‘Trilogies, Trilogies, Trilogies’ at the Emerging Writers’ Festival

Resisting the urge to devote  the session to talking about Back to the Future, this trio chatted enthusiastically about trilogies

Resisting the urge to devote the session to Back to the Future, this trio of authors chatted enthusiastically about trilogies

‘Even if you evolve the story, you can leave the character imperfect.’ – Nicholas J. Johnson.

Nicholas J. Johnson chatted with Aime Kaufman and  David Henley about their love of trilogies, and what they think makes for a captivating trilogy, as part of the National Writers’ Conference at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Here are a few highlights.

How do you plan a trilogy?

Aime and Meagan Spooner co-authored The Starbound Trilogy.  All three books have different stories, but none could happen without the other. Thorough world-building helped with planning the series. Aime lists the Legend series by Marie Lu as her favourite trilogy, as ‘it answers all the questions it poses’.

Nicholas wrote Chasing The Ace as a stand-alone novel. He signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, with an option for a third. The second book will be stand-alone, with a character from Chasing The Ace appearing in both books.

David said the secret to creating a successful subsequent book is to save events that happen to the world after the story ends. He described his Pierre Jnr trilogy as ‘a celtic knot’.

How do you avoid middle-book syndrome?

Nicholas listed The Matrix and The Hunger Games as examples of titles that suffered middle-book syndrome, as he said no one cared what happened by the time The Matrix Reloaded ended, and Catching Fire was not distinguishable from The Hunger Games.

Aime believes all writers should ask themselves what the absolute climax of the series is, and to relentlessly question themselves. Aime created a whole new set of characters and conflicts in her second book.

David said writers should raise the stakes with each book.

What do you do if your publisher is only interested in one book, and not the whole trilogy?

Aime recommends telling your agent at the outset if you are planning a trilogy, so that you have the right to publish sequels elsewhere if the publisher is only interested in one book. You can consider self-publishing, but must be mindful about how difficult self-publishing in. Importantly, set up a website and keep in contact with your readership.

David suggested authors need to carefully consider their story arch.

Nicholas recommended asking yourself if your work is really suitable for a trilogy, or whether it is better off as a standalone novel.

How do you prevent subsequent books from sounding too similar?

While Nicholas’ trilogy have the same characters, each book is narrated by a different character and set in a different city.

David avoids the general hero structure and keeps the plot unravelling.

Nicholas suggested if your character ends up back at the same place at the end, then you will end up repeating yourself in the subsequent book.

How do you make sure your character keeps developing in subsequent books?

Aime noted that each time you develop the characters and plot, the scale of the story should evolve.

Nicholas advised against putting a bow on the character at the end of the first book. ‘Even if you evolve the story, you can leave the character imperfect’.

Highlights from The Emerging Writer’s Festival – 5×5 Rules of Writing


In quite possibly the most inspirational (and most tweeted) event to date, each of the five Emerging Writers’ Festival ambassadors shared five rules of writing they wish they had known when they were emerging writers. The session was hosted by the Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Sam Twyford-Moore. Here are a few highlights from the session.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

“When others around us rise up, we rise up.”

1. Write what you know to be true

Tell the truth as you know it to be.

2. Use your failures

The common perception is that life intrudes on writing, but there are short stories everywhere. Do you work in retail? Write a poem about a shopping receipt.

3. Throw your hat in the ring

You never know what might happen! Maxine submitted Foreign Soil on the very last day of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

4. Stay in the sweet spot

It took Maxine a long time to find the style and type of content that she was happy with. You will know what the sweet spot is when you’ve reached it. Hang on to it. Trust in it. Write for that sweet spot, not for success.

5. Community

Writing is such a solitary thing. Make connections. Join a writers’ group. Attend festivals. Maxine discovered writers who share her interests and enrich her own writing through her involvement at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Felix Nobis

“The writing must always win out.”

1. Publishing doesn’t always happen with the written word

Success can be achieved through recordings and performance. Felix’s writing emerged through spoken word poetry scene.

2.  Avoid tension between writing and publishability

The writing must always win out. Felix abandoned projects because he felt they weren’t publishable. If the writing is good and you let it be what it wants to be, then the right form of publishing will emerge.

3. Be a good manager to yourself

Get informed about everything – local, state and international grants, commissions, competitions.

3. A grant application is never a place to demonstrate one’s creative writing skills

Take your writer’s hat off and put your manager’s hat on. Meet all of the criteria.

