Third book blues

I have on several occasions mentioned how I hard I found writing the third book of the Magic or Madness trilogy and how it was way way way harder than writing the other two books. I’ve also seen others struggle with the third book of a trilogy so I don’t think it’s just me what finds them super tricky.

Recently Cedar Librarian asked what was so difficult about writing the third book:

Okay, now I’m curious to know why the third one is always the hardest to write. I’d always thought it would be the easiest, because haven’t books one and two been pointing to book three all this time?

I didn’t answer then, but I will now.

When I first wrote the proposal of the trilogy I had a very clear idea of how it would end. However as I wrote books one and two they got further and further away from the proposal. When I got close to the end of the third book my original ending no longer worked.

But I wrote it anyway.

This was just sheer cussedness on my part. I had always had that ending in mind and by Thor’s mighty hammer I was going to have that ending!

It made no sense. I rewrote the ending at least six times. Probably more. And each time I changed the ending I had to go back and rewrite the rest of the book to match. More than six times!

I can’t imagine all writers are as stupidly stubborn as I am. But even if I hadn’t insisted on writing that wrong ending it still would have been a struggle. Cedar Librarian is right, books one and two do point the way. But they don’t only point in one direction, they point to lots of different ways to wrap up the trilogy. For two books you’ve been throwing a tonne of balls up in the air. In book three you have to some how catch them all and then arrange them in a way that makes sense.

That is brain-breakingly hard.

Also if the books in your trilogy are getting published as you go then you can’t go back and change things in books one or two to fit the changing storylines. You’ve created your bed and you have to bloody well lie in it.

As I wrote the third book there were many many things I wanted to add or change in the second book. But I couldn’t. It was finished and on shelves. It drove me mad!

If I ever write another trilogy (and I have taken a vow that I won’t) I’d like to write all three books first and only then sell them. I wonder if anyone’s ever done that? Very tricky. Cause it means writing three whole books with no money coming in. You’d have to write very quickly, or be working on other books at the same time, or be independently wealthy.

I’d love to hear from other trilogy writers. As I’ve only written one I’m hardly an expert. And I clearly made a stack of beginner errors.

Do any of you find the third book of a trilogy the hardest?

Do you have any tricks to avoid such trouble?

Do you prefer writing trilogies or series to writing standalones? (Diana just wrote very thoughtfully about series writing on her agent’s blog. I recommend it.)

I’ll admit I’m tempted by the idea of a series. But only one in which every book stands alone. There are continuing characters and the same world, but each book tells a complete story. I think it was the three-book arcs that did my head in.

I hope I’ve answered your question, Cedar.


  1. Cassie on #

    What a thing to post while I am on the first page of book three!

  2. Diana on #

    I can’t talk about this right now. I may cry.

    But if three is hard, I shudder to think what four will be.

  3. Cedar on #

    You have definitely answered! This is wonderful and informative. Thanks for humoring a non-writing librarian. It’s really different being the end user on a book. Or I guess it would be, not having been the creator of a book. But when we reviewers read through a trilogy, one of the things we look for in the last book is consistency of plot and how it ties everything together. I guess I always thought it would be easiest to write the third book because either the writer knows where she’s going because of what she wrote in books one and two (if the ending of three wasn’t solidified at the writing of one and two), or she’s been working backwards from the ending of book three. So much to learn, so little time.

  4. Justine on #

    Diana: Do not despair! Your Secret Society books are way more standaloney and way less arcy than my trilogy. You’ll be just fine!

    Cedar: I bet there are writers who do exactly that—write the ending of book 3 first and then work back. Sounds like a very smart thing to do.

  5. PJ Hoover on #

    One thing I found easier about the third book was how well I knew my characters by that time.

