Friday, August 16, 2013

The Challenges of Writing a Trilogy - PJ Sharon Guest Post

I'm delighted to welcome YA author PJ Sharon today. PJ graciously was interviewed in a past post. She is author of several award winning independently published, contemporary young adult novels, including HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, ON THIN ICE, and SAVAGE CINDERELLA, winner of the 2013 HOLT Medallion Award for outstanding literary fiction. She is excitedly working on The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael, a YA Dystopian trilogy. WANING MOON, Book One, was a finalist in the National Excellence in Romance Fiction Awards for the YA Category. Book Two, WESTERN DESERT released in June of 2013.

Writing romantic fiction for the past eight years 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.

Hey Peter, thanks for having me here today. It’s always a pleasure hanging out with you. For your readers, I decided to talk about the challenges of writing a trilogy. Specifically, the demands of getting each book out within a reasonable time frame. I’ll preface the post by saying that I am a relatively slow typist. I still have to look at the keys and never learned proper typing technique—a huge handicap and one I have not pushed myself to overcome and learn. Stubbornness is a double-edged sword, my friend!
As a “recovering pantster,” I had to decide up front that if I was writing a trilogy, I was going to keep a series bible and plot out each book ahead of time. A series bible is where you keep all your details straight about facts, family trees, character traits (descriptions), and technical/research data. I knew I needed to do all of my character grids and story arcs for my main protagonists, and plan out my production schedule. The industry standard these days is two books a year or one every nine months. With Indies, I have more freedom to set my schedule, but industry standard is more like three, or even four stories per year. Occasional short stories or novellas are almost expected between releases. It’s gotten very competitive out there and the more product you have on the market, the better you’ll fare in terms of discoverability and sales—as long as you can continue to create quality material. 
Now, in that, there can be no compromise for me. Quantity, in my opinion, is never worth risking quality. With all that said, I figured I could do a book every nine months. If I can grow an actual human being in that amount of time, I can certainly write a book.
I’ve found my limit—the hard way. But I’m happy with that pace and, if I’m not, I can change it. But to try to force more of myself makes the job, a job, and sucks the joy out of my writing. I treat my writing as a business, but I also treat it as an art and a passion, respecting the creative drive.
This is what I did. It’s a broad picture of my production schedule:
Between September of 2011 and March of 2012, I published three back to back releases every three months (Contemporary YA novels that I had already written and had tried to sell to traditional publishers).  While marketing and promoting those three books, I began writing WANING MOON in January of 2012. I published it later that year in September of 2012. That gave me two books in 2011 and two in 2012.
WESTERN DESERT took me nine months as well. I worked on it from September, 2012 to June of 2013. If I stay on schedule with the third book, it will be out next spring around March, 2014. That means only one book out in 2013…unless…stay tuned! The best part of being Indie published is that nothing is set in stone. If I need flexibility, I have no one looking over my shoulder but me, and I try not to do that. Our necks are stiff enough already, right?
I further break down my production schedule per book. I figure out a reasonable weekly page/word count which gives me some flexibility in taking a day off now and then. I know that I should be able to write a first draft in three months if I write 5-7,000 words per week. It takes me three months for revisions with back and forth edits from editors and beta readers. Then it takes me at least another month or two of what I call the 3P’s—polish, prep, and promo. The nine months is doable for me to create a quality work of YA fiction of about 70-90,000 words (WESTERN DESERT is my longest by far at 90,780 words). Publishing requires planning and discipline, but I like the work. 

Here’s where the art takes over and my yin energy prevails. I am compelled, for both artistic reasons and business reasons, to finish a contemporary YA romance I started last year, before I move on and write the third book in the trilogy. Oddly, I’ve had real trouble finding a name for Book Three, and I normally have no trouble naming my babies. This one just isn’t coming to me. That should have been a sign to me that I needed to take a step back.
To be honest, it feels great to take a break from the trilogy. I have learned as a writer to follow my gut and write what’s working if I want to be productive. But if I’m not inspired to write, the words will always feel like work. I was a bit fatigued after producing the first and second books in the trilogy and I needed a creative shot in the arm. The story I’m working on is doing that for me (by the time this post goes live, I’ll have written a whopping 20,000 words or so this month), so I’m going to allow the muse to take the lead. After all, I am the boss and I’m having fun! And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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  1. Always, Paula, you give so much. Thank you. I gave pause to your words... "follow my gut and write what’s working if I want to be productive. But if I’m not inspired to write, the words will always feel like work." This is so true, but I don't know that until I sit down to write. Do you find you need to write to discover you can? Sort of a double edged sword. Right? Thank you Peter, for having Paula today.

  2. Thanks Gail. I usually have a plan before I sit down to write. I know the scene/chapter I need to get through, so that helps a lot. The third book in the trilogy is going to require a lot of prep work so I'll be doing some of that on days when the cont. YA isn't working for me. It's good to have mulitple projects to accommodate the natural flow of my writing.

  3. Great post, thanks Peter and Paula (hm, sounds like a pop group..)
    This is really timely for me, as I'm in the same boat - just released the first in my trilogy, and realised that the dedicated pantser is absolutely going to have to plot - and that's what I'm beavering away at just now. My series bible keeps growing, and I'm actually finding I'm enjoying the plotting - perhaps I've grown up as a writer?
    I love to write multi-layered plots, so planning ahead, now I'm on a production schedule, is going to save so much time, rather than keep backtracking and re-writing to fit the various threads seamlessly together.
    I am also so relieved to read your schedule, Paula, because that's exactly the same as I'm planning. I have a full time job and there's just no way I'm going to get this next book done in less than 9 months (mine are around 120K words). Now I feel like you've given me permission to take that time - thank you so much!

    1. Awesome Deb. Glad to help. I, too, have come to enjoy the plotting process. I still only do a rough outline so that I know where turning points need to be and what the black moment is for the characters, but it's enough to keep me moving in the right direction. As far as timing goes, each book is different. Some will take more time than others which is why I prefer the Indie process. I need that flexibility so that I don't make myself crazy trying to write to an unmanageable deadline. Good luck with your trilogy!

  4. PJ
    I understand "write what's working". Unfortunately that sometimes leads me from one project to another. I'm ADD.
    Opening up the manuscript is the first step. Butt to chair not so much these days because there's always something else on that computer screen.

    1. Hi Mitzi, I hear you about the ADD and too many projects. I limit myself to just the two and focus mainly on one at a time. Writing is definitely a discipline and sometimes you have to push through those blocks but I reserve the "rite" to work on my backup WIP if I'm struggling too much with my main piece.

      For me, there is nothing that gets the job done like setting those word count goals. If I need to get e-mails and social media duties out of the way first, then so be it, but once I set my mind to working on writing that next chapter/scene, I force myself to stay put until it's done. Sometimes that means I'm writing at midnight or up early on a Saturday or Sunday morning to slap those words onto the page.

      If I have new ideas that call me to begin another project, I add them to my "idea" notebook and take a moment to be grateful that I have plenty to keep me going for a long time!

  5. Definitely write what's working. I'm in the same boat with my Italy series, but I've found that letting the next one percolate awhile while I work on another series works so much better for my finished product.

    Keep up the great work and enjoy the writing! 20k is awesome!

  6. Busy lady. Wonderful post which reminds me to get my butt back in the chair.

  7. Thanks for sharing your process, PJ. I'm writing a trilogy of novellas, so the time frame is shorter. I needed a break between Books 1 and 2. I agree with Stacey - sometimes writing on another series or a stand alone project does wonders for my attitude and freshens my ideas when I return to the trilogy.