Suggestions for writing a trilogy.

 

Much advice for writers suggests that series work best for indies. Is the same true of a trilogy?

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, in a South London family. This was a story about a life-time rivalry that would have lasting effects, mirroring the tensions in micro of those in pre-war Europe.

This is what happened when I was in the throes of writing the story:

Billy was only five years old at the start of the narrative. At around the fifth chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote that in full. I then returned to Chapter Five. Just a matter of getting Billy from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, he was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.           

When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the fall-out from their life-long rivalry.

Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I was at one hundred and twenty thousand words. I could have started the boys’ careers and made four books, but I had published and described the previous books as part of ‘a trilogy’.  I stuck to this, revised, and cut Book 3 down to one hundred and five thousand words. After all, the climax and the ending were set just as I’d planned.

Billy’s story was told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy. What can I advise would-be trilogists?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc each book also needs its own arc

My trilogy arc was before WWII began until the war effects in Britain ended – “You’ve never had it so good”) The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – threat of war until its onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity. Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

AND I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three do comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, and he helped me to stay the course.

Creating edgy short stories.

I have written a few edgy short stories, and I enjoy reading them. As an example, Hilary Mantel’s story of Margaret Thatcher’s fictional death

It’s the suggestion of outrageous possibility that can make a story  or an image edgy.

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If the first person form is used as a literary device, the narrator of an edgy story is often unreliable, but his or her fantasies around true events don’t make a fantasy for the reader. There can be a self-deception that the reader can assess.What is ‘edgy’ is the uncertainty around what is real, especially if that threatens safety, physical or attitudinal.

Where stories are written in the third person,  the main character does not have to be likable.  It is edgier if s/he’s unlikable yet the reader constructs a sneaky liking for him/her. This makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this jerk?)

images-2The reader does have to be drawn to the main character in some way – horror or outrage can achieve this – what will he do next? But uncertainty and confusion work best.

 

 

The author can shock the reader by reversing all expectations, or make the protagonist cross over some unacceptable line. He may kill but must he debase? He may cheat, but the person who has just saved him, or his own mother?

Edginess needn’t involve extreme sexuality or aggression.  An action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance. It doesn’t have to involve crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can even be shockingly funny.

Assumptions we make when we read a story when reversed, can highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess can produce unease and give rise to questions over morality, practice, managing relationships. A story is satisfying when it is thought-provoking and lingers in the mind after the last page.

I hope I’ve achieved this in my Crime ShortsA Boy with PotentialNot Her FaultHomed banner_new

Re-writing a short story

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                    Each time I finish a short story . . .

I get a tremendous sense of self completion. It’s transitory: I will be rewriting my short story soon. Although the satisfying sense has gone by my first edit, this ‘completion’ sense doesn’t occur at all when finishing a novel. The process of beta-reading, editing, proof-reading that lies ahead is so lengthy that it’s more like beginning an uphill journey than reaching the top. 

Recently I was asked about my process of writing my Crime Shorts, so I thought beginner writers might be interested in my answer. It begins with a voice or a sentence followed soon by the speaker. The situation that causes the sentence follows, and the story stems from that.

Once an idea comes I can become too involved in one aspect to pay due attention to other important elements that go towards making a good story. In the case of Homed, I was totally immersed in developing the voice of a none too reliable narrator. (These characters appeal to me.)

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Deep into my narrator’s account, at about 2,000 words I realised that I had too many characters. Even without assigning them names, they would crowd my story. I doubt if a story of under 5000 words can work with more than three characters. 

I sat back and re-thought the story. Where was my character at the beginning? How many places and situations could he refer to? As with characters, not too many, otherwise the reader would become confused. How could I best lead up to the climax? Had I laid down a hint near the beginning so that the end had validity? Had I described sufficient of the scenes for them to be visualised?

After these considerations, I rewrote the story. Bearing the number of characters and locations in mind, each had to be written as seen through the eyes of the narrator. Moreover, he had to credibly remember each one. 