  6. sherwood on #

    Good thoughts–and thanks for pointing to Diana’s posting. I’ve always perceived those same types of sequels, the easiest model being the old picaresque that wanders hither and yon with no structure. Second easiest is the old mystery and TV model, wherein you despite the main characters roughly back at the starting point so that anyone may enter anywhere along the line…which thinking, I believe now, is counter-productive. I think watchers and readers actually like romans fleuverss, that is, long story arcs, but the writer has to know the structure of the arc from the gitgo, even if not all the smaller arcs therein.

    There is one problem with the natural long-arc writer, and that is figuring out where to divide off the smaller arcs, particularly when the structure is kind of like a wing, with overlapping arcs building toward that one central arc. That structure is a triangle, so dividing it off into pie-shaped pieces can be a brain-buster.

  7. Alma Alexander on #

    I am SO there right now, about three quarters of the way through my third and final volume for the “Worldweavers” series – trying to tie up loose ends but not in a manner that will bore readers stupid and not ALL of them because I like leaving with a BIT of mystery, with a sense that hte character goes ON after she and I part company at the end of the book and isn’t just a creation who has no life other than to sit in my trilogy and vanishes as soon as you close the book.

    Book 2 is hard for different reasons – because it’s the sagging middle, it has to work as a story while ALSO acting as bridge between the intro (#1) and the finale(#3), and many second books or second movies in literary or filmatic trilogies fail because of that, because the second book is simply not paid enough attention to, the writer is writing a trilogy and therefore there need to be three books and here’s book 2, really, go away and don’t bother me while I write teh story I REALLY wanted to write (book3)…

    …and then you hit book 3 and you realise that it’s all been child’s play until this moment.

    There are readers out there who will have followed the arc. They will Have Expectations. THey will want certain things to pan out in certain ways. This may not match your original, or indeed ANY, vision at all. There need to be subtle references to events or people in books 1 and 2 and how they affected or changed your character so that (S)he turns up in book 3 the way (s)he is. Book 3 is equal parts juggling flaming brands, psychology 101, the cavalry coming to the rescue around the nearest mountain, and frantically deciding what is the most precious thing that you would rescue in case of fire and flood and girding your loins for the catastrophe.

    I’m close enough to the end of book 3 to smell the end now – and I’ve rewritten each chapter at least three times as I’ve been writing. It’s been slow, searingly slow, agonizingly slow going, especiclaly for someone like me who is naturally a fast writer and for whom stories just… happen.

    I”m not sure I want to write another trilogy. But it’s been… quite a ride.

  8. liliya on #

    Thanks for this and for pointing to diana’s post. This is so relevant for me right now. I’m writing a series of three stand-alone books sharing the same main character and setting. I only realised I wanted to write three books when I was coming to the end of the first. I wrote that one totally for fun, but when I started on the second i thought – this is silly, I’m going to write three whole books just for fun? So I sent out to publishers and managed to get a book deal, with book 1 coming out next year.

    I pretty much sailed through writing book 2. But the third… oh, the third. Total block. It’s not because I have a lot of loose ends to tie up, as they’re definitely stand-alone. Maybe its because this third book has been in my head for so long, turning over and getting more ideas and baggage and aspirations stuck to it, that now its simply too huge and can never be as good as I envisaged. I think it might be related to getting the book deal too. When I was writing for fun it was just that – fun. I didn’t worry too much about who was going to read it or whether it was publishable, I just let the writing take me along. Now it seems like everything I write has to be serious and I have to shape it to be a certain thing. I feel like I’ve lost that balance between your creativity or muse or whatever you call it taking you for a ride, and you telling it where to go (if you follow my meaning).

    Anyway I’m pretty much in despair over book 3 right now and wondering whether to just give up.

    I sold the first book as part of a two-book deal but the other book is not book 2 in the series, it’s unrelated. I think my agent is wondering what to do with book 2 now – whether to try and sell it to the same publisher as a sequel, or whether to offer it as an entirely separate title. She assures me that it’s hard to sell sequels unless the first title does very well very quickly. Anyone else been in a similar situation?

