” I Commiserate.” The Trauma of Trilogies

TheLightBearer_eBookBy Donna Gillespie and Beth S. 

While working on the third book of my Light Bearer series, I wrote this post, The Trauma of Trilogies.  Thank you, Beth S.  for a great dialogue on the process and for your permission to post it.


Beth S.:  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.


Donna G:  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.


Beth S:  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.


Donna G.:  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!


Beth S. : “The composition is just…lost”

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

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21 Responses to ” I Commiserate.” The Trauma of Trilogies

  1. David Organ says:

    I think it is okay to presuppose the reading of the previous two novels; a prerequisite to a new doorway to enchantment. Courageous must editors be to accept entangled continuity that has the strength to avoid repetition so readers are encouraged to read previous work; cannot a novel be as interdependent as they are independent? But if necessary calls you to use a da capo, I am sure you will find your way as Auriane did in the river.

  2. Thanks so much for this, David. Elegantly said!
    I have been feeling a little bolder these days about presupposing the reading of the earlier books. I must admit, thinking about it as “a prerequisite to a new doorway to enchantment” sounds a whole lot more appealing than worrying endlessly over whether or not I’ve shoveled in enough back-story from books # one and two. I think you’re on to something!
    And thanks for being sure I will find my way, when half the time I’m not at all sure.

    • organd21 says:

      The quality of your writing, and the depth of insight into so many aspects of life, spirituality, and wisdom shared throughout your narratives suggests to me that you have all you need to find your way. I think many of us underestimate who we are and of what we are capable, the consequence of voices from our distant past absorbed in our youth, carried forward, and not re-examined as adults, becoming the hidden directors of how we regard ourselves.

      You will know exactly how your new book must speak to your readers, the conversation it needs to have with those absorbed in its pages. I so very much look forward to your next book!


  3. organd21 says:

    I think we have to be surprised into realizing we can and have already done what we thought we could not, finding that the task, now largely finished, was not as difficult as we had thought.

  4. This is marvelous. Wow. You’ve touched on some powerful mysteries here. It’s an interesting insight that we’re all probably walking around blind to who we really are. These thoughts will stay with me. Today I feel like I’m getting help from unexpected places.

  5. Bea says:


    I was just cleaning out my bookcase and found Lightbearer (in German) and remembered how that used to by my favourite book when I was in my early teens. Then I vaguely remembered reading the 2nd volume and then I started googling. I didn’t even know there’s going to be a 3rd book! How are you getting along with that? I think I’ll put the first 2 on my kindle in English and re-read them and then look forward to (what I hope will be) the wrap-up.

    Thanks for putting a bit of magic in those teenager years.

  6. Thank you, Bea! I remember vividly the books that put magic into my teenage years, and to hear my book did the same for you, well, it’s just wonderful to hear, a childhood dream come true.
    There is a third book in the works — I’m picking up right where I left of in Lady of the Light — but it’s coming along so slowly, I hesitate to give an ETA. Although writing has been going well lately, so maybe it will be sooner than I think!
    Anyway, thanks so much for your encouraging words.

  7. Tanja says:

    I think it´s more than ten years now that I read your books (in german) and both were much too short. 🙂
    Your Name is one of a very few authors names which stuck into my mind because I loved your well researched books and never understood why you wrote only two books.
    I stumbled somehow over your blog and just want to leave a short message that I´m more than happy that (after so long) there will be a third book.
    I hope it will be published in Germany as well, especially because Auriane and we share the same homecountry.

  8. Thank you, Tanja! I never understood why I only wrote two books, either. Somehow I let life get in the way. But I’m working hard on book no. 3 now, and am hoping it will be finished in a couple of years.
    Thanks so much for writing!

  9. Rissa says:

    Hello Donna,
    I’m another one of your German readers. I remember when I picked up the first book of your to-be-trilogy, and since then I’ve been looking forward to more books from you. I still remember when I picked up “Mondfeuer”, I’ve been 18 years back then and on a classtrip to Berlin, but instead of sightseeing I got stuck in the hotel with your novel…
    Since I read the sequel I’m looking forward to your third novel. I really hope that it too will be published in Germany, but even if it won’t I’d still love to read it in English.

    So how’s the writing going? Are you any closer on giving an ETA than last year?
    Wish you all the best!

    • Thank you, Risa! I will make sure Donna sees your very kind note. Catherine

      • Bea says:

        Haha, I can SO understand you, Rissa. I took Mondfeuer on a trip to Greece. It didn’t keep me indoors but I took it to the beach every day 😉
        Also, I remember going on a school trip to Rome. Before that I had lent Mondfeuer to a classmate and we walked all over Rome going “Woah, that’s where Auriane was in the book”! “Oh, do you remember when Marcus did xyz here…?”

        And Donna, do let life get in the way! Books are full of wonder and magic, but so is life. Write when it makes you happy ❤ You've given lots of readers joy, so don't worry about not giving an ETA. It will get done with it gets done. And if it doesn't, it only means we can dream up our own endings!

  10. Rissa, I’m heartened that you remember my books after so long. I’m still making slow, steady progress, especially in the last year, since I’ve finally given up my full-time job. Now I have no more excuses — writing is my only job! It’s so encouraging to know you’re eager for the third book. I’m sorry, I still can’t give a definite ETA — dare I say again, a couple more years?
    I do hope it comes out in German, too, and plan to offer it to my German publisher when it’s finished — we’ll see what happens!
    Rissa, thank you for writing to me and I’m so touched that my books have stayed with you through the years — what more could any writer ask?
    All the best,

    • Rissa says:

      Thanks a lot for your answer, Donna!
      I’m glad to hear that you are still working on the last book, that there will be a conclusion to the story one day and that I shouldn’t give up hope.
      Of course I still have your books despite their not so original German names, they are waiting for a re-read that I plan to do shortly before the release of the third installment.

  11. Thank you, Bea. I love the way you look at it. Life should come first, I think. I will try to finish it though, so you don’t have to dream up your own ending!

  12. sarahbarasch says:

    Just thought I would chime in too! Loved your books for years. They are so well-researched and also provide a wonderful touch of spirituality and romane You are one of my comfort read authors. I read your first novel many times over the last 10+ years. Always cheers me up! Just re-read the second one and also part of my comfort reading cannon since I stumbled on it a few years ago. Cannot wait to see the daughters’ lives evolve in book 3. Good luck on the writing and I patiently await publication.

    • Thank you so much! I will make sure Donna sees this!

    • Thanks for this, Sarah! I love that you found my books to be “comfort reads” and am thrilled to hear that you’ve read them multiple times — that is so encouraging to hear. The third book is coming along slowly but steadily.
      Thanks for writing!
      — Donna

      • Kerstin
        Hi, Donna! I thought this would make your day! Love, Cathy

        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!”

  13. bethshope says:

    Hello, Donna. I was surprised (and flattered!) to stumble across your post above (a reprise of our previous conversation on trilogies). I stopped by to check if there was any word on the third book, and I see that you are still working on it, so that’s good news. I will not inquire when it will be done; one does get tired of being asked, and few seem to understand that these creatures called novels gestate according to their own arcane schedule, as I should know. My own monster is still in the womb, but soon, I trust, soon…

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