Sunday, June 28, 2020

On Writing a Trilogy

Piper's Lagoon
I didn't set out to write a trilogy. In fact, the idea of writing one novel seemed pretty intimidating. How would I ever construct such a long document, and keep the whole thing coherent?

My first attempt at writing a novel was about 20 years ago or so. It was a story told from the perspectives of three women who lived on the same street but didn't know each other very well. Each was going through a difficult period in her life, and each was trying to keep her troubles secret. As things got worse for each of them and the polished surface of their lives cracked open, their secrets ceased to be secrets and the women became entangled in each others' lives. I wrote about 2/3 of the first draft, and then I got stuck. I didn't know how to draw all the threads together.

I went to a week-long writers' retreat to try to work through it and finish the novel, and instead started writing another novel.

With this next novel, I managed to finish a very long first draft, which I sent out to some preliminary readers who were kind and helpful. But I became overwhelmed by the massive revisions that needed to be done. Although the story had good bones, almost the whole thing was told from the inside of the main character's head, plodding and slow. The story is about returning from the city to one's childhood home because of the death of a parent. The main character grapples with challenging family dynamics. Then an accident keeps her there much longer than intended, and plunges her back into childhood memories and a ultimately yields a more mature perspective on the family and community that have shaped her. 

So, stuck on the revisions, what did I do? Yes, you guessed it; I started writing another entirely different novel.
Brickyard Bay

This one is speculative fiction, and it takes place in the near future. A group of girls and women have survived an apocalyptic event that has destroyed their society by sheltering underground for many years. It's written from the perspective of two best friends who are coming of age. Each separately faces the choice of whether to stay and try to save her community or find a way out and take her chances in the dangerous unknown lands on the outside. The novel explores themes of power dynamics, friendship, personal integrity, and motherhood.

I have recently completed a third draft of it. My revisions incorporate the feedback from six incredibly helpful preliminary readers, as well as lots of the suggestions given by members of my writers' group over the last 2 1/2 years. My next step with this novel is to take steps to get it published. I have written about this novel here and here.

But, meanwhile, as I wrote this novel, I kept thinking, "I wonder what happened to their world that forced them to have to shelter underground?" A little bit of that story is included in the novel in the form of flashbacks and storytelling events recounting their history. I kept writing background notes about the time before they went into the shelter. And then, all of a sudden, the entire plot line for a prequel novel popped into my head and I wrote it down.

So, last year while my first draft was out with the preliminary readers and I was waiting for their feedback, I started another novel, the story of how the world fell apart and how the women ended up in an underground shelter. I have written about 1/3 of the first draft. You can read a brief excerpt here.

The other thing that happened is that as I was coming to the end of the novel about the women in the shelter, I found that the novel was getting longer and longer but there were several really interesting plot threads that I could not bring to a satisfactory conclusion in the space of the novel. The solution to that problem was. . . yes! You guessed it -- to write yet another novel, a sequel.

So that is how I came to be writing a trilogy: a prequel novel, which I'm partway through writing, the middle novel in the trilogy which is ready to go out for publication, and a sequel novel.
Little Qualicum Falls

Although a few elements in the sequel were clear and I knew how I planned to resolve them, the overall story line was quite hazy to me until about a two weeks ago. Suddenly, the plot line for the third book revealed itself to me, along with the main characters and events, and I wrote it down. 

It seems miraculous how the story suddenly appears like that. But then again, perhaps it's not so surprising. I think about the story for the hours and hours I spend in front of my computer writing and revising day after day. During periods that I'm actively writing, I walk around with my head in the clouds thinking about my story all day long. My characters infiltrate my mind when I'm trying to get to sleep at night. My brain is chugging away much of the time trying to turn my made-up world, my characters, and the events I've already invented into a coherent narrative. So although it feels like the story just pops into my head, in fact, I've been ruminating on it for years.

One of the fascinating things about writing a trilogy is going back and forth between the three stories. There is a character, Mother Beulah, in the completed novel who is important but not a main character. However, in the prequel novel, Beulah is a main character and many of the events are seen from her point of view. I learned more about Beulah as I worked on writing the prequel novel, and was able to go back and deepen Beulah's character in the middle novel while doing my revisions on it.

Writing a trilogy allows me to include more characters and points of view than I could in a single book. It allows me to follow characters in different periods of their lives and different circumstances -- e.g., the younger Beulah and the middle-aged Beulah.

Where I Write
But it's also challenging because it's harder to remember and hold together the details of the story world and the characters across three books. As well, I am writing the three books so that each of them can be read on its own in any order without having to depend on the information that was in a preceding book. Although each is or will be an intact, complete story, there are certain themes, events, and characters that run across the trilogy.

I have learned a lot from each novel I've written or attempted to write. Writing and revising are very time-consuming processes but I think doing them is the only way to really learn how to write.  

Maybe some day I'll be able to go back and finish those first two novels. Or maybe I'll have gone on to writing something else by then.

It's hard to illustrate a blog post on writing, because all the visuals of the novels are in my head or in words on the page. I've included a photo of my desk where I write. Although I spend a lot of time writing, I do other things too. So I've included a few photos of the amazing landscapes of Vancouver Island from recent excursions.