Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Does it have to be a trilogy?

One of the writers on the VISION list asked 'Does it have to be a trilogy?' Good question.

How long is a piece of string? A book need to be as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Having said that, single title books are hard to sell. And, from a writer's point of view, they are harder to write. Think of all that work building the world and its different societies, then only using it once in one book.

Besides, readers like to come back to a familiar world. It's like going on a holiday to a destination that is an old favourite. A reader emailed asking if she could buy the sequel to the Last T'En trilogy because ... 'I feel like the characters are my friends. I want to know what happens to them.' This is why fantasy book series run to 10 books or more.

Which brings us back to the question, should you write a trilogy or could it be a duology?

Some stories just work better as a duology. They have a natural conclusion. That raises the question of word length. Rhonda Roberts was saying her Gladiatrix comes in at 160K. The individual books of Nicole Murphy's new series, 'The Dream of Asaerlai' come in at around 110K. The books of Simon Green's Nightside series are very short, around 200 pages printed. But they are tight and eminently readable because each book is self contained. I think he's up to book number 10 now and he keeps going back to the world he created, revisiting characters, making them grow and evolve, bringing in new characters.

I find, if I'm writing away and I get to about 600 pages (150K) and the story still hasn't reached a natural conclusion, I'll look for a place where I can cut it in half and expand it to two books of 100K each. Since this is a first draft, I know I'll be expanding the book as I add flavour and colour to the narrative, so I know it is going to grow.

One of the other writers on the list commented that they hate buying a trilogy when they have to wait for the other books. It means they have to wait years sometimes, and then re-read the earlier books. I can sympathise, having been in the same spot. This is why I'm glad Solaris is bringing out my three King Rolen's Kin books, a month apart. No waiting.

But it does mean that three years of work gets released in 3 months. This is another question that was raised on the VISION list. Should a writer complete the second book of a trilogy before sending out the first and moving on to another project? If I hadn't written all three KRK books, they would be coming out 6 months to a one year apart.

As you might have gathered from the description of my writing practice, my books tend to grow, so I will often have book two written in draft form, while I'm polishing book one. A writer with a great track record can sell on the strength of a proposal. A writer with a track record can sell on the strength of a proposal and three chapters. A new writer can sell on the strength of the first book and the outline of the second.

When you do sell, you'll find yourself writing to a deadline, trying to edit book one, clean up book two and plan book three, all at the same time. And sometimes it is easier to complete book three before cleaning up book two because things will happen in book three that need to be seeded into book two.

So, do you wait until all three books of a trilogy are out, before buying the first one? Does it annoy you when a trilogy's individual books don't have conclusions? What about series that run on for ever without a conclusion? Would you keep reading anyway, because you find the characters fascinating?


Brendan said...

The thing that worries me about the "endless" series is that either the vision that was in the first books either gets blurred, watered down or lost.

Even if it is just a trilogy(or a little more) if the whole thing isn't written you do need a pretty good idea of where you are going or the story or focus once again all to often gets lost.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I suppose I come at this from the other direction. Because I'm the one writing the series, I find I have a better grasp of the world and its people.

I find similar themes developing as I write.

I haven't read many of these 10 book series. I've read 5 of Simon Green's Nightside books and I'm impressed with his writing.

I've read 7 or 8 of Laurel K Hamilton's Anita Blake series. A character has to grow and develop or the series stagnates. With her series I was disappointed by the direction she took.

TansyRR said...

More and more, publishers are responding to the wishes and habits of readers and publishing trilogies with shorter gaps, as with your books, Rowena. When I sold mine (I had only written the first) it was on the understanding that there would be quite a long period before publication, in order to put them out six monthly. The third volume is due to the publishers about the same time that the first hits the bookshops.

If a series is open-ended then each book should be self-contained - readers have been burned but ongoing series such as the Wheel of Time and I don't think todays' readers have the patience that they used to (just look at the fan reaction to waiting for the new George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss)

I don't think a writer needs to know how it ends to write a good book. That's an individual thing - every writer's process is different.

When I sold to Voyager, it was one existing book and proposals for a 4 book series. They came back to us with 'can it be a trilogy' and I said yes without even thinking. It was a sale to the biggest fantasy publisher in the country! And besides, the story for books 2-4 was flexible, and had only briefly been outlined. Changing around a few ideas wasn't a blow to my artist's integrity at all, and has probably made for a tighter storyline.

The trilogy seems to be the optimal serving size for fantasy - and sales numbers corroborate this. There is something eminently saleable about a trilogy. I think duologies work well because of that extra tightness and brevity - and some stories divide beautifully into two.

Karen Miller's Innocent Mage series did this well. I am less convinced by Blackout by Connie Willis - an excellent book so far, but it felt like it ended at a random chapter end rather than being a full book in its own right and readers have to wait nine months for part II!

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the Hamilton comment. I enjoyed the series up to that point, as well. It's one thing to let a character grow, it's another thing to entirely change the feel of the whole series.

I can't ditto the Green comment. His writing is just not for me. I find there's little plot and much "Now if you'll look to your left, you'll see weirdo creature #5. And we're walking." As an example of that type of series, I prefer Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.

I will always buy the first book in a trilogy alone. What if it turns out to be something I can't stomach? I've lost the price of one book, not three. Saves me dollars for something I might like better.

Right at the moment, I have 1.75 books of a trilogy finished. I was writing book 2 while book 1 (in what I thought was a finished state) was with a publisher. As I was writing, I kept developing ideas from the first book further. So when, as it must, book 1 was rejected (awesome rejection, mind.) I left book 2 alone and went back to 1 to expand the ideas book 2 had helped me flesh out. And hopefully that will help it get more than an awesome rejection in future. ;)

Cheers, Lisa.

