The Writing Sparrow Episode 19 | The Benefits of Plotting Your Whole Trilogy Before You Write It with Noelle Riches

For this week’s episode, I talked to romance author Noelle Riches about plotting your whole series before you start writing it… and writing the whole series before you start publishing.

Please note: as with anything in writing, you should do what works for you. You don’t need to plot your whole trilogy or write the whole series before you start publishing (or plot at all, if that’s not your thing). In this episode, Noelle and I discuss the benefits and challenges as we’ve found them for ourselves. It’s one process out of many options.

To find out more about Noelle, check out her websitefind her or Twitter, or follow her on Instagram.

Listen to the Episode

Read the Transcript

Sarina Langer  00:08

Hello, and welcome to the Writing Sparrow podcast. I’m Sarina Langer, and this podcast is all about writing, publishing and marketing your book. You can find transcripts on my website at Let’s get started!

Sarina Langer  00:27

Hello again friends and sparrows and welcome back. It’s the 25th of January 2021, this is Episode 19, and today I have romance author Noelle Riches with me. So, hello. So a few years ago, Noelle wrote a blog post for me about writing an epic trilogy and plotting the whole thing before you start writing and querying, which inspired me to approach my next series in the same way, which is the Blood Wisp trilogy that I’m writing right now. I thought it might be a good idea to do a whole episode on how that works and how it compares to doing it one book at a time, and then I thought of Noelle, and here we are. Welcome, Noelle.

Noelle Riches  01:12

Thank you. Hello. Thanks for having me.

Sarina Langer  01:14

My pleasure. Um, so we, I’ve got a few questions lined up for you. And we’ve also got a few questions over from Twitter that we will get to as well.

Noelle Riches  01:23

All right.

Sarina Langer  01:24

So first of all, talk us through your process. How do you approach planning a whole trilogy? Do you only do the plotting beforehand or do you also write every book before you then go back to the first one to edit that?

Noelle Riches  01:39

Well, I will, uhm, so with The Queen’s Training, I had the whole plan for the trilogy in my head, I started writing the first book, I came to the end of it. And then I think I did probably one edit of it, and thought, okay, let’s get to the next one and realised I hadn’t actually made any plans that I’d written down. So it was all in my head still. And I deeply regretted it because I went back to the beginning and, and put out the whole three books, I found that that really, really helps with the character arcs that I was doing, certain plot points. And then to tie things in a little bit, a little bit better. I hadn’t published the books until they were all three of them written at least, if not completely edited. So that helped me be able to go from one to the next, and kind of plant those little easter eggs that will, that will have readers thinking I had a plan and, and that I knew what I was doing, which was nice.

Sarina Langer  02:40

And you’re fooling everybody.

Noelle Riches  02:42

Well, yeah, everyone, yeah.

Sarina Langer  02:43

I suppose doing it that way, if you’re also editing them all before you start publishing that also helps do the quick fire release that I’m sure we’ve all heard quite a lot about, which is apparently very successful. Did you do it that way?

Noelle Riches  02:57

Yeah. So the publisher I had, Red Empress Publishing, they did a couple months in between. So the first one was in March of 2017, I believe. Then it was June and then September. So it wasn’t all at once, which is nice, because it kind of gave each book a little bit of attention focus, which I really liked. Because obviously I like each individual book as well.

Sarina Langer  03:19

Yeah. And readers need time to, you know, to catch up and read the last one in the series as well.

Noelle Riches  03:24

Exactly, yeah. And then, and then for readers, I think it’s nice because you’re not just hanging there in the ether waiting for the next one and kind of forgetting about it. Which I think can happen really easily. Because there’s just so many good books out there, so many good authors to read. And so you don’t want to have people forgetting about your books or, or you, I think.

Sarina Langer  03:44

I think that’s what I’m planning on doing now with my next series, again all thanks to you. Because your blog post I found quite interesting. I mean, I’m such a big plotter myself anyway. So every time I hear the words, or just think the words, let’s plot a whole series, my heart goes, Oh, yes, let’s do that, that sounds really fun.

Noelle Riches  04:01

It’s so exciting.

