14 May 2014

Writing a Trilogy is Crazy Difficult.

(cc) by Stefan Krause
It's been a while since I've mentioned my fiction writing. Around this time last year I wrapped up my first novel, The Name and the Key, and the month after that, submitted it to Seton Hill as my thesis, and then after that, pitched it to an agent, then after that, queried several agents over the following months.

No bites. 

After multiple rejections, I was pretty burned out on The Name and the Key. I still love the book and am proud of it, but after all of the self-esteem hits, I felt like I needed to push the book aside and let my brain regroup.

During the spring semester I taught at North Central State College, I tried to work on other creative writing in my spare time, which proved to be challenging. I started work on a second book, The Step and the Walk, teetering and tottering between making it the first or the second book to be released in my trilogy (even though it's kind of a prequel). For a while I settled on The Step and the Walk as being first because it's Andresh's story, and he's a ridiculously popular character. I kept thinking that because The Name and the Key was being rejected, I needed The Step and the Walk to be the manuscript that nabbed me an agent.

Recommended by Tim Waggoner,
awesome author and my SHU mentor. 
For a while, this reasoning almost worked. But the most I pumped out for The Step and the Walk has been a measly twenty pages, and I've been unable to complete a single chapter yet. I can think of a couple reasons why, but the most immediate one that comes to mind is THE BURDEN OF BALANCING BOOKS. 

For the longest time, I was staunchly anti-trilogy when it came to fantasies. I thought it was a big cliché of the genre, and I didn't want to get sucked into anything I perceived as being clichéd. But over the years at Seton Hill, and after doing rigorous research on the publishing industry, I realize there's a reason why trilogies exist. It's kind of the same reasoning used for Hollywood's current sequel and superhero movie crack addiction--trilogies, quadrilogies, sextets, and the famous door-stop book series ( à la J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan) are meant for a built-in audience. If the first book does well, the second and third book have an audience ready to buy. To summarize the Atlantic article, it's all about the money. Yet, at the same time, if the author creates something amazing in the first book--be it worldbuilding, or memorable characters--trilogies offer the opportunity for readers to continue to experience what they love. Or, it could be something simple yet astonishing: the plot becomes too large to resolve in a single, satisfying serving.

At some point while I was writing The Name and the Key, I felt like the story was getting big--too big for the two books I planned all along. All of a sudden, I had a trilogy: The Name and the Key, The Step and the Walk, and The Eye and the Storm. I knew I would have one book per each lead character--The Name and the Key belonged to Lily, and The Step and the Walk belonged to Andresh. The third book would resolve both characters' destinies and wrap the series up in a nice, pretty bow.

However, coming up with a plot for three books is essentially coming up with one single plot--a very large plot that will be chopped up into pieces at appropriate times. The problem with this is I'm a pantser, the term for writers who aren't very structured and prefer to write "by the seat of their pants." As many times as I've tried to write out an outline or plot for this trilogy, I've come up short. My epiphanies don't come until I'm in the very midst of writing. This isn't a bad thing, and it keeps writing exciting and fun (What will my brain do next?). But pantsing hurts when you have deadlines, and as I've found out, it hurts in the continuity department when it comes to balancing a plot between three books. Yeesh.

Every time I dove into writing The Step and the Walk, I'd come up with an amazing idea that didn't work with The Name and the Key. Then I lost motivation when I couldn't find a way to resolve continuity issues between each story. My mental list of things I needed to change in The Name and the Key started growing the moment I submitted my thesis, but trying to figure out the plot to The Step and the Walk just added to my list of tweaks.

Finally, the other day, I realized that I wasn't really ready to dive headfirst into my second book. The more I thought about The Step and the Walk, the more an unrelated idea would pop into my head that would work for The Name and the Key--ideas that would resolve issues based on feedback I received from crit partners, my mentors, and my beta readers. Soon I was back into thinking about my first book again.

Although I still think The Step and the Walk would be fun to work on now, it seems like my brain, or my gut, won't let me change course until I truly feel like I've made The Name and the Key is the best I can make it.

I shouldn't allow myself to believe that because agents aren't biting at The Name and the Key, that it's perfectly ok to abandon it and rearrange a trilogy that goes against how I originally envisioned it. The Name and the Key is the first book in my series. Because if The Step and the Walk was supposed to be the first book in the series, I would've written it first. 

(c) Big Stock
My brain is stubborn, and once it perceives that certain things are assigned and in order, it will not allow me to change course without some sort of consequence (like stressing out until I'm sick). I learned during grad school that when I fought with my natural tendencies, my writing would suffer as well as my state of mind. I'm not going to fight with myself over The Step and the Walk anymore, and go right back into The Name and the Key with a new gameplan--one that I've figured out gradually over time on my own.

First thing on the agenda--completely gut the beginning of the book. I'm thinking at least a hundred pages or so. As much as it will hurt to toss it out, I have to do it, because it's taking too long to get the story started. And I honestly believe that the reason why the book keeps getting rejected is because the beginning doesn't feel natural, like it's taking too long to get to the inciting action. For agents who request samples, they usually want the first five to ten pages. That's all you get to sell them on your writing. And, sadly, my first five to ten pages seem more like exposition than action.

I can't be too sad about making these changes, though. The fact that I recognize there's a problem here is a huge step towards progress. 

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