What It’s Like To Finish A Trilogy

Matt Griffin, author of The Ayla Trilogy, chats about his experience of writing a trilogy: the inspiration, the method and his three central thoughts!

Ayla’s adventure was always envisioned as a trilogy. The sacrosanct Three Acts; beginning, middle and end; the ‘monomyth’ of the hero’s journey. Three books in which to take a character from normality to abnormality and back again, nicely tied off at the end, with everything as it should be.

But I wanted to put my own stamp on that, the same way I wanted to filter the mysticism of ancient Ireland through my own (somewhat macabre) imagination. So my first thought was:

I’m going to start with my hero already in trouble.

So on the very first page of the first book, Ayla (our hero) is trapped underground, far from home (very, very far – not in terms of distance, but in terms of time) and she has no idea how she got there. She will have to work it out herself, and while she does that, the reader does too. You will learn about the how and why just as she does, and her three best friends do too. Which brings me to my second thought:

 I want this whole thing to be about loyalty. 

The bonds of loyalty between a person and their friends and family is something I consider myself well-versed in, being blessed as I am with abundance of both. And so I wanted to see what happens to the bonds between friends when those friends are placed in lethal levels of danger, in an environment that has no relation to what they think of as reality. And what happens to the bonds of family when you realise that they are not who they say they are. Or worse, they are behaving unlike themselves – in a very unsettling way. With these ties tested under severe stress, the characters learn about themselves, and surprise themselves (and hopefully the reader) with what they are capable of. When the world you know is swiped from under your feet, and you are faced with an 80-foot ogre who wants to eat you, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your true nature comes to the surface.

My final thought was:

I do not want to tie this off neatly at the end.

Ok, the whole thing was not just based on three thoughts. There was a lot more I wanted to explore thematically – like what happens when fantasy meets reality head-on, and is ‘magic’ necessarily super- or preternatural (maybe our mundane reality is magic. I certainly like to think so). But sticking to the tidy three-acts trope, my last major consideration was that everything would not go back to normal at the end of the adventure. No story ends with everything as it was at the start –  – characters have to undergo change. Ending a story with a ‘their-lives-will-never-be-the-same-again’ sunset is hardly a first – I’m not claiming otherwise. But it was important to me that when you finish this trilogy you, the reader, might find yourself imagining what happens next, and wonder: do they all really live happily ever after? I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say the characters are equipped for more adventure.

And so that brings me to the question I was meant to address at the start: what is it like to finish it?

Before I wrote books, I admit I used to cringe slightly at authors who referred to their characters as if they were real people. How misguided I was. When you start to create these characters, they are just that: characters. They have names, some personality traits, a bit of family background. And then you throw these barely-known characters into the wringer of high adventure and they become people. You actually get to know them as you write. That may sound slightly cheesy, but it’s true. And I bet if you read a story where the writer didn’t believe his characters were real people, you didn’t like it. If the writer doesn’t believe them, why would they expect anyone else to? As the story unfolds while you write, the cast of your story reacts just as they should because you believe in them. And, I don’t mind telling you, you love them. And I don’t mind telling you more: as I wrote the last lines of The Ayla Trilogy, I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I knew I was saying goodbye to them forever. Finishing their story was both happy (the sense of achievement) and sad (the sense of loss). Bittersweet, like releasing a bird you nurtured back to health over weeks and months with a blubbering cry of: ‘Fly! Be free!’; missing it terribly, but knowing you are doing the right thing.

Of course, the hope is that they are strong enough to live on in the imagination of the reader. And in that sense, they can go on indefinitely. That is a warming thought.

Now, it’s on to the next adventure, and new characters to write and love and let fly. But I will certainly never forget Ayla, Benvy, Sean and Finny. And I hope that if you (or a young reader belonging to you) loved them too, they’ll linger a while in that vast expansive imagination of yours.

Matt Griffin, May 2017

The Ayla Trilogy is available here and in all good bookshops!