I hope I succeeded, but if I haven’t, you can let me know. In the case of my first Crime Short, readers suggested I continued his story and made it a novel. Perhaps I will come back to that story again if its feral narrator refuses to let me go.

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Genre? Striking a new note.

 

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What genre?

Writers are always advised to be clear about their book’s genre and to concentrate upon a target group for it. Fantasy stories, for readers of fantasies, sci fi for sci fi readers, and so on. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to please an audience of one genre with your book in a totally different one? That would be a real achievement. I suspect that multiply-awarded Wolf Hall has not managed this. However, it can happen.

Let’s take music as an example. I’ve never liked jazz, despite the fact that my eldest is a musician playing both classical and jazz. It irritates me, the extemporisation on a theme. Simple soul, I want the theme, please. But then one day the Hot Sardines came on the radio and converted me. For those non-jazz lovers, this is a band that has put on wild live shows all around New York City – and now much further in the world.

I was chatting to a young teenager who had only ever read Harry Potter for his leisure reading and was forced to read ’The Scarlet Pimpernel ‘ as curriculum work. Reluctantly, and after much grumbling, he ‘worked through’ the book and came out a convert to historical fiction. ‘I really reckoned the French Revolution and the scheming. Cool. I’m into it now.’ Mightn’t he have been easier to motivate if the cover hadn’t been the one shown below right?

The fact that this series had a very wide appeal is demonstrated by the very different covers, presumably targeting contrasting reader groups. Here are just a few. On a bookshop table, each would likely attract very different shoppers. Scarlpimp Scarlpimp2 Scarlpimp3 136116

It makes you think, if you’re a writer yourself, doesn’t it? It is pretty easy to change a cover and re-upload your title, or to have several covers showing for sale. A number of long-standing successful novels have two or more different covers.

Here’s one of John Wyndham’s, again likely to appeal to different audiences:

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Of course you need a title that doesn’t confine you; ‘Lolita’ or ‘War and Peace’, for instance.

Otherwise, one advantage of being an Indie author is that you have control over your own covers. Almost worth avoiding mainstream publishing for that fact alone?

Writer blogs and their lifetime

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Some few years ago I began my first writer blog:

http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com. But I didn’t want to show myself– I let my characters do the talking. Sadly, the characters didn’t live up to the image of Moliére’s group above.  It was more like this on the left. womensclub

I had just published my collection of satirical short stories and I wanted a writer blog that would speak about them, but one that would stop short of marketing. In that respect I fully succeeded; I talked about all the characters, it was humorous, and it didn’t market. I doubt if I sold one copy of the book as result of that site.

But I did have fun and, it seems, this writer blog appealed to the Ukrainians who followed every post(!) The characters became real, including one with a fish phobia, another who could only operate from a chaise longue, and one who was worried about her husband lurking near, ready to snatch her back from her recent liaison. The characters took over the blog completely, writing the dialogue including blistering criticism of me, their author. They started a literary criticism group, discussing each others’ tales. That was extremely unedifying and more than a tad bitchy. Altogether, this wasn’t an author blog, it was a characters’ blog. There was even an intruder, Russell, a character from one of my as-yet incomplete novels.  It’s always good to have an outside perspective on things, isn’t it?

I have just written the final post on this blog. It’s had nearly 23,000 visitors but it’s run its course. The book, Me-Time Tales,  is in its second and expanded edition with new stories, additional characters. Kindle_Cover_opt I need to spend time writing on this blog, and on the author website (http://RosalindMinett.com) that, very belatedly, I am preparing.

I have said Goodbye today to my quirky blog giving this representation of one of mymattress characters. She was moaning that I hadn’t included the new characters from the 2nd edition so, as a swan song, I mentioned her and two others (rather miserable characters).

Now to the serious business of writing. The site you are on is straightforward if far less creative than fictionalcharacterswriting. I learned a lot while blogging on there. But I am not recommending such a time-consuming exercise to new writers or any writers, unless as an alternative to doing Codewords or Adult Colouring.

