Tuesday, June 7, 2011

To Prologue or Not

            Well, Monday was an interesting day in the blogosphere, what with everyone participating in writer Alex J. Cavanaugh’s It’s All Fun & Games Blogfest.  I thought about it and decided not to participate myself because, for one, I don’t like to post about anything that is not directly related to writing, and second, I really didn’t have a good answer.  I mean, I like Pictionary, Texas Hold ‘em and basketball, but besides Pictionary, they didn’t seem to fit into the genre everybody else was blogging about.  But I did find some really great blogs to follow and I even managed to snag a couple new followers myself, fellow writers Kittie Howard and M. Pax.  Thanks to both of you and welcome aboard!
Yeah, so I try to stick with only those topics related to writing, but I sometimes find it difficult to come up with new subject matter.  Such was the case this week.  Then I thought I’d write about what’s been consuming me lately in regards to my book.  For months now, I’ve been pretty content with my novel overall, except for the opening chapters.  First, I have a slight problem with the fact that agents and their assistants need immediate action within the first 250 words.  It seems to be a national thing that Americans need instant gratification.  No one seems to be able to wait in anticipation any more, even for just a page or two.  But that’s okay, I do have an opening chapter with tension, conflict and action. 
The thing is, I want to open up with something else.  Some might call it a prologue, and while it does read somewhat like a prologue, it’s actually a brief foreshadowing, only 261 words, where the protagonist ponders how he missed the moment he changed from the good man he once was into the villain he’s become.  I thought it appropriate since it bookends the overall theme running through my novel, complementing how he sees himself in the end.  But how do you query with submitted pages with this?  Agents don’t seem to want to see this sort of thing.
Well, I’ve waffled back and forth on this.  My heart tells me to keep it in, but something in my head is telling me to chuck it.  Nathan Bransford had a good post on this a couple of years ago which you can read here, but what he essentially says, or asks rather, is that if you were to take it out, could your book stand on its own?  My answer would be a resounding yes.  It’s not vital to the overall story, but it makes an impactful statement and I really like that. 
At first, I thought I could get around this by simply calling it chapter one, but it just doesn’t feel right.  And if I were to submit it as the first chapter with a query, the agent’s assistant would likely just toss it out, proclaiming it didn’t have enough action.  So last week, when writer Adam Heine wrote a post on When & When Not To Prologue, I commented, asking his advice.  He made a suggestion and I thought it a pretty good idea.  He said the chapter sounds like it's internal, as opposed to the protagonist being active, and while it totally might work, in general that's a red flag.  He suggested I remove the chapter heading, (which up to that point had been chapter one though it should have been a prologue,) because I probably wouldn’t want the first word the agent reads to be “prologue.”  He’s right.  I don’t.
So I have removed the chapter heading and I won’t be including it in pages submitted with my query.  I will start with the action, just like they want.  But now I’m worried about another item agents frequently complain about and want to know within the first 250 words:  What is the story about?  Well, you see, if I were to leave that darn prologue in, it would tell exactly what the story is about.  But I don’t seem to be able to have both. 
I kind of have a problem with the fact that agents want to know what the story is about in the first 250 words.  I mean, how do you even do that?  My friend, Lisa Regan, did this perfectly in her novel, Finding Claire Fletcher, a fantastic book being pitched to publishers as we speak, but then again, it was quite introspective, as well, yet it did not read as a prologue.  I still have a lot to learn from her.  She wants me to keep that foreshadowing chapter up front, but advises I do what makes me comfortable.  Having finally decided, I’m feeling more at peace. 
During the last week, I pumped up my new first chapter and, per Rachelle Gardner’s advice via her blog post What’s the Story on Backstory?, I’ve rewritten the backstory to be part of the action and dialogue.  I’m feeling pretty good about it all right now.  I think, after taking the last three months off, I am finally ready to start querying again. 
I’ve learned a lot since I first started querying and I won’t be going about it like I’ve done in the past.  I’ll be like the turtle, slow and steady.  I’m kind of used to the rejection by now, so I’m not too concerned with that.  I’m striving for more requests for partials and fulls.  And this time, with all the changes I’ve made, I hope someone sees something good in it, something worth offering representation. 
It’s been about ten months or so since I finished my first draft.  A lot of pain and heartache, joy and accomplishment, a lot of learning what the industry is all about and making of new friends within it.  I know I will never stop learning new things about writing and publishing, but I think I’ve finally reached that point where I’m comfortable with what I know, and even with what I don’t. 
            So, I’m curious, where do you stand on brief prologues or an opening chapter that doesn’t start out with a blockbuster explosion?  Is intrigue enough for you or do you want to be slapped in the face with action?  