 

Three Things About a Trilogy by Ruth Frances Long

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“When I finished A Crack in Everything, I thought that was that, to be honest. I had finished the story. But the story hadn’t finished with me.”

With the recent release of A Darkness at the End, the third and final instalment in her contemporary fantasy series, Ruth Frances Long chats to us about beginning, continuing and completing a trilogy.

I started A Crack in Everything, the first in my series of Dubh Linn books, after seeing a piece of graffiti on a door in Dublin. It was like the first breadcrumb in a trail that led me a very long way, down some unexpected paths, and took up several years altogether. Of course it didn’t all happen at once. Stories sometimes tease themselves out of the writer’s brain; they are tricky like that, waiting for the writer to discover the relevant pieces that will slot into place.

Dublin is an amazing place in which to set an urban fantasy. It’s been here for over a thousand years, and the oldest parts still peek through the various modernisations. It has been home to so many writers, it seems to be made of stories. Every street, every building, every corner … You never know what might be embedded in those stones. It is easy to trace the original Black Pool after which Dublin (and indeed Dubh Linn) is named, to walk around the park where it is said to have been. We can climb the hills surrounding the city, wander down alleyways that could lead anywhere, visit libraries that are like slices of another time. Research comes easy when the stories are right there, waiting to be read. It’s not just the big important buildings either: it’s the streets, the lanes, the public parks, even the basement of a coffee shop. They’re all in there. Even the fantastical elements of Dubh Linn, while fictional creations, are composed of elements found in the city and surrounding hills. Perhaps the stories seep up from the land itself.

The second thing was the legend of how the Sídhe – angels who refused to take part in the war in heaven and were expelled to earth, to Ireland, instead – came to be. The blend of Celtic and Judeo-Christian stories shouldn’t have really worked. But somehow it did. I’m always amazed at the wealth of stories in the Irish Celtic tradition. From the earliest to the medieval, from un-dateable folklore to its descendants, the modern urban legends we all know so well, the stories link together. Sometimes I didn’t even expect them to, but on some fundamental level I found links, similarities and shared themes, a way for stories to just lock together and work.

And finally: Izzy and Jinx. And Dylan and Silver. Clodagh, Ash and Marianne … All of these characters who started off as ideas and became something more, people that seem so very real to me now that they have a habit of wandering around elsewhere when I try to make them follow what I laughingly call ‘the plot’.

Setting, folklore and characters: three things which came together to make a story of three parts. It was an exhilarating and exciting adventure, telling this story. When I finished A Crack in Everything, I thought that was that, to be honest. I had finished the story.

But the story hadn’t finished with me. When the idea of a trilogy was suggested, my poor brain immediately started coming up with ideas, with myths that would work, monsters that would slot into that world. Places in Dublin suddenly jumped to mind, places that would make wonderful, eerie settings. New characters started to form, ready to help continue the tale.

Of course it wasn’t that easy, because my characters were my characters and my brain doesn’t work that way. I had a plan. I was going to take them all over Ireland this time. We were going to visit ancient sites and wonderful, different locations. If A Crack in Everything had explored Dublin, I wanted A Hollow in the Hills and A Darkness at the End to do the same thing with Ireland. I started into the research – the Giant’s Causeway, the Dunmore Caves, the Poulnabrón Dolmen and Newgrange.

But no. Not my characters. They were not going to leave their city, no matter what I thought. The furthest I could get them was Bray Head. A Hollow in the Hills turned out to be hard work. At one point I cut over 30,000 words, leaving me with only 8,000 – but those 8,000 words were still the beginning. They were solid. Once I gave up trying to explore further afield, I decided to go deeper into the city, just like before, and suddenly it all clicked. It worked. Once that happened, the book just flowed.

I approached the third book with a bit more trepidation. I thought, well, if book two was hard, book three might actually kill me. And with my characters, anything was possible.