How far should we write for our own pleasure? One successful marketer, MaAnna Stephenson, has recently stated that before even writing a book she would carry out her marketing exercise: appetite for such a book, pitch, response, audience and so on.

Oh dear. We writers know what we should do but we just carry on writing the stuff in our heads. Our silly heads?

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Strengthening your writing via stimuli.

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Writing stimuli. What gave you that sudden idea that made you urgently scribble it down? It’s worth exploring.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. But it’s much harder to ‘dream up’ a smell that might affect the character in your story, than it is a sound or sight.

When we’re stuck for ideas for a visual stimulus,  Art can provide perspectives, narratives, symbols to enrich our writing.  For auditory stimuli, theatre and radio present us with ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_optThere is no equivalent for smells.

So having found the right sound or sight stimuli to cause your hero to pale with emotion how to find the right smell/scent/perfume/stink to cause emotional impact? Leave aside the obvious triggers: magnolia, blood, excrement, cabbage (who wants to write hackneyed stuff?). Will the character stop short as spinach fumes enter his/her nostrils, or candy floss?  What particular scent might have been recorded in his/her long term memory?

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You can prepare for that blank moment. How about noting down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant? List the source for each. This will make you rack your brains, and may well summon up incidents that you can use in your story. Add any smells that you already know act as powerful reminders for you – and write down why.

A scent for one person may be a stink for another. One perfume might raise very different memories for two different characters. Identifying that memory can enrich your story line. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a great aunt, but Debra of pass-me-downs when she was young.  The scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby, but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs. They find themselves quarrelling . . .

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With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you.  Strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

Title Optional

Struggling to find the right title?

A writer recently remarked that she had difficulty in thinking of titles. I thought I’d concoct a list for beginner writers allowing use for different genres. Let me know if you like this kind of post. It can be taken seriously or not. Who knows, one of these may spark the next novel for someone. These titles are intended for you to make your own associations (and stories). I had fun.

 

One day too long

Caught in Time

Idyll in Back Alley

Plenary Session

Forbidden Journey

Is There Hair on my Burger?  (or their hair – works as well)

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An Intricate Endeavour

It Takes Time to Jam

Black is the New Grey

They never called me Edna

Not Everyone Marries in a Cathedral

Blogging To Bliss

Entropy

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, I CAN DO MORE. (But I should be finishing my next chapter).

Winning Writing

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This lovely image is Iranian.

I like playing Scrabble, but I’m not competitive. The challenge presented by the board in hand and the variety of options, limitations placed upon moves is sufficient. Sometimes the layout feels like an art form. It’s fun to enliven the game further by restraints such as allowing only nouns related to e.g. writing, for words of 4 letters or more. Going to an event based on competition would spoil the enjoyment completely.

It seems that the lack of competitiveness has a worthy origin.Chess_Players_of_Haft_Awrang

Chess is thought to originate in India, before the 6th century AD and then spread to Persia, pictured here.

Chess reached Southern Europe via Arabs and Muslims, and by the 15th century it had evolved into its current form.

The “Romantic Era of Chess” was characterized by swashbuckling attacks, clever combinations, brash piece sacrifices and dynamic games. Winning was secondary to winning with style and the focus was upon artistic expression. I’d loved to have been an audience then before the style changed, in the 19th century, to one of technical mastery and long-term planning.

In presenting our fiction to the world we writers are exhorted to use multiple techniques to gain sales.  Innocent days of creating the best that our talent and art form allow, end. Months of miserable media-bashing follow. What contrasting activities, what different emotions!

Reading about the origin of chess brings similarly opposite emotions to reading self-help books that teach tricks of beating algorithms or garnering a following. It’s these books themselves that sell in huge numbers, their authors then ‘teaching’ a system to all other writers on the basis of this ‘sure’ success.

How sad.  William Boyd, Anne TylerKasuo Ishiguro novels, say, may have comparable Amazon sales rankings with a very badly produced book on Twitter techniques. Even the most reputable newspapers may show best-selling books for their Top Twenty rather than a list of most highly regarded fiction.

