Revisiting the pleasures of the serialized novel with Ginn Hale’s The Rifter

Dear Author had a lively discussion of cliffhangers in romance last week. The conversation ranged beyond cliffhangers to series books (how self-contained should each installment be) and serialized novels, i.e., ones in which the story unfolds over several volumes. On Twitter, Jane asked whether readers would buy a serialized novel and there didn’t seem to be much support for the idea.

I thought about this for a while and wondered why people aren’t interested in serials anymore. Some of the great 19th-century authors published novels in installments, and one of the great pleasures of reading the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s was waiting for the next installment of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

While we eagerly watch mini-series and season-long drama arcs on TV, romance readers seem less willing to make the transition to serialized novels. And I realized I was just as reluctant: I’d been hearing good things from a variety of sources about Ginn Hale’s new m/m fantasy serial from Blind Eye Books, The Rifter. It comprises 10 volumes, each about 100 pages and each issued monthly. You can buy them individually or buy the entire series at once (there’s a 25% discount if you choose the latter, with corresponding discounts if you’ve already purchased single installments). Even with the discount, it’s not an inexpensive series, but it’s not crazy prices either.

Almost fail-safe, one might say. But still I dithered. Could I stand having to wait if I liked it? If I didn’t, would I just keep buying new installments thinking they might change? Oh, the uncertainty.

How ridiculous. I buy entire novels on spec for more than the first installment costs. So I bit the bullet and bought Part 1. I sat down to read it when I had a free hour and was instantly swept into her world. The writing was just as wonderful as people said, and the worldbuilding looks to be first-rate. I won’t review it here, for a variety of reasons. There are several helpful reviews out there if you want more details; I find it difficult to review one-tenth of a book; and that’s not really the point of this post.

My point, and yes I do have one, is that I’m actually enjoying the serialized aspect of it. I knew when I started Part 1 that I would probably feel as if I’d only read a tidbit. It was definitely more than that, but the installment ended at a spot where I would have loved to keep going. And, had I chosen to, I could have immediately started reading Part 2, since it was available. But I didn’t. Oh, I went and bought the whole series and I did download the next installment. But it’s sitting on my TheHusband’s NookColor, waiting for me him (I’ll have to give the NC back when he returns to town and he’s an even bigger SFF fan than I am. But it’s not DRM’d and I can switch to my Kindle).

I’m waiting to read Part 2 because I’m still savoring my reaction to the first installment. I think I’ll read it again, and after that I’ll go on to the next one. And since Part 3 releases tomorrow, I’ll have one in the on-deck circle until next month. At some point I’m going to start going crazy waiting for the next installment to show up, but that happens with every serialized form of entertainment (The Wire, anyone? Buffy cliffhangers in Seasons 1-4)?

Maybe cliffhangers don’t work in straight romance novels as well. I haven’t thought deeply about the differences. But while cliffhangers and the wait for the next episode in some kinds of fiction and TV can be hard, they’re accompanied by a delicious sense of anticipation when they’re well done. No one enjoys being jerked around. But stretching out the suspense, under the right circumstances, enhances my enjoyment rather than diminishing it.

The unexpected bonus of the serial form is that it forces me to reflect and relive what I’ve read, rather than rush to the next chapter. Romance readers especially read so many books, so quickly, that we don’t always savor the moment. At least I’m guilty of that. With The Rifter, I’m reminded how much fun it can be to delay gratification, and how often does that happen?

Ginn Hale will be interviewed over at Jessewave’s site this Wednesday. I’m looking forward to hearing more about what I’ll be reading for the next year.

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13 thoughts on “Revisiting the pleasures of the serialized novel with Ginn Hale’s The Rifter

  1. I have bought this serial as well. One good thing about the space between parts is the chance for things to pop into my brain and have me ruminate over them – wondering what does this mean, what if this…. Having said that though ”The Rifter” is wonderfully complex in background and characters and plotting and I would like the segments to to be longer – may be five parts not ten? because I feel as if I am just getting into it and then it stops. I am really looking forward to the interview with Ginn and have Lords of the White Hell in my Kobo all lined up to read next.

