The Trilogy Trick – Guest Spot with Michelle Gagnon

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I am very excited to have Michelle Gagnon as my guest, but she is definitely no stranger to TKZ. Many of you know Michelle was a former contributor extraordinaire to our blog and I’m excited to hear her thoughts on trilogies and her latest release. Welcome, Michelle!

Don't Look Now HC C

Hi folks, I’ve missed you! So good to be back on TKZ.

With the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, trilogies are all the rage these days. In fact, when I first pitched an idea for a young adult novel to my publisher, they specifically requested a trilogy. I agreed, because hey, what author wouldn’t want to guarantee the publication of three more books? Besides, I’d written a series before. How much harder could a trilogy be?

The first one, DON’T TURN AROUND, turned out to be the easiest book I’ve ever written. The rough draft flowed out of me in eight weeks; it was one of those magical manuscripts that seemed to write itself.

I sat back down at the computer, confident that the second and third would proceed just as smoothly; even (foolishly) harboring hopes that I’d knock the whole thing out in under six months.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the thing: in a regular series, even though the characters carry through multiple books (and occasionally, plotlines do as well), they’re relatively self-contained. In the end, the villain is (usually) captured or killed; at the very least, his evil plan has been stymied.

Not so in a trilogy. For this series, I needed the bad guy—and the evil plot—to traverse all three books. Yet each installment had to be self-contained enough to satisfy readers. 

Suffice it to say that books 2 and 3 were a grueling enterprise. But along the way, I learned some important lessons on how to structure a satisfying trilogy:

  1. Each book has its own arc. Well, that’s obvious, right? But what this really means is that book 3 can’t feel like a mere continuation of book 2. Even if your villain/evil plot spans all three books, you need to provide resolution at the end of each installment. This is a good place to employ what I’ve dubbed, “The Henchman Rule.” At the end of each book, someone needs to be held accountable; otherwise your hero/heroine won’t seem to be making any headway. And the best solution for this? Get rid of the main baddie’s number 2, his right hand man. My favorite example is the stripping of Saruman’s powers at the end of The Two Towers. Sauron must wait to be dealt with in The Return of the King, but his main wizard is handily dispatched by Gandalf (suffice it to say, I didn’t have much of a social life in junior high school). 
  2. Avoid “Middle Book Syndrome.” What I discussed above is particularly challenging in the second book of any trilogy. This is the bridge book, the one where the characters need to move forward in their quest, but not too far forward. Traditionally, this is also the book that concludes with your main character (or characters) beaten down, exhausted, and uncertain of the possibility of success. Which can be a pretty depressing note to end on, unless you also provide them with a key: something that will help them surmount obstacles in book 3. That key can be any number of things: more information about the evil plan, the villain’s only vulnerability, etc. But the main goal is to set the stage for book 3, while still wrapping up enough threads to keep your readers happy.
  3. Character arcs need to span all three books. In a standalone, the main character faces some sort of incident that jettisons her into extreme circumstances (ie: Katniss’s sister losing the lottery). An escalation of events follows: the character is forced to confront her own weaknesses, and to discover her hidden strengths. At the end of Act 2, the character is usually at a low point, facing potential failure. Then, in the final act, the character rises to the occasion and ends up saving the day. In a trilogy, these same rules apply: but the conclusion of each book corresponds with the act breaks. Example: at the end of The Girl who Played with Fire (#2 in the trilogy), Lisbeth is horribly injured; she needs to overcome that incapacitation in order to finally vanquish her father in book 3.
  4. Avoid information dumps. Always a good rule, but trickier with trilogies. While working on the final installment, I kept butting up against this issue: when characters referred back to earlier events, how much background information was necessary to keep readers from becoming irrevocably lost? In the end, I provided very little. The truth is, it’s rare for people to start with the third book in a trilogy; I’m sure it happens, but it’s the exception, not the rule. So what you’re really doing is giving gentle reminders to people who might have read the last book months earlier. Provide enough information to jog their memory, without inundating them. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I’d recommend erring on the side of giving less, not more.

So those are my tips, earned the hard way. Today’s question: what trilogies (aside from those I mentioned) did you love, and what about them kept you reading?


