Thursday, March 22

Going All the Way: Should You Write the Whole Trilogy Before You Query?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are two views on writing trilogies. Write just the first book and see if it sells, and write the whole thing before your start querying.

My agent is of the "write one book first" camp. She advised that I prepare a synopsis for the next two books so she'd have something to show editors when she started submitting, but to start on a new and different book in the meantime. Her reasoning was that if the first book didn't sell, I wouldn't have wasted time on a sequel that wouldn't sell, and would instead be ready with a new book.

This is very good advice.

However, I've heard quite a few trilogy writers swear they'd never do that again. They'd rather write the whole thing first and then submit.

Having been through the process now, I understand their reasoning. And here's why:

Once you have a book written and out there in the world, you can't make changes to the story. Whatever you wrote you're stuck with. If you come up with a great plot idea in book two, you can't go back and add hints or groundwork to book one. (I suspect this would be especially helpful for a lot of pantsers who don't always know where the story is going to take them)

I found that was true with The Shifter. There was nothing major story wise I wanted to change, but little tiny things came up as I wrote the next two books, and it would have been so nice to be able to add them to the first book.

If you write the entire trilogy at once, anything you do in book three can be added to book one, and the entire series can be fleshed out as one story. Of course, the downside is that it'll probably take you a lot longer to get it done. This could be problematic if you have a contract to fulfill. Or if you're in a hurry to start querying.

You could always split the difference. A detailed outline or synopsis would help get the major points all aligned, and still let you write one book and send it out there. Some in depth character and world building notes can make sure you have a solid handle on how things work and how people live in that world. If the goal is to write one and then wait, the more details you can get down about the next books would be a tremendous help when you finally sit down to write them.

Which way you want to go really depends on the story and the kind of writer you are. You might now want to spend time on a long story, and are eager to get to another idea. But if you have a multi-book story idea that you feel passionate about, and it's an all or nothing deal for you emotionally, then maybe you'd be willing to invest the extra time and write all three before you start querying. (Though do make the first book a stand alone if you can. The odds are SO much better for you that way).

How do you choose? Ask yourself:
  • Can the first book stand alone even if I never write the others?
  • Do I need to see how it ends before I'll be happy submitting it?
  • Do I know where the story is going or am I still figuring out the major parts?
  • Do I have other stories I'd rather write or feel might be more marketable?
  • Which way do I want to go?
  • Will the trilogy be better if I wrote the whole thing at once? Worse? (Do I want agent/editor/reviewer feedback before I write the rest)

How do you feel about writing trilogies? Do you prefer to write them all at once or just the first book?

37 comments:

  1. EXCELLENT post. Very applicable to my own work and concerns.

    My first work is a trilogy and it works in such a way that things happening in the first book affect things in book 3 and things in book 3 affect things in book 1. While I know the major events, there are -always- details that only come out through writing. I've finished a draft of the first book and it's essentially ready to query, but I've started writing the second and only halfway through, I've found several details I need to go back and rewrite in the first book!

    I'm the kind of fellow who kicks himself for weeks for accidentally using the wrong 'there' in a casual e-mail. With huge plot details? I'd be kicking myself eternally.

    Of course, I'm not opposed to agent/editor/reviewer feedback. If, after the first book, I decide to change the rest based on feedback, then great. But this is the creative process for this story. Every story is a different animal. Mine just requires that I put triple the effort in. And even if this story never gets picked up, I need it out of my system. I think most writers can attest to that feeling!

    That being said, in the future, I'm going to avoid such stories. I absolutely love this story, but it's very trying to write such a massive story. Standalone stories are much less trying...

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  2. I like the detailed outline idea - seems like a good compromise as I don't know that I could wait to finish three books before querying! But I'd feel like I was sending Book 1 out only partially finished if I didn't have SOMETHING written towards Books 2 & 3.

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  3. I'm writing them all at first. When I have a story itch in a world, I want to keep being in that world. What if that first book DOESN'T sell well? I've still got that story itch to "finish" the story in my mind, but I'll be busy trying to write something that can sell. That scenario looks like torture to me. ;)

    What I'm curious about is how one *queries* a trilogy or series. I've heard advice that definitely came from people in the "write one and see if it sells" camp, basically saying your book is part of a series has no place in a query letter.

