With the publication of Genesis Redux only a handful of days away, I thought I’d share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the past four years of writing the Transcendence Trilogy. Here are my top ten:
1 It’s better if each book works as a stand alone story
There is nothing wrong in writing a trilogy which has to be read in order. Some of my favourite books were written that way. If you tried reading The Two Towers before The Fellowship of the Ring, you’d be totally lost. But as an indie author, you need to maximise the opportunity of each book launch.
The one thing I’d change if I started my trilogy over again is to make each book work as a stand alone novel. As the first book, Second Chance works on its own. I’ve been told Absent Souls works as a stand alone novel, although it wasn’t designed that way. However, you really need to have read the first two books in the series to make sense of Genesis Redux.
Why is this a problem? Because, while having this structure works for the story, it means I’ve restricted the audience for Genesis Redux significantly. Having three books that work as both stand alone and in a series allows readers the chance to join the story at any stage, rather than just at the beginning.
2 The longer the series, the harder it is to avoid back story dumping
Are you one of those people who hate the ‘previously’ montage at the beginning of a TV programme? Me too. I’m the same with books. There’s nothing worse than having to read a chapter-sized synopsis of earlier events before you start. Actually, there is. It’s multiple paragraphs of back story – often explained through ‘as you remember’ dialogue – slowing the whole book down.
Yet I can understand the temptation, because when completing a trilogy you often have to bring together elements that happened one or two books previously, which is fine if you’re binge reading the series but not if you read book the previous novels more than a year before.
For me, the best authors solve this problem by drip-feeding small memory joggers throughout the text, usually in earlier chapters, so the reader is informed without realising and but doesn’t have to wade through pages of exposition to get there.
3 Multiple storylines are and blessing and a curse
I love books that entwine multiple character journeys into one narrative whole. It’s why I wrote the Transcendence Trilogy as I have. It’s a great way of introducing different perspectives to a situation, moving the story forward in a non-linear way, and keeping the reader engaged. But the more storylines you add, the more difficult it is to retain focus on the overall story arc. At the same time, there is a danger that readers are more likely to become attached to one character more than others, especially if they aren’t your main protagonist.
The key here is always to look at what’s best for the story. I used to play in a band and our mantra was ‘it’s all about the song.’ It doesn’t matter if you are playing the most simple, repetitive baseline or beat, if it makes the song sound great, don’t over-complicate it. It’s the same with your novel, if a storyline or POV becomes a distraction from the main story, cut it out.
4 The cast list can become uncontrollable
Most trilogies start small and expand as the series goes on, both in location and cast size. Developing such a large cast is great fun to write as you get to play around with many different personalities and perspectives, but when it comes to the third book you need to bring everything back to a satisfactory closure. This isn’t easy when each character has their own ideas of what they should be doing. It’s easy to end up either trying to herd cats, or to end up with cast members being wheeled in for one chapter just to close their storyline, only to be wheeled off again.
While I have many supporting characters, I’ve always focussed on one main storyline shown through the lens of the core cast members. This has meant that I’ve been able to leave whole swathes of my extended cast list to carry on living their lives ‘off camera’ while focussing on the main storyline. Of course, on the odd occasion I’ve also gone all George R R Martin on them – warning, Game of Thrones spoilers.
5 Small points in earlier books can trip you up later
You’re at the climax of book three. Years of effort has got you to this point. You’re protagonist is tied up next to a bomb with the counter close to zero – because you have to have a countdown, right? If the bomb blows up, so does the boarding school, killing the President’s son and possibly starting world war three. But your hero has enough movement to get his teeth next to the handful of green and red wires controlling the device. He has to bite through each green wire with his steel teeth in the next ten seconds to save the day. If he bites through a red one, bye bye Pres junior.
It’s at this point you remember that way back at the beginning of book one you decided to make your character colour blind. It was a quirky choice, made to give this otherwise alpha male a weakness. You loved it at the time as it was far less clichéd than him being an orphan, but now this small detail has ruined months of work. If only you’d given him a club foot.
You’ll be amazed how many times a small, throwaway detail in an earlier book will cause you problems later on. Keeping track of these, especially three books down the line, is incredibly hard. Many authors keep detailed character profiles to help avoid these issues. However, there is another way to help solve these issues …
6 There are advantages to waiting until all books are written before publishing
By waiting until all three novels are written, you can go back and change or add detail in earlier books to help solve later plotting issues. You can also cut characters out or add prominence to others due to their importance – or lack of – in the final book. Then there is the fact that over the period of creating your three novels, your writing skills will have improved, allowing you the chance to go back an improve your earlier books. The other main advantage is that you will concentrate solely on your writing, rather than marketing and promotion.
There are also good commercial reasons for waiting. Many readers won’t buy a book series until all books are published, and launching each book rapidly, one after the other, gives you a great chance to make a noise and to continue to push your series without the message becoming tired.
7 There are advantages to publishing each once written
Despite everything I said above, there are also advantages to publishing each book as they are written. The longer your book is out there, the more chance you have of building an audience for your second and third books. And the shelf life of books is long. Even if you are only selling one or two books a month, the total numbers of readers you’ve built up by the time your third novel comes around will be significant.
The other advantage is that you can gain some great feedback on what works and what doesn’t from your audience, helping to shape and focus your writing. However, this isn’t always a good thing.
8 You can end up liking your characters too much
As a writer I want readers to relate to your characters but this only works if they do that despite a character’s flaws. I really loved the first couple of seasons of Dexter because I found myself rooting for Dexter only to be shocked each time he returned to his true character and murdered somebody. It was a great balancing act. However, as soon as he gained control of his impulses and he lost his edge, I lost interest.
When a writer falls too much in love with a character, especially an antagonist, and starts to change their personality to make them more likeable, they lose the essence of what made the character great in the first place. There is nothing wrong with flipping a story around to empathise with a character’s motivation, but avoid the temptation to smooth out your character’s rough edges, or even worse, change their personality completely to make them more likeable.
9 Tying everything up is incredibly hard
Writing endings can be incredibly difficult. One of my favourite writers, Stephen King, is notoriously bad at it. One of the reasons it has taken nearly 18 months to finish Genesis Redux is that I wanted to get the ending right, and with many characters and multiple threads, ensuring each storyline reached a satisfying conclusion was very difficult.
The key here, for me, is to know where you are heading. Before starting Absent Souls I had a very clear idea of where the main story was heading and why. What I didn’t know was the how, and that’s been the fund part over the past few years. I think this is the main reason I’ll always plot my books out, even if just in a rough outline form. By knowing where I was heading early enough, I was able to nudge things in the right direction without it looking as if the plot was driving the characters. At least, that’s what I hope!
10 In the end, it’s a relief to move on to something else
The great news about finishing the trilogy is that I can finally start work on the many other ideas I’ve had since I began writing the series back in 2012. Don’t get me wrong, I love the characters and will miss them all, but it’s time to let them go and allow others a chance to shine. That said, I could always go back at a later date …
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