Completing an accidental trilogy

Melinda Salisbury
Opinion - Children Thursday, 02 March 2017

Melinda Salisbury on how she wrote her first YA novel, then rewrote it in order to create two further parts to the story

Writing a trilogy is a tricky beast. On the one hand, you have the luxury of knowing definitively what you're going to be working on for the next few years. That allows you room to create a bigger world, to explore it more deeply, to include more characters and more relationships, and have your creations travel far and wide. You can build longer story arcs, and sow seeds throughout the series to harvest later on.

But on the other hand, it requires you to pay very careful attention to what you write in the first book, so it doesn't come back to haunt you in later books. It also requires you to think very hard about whether the story you're telling really needs the mileage you're offering it. There's nothing worse than a story that goes on a little too long. Familiarity can breed contempt. If there are no surprises left, why should anyone want to keep going - readers or authors? But at the same time, how do you know when it's time to say goodbye?

When I first wrote The Sin Eater's Daughter, I didn't realise it was going to be a series. To be honest, I didn't realise it was going to be a book at all. What started out as a kind of imagination-exorcism to get rid of a red-headed girl who'd taken up residence in my mind, quickly became an obsession. I was writing two or three chapters a day, sending them to a friend, deciding to write more every time she asked what happened next. Halfway through writing I went to Prague, expecting that the holiday would cure me. It only made things worse, and I wrote things into the book that I saw and learned there. It was there, in fact, that it started to become a series, but I didn't know that yet. I only knew I'd accidentally written a book and I quite liked it.

I didn't know what to do when my soon-to-be agent asked if it was a series. All of the advice I'd read told me to write a standalone, with series potential. So that's what I said to her (I bet she'd heard it a thousand times before). She asked me then, in that case, what would happen next.

I told her. Until then, I hadn't known quite what would happen next, but in that moment I knew. The trouble was, that meant re-writing a huge chunk of the first book, so what happened next would have a foundation.

This is what it means when I write a series. To build foundations, to part-build walls, to dig up the foundations and lay new ones. It doesn't help that I'm incapable of sticking to a plan. The Scarecrow Queen went off-plot within the first two chapters. I know there are some writers who are rigorous in their planning, but - much the same as when I'm cooking, or doing anything in fact - things change and I go off map. For example, there is a very minor - barely namedropped - character from The Sin Eater's Daughter who makes a reappearance in The Scarecrow Queen - something I didn't know was going to happen until it did. There was nothing that made me think it would happen, and then there he was. It makes writing very exciting, but also terrifying, in a who's driving this thing kind of way.

Everyone will always tell you that a second book is the hardest, and it was the same for me. Maybe a little easier than for some, as a series does afford you a solid direction, and a list of things it has to do to facilitate the third. What I didn't appreciate was how hard it was to write to a much shorter deadline, after taking a luxuriant amount of time writing my first book, and how intimidating it would be having to follow up a book with another one. You want to do better, but can you? You want to build on what you've done, but is it possible? You're aware second books are known as filler books, and you don't want to write a filler book. There's a lot of pressure.

By contrast, writing the third book was a piece of cake. After spending three years with the characters, and watching them grow up and change, it came very smoothly. Too smoothly. Before I'd expected it, the final scenes were written, and it was over. It ended the way I wanted it to, but it had ended.

I'm not - as my editors and agent will tell you - very sentimental about my work. I'm very happy to edit and cut things, to delete scenes or even characters if they don't serve the plot. My books are like a hive: if some element isn't pulling its weight, it has to go. So I didn't expect to be sentimental about the series ending. I'd already started to work on something else, already had that exciting fizzing feeling that makes first drafts bearable. And I didn't feel sentimental about it at all, it was natural, it was time.

That is, until other people read it and asked what to do next. Readers saying they loved it, but they were so sad it was over, would there be a short story collection, would I ever go back to it and write more about them?

Then I was sad too. Because it was the ending of something I couldn't do again.

I'll never write another debut series. This was it. And while I hope I go on to write many more, this one will always be where it began, and where I was first blooded, first exhilarated, first despairing. First proud. Where I was first an author, with my name on a spine, on a shelf in a bookshop. Where my dream first came true. And I don't think I've fully appreciated before, just how wonderful that is.

When not working on her next novel Melinda Salisbury is busy reading and travelling, both of which are now more addictions than hobbies. She lives by the sea, somewhere in the south of England.

The Scarecrow Queen, out today (2 March) from Scholastic, is the highly anticipated and captivating finale in the internationally bestselling trilogy that began with The Sin Eater's Daughter.

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