Sarina Langer  04:02

Yeah, and I have really enjoyed plotting the whole series first, you know, but again, I’m a plotter. So I tend to find things like that exciting anyway. But where I’m at now is I’ve written the first book, and I’ve written the second book. And now that I’m in writing the third book, it’s starting for me to flag a little bit. And I think that’s just because I spent so much time with the whole, well, just with the same characters and in the same worlds because, you know, ultimately, if you end up writing the whole thing first, you end up spending basically three times the time on, on the same project.

Noelle Riches  04:36

Right, right. And I think for me, I need those kind of breaks. I need editing breaks, I need to go back and forth quite a bit because as much as I love, I love writing, and especially when I first started writing I loved the writing process, the editing process was really intimidating, really overwhelming cause I didn’t know what I was looking for really. But the longer I’ve, I’ve been doing this the more I actually fall in love with the editing process, and the writing is just kind of like okay, let’s get the writing done so I can get to the editing. So if I… to write three books in a row, it’s a, it’s a big, it’s a big job really.

Sarina Langer  05:08

Yeah. I mean, say if you’re aiming just, just, just as an example, for 100,000 words per project, I know some people tend to end up with a lot less, others tend to end up with a lot more. But if you take that as a rough goal, then that’s already quite a lot for just one project anyway, but if you then plan on writing the whole trilogy, you have to basically prepare yourself to write 300,000 words before you really go back to the editing. And that’s a really big commitment.

Noelle Riches  05:36

It is, it’s a huge commitment. Writing one book alone is, is pretty epic. And fantasy as well as a genre is such an epic genre. There’s so much world building compared to…

Sarina Langer  05:47

 Yes, there’s so much you can do.

Noelle Riches  05:49

Yeah. Which, which makes it incredibly fun, I find. I love the world building, but then to be consistent and to really be in that one zone, it can be a little bit difficult to get out of or to switch or to just not feel kind of stuck in there, I think.

Sarina Langer  06:08

Yeah. No, I know what you mean. Definitely feeling that a bit now.

Sarina Langer  06:13

So why did you decide to plot your whole series before you started writing the first one? I think you’ve already touched a bit on that, because you said that with the first series, you ended up not really having anything written down and that made it harder.

Noelle Riches  06:30

Right, right. Well, I think, for you, for example, I admire so much your organisational skills. I love those Monday and Friday Instagram posts where you’re goal setting and you’re checking in with yourself and I, I love being organised. And yet it eludes me as well. I just can’t as hard as I try, I just can’t be as organised as I would like to be. I think the more organised you are, the more, the more you help yourself. So even though I love it, it was against my nature a bit, but I just knew that if I needed, if I wanted to be serious about it and go through with the trilogy and,and really commit to it that I needed to, to be organised and to know what was going on. Because, again, a fantasy you can get kind of lost in the world building and lost with all the different characters and, and, and what’s going on and where you’re going. So I think that, it was it was just kind of this determination to not give up on myself as an author and myself and, and my books and what I wanted them to be really.

Sarina Langer  07:37

Alright. And, erm, so now that you’ve done a bit of both–

Noelle Riches  07:41


Sarina Langer  07:41

What would you say are the benefits of plotting your whole series before you start writing it? Apart from obviously being more organised and having more of an idea of where you’re going.

Noelle Riches  07:50

Right? Well, that’s a good question actually, the, I think the benefits would be… Hmm, that is a good question.

Sarina Langer  07:59

Thank you.

Noelle Riches  07:59

I think the benefits are just as I mentioned, the kind of the organisation of it, not getting lost in, in, in the world that is, is so easy to get lost in and, and just holding yourself accountable, I think, just making sure that you, that you get there, that you have an endpoint at some point and you know what’s happening kind of in between as well.

Sarina Langer  08:21

We’ve talked about this a little bit before we started recording this, but when you plot the whole thing first and you write the whole thing first before you start editing or querying, it gives you that freedom of maybe noticing something in the third book that you can then easily foreshadow in the first book because it’s not out yet, but you know, when you’ve already published it, then you can’t just go in and basically add, even if it’s just a little hint, because, you know, it’s out and it should probably stay as it is.