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  4. I don't have any stories right now that want to be a trilogy, but I think I'd want to write the whole thing first at least in first draft form before querying the polished first book. I tend to go back and add details when I think of them in later parts.

    One of my stories has series potential but not to the tightness of a trilogy style arc, more like linked standalones. So when I finish that one and polish it, I won't mind sending it out and seeing how it does before writing another one with those characters.

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  5. I'd generally go for the strong outline solution. Working out a chapter-by-chapter outline of a book is usually a good level of planning for me.

    But this idea I'm working on now is a bit more messy. I'm pantsing it, and it's a conspiracy book, which means there's a lot of secrets floating around, and I don't know when I'm going to reveal them all. Originally it was a single book, but that had me give up my big game in the first few chapters and then start twisting every few pages until there was no breathing room left. So it's now three books, but still one story.

    So, on the one hand, I'd like to try and make the first book as stand alone as I can, and querying that first would force me to do that. On the other hand is isn't a stand alone story. At the end of the first book, the lovers are parted, The enemy defeated but not destroyed, the murderer caught but not punished, the main character vows to stand firm and defy fate, but only time will tell if she's successful. I feel like I leave too much unresolved to really sell it standing alone.

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    1. Similar story here. I'm not in a hurry to get published and I know how detailed I like to be with interweaving connecting details throughout my story, so I'm definitely considering waiting to query until I've got the whole trilogy drafted, at least.

      Just wasn't sure how many people actually do this!

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    2. Enough :) And bottomline, if that works for you, it doesn't matter how common it is. Your process is your process and you're always better off doing whatever helps you tell the best story.

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  6. Wow, you pose some tricky questions here. I'm a pantser with book 1 written and out there with agents... I have a general idea of where the story is going for book 2 but that's it... Oh, if only I could be a diligent outliner.

    Going to make some tea and sit down with pen and paper, thinking long and hard about my planned trilogy. Thanks for this kick in the pants.

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  7. I always get twitchy when I hear about pitching a story (that is part of a trilogy) as a stand alone. I'm really worried that mine can't stand alone at this point. Then I start looking at other series that I read (Divergent, Matched, Across the Universe, etc.) and realize that none of them stand alone, and I feel a little bit better. I think it's definitely wise to map out where your trilogy is going--beginning with the end in mind and almost writing backwards in a way. That would really help you avoid kicking yourself later for missing important details in an earlier story. This is a tough topic, though.

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  8. Lots of great advice here! I'm in the middle of a trilogy right now, and I think I'm in the "split the difference" camp. My first book is polished and at querying stage. The second book is 2/3 of the way done with a rough draft, and I've written parts of the third (including the ending) with lots of add'l notes about key plot points. It was very important to me to know and love my series ending.

    I haven't spent time polishing either the second or third yet, but I'm confident enough in where the story is going that I'm ready to go out with the first one.

    Another point to consider...if you're doing the e-publishing route, I think it helps to have the entire series finished. I've talked with several people about this, and the main advantage is being able to "release" new titles in a timely manner. If you release book one, but make people wait for two years to read the next, they'll lose interest...even more so than with traditional publishing timetables.

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  9. Dickens and other nineteenth century writers serialized their novels in newspapers while still in the process of writing/rewriting, and their books found wide audiences as well as stood the test of time. I think that readers can be very forgiving re inconsistencies and errors so long as they're sufficiently entertained.

    I think it's terrific that the NY Times resurrected this concept, with writers such as Scott Turow, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, and Michel Connelly writing for the NY Times Sunday Serial. Hope they restart the Serial and/or that other newspapers follow suit.

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  10. I am of the write the first book, then wait and see camp...BUT that's assuming I've done a detailed outline of the other books so that I am aware of where I'm headed. One thing to consider when writing successive books is that once you're picked up for book one that first book may have some substantial changes recommended by your agent or editor that could affect the plot line that comes after it, so it's good not to get too tied to one path early on. It's easier to make changes to an outline and allow yourself the freedom to consider new paths for the story to take once someone else weighs in and you get newly inspired about the story's scope.

