode arcs. Whereas some serials are merely books broken up by chapter regardless of flow or story arc, we aim to give readers a more TV-like experience, complete with great chapter endings and killer cliffhangers at the end of each episode.
In an attempt to really mimic TV’s delivery, in 2012 we wrote and released an episode per week across six series with six episodes per season. We supplemented between seasons with short stories. It was both the most insane and most rewarding thing we’ve ever done.
MF: How do you approach the writing? Do you outline each episode or do you just dive into writing a season with a general idea?
David: How we do it now is a bit different from how we started. The first season of “Yesterday’s Gone” was truly an experiment with Sean and I each handling different sets of characters blind to what the other was doing (in the first draft phase). We then crafted it into the story it was becoming. We had some ideas where we wanted the story to go, and how we wanted it to end, but a lot of it was us flying by the seats of our pants.
Part of this was because we didn’t even know if this whole serial thing would work for us. When we started “Yesterday’s Gone”, very few writers were doing serials in e-books, and nobody was doing it quite like us with the television language and construct.
In fact, most people advised against serials, saying the form was dead. But we’d been wanting to write a serial ever since Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and were determined to make it work, praying there was an audience of readers like us who wanted to read this sort of thing.
In Season Two and onward, we spent a lot more time in pre-production, really mapping out where we wanted the story to go and what kind of story we wanted to tell. A part of me would love to go back and rewrite Season One, to plant some of the seeds of what was to come, but at the same time, we don’t want to mess with the raw nature of our first true serial.
MF: Most people are familiar with the episodic structure of their favourite TV drama. Do you formulate your episodes to follow a similar structure? If so, how?
David: Yes. Episodes all have character arcs. We treat our chapter breaks as commercial breaks, oftentimes ending the chapter on a mini cliffhanger. And then we save our best killer cliffhangers, our WTF cliffhangers as we call them, for the end of an episode.
We also like to go places people don’t expect us to go, kill off characters they don’t think we’ll kill—like all our favorite shows do.
MF: Before the success of “Yesterday’s Gone” you had written other serialized fiction such as “White Space”. What inspired you to write episodic fiction instead of novels?
David: “Yesterday’s Gone” was before “WhiteSpace”. The first thing Sean and I wrote together was “Available Darkness”, which we started as an online serial in 2008. But we found that most of our readers were saying, “We don’t want to read on our computers. We want this in book form.”
It was frustrating, and we gave up when our freelancing business picked up. Then Amazon came along and changed the landscape with its Kindle. Suddenly writers were able to find an audience whether or not a publisher felt the work was viable. We were determined that there HAD to be an audience for the kind of character-driven serials we liked. So we set out to make it happen.
We finished the first “Available Darkness” book, though it wasn’t really a serial at this point. Rather than promote our first book, we decided to head back to the lab and create our first true serial, “Yesterday’s Gone”.
While we wanted to write stand-alone novels too, we had to feed the beast we’d created once we unleashed six series into the world. Only recently have we started to end some of our series and spend some more time on stand-alone novels.
MF: Did you find it difficult to get readers to accept the serialized nature of your work?
David: At first, yes. We used our Authors’ Notes to explain what we were trying to do. I feel that if you speak directly to your audience and let them know what you’re attempting, they’re with you—so long as you give them a good story.
But the hard part, of course, is getting people to try something new or different. While serials had been done before, a lot of people weren’t very familiar with them or how they’d work in e-books.
MF: In terms of marketing, what do you think helped contribute to the rise of “Yesterday’s Gone” to bestseller status?
David: Timing played a big part, I think. As I said, there wasn’t really anything else like this (that we saw, anyway). While many people had written off serials, we recognized an opportunity to really do something special, the kind of stuff we love (TV, comic books, and serialized books).
The most difficult part was getting people to try us out. And then Pixel of Ink came along and featured us. Suddenly a TON of people were sampling “Yesterday’s Gone”. And fortunately for us, enough people liked what they read to invest their time in the world we were creating.