Michelle_Gagnon_color_09_optMichelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and adults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets the Bourne Identity,” her YA technothriller DON’T TURN AROUND was nominated for a Thriller Award, and was selected as one of the best teen books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The second installment, DON’T LOOK NOW, is on sale now (and hopefully doesn’t suffer from “middle book syndrome.”) She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Enough already.

by Michelle Gagnon

I feel like there’s been an increasingly acrimonious discourse lately on traditional vs. self-publishing, and frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m seeing it at conferences, online, and everywhere in between. Both camps are equally guilty here, in terms of snide comments and blatant put-downs. Those who are under contract with traditional publishing houses sniff at the fact that self-published authors skipped over hurdles to publish what they suspect (but rarely say publicly) must be drivel, or what one writer friend of mine referred to as a “tsunami of swill.”

In the other camp, the self-published authors extol the fantastic revenue returns they’re receiving, a far greater percentage than what they would have gotten from a standard publishing contract. They make lots of references to an archaic business model, implying that anyone who still partakes in it is a fool.

Enough already.

I don’t really care how someone is published, or how many books they sell, or how much money they’re making. But the overall nastiness that’s becoming commonplace is off-putting. The prevailing attitude used to be, “we’re all in this together” among writers, whereas now there’s a schism. And that’s a shame, because both models have their merits.

To those (like me) who are still publishing with the major houses: I’ve read wonderful novels in the past few years that failed to find a home. Sometimes the reason for that was clear–the book was aimed at a very niche market, one where publishers couldn’t envision making a profit. Other times, I was at a loss to know why a particular book didn’t sell. One was an amazing YA novel written by a friend of mine, who ended up self-pubbing on Wattpad. After reaching an extraordinary amount of downloads, she moved it to Amazon and started charging for it. And it’s doing well- IMHO, the publishers lost out on this one. 

To self-published authors: The traditional houses aren’t going anywhere. People frequently point to the music industry, which is a fantastic example. What they fail to take into account is that musicians still aren’t, by and large, self-producing music. Eighty-five percent of the music sold worldwide is still produced by the same music companies that were producing it a decade ago. Many of those companies have merged and/or consolidated, sure. But they’re still around, for the same reason that the big 6 will still be around in a decade. Like it or not (and I’m not, personally, a huge fan of this, but so be it), most of the houses are part of much larger conglomerates. And News Corp and CBS aren’t going anywhere; they’re also unlikely to shed an industry that still feeds into their film and TV franchises. So, no, people who still follow the old model aren’t going to be shoved out, by and large. The midlist might diminish further, but books will continue to be released by those companies well into the future.

There are pros and cons to each model. Self-published authors don’t have the benefit and protection of a contract, so if Amazon decides tomorrow to change those royalty rates, they’re well within their rights to do so. It’s also far more difficult to secure foreign and film/tv rights when you self-pub, and that tends to be the bread and butter of traditional authors.

Traditional authors, meanwhile, do lose out on some royalties that they could potentially be getting. They also have to wait months, and occasionally years, for a book to finally appear on shelves. And advances are not what they once were.


But there’s no right way and no wrong way. Write your book. Publish your book, however you prefer. But please, stop with the mud slinging. At the end of the day, we’re all still pursuing the same dream.

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Do Giveaways Work?

by Michelle Gagnon

Figment.com has just announced a contest to celebrate the release of my YA debut DON’T TURN AROUND. In keeping with the theme of the book, they’re asking for a story about teen rebels with a cause, in 1,200 words or less. The winner will receive a 13 inch MacBook Pro (a computer that features prominently in the storyline, since it’s sort of a “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for teens”), and a signed copy of the book.

I’m really excited about this (especially since, for a refreshing change, this time I won’t be the one paying for the grand prize!) However, I wonder…do giveaways really lead to more copies sold?

For my second book, BONEYARD, I held a Kindle contest. Anyone who signed up for my newsletter got their name thrown into the hat (mind you, this was for the Kindle 1, which as a brand spanking new device retailed for $450).
That was, to date, my bestselling novel.
But I was hesitant about repeating that particular contest-after all, signing up for my newsletter didn’t necessarily translate to purchasing the book; and many might simply unsubscribe as soon as the contest ended. (For the record, I didn’t experience an unusually high dip in subscribers in the aftermath). Plus, it was a lot of money to spend without a quantifiable return.

