The Trauma of Trilogies

By Donna Gillespie

TheLightBearer_eBookWhen I first made the jump from short stories to a novel, I used to say that if the raw excitement of getting swept up in a short story could be compared to starting an affair, writing a novel was marriage with ten kids. By that measure what I’m doing now feels like marriage, ten kids, and omigod I’m raising the grandchildren.

I’m on book number three of an unanticipated trilogy and can only say that plotting the third book of a series is like starting a marathon with two backpacks strapped to your back. They’re heavy as hell, and about forty yards down the road they start slipping. Stuff starts spilling out. It’s lighter now! — you think. Much better! But no, this isn’t right. I can’t dump this story line; the first two books won’t make any sense if I do. I have to find a place for that character; I developed her in the last book and she’s, well, there.

This all came about because I wrote book number one to stand alone. At the time it seemed my first book (The Light Bearer) had wound down to a natural end. I was eager move on and start rooting around in fresh nooks and crannies of history. But then later I changed my mind. Even though it felt cruel to rip open that package where my characters were languishing in their reasonably happy ending and fling them out into the mean world again — and at first it put me into a sour and nihilistic funk just thinking about it — I had to do it. I’d begun to be haunted by thoughts of my characters’ future lives. On top of it, I missed those guys and just wanted to be with them again. But these days I’ve come to believe the best way to handle this trilogy business is to write all three volumes through at least once, even if it’s just a sketchy draft toward the end.

I’m discovering there’s a lot of water under the bridge by book number three. A Hoover Dam’s worth. All the characters have extensive histories with each other. The trickiest part of plotting, now, is concocting ways to bring forward information from the previous two books while making this material seem necessary to understanding the conflict in the present. I’ve lost the right to pick a scene just because I think it puts my characters under the right kind of pressure, accomplishes what it needs to with economy, and deepens the characters. I have to pick a scene because it’s all those things —  and brings forward the maximum amount of information from the previous books. And does so dramatically, not statically. Another noisome part of all this is having to hunt down all those pesky details from two books ago that I’ve simply forgotten about. Did I use the ancient or modern spelling of the name of that river? What motivated that character? — hell if I remember. And god forbid I slip up and resuscitate someone who died. I have to steel myself to go back and look things up — and who jumps for joy at the thought of mucking around in their old prose? I’ve heard some writers actually pay someone else to do this and I can understand why.

To stop myself from whining I remind myself of the perks. Pre-assembled characters. Pre-crafted world. Pre-molded main story line. And as for research — if you don’t already have it in your head, by now you know right where to look. And I tell myself that somehow, it will all work out.

When I first decided Light Bearer would be a trilogy, Leonard Bishop was still around and I got a chance to ask him if he had any advice to give about unplanned sequels. He said to write each book so that it wouldn’t matter much if you never got around to writing the next one. But lately I’ve been hotly debating this advice in my head, since the cliffhanger ending of book number two has already pretty much made hash out of it. Part of me wishes I could just open with a note to a reader: Sorry, I know it’s a huge hassle but you really kind of have to have read the first two before you start this one….

By now, so many past conflicts have had to be brought forward that spillage is happening — one book can’t contain them all. I’m deciding that some open ends will have to remain open ended, some open questions will never be answered. Number Three is losing its single-novel tidiness, slopping over its boundaries, letting in the chaos of life, developing so many story-rivulets dribbling out in all directions, I feel they’ll never come together in one river again. But hopefully, I tell myself, while it’s losing tidiness it’s gaining something else. Somehow this wild, unmanicured book I’m working on now seems to be more in harmony with how life actually unfolds. For one thing, there are no ‘reasonably happy endings’ — what was I thinking? How can there be, when nothing ever really ends?

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22 Responses to The Trauma of Trilogies

  1. Thanks for this update on book 3. I know I am still eagerly awaiting its release. 🙂

  2. Melissa Holterman says:

    I just finished the Light Bearer, what an amazing book, left me longing for more haha! I’m now waiting for Lady of Light to arrive in the post. I can’t wait!

