Wednesday, 15 February 2017

My top ten hints and tips for writing a trilogy

In my previous blog, I wrote about why you should write a trilogy. In this one, I give some tips I picked up along the way as to how you should write a trilogy. Of course, the beauty about writing is that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. So not everything on this list might ring true for you, dear reader, but certainly does and did for me whilst writing The Darkest Hand trilogy, published by Duckworth in the UK and Overlook Press in the States. And you may find that the suggestions, hints and tips work very well for when writing singular tomes, not just trilogies? I hope it’s of use.

Anyway, without further ado …

1. Start with that nugget of an idea which is truly unique
At the heart of your trilogy you need something that is unique and different, that’s never been done before, something you, as a writer, can get behind and more importantly your readers will. Your readers need to believe and share your passion to go all the way through all three books, just like you will need to writing the trilogy. If the central idea to your trilogy is just not big enough to stretch beyond a single volume, don’t try to use it write a trilogy. Filler descriptions and long meandering passages of action that go no nowhere will not make your trilogy good and very soon your readers will see that nothing in your magnum opus stacks up.

If you’re going to tackle writing a trilogy you need that big idea, something that holds up across all three books. It needs to be big enough to warrant three books dedicated to it and have enough wow and wonder to sustain the reader’s interest. The last thing they want is to be left with interest waning halfway through book two and resenting the time they have invested in your words. You want people to yearn to read the final volume, to be unable to contain themselves, barely able to wait for each volume to come out. Each part of the trilogy should ebb and flow with excitement and tension, increasing towards the final conclusion of each book. After book one, this should be ratcheted up for the second volume and again for the third. By the end of book three, you should be plunging towards a conclusion to beat all others, the reader unable to put the book down. And at its heart this original vibrant idea that no one has done before. It should act like an empowering beacon, pulling everything together.

The unique idea for my trilogy was to put werewolves into the trenches of world war one and build a world of Catholic Inquisitors hunting them. This scenario had never been done before and the inquisition gave the trilogy enough size and scope to expand and grow over the three books.

2. Be committed. Writing a trilogy takes time
Make no bones about it, writing a trilogy is hard work. It tests a writer in their plotting, characterisation, language, patience, determination and belief, not to mention energy and use of English like nothing else. In an industry where writing a novel is a huge task, writing three consecutive and interlinked books is infinitely more difficult. It’s not simply the sheer volume of words you need to produce, finding new ways of describing feelings, emotions, events and actions. It’s making sure that you write something that works as a whole piece, as well as within the individual volumes, something that is consistent in tone and feel across the entire work and that manages pace, both within each volume and across the entire piece.

Be prepared to dedicate years of your life to your trilogy. Be prepared to read, rewrite, rewrite again, and repeat, not just for one volume but for all three books. Be prepared to love and utterly believe in your manuscript, even if you absolutely despise it, because if you don’t, that hatred will come across in the writing and the chances are, unless you have an editor breathing down your neck, you’ll never finish it.

It took me four and a half years to write the Darkest Hand trilogy, and during that time I rewrote Book 1, The Damned, twice, Book 2, The Fallen, nine times, and Book 3, The Risen, five times. That’s probably close to 1,500,000 words in 54 months. Like I said, trilogies take time, love, patience, grit and most of all belief.

3. Make a plan
When I started writing The Darkest Hand trilogy, I just jumped in and went for it. I knew points A, B and Z in the plot. The final scene I wrote in my head at the very start. But everything else came together like an unveiling adventure as I wrote it. This proved invigorating, exciting and daringly reckless, but also caused me no end of trouble and lots and lots of rewrites and drafts. I’ve already mentioned the number of rewrites I had to do above. As I my agent keeps telling me, if I learn how to write books right the first time around, it’ll make things a whole lot easier.

Had I properly planned the whole piece out, it definitely would have been an easier set of books to write, if perhaps not quite as fun. Daring? Absolutely. Foolish? Most probably! Wrong? Despite the pain, the exhaustion and exasperation writing without a clear plan, I’m still not sure it was! Every writer is different. Some writers like to plan the minutiae of a story before jumping in. Some have a sketch, a rough plan. Others, like me, have a start and a finish but no idea of what comes in between. That’s me. I like to be entertained and amazed, just like the reader, when I write. It’s far more entertaining to take this approach, but when the ideas aren’t flowing and it is 3am in the morning, the entertainment drains away pretty quick.

