Editing

Should You Wave Your Prologue Goodbye? (When Prologues Work and When They Don’t)

Does your book-in-progress have a prologue? If so, that might be a problem. According to the dubious wisdom of the blogosphere and the crotchety advice of literary agents who see too many duds in the slush pile, prologues are frowned upon. Agent Kimiko Nakamura wrote in Writer’s Digest that “almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back.”

With warnings like that one, it’s no wonder writers cut their prologue for fear of ending up in the trash folder. As a freelance book editor, though, I’ve seen writers alter the strongest parts of their manuscript because of a one-size-fits-all decree they’ve read on an agent’s (or another writer’s) blog. By deleting your prologue, you might be deleting the best part of your book—the part of your book, even, that would get an agent to request more pages.

So what makes a good prologue good, and a bad prologue bad? I’ll delve into detailed examples below, but first, here are a few rules of thumb.

Good Prologues Oftentimes…

… Occur in a different time and place than the rest of the book. (But they shouldn’t be used as information dumps for backstory. Details about past events should be integrated throughout the novel via exposition, dialogue, or a character’s inner thoughts.)

 … Showcase a narrative perspective that diverges from the rest of the book. (An omniscient prologue, for example, in a third-person limited novel.)

… Are written in a different tone than the rest of the book. (Heightened prose if the book’s prose is simple; minimalist if the book’s prose is florid.)

… Provide key information that the novel’s primary narrator doesn’t know about. (Again, though, this should be a limited, strategic piece of information; prologues shouldn’t be used as information dumps.)

Bad Prologues Are Generally…

… Conspicuous information dumps for information and backstory. (Yeah, this happens a lot.)

… Written as exposition rather than as a compelling scene/s. (Prolonged exposition is a sign that your prologue is an information dump.)

… Written in the same point-of-view or narrative perspective as the rest of the book.

… Written in a melodramatic tone. (This often corresponds to a scene that’s a failed hook.)

…. Focused on a dramatic scene that doesn’t end up connecting in an interesting way with the rest of the book.

… Written after the rest of the book was finished because the writer worried that Chapter 1 wasn’t good or didn’t have an enticing hook. (It’s better to work on fixing Chapter 1.)

Prologues as a Whisper to Your Reader

Author Bharti Kirchner wrote an excellent article for The Writer magazine in which she explains that a prologue, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy novels, “can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins.” Consider the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In it, three men of the Night’s Watch —a military group guarding a great northern wall — search the wilderness for eight dead bodies. As the three men discuss what killed these people — did they freeze to death? — the reader is overhearing their conversation, thereby learning all sorts of tidbits about Martin’s fictional world.

After the men discover that the bodies are missing, they’re attacked by a group of mysterious creatures. One of the Night’s Watch men, Will, watches as a terrifying shadow confronts Royce, his Night’s Watch compatriot:

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees.

Will then witnesses an event that will become pivotal to the Game of Thrones universe for five books to come (and counting). He sees that Royce doesn’t stand a chance in fighting this fearsome apparition because its weapon causes Royce’s sword to shatter:

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles… He [Will] found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning.

This prologue notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is written in the close third-person, with each chapter told from the point-of-view of a different main character. At the book’s outset, none of these characters have seen an “Other,” as these creatures are called, so Martin used his prologue to establish a delicious, suspenseful case of dramatic irony: The reader knows that the Others are real, but the book’s narrators don’t. In an interview with The Writerauthor Jennie Shortridge described this situation well: “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she said.

Many newbie writers withhold information from the reader for too long in an attempt to create suspense. But why should a reader care about a mystery if they don’t even know its parameters? In Game of Thrones, Martin provides just enough information to make the reader terrified of the White Walkers (let’s just drop this “Others” nonsense), but little enough to let the reader join the book’s characters in solving the myriad mysteries surrounding them.

Prologues That Are Actually Chapter Ones (And Chapter Ones That Are Actually Prologues)

As an editor, I often notice that the first 50 pages of a manuscript contain a handful of sections that could each be the book’s first page. The author didn’t know where to begin, so instead of choosing a beginning, they chose two or three, and then struggled with how to sequence them. I call these “false starts,” and they’re usually well-written because the author imagined each as the grandiose opening sequence. These paragraphs stand out because they don’t integrate well with the surrounding material.