Noelle Riches  08:49

Yeah. Yeah, that is definitely I’d say true. One of the main, the main bonuses is being able to go back and, and flesh out points that you kind of touched on and you knew you knew you’d get there, but you suddenly are in the second and third book, and you’re like, Oh, I really, I really like that. I think that it’s adding to it. But you didn’t really do much with it in the first book. So just planting that little egg that will kind of, kinda hatch a little bit later is, is so key to plotting everything out first and knowing where you’re going. Because if you… again, as you mentioned before that if you publish first, it’s kind of, it’s your opportunity to go back and tweak things is lost really. So I think it’s, it really does help that, that ability to go back and forth and really make it more cohesive.

Sarina Langer  09:38

Yeah, it lets you set it up a lot more.

Noelle Riches  09:41


Sarina Langer  09:42

And I mean, I, what I really love when I’m reading a series and, you know, again, I think you’ve just said that before we started recording as well, is that when you read the third book and maybe coming close to the end and you suddenly read something in there where you think, Oh, I remember something like this in the first book, and maybe then you might even go back to the first book to read it again and you see wow, look how, look how early they’ve set this up. And you know, maybe by the time you’re reading it for the first time, it doesn’t really stand out to you. And then later when it all comes together, you’re, you get this lovely goose bump moment of Look how it’s coming together, this is so exciting, the author knows what they are doing.

Noelle Riches  10:19

Yeah. It adds a little level of complexity that is so nice for a reader I think to, to be able to get that, those chills those goosebumps and think, like you, just to be more in the world and to realise it is this one, this one kind of escape that you, like, you didn’t waste your time invested in. You know, it was complex, it was thought out. Yeah, I think that that really helps.

Sarina Langer  10:48

And opposite to the previous question, what challenges have come up for you in plotting your whole series first, and how do you tackle them?

Noelle Riches  10:56

I think one of the big I… When I first started writing, I definitely was more of a plotter, and I’ve become more of a pantser as I go, especially as I kind of shift genres a little bit, but I have a really difficult time changing things if it’s been plotted, if I have an outline and then the characters want to do something differently, or I realise there’s, there should be something different happening here or a different location. Any of those things I get so stuck in what I’ve planned. I don’t know if it’s fear based, like it won’t get good if I change it, but it, it really, I need to let that go.

Noelle Riches  11:31

I think having an editor and editing my own work has helped me able to, help me see that I need to shift my point of view and, and change things for the better. I think that’s helped. But definitely a challenge is kind of thinking outside the box and realising I can let some things go and, and make a change if I need to.

Sarina Langer  11:49

What I like to do in those situations is I like to write both scenes. And then I can read through both and I can see maybe the one that I was originally planning maybe isn’t flowing as well as I’m writing it and maybe the one that I ended up improvising that my characters basically come up with, that one actually flows really well.

Noelle Riches  12:07

That’s a great idea.

Sarina Langer  12:09

And you can sort of test both of them that way. And then you can send them both to your editor and say which one do you prefer? It’s a lot easier to get feedback that way.

Noelle Riches  12:17

That’s a good point. Yeah, I’m gonna, I’m gonna steal that one.

Sarina Langer  12:20

There you are. We’re writers anyway. So you know, I think for us, trying to solve our problems by writing through them is a natural step, isn’t it?

Noelle Riches  12:30

Yeah, true, true.

Sarina Langer  12:32

We have… Well, I have one more question that I had written down. But I think if we do the ones from Twitter first and then we can come back to that one. So the first question comes from @gambit190. Is it okay to leave book 2 with a cliffhanger ending as long as it then gets resolved in book 3?

Sarina Langer  12:51

Such a good question.

Sarina Langer  12:53

Don’t you just love a cliffhanger ending?

Noelle Riches  12:55

Love a cliffhanger ending! I love it, I eat them up. And I think that it’s, you know, I make the comparison of those Netflix shows that we binge nowadays, we, those ones that are left with a cliffhanger. It’s kind of a love hate, you hate that you’re just tortured that way. But you do watch the next episode, don’t you? So…

Sarina Langer  13:18

Yeah, because you are tortured, you know, you really want to know what happens to your favourite character, if he really died or if it just looked that way?