So for my third thriller, THE GATEKEEPER, I decided to take it up a notch. I offered a MacBook (paid for out of my own advance) to anyone who could answer two easy questions about the book.
I received a decent number of entries; certainly not as many as with the previous contest, but a respectable amount. To enter, a reader needed to provide the names of two specific characters, in response to a fairly simple question for anyone who had read the book.

But some people literally sent a full roster of every character in every single one of my novels. One woman emailed me directly twenty times over the course of a day, listing two characters at a time (a few of whom weren’t even from any of my books), asking repeatedly, “These two names? What about these two?”
When I gently pointed out that randomly throwing names at me wasn’t really keeping in the spirit of the contest, she got huffy and fired off a nasty email about how spoiled authors were, and how this was the only way she could get a new computer. Plus, she wasn’t a big reader in general, and found it unfair that she be asked to read something in order to enter a giveaway.

*Sigh. The entire experience ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth (not to mention a dent in my wallet). So for my fourth book, I skipped contests entirely.

I had no idea that Figment was going to be running this contest until it posted; I love the idea behind it, though. Especially since Figment serves as a virtual writing community. And I’m terribly flattered that they’re offering such an amazing, generous prize.

But will it translate into sales? Hard to say. I know the old 50% marketing adage (half of what you do will work, but chances are you’ll never know which half). But it’s a source of perpetual frustration for every author–where do you concentrate your marketing time and money, especially now that there’s such a huge array of options? Hemingway never had to deal with Twitter (although I suspect he would have been fantastic at it, with his knack for sparse prose).

So what do you think? Has a giveaway ever persuaded you to purchase a novel you never would have picked up otherwise?


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Tag Line Haiku

by Michelle Gagnon

Ah, the tagline…how I love it. For those of you who don’t know, a tagline is that little nugget on a book cover (or movie poster) that serves as a branding slogan, that memorable phrase that persuades you to buy the book (or purchase a ticket to the movie). The following are a few of the most  famous cinematic taglines:

  • “In space, no one can hear you scream.” -Alien
  • “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” Jaws 2
  • “There can be only be one. -Highlander
  • “One ring to rule them all.” -The Lord of the Rings 
  • “The truth is out there.” – The X-Files 

One thing most people don’t know is that authors rarely get to choose their own taglines. So far, my books have been graced with the taglines, “Anyone can end up in the…BONEYARD,” and “We are our greatest enemy.” (THE GATEKEEPER). My latest release, DON’T TURN AROUND, actually had the tagline changed once some of the top buyers weighed in on it; we ended up with, “Off the grid/On the run” (which I love).


It struck me, as I recently perused the vast array of titles at my favorite independent bookstore, that there’s a game in here somewhere. A way, if you will, to combine two of my favorite things: taglines and haikus. And you’re all invited to participate.


Just so we all understand the rules: a haiku is, according to the standard definition, “A Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.”


For the sake of simplicity, feel free to combine book tag lines with film tag lines, if they seem to belong together. But make sure to attribute the tags to the appropriate sources.


I’ll be composing my haiku with a nod to some of my favorite titles (I excerpted the first part of the tagline when necessary; feel free to do the same).
Have fun, I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

Past evil still lives.  
Beauty is only sin deep. 
Everything ends here.  

(Respectively, Heather Graham, THE UNHOLY; Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, SLIDE; and Patrick Lee, DEEP SKY.)

On a side note, if you’ll permit a digression: my publisher is currently giving away galleys of my upcoming release, DON’T TURN AROUND. There are a few different ways to enter, and each only takes a few minutes. 


On Twitter, just retweet this:
@EpicReads Off the grid. On the run. DON’T TURN AROUND by @michelle_gagnon http://vsb.li/zJ3A8c RT for a chance to win!

On Facebook, Like this page.

And/or on Goodreads, Click here to enter.

Feel free to forward to anyone who might want a free book!

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