Writing a Trilogy

For those of you starting on your writing journey—there are two realms of publishing. The ABA (the American Booksellers Association) and the CBA (the Christian Booksellers Association.) The ABA publishes what would be considered secular novels and the CBA publishes Christian or “inspirational” books. Publishers generally fall under one of these two categories.

Book #1 Bloodline Trilogy

Book #1 Bloodline Trilogy

CBA publishers like trilogies. And there is good reason for this. If you can hook a reader on one, they’ll likely buy the rest. There is an inherent marketing value to producing a series. I’ve not quite seen this trilogy trend in the ABA though there are beloved characters (James Patterson’s Alex Cross, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone to name a few) that monopolize more than a few books but are not quite designed as self-enclosed three-book sets.

When Proof was first contracted, it was proposed as a trilogy. The publisher didn’t like the first proposed sequels and asked for different plot lines in the subsequent titles, which I provided. Even after that, they still contracted only the first. In a twist and turn of God fingerprinted events, they ended up contracting the trilogy a few months after the initial offer.

Book #2 Bloodline Trilogy

Book #2 Bloodline Trilogy

However, having not ever written a trilogy, there are a few things I would do now when planning a series that I thought could benefit future trilogy authors.

  1. Each book stands alone but should be connected to the others: It’s nice for readers if they don’t have to read one book to understand the others but is also nice if certain characters/themes carry through all the books for those sticking with you. This can be challenging because a little information will have to be given (in a creative way) to readers to both clue them in to the previous story(ies) and also serve as a nice reminder to those picking up the next book who may have read the others—considering books release six to twelve months apart.
  2. Book #3 Bloodline Trilogy

    Book #3 Bloodline Trilogy

    Timelines are important: I know—this should have been uber-obvious to me, right? But consider some things that can seriously mess up your timeline—like characters getting pregnant. You have to then backtrack to the time of conception and make sure all story plots support it. Add to that a hostage story (Poison) that deals with younger children that then need to be aged seven years, and a teen pregnancy (yes, I did all of this!) and it can be challenging to make sure all events line up. Graphing out the timeline is a seriously good idea. And then keep it to refer back to until the book is actually in print.

  3. Avoid absolute characterizations: In Proofone character commented that another one never sweats (and it was a blazing hot day and he was in SWAT gear.) It was more to relay how calm the man was under pressure. Well, in Poison, my editor reminded me how often this character was now sweating and how I said in book #1 that he never did. It’s just like a test—never, all, and always are not good picks or preludes to character traits.
  4. Provide a circular moment for the reader: What is a circular moment? It’s something (an event, an emotion) that happens in the beginning that is revisited at the end of the novel that shows how the character has changed. For instance, in Proof, the lead detective, Nathan Long, carries a list of “unforgivables”—acts that he literally writes out that he can’t get over emotionally. There is some forgiveness for Nathan at the end of the first book but it ultimately doesn’t fully happen until the end of Peril, the third book in the series. So each book needs a moment like this as well as the series.

What about you? Do you have tips for planning a trilogy?

The Standalone and the Series

Which is better, a standalone novel or a series?

This is a complex question, given each writing career is unique; but here’s what I’ve learned:

Sequel plots evolve naturally.

Most often while writing a novel, an author gets ideas that can spin into sequels. Sometimes minor characters beg for their own stories. Such inspiration is useful in layering the plot of a standalone or planting leads into the first novel of a series.

Most publishers want sequels written six months apart.

This means a solid eighteen months or more of the author’s time is contracted. With so many unknowns for a writer, this brings a sense of security. Since the advance represents the entire series, the extra money is valuable upfront for marketing purposes.

Usually less research is needed for a series than subsequent standalone novels, which gives the author extra writing time. With successive deadlines, he is forced to write consistently which also hones his skills and productivity.

Series are popular with publishers unless

the first book doesn’t sell.

If the first book doesn’t sell, it makes the sequels harder to sell. By the time the author discovers what went wrong, he’s probably already into the third book of the series and finds the publisher less willing to spend marketing dollars on the sequels.

For newbies, a series leaves little time for conditioning;

you hit the ground running.

The character roster quickly snowballs, yet needs to be worked into the ongoing series. Since each book also stands alone, there is back-story to incorporate. It takes skill to tie it all together. Maintaining consistency makes record keeping imperative from character charts to research files. There’s a struggle against boredom, and if the author gets bored the reader will too.

Deadlines threaten quality and marketing time.

It’s difficult to write quality work with tighter deadlines and also find time to market the first story which is the most important story for the success of the series. Usually the first story is quite detailed in the original book proposal. But one of the sequels may need major time-consuming revisions once the editor sees that story evolving.

Why not write a standalone with a series option?

While it sounds like the perfect solution, it’s always harder to go down a path when you don’t know where it’s leading.  It’s not impossible, but it makes writing the book proposal and novel trickier.

My personal experience – writing a series is like running.

At the beginning, I was excited and fresh. The middle book was written under the most duress. I was struggling uphill because of the increasing time crunch, revisions, and unexpected personal obligations. But the final book was like getting my second wind. It was exhilarating. With writing muscles in peak condition, it was the easiest and most enjoyable to produce. And just beyond beckoned refreshment and reward.

What about you? Are you a sprinter or a marathon runner?