By NEAL POLLACK
This summer, I signed on with Amazon Publishing as a pilot author for its new Kindle Serials program. Readers bought an inexpensive subscription to the work, which I then delivered in periodic installments. Even before signing the contract for my "yoga detective" novel "Downward-Facing Death," I needed to start writing.
I turned to history for inspiration.
Dostoyevsky, under severe legal and financial pressures from his publisher, wrote "The Gambler" in 28 fevered days. Dickens produced serialized fiction for much of his career. And Emile Zola published several of his novels in installments for magazines. As he once wrote of this exhausting exercise, "One forges one's style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines."
Writing "The Bonfire of the Vanities" as a serialized novel for Rolling Stone in the 1980s, Tom Wolfe had to produce 6,000 words every two weeks for more than two years, a grueling schedule that Mr. Wolfe later said he would never undertake again. Interviewed about this mammoth commitment by George Plimpton in the Paris Review, Mr. Wolfe said, "By the fourth chapter the only thing I wondered about was, would the hole be filled?"
And the hole does have to get filled. "Downward-Facing Death" may not be Dostoyevsky, but I still had 10,000 words due every month. That said, writing serially didn't change my style that much. My fiction has always tended toward the short, punchy and episodic. I'm not a dreamy, lyrical or even particularly thoughtful writer. For me, it's more important to be funny and fast-moving than profound.
But when it comes to pacing and plot, serial writing has been a real gift. It taught me to meet the structural challenge of crafting a chunk of fiction that needed both to stand alone and to be part of a larger whole.
My first segment was all character introduction and plot setup: I had to unveil my hero Matt Bolster, a former homicide detective turned yoga bum. The Los Angeles Police Department brings him in from the cold to help solve the brutal murder of a millionaire yoga mogul. The last section was all denouement and action, as Bolster engages in an epic battle with the crime's mastermind.
For the installments in-between, I would start with the resolution of the last segment's cliffhanger, explaining, for instance, how Bolster, in his broken-down old Nissan Sentra, was able to outrun a Cadillac SUV driven by gun-toting thugs. This meant 1,500 to 2,000 words of chase scenes, fighting and dialogue. Then I'd have a long middle section, where Bolster and his companions—like yoga blogger Suzie Hahn, digeridoo-playing pot dealer Slim or Bolster's onetime police partner Esmail Martinez—would visit suspects and chase clues.
Sometimes, two or three of those bits would get me to the action leading to the next cliffhanger. Occasionally, I'd find myself with a 10-page sag in the middle of the section. Solution No. 1: The main character would either teach or take a yoga class, and I'd do my best to satirize some aspect of yoga culture. Solution No. 2: A totally unrelated comic interlude, such as the chapter in which Bolster adopted a cat. I just felt like making fun of cats that day. If you're writing a serialized novel about a yoga detective, it's best not to take the process too seriously.
In his Paris Review interview, Tom Wolfe refers to Zola at length, saying that regular deadlines can be good for fiction writers, because it forces them to create semi-believable plots and characters without being excessively fussy. But he also said that he could sense Zola speeding up "recklessly" at the end of his books.
In my own brief life as a serial writer, I found that the last half of the novel was not as difficult as the first. Crafting the first several installments was as agonizing as a trip to the dentist, but by the end of the run, at least I knew exactly where my characters and story were going. There was less exposition and more action. The book's momentum became, at last, an unstoppable force.
And now I have my finished novel. The terrible anvil has lifted. I await my next deadline.—Mr. Pollack's "Downward-Facing Death" will be published as a paperback next month.