Noelle Riches  13:26

Mm hmm. Yeah, I think that if you have a first, a good first book that has a cliffhanger, readers will follow you into the next one. I think the danger is maybe too many things unresolved. So, so I suggest if you have like other subplots going on, maybe resolve a couple to build reader trust, and they know that you’re going to answer it, you’re not leaving everything unresolved. And then they have a feeling of some sort of closure with the first book as well, even though they’re kind of drawn into the next book, which is what you’re looking for. So if you’re doing a cliffhanger, I think I’d recommend, again, just building that readership trust, resolving a few little issues. And then making sure that the, it’s, it’s fleshed out enough that they can trust that it’s going to be kind of great in the next one.

Sarina Langer  14:13

That’s a very good point. I mean, every book should have an ultimate goal anyway, something that your plot is working towards. And I think having that cliffhanger ending doesn’t mean that you don’t resolve the main issue of Book 2 or book 1 or you know, whichever one you end up ending on a cliffhanger. So I think as long as you still fulfil the promise that you made at the start of the book, then you can use the cliffhanger ending to nicely bridge the gap into Book Three.

Noelle Riches  14:44

Mm hmm. Yeah, and I think the one danger that is… I was talking to my partner about this question, it was such a good question. And the, we, he mentioned that the danger of that is setting the expectations too high. So for, if you, you know, end on a cliffhanger, it does have to be pretty epic when you do resolve that issue. So keep, keeping that in mind too, that if you, you know, if it’s just this kind of little like, oh, and then quick, quick solution, no big deal, people aren’t gonna be very happy about that I think so it has to be kind of an epic resolution in that cliffhanger when you when you do get to it. Yeah, just making sure that the expectations match what you’re doing as well I think it’s important.

Sarina Langer  15:28

I agree. Because I think when you do set up this cliff, uhm, cliffhanger ending? I’m really struggling to pronounce that today. I think when you set it up that way, you make it a big deal.

Noelle Riches  15:41

Right, exactly.

Sarina Langer  15:42

You know, because you readers will of course and have massive expectations coming into the second book, or third, because it’s basically then your promise of Look how I’ve ended this, big things are definitely coming. You will want to read on, please read on, so it needs to be something really big. You know, if you then, if you then start the next book and just say oh, it wasn’t really what the character had imagined. That was it. You’ll say oh, that’s disappointing.

Noelle Riches  16:09

Right, yeah, if you cuz, yeah, cliffhanger endings, it does make it a big deal. So treat it. treat it like a big deal and I think that, that it’ll work out, yeah.

Sarina Langer  16:18

Because it’s basically a plot twist that you don’t explain right away. So, you know, if you end big, you’re gonna have to carry it forward big. And if you’re not sure, you can always ask your critique partners or your editor.

Noelle Riches  16:29

Exactly. Yeah.

Sarina Langer  16:30

I think the danger with things like that is always as you said that, that you don’t carry it forward in a in a big enough way that really reflects that cliffhanger ending. So I think it can be quite difficult on your own to make it tie together in a satisfying way. But you know, if you have that, either either a critique partner group or the editor you can send it to and just say, I don’t think this is strong enough, I need it to hit harder. Suggestions, please, and they’ll really help you make it huge. And I don’t think you can really go overboard with that because you promised so much.

Noelle Riches  17:06

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s, I think it’s such a, it’s so juicy those cliffhanger. You need to  treat it with respect for sure.

Sarina Langer  17:14

Yes, yes, definitely. So if you think, if you’re wondering if you’ve gone overboard with it, it’s probably just right. It’s fine.

Noelle Riches  17:22

Yeah, yeah, right.

Sarina Langer  17:24

And we had another question from Twitter as well, this one from @VillimeyS. What tips do you have for keeping everything consistent and not forgetting important plot points? And I know this is a big issue for me as well, because you know, the more plot points you have, the easier it is to forget just one little thing that you set up in the first book that you then never thought about again.