A clumsy solution to this multiplicity of false starts is to make one of them the prologue. In an interview forThe Writer, author Jennie Shortridge said that “the most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.”

While a good prologue stands apart from the rest of the story — taking place in a different time, or told from a different point-of-view — an unnecessary prologue is often told by the same narrator, and written in the same style, as the rest of the book. Even if well-written, this type of prologue might turn an agent off because it indicates that the author simply couldn’t figure out how to integrate the prologue’s material somewhere else. “They [prologues] are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device,” literary agent Andrea Hurst told The Writer. “Better for writers to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”

The Book Thief is an example of a prologue that’s good, but might as well have been called Chapter 1. In it, the book’s omniscient narrator, Death Himself (a grim reaper type figure), tells the reader about the book’s protagonist, a girl who he calls the book thief. He (Death) informs the reader that terrible things will happen in this girl’s future, and Chapter 1 begins by detailing the first of these terrible things.

Alluding to future (or past) events in an omniscient voice is classic prologue material, but in this particular case, it turns out that the entire book is narrated by this glib Death guy, and he oftentimes alludes coyly to future events. The Book Thief’s prologue could easily have been the the first chapter. The litmus test is to simply imagine that the prologue is labeled “Chapter 1,” and that the current Chapter 1 is labeled “Chapter 2.” If everything still makes sense (or reads even better, as might be the case), then you probably have a chapter, not a prologue.

We also see Chapter Ones that would have made great prologues. The first Harry Potter book is a perfect example. Remember that opening scene where Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid bring baby Harry to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep? That scene conspicuously stands apart from the rest of the book, which is mostly told from the limited perspective of 10-year-old Harry. In the opening, though, an omniscient narrator holds the reigns, and we glimpse the inner thoughts of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Harry’s aunt and uncle.

Yet that opening is labeled Chapter One. The commencement of Harry Potter’s POV starts with Chapter Two, and Chapter Two begins with a sentence that effectively bridges the 10-year gap between the two chapters: “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all.”

This little quark in one of the world’s most widely-read books reminds us that “chapter” and “prologue” are just labels, after all, and while there are widely-recognized formats for which label correspond to which narrative tactic, authors sidestep the rules all the time. In his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez evaded the issue altogether by using unlabeled breaks between chunks of text rather than parts and chapters. Marquez’ unique decision reminds us that whatever the label, those spaces of white between sections do seem to be vitally important. Whatever the case, most remember the opening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being a prologue; indeed, a quick Google search revealed bloggers using it as an example of an effective prologue.

Another Chapter One that’s really a prologue is the first chapter of Fight Club, where Edward Norton, errrr, the book’s unnamed protagonist holds a gun to his throat/Tyler Durden’s throat. Who knows, maybe someone told both Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling that literary agents don’t like prologues, so they slapped on a Chapter One.

So… Should I Keep My Prologue?

If you’ve carefully considered the components of a bad prologue and are still convinced that yours is good, go ahead and keep it if you’re planning to self-publish. If you’re querying agents, you can tailor your strategy query-by-query. If an agent has specified that they don’t like prologues, you should query without it, or make your prologue the first chapter instead—absolutely don’t this, though, if changing the prologue to “Chapter 1” creates a bad transition into Chapter 2. If you don’t know an agent’s stance toward prologues, the safer bet might still be to cut the prologue since prologue hostility seems widespread.

That being said, agents dislike prologues only because they’ve read so many bad ones. It takes only one sentence to recognize good writing, so if your prologue has a good start, the agent will keep reading. A friend of mine received offers from two agents (and requests for full reads from many more) based on a submission that included a prologue—a very good prologue. In the end, it’s the writing that counts, and they’re not just saying that.


