Author Anna Stephens discusses the ins and outs of writing a trilogy.
Writing a trilogy almost seems to be the default setting for many authors these days, especially those of us who write in the speculative genre. While thrillers and crime seem suited to either standalone novels or epic series comprised of dozens of books following a particular protagonist – spy, assassin, police officer, coroner, soldier – science fiction and fantasy tend most often to move in trinities.
It is very difficult to get an agent or a publishing deal if you have written a standalone fantasy novel as your debut. The reason I hear most often for this is that agents and publishers want to know that if they take you on, that you have some longevity to your career – three books at least gives them a starting point from which to build, whereas one book means yes, you can do it once, but what comes next? A trilogy means you can plan three story arcs within one overall story arc. It means you have foresight and vision and can tackle more than that first daunting manuscript. Yes, you sometimes get a debut duology, sometimes a quartet or quintet, but trilogies seem to be the most popular.
And perhaps there’s also a perception that stand alone fantasies just aren’t the ‘done thing’ anymore? It takes a lot of marketing and negotiating to get a book published, but once you’ve done it for the first, you can ride that wave of publicity for the other books in the series. That’s clearly not possible with a stand alone.
Whatever the reason, trilogies are what many writers think of when they decide to seriously focus on their work. I know I did. So, does deciding to write a trilogy make them easy to write? Not at all. Writing a novel is tough. Writing three of them to complete a story is even tougher.
Music and fiction both share a common issue – second album/second book syndrome. This is where Book 1 is done and all the protagonists exist, the plot is motoring along nicely, the big reveals for the epic conclusion have been foreshadowed and the climax of the story is going to astound. Only … you can’t write the conclusion of the story yet. Because the conclusion happens in Book 3, and you’re now writing Book 2.
So what the hell happens in Book 2?
Where Book 1 is set up and Book 3 is climax, Book 2 can often be filler. Padding. Slow-paced, awkward, jerky action where not much happens but it takes a 120,000 words for it to not happen.
So how do writers combat this? Funny you should ask, as I am currently editing Book 2 of the Godblind trilogy. Darksoul is due for publication in May 2018, so I need to get my skates on.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt from the editing process is that you can’t leave everything for Book 3. If you do, then you risk losing readers who weren’t excited by your second book so they’ll never get to all the good juicy bits you have planned for book 3. One thing you can do is look hard at the epic conclusions you’ve got planned and work out which of them can happen early, then move them into Book 2. Then look at the reveals you do have in Book 2 – they’re likely to be at the end, the big cliffhanger etc. Which of those can you move to the start of the book so that the reader is thrust straight into the action?
The reader has to have some payoff for picking up your second book. Action, revelation, a reversal in fortune, an epic battle, a love interest, a betrayal, something needs to happen that is exciting, engaging, and unexpected. Every book needs to have a payoff for the reader, as well as for the writer.
Writing a trilogy is a long process. It’s hard work and often it feels thankless. The best – and in my experience the only – way to get through the grind (because some days it is a grind), to get through the word fatigue, the self-doubt, it is to love what you’re writing, love your characters and love the process of writing, editing, rewriting, proofreading etc. If you don’t, you’ll never finish that trilogy. And wouldn’t that be a tragedy?
Also, when you have that conversation about being a writer and the other person says they’ve “always wanted to write a book”, you get to say you’ve actually written three. Kudos.
Anna Stephens is a UK-based author of gritty epic fantasy. Her debut novel, Godblind, is published through Harper Voyager in June 2017, with the sequels coming in 2018 and 2019. Anna has a BA (Hons) in Literature from the Open University and has wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember. She much prefers the worlds she makes up to the real thing, even if most of her characters meet sticky ends.
Anna lives with her husband, a huge book, music and movie collection, and no pets. She intends to remedy this lack of furry friends as soon as fame and fortune strike. You can check out Anna's website here or follow her on Twitter.