And of course there are our readers, who we call The Goners, who have helped spread the word, telling friends and family about our stories. That has meant the world to us, to have people connect so much with something we write that they’re telling other people, “You have to read these stories!”
MF: How do you release each season of “Yesterday’s Gone”? One episode at a time, or all at once for binge reading? How often is new material released?
David: At first, we did one episode at a time. And it worked, for a while. But then Amazon’s algorithms changed. As did the effectiveness of KDP Select (at the time). But I think another part of it was viewing habits.
Netflix has been disruptive (in a good way, perhaps) of how people CONSUME serials. Now people can binge watch entire seasons. Now it feels a bit “old-fashioned” to make people wait a whole week for the next episode of our serials. Especially when we have an established readership now that doesn’t WANT to wait. So we’ve gone from episodes to full seasons being released.
But nothing is ever set in stone. I advise people to look at the market, the opportunities they may have with episodes versus seasons, and experiment to find what works for them. Now some platforms have borrowing options which may make single episodes work for some authors.
There are two important things to consider here, though.
What works now won’t ALWAYS work. Be prepared to adapt.
And ALWAYS consider your audience. If your book doesn’t lend to serialization, or if the platform delivers it in a way that your readers don’t like, then don’t force it on them. Never take your readers for granted. There are a ton of other books (and authors) waiting to please them if you won’t.
We’re always experimenting to find the best mix while keeping our readers happy. We’ve made some missteps in the past, but if you’re not prepared to stumble, you never really grow.
MF: The production quality of your audio books is unparalleled. Are they the biggest slice of your sales, or do readers still prefer reading a book, compared to listening to it?
David: Audio is relatively new for us. Podium Publishing has done a great job with “Yesterday’s Gone”, and the Realm & Sands (our sister imprint) series, The Beam. Most of our audience is still for e-books. But the audio audience has really turned out for us, so we’re thrilled to see how far that growing market will go.
MF: During your careers are there any major mistakes or failures that you can point to as learning moments that helped you get where you are today?
David: We’ve made lots of mistakes!
I think one of our biggest mistakes was actually the one thing most people would see as our biggest success. We signed a traditional publishing deal for two serials. We saw it as an opportunity to grow our audience, and I believe it did. However, it also derailed us from our other projects. We’d already had four serials we were working on, and going to six stretched us thin. We lost a lot of momentum with our weekly production, and there are still books our readers are waiting for us to get back to. We’re still recovering from that mistake.
However, it taught us a valuable lesson in thinking more long term: not to chase short-term success or money in exchange for long-term stability. Of course, that’s a lot easier to say than do.
MF: How do you split your time between writing, marketing, and day-to-day life?
David: This is something we still struggle with. We’re getting better. We’re outsourcing a lot of what we’re able to. But we all—Sean, Johnny (Sean’s other writing and Self-Publishing Podcast partner), and myself—put in 60–70 hour work weeks.
We have to sacrifice a lot, especially when it comes to having any sort of life, but dreams require hard work and sacrifice.
MF: What advice can you give to other authors?
David: Be true to yourself, but don’t be afraid to experiment, or too precious not to write for money (or work other jobs) if that’s what it takes to keep the boat afloat. The best way to get better at writing is to keep writing.
MF: What do you see as the future of the “Yesterday’s Gone” series, and serialized fiction in general?
David: We’re wrapping up the “Yesterday’s Gone” final season right now. I’d love to see it as a TV show, but I’m not sure if any network could do it right. We’ve got other series which we think stand a better shot on TV (such as “WhiteSpace”).
As for serialized fiction in general, I am hoping that someone will create something for indie authors which is similar to what Amazon did with their Kindle Serials programme—making it more convenient for readers to just buy the title and get automatic updates. THAT would truly bring about the next golden age of serials.
MF: As with any change, the face of fiction seems to be slowly morphing. If the success of “Yesterday’s Gone” is any indication, readers are looking for something a little different from the standard novel reading experience. Something that can be taken in smaller doses, over a longer period of time. Words that they can really build a relationship with. It’s only a matter of time before a tipping point is reached and more pioneering authors like David and Sean are able to capitalize on the trend.