Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Your First Novel Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy


It snowed last night, something like eight inches of mingled snow and sleet.  We were dug out from Friday's big snow and now we're halfway dug out of last night's . . . and they've upgraded the weather watch to a blizzard warning!

Which means I'm not getting around much these days, and have nothing to report other than that I am, as ever, typing away.  ("Always tappety, tappety, tappety!  Eh, Mr. Gibbon?" as the Duke of Gloucester once remarked.)  So I thought I'd offer some good advice for any gonnabe writers out there:

Why Your First Novel Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy

Three reasons, basically.  One is artistic, the second psychological, and the third pragmatic.

The artistic reason is that at the beginning of your career, you're learning faster and improving more than you ever will again.  That, and the fact that the mere act of publishing a book makes you a better writer, means that the prose styles of your first and second volumes will probably be different.  Most readers won't pick up on this.  But the best ones will.  And your very best reader is yourself.  It's going to bug you to your dying day.

The psychological reason is that nine chances out of ten, no matter how much you love your first novel when it's fresh out of the oven, several years down the line you're going to end up disliking it.  It may not deserve your dislike.  But this is an observable phenomenon.  Writers wind up being embarrassed by their first.  And if your first is volume one of a trilogy, that's three books you're going to end up unhappy about.

The first two reasons are trivial, really.  But the pragmatic one is desperately important.  Here it is:

The timing of publishing is such that the "numbers" for your first book -- the sales figures, basically, the book's profitability -- won't be available by the time you turn in the second volume.  Since your editor liked the first book, the second one is a pretty sure sale.  But by the time you've finished writing the third volume, however, your publishing house will know the numbers.  And if the numbers aren't good, the book will not be bought.

Which means that book will not be sellable.  No other publisher will want to buy volume three of a trilogy whose first two volumes are owned by another house.  You'll have to wait until your first two books are out of print, revert the rights, and try to sell the trilogy anew.  But that will take years, and your dream-child will at that point be damaged goods.  Unless you've subsequently become extremely popular, it will probably still be unsellable.

Imagine how it must feel to have two published novels under your belt and then find you can't sell your third.  It must feel exactly like being fired for incompetence.  It is going to discourage the hell out of you.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who have started out with trilogies and gone on to have perfectly respectable careers.  But my best advice?  If at all possible, don't.

Oh, and there's a coda . . .

But if you simply must write a trilogy, then go on ahead with a clean conscience.  All the best books are books that the the author had no choice but to write.  And all writing advice is like pantyhose -- anybody who tells you that "one size fits all" is lying.

Above:  A cat in a lap, and an example for all who are experiencing a snow day.



Unknown said...

Can I disagree with you, Michael? Only one reason to do it – visible changes of auditory attention mechanism (of course I can’t discuss literature as one who is author, but considering games as one of entertainment elephants, I believe approach is same there). The prime goal (of publishers and thus authors) is catching “reader\player” attention; next one is feeding it with small sellable portions. It is key stone of online entertainment\gaming, it is almost rule for “off-line” gaming (can’t talk about whole entertainment) and looks like it is future of literature too.
First “Try one chapter -> buy whole book” then “Try chapter->buy(subscribe for) chapter (for less money, of course)”. I think it’ll be reality in 2-3 years. So, author (if he is looking forward for mass effect not for “niche success”) has to be ready for “serials-like” structure of his novel.
I wish I’m wrong, but all my developers experience cries “Yes! It is!”

P.S. #1 Sorry for my English :)

P.S. #2 What do you think about multimedia e-books (not just *.pdf of course)? I mean something like web page with cross-linking, pop-up illustrations, maps, whatever… Maybe even with background music? E-readers are marching away, i-pads are coming (not only apple’s product but class of devices).

David Stone said...

I find myself avoiding anything with a secondary title reading "Volume X of the Y of the Z". But then again, if I had never heard of _The Book of the New Sun_, I would missing out on something amazing.

genovefa said...

Plenty of snow in France too. The sun is having a rest:

As for writing trilogies or not, my belief is that when a reader truly enjoys reading a writer's book because of creativity, talent, because the writer is a wonderful story-teller, (s)he will be tempted to read the next books. Besides it is enriching to discover the differences and evolution in a writer's books in the course of a career since we all change.