  3. Thanks, Melissa, for such kind words. You’re inspiring me to write faster.

  4. wordactress says:

    Donna – ur always inspiring, my Hero sista! I’m half-way through my first novel
    The Girl With Sand in Her Hair, so I feel a different kind of pain
    than yours, but it’s exciting, too! I’ve changed the first chapter too many
    times to mention, but with each tweak, it gets better and better.
    I heard an interview somewhere by an author whose advice to
    novelists was this: Give your character something to do in Chapter One
    and you’ll hook ur readers. My main character Pippa Arabella Swann,
    a restless, independent girl is trying to become a professional surfer
    which includes endorsements and lots of travel while also falling in love with
    Billy Blinker, a boy who loves design and his hometown of Amelia Bay.
    And surprise, surprise – he’s afraid of the water!

    At first I opened the chapter with them having a discussion about Pippa’s
    ridiculous travel schedule, which of course opens the readers up to where
    each of them is at in the relationship. THEN I decided on a new character,
    Ever Grace, the four year old daughter of Sarah, Billy’s high school sweetheart.
    And now I’ve got Ever Grace abducted or at the very least missing from her Daycare school
    which I think gives the story momentum.
    And I’m trying to get ALL OF THIS wrapped neatly into Chapter One.

    Oh, Donna, I think I have my work cut out for me! Talk soon…

  5. Jenny says:

    I wanted to take a moment to say how much your books have meant to me. I have been inspired, strengthened and moved by your writing. I know that writing the third book in the trilogy must be wrought with unforeseen challenges, but know that whatever the outcome, I can’t wait to have it on my bookshelf. 🙂

    Oh, and I just bought the Kindle version of The Light Bearer (so I can have it with me wherever I go in life).

    Thank you for the books!

  6. Jenny, I was thrilled to read you were inspired and strengthened by my books. It makes my day. And encourages me to write faster. Thank you so much!

  7. beth says:

    A fan here, but also a fellow writer (of what was meant to be one novel in one volume but has turned out to be one novel in three volumes. Talk about spillage), and I have a question.

    Why does so much material have to be brought forward from the previous novels? Does each novel in the trilogy not have its own conflicts to be resolved, each unique to that volume? While the characters do have histories, of course, does all that baggage really need to be carried forward overtly? Can’t it be mostly felt but not seen, iceberg-like?

    Maybe I’m mistaking your meaning, though. Feel free to straighten me out. I always love discussing writing and book construction. 🙂

    • Thanks for a great question! Reading your comment, I’m realizing there are at least two different approaches to writing books in a series. At one end of the spectrum are episodic sequels (as in the mystery series I love, A. McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, in which he creates totally new conflicts for each volume, after a quick catch-up at the beginning so you understand what each of the characters are about). At the other end of the spectrum are books in a series that are really one great big novel that for one reason or another got chopped into multiple parts along the way. (Lord of the Rings was one book until a publisher got squeamish about the length and whacked it into three). Then there are books in between that are mixtures of the two approaches; I guess you could say it’s a continuum — but I’m pretty firmly in the second category. My situation is that one of the main conflicts in the book I’m working on now (third in a series) builds directly off an action that occurred in book no. 1. Elements of the action in the opening scene of no. 3 are branches of a tree that has roots in an earlier book. In the opening scene of no. 3 I have to evoke the the atmosphere / motives / circumstances of the action in the first book and try to seamlessly fold it all in — without slowing the pace. Normally I think of action / result as a dynamic between chapters. This is action / result that spans books. I’m finding it isn’t easy.

      The connection between the second and third books is even more complicated, as I’ve got many plot strands being carried over. My first impulse would have been to write 2 and 3 as one volume, but in this case I had an editor who insisted on breaking the remaining story into two books. Reintroducing material without lessening dramatic tension is testing my brain cells to the max.

      I love your comment: ‘Can’t it be mostly felt but not seen, iceberg-like?’
      Yes! This is what I’m striving for, as much as possible.
      And I think this thing is doable, dammit. It’s just a whole lot harder than I expected.
      Thanks you, Beth, for a thought-provoking comment.
      –Donna

  8. bethshope says:

    Donna,

    Ah, I get it. Especially this:

    “Reintroducing material without lessening dramatic tension is testing my brain cells to the max.”

