April 28, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
One of my favorite things about writing and publishing is meeting so many fascinating and friendly people. Thanks to my connection with JukePop Serials, I recently had the pleasure of chatting with a fellow serial novelist and teacher, Sean Munger. Sean is currently on the sixth chapter of a terrific serial novel, The Armored Satchel. This action-packed World War II thriller is a captivating read with an unlikely hero. For more on the serial, check out the book trailer.
During my chat with Sean, we realized just how similar we are on the surface. We’re both teachers, we’re both novelists, and we both have way too much going on in our lives. With all this in common, we decided it would be fun to swap interviews. We took turns answering the same set of questions about the serial novel, writing in general, and life as we know it. You can read my answers here and Sean’s answers below.
How often do you write a new chapter?
Since The Armored Satchel started in March I’ve tried to do one chapter a week. What I usually do is outline the chapter in almost movie-script format—simple descriptions of the action, the setting, and dialogue. The script-like format also tends to keep the story very visual and moving pretty quickly. I’m usually working on this outline process during the week, often in the evenings. Then on Saturday I’ll begin writing the actual chapter based on the script outline. Often this process spills into Sunday. The last installment, Chapters 5 and 6, originally started as one chapter but it ran too long, so I split it in two, but they were both finished at the same time. The last part of the process is formatting and uploading to the site, which started out being very time-consuming and laborious, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it recently.
How do you promote your chapters?
Basically, I try anything I can think of! A lot of my readers—not just for The Armored Satchel, but for my other books—are on Twitter, so I try to promote it heavily there. I’ll tweet the link to the new chapter right when it comes out, and I’ll mention it again a few more times during the week. I also promote it on my Facebook page, Google Plus, etcetera.
One thing I’m doing now is to try to promote both the serial and my new book, Zombies of Byzantium, together. I’m giving away a free autographed paperback copy of Zombies of Byzantium once The Armored Satchel reaches 100 total votes. When it hits the 100 mark, I’ll post a trivia question based on the story, and the first person to answer it correctly (via Twitter, Facebook, blog comments etc.) wins the book! If this turns out to be successful I may do some other promotions like this.
What attracted you to JukePop in the first place?
I saw the website and some promotions of it last fall when they were first starting up and soliciting the charter serials. I was intrigued because I liked very much the idea of serial fiction—which was a great literary tradition from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries—making a comeback via the Internet, and I wanted to get in on it. I also thought that it would keep my writing skills sharp between major book projects, which I usually write in the summer. Unfortunately I couldn’t really come up with a good story idea that I thought would work as a serial.
This winter, however, I came back to the site and noticed it was doing well, so I thought maybe I would give it another try. I’ve wanted to do a World War II spy thriller for years now but never had an idea that would work. I finally got an idea after seeing an obscure article in the New York Times from 1945, in the course of doing some history research. The article was about the arrest of a suspected spy, a German citizen who had lived in New York as a teenager but was deported from the U.S. during the war. Once he was back in Europe the spy managed to use his knowledge of American customs to infiltrate the U.S. military. What was amazing was his age—he was only 20. I decided that, with the allegiances turned around—the spy working for the “good guys”—it would make a perfect story, and a very good serial. JukePop was an excellent way to bring it to readers without having to write a complete book, pitch it to a publisher and go through the traditional process.
What do you do to get readers coming back?
It’s all about cliffhangers. I’m a huge fan of old movie serials, the sort of adventure tales that Republic Pictures was famous for back in the 1930s and 1940s—Flash Gordon, G-Men Versus the Black Dragon, Terry and the Pirates, that sort of thing. They’re corny, but they have a sort of poetry to them, and they kept viewers returning by building tension and then leaving it unresolved so you have to come back. I try to put a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, or at least some sort of tension. So far I’ve had Max (the hero) trapped in a sinking car, I’ve had him “walk the plank” at gunpoint, I’ve had people chucking bombs at him, and put him at the epicenter of a spectacular train crash. Even if readers know he’s not going to die—after all, he’s the hero!—I want to make them ask, “Well, how’s he going to get out of that one?”
What are your ultimate goals with the serial? With writing in general?
Mainly I want to entertain people, and to broaden their horizons a little bit. I’m a history teacher, and a lot of what I write is based in the past—The Armored Satchel obviously takes place during World War II, and Zombies of Byzantium is set in the Middle Ages—so in a way I’m teaching history. Fiction is one of the most fun and interesting ways to interact with the past. But really it’s just about telling a good story.
How much do your students know about your writing life? What about your coworkers?
My students know virtually nothing. I have a poster of the Zombies of Byzantium cover on the door of my office, and to date not a single one of my students has ever asked about it. In college they don’t have much time to read for pleasure, I think. My co-workers, on the other hand, know a lot, and many of them have read one or more of my books. I remember when I told people about the release date of Zombies of Byzantium one of my co-workers told me, “It’s too bad it’s coming out after Christmas. I wanted to get some copies as Christmas gifts for my family!”