Were I to tackle the trilogy again, or another trilogy in the future, I will definitely plan it out, scene by scene, chapter by chapter to avoid lengthy demoralising re-writes.

4. If looking for a traditional publisher, don’t write the whole thing first!
Writing your trilogy is going to take years of your life. It will ruin friendships, your health and your sanity. It will leave its mark on you. You might never fully recover. Take the advice of someone whose first idea for the trilogy was rejected out of hand when my agent first read it and changed beyond all measure when finally published. Do not write the whole manuscript before sending it to literary agents and publishers. They will be very quickly be able to tell you if your manuscript and your ideas work or not. The likelihood is that you will not be able to see anything so clearly. If they don’t like it, all that work of yours will be wasted effort. Don’t put yourself through the agony of writing something for years that doesn’t manage to get through the door.

Instead write the synopsis for each of the books, write the first ten chapters of book one and, hell, maybe even the first book. Don’t write any more. Trust me, you will thank me if ten years down the line your second trilogy is accepted after spending only six short months on your first unsuccessful trilogy - some ideas from which trickle into your second hugely successful trilogy.

There is the argument that any writing which you do is good exercise, and I agree with that. Writing is like running in that any run is worth it and has some benefit, even if it doesn’t go well. But you want to be writing the best things and the things that you love, not stuck on projects you hate.

When I approached my agent, before they signed me, I had only a synopsis of the trilogy (this changed entirely as the project developed) and the first ten chapters of book one written (these changed entirely too by the time LAW signed me six months later after working with my agent and the manuscript).

5. Learn to write everywhere
Life is busy. School clubs, social gatherings, the daily job, weekends away, travelling, weddings, funerals, bahmitzahs, birthdays, there are going to be lots of things vying for your time and pulling you out of your favourite writing chair. Quite simply you’re not going to be able to write in the same place, day in day out. And yet, to get your trilogy done, you are going to have to. 

You have to learn to adapt, to shut out the outside world and find places on the school run, the kids’ evening club sessions, the lunch break at work, where you can sit and write, sneak in an hour here, an hour there, to keep your manuscript growing.

This is not just about learning to write in public places, it’s also about learning to, as soon as that laptop is open, snap into literary gear and write.

In my time writing The Darkest Hand, particularly with the final book, I wrote in, but not limited to, trains, planes, train stations, pubs, sports clubs, night clubs, coffee shops, in the street, in hospital, in dentist waiting rooms, in supermarkets and in a farm barn.

6. Prepare your friends and family for what is about to happen
Writing a trilogy demands sacrifice, not just by you, but from your family and friends as well. They will have to sacrifice time with you in order for you write the books. They won’t see you, sometimes for long periods of time.

The rule here is if you’d rather go out with your friends or family than stay behind in your office or your bedroom and write, then give up now. Trust me, you won’t finish your book.

I’m not sure exactly how long I spent writing my trilogy. I would hate to have added up all the hours but I suspect something around 3,000 hours is not an exaggeration regarding time spent on writing and editing the books. Two months after submission, my wife and kids have pretty much accepted me back into family life.

7. Use copyreaders - who will say horrible things
Writing is an isolating experience. It’s why many of us writers like to write! The isolation gives you the opportunity to visit the parts of your mind and imagination you rarely ever visit and to discover things about yourself you never knew. Writers tend to know themselves better than most people, simply because they spent so long in their own heads!

However, spending time on your own does nothing for your sense of perspective with your writing, your quality control and whether you’re, quite literally, losing the plot. You might have an inkling as to whether the stuff you’re writing is falling short of where it needs to be, but really you need use copyreaders whose judgement you trust to read your stuff and give you their honest opinion. And by honest, I mean honest, You don’t want to use people who say only nice things. This is a waste of their time, as well as yours. You need people who will be honest with you, because only through their honesty will your writing getting better and with it your books.

I’m a firm believer in the opinion that the reader is rarely wrong. Okay, sometimes they might miss the point of why you’re going in a certain direction, misunderstand a change in theme or not notice the evolution of a character trait. But if they’ve shared the journey with your writing from the outset, they will, for the main, be valuable allies in perfecting your manuscripts.

I used a team of four copywriters whilst writing the trilogy. Not all of them stayed the course (partly because of all the insane number of exhausting rewrites!), but most stayed long enough to make sure I set off in the right direction at the beginning.

8. Give yourself a deadline
Unless you have a deadline to complete your trilogy, I don’t think you ever will finish it. I’m not saying that because I don’t think you’ll have the commitment or the dedication, dear reader. I’m saying it because if you’re not up against time constraints, and you love your novels so much, you will rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and never finish. Everything, in your view, will need tidying up and perfecting. Nothing will ever be good enough to publish.

When I wrote Book One, The Damned, I wrote it without a deadline, because, though I had an agent (half way through) I had no publisher interested. What this meant is that Book One is bigger, lusher, full of carefully, hopefully, beautifully constructed passages, lovely words and vibrant scenes. I’m immensely proud of it, but is it a better book for all this description, scene and character setting? It’s certainly a different book to Book 2, The Fallen and Book 3, The Risen. Those two books were written to a deadline, and I think it shows. I’m not saying they’re not as good. In fact, many people have said they’re much more exciting and certainly more focused. The difference is I had to get on and get those later books written, with no time to dawdle, to dream, to ponder and rewrite and then rewrite again.

A deadline makes you focus and work to complete your manuscript. A deadline makes you get it done, still allowing time to write the best book possible and then to edit it into something blistering.

9. Keep up the momentum
Writing a trilogy is a task of herculean size and effort. It’ll take supreme effort, determination and stamina to complete. It’s a marathon of words and, just like running a marathon, you’ll need to find the pace to write the whole thing and within the pace a rhythm to keep putting each foot, each word, after the next.  

To build up this rhythm, you need to get into the habit of writing every day. Ideally you should try and write at the same time every day, because your brain loves to know what’s coming and when it needs to be active. So if you can dedicate, for example, one hour on the daily train commute, one hour on the return commute and one hour between 9pm and 10pm, you’ll be well on your way.

Between books, you need to take a break, to stop, take stock, admire what you’ve achieved, refresh the brain and creative juices, before going again. If the break between books is torture, and you just want to get going again, that is great sign! Embrace it. Store up the passion and desire to write for the moment you do start again. When you do, keep going, don’t stop, because if you do you’ll loose the impetus with the books.

When I was writing the trilogy I was running a day job too. I wrote one hour every morning between 8am and 9am, one hour every lunchtime and two hours every evening. I didn’t this religiously, seven days a week. I usually took my break between books in January, but only because my hand-in for books 2 and 3 to my publisher was at Christmas.

10. Wiser after the event
Be warned. As each volume of the trilogy is completed, the subsequent volumes don’t get any easier to write! If anything the books within the trilogy get harder to write the further you get into them, with expectation, exhaustion and the searching for new ways of saying and describing things compete alongside trying to tie up all those loose story ends!

You’ll become morose and disenchanted with the whole experience at many times throughout the project, particularly if the pressure is on (because of your agent, your publisher or your own self-enforcing deadlines) to finish it as quickly as possible.

I found that at the book launches of Book 1 and Book 2 I was too filled with this feeling of dread and concern for the next book to come and how far I still had to go to really enjoy the experience of celebrating these releases. I am hoping Book 3 will be a different experience, but, after completing the final volume, it’s taken me weeks to appreciate the achievement and even now, months on after finishing writing, I’m still rather jaded by it!!

Writing a trilogy is all consuming, it never gives you a moment’s peace for all the times you’re writing it and it’ll compromise your friendships, your health and sanity. But, for all that, it’ll also be the greatest thing you’ll ever achieve!

If you’re still undaunted about writing a trilogy after reading this blog, I am delighted. Good luck and may the words flow easily across all your pages!

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