    I am or will be facing that myself, in that I have (unintentionally) emulated Tolkien: my own work-in-progress is a huge novel that will have to be sub-divided. A large branch of the story, sprouted in Book One, will have to wait until Book Four before I can pick it up again. And by then the trail (to switch metaphors) will have grown cold, so I’ll be facing that very same problem: bringing the older story forward and making it fresh without letting it seem stale.

    Anyway, thanks so much for replying. I love The Light Bearer, and one of the things I love best about it is the way you handled the climax. A big book needs a big resolution, and that one paid off in spades. Every time I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. Really good storytelling there.

  9. Thank you, Beth! Compliments from other writers are the best!
    When I finished TLB I never intended to write a sequel (or sequels), which is how I landed in this situation. Major chickens are coming home to roost in #3. Sounds like your situation has a lot in common with mine. I keep telling myself the trick with bringing in the earlier material is to fool the reader into believing it’s necessary to know this stuff in order to understand the scope of the tension in the present. Easier said than done. I’m finding it requires serious repackaging of the past — compacting simplifying, streamlining.

    On top of it all, I think part of me is biased against interdependent books — sometimes it seems like taking a large painting, cutting it into parts and then displaying them on different walls of a gallery. The composition is just…lost. I like to think of one book as an organic whole. But I’ve had to squelch those delicate sensibilities, because I didn’t want to let these characters go. “You want these characters? They come with baggage. Deal with it.”

    I think in the end I’m just going to assume the reader has read the first two books before picking up the third. The first book stands alone because it was meant to; the second one does, sort of, but it’s pretty clear no. 3 will need to be hooked up to 1 and 2 in order to be viable. Perhaps it isn’t really a problem and I’m making it one — there’s always that.
    Anyway, it’s great to hear from another writer on these pesky matters. Thanks for your comment!

  10. bethshope says:

    “The composition is just…lost”

    Yes. Oh yes. I see, I hear, I commiserate. 🙂

  11. Pingback: ” I Commiserate.” The Trauma of Trilogies | Pen In Hand

  12. cdombrovske says:

    I was so excited to stumble across all this this morning, and know that, indeed, there is going to be a third book in this fantastic series!!! Now I am REALLY looking forward to it. You are simply writing the books I have always wanted to read. It’s enlightening to read of the challenges of putting together a trilogy such as this — I can only imagine. This period of history has been riveting to me all my life, and your stories and characters bring it to life in a way I always hoped for. Thank you for writing about it!

  13. Thank you so much! This is so wonderfully encouraging to hear. Sometimes I worry that by the time I finish book no. 3, no one will remember the first book. And nothing makes me happier to hear than “You are simply writing the books I have always wanted to read.” You made my day! Thank you!
    –Donna

  14. Thanks, Schen!
    The third book is nameless right now; I’m not good with titles. It probably won’t have one until the last second. But I’ll post it here as soon as I know.

  15. Kerstin says:

    Oh… there is a two year gap between my comment and the last… is anyone still reading here? I just wanted to let you know that I am still holding out for the third book of your fantastic trilogy. It was encouraging to hear that you need ten to twelve years for each of them: that mean’s you’re due in 2018 😉 Hey, Jean Auel needed even longer to complete her series, but us fans are crazy like that – if the books are worth it, we’ll also wait twenty years, if necessary. And your books are totally worth it!

  16. Thanks so much for this, Kerstin! I’m thrilled that people are still posting here. This time around it looks like I’m violating my 10 to 12 years rule (I could give some boring excuses — like my day job ate me alive, etc., etc. — but that’s such a bad excuse). I like the way you put it: I’m due in 2018. This should be the end of my extra-long gestation period — longer than any known mammal’s — and I’m desperately hoping for a live birth some time around that date. I won’t give a time projection this time because I’ve been terrible at meeting them, but at least, now I know where this book ends (and that was a big problem, for a long time) and I just have to do another draft.
    Thank you so-o-o much for not giving up on me.

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