The difficult second trilogy: escaping the Misery

Writing a book is a big endeavour. Writing a trilogy even vaster, and it has its own special new complications: will people feel satisfied? Will the ending pay off? Have I wrapped up all the important threads? But trying to write a second trilogy carries its own special considerations.

I’ve been trying to write this goddamn book for about 18 months now, since before my final edits for Crowfall were done. I’ll be honest, it’s not easy. The usual caveats should be stated: everyone writes differently, there’s no single method, my processes are unlikely to represent those of many other people. But here are some of the things that I’ve felt. I won’t say learned as I may be totally wrong and these are just feelings. Does it feel this way on trilogy 3 or 4? I have no idea. Who knows if I’ll ever get that far?

First up, people talk about the Difficult Second Novel. Whilst I thought I’d nailed it with Ravencry, I’ve come to discover that really, because all the characters are established and the world is well known, really books 2 and 3 are just continuations of book 1. So I don’t think I’ve ever had to face Book 2 before now, even if I’ve written three books. The same issues all remain.

The main things that have made trying to do this feel different to when I wrote Blackwing are:

  •  Staying on brand and reader expectations
  •  Making something new
  •  New jumping in points

Why does brand matter? Well, I figure it like this. I like to think that I’ve amassed a small but interested readership, who may well buy a new Ed McDonald book because they enjoyed the first three. These are 99% people who aren’t on the internet reading fantasy forums or Twitter, so their only expectations are going to be that they liked The Raven’s Mark books. This creates certain expectations: sword fights, some moral ambiguity but with clear good guys, steering clear of sexual violence, steering directly into other violence, occasional grimdark-poetry musings on the nature of existence, crazy monsters, and lots of heavy character interaction. But if I popped out a hard sci-fi, historical or urban fantasy novel, it’s quite possible that I might not bring those readers with me. Writing is both art and business: the artistic side might want to go and explore the concept of minimalist existence in 1930s Nebraska, but readers won’t always follow you when you ditch the brand you’ve worked to create. So there’s a feeling that you ought to be trying to keep in line with it. I can very much imagine a publisher looking at my Country Music Café story and being rather non-plussed.

So, on the one hand, you need to do the same thing again. “Familiar but different” is a phrase that gets used a lot in publishing. Sufficiently familiar to give readers grounding, sufficiently different that they get to see something new.

Secondly, and quite contradictorily, there’s a big old desire in me to do something that’s very different. A desire for originality. There are certain tropes that tend to find an audience even when they aren’t showing anything new: magic schools, for instance, are endlessly lapped up (including by me). But even if I want to see my name on the spines of more books, I also feel like I have to say something new. Something very different. Something that carries its own unique signature.

The thing that people always talk about when it comes to my books tends to be the Misery, and perhaps that’s the most difficult part of trying to write something new. If you’ve read Crowfall, then I hope that you feel like the story that takes place along the Range is all told-out. I don’t have anything more to tell you about the Misery, and we won’t be going back there any time soon. Those ideas are all spent, and I’m very much of the persuasion that you should get out on a high. For me, the conclusion of Crowfall is a Misery-high that I’ll never top. So I have to write something very different, and yet somehow keep those readers who really just want more Misery action happy – or at least hold their interest long enough that they enjoy a different story.

Then there are the characters. Galharrow was always an easy write for me. He’s just sort of there in my head, as are Ezabeth, Nenn, even the likes of Silpur or the Deep Kings. They never required any work to form, I just knew who they were. So writing about new heroes and new villains, I’m keenly aware that I need to create new lives. That doesn’t seem to come terribly naturally to me. It has taken a long time to understand these new figures of imagination, and I’m still not entirely sure that they’ve told me all about themselves yet.

So. New locations, new world, new heroes, new villains. It’s a lot of thinking, and its taken me a while to get to grips with any of them. But they’re coming.

Then there’s the message. Not all books need to have one, but I like to think that mine do. Maybe not so much a message, but a study of certain elements of our existence as people. Galharrow’s story is one of learning to love, facing up to guilt, overcoming grief and refusing to lie down and die. I can’t just mirror those with a new protagonist who just slots into Galharrow’s clothes. I want whoever we follow in a new series to explore different ideas. Well. Maybe not all new ideas – I doubt that I’ll ever get away from writing that loves conquers all and that grit is the path to victory, but I don’t think surly old soldiers can tell another story for me just now.

One of the things that I did want to do was try to grow a readership, rather than just pleasing those who follow on from The Raven’s Mark. To that end, this new work – assuming a publisher who wants to take it on – features multiple view points and is written in third person perspective. I even toyed, briefly, with present tense, although that idea has been washed away. Writing third person narration, with the reader knowing things that the characters don’t, presents a whole new bucket of writing-craft to learn. It probably took me at least 50k words just to get used to it, as the last 500k words I’ve written have been told from behind the eyes of one weary, grim-mouthed captain.

Where I am just now is that I’m 123k words into a manuscript (not finished), and have just decided on some sweeping changes to the characters and the world. I’ve just started going through the text to make those changes before I write the end sequences. And then… who knows? Publishing’s an uncertain game. Hopefully in a year or two I’ll be able to show you the product of all this thinking. But until then I should probably stop blogging and get back to writing it.


Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark series of novels. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at

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