How to use TV writing techniques for a serialized story

What’s that? Some of you still write real stories and not TV or film scripts? Genuine, polished prose? Who’d a’thunk?

Well, if you’re one of the last remaining yet still new “real writers” (as such peeps used to be called long, long ago), this one’s for you:

by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint came out in 1987, subtitled, “A melodrama of manners.” Combining swashbuckling duels, queer romance, and political intrigue, it’s since become a cult classic, kicking off the fantasy subgenre of “mannerpunk” and spawning two other novels set in the same nameless city.

Now the series is moving in an unexpected direction: online serialization. Unfolding in weekly installments from authors including Malinda Lo and Alaya Dawn Johnson, Tremontaine is published in text and audio episodes by the subscription service Serialbox.

Kushner takes the role of showrunner, writing a couple of episodes and then collaborating to shape the rest of the series. And while much of Tremontaine‘s audience already knew Kushner’s earlier work, it’s perfectly accessible to new readers. Set 15 years before Swordspoint, we meet an intriguing new cast of characters in the pilot episode:

“A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution.”

Speaking to Ellen Kushner in a phone interview, we discussed the longevity of theSwordspoint series, and why she decided to experiment with serialized publishing.

Swordspoint came out almost 30 years ago, but it still has this following where people are willing to wait decades for another book. What makes you keep coming back to this story after so many years?

It’s funny, when I wrote the novel at first, people kept saying, “Well, where’s the sequel?” And I said, I’m not going to do a sequel, it’s just a novel. Everybody dies of typhoid the next year, go away, there’s no sequel!

But the fact is that I’d created a city, and I’d created characters whom I loved deeply, and I thought about them a lot. I wanted to see not what happened to them immediately after the novel ended, but later in life. And since [Alec and Richard from Swordspoint] are both fairly powerful people, to watch how they change the city.

So I allowed myself little treats, I would write a little short story here or there to fill in the gaps, and eventually that slid into a novel. My bargain with myself was that I would only write it if it were a new viewpoint, a new way of looking at it.

The other thing I love to do is to collaborate. One novel was written with my brand new partner at the time, and that extended my sense of the city and what it could be. Tremontaine in some ways is the logical extension of that: let’s get everybody in to play. But in terms of why [Swordspoint] is still—you know, why it hasn’t hasn’t aged out—I think it was before its time, to be honest, and people are just catching up to it….

Read it all at Daily Dot