JP Fosterson


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Fiction on Medium — Don’t split up long stories

The conventional wisdom for publishing fiction on medium seems to be that nobody wants to read anything longer than ten minutes, so keep your stories short, and if you must write something longer, definitely spit it up into parts and post it as a series.

In my experience, this is advice is backwards. My most successful stories, in terms of views, reads, and curation, have been my longest, and splitting the stories up seems to hurt them both artistically and in readership. My recommendation? Don’t be afraid to write longer stories, and whatever length your story, publish it as a single part.

If you read and write fiction on Medium, this “shorter is better” wisdom can be seen both implicitly and explicitly. For example, the submission guidelines of the Medium publication The Junction say “don’t go beyond 3,000 words, unless a potential series is being pitched”. Lit Up has no limits to length and will happily publish longer stories, but they have a “Stories in Parts” section and many writers publish their longer stories there as series.

Just to be sure, I asked some Medium fiction writers their opinion, on what to do with a 7000+ word story I was revising. Everyone who replied suggested that I split my story up. Nobody said I keep should it together.

And yet, my experience is exactly the opposite of the conventional wisdom. My most popular story is The Shade, which is 5500 words and 21 minutes, and was distributed by Medium curators in the Fiction, Science, and Space topics. My least popular is Unboxing Rose, a short (and IMHO clever and sweet) sci-fi story of 1900 words and 7 minutes. In the middle are Racing the Avalanche (2100w/8m), a bit more popular than Rose but not much, and The Plunge Pool.

The Plunge Pool is a 9000 word, 34 minute long novelette which I published as a five-part series. At first glance it seems to be more popular than the Avalanche or Rose, with more views and higher per-chapter read rates than either. But the per-chapter read rates hide the true, sad story. If I compute the read rate by dividing the reads of chapter 5 by the views of chapter 1, I end up with a sorry read rate of 9.4%. 😳 Worse yet, Medium treats each chapter as a completely distinct story, and it recommends them inconsistently. Chapter 4 has more views than chapters 2 or 3.

This week Lit Up and I published my latest long story, Movie Stars and Planets (7300w/28m), as a single article, after a false start in which I submitted it as a three-part series and then changed my mind. It is too early to tell how popular the story will be, but it has already been selected for distribution by curators for Fiction.

In the end, I think there are many practical reasons and one important artistic reason for publishing your stories as a single article.

Practical reasons for publishing as a single article

  1. Medium’s curation guidelines are pretty clear that they want high quality stories. They “recommend spending more time on stories of depth and meaning, rather than simply publishing as often as you can.” While more time doesn’t necessarily imply a longer story, depth and meaning in a narrative often require some length. They also ban vaguely-defined “calls to action”, and I suspect that some curators might consider a call to click through to another story a call-to-action. In general it seems to me that they are opposed to “engagement hacking.” Artificially splitting a monolithic story could be considered a form of engagement hacking.

  2. There is a population of readers on the internet who want to read longer stories. If there weren’t Longreads.com wouldn’t exist. The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Clarkesworld, and Strange Horizons, are all high quality magazines that publish fiction, and they are all willing to publish long short stories and novelettes online on a single page.

  3. The readers who want to read longer stories are prime readers, the people who love to read and who read well and can stick with a narrative. These are the people you want reading your stuff.

  4. Getting the reader to click through the link and start reading the story is the hardest part. After that your narrative has to keep her interested. If you make the reader have to click another link to keep reading, you’re going to lose her. Don’t do it.

The artistic reason against splitting up your story.

Last and maybe most important, splitting up the story breaks it as an artistic work. It “interrupts the fictional dream”, to use the parlance of John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. In Gardner’s theory, which I agree with, most bad writing practices are bad because they wake the reader from the fictional dream. Short stories, almost by definition, are meant to be read in a single sitting. Breaking them up ruins their integrity.

But what about my novella?

I’m unsure exactly how this advice applies to novels and novellas, except to say that there is probably a length limit beyond which the story is inappropriate for Medium, though I’m not sure what that length is.

My feeling is that book-length narratives probably should be books. If I had a novel that I was thinking of publishing independently, I’d publish it as a book and then promote it with long excerpts on Medium.

[Update 2019-03-08]

After I wrote this article, I asked the editor of Lit Up if I could repost The Plunge Pool as a single long story, in addition to the five-part serial treatment. She agreed, and so it is online now. It comes out to a 35 minute read at 260 words-per-minute. After a couple of months, the read ratio on the story has risen, but it’s still a fairly low 12%.

I can interpret this one of two ways. Either 35 minutes is starting to hit the threshold where readership falls away, or the story just isn’t great at holding readers’ interest through the middle section. It is probably a bit of both. In the serialized versions, readers seem to drop out in parts two and three, but those who find part four quite like it.

2018-12-21