Noelle Riches  17:44

Mm hmm. Which again is kind of a bonus to not publishing them, because you can go back and forth. So that does help. But I would say again, just staying as organised as possible, I have, you know, a Word document that has all the characters and the relationship to each other. That really helped me a lot. Again, just the outlines and kind of different different kinds of outlines to like, you know, the general like chapter by chapter outline. I mean, I’m getting a bit psychotic, I think, but I’ll make a chapter outline, a book outline, trilogy outline, like all the outlines you can imagine, it does help and even just like, you know, a Word document for, for those easter eggs, like I planted this here, don’t forget it. So you can kind of go back and forth and, and remind yourself, okay, this is what this character is, and why they’re related to this person, and where you want to go with that. And then I planted this, so that’s good. So I think it worked, whatever works for you.

Noelle Riches  18:40

I don’t know if my system is the best because I have them each in different word documents, so I have to keep flipping from one to the next. And that’s kind of annoying. I’m not exactly a techie person. So I’m sure there’s some sort of system that does better than that. But finding your own kind of way to organise really does, really is, it makes the job easier for sure.

Sarina Langer  19:00

That’s the beauty and difficulty of being a writer, isn’t it? On the one hand, you just do whatever works best for you, but on the other end, if you do have one specific question, chances are there won’t be a straight up answer, like, this is how you do it, this is the best way of doing it. Because really it’s just whatever works for you.

Noelle Riches  19:17

Yeah, and then you can have to troubleshoot and just, just go through the different systems and find what works for you. So there’s a lot of realising this doesn’t work for you. Unfortunately, it just takes time, I think. Yeah.

Sarina Langer  19:30

And I think what works for you right now may not work for you anymore with the next series, or even just the next book in the same series, certainly not in 10 years from now. So I think it’s just constantly an evolving system.

Noelle Riches  19:43

Right, right. Yeah, I’m currently, I have this five part series in mind that I do want to plot out all at the beginning and I’m just kind of constantly going back and forth in my mind with do I write them all first? Do I write them and edit them? Do I try to publish? I loved writing them all before I published, it gave me so much more flexibility, but I just… five books is a lot to kind of hold on to of anything, so I’m, I’m struggling right now with that, but I think everybody, you know again, what works for you.

Sarina Langer  20:15

Yeah, I think the longest series that I’ve ever read I think was 17 books. And I just thought if, I have, I mean I would love to write a really long series, but then I, if I think about plotting the entire thing, I don’t see that it can work. That’s way too much.

Noelle Riches  20:33

I think you’ll end up with being one of those people with like the, you know, whole wall of yarn and push pins and it’ll, it’ll look dangerous.

Sarina Langer  20:43

I won’t lie to you, Noelle, I have considered doing that.

Noelle Riches  20:46

Yup, I know it’s kind of appealing.

Sarina Langer  20:48

It is. It is. I think it was when I was reading possibly the Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo. A friend and I was saying at the time, she’s got so many different plot ends, and then so many different, just, just so many different everything. How does she keep track of all of it? And you know, at the moment I’m reading The Starless Sea, and again, we’re saying there are so many different threats in this. We have no idea how this lady is keeping track of everything. So this is exactly what I picture when I think of that. It’s just, it’s basically a crime wall of all connecting different pins and one thing circled here and something else there. So…

Noelle Riches  21:28

Yeah. When you invite guests over, you just have to let them know, you’re, you know, it’s, it’s for a book. It’s fine.

Sarina Langer  21:35

It’s definitely, like, when it says there kill Steve, it’s not, it’s not a real person. It’s a character, it’s okay.

Noelle Riches  21:43

He does not exist.

Sarina Langer  21:45

Yes, I have googled what acid does to the human body, but never mind that, it’s research.

Noelle Riches  21:50

What self respecting author has not googled something creepy like that?

Sarina Langer  21:55

Exactly. So you know, I think, I think we can excuse quite a lot of research just by saying it’s fine, we’re authors.

Noelle Riches  22:02


Sarina Langer  22:05

Also very sorry to any Steve’s listening. I’m not singling you out, but.

Noelle Riches  22:09

Yeah, right, right.