Katherine Don is a journalist and author or co-author of eight nonfiction books, including Power of the Dog from St. Martin’s Press, Armchair Reader: The Book of Myths and Misconceptions from Publications International, and The Story of Harper Lee, a YA biography of Harper Lee from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Katherine’s essays and journalism have appeared at Salon, The Atlantic online, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at Bustle.com and Romper.com. Her first screenplay, a short film that she co-wrote with a friend, was the first-place winner in the screenwriting category at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in literary journalism from NYU.

HIRE KATHERINE TO EDIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT! CLICK HERE TO REQUEST A QUOTE.

Genres of interest: Narrative nonfiction, academic works, books of journalism, essay collections, memoir, health/wellness, book proposals, and other nonfiction book projects.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, query letter editing, and private writing coaching.

Layering Your Draft Part Two: Let’s Bake A Novel

  Aprons are highly recommended.

Aprons are highly recommended.

Want to start at the beginning of the series? Click here!

Before I go much farther into writing-as-baking, I feel like I have to put my money where my metaphor is. I can’t tell you to run out and buy an apron until I show you how this works in a stripped-down, practical way.

If you’ll remember from the previous post, I don’t really love the idea of separating rough draft and revision. Pretty much all writing includes some of each—most writers do some revision in early drafts, and pretty much all revisions include new writing.

Instead of starting with the idea of a rough draft to bash through, let’s start with this: whatever writing gets you into the story. For some writers, this might be a first full pass that they write quickly and then use as a jumping off point, but for others it will be extensive pre-writing. Maybe a few chapters or important scenes. For others it will be writing their way into the story for as long as it takes to figure the basics out, and then starting back at the beginning. This process might stay the same, or vary from novel to novel.

I’m going to call this searching for your ingredients. You’re gathering up what you need to tell the story. When you go looking in the kitchen, you might find some things easily, while others take significantly more cupboard rummaging. You might discover that you have the ingredients to make something slightly different, which is even MORE exciting than your original idea. Or you might realize you are missing something important (no baking soda = no conflict to raise the stakes)—and you have to decide if you want to put in the time to get that missing ingredient, or if you want to adjust your plans.

  Your novels will be the wordy equivalent of this. I promise.

Your novels will be the wordy equivalent of this. I promise.

Then you start baking.

The layers will involve different amounts of work—some full passes, some fast passes, some where you only look at the scenes affected if you’re talking about a secondary character or a subplot.

Here is a (simplified) list of layers that I’ve done on a novel:

 

  1. Voice and setting
  2. Main character
  3. Plot and structure
  4. Removing a story element that isn’t working
  5. Missing plot details
  6. Narrative tightness and pacing
  7. Main character’s arc driving the story
  8. Emotional climaxes got wonky–work on these
  9. Smoothing out the language and narrative pace
  10. Secondary character dangerously underdeveloped!
  11. Working in suggestions from an edit letter
  12. Timeline issues
  13. Working in feedback about another secondary character
  14. Yet more editorial feedback
  15. Copyedits!

(If you’re feeling really ambitious you can assign a flavor to each of your layers. I definitely have a dark chocolate setting in my new novel.)

One of the best things about this method is that it responds to the needs of the manuscript and the editing process. It’s infinitely flexible. Some novels require multiple passes to work on character; others have tricky plots. Some have lots of research layers that need to be incoporated. This also allows a writer to focus on their story elements, taking time to craft them without the pressure of fixing everythingatonce.

Which, to me, sounds delicious.

-Amy Rose

PS Next time, I’ll talk about the magic of character layers.


Want to work with Amy Rose on your novel? She critiques, content edits, and provides writing coaching for all sorts of fiction. Just click on the contact tab & fill out the easy form to get started!

Make Your Prose “Pacey”: How to Engage with Expectation, Silence, and Surprise

“The prose needs better pacing, better rhythm” How do you begin to solve that kind of intangible issue? If chunks of your prose feel dull or plodding, consider Ze Frank’s words about the “rhythmic trinity.” Ze Frank is not a writer, but he is an endlessly creative maker and humorist. His groundbreaking 2006 vlog “The Show” profoundly influenced current mega-hit vloggers like John and Hank Green. In Ze’s 3:23 video about “the rhythmic trinity of expectation, silence, and surprise,” he talks about how that trinity helped his music–and how it applies to humor in the classic joke’s setup, pause, and punchline:

“Watching younger comics, you can learn a lot by seeing what’s broken. They might be good at building expectation and delivering surprise, but they haven’t figured out silence yet, and they blast through their lines so fast you don’t have room to laugh. Or they’re all surprise and pauses without building any patterns for the audience to relax into. When it’s all surprise, it stops being a surprise. The craft of it is in the matter of all three: expectation, silence, surprise.” 