In what ways do your students influence your writing?
This is a really good question. I’ve found that my students have demonstrated to me, even with a historical story, what a blank slate you as a writer are really working with. I teach mostly basic-level survey courses, and most of the students know almost nothing about history going in. You have to set the stage for them and explain the whole world they’re stepping into. The Armored Satchel, for instance, takes place mostly in France in 1944. Aside from the basic fact that World War II was going on at that time, very few people know anything about what France was like at that time, or even that it was under Nazi rule. Not making assumptions about what readers are likely to know is the main thing my students have taught me. It’s sort of liberating, because if they have no assumptions, at least in a fictional story you have control over what the reader thinks and experiences as the story goes on.
How do you manage to balance family with writing?
I try to balance it as best I can. I rarely do any writing at night because evenings are my time to be with my husband. When I was still single I used to think that my “writing schedule” was pretty much immutable—that my “muse,” so to speak, would come in her own good time and I was powerless to change that. Now, however, my writing time has adapted much more readily to fit around the times I need to be doing family things. My “muse” has gotten less demanding, so to speak!
What are some of your favorite serials on the site?
Honestly, yours is one of my favorites. The story has some great twists and turns, and the tone you write in has such a sardonic edge without being off-putting. I also love Ryan Leeds’s Synchronicity which is an extremely unconventional sci-fi love story. There’s a lot of creativity put into the ideas there. I really like Bryan Eldritch’s Islands of Fire too. I love the ancient Polynesian setting, which is something I wish I could do myself—I tried unsuccessfully to write a zombie story set in ancient Hawaii, and Bryan manages to capture exactly the sort of “dark paradise” vibe I was hoping to put into my own story that never got off the ground. There are some very creative stories on JukePop.
You recently got married. Has anything about your writing changed since this milestone?
It’s offered me some insight into characters and situations involving marriage, for sure! It’s also been great having a cheerleader, fan and beta reader at my side who likes to read my stuff and who can offer advice that I trust. I’ve come up with some great ideas talking with my husband about various writing projects. He’s a prodigious reader too, and he keeps me grounded on what readers like (and don’t like), and how they respond to particular stories or elements.
You’ve written both serials and straight-up novels. Does your process or writing or story planning differ between those two genres?
Yes, very much so. In writing a novel, the long-term plan is paramount. When I write a novel I start with the ending. Everything works toward it, and you can go back and fix anything you’ve written previously if it doesn’t jive completely with the ending or how you want the story to develop. With a serial it’s almost reversed. The eventual ending of the serial is determined by what’s gone before, and once it’s up you can’t go back and change it. For instance, I have little more than a vague idea of how The Armored Satchel is going to end. In some ways as I’m writing it I feel like I’m an acrobat working without a net. With each chapter I’m building up expectations in the readers’ minds about how character arcs or situations will be resolved, and I don’t have a clue what those resolutions are going to be. So yes, it’s a very different process.
Of scenes, characters, situations etc. in your serial, are there a few that stand out as your favorites? Any chapters you’re particularly proud of?
As I write this The Armored Satchel only has six chapters up, but of them, Chapter 6 is probably my favorite. The whole scene where Max is having lunch and drinking wine with the SS man and his fiancé at the sidewalk café—who barely notice the soldiers going around the square putting up wanted posters with Max’s face on them—was a lot of fun to write because it’s very tense and suspenseful, yet the tension is kind of low-key and hidden under the surface. I also really enjoy the female characters I’ve created. Francoise, the tomboyish French girl who wears combat boots, has so far only had a cameo appearance but I really want to bring her back into the story at some point, and the villain Ilse Vier, the fanatical Nazi who’s bent on capturing Max personally, is obviously going to play a large role in the story. It’s been a lot of fun to write, more so than I expected, so I’m looking forward to future chapters.
What do you think about the future of serial fiction? It was a staple of literature from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century. Do you think it’s coming back to stay?
I certainly hope it is! From my own study of history I’ve observed that the rise of electronic media and more user-controlled access to literature is making the culture of words much more similar to the way it was in the past than the way it’s generally been since the middle of the 20th century. I don’t think anyone in the world of letters would doubt that the days of tight control of books by a handful of large publishers and retailers are simply over. When it comes to books and stories, it’s definitely a buyer’s market, much like it was in the early 19th century. I think the success of JukePop has shown that there is a market for serial fiction. It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of this revival. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see in the future the rise of other sites like this, or other magazines (whether print or electronic) dedicated to serial fiction.
Thanks for the great responses, Sean. I look forward to following your serial as it develops. I’ve really enjoyed the first few chapters, and I encourage everyone to have a look. Be sure to read and vote for The Armored Satchel.