Brendan said...


One of the reasons I can be a bit hesitant in picking up a new series, is I am a set-o-holic and unless the first one is a true turd I will go out and buy the rest regardless of my reservations.

The Dresden Files series is a great example of the near endless series. Single story books, but you can see the overarching plan Jim must have had in mind from almost the beginning.

Anonymous said...


Butcher began Dresden Files with an end in mind, thankfully. #20 is it, apparently, though depending on how he actually ends it, I can see big demand for further installments, spin off novels etc etc.

Confession time. I'm a cover-o-phile. If I'm investing in a trilogy, duology, longer series, whatever, I want it all to look spectacular on my shelf. They simply MUST have all the same style of cover. This latest trend of publishers to change cover styles half way through a series *&$#@ me to tears. And my friends. The most recent outrage was the change in JD Robb's 'In Death' series. The guy in our local bookshop cringed when he saw us coming, knowing the horror this new cover would spark. Poor fella. I think he's getting counselling now.

I try to convince myself (and my friends) that it's the story on the inside that counts, but when you're gazing at that asymmetrical shelf, it's very cold comfort... ;)

Cheers, Lisa.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


You are so right. The writing of book two will help to pull book one into line and make it better.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Another book cover-aholic!

Confession time. I buy books just for their covers.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


We'll have to agree to differ on Green and Butcher. I like Green's style, I like the weird world be creates.

I've only read one of Butcher, so maybe, I should get a few more and give him a fair go.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I agree, it is frustrating when a story doesn't have closure. I try to give closure to different parts of the story arc, but sometimes there is just too much story, to pack into a 160K book.

Poor George RR Martin. Didn't one fan tell him, 'Hurry up and write the next book. You're old and fat and you're going to die!'

Mind you it has been 5 years or more, that I've had the next book on order.

Brendan said...

Rowena: When I first started reading The Dresden Files I dubbed them popcorn books. Fast, easy and very moreish. I haven't read any Green so can't comment there.

I think what Jim is doing is akin to what a good TV series does. Each 'episode' stands on its own but the audience is rewarded by sticking with it by seeing character and long term story development. My favourite SF TV program Babylon 5 is a good example of this.

A good example of things being done the wrong way is the later Deverry books by Katharine Kerr. The first four had a clear focus and everything in the books worked toward a final goal. After that, while the story of the characters fans grew to know and love continued, the books meandered and the sense of purpose the earlier books had was lost.

I understand the last Obernewtyn book by Isobelle Carmody is due out this year. that will mean my 23 year wait will be over(and the cover has already been designed to match the current releases so after three tries(there have been four different issued cover designs over the life of the series) I will finally have a 'proper' set!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


The last Obernewtyn book? That means my son will have to go back and re-read the others before he can start on book four!

Brendan said...

Only book four? I hate to tell you in Australian editions the Red Queen will be book 7(it is book 8 in the US, they split one of the books in two)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

7 or 8?

My son has three. I thought he had them all. I must let him know.

Anonymous said...

Good to know the last Obernewton is out this year. The first book was one of the very first fantasies I read and I was starting to fear the final one would be amongst the last I ever read...

I think it was me Rowena should have been disagreeing with over Green. I've read two short stories and the first in the Nightside series and found they just didn't agree with me. His creations are fantastic, no doubt about it, but I just felt he didn't much with them in terms of plot. And his main character never came across as any sort of special compared to the other fantastical characters.

Butcher is, undoubtedly, my bench mark for urban fantasy these days. Mike Carey is only second because his series was only five books. Mark del Franco is a close third.

Cheers, Lisa.

Brendan said...

Check Isobelle Carmody

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I was at a Convention with Isobelle Carmody. She was one of the guests of honour, Marianne de Pierres was the other. so we hung out a fair bit. She was lovely and she was such a hard worker.

She was madly trying to make a deadline, so when she wasn't on a panel or sharing a meal with us, she was in her room, editing a huge manuscript. And I mean huge. She had some ridiculous deadline, like another 50K by the end of the convention.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


OK, I'll hunt up more Jim Butcher.

I think I like the way Green combines mythology with high tech in a grimy 'realistic' setting. His main character is a 'noir' detective and really appealed to me.

Nicole said...

I'm also a person who hates waiting, so I won't read a trilogy until I have all the books. I used to wait until they were all published before purchasing, but now that I understand the importance of sales, buy them as they come out and then hold onto them and wait. :)

Like Tansy, I sold my trilogy on the basis of just having book one written, although two and three were semi-drafted. Mine are also coming out on a six-monthly turnaround so yeah, book three hits the publishers when book one hits the shelves. I'll be interested to see what happens when (if?) they go overseas. I notice that Russell Kirkpatrick's first trilogy (which was published 2004/5 here in Aus) went out in the States last year one a month, which may have helped him rack up the great sales he did and become one of the top fantasy debuts for the year there.

Lisa, I understand the cover issue - it sucks and it's great the publishers are doing the latest Obernewtyn book in the same style as the old ones. Sarah Rees Brennan has some interesting thoughts on this - her trilogy in America is undergoing a cover change after book one, cause it just wasn't selling well enough. Luckily, she's getting the first book re-released with the new cover style, so it will match the later books. But if a cover style does change during the process of a series, maybe you should blame fellow readers for not buying rather than publishers for changing their minds :)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Speaking of covers ... have you seen yours yet?