4. Know what you are asking, when asking someone to read your work

Know why you are asking someone to read your work. Be clear in why and what you are hoping to hear from them. If you give your work to someone you respect, then respect the feedback they give you.

5. Be aware of how you write best and then make time for it

Felix does the best writing on the train from Melbourne to Sydney. Find the time and place that works best for you, and write – it’s the only way we can beat the notion that writing is something we do on the side.

Krissy Kneen

“Fuck everyone else. Now it’s personal.”

1. It’s easier to write a bad first draft and make it better than to face a blank page

You’re going to hit a rough patch. Your novel will fall apart. This tends to happen around the 20,000 word mark – the story and characters have been set up and something has to happen to steer the story in a different direction. You will be tempted to ditch your manuscript and start on other ideas, but these other stories will also fall apart.

2. Be careful what you read

Books can feed our souls or suck us dry. ‘Read up’. Read books that stretch beyond your reach; these books will open new possibilities for your own writing.

3. Develop a split personality

Half of you needs to be business and the other half needs to be the writer. The business person needs to be aware of what is being published and winning awards. Be informed and realistic – 2,000 copies are decent sales in the Australian market, but they won’t make you rich. Know all this and then forget about it when you write. As the writer, the only contact is between you and the words on the page – you are a market of one. ‘Fuck everyone else, now it’s personal’.

4. ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise’

Be nice to everyone! Australia is a tiny industry. Buy all your books that your friends write, and they will buy yours. Buy your books at your local bookseller – Amazon doesn’t care what books you buy, but Readings does.

5. Step away from Goodreads

Everyone is on Goodreads and everyone is a critic. Fine. Just don’t read reviews about your work. Free-for-all review sites are filled with illiterate trolls. Krissy read out examples of an everyman critic, including the following review of The Tempest by William Shakespeare: ‘The Tempest is an outdated attempt at a sci-fi story’. Krissy quoted The Guardian journalist, Van Badham: ‘comments are what chronic pig masturbators do with their other hand’.

 Benjamin Law

“All writing is vomiting, then cleaning it up.”

1. Break your goal down

The life of a writer is not conducive to mental health. Set weekly, daily and hourly goals. You need to be able to congratulate yourself at the end of each day.

2. Never be without ideas

Your ideas are your currency. Generate your ideas. Join a book club. Carry a notebook. Put your ideas down, otherwise you’ll forget them.

3. Exercise

There is strong correspondence between moving your body and moving your brain. Whenever you have writers’ block, move!

4. Get an accountant

Know your rights as an artist, and what you can claim. Put a percentage of money earned away for tax purposes. Seek out and meet with an arts accountant – it will cost you in the short term, but will help you save in the long term.

5. Choose your projects wisely

When just starting out, we try to do everything. Work for free knowing what you want to get out of it, then get out. Keep moving forward. Benjamin referenced Laurie Anderson, an American composer and musician, who believes you should only pursue a writing venture if you can say yes to at least two of the following questions: is it fun? Is it interesting? Will it make money?

Hannah Kent 

“Write from the soul.”

 1. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader

Ask yourself why you love a particular book, and then read it again. Read everything. Before you work out what you like, you need to work out what you don’t like. The more words you know, the greater control you have over your own language. Buy books. If you can’t afford new books, buy second-hand. If you can’t afford second-hand books, get a library card. Get a library card, anyway. If Hannah is struggling with her writing and needs some inspiration, she reads.

2. Cultivate empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share with others. Empathetic people have keener insight into the human heart. Empathy will help you forget yourself, so you can write about others.  An empathetic writer will be able to create character motivation and background. ‘Every person is the protagonist in their own life’. Every person wants something. People watch. Conflict arises when these desires cannot be met.

3. Work hard

Raw talent doesn’t count for much without hard work. If you want to write, you have to be disciplined. You have to learn to write even when you are completely uninspired. Maintain a professional attitude. Hold yourself accountable. Be respectful, considered and well-mannered. Be diligent. Be industrious.

4. Don’t wait until you feel ready to write – start now

Expect writing to be difficult. Understand that writing is solitary and plagued with self-doubt. So much of writing is necessarily uncertain and unexplained. Be patient with yourself, and accept difficulties as part of the writing process. Be brave and do it anyway. It is actually writings difficulty which makes it beautiful.

5. Write from the soul

A place that is wholly yourself. Write from a place which moves you. Write about something that means something to you, or write about a meaning that you’re searching for. You’ll know that you’re writing from the soul, because writing will become the reward.

Reproduced with permission from Emerging Writer's Festival