  9. Rebecca on #

    “I’d like to write all three books first and only then sell them.”

    wells, you could always get a day job again for three years. but there’s any number of reasons why that wouldn’t work too well, especially for someone who travels all over the place. and i imagine that once you’ve been freelance for a while, it’d be pretty hard to go back to having to be somewhere at eight every morning. yech. probably just not writing trilogies is a better plan. 😛

    “I bet there are writers who do exactly that—write the ending of book 3 first and then work back.”

    now that would make me crazy. eep.

    “I think watchers and readers actually like romans fleuverss, that is, long story arcs”

    yes!! yes yes yes. i loved alias. and i enjoyed lost a lot until it got utterly frustrating. i got tired of shows (and book series) that were strictly episodic pretty early on. especially when writers seem to completely forget about everything that happened in previous episodes. arms are magically regrown, traumatized characters are suddenly just fine. nope, i want complicated story arcs, all the way. 😀

  10. Tim Pratt on #

    Yes! I’m a big fan of series that have continuing characters, but where each novel stands alone (at least, I like them when they’re done well). My own new series is just such a beast, and I recently finished the first draft of the third volume. Though I like to think I’m working in some over-arcing character development throughout the whole series, the plot of each is nice and self-contained. Writing with ongoing characters is loads of fun, actually, and I introduce enough new antagonists and secondary characters and shift the focus around sufficiently that I keep myself entertained.

  11. jenny davidson on #

    i have cunningly converted my projected trilogy into a pair of novels instead. (only if i get to the end of the sequel and the story is not done it will have to be a trilogy after all! but i think not…)

  12. Garth Nix on #

    Trilogy = able to be hidden craziness
    6 book series = gibbering madness
    7 book series = frothing insanity

    But actually the way I approach all of them, and standalone books too, is a chapter at a time*. I tell myself “just a 3,000/4,000/5,000 word chapter” and then when i finish it, I feel like I’ve achieved a milestone. Eventually I realise there are no more chapters to write and the book is done.

    Once you start thinking “two trillion words to go” you’re in trouble . . .

    Also, I think about the ‘big story’ that will be told through all the books, and make notes for usually a year or more before I even write that first chapter.

    * as in the journey of a lifetime begins with a single lurch, a skip or a stumble forwards

  13. Penni on #

    “also if the books in your trilogy are getting published as you go then you can’t go back and change things in books one or two to fit the changing storylines.”

    I almost stopped writing Drift and invented a time machine instead.

    However, when things that were just little (unplanned) threads in the first book suddenly take on new meaning and richness because of what you write in the third book, it’s pretty much the best feeling in the world, when all those dots do finally connect up.

    I have said the same thing about trilogies. Never again.

  14. joycemocha on #

    All of this makes me glad that I sat down and am writing the trilogy in one fell swoop–oops, well, you know what I mean…

    I also ended up writing book 2 *after* book 3. Guess what, the same issues still raise their ugly heads–and book 2’s ending does not necessarily affect book 3, but still…sigh.

  15. Laini Taylor on #

    Well, this is very, very bad news for me. Very bad! Because I’ve been having a “brain-breaking” time with the SECOND book in my series! It isn’t a trilogy, though — my plan was 5 books (WHY OH WHY???) — so the weight of resolution isn’t on the third. I keep thinking there’s no way the next one could be harder than this one. I’m just going to keep telling myself that. . . for now!

  16. Glenda on #

    I just received the first author’s copy of Book 3 of The Mirage Makers in the mail, and I have never been so glad to see a finished book in my life. This was my second trilogy, and Book 3 of the first trilogy didn’t cause all the angst that this one did…

    I am still trying to work out why. Basically, I couldn’t get the pacing right, especially difficult when I had to span 7 years in the protag’s life. The book ended up 160,000 words, but I reckon I must have written a quarter of a million to get there!

    Now the nail biting wait to find out if the reading public thinks I got it right…

  17. Libba on #

    I would talk about how hard it is to write the third book in a trilogy, but it’s difficult to talk with the barrel of a gun in my mouth.

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