Laila Knight said...

I've noticed it all depends on the agent. When I first started writing, I'd begin everything with a short prologue. I didn't see anything wrong with that, heck, I still don't. The trouble is that I'm not the person who has the final say. When I read a book I like to read a short prologue. It makes more sense to me. Recently I've aced all prologues and just tranfered the information into my writing by form of dialogue in the midst of the action. I guess the main think is that you write a good story. Good luck with your querying.

Lisa R said...

I missed the blogfest. Anyway, great post. I personally love prologues. I always have. They get me excited but I know they are frowned upon. Although I really don't see how something that is SO allegedly frowned upon continues to survive. Also, I've read roughly 20 books this year so far, many of them bestsellers and not one of them started off with conflict, tension and action. I got that by page 3, 4 or 5. Definitely not in the first 250 words. So again I ask, if published authors don't have to do it, why should we have to? Either way, I'm glad you are comfortable with your book now! I have complete faith that you'll find someone who will love it as much as I do. I can't wait to see it on the shelf of my local bookstore someday!

Kittie Howard said...

I personally don't mind a prologue, even like a prologue when it provides backstory for a fast-moving book. Having said that, I've read prologues that were tooooooo long. Bottom line: a prologue doesn't stop me from buying a book. I'm clueless as to why they're frowned upon.

Nancy, I couldn't link to you via your avatar. I had that problem once - a fellow blogger helped me fix the problem. If you open your blog to where I am now, and go to the collection of followers and their pics, you'll see 'sign in' at the bottom. Click that open...a box will open up...fill in your blog address...when you save, others can link to you via your pic/avatar. Hope you don't mind me passing this on!!

Nancy Thompson said...

Hey Kittie! I'm not sure if I did anything to fix that or not. I'm so technologically inept, it's embarrassing. Thanks so much for following me!

Natalie Sharpston said...

When I crack open a new book, I love prologues when they are used as a glimpse into the future… I like the tease; it keeps me reading so I can discover how the heck the characters are going to get from chapter 1 to the situation foreshadowed in the prologue.

However, I discovered in Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog that prologues are among agents’ pet peeves. See:

So… seven months after completing my first draft, I’m knee deep in revisions for my first novel. I cut the first two chapters completely to get right to the “action.” So far, I’ve decided to retain the prologue… I’ve shortened it from 1,340 to 692 words. I still feel my story won’t be the same without it. Time will tell if the choice is a good one. : )


Bryce Daniels said...

This is a great post! I've struggled with this as well. Finally, (I think) I've settled on a one-page first chapter.

The only thing that irks me as a reader is when the prologue is TITLED "prologue." If a writer is going to use one, I much prefer something else, like a timeline or setting place as a title.

IMHO: Tell your story and let your gut guide you. If the writing is there and an agent or editor is interested, this would be an easy fix, should they request it.

Kittie Howard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Nancy. About followers...just a suggestion...but if you return to my followers (or anyone's blog you enjoy) and find several blogs you enjoy and follow them, it will spread quickly. Good luck! (You really do have a lovely blog.)

Joylene Butler said...

Good question, Nancy. I wrote a prologue for my political thriller that I hope sets up the story. Could the book work without? Maybe, but not as well.

Thanks for stopping by my website today. It's great meeting you. My blog is at: http://cluculzwriter.blogspot.com

I'd be honoured to follow you.

Norma Beishir said...

Nancy--thank you for following my blog! I'm not following you as well.

If you enjoy humor, give these a try: http://williamkendallbooks.blogspot.com/ and http://allkiddingaside-beth.blogspot.com/

Julie Musil said...

Intrigue is definitely what keeps me reading on! Whether it's a short prologue, or a catchy first chapter. I almost don't like a big, explosive beginning. I want it to marinate and evolve. Good luck with your story!

Donna K. Weaver said...

About the All Fun and Games Blogfest, your three games would have been fine. One participant listed 3 kinds of games in a variety of game types. One thing about blogfests is you get to meet lots of other bloggers you wouldn't have normally met--and increase your number of followers and therefore your online presence. Nice to meet you!