    • Hey Merrian,

      Just FYI here are the reasons Rifter is in 10 parts, rather than 5:

      -Because the book includes things like maps, glossaries and indexes, the length of each document needed to be manageable enough that a reader could navigate to the glossaries and back to their place it in just a couple of seconds. This magic number ended up being about 200 MS pages, which translates to around 150 typeset pages.

      -I wanted to make the experience last for the same approximate length of time as a regular (US) television series season, which allows for about 5 months where a series can attract an audience before going into Christmas break re-runs to bring the latecomers up to speed on the plot and stuff. If the Rifter were in 5 parts, we would be more than half done right now and the series would be finished before it could attract much attention, which would diminish participation–I don’t mean just sales wise, I mean participation in the ongoing conversation about the story, which is really important to me. That was also why we didn’t release it on 10 consecutive weeks instead of 10 consecutive months.

  2. Oooh, you’re reading it too? We should have a tiny VM bookclub over here. Yes, ruminate is exactly the word for the way it’s rolling around in the back of my mind.

    I’m thinking of reading like a factorial in math: Part 1 alone, then Part 2! (which is reading both 1 & 2), then Part 3!, and so on. Until I have to read the entire book on Part 10. Probably overkill, but let’s see.

    I haven’t acquired Lords of the White Hell yet (Janine didn’t love it as much as she did Wicked Gentleman) but I’m sure I will.

    • For some reason the beginning of Lord of the White Hell, Book 1 didn’t grab me, and I stopped reading early on. I loved Wicked Gentlemen, though, so I purchased part 1 of this serial. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I’m all the more looking forward to it now.

      • I hope you like it, Janine! I just got Part 3 today, but as I said, I’m holding off for a while. But I’m thinking I might review the first 3 parts together, either here or at DA. Once I get all the queued reviews done, of course!

  3. Hey, VM!

    As, you may or may not know, I’m the editor of BEB and so the idea to serialize Rifter was mine. G.Hale is such a game author that she went along with it based on nothing more than my emphatic belief that there were at least some readers in the world who would enjoy reading the book the way that I read it–which is to say in small, consecutive chunks with sometimes very long waits in between. I read the novel as it was being written, you see, so the wait from start to finish was five years. But in that whole time I absolutely never forgot it. I always, always wanted to read those next 12 or 15 pages.

    I knew that at least some readers would be into the anticipation aspect of the serialized story simply because I had been and because that’s the way dramatic arcs in television work, as you so astutely pointed out. In fact, the reason I started thinking about releasing The Rifter as a serial at all was that I was at a restaurant listening to a bunch of people at an adjacent table discuss their theories about what would happen in the final few episodes of “Lost.” I thought, “How sad that people don’t have this level of anticipation and excitement about the storylines of books anymore.” Then I realized that it was because books happen privately, per se. Readers are going to be experiencing them on their own at their own pace. They will not all be stopping at the same point, so they will not all be wondering about the same things at the same time, as with broadcast TV, which is a naturally more social experience. And what are the internets if not the ultimate social experience? Couldn’t digital publishing combine with the internets to replicate this bygone pleasure called the serialized novel?

    I think for me, the whole purpose of setting up the serial was really to set up the Goodreads “What will happen next in The Rifter?” discussion group and to try to bring the fun of talking about a story in progress back to the text format. It seems to be working. People seem to be having a good time spinning theories there. Hopefully they’ll keep coming back every month.

    One thing I do think, though, in a general sense is that to have a serial like this work there needs to be a LOT of story. It doesn’t necessarily need to be “monster of the week” (not that I have anything against that–I loved Buffy) but something other than character development needs to occur in every installment to prevent boredom and reader attrition. I would suggest that the story needs to be…(dare I say it?)… positively Dickensian in scope to support being spaced out over so much time.