Michael Swanwick said...

Gene Wolfe's first novel was OPERATION ARES, which I believe is the only one of his books that he actively dislikes. He didn't touch multi-volume works until relatively late in his career, when he felt he had the chops to work at extended length. I remember, in fact, how appalled all his fans were when we heard that he was working on a -- gasp!-- fantasy trilogy. Boy, did he have the last laugh.

You're perfectly free to disagree with me, Eugene, and I welcome your thoughts. But the approach you describe works better for publishers than for authors. For the publisher, the career of a new writer is negligible thing to risk -- there are plenty more where that one came from. But for the writer, that career is all he has.

If a stand-alone novel becomes a hit, the author can always write two more and turn it into a trilogy. That's what William Gibson did with NEUROMANCER. And if it's not, he can move on to better things. I shudder to think what my career would look like today if IN THE DRIFT had been volume one of a trilogy.

Multi-media books sound like enormous fun. But I'd wait until a publisher was willing to pay good money for one, and provide corporate help getting rights for the music, coders for the animation, and so on. Which, I regret to say, isn't likely to happen, simply because books are such low-budget items compared to movies or games.

If they're ever done, though, the sound-track is going to be the one feature most writers want. I've seen several books whose authors provided lists of the songs they recommended readers to listen to while reading them.

Unknown said...

I must agree with you about publisher comfort (and safety) against author’s career. But reality (at least mine) is the fact that publishers are shaping form and borders for authors, especially for newcomers! And form is serial. The basis for my reasoning is game production experience, but I believe publishers are same everywhere.
Michael Swanwick can choose the form of his upcoming book, but rookie has to catch breath of market wind. And I think the wind is serials-like stories (damn, I’m repeating. Probably it hurts because of my personal working story).
I bet Gibson planned to make trilogy when he was writing NEUROMANCER! To many “input/output” seen there (by my) as well as Sterling with Schismatrix. But it is just my supposition.

You wrote IN THE DRIFT in 1985 and multimedia madness started in 1998-2000 (maybe 2-4 years earlier in USA).

What was your plan for Vacuum Flowers? And why didn’t you wrote trilogy?

[about multimedia books]
I’m sure it is possible to optimize production cost for multimedia books. And one more reason of its appearance is the way new generation is consuming information – as complicated multimedia environment.
BTW one more thing in addition to visual and sound components of new media books – mini games. For example “Dogfight” or some kind of decryption mini-game for Stevenson’s Cryptonomicon.

P.S. Thank you for your answers. I was really impressed with your and Gibson's "Dogfight" (Vacuum Flowers was great too!) so it is really pleasure to visit your blog.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

The fourth comment on this page appears to be spam, just begging for deletion. (Hover your mouse over the url to see where it want to lead you...)

Michael Swanwick said...

Very quickly, because I've got to grab my bags and get out the door:

I've never worked in game production, but the economics are very different. Typical advance for a first novel? Five thousand dollars. With so little at stake, the editors are free to encourage originality in new writers. Any pressures toward trilogies come from within the writer -- from "the little Stalin of the soul."

I'm absolutely sure that NEUROMANCER was originally meant to be a stand-alone. Bill had already signed a contract for his second book, THE LOG OF THE MUSTANG SALLY (I didn't make that up) when his work went viral.

The reason VACUUM FLOWERS wasn't a trilogy was that I had an idea that would only support one volume. The plot was all aimed at the moment when Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark stands in the stardocks with her husband's coffin at her feet. If I had continued it into two more volumes, I'm afraid the whole thing would have been soggy and drear.

Thanks, Hannah's Dad. I appreciate the heads-up.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Michael for you answer! I don't think that literature and game production economics are so different as you wrote - for example, I think that advance payment now (after 2008) is kind of sci-fi, at least for average European studio with 1-2 games in portfolio, so 5K is not bad for single author (especially if he's student or downshifter). Anyway I understood your explanation of trilogy/single mechanic. My initial thought was rather about near future (2-4 years).
Have a safe trip!