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  11. This is perfect timing for me, as I'm querying my first novel in a series while the second two are in pieces, waiting to be put together (but I know overall where the series will go and how it will end). Luckily, book one can stand alone with the omission of a chapter and some minor plot points.

    This post really helped me reconsider how to tackle Book Two--before I hack away at it, I'll write a synopsis to give me more direction.

    In the meantime, I plan to finish revising another book I wrote (completely different premise and audience) before I delve into Book Two of the first series.

    Thanks so much for this post!

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  12. Great post, as usual. Your blog always has lots of great stuff.

    I'm writing the first book of a trilogy right now, and my agent gave me the same advice. It makes sense, and yet I kind of think along the same lines as those who would rather write the whole thing first. Or, at least, have a really crappy draft of the whole thing, just to be sure I have all the big pieces in place and won't need to change anything in the first book.

    Also, I just wanted to let you know that I awarded you the Sunshine Award on my blog! Thanks for all the great stuff you share with us.

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  13. If you write all three, you'll be in better shape when the editor announces that they want to put out the trilogy in a very short time frame to maximize sales.

    More than one of my friends has been told by a NY editor that she has only a very short time to finish the other novels or the deal is off.

    And readers wonder why the last two books in a
    trilogy are sometimes so poorly written in comparison.

    One genre editor actually said in an interview that, if a writer can't write really fast, she's not interested.

    And, for those who don't know, according to the definition of a trilogy, each book should stand alone, and the major plot points brought up in each novel should be answered.

    The books are usually pulled together by the overall theme in the stories, by continuing characters' growth and goals, and by an overarching story that is followed through the novels

    The three books in THE LORD OF THE RINGS are a great example of what a trilogy isn't. The publisher decided it would be easier to print and sell as three books instead of one huge book so they cut it apart and made no attempt for any of the books to stand alone.

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  14. I used to think I'd keep writing the trilogy while I was querying. But then when I saw how long it takes me to write a manuscript and that my idea may not sell, I decided to write something new instead. I have the basic story in my head and if I ever get a book deal would start writing book 2 right away.

    For me a bit of the decision also is influenced by the fact that I work full time. I want to be sure I'm moving forward on querying another story if my first one doesn't sell.

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  15. I like to have the story arc in my head for the future books in a series or trilogy. That way I have some idea what I'm working toward. That said, I'm working on something now that I feel has series potentual, but I have no idea what'll happen in future books if I develop it that way. Of course, I'm still in the stage of not really knowing what's going to happen in THIS book, so that's kind of alrigt.

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  16. Terrific post, Janice. And so relevant (and not just for me by the look of the many comments).

    I'm a glutton for punishment, obviously. I have two trilogies on the go - have been jumping between them when I get into a corner with one.

    But it was too stressful, and I'm back to concentrating on one now. I'm glad I didn't send out the first one a few months ago when I thought it was finished - now I have another conflict for the protagonist that will strengthen book 2 and 3.

    So re-writing book 1, first draft of 2 finished and book 3 is some vague ideas - still lots to do.

    I can't say the first one is a stand-alone either - but I guess there are some things resolved + a hint of what is to come, maybe that's all you need.

    I don't think I'd take on another trilogy (well, after I finish the other half-baked one). Groan!

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  17. I feel like I need to improve my writing skills before I can go ahead and write parts of the other two books in my own trilogy. But I feel like you have a point when you say you wish you could make minor changes to the previous books in your trilogy. Perhaps I should write summaries for the other two books.

    By the way, thanks for including my blog on your "Online Resources" page! :D

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  18. Ian, thanks! You sound like the perfect candidate for the "write it first" side. That would be my choice if I ever do another trilogy again.

    Khanada, and it would give you a leg up for submissions if an agent asked for them.

    Katherine, it's pretty much the same thing, you just mention it's the first of a trilogy. Mine could have gone either way, so I said "Although this book stands alone, the story can continue into a trilogy." It let agents know there was more if they wanted, but no one asked until I had an agent and she was ready to go on submission. I think in the end it's the same. Either they want to see the book or not. If the query sounds like setup, they probably will pass. If it sounds like a complete book, they'll probably take a chance (if it grabs them of course)

    Jaleh, that's what I'm dong now, actually. I think I'd prefer that type to a trilogy. Seems easier doesn't it?