Writers use expectation, silence, and surprise to create rhythm on both the micro, sentence-to-sentence level and the macro, story level. I’ll save story for a later blog. Right now, I’ll talk about how the rhythmic trinity works on the ground, in your actual prose.

 

Expectation: Ze says that creating expectation means building patterns for the audience to relax into. So that might mean

  • A stretch of quick-paced dialogue popping along
  • A series of sentences of similar length, which can create a nice train-wheel rhythm
  • A series of short action paragraphs
  • A series of brief descriptive passages that take us (for example) from the exterior of the house to the interior
  • Any of these creates a certain expectation, one you can then have fun disrupting.

Silence:

  • Slow down prose with a lingering descriptive passage,
  • Give any moment more air and breath by using a longer sentence, especially one that follows a series of short, brisk sentences of roughly the same length.
  • Insert a sudden break into the dialogue, in which one person literally falls silent

Surprise: 

  • Sometimes breaking a short sentence out in its own own paragraph makes it more arresting
  • Zoom in on a tiny physical detail—or zoom out suddenly to a bird’s eye view of your scene
  • Insert a bit of new information that turns the scene on its head 

How It Might Work (A Brief, Highly Simplified, and Pedestrian Example)

He said, “I tried.”

I said, “Not hard enough.”

He said, “But I can’t try harder.”

I said, “Well, you you have to.”

He said, “You’re asking too much.”

I said, “I’m asking for what you promised.”

[So now we’ve set up the expectations.]

And then, without warning, as if something had just occurred to him, or as if he’d had a sudden and interesting idea, he frowned and glanced up at the ceiling.  for a moment, his eyes rolled up even higher, till I could see their whites. [that string of clauses functioned as a kind of silence or hesitation] 

Then he fell face down on the table, quite dead.

[there’s the surprise element, made more surprising by the new paragraph]

More on using the rhythmic trinity on big story issues in my next blog. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear more ways you play with rhythm and pacing in your sentences.

 

Make More of Voice: Where Language Meets Character

Voice is one of the most difficult things to talk about in writing. We often hear that it is mysterious and impossible to define–a matter of instinct and intuition and writerly magic.

 And while that all sounds nice, it leaves us with the problem that voice is still very much a part of writing craft. I love coming up with the voice of a new story, and while it’s true that some of it does happen by instinct, there are also distinct choices that I make as I go.

I make word lists in my head. What words does my character love? What words would my character never use? A character who uses the word “eat” and one who would say “gorge” are not the same person.

Are there parts of speech that stick out as important? I’ve had characters whose verbs are always strong and active, characters who are very noun-driven, focused on what’s in front of them. Characters who have adjectives for everything in their pockets, and others whose language is stripped down to the barest essentials.

Making these decisions is not arbitrary—they’re hugely telling about who this person is, and how they see the world, how they interact with it. Does your character ask endless questions? Some are always declarative. Others need to wander a bit and look around at the scenery, taking a roundabout and metaphorical path before getting to the point.

Voice tells us about individual personality, but it also relates to groups and identities. There are anchors in where a person comes from, how old they are, what social class they’re a part of, how they were raised and educated. It’s an indicator of their interests, their obsessions.

It’s also a powerful way to reveal relationship. What words and rhythms of speech does this character use in dialogue? How does it shift when the person is the more powerful one in the exchange? The less powerful one? How does the language change when he or she is in love?

In the story I’m currently working on, there is an omniscient narrator, which throughout the story becomes inflected with different voices. MANY different voices. Whenever I drop into a scene, I need to remember how my character talks, how my character thinks and relates to others. I have one character who prefers short sentences. One who has a hard time not being vague. One who loves to swear and use brisk metaphors. Another who tends toward the lyrical, the lilting, the poetic. All of these things are more than just choices to keep them distinct in my head. They’re ways that I get to show character.

