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Background

Woohoo! The time has come, my first book of a trilogy is one chapter away from finishing. I've done a little editing as I go, clearing up the bad chapters, but haven't properly gone through the whole thing or anything.

Firstly, I saw this question, an interesting question, but I'm thinking about not one book... a trilogy. Or a series of any length, really.

So, I was wondering whether I should write the entire series first then edit or write one book, edit that to perfection, then the second one, edit that to perfection, so on and so on. I'm beginning to lean towards writing the entire series, because I'll have the entire thing to work with, but I'm really on the fence right now. I just can't decide, this is an impossibly tricky dilemma.


Question

Should I write my books and edit them one by one. For example, I write the first book, perfect it, write the second book, perfect it, so on and so forth. Or, should I write all the books (without editing them) and then perfect the complete work?

  • 1
    Are you asking from a literary perspective -- in which case the answer is going to be "everyone is different" -- or from a publishing perspective? In other words, are you asking what is the best way to sell a trilogy? – Mark Baker Dec 29 '16 at 21:32
  • A literary perspective @MarkBaker – Daniel Cann Dec 30 '16 at 9:07
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    Then edit the literary unit. LOTR is one literary unit. Chronicles of Narnia are seven literary units. – Mark Baker Dec 30 '16 at 13:21
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Personally I would do the the following:

  • Write them all. Get all your first drafts done.
  • Review them all. Get to a decent second or third draft on all three.
  • Send your first book to an editor. When the editor gives that back, review the edits while the editor works on the second. Do the same with books 2 and 3.
  • When all three have been reviewed, you can make a round or three of changes. If necessary, return them to the editor; lather, rinse, repeat as needed.
  • Then do your polishing draft on all three.

I wouldn't polish the first one and then do the second/third, because all three books should be interconnected. Ideally you will introduce items in book 1 which are echoed in 2 and pay off in 3. You may come up with an idea as you are doing draft 4 of book 2 and realize you need to lay pipe in book 1, and if book 1 is polished that's going to be difficult and annoying.

You wouldn't polish the first half of your book while the back half is in really rough shape, right? Treat your trilogy the same way.

  • 1
    Your last line is precisely what I was thinking. +1 – Daniel Cann Dec 30 '16 at 9:08
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In theory, @LaurenIpsum's answer makes perfect sense. However, is we look at the market, we see this is not how things are done in practice.

For example, J.K. Rowling planned from the start to write seven Harry Potter books, and certain plot points were planned from the start. For example, Voldemort was always going to be defeated in the seventh book, Snape was always going to be in love with Lily, etc. However, other elements of the story have not been planned, and there are some contradictions between early books and later books. For example, in Philosopher's Stone, Hagrid says Lily and James were "head boy and head girl". In Order of the Phoenix we learn that it was Lupin who became prefect. (See whole list of similar mistakes here.)

G.R.R. Martin is of course still in the process of writing the sixth book of what was supposed to be the trilogy A Song of Ice and Fire. Had he done all the writing and editing from the start, he would have known this is not a trilogy. Or he would have cut a lot of material. At any rate, we would not have been waiting a decade for the next book.

The reason that the market works this way is twofold, I believe. First, a published book feeds the author. And the author of course needs the money. So there's financial pressure to get the book out there and start getting paid for it. Second, if for some reason the first book fails, time invested in the sequels, that are now not going to be published, can appear "a waste".

All that is not to say that @LaurenIpsum's logic is wrong. The books should be interconnected, and it is a problem when you'd like to change something, but it has already been published, so you can't. A way to mitigate that while still getting the first book of the series published ASAP would be to at least plan out the next volumes, have an outline, some key scenes that you see clearly. Those would ensure that you know where you're going, so you don't suddenly find yourself in the middle of the series, with no way to continue. And of course, there's no reason why you shouldn't start working on book 2 while querying agents with book 1.

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I will agree with Galastel, and add the following.

If I were a plotter and intentionally writing a trilogy, I would provide some treatment (say 3 or 4 thousand words) of what is in the second book, and the third book. I would work on these treatments, to show the plot and arc and set in my mind what the big problem is in the second book, and the third book, and how the characters carry forward. I would not get too detailed, I would not get into the emotions and evolution of the characters other than rough characterizations. eg Two fall in love, or have a child, or lose a child, or break up. Note if people die, or new characters join the team. Note if the POV is changing from book to book, etc.

But then I would write the first book, review it, polish it, and try to get it published. The treatments you write, or plot outlines or whatever you wish to call them, are available to your agent/publisher. They probably DO NOT want to publish the trilogy all at once; publishers like to drop a new book a year. They want your first book to generate an audience they can work with (and if it doesn't, they don't want the rest of your trilogy). They want your second book to sell to that audience quick, and increase the size of your fan base. The same with your third book.

Dropping all three books AT ONCE will cost them three times as much, reduce the money they have for marketing, and is more likely to produce a financial bust.

The treatments that you write, after a publisher has already decided they like your style, and after they know you can finish a book satisfactorily, will make them more likely to pick up your first book and buy first rights to your subsequent books in the series. ("First" rights because if you give them crap for the second book, they won't publish it.)

Then you have a year for each subsequent book, and hopefully money to eat some lunch while you do. If it takes you less than a year, all good. You will be busy visiting bookstores to promote your first book. If a website is up, you may be answering fan email to promote your book.

Finish the first book, while the story is fresh in your head, to the point where you can read it through without cringing or frowning at anything. Finish your treatments. Then try to sell the book.

On Editing: At least for me, that is several run-throughs, six or seven to be honest. You will need the discipline to not embellish just because you thought of something to add; these drafts are not for more fun in writing, but to correct things that readers will be confused by or notice missing or think are weird or out of character or don't make sense. If you just keep adding to scenes (or adding scenes) for the fun of it, you will end up with something too long to publish!

Note that this is not a rule against adding anything, some awkward transitions, dialogue, or action sequences DO require adding sentences or even paragraphs to achieve clarity. Sometimes unclear description needs adding. The rule is against adding something that is not necessary to the plot, character development, or the reader's understanding of the scene, just because you enjoy embellishing on the scene.

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