Swashbuckling attacks on the media, clever combinations of layered promotion, technical mastewinningry of marketing ploys and long-term planning of a marketing campaign is what sells books and makes a winning writer. Thank goodness that reputable writing competitions rely on writing judges, not the amount of ‘votes’ an entrant can grab via social media. Nowadays, all of us writers are pushed into this.

I wonder whether a ‘romantic era’ for art forms will ever return.

9 points on writing edgy stories

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My second post on writing edgy short stories.

Here are some suggestions. (My previous post will add meaning to this.)

1. Write with a clear voice. Not yours, your character’s. It doesn’t have to be first person. You can write third person from the main character’s (MC) point of view. What matters is that point of view, the reader feeling sure s/he is standing in the MC’s shoes.

2.  The reader doesn’t have to like the MC. It is edgier if a sneaky liking for a character makes the reader uneasy or worse. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this baddie I’m reading about?)

3. Short stories can’t cope with having too many characters. The edginess may depend on being in the MC’s head most of the read, so the reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – even horror or outrage can achieve this.

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4. Dialogue has to do its job well and pithily. Every word counts; every unnecessary word detracts. A character merely saying ‘Whatever‘ can give a total feel of his/her reaction, whereas a whole sentence may not.

5.  Structure. If you are working on : 1/5 start, 3/5 middle. 1/5 end, that final fifth must hit home. Either shock the reader by reversing all his/her expectations or let your MC cross over some unacceptable line. It may ‘only’ mean stealing a child’s bike and pretending innocence. However, the ‘journey’ must be there, and it’s vital that whatever happened is some kind of shock to the system.

6.  Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form is usually involved but an action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

7.  The edgy story does not have to be crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can be funny.  It’s no longer edgy for sexual abuse to be involved, not because it’s any more acceptable, but because it’s now hackneyed as a character device.

8.   It is still edgy to nudge into those actions that would be too awkward to admit to a friend. e.g. a friendship established in the first 4/5th of the tale where we worry that this friend is about to cheat or betray. The last fifth reveals that we are wrong. The kickback is that the assumptions we made highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess must produce unease.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first two of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential and Homed. Do let me know if I have.

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A Rich Read: writers’ sudden ideas.

A SUDDEN IDEA –

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Deviant Art

What prompts a writer to suddenly write down an idea? Author – there’s a lot going on when you write.

When your idea appears ‘out-of-the-blue’ , more likely the germ of the idea lies in some unconscious association. Past experience affects the significance of something that appears novel, something just seen or heard or half-remembered.

Why notice say, the length of someone’s thumb, rather than their choice of tie? Subliminal exposure can influence kaleidoscopepreferences. Even patients with amnesia may show that someone/something is emotionally important to them, without remembering ever encountering these objects of their affection.

The reason for the significance of the idea is unconscious. But the emotional experience is conscious.

As a writer, you are just aware of ‘the good idea’ and the urge to write it down. But every scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory, olfactory and visual stimuli.

At a party, Perry can’t relax because of the scent coming from the candles. It brings on some very uneasy feelings connected to – what? If only he could say why.   aroma

Jane focuses on a woman’s blue-grey dress. She doesn’t know why. She distorts its appearance later in a story. Long forgotten, Jane’s shouting aunt was wearing such a dress during a traumatic quarrel.

Derek, beside her, is irritated by the gestures of another guest. He can’t say why but worries away at the conundrum. He may dredge up the original stimulus.  If so, that is very satisfying. Catching the germ feels good even if the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place. catchingball

This unconscious layer of memory has a social and a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) is useful, often vital. From our very early days we must attend to the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behaviour.  I remember saying something cheeky as a small child and peering at an adult to work out whether their mouth bore a smile or an annoyed grimace.

We unconsciously absorb tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities; there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. When a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues.

Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904 A character may be softly rubbing his eyebrow as he reads. The reader enjoys noticing this detail as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read.

© Copyright 2015 Rosalind Minett

The posts on this blog are the original work of Rosalind Minett. If sharing or quoting, please credit the author.