How Do You Write An Epistolary Novel?

How do you write an epistolary novel?

Easy. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Find a writing partner.
  2. Brainstorm an idea.
  3. Pick up a pen and paper and write a letter.
  4. Seal it in an envelope and post it.
  5. Wait for the response.
  6. Read it.
  7. Reply.
  8. Repeat until the story is complete.

I co-wrote Post Marked: Piper’s Reach with Jodi Cleghorn (@JodiCleghorn) and we are now in the middle of editing the story.

Of course, you could write the letters yourself from the perspective of different characters but you don’t get the anticipatory Pavlovian response when you’re waiting for the sound of the postman’s motorbike (as they use on my street). Delayed gratification was something we had to deal with as we waited for each letter to arrive; 2 or 3 days can be an agonising wait.

You’re waiting on the newest letter to reveal the next part in the narrative, to learn more about the other character, and learn about your own character too (we both dropped in parts of each other’s character’s history – it’s how I found out Jude busted his knee skateboarding prior to Ella-Louise’s stage debut in “West Side Story”).

We wrote it for fun with no pressure, no constraint, no limitations or time frame. It was for us; writing for the pure enjoyment of it, and indulging in the lost art of letter writing we both had long since neglected.

For the first 3 months we wrote for ourselves yet knowing we would post them online eventually. Once it started online we began to gain a  following. It grew to a small, but core, audience we dubbed the “Posties.”

Something positive changed. I realised I was writing for more than an audience of one. No longer was I writing with Jodi in mind (she was always my primary audience as the writer of Ella-Louise), but a wider readership who were invested in the lives of Ella-Louise and Jude. It gained traction and I saw the potential for this beyond the online community we had established.

After 16 months of writing, 52 letters and 85,500 words we wrote “The End.” It has only been in recent months that I realised I have written a novel. Surprising, really. Still shocked by it. Happy, certainly, but quite pleasantly surprised we did it (Jodi said she could never write a novel and I never thought I’d manage to write one – experience has made liars of us both).

This is what I wrote as a reflection when we had finished: What Happens When You Reach ‘The End’?

And now we ask the big questions and dream the big dreams.

How far can we take this epistolary narrative?

It is a question yet to be answered; in due time it will come to fruition.

While we wait for that day to come, we are hard at work editing the letters and smoothing out the roughness. Writing a web serial can allow for minor discrepancies and inconsistencies but a novel cannot. 

For example, the character of Marion, Jude’s mother, became a very different character than when she started. This is the down side of the No Spoiler policy meaning we didn’t talk plot – originally Jodi’s suggestion was a character who was suffering from early onset dementia, but I missed the clue. Instead she became a far more complex character. It meant retconning the opening letters to reflect who she had become.

We have edited Season 1 and sent it off to our editor, Toni. Meanwhile we plough on through edits on Season 2.

Does this narrative have an audience beyond the core readership? I wrote back in July about the relationship between writer and reader: Piper’s Reach – The Writer and the Reader.

Jodi came across a site, First Impressions, hosted by Marcy Hatch and Dianne Salerni, offering a critique on the first 350-400 words. We bounced around the idea and decided to  give Piper’s Reach a road test with an unknown audience to see if it engaged them and what reaction we’d get.

We spent a week or so writing and rewriting Ella-Louie’s first letter. Jodi wrote about her experience here: How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways.

I was too caught up in school work to stress about it all but I was very keen and a little anxious to see what other people thought about a project I have invested very heavily into. Even though the opening words are not mine, they are Jodi’s; we had input into each letter in the editing phase so they become our words to an extent.

The first letter is critical to engage the reader and make them want to read on.

So, how did we do?

You can read the critiques and comments here:

Dianne Salerni and Marcy Hatch

They both praised the opening letter highly.

Marcy said, “This is an interesting beginning. I don’t think I’ve ever read an adult epistolary novel and I’m curious to see where this goes. This first page/first letter tells me quite a bit. Like the fact that Jude and whoever is writing the letter were probably once lovers, that they were close but that for some reason Jude didn’t come to see our narrator off, and that Piper’s Reach has some shared meaning for them. What’s great about this first page is that it sets up lots of questions about the past between these two people but also suggests a question about the future. Why is the narrator writing to Jude now, twenty years later? I want to know what happens next!

Dianne commented: “First of all, I have to say that I’ve never heard of a novel being written this way before, especially in today’s world of instant communication. It’s quite original – and because I’m a pantster who also lets stories develop organically, I’m intrigued! The voice of the first letter writer (Ella-Louise) comes through strongly in this opening, and the premise is clear: She is trying to re-connect with a close friend (possibly a lover) whom she hasn’t spoken to in twenty years via the medium they used in the past. Letters.

There’s not a lot of things I can critique in this passage, because it’s pretty smooth. There’s just the right amount of past and present mixed together, and enough places mentioned to provide a clear image of setting without being confusing.”

What did readers have to say about Post Marked: Piper’s Reach?

A couple of readers stumbled on the colloquialism “pashed,” an Australian term for kissing, but other than that, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Farawayeyes: “I’m intrigued, and completely hooked. I love the idea. It’s so different and refreshing. I will certainly read on.”

Kittie: “There’s no middle ground with epistolary writing. It either hits or misses. This one hits!”

Liz: “I love all of the little hooks and mysteries you managed to get in just one short letter. I was worried you were going to answer all of my questions too fast, but you didn’t – you held back and gave me a taste of an answer and then more questions, which is perfect. Great start :)”

Alex: “That simple letter says a lot. The authors nailed so much in just a few paragraphs.”

Jodi has a great write up on her blog: First Impressions for Post Marked: Piper’s Reach

For me, it shows we have an engaging narrative. We are on to something. Let’s see how the rest of it bears out.

Meanwhile, back to the edits.

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