A Dickensian experiment: FAILED….

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Winston Churchill

It all started in July, with the best of intentions. I would publish one chapter per month of Halo, my novel in progress, and report back on the experience. Sadly, I have failed on every front. Five months later, and chapter two is only now ready for publication.  I can make many excuses: my daughter’s elaborate wedding in October that kept me so busy; summer holidays; life, generally in other words.  But what really held me up? The fact that I’m not Dickens. Writing chapter two, after publishing chapter one in July’s blog post, exposed so many problems with the chapter by chapter publishing model that I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, chapter one is written from Poly’s point of view when she is aged twenty-five  and recalling an incident when she was aged sixteen.  A simple enough structure, I thought, until I started on chapter two, from Poly’s mother’s point of view and her reaction to Poly’s recall of the incident when she was sixteen.  You can see that tangle immediately can’t you? How do I keep my reader with me, at this very early stage, through a change of narrator and a flash back? Not to mention a four month wait for the second chapter, by which time my reader will have forgotten, well, everything. So my only choice was to re-write Chapter One from Poly’s point of view at the age of sixteen.  This change reverberated across the entire structure of the novel, requiring all kinds of adjustments to many of the background timelines, plot lines, and chapter plans.

So shocked was I by the difficulty of the endeavour, that I spent more time reading about Dickens and his methods, now that I fully realise what utter genius it takes to write a novel in a periodic way. Within a few years of the serial publication of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens had become an international literary celebrity famed for his humour, satire, and his gift for plot and character development.  Most of his books were published in weekly or monthly instalments, and this format became the dominant form of novel publication at that time. Dickens evaluated his audiences’ reactions to each instalment (how? Mailchimp didn’t exist back then..) and would, apparently and unbelievably, modify his plot and character development accordingly. His stories appealed to readers across all classes, including the illiterate poor who would pay halfpennies to have each new episode read to them. In 1841, fans of  The Old Curiosity Shop stormed New York’s Harbour as they waited for the British ship to dock, bringing the latest chapter: had the orphan Nell died in poverty or had she survived?

In our digital age, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in the serial format: Amazon’s Kindle Serials showcase writers who post a new instalment every two weeks. (Every two weeks? Are they kidding?  Obviously I won’t be trying that.) I wonder though: have we, in our technological age, the patience to follow serialised stories, be they written or filmed, in these days of binge watching box sets? Back when I was a young teenager, I was a dedicated fan of a magazine called Jackie, with its articles on how to treat pimples, style my hair and even *whisper* boys and their strange ways; and, crucially,  how to catch and keep one. Being aimed at 12 – 14 year olds, sex was not explicitly part of its offering, though there were many hints.  Jackie, published on a Wednesday, was the highlight of my week. Immediately after school, I was off to Gill’s newsagents clutching my sixpence to buy my copy, along with a packet of peanut Treets, the original M& M’s. It would take me till the end of Thursday to read it from cover to cover.  And once I finished, my longing for the next week’s edition would begin.

Around the the same time, the TV series Doctor Who began, at 5.30pm on Saturday evening. I was about ten years old, and spent my Saturday afternoons, idyllically, at my Nana’s house, making intricate outfits for my teenage doll, (ie, a doll with breasts) with Nana’s help.  I would go home in time to  gather, with my family, in festive excitement, to watch that week’s episode of Dr Who, and then spend the rest of the week speculating on what might happen next. I have never forgotten seeing a Dalek for the first time.

When I was in my late teens, the monthly magazine Cosmopolitan was launched with its daring content: double page spreads of almost naked men, Burt Reynolds memorably, along with features on the big O. The monthly wait for the new edition extended my tolerance and patience in a way that feels impossible to imagine in our instant gratification age. TV serials still employ the cliff hanger ending for each episode, but the box set format means you only have to wait 30 seconds or so for the next instalment.

There seems to be a loss in this immediacy: of anticipation as we wait to discover what happens next, and of speculation and empathy as we try to imagine and live each imagined possible next episode of a gripping tale.  How suspenseful is it when gratification is instant? I have noticed that when we watch a series that we must wait for, we become more involved in the characters and the plot, talking about them as though they are real people in our lives that we care about and have concern and empathy for. Positive psychologists believe that the pleasure and satisfaction of any good experience is extended, deepened and intensified by anticipation ahead of the event and savouring after the event. Without this element, our pleasure is superficial, fleeting, as we move swiftly on to the next experience. What a pity, this scattering and shortening of our attention span.

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