    (And please forgive my long-windedness. I just re-read this comment and realized that it was incredibly long, but I’m just so excited to talk about the possibilities of the serial format.)

    • Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m so glad you went for the serial format. I know it’s a risk, but if small presses don’t try it no one ever will. I remember back when Wicked Gentlemen came out that there was talk about a huge project that might be a trilogy, but this is even better, to me.

      As you know better than I, SFF is the Land of Series, and GRRM certainly seems to be proving that people can wait and then come back. My husband has faithfully followed Steven Erikson’s Malazan series (which, unlike many, has been published on schedule). I hope we can convince romance readers to give this a try.

      I’ve been try to keep from committing to yet another social media site, but now you tell me Goodreads has a Rifter group? You are so not helping. :-)

      Slightly off topic, but I wanted to say that I’ve bought a few books from BEB/Weightless, and the covers are just beautiful.

      • You know, I don’t think that you actually have to join Goodreads to be able to read the discussion group threads, you just have to be signed in to post, so you could still go see if the discussion looks like fun without having to commit to more email updates (or whatever).

        And thank you so much for your kind compliments on our covers. We basically have 2 artists now–my wife, Dawn Kimberling and a freelancer named Sam Dawson who between them do most of our images. My contribution to our art/production department is confined to saying things like, “I don’t think that author’s name is supposed to be spelled: “H-a-e-l…. Especially not on the cover.”

        RE: Romance readers and serials. A huge barrier to romance readers truly embracing the serial is that they necessarily must contain several prominent side characters and there is a huge aversion to side characters in romance right now. I don’t know if this is an editorial aversion, or a reader aversion or both. But side characters are so critical for the functioning of the sort of complex stories that adapt well to serialization that the desire to disinclude them might create a real barrier to reader acceptance.

  4. Just read in your comment that your hubby reads the Malazan books of the Fallen. I love that series. A commitment of 10 books – and I love that in the complexity and juggling of many, many characters the author’s themes are consistent and his women not just strong but real protaginists in this huge story that could easily be just about the boys. I was moved to do a philosophy short course after reading these books because I thought the the author, Steven Erikson had a really interesting take on pity ethics and friendship as the things that matter on a day to day basis of lives swept up in war and politics. I loved his reversal of the magic=good/bad thing that the Malazan’s were not just against uncontrolled magic because of religion or bias but their perception of how magic retarded change and the development of technoligies that could have a broad social benefit. No one I know but me has read these books so sorry for the pent up ravings :). Another series to read and enjoy if you like the MBoF is Glen Cook’s Black Company series. Like Erikson he is not afriad to kill off characters.

    • Yes, he is a committed fan. We once scoured every bookstore in Central London (and there were more then) looking for a copy of #6 (The Bonehunters). We finally found a trade paper copy in a chain store off Trafalgar Square, I think. He insists on the British editions.

      I’ve only read the first one all the way through; I got bogged down in the grimness of Deadhouse Gates but I want to go back and read them. He agrees with you about the quality, the worldbuilding and the consistency of the vision. It’s remarkable that not only was he able to publish the books on schedule, they didn’t morph into more and more installments (although they are awfully fat!). And he recommends Esslemont’s books as well.

      He’s read some of the Black Company books but not all.

  5. Bad Merrian is trolling the interwebs for a mental break from work right now – Cook’s books in many ways have the Vietnam War framing the stories and each is not precisly stand alone but inter-connected, so not at all an interweaving of stories in the way the MBoF are. Deadhouse Gates is still my favourite book in the series but favourite seems like the wrong word for a story about the ”chain of dogs”. I haven’t hit the Esslemont books yet so they are going into the TBR. I am also a proud owner of the British trade paperbacks of MBoF. They are big thumping stories so they need the big books with their murky, dark cover designs to do them justice. Interesting as I am typing I am wondering if I would have engaged with these complex books the same if they were ebooks…

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