Guest Post: “Writing a Trilogy — Lessons Learned” by Tom Doyle

DoyleT-AuthorPicThe final book in my American Craft trilogy, War and Craft, has just been released. It’s like sending the last kid to college — bittersweet emotion with a practical “so now what?” Before I move on to my next project, I’d like to share with you a few of my personal observations about the process, particularly if you’re a new writer planning on writing a series.

First lesson: never plan on writing a series.

Yeah, sounds like a joke, but seriously, don’t do it–unless someone has already said that they’re going to pay you for it. When I wrote American Craftsmen, I had intentionally not planned for a series. I recommend this same self-discipline to all new writers — don’t engage in heavier worldbuilding than necessary for something which may never see the light of day. The odds are long against your selling any given book to a publisher, so every minute you spend creating further material in that book’s universe has a high probability of being wasted. The best thing you can do for yourself while trying to sell a book is to start writing a completely different one.

I understand that beginning another marathon of novel writing from scratch seems especially brutal after just finishing your first one. It’s an acknowledgment that all your previous hard work may not have been enough. But the benefits of creating something new instead of obsessively adding decks to your possible Titanic are clear. Your craft will improve. It’s probably for this reason that so many writers publish the second novel that they attempt before selling the first.

But this means that eventual success comes with an inevitable problem: as I hadn’t further developed my universe, I felt awfully exposed and unprepared when the publisher came back with “One book? Why not three?” (For my response, see #4 below.)


Second lesson: If your novel could be a series, leave room for more books, but still tell a complete story in the first one.

Ideally from a marketing perspective, a first novel should be a self-contained story that has the potential to be a series. In order to create this, I resolved the main plot of my story, but I also left some unfinished business. Some examples of this device (which I call a slingshot ending, though that has a different definition in some SF circles) are that one of the villains escapes, a new villain arises, or the hero gets a new task — but almost any intriguing loose thread will do. This bit of open plot launches readers toward a possible next book, but the remaining issue isn’t so important that readers feel cheated by their purchase of what they may have thought was a standalone novel.

DoyleT-1-AmericanCraftsmenUSThird lesson: Do You Really Want More Than a Deal for a Single Sequel?

We usually think more is better, particularly when it’s more books and more money. On the surface, a trilogy deal looks like a win for everyone — readers like a trilogy-length series, the publisher has a potential success locked in at a first-time author rate, and you the writer know exactly what you should be doing for the next couple of years.

But what if things don’t go well? It’s close to being a mathematical law that each book in a trilogy is going to sell less than the previous book, particularly when it’s better to have read the first book for understanding what follows. If sales are just middling for the first book, they may be disappointing for the second, and this sets up the third book for failure. This will hurt everyone — the readers who were hoping for more, the publisher who’s thinking in terms of sunk costs, and the writer who gets a blot on their career. I’ve heard this story a few times now from other authors, so think carefully about the three-book deal.

On the other hand, you’ll usually want the deal to include at least a single sequel. It takes a long time from deal to publication, and having your next project already set is far better than uncertainty. Also, if your first book is a success, you’ll want to be able to take advantage of the momentum with your sequel, and too long a gap between books can spoil that.

DoyleT-2-LeftHandWayUSFourth lesson: When You Get the Deal, Get Writing That Next Book.

So, back to the exciting and terrifying moment that I found out I’d be writing two more books that I’d deliberately not thought about. Almost immediately, the publisher asked a very general statement of the titles and subjects of books two and three. So I quickly created two vague plots, and they may have had a rough correspondence to what I eventually wrote (book two more so than book three). But my plot plans probably didn’t have to be accurate — I don’t think anyone was going to check on these initial statements later. Their point is mostly to start everyone thinking about the direction of the series. (When you’re asked for promotional or catalog copy, that’s different — you should take care that such copy accurately tracks your plot.)

I calmed down considerably when I realized how long things take in publishing. My contract gave me a year and a half to finish the second book, The Left-Hand Way, and another year to finish War and Craft. No matter what you’ve heard about other authors, you should work very hard to meet your deadlines. Doing so will help your series (readers expect some regularity in publication) and your reputation (editors will want to work with you again).

Finally, if you’re actually about to commence a trilogy or trilogy, please feel free to contact me directly with more detailed questions, and I’ll help if I can.


Tom Doyle writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. He is the author of a contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil — and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America’s past. The final book of the trilogy, War and Craft was just released, on September 26th.

The trilogy is published by Tor Books, and is available in North America and the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter

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