[GUEST POST] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Serials and Spaceships


Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of many award-winning fantasy novels and short stories including the recent Ink Black Magic. She is co-host of two podcasts: Galactic Suburbia and Verity! You can follow her on Twitter at @tansyrr or check out her crazy space opera retelling of The Three Musketeers on her blog. To support Tansy and her space musketeers via Patreon, visit http://www.patreon.com/musketeerspace.

Serials and Spaceships

by Tansy Rayner Roberts

I’ve always been a sucker for a serialised story. I only had to catch an episode of a soap opera on a sick day to be hopelessly following it for months or years afterwards. I stuck with comics I loved long after the creative team had moved on, just because I needed to know what happened to the characters next.

Then there’s the pre-20th century publishing tradition of the serialised novels, which has always fascinated me ever since I read about Jo March writing melodramatic serials for the newspapers she published with and for her sisters. (Little Women itself was published as a serial when it first came out for real.) We might not be able to read these as anything but entire novels now, but the idea of a story written on the fly, so to speak, is quite compelling even if it leads to structural oddities.

We all hear about Dickens, of course, writing so many of his famous and beloved novels in serialised form, teasing his fans with the possibility of Little Nell dying. But I only discovered recently that he was a self publisher as well – after a disagreement with the publisher of Household Words, which had hosted many of his novels in their original format, he set up his own weekly journal, All The Year Around. This featured not only the serialised first version of A Tale of Two Cities and other prominent novels (including his own Great Expectations, The Woman in White & The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell) but also non fiction on topics of interest to Dickens such as historical crimes, the lives of inventors, self-help and scientific discoveries (such as the work of Darwin).

If Dickens was alive today, he would most definitely have his own online magazine.

When it comes to serialised stories that have become famous novels, my favourite has always been The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Grandson of a marquis and a Caribbean slave, Dumas was a powerhouse of publishing and writing who makes Dickens look like an under-achiever. He not only wrote blockbuster stories and novels, but formed a publishing studio full of a whole staff of writers, who worked to his direction. Many of his works were collaborations, though it’s clear that he worked tirelessly at his own writing as well as editing and publishing the works of others.

The Three Musketeers was published over four months in 1844 in the newspaper Le Siècle, a historical tale of drama, swords and politics which takes massive liberties with timelines and French history in general, but manages to have huge amounts of fun into the bargain. This book embodies what the genre term ‘Romance’ used to mean – action-packed quests featuring chivalry, villainy and smooches.

One of the things that really interested me about reading The Three Musketeers for the first time is that the structure is nothing like what we think of as a ‘good’ novel these days – the pacing is up and down and highly readable, but the beats of the story aren’t predictable because it was written for serial consumption. Moving the story forward was essential, but a complete story shape was not.

And whenever I’ve thought about the idea of writing a novel in serial form myself – I have thought back to this book, and about how so many of the conventional ‘rules’ of writing might no longer apply if you’re writing week by week. You’d be getting regular reader feedback, for a start, possibly building a more intimate community around your writing in the way that fanfic writers do all the time.

If you want to get a writer excited, try telling them they don’t have to play by the rules this time around!

So my current crazy project is a serialised retelling of The Three Musketeers as a space opera, in which most of the characters have been gender-swapped. Writing in public is a little bit terrifying to me (writing without a net!) but I also love the idea of working as I go, solving problems (believe me, trying to retell at 19th century novel about 18th century characters as a futuristic space opera leads to many, many problems) and world building under the feet of my heroes on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Believe me, it gets the adrenalin pumping! Possibly that’s mostly fear, but there’s a good dose of inspiration too.

Musketeer Space as much a personal development exercise for me as it is a novel: I want to figure out what gender preconceptions I still have bubbling away in my unconscious brain, I want to write a diverse cast without the geographic cues that come from setting a story in our universe (this part is super hard), and I want to preserve the things I like best about a novel that I love.

Friendship, swashbuckling, romance and spaceships.

The Musketeers might be pilots of musket-class spaceships, the Cardinal might preside over a galactic church of star-worshippers, Paris might be an enormous satellite in orbit around a royal moon and D’Artagnan might be a young brown-skinned girl from the outer edge of the solar system but at heart, I’m telling the same story.

I’m funding this grand experiment via the crowdfunding platform Patreon, so that monthly supporters can chip in micropayments in exchange for rewards such as ebooks, extra content, and naming rights for spaceships. The project remains free to all readers, however – I’d very much like to earn enough money to justify all the work I’m putting into the book as a web-serial, but the most important thing for me is to get the thing written. All Patreon supporters will receive Musketeer Space in book form at the end.

To acknowledge my sources as I continue on this path, I’m also blogging a formal rewatch of my favourite space opera of all time, Robotech, along with monthly Musketeer Media Monday essays about the various film & TV adaptations of those adorable reprobates. Both of these blogging projects were unlocked when my Patreon page reached particular fundraising milestones.

I rather imagine that at the end of the crazy 16 months or so I have ahead of me, I’ll have a very different view on web serials than I do now! But the project has been so much fun so far, I still hope that by the end my attitude will be “Whoop! That was fun. Let’s do that AGAIN!”

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