We always say this—show, don’t tell. But often, I think we forget that one of the easiest and most basic ways to show character is through the use of language. It’s right there on the page, whispering to the reader about who a person is.

Maybe voice IS a kind of magic. But it’s one that we get to control even as we channel it onto the page.

What Spell-Checkers Don’t Catch

By Yellow Bird Editor David Aretha

Before I edit a manuscript, I always inform the author that I’ll be checking the text for spelling. “That’s something you can skip,” one author told me. “I already ran it through the spell-checker.”

Ah, yes, the infallible spell-checker, invented in the 1970s and honed to perfection over the decades by multi-billion-dollar software companies. Given that a flash drive the size of a Bic lighter can safely store ten thousand book manuscripts, surely the spell-checker is bullet-proof when it comes to recognizing all the words in the dictionary.

Well, it isn’t. For example, it didn’t catch multi-billion and bullet-proof in the previous paragraph, which should be multibillion and bulletproof.

Unfortunately, the spell-checker is about as effective as this winter’s flu virus. It catches simple words and correctly leaves misspelled ones underlined in red, but it sheepishly tiptoes out of the room whenever it comes to certain compound words.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word bible that most book publishers follow, loves to smash compound words together. According to this dictionary (and others), many words that we think are open compounds or hyphenated compounds are actually closed compounds. According to Merriam-Webster,boarding house—which slides through the spell-checker unscathed—is actually boardinghouse. The spell-checker will give the green light to first-hand, even though M-W spells it firsthand. When authors look at my edited manuscript, they are often surprised to see that I changed the spellings of dozens of their compound words in order to adhere to Merriam-Webster.

If you’re looking to self-publish without hiring a professional editor—or you want to appear as professional as possible when you submit your manuscript to a publisher—you should scroll through M-W and get a sense of all the smushed-together compound words. You’ll find stomachacheschoolteacher, andtransatlantic.

I have long come to the realization that I should scrutinize all hyphenated and open compound words. If I think such words have even a remote chance of being closed compounds, I drop them into the search box of www.merriam-webster.com. Very often, my hunch is correct.

Below are some surprising closed compound words, according to the publishing world’s favorite dictionary. You don’t need to memorize these spellings, but I suggest you take two minutes to study the patterns. You’ll see, for example, that counter- and -up words may not always have a hyphen, and that the spellings of waitperson and congressperson indicate that other job+person words are also closed compounds.

absentmindedness

afterburner

antiaircraft

beachcomber

bedsheet

bloodsucker

bookmobile

bullheaded

butterfingers

cheesecloth

concertgoer

congressperson

counterclockwise

counteroffensive

counterrevolution

countertop

crackerjack

crewmen

cubbyhole

deathbed

deathblow

extracurricular

farmhouse

flashlight

footlocker

freestanding

freethinker

freshwater

gearshift

ghostwriter

gumdrop

gunpowder

hairdresser

halfhearted

handcart

hardheaded

headfirst

headgear

homeowner

hotbed

icebreaker

jobholder

kindhearted

landfall

laughingstock

levelheaded

lifelong

lighthearted

longtime

makeup

matchbook

moneymaker

mouthwatering

officeholder

offshore

openhanded

otherworldly

outdistance

overabundance

overaggressive

overcompensate

overgeneralization

painkiller

pawnshop

pigheaded

pincushion

plainclothes

plaything

policyholder

praiseworthy

racecourse

racetrack

ringleader

roundabout

rumrunner

saltwater

sandblast

schoolhouse

seacoast

secondhand

shipbuilding

shorthanded

shortsighted

sledgehammer

sleepwalking

stepdaughter

stockbroker

straightforward

summertime

sundress

sunup

tagline

thundershower

townspeople

troublemaker

turnaround

underdeveloped

underemphasize

uppermost

waistline

waitperson

washtub

wavelength

weatherproof

wholehearted

windowpane

windowsill

workstation

waitperson