Confession: I’ve committed trilogy. Twice.
In all fairness I didn’t expect to write trilogies, though I hoped. When I sold Empire of Dust to DAW my original three book deal was for Empire, an unnamed sequel (which became Crossways) and for Winterwood (a fantasy and the beginning of another trilogy). It included the first novels in what became the Psi-Tech and the Rowankind trilogies.
Thus I never had a publisher’s contract for a whole trilogy at once. My contracts came in stages. Part way through writing Crossways I needed to know whether to wrap up the story arc in two volumes, or whether it would run to three. I was delighted when I got the go-ahead to write Book Three (Nimbus) to round off the story of Ben, Cara, and the Free Company.
My second book deal was for Nimbus and the second Rowankind book (Silverwolf), and then after that I got a single book deal to write Rowankind, the third book in the Rowankind trilogy. Luckily, even before I got the contract for Rowankind, I’d had an informal nod from my editor, which gave me time to plan for Book Three while writing Book Two.
If you twisted my arm to offer advice on how to write a trilogy I wouldn’t say, ‘Write one book and see what happens,’ though that’s what I did.
All this boils down to a missstep I made when I was a baby writer with only one short story sale and a head full of ambition. I set out to write a trilogy and had two books completed before my (then) agent decided she couldn’t sell the first one, so I’d spent a couple of years writing the second one and didn’t have a hope in hell of selling it without the first. (Both books are still in my bottom drawer.) After that I determined to write standalones that had trilogy or series potential while I was waiting to (hopefully) sell a book.
So what didn’t I know when I started?
I didn’t know that writing sequels is difficult and writing a sequel to the sequel is even more difficult. How much of the story of the first book do you give away in the second? How much of the first two books do you give away in the third? Many times I was tempted to start the second and third books with a chapter of the story so far, but I didn’t give in. I tended to put in way too much backstory in the first draft, and had to pare it down, sometimes relying on fellow writers in our critique group, Northwrite, to scribble: Yes! WE KNOW! In the margin of my manuscript.
Rookie mistake, but when I wrote Empire of Dust, I didn’t know to compile a style sheet which noted spellings of names and terms used in the book. When does Telepath have a capital letter? (Answer, when it’s a Telepath whose talent comes from having a neural implant.) Is it air lock, air-lock or airlock? Is it jumpdrive, jump-drive or jump drive? The answer is that it can be any of them, as long as what you write throughout the trilogy is consistent. The copy editor who dealt with Empire of Dust very kindly sent me a style sheet. I added to it as the cast of characters and the specialised vocabulary grew. By the time I got to the end of Nimbus, my style sheet was 12 pages, double columned, using 10 pitch Calibri – 1351 entries.
There are different kinds of trilogy, of course. There are those which tell one continuous story divided into three books. I’m thinking of something like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which was really one story, but originally published as three separate novels because it was so big.
And there are those which are three separate stories linked by a common thread and a common background, but might have completely separate stories in each book, and might even have different main characters. Ilona Andrews’ Edge books are a good example of this (though by now it’s a series, not just a trilogy).
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books are linked but separate. That’s Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt. Curse and Paladin are related and share characters, a minor character in one becoming the central character in the other. Hallowed Hunt is set in the same world but separate from the other two. (That ‘universe’ has since been expanded by Ms Bujold’s Penric Novellas). Kristin Cashore’s Graceling trilogy (Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue) is formed of three different but interconnected books. The second book in the trilogy is set before the first book, with a different protagonist, and the third book centres on the daughter of the first book’s wicked king.
Or a trilogy might have the same characters, but in each book they face a different (maybe connected) problem. A good example is Scott Lynch’s (so far) trilogy featuring the Gentleman Bastards. (The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and The Republic of Thieves.) In each book Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are in a different location with a different problem to solve. You could read them as standalones, but you’ll probably get a lot more out of them by reading in order.
To cliff-hang or not? Let me state now that I hate trilogies (and series) that have all but the last books ending on a cliffhanger. (Rachel Caine I’m looking at your Weather Warden books, which I loved – except for the endings.) Your mileage might vary, of course. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong. In my not-so-humble opinion, if books are coming out annually, then leaving the reader in suspense might not be a good idea, because they finish Book One gasping to read on, but have to wait a whole year by which time they can easily go off the boil. I’m happy for some plot threads to dangle, but not at the expense of each book having its own satisfying conclusion.
Authors of trilogies will tell you that it’s important to retain readers from one book to the next, as new readers are unlikely to start with Book Two or Book Three. And note that some readers won’t look at a trilogy until all three books are on bookstore shelves. This is because some publishers will cancel contracts if the first book doesn’t do as well as they expected, or if the second book didn’t retain enough readers, leading to disappointing sales figures. If all three books come out within a short space of time, cliffhanger endings aren’t so bad, and might even lead to better retention. Don’t just believe me about cliffhangers, though. There’s discussion on Goodreads where readers give their opinions, mostly against them. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1946451-cliffhanger-endings-yes-or-no
What about titles and covers? I made a big mistake with my Psi-Tech books. The titles don’t really resonate with each other. Empire of Dust doesn’t fit with Crossways and Nimbus. I should have found a snappy one word title for the first book, or Something-of-Something-else titles for the second two. Also (and I guess this is down to my publisher’s cover designer) the cover of the first book doesn’t resonate with the second two. I love all the covers, but put them together, and unless you read the cover copy, you might not immediately recognise them as being part of the same trilogy.
I did much better with my Rowankind trilogy. The titles are Winterwood, Silverwolf and Rowankind, and the covers all chime well with each other even though there’s a slight change of typeface between the covers of Winterwood and Silverwolf. It’s not as glaring as the complete change of typeface between Empire of Dust and Crossways, though.
Do you like reading trilogies? Have you written a trilogy? Are you thinking of writing one? Go for it. After all, three is a magic number.
Jacey Bedford is a British writer, published by DAW in the USA. She writes science fiction and fantasy. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, and Polish. She’s the secretary of Milford SF Writers Conference for published SF authors. (www.milford.co.uk) She’s been a folk singer with vocal trio, Artisan, and has sung live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons. She lives in an old stone house on the edge of Yorkshire’s Pennine Hills with her songwriter husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd (a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany).