Trilogy Triage 101 by PJ Sharon

Posted on Dec 15, 2014 by   19 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

Thanks so much for inviting me to share your cyber-space today.

As I continue to observe the writing and publishing industry, I see that series books seem to be the way to go. “Series sell” say agents and editors. And why wouldn’t they? Readers grow attached to characters and familiar settings, and let’s face it, it’s easier for writers to already have the groundwork laid when they begin a new story. Or is it? I would have thought so before I began writing my dystopian trilogy, The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael. I mean how hard could it be? The Hunger Games, Divergent…I could go on and on naming dystopian trilogies—the apparent preferred genre of trilogy writers these days. But holy cow! I had no idea what I was getting into.

It’s important to note that writing series books is different than writing a finite trilogy, but the lessons I’ve learned still apply. Just for clarity, with a trilogy, each book needs to be able to stand alone, and also needs to move the overarching story toward a conclusion by the end of book three. In contrast, a series can be presented in several ways. As a serial (a continuation of the same character through many books –think Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake or J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas) or as a series/saga (where secondary characters get their own subsequent stories-think Bella Andre’s, The Sullivans, or Kristan Higgins’s, Blue Heron novels). For today’s purposes, I’m talking trilogies.

In the midst of writing and self-publishing four contemporary YA romances, I had the crazy idea for a dystopian trilogy. It was one of those ideas that came to me fully formed, characters and all, and I couldn’t NOT write it. I know as writers, you understand this curse/blessing. As usual, I dove in with reckless abandon.

I only wish I had known a few things before I started. For instance…

#1. Keep a series bible from the beginning

A series Bible is a file for pertinent info on EVERY recurrent character. You need to have easy access to backstories, physical characteristics, and attributes. This is also a good place to list character quirks—things that make them unique. You should also add descriptions of places, weaponry, and tech gear. I can’t tell you how many times I went back to find out whether the laser was in Lily’s locket or in her eye-shields. Geesh! I hear Scrivener and One Note are excellent for this, but whatever filing system you want to use will work.

Lesson learned:

Being a pantser by nature (a writer who prefers NOT to plot), I didn’t start keeping my series Bible until I’d finished WANING MOON, book one in the trilogy. My lack of foresight made diving into book two, pjpic2 (2013_02_16 18_14_38 UTC)WESTERN DESERT, a LOT harder. Not having the information on hand forced me to stop and search for details at every turn. Derailed from my creative process, I had to step back and develop a series Bible…midstream. At that point, I also forced myself to do more in-depth plotting. Without it, I would have lost track of all the threads of the story by the time I wrote the third book, HEALING WATERS. Cherry Adair has a series Bible template available on her website. Totally worth the investment to have it all set up for you.

#2 Plotting is your friend

As I may have mentioned, I didn’t USED TO BE much of a plotter. Plotting was for “pansies”. I thought if the likes of Diana Gabaldon could write her OUTLANDER tomes without plotting, I should be able to write three little YA dystopian novels without wasting my time on unnecessary steps to the process and stifling my creative flow. Um…NOT! I was quickly cured of such a short-sighted viewpoint, and have a whole new respect for those writers who do their due diligence and come to the table prepared.

My process has evolved to this:

  • I start with a character and a premise.

  • Then I work out the dynamics of each character and their arc by filling in a character grid. You can set this up any way you like, but you must know the following for your hero, heroine, and villain:

Inciting incident (where the story starts, or where the character’s life is disrupted), goal (what they want short and long term), motivation (why they want it-backstory), and conflict (what’s standing in their way). You’ll need to understand your character’s fatal flaw (what they need to overcome and learn at the end). Some authors find it useful to do a character interview at this point.

  • I also create a basic story structure outline to keep me on task with moving characters through the turning points of the story and what has to happen at the dark moment and climax to have a satisfying conclusion. Michael Hague teaches wonderful workshops on this. Once I know those things, I pretty much know where the story needs to go.

  • As I was working on books two and three, I kept a running list of story threads (ie: Lily and Will’s differences in principle that keep them apart, Lily’s mission to save her brother, Will’s mission to save his father, the Networks plan to overthrow Malevich and the Industry, etc.) That way, I could go back through during revisions and see if each plot thread has progression and a satisfying conclusion.

Lesson learned:

Taking the extra time to do the leg work makes it infinitely easier to move through the sticky parts of the story and saves tons of time on re-writes and edits later. Do your stubborn-self a favor and learn some form of plotting that works for you. You never know when an idea for a series or trilogy will come to you, and being prepared is half the battle!

Final words:

Writing The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael has taken me three years. It’s been a long haul, but so worth the effort. I’m very proud of the trilogy and the way it all came together in the end. Book 3, HEALING WATERS releases next week, and as much as I’ll miss Lily and Will, I’ll be happy to move on to new projects in the spring. Maybe I’ll tackle a series this time.

Peace and blessings…and happy writing!


PJ Sharon is the award winning author of contemporary young adult novels, including PIECES of LOVE, HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, ON THIN ICE, and SAVAGE CINDERELLA, winner of the 2013 HOLT Medallion Award and the 2013 National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award. She is excitedly working on The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael, a YA Dystopian trilogy. WANING MOON, Book One in the trilogy, was a finalist in the 2013 National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence, and a HOLT Medallion Award of Merit recipient. Book Two, Western Desert released in June of 2013, and was a finalist both the 2014 Write Touch Readers Contest, and the 2014 Winter Rose Contest. HEALING WATERS, Book Three in the trilogy, releases December, 2014.

Writing young adult fiction since 2007 and following her destiny to write romantic and hopeful stories for teens, PJ is a member of Romance Writers of America, CTRWA, and YARWA. She is mother to two grown sons and lives with her husband in the Berkshire Hills of Western MA. Learn more about PJ:

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19 Responses to "Trilogy Triage 101 by PJ Sharon"

  1. Comment by PJ Sharon
    December 15, 2014 8:29 am

    Thanks for having me today! This is by no means an complete picture of the pitfalls of writing a trilogy, so feel free to pick my brain (not literally). I’m always up for questions.

  2. Comment by PJ Sharon
    December 15, 2014 6:03 pm

    Thanks for the tweet love, folks!

  3. Comment by Leigh
    December 15, 2014 7:30 pm

    Good advice!

    • Comment by PJ Sharon
      December 16, 2014 12:06 am

      I only mentioned my two big takeaways, Leigh. Writing a trilogy was definitely a learning experience! Thanks for commenting. Best in your writing.

  4. Comment by Kathye Thornton
    December 15, 2014 9:23 pm

    Inspiring as usual, PJ. I’m saving your post to compare and “fix” my process. Miss everyone in CT.

    • Comment by PJ Sharon
      December 16, 2014 12:03 am

      We miss you too, Kathy! Thanks for stopping in to say hi:-)

  5. Comment by Joy Smith
    December 16, 2014 7:05 am

    Thanks for such sage advice. I’ve printed out your blog for reference. I agree. Trilogies are in right now–and for our wrriterly purposes make logical sense.

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