I have always loved reading and writing stories, and ever since devouring The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, I wanted to write an epic fantasy trilogy, a wish enhanced by reading other wonderful series such as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams.
Over a period of some twelve years between 2000 and 2012 (and much hard work), I achieved my ambition and completed The Tree of Life trilogy, which I have recently republished.
The Tree of Life is a big, epic fantasy series - here is the blurb:
The Known World is dominated by the Mother Church and its sinister leader, Prester John. The Mother Church demands total loyalty - disobedience is punished by death. But in the darkest of times, comes hope…
Fourteen-year-old Elowen Aubyn lives a miserable life in an orphanage. Bullied and lonely, she dreams of escape and adventure, little realising her dreams are about to come terrifyingly real. When the mysterious Tom Hickathrift gives Elowen an ancient map, she is plunged into a desperate and deadly quest - to discover the Four Mysteries, ancient artefacts of great power. Elowen must overcome many perils and defeat the greatest of evils, for if she fails, the only chance of freedom will be lost, forever...
These books will always be close to my heart and allowed me to write about themes such as racial and religious intolerance, and the destruction of the natural world, all within a vast, exciting fantasy adventure. I also wanted to move away from some of the tropes of fantasy and introduce some unique settings rather than just a standard Medieval style world - the Known World is a land of monsters and muskets! And once published, it was wonderful to hear from readers who found the books entertaining too – the icing on the cake!
It was a long writing journey starting from, bar a few short stories under my belt, being a novice author to one with the experience of having written three books – along the way I learned a lot about the craft of writing, and the demands of creating a trilogy. So, in a series of three posts, I will pass on the most important lessons I learned from The Tree of Life trilogy. This first post in this series will focus on planning.
When I began writing the trilogy I was very sceptical about the benefits of detailed planning. I worried it would be too restrictive, that it would hinder my creativity – I preferred to let the story and the characters emerge as I wrote. This approach seemed to work for the first volume of the trilogy, The Map of the Known World, which had a clear narrative structure. I was at the start of the journey and not burdened with immediate concerns of how to complete the full tale - the possibilities seemed limitless and exciting. I knew where I wanted the overall story to go (i.e. I knew the major plot developments and how it all finished) but I had not planned out a detailed roadmap and at this stage did not think it necessary.
However, I hit problems as soon as I commenced the second part of the trilogy, The Ordeal of Fire. I did not have a shortage of ideas, but Elowen’s continuing journey introduced further characters and settings, and I started to feel lost and confused. It was a difficult time and I began to wonder how I could ever solve all the narrative problems I had written myself into! With mounting concern, I realised I could no longer write blithely, secure in the knowledge that the story was in its early stages – The Ordeal of Fire is the second act of the trilogy and I needed focus, I needed structure, I needed to plan.
So I began by reading back through The Map of the Known World, picking up important elements I needed to carry through the rest of the trilogy. I worked out in more detail where I wanted the story to go, and the fates of the various characters. For The Ordeal of Fire, my planning took the form of an outline and character notes. However, when I came to write the final instalment, The Last Days, I went to much greater lengths. After initial brainstorming, I worked out a plot plan for the book, which I then fleshed out into a ‘treatment’, a document of some 10,000+ words covering the main beats of each chapter of the book, along with snatches of dialogue and notes about theme, imagery and character development. When I came to write the first draft of The Last Days, this ‘treatment’ was invaluable, a reassuring companion, giving me confidence that I knew exactly where I was going and (more or less) how I was going to get there!
So I discovered planning did not restrict my creativity; on the contrary, it freed me from the confusing tangle of plots, subplots, characters and half-shaped ideas whirling around my head. Planning across multiple books also helps to achieve a greater consistency in voice and tone, which is important as you want readers to feel they are reading one coherent story.
And talking of consistency, writing about characters across three books increases the chances of continuity errors - make sure you log key details about your characters (physical description etc.) and carefully check these when you edit each draft. It is easy to slip up and change, for example, a character's hair colour without noticing. If these errors slip through to a published version, readers will notice and it undermines your credibility. Of course, your editor can help spot these kind of errors, but don't leave it all to them - check and double-check.
In conclusion, did I learn my lesson about planning? Absolutely. I would never embark on any novel, let alone a trilogy, without detailed planning. Taking planning seriously has, I believe, improved my writing skills and understanding of the craft, and I applied the same concepts and techniques when working on my latest novel, This Sacred Isle. Planning is hard work and it can be frustrating when you just want to get on with writing your story, but take a deep breath and step back - your book will be better for it.
Takeaway tip: writing a trilogy is a huge project, so do not underestimate the difficulty of managing a high number of characters and subplots. Spending time on planning might feel like a waste of time but in the long term it will save you time and give you greater consistency and clarity of vision.
Check out the second part of this blog series, which examines world building and research.
The Tree of Life trilogy is now available as an ebook boxset for just £1.99 / $2.40 (each of the volumes is also available individually in both paperback and ebook format):
See preview below:
Are you working on a trilogy or series? How do you plan - and what have been the major challenges you've faced? Add a comment and join the conversation.