If you write long enough, eventually someone will ask you to contribute a chapter for a serial novel. What is a serial novel, you ask? In the archaic meaning, it’s a work of fiction published in installments–think of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and people in New York waiting on the docks for the ship carrying copies of the magazine with the next chapter in it to find out if Little Nell had died.

In this instance, a bunch of crime fiction authors banded together to write one chapter each of a noir mystery featuring a P.I. and of course there’s a high society dame and, well, you get the picture.

So, Inherit the Dead was the masterpiece that resulted. I think this is the one where Val McDermid forever endeared herself to all of the other writers by killing off a bunch of annoying characters in her chapter so everyone whose chapters followed hers wouldn’t have to write about them.

Someone on Facebook asked me how it worked. Honestly, I have no idea, but this was my reply.

I was given a general plot, a description of the neighborhood, and what had to happen in my specific chapter. In one way, it was very liberating in that it wasn’t my responsibility to make the plot work. In another it was incredibly frustrating because I wrote some really good stuff (she said modestly) that didn’t fit the narrative or repeated something that had gone before. I unconsciously kept switching to first person and having to switch back to third, I think because noir is traditionally first person. It was a lot of fun just watching myself write it.

I vividly remember that whole first/third person struggle. I could hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as I wrote and it just felt so tone deaf to write noir in the third person.

Never say no to an invitation like this, whether you think you can do it or not. Never say no to an invitation to write a short story, either, even if you don’t write them, even if you don’t read them. When the opportunity comes to take a haiku class from John Straley, jump at it.

Never miss an opportunity to stretch that writing muscle.

Chatter Writing

Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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