In another twist of fate, this didn’t happen at all. I spent a wonderful summer and autumn writing A Darkness at the End. Things just slotted into place. The story took on a life of its own, and those characters who had been so stubborn and difficult the year before just let the story unfold for me. Things I had never planned fitted into place and made the story so much stronger.

I’d love to say I had intricately mapped it all out after the beginning, with charts and spreadsheets … I didn’t. I was as surprised as anyone.

This is part of the real magic of writing, the way stories wind themselves around the places and the people we create. The way they draw in all the unexpected items that you come across – the stories, the places, the little details – and use them to create a whole new world. The way the mind keeps track of all those threads, subconsciously of course (no, I don’t really believe that my characters have minds of their own, honestly).

I never meant to write a trilogy. It just kind of happened.

Ruth Frances Long, October 2016

Kim Hood on writing Plain Jane

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Kim Hood

This month the wonderful Kim Hood shares her experience of writing her most recent Young Adult novel Plain Jane and describes what it means to be an author.

Authors are a strange breed of people. Most of the time you might not notice how strange we are. We learn how to adapt; how to hide what we do.

What we do is spend most of our lives cataloguing observations into a vast storehouse of senses and feelings. We are always noticing and noting: a smell that defines a place, that snippet of conversation that sums up a relationship, the fleeting look of pain on an otherwise happy face. Anything at all. Authors are never bored. We are happy to sit in a corner and soak up every mundane detail.

Then there is this other part of our brain that is always asking questions. I wonder why? What if? What does it all mean?

At some point mixed up bits of stored observation and something we wonder about collide – and the seed of a story is born. In my case, the catalyst of this birth is almost always character.

So it was with Plain Jane.

Years ago, I had one glorious year of university when I didn’t have to work at the same time. With time to spare I decided to volunteer on the children’s ward of a hospital, doing arts and crafts with kids one afternoon each week. This particular hospital was the hub of treating childhood cancer for towns and villages in a huge radius.

I got to know a lot of the kids, many of whom were there for weeks and months at a time, and some of whom were very ill. They were amazing kids, who almost always took their illness in their strides, dragging IV poles behind them. The nurses and doctors doted on them and volunteers like me came in to make their days more joyful. A weary parent was by their side day and night.

While it was very sad when some of these kids died, and while I did store up details of what a hospital setting is like, it wasn’t the kids in hospital that interested me. Not in an ‘I-must-write-a-story-about-this’ sort of way, in any case.

It was the kids in the corner that had me wondering. What about the brothers and sisters of these terribly ill children? Many families travelled from towns and villages miles away to access treatment. What was it like for the siblings who didn’t see their mum or their dad most of the time? At a time when you are searching for who you are, and want to be, what is it like to be in the shadow of a sibling who – by necessity – takes a whole family’s focus?

That wondering stayed with me for a very long time. I needed the right character to answer the questions I had, though. I’m learning that, for me, starting to write before I have a character to guide me, will just not work. I can wonder all I want, but until I have someone in my head to have a dialogue with, my questions will remain vague and hard to pin down.

Eventually, the right character did come along. Jane. One day she appeared in my head, sat down and wouldn’t leave me. That was when the work of writing her story started. Perhaps I would not have started had I known just how hard it would be.

With a sister being treated for cancer over many years, Jane was the right person, but that didn’t mean she was going to answer my questions easily. I have to say that she was the most uncooperative character I have imagined yet. I spent many months in front of a computer screen with very little coming from her – until finally her story poured out in torrents over a few weeks. Thank god, as I was writing to a deadline.

Still, when I got to the end of her story I had to forgive her for being so difficult. There was much more to her than I first saw. (Stuff I can’t tell you about without giving away spoilers!) We have been through a lot, Jane and I, and I am really fond of her at this point. I hope you will be too!

Kim Hood, June 2016

Both of Kim Hood’s books, Plain Jane and Finding a Voice are available here and in all good bookshops!