    Kathie, it'll depend on what your core conflicts for each book are. You can leave things unresolved as long as that one big, book-driving thing is resolved by the end. Or write them all and hope you're an exception :) It does happen, just not frequently.

    Xan, most welcome!

    Jaime, stand alone can be misleading. It just means that the core conflict of that plot is resolved by the end. In Across the Universe, Amy and Elder uncover the killer and expose the big secret, wrapping up that plot. But that leads to a bigger story that will be explored in the next book. But readers should hopefully feel satisfied even if they never read past that first book.

    Nicole, good point about e-books. It can certainly help to have all three ready to go in a quicker time period. And it sounds like you're in good shape on yours!

    Joseph, I think some will and some won't. Fans often point out and email authors when they find a "mistake" and there are whole website devoted to inconsistencies for well-loved series. It'll be interesting to see if the serial returns.

    Amy, another good point and check for the wait and see camp :) If you had to change anything major that could be quite disheartening.

    Writer Librarian, oh good! You might want check out my other posts on sequels. I learned a lot (and made a ton of mistakes) on my book two, so you might find some tips there to save you some hassles :) Here's the link to the sequels posts: http://blog.janicehardy.com/search/label/sequels

    Tabitha, yikes, that's a scary thought. I had a year to wrote book two, but I also had to do the edits for one at the same time. It seems like a long time but it goes by fast.

    Natalie, sounds like a plan :) Maximize your writing time. Though I did discover that having it in my head wasn't as helpful as I thought it was by the time I started writing. I'd suggest getting a strong pitchline and knowing your core conflict if you can. I though I Knew it all, but it turned out to be much more vague than I realized.

    Chicory, you might be a write them all writer then :)

    Sheryl, it does seem to be a timely post. I love when that happens, especially when I pulled an old one and updated it. Two trilogies?? Ack! LOL. At least when you;re done with the first you'll be able to write second more easily. You'll know all the pitfalls!

    CO, thanks! There really are pros and cons to both sides. And I bet it would even depend on the books themselves. One type of trilogy might be much easier to write one at a time vs a more complex story.

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  19. I write the series first because, you're right, often details get changed while writing and you don't want to be stuck in the mud so to speak when it comes to your world. Although I also am writing "stand alones" in the same world right now. Little things crop up here and there and it's difficult to go back to the others and change them.

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  20. Interesting post, especially since I'm about to embark on exploring the sci-fi genre soon. I've just finished outlining what would be the first book in a trilogy and my outline is around 7.5k words for the first book alone. Very detailed in other words. So I figure if I have similar outlines for my next two books, I already have the story pretty well fleshed out to the point where I just need to add the words to my already constructed story.

    So I will NOT write books 2 and 3 unless book 1 ends up selling (Or I even decide to query book 1 depending how it looks) But if it does sell, I have a feeling that I won't be changing much in books 2 and 3.

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  21. Traci, that's what I found. If I ever do another trilogy, I hope I can write at least a first draft of all first.

    Michael, if your outlines are that detailed, you're probably in good shape to not write all three :) Sounds like a good plan for your process.

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  22. Great post,
    I'm working on a series and my debut was out on Dec 2011. Luckily I had fleshed out the 2nd book in detail before the first was out but you are so right... the tiny details change and count as much as the plot and arcs too. Will RT this for sure!
    Regards
    Anju
    www.anjugattani.com

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  23. I wrote a pair of books, the 2nd a sequel to the first, and without being able to change parts of the first book, I would have been hard pressed to write book two. There were several little things and one major thing that made a great difference to the timeline.

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  24. It's NOT always easy to "Write the next book after last book doesn't get beyond the query stage, series or not" no matter what any agent or editor says, and I WANT to write the next books.

    If, like Janice, you don't have no qualms moving from one book to the next, I'm happy for you.

    Really.

    I am.

    It's the truth.

    But it's just H-A-R-D for me.

    For some writers, this isn't just a few weeks or even a month of work to set aside, this is years or decades of commitment, and when the times comes to move to a new project, as much as I want to move on, and Janice, everyone, I WANT to move on, it would be less emotionally traumatizing if I could just find JOY in the next book.

