More than five years ago, Regina F. Shelley began writing a soap opera — a Western soap opera — in 1,000-word installments and posting it on the Internet.
She’s still at it. The first two full-length books of what she plans as a trilogy are now in print. The series is called The Five Dollar Mail. The first book, The Green, appeared in May, and the second, Lynch’s Boys, has just been released.
Ironically, the writing process has now lasted more than twice as long as the subject of her series did. The Cayce resident’s novel is about the Pony Express — the short-lived mail service that charged five dollars to send a half-ounce letter from St. Joseph, Mo. across the Great Plains and the mountains to California.
The process of writing and posting the novel in chapters is an Internet phenomenon. At the same time, it’s a throwback to a form of publishing that became popular in the first half of the 19th century.
Charles Dickens was one of the most famous and successful practitioners.
“He was responsible for the big boom in serialized books in the 19th century with the astonishing success of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers,” says Joel J. Brattin, a professor of English at Worchester Polytechnic Institute and a past president of the Dickens Society.
Jeffrey Makala, a librarian and curator for the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina Libraries, points out that the huge expansion of magazines in England and America in the 19th century contributed to the popularity of the installment trend.
The piecemeal publication method kept the cost in a range that ordinary people could afford, and it allowed the publishers to insert advertising in the weekly or monthly installments.
None of those practical issues were on Shelley’s mind when she started her serialization.
“I thought it would make me a better writer to write every week,” she says.
She has been steadily posting and expanding her story on fivedollarmail.com and has readers around the world.
She ended up ahead of the curve in another way too.
There’s a trend in journalism called crowdsourcing, meaning the use of social media to gather information about an event from a wide range of people. Shelley crowd-sourced her first book by inviting her online followers to write a chapter. She didn’t plan it that way initially.
“I’m constantly screwing up the numbers on the chapters,” she says. So when she skipped a chapter, she invited her readers to fill in the gap. The winning entry came from a reader in British Columbia. “It was one of those lucky accidents,” Shelley says.
There are numerous websites now devoted to serialized books.
Chris Poirier, the editor of webfictionguide.com, says that fantasy and science fiction are particularly popular genres for web serials, although mysteries, romances and some literary fiction make an appearance too.
“Perhaps the biggest single factor is that it’s easy,” Poirier says. “If you wanted to publish a story online, you could start doing it by tomorrow, with no monetary outlay.”
He points out, however, “That’s not to say it’s all good. With the lowered barriers to entry, literally anybody can offer a story online for people to read. And writing is still a craft — it still takes skill and care and practice. Those things are often in short supply.”
Writing and publishing a story in installments presents a real organizational challenge for writers, too. Regina Shelley found that. She says she used an outline for the second book in her Pony Express trilogy — and “the plot’s a little tighter” because of it.
This month Free Times is publishing a sampling of comments from readers about favorite books and favorite authors as part of the One Book, One Columbia project.
James D. McCallister: “As a rural South Carolina teenager toying with the far-fetched notion of becoming a novelist, no single book influenced my personal creative trajectory quite like John Irving’s hilarious, tragic and vivid The World According to Garp. Since that time I have always sought to emulate the distinctive characterization and voice I found within its best-selling pages.
Even the story-within-the-story conceit may be seen in Fellow Traveler, my recent novel published by Columbia’s own Muddy Ford Press.”
Thomas Maluck: “For Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein: You and this book need to walk into a bar, or library, or wherever you can absorb some philosophy powered by humor.”
Melanie Griffin, Richland Library: “Lionel Shriver takes an extravagant, unflinching look at the tough bits of life and dares to answer the question ‘what if’ with an imagination that shows how human truths are uncovered in absurd situations.”
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