Five years ago, I had the vague story idea about a wild girl surviving as a hunter-gatherer in a treehouse village valley, after a biochemical Great War had destroyed most of the world. It was raw, semi-formed, with no other characters or focused plot points, and yet the idea wouldn’t let me go. I started to write it down and five years later that same story is a YA Fantasy trilogy, published by HarperCollins HQDigital and HQStories.
Looking back, there were moments when my path to publication felt nearly as challenging as one of Talia’s adventures (though there were a few less awol Draco Chimera thankfully). And I gained plenty of stripes along the way including: a pile of rejections, a YA thriller manuscript that got me an agent but no deal, a creative writing course, a change of agent, another YA Fantasy manuscript that seemed to hit after the curve, so many late nights, and a lot of laughter and tears. But, thanks to a brilliant group of scribbling writing friends (you know who you are), a savvy agency and plenty of grit, a deal did come in – and it was an incredibly special moment.
Many writers experience similar journeys, and there’s no doubt the challenges make the end goal sweeter. But here’s the real shocker: publication isn’t really an end goal at all. It’s actually another beginning – a whirlwind of a beginning that involves so many new opportunities that actual writing can seem to take a back seat for a while. And amid all the excitement, my challenge was to grow my stand-alone YA Fantasy Book of Fire novel into a trilogy. It felt like a dream – as well as a completely terrifying prospect, because apart from some vague notion of Talia taking on the might of the Insiders (aka Isca Pantheon) and developing emotionally, I had no set idea about Books Two and Three at all!
Once I got over the shock, however, I realised it came down to two things: 1) visualising the very end of Book Three and 2) pacing myself. A trilogy is definitely a feat of stamina and originally, the publishing plan was just 18 months long from publication of Book One to publication of Book Three. This was based on an initial digital publishing deal, but as the paperbacks came along the timeline was stretched out and this turned out to be a very good thing.
Ironically, despite not knowing how Books Two and Three were going to develop, the ending turned out to be the easy part. It was clear to see that my hugely conflicted world was heading for an almighty cataclysmic clash, so my challenge was to work out how to get there without the plot and characters becoming predictable or stifled. And then there was the complete matrix of competing sub-plots and character needs/wants to juggle as well. In my head, this all resembled a giant plot arc, with a succession of interwoven mini arcs for the sub-plots, characters and their individual journeys beneath. It was complex, and the world itself also needed research. I’m not a Roman mythology-rogue genetics-medieval manuscript expert, but I definitely know a lot more than when I began.
So I started drawing 10,000 word maps – not geographic maps as such but ‘plot maps’ that helped me to ensure everyone experienced growth as the story unfolded. These maps became my stepping stones between key plot points, and helped me to frame the action in bite-size chunks (if you’ve read any of the books you’ll already know there is A LOT of action) while keeping the characters up front on the pages. I also used a geographic map to plot my action so it was varied, and not too focused in either world. As the books are based in a dystopian Exeter, the geographic map helped me to make the most of local links while keeping my treehouse village (Arafel) and Roman civilisation (Isca Pantheon) at the centre of all the action. I also back-read a lot, and kept lists of character attributes – I’m not sure how many times I ‘accidentally’ changed Eli’s eye colour – and my agent and editors at HQ were very eagle-eyed throughout. They helped with plot holes, character development and ensuring the plot and pace were always building towards my showdown in Storm of Ash.
So I suppose the honest answer to how I managed to write and sustain the Book of Fire trilogy is: I’m still working it out. It has been a complete whirlwind: intense, overwhelming at times, euphoric, desperate and downright defining. Would I do it again? Yes in a heartbeat, though I might keep better lists of character attributes from the beginning! I might also try and be a little stricter about my work-life balance as I really didn’t come up for air during the first two books. One thing is certain: writing the Book of Fire trilogy and becoming a part of the brilliant writing community has felt the most ‘honest me’ thing I’ve ever done – so I’m definitely hoping to stay.
Michelle Kenney is the author of the Book of Fire Trilogy. The final instalment, Storm of Ash, is out now.