Now, here’s the thing… when you write a trilogy you are in it for the long haul.
To all those people who write a single book, I salute you. It’s not easy. It takes dedication and effort. Now imagine you have to make that book three times the length, divide it into three equal-ish parts, each of which can stand alone, and still deliver a satisfactory ending to each part with a mega satisfactory ending at the end of the third part.
There are lots of things to consider, some of which you should consider at the outset, and others that don’t strike you until you’re halfway through the second book when it’s too late to ret-con happenings in the first book because it’s already in the bookshops.
Some trilogies are planned, others happen by chance.
By the time I got my first publishing deal I’d written seven books.
I made a big mistake with my first and second. I intended to write a trilogy from the outset, so I wrote a novel and followed it up with the sequel before I’d sold Book One. Thing is, Book One almost sold. I got a very nice ‘we nearly bought this’ from HarperCollins, but in the end they didn’t buy it and neither did anyone else. My then agent wasn’t a hands-on agent. She was happy to submit what I sent her to publishers, but she didn’t give me any editorial advice (and I was so green, that I didn’t know that was something some agents did). So while she was trying and failing to sell Book One I continued writing Book Two, never thinking that if Book One didn’t sell, no one was going to even look at Book Two. I learned that lesson the hard way. Book One remained unsold and my agent didn’t even seriously try to sell Book Two (and at that point we parted company).
So after that I made myself a promise. I would only write standalones, but standalones with the potential for sequels, but only if I sold the standalone. And I would write books that were very different from each other. So I wrote a space opera, a historical fantasy, a YA based on the Tam Lin ballad, a middle-grade fantasy about teenagers and horses, and a second historical fantasy set in a completely different time period and location.
I was lucky (and believe me luck plays an enormous part in getting published) I got an offer from DAW that turned into a three book deal for my space opera, an unnamed sequel, and my historical fantasy. At that point there was every possibility that the space opera would turn into a trilogy, and so would the historical fantasy.
Yes, I was over the moon at a three book deal, but at that point the hard work had to start. I’d sold the space opera sequel on a single page synopsis which had some big ideas, but not a lot of detail. I had to start thinking long-term about the shape of a trilogy and before I’d finished writing Book Two I had to get the go ahead from my editor that there would be a Book Three.
Yes, you’re right, that trilogy turned into the Psi-Tech trilogy with Empire of Dust followed by Crossways and Nimbus. But while I was working on those I was already working on the Rowankind fantasy trilogy: Winterwood, Silverwolf and Rowankind. I didn’t write two consecutive trilogies, however, they came out in this order: Empire (2014), Crossways (2015), Winterwood (2016), Silverwolf (2017, January), Nimbus (2017, October) and Rowankind (2018). So for a few years I was alternating between writing space opera and fantasy.
What was important, however, was getting the right story arcs for the two trilogies, working out which characters would be central to which books, and which characters would live to the end of the third book. I always knew where I wanted the Psi-Tech trilogy to end (though the middle bits were more vague until I really sat down and thought hard). With Rowankind I had an idea of where I was going, but I didn’t get the go-ahead for Rowankind until I was threequarters of the way through Silverwolf. Even at that late stage there was always the possibility that I’d have to wrap up the story of Ross and Corwen in two books.
Anyhow, I got the go-ahead and the rest is history (or historical fantasy).
But remember what I said about writing a trilogy means you are in it for the long haul? Well it also means that readers are in it for the long haul, too. We’re all familiar with the feeling of so-many-books, so-little-time. I wonder if that’s why the first book in a trilogy tends to sell more copies than the subsequent ones.
As a reader myself, in the pre Amazon, pre e-book days if I saw a promising trilogy in a bookshop I would always buy all three volumes because I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to get them later. Now that uncertainty has gone. They’ll always be available as ebooks even if the physical copies go out of print. So now I buy book one, but if there’s a longish wait for the next one I might simply forget to buy it, or I might be busy working my way through my to-be-read pile, which I refer to as my Strategic Book Reserve. Or since I don’t get to browse in physical bookshops any more, I might simply not notice when the second and third books come out.
I always like to start at the very beginning, so if I see a book that takes my fancy, but it’s obviously not the first book in a series, I’ll search out the first book. That’s how I discovered Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. I bought the third book in Borders in York (before Borders’ sad demise) but refused to let myself read it until I’d ordered and read the first two (from Amazon).
So, as an author of two trilogies, I ask that if you’ve read the first one and enjoyed it, please get the second (and the third) either in physical form or electronic. They are all available now, so there’s no danger of investing time and emotion in a proposed trilogy only to discover the publishing house has nixed the sequels. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)
Apologies to my British readers, but my publisher is American, so due to copyright and publisher’s contracts my books are available in dead tree format only in the UK, as imports. My North American readers (USA and Canada) can get electronic copies as well as paperbacks.
Thank you for reading my books. I hope you’re in it for the long haul, too.
PS, my next one is going to be a standalone!