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  25. Anju, thanks! Nice to have that second book ready to go. I wish I'd done more on mine before I was under deadline.

    sc1217, nice that you were able to do that. A good example of why sometimes it's better to write them all then wait.

    Taurean, I think you misunderstood the purpose of this post. I'm talking specifically about writing trilogies. I'm not saying move on and write the next book if the first doesn't sell in a general manner.

    If you don't want to give up on your books, then don't. Hopefully a time will come where you either sell them (best case) or get to the point where you can move on and write something new.

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  26. Interesting post.
    I wrote the first one edited the hell out of it and I'm still working on beta readers and editing rounds. Then meanwhile wrote the first draft of the sequel, then a second draft and for the third book I wrote a detailed outline.
    And even so I still found things to tweak in the first to tie up the actions of the second and third.
    I also want each book to be better than the one before. I hate when books start to get weaker as they advance.
    Great post!

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  27. Ana, thanks! It sounds like even if you find things to tweak, the trilogy is still mostly done, which should help with continuity and plotting a lot.

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  28. I wrote the first two books and part of the third with an outline. Then I read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and was SOOO impressed that I re-wrote the first book almost from scratch to use her method of characterisation and overlapping POV in sequential chapters. In the process very key things changed so now I am rewriting book 2 in the same manner while shopping around book 1. In the meantime I have my day job, family, and volunteer work! That is why this has taken me 16 years so far :)

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  29. Sam, sounds like a lot of work, but well worth it if it helps get the story right. Best of luck with your submissions!

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  30. I too Am writing a lengthy trilogy that will end up being a series. I made sure over the last seven years to baby it.

    As I grew as a writer from 25 to 33, the growth of the characters is shown by my own growth personally.

    I would always write a trilogy and complete editing it before even giving it to a local to read. My question is should I copy write it before giving to others to read? Or maybe a poor man's copy write? I know you need readers to accept of your work before approaching a publisher...I am in the middle lost for proper direction. I also enjoy the fact my trilogy is quite unique from anything out there presently... :) Can't wait to let her free <3

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  31. Divinely Toxic, you don't have to copyright anything. It's automatically copyrighted just by writing it down. Your intellectual property is yours.

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  32. I've been looking for opinions on this because I do really want to publish a debut novel but the book I'm working on is part of a series (Chronicles, as I call it). I'm torn between querying or writing a few books of the series in advance. It has taken me six years for this first novel to be almost completely polished (I have grown much since I was a 13 year old and have taken writing my book more seriously in the past few years). I fear that if I get accepted, the publishers will want me to have the series out by a certain deadline that I may not be able to make. But then I fear that I'll never get my work out there if I don't start querying. What is a woman to do? This article has given me deep insight but I still really have no clue what to do.

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    1. If you sell it, you will indeed be given a deadline (typically around a year, but it varies) for the next book in the series. Deadlines are part of publishing and there's no getting around that :) You can usually negotiate some leeway if you need it though.

      What you might try, is to set *yourself* a deadline and try to write the next book within a year, and start training yourself with the discipline you'll need to fit publishing into your life. That way you'll feel more confident about what you can mange, and it'll give you a second book under your belt to further improve your skills and your series.

      In the meantime, you might look at writing a short story or two (if you enjoy writing them) and submitting those to get your work out there without all the pressures of a novel series.

      There's no rush and you have plenty of time to get published, so don't let that "need to do it now!" urge push you into something you're not ready to do (most writers have been there, we know how you feel). You'd rather do it the right way than rush it and then not being able to manage it. Second books have a LOT of pressure on them, and almost everyone has trouble with them (sold books, not written ones). Take the time you need to figure out how much time you'll need to write the next book now that you've figured out your process.

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  33. I'm a "panster" all the way. In my new series, most of my MC work together & are introduced through the eyes of a new hire. The 1st book can be a stand-alone... sort of. Because the new hire (& reader) sees so many strange mysteries that aren't really explained. The reader may be intrigued, but then something else gets their attention. Future books will elaborate on each. A lot of "what if" comes to my mind months later, based on some overlooked comment in the 1st book. Sale or no sale, I feel the need to write the stories. I only hope someone else will enjoy them like I do.
    Gale

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    1. I think we all feel that way :) Good luck with your series!

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