Sarina Langer  22:11

So um, I hope that’s answered your questions, @gambit190 and @VillimeyS.

Sarina Langer  22:16

And then to come to my last question. Do you have any advice for people wanting to try plotting the whole trilogy, or anyone wanting to do something longer than a trilogy but still using the same system?

Noelle Riches  22:30

Oh, I, again, I come back to the organisation of it, I think. If you’re, if you’re a pantser, I would still say, having a good idea of where you’re going and general idea of each book, even if you don’t want to plot them out. And if you do, I’d say just just enjoy it, really. It’s, it’s such a fun process. I, I go for walks with my dog, and everything comes to me when I walk. So you know, finding that one time where like, all the ideas come, but then making sure you write it down if you can, yeah.

Sarina Langer  23:06

So do you have a notebook app for that or do you carry a physical notebook around with you everywhere you go, just in case.

Noelle Riches  23:12

I think I love the idea of a little like physical notebook. But I mostly just write notes in my phone.

Sarina Langer  23:19

I do, I do have an app for that, but I’ve got… I’m such a note junkie.

Noelle Riches  23:24


Sarina Langer  23:25

I have an app for notes. It’s quite, it’s a very simple thing. I think it’s literally just called notebook or something like that. It’s very simple. But I also have a different notebook for every work in progress. And then some of those have more than one notebook, because it’s maybe a series of because I’ve exhausted one notebook. So it’s then on to two, then… I’ve got, I’ve got a lot of things, and you know, then, then there’s Scrivener. So I have index cards in that also with notes.

Noelle Riches  23:51


Sarina Langer  23:53

So it’s, you know,  I think with organisation comes down very strongly to whatever works for you.

Noelle Riches  23:59

I agree, I know. And it’s, I hate given that answer because I wish I, it doesn’t feel very helpful because it’s not, it’s not an, it’s not an answer, but at the same time it really, I think one answer won’t really cut it for all the people out there who’re doing everything differently and finding their different systems. So it is, it is really what works for you. And I think that, like, I love sort of… going back to the notebook idea. I like the–

Sarina Langer  24:23

What I do when when I have taken notes and I do want to add something, I do like a little arrow that goes off to the side where I’ll write it in a really, in a really small font over it. It makes it very messy, but I think that’s also what makes it look more like a writer’s notebook in a way, because it’s not, it’s not a simple or straightforward process. And as you said, you know, while you’re plotting, you might just suddenly think of something, maybe while you’re walking your dog, or while you’re doing the dishes, so, you know, just, just edit it, it doesn’t have to be pretty just needs to make sense to you.

Sarina Langer  24:23

Why not?

Noelle Riches  24:23

Yeah, it’s such a romantic idea of like writing things down the notebook. And just recently I’ve, I’ve started doing that, just writing by hand all my outlines. And it’s partly infuriating because I can’t go back and put things in, like with the computer you can always put things in between but you can’t, when you’re writing, when you’re handwriting but it’s, there’s something so romantic and lovely about just seeing a page written and then being able to turn it into a book.

Noelle Riches  25:22

Yeah, and I kind of like when things are messy like that. It does feel like a real writer’s notebook for sure.

Sarina Langer  25:26

Yeah. And I think for most of us, our thoughts tend to be quite chaotic anyway when we plan anything. So I think when our notes reflect that it almost feels more natural, because the process can be quite chaotic, even if you do put some kind of order to it.

Noelle Riches  25:40

Right, yeah. Yeah.

Sarina Langer  25:42

All right. That is all our questions. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Noelle Riches  25:47

Thank you so much.

Sarina Langer  25:48

And I hope we’ve answered the questions that our guys on Twitter have had. And, uhm… yeah, thank you so much for stopping by.

Noelle Riches  25:56

Thank you so much, Sarina.

Sarina Langer  25:58

Thank you. Bye.

Noelle Riches  25:59


Sarina Langer  26:01

If you enjoyed today’s episode, maybe learn something along the way, hit the subscribe button. You can also connect with me on Twitter @sarina_langer, on Instagram and Facebook @sarinalangerwriter, and of course on my website at Until next time! Bye!

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