Monday, December 05, 2011

Before the Beginning

What I'm reading: The Drop, by Michael Connelly

Note: Today is the LAST day to enter Giveaway #3. Check the Deals & Steals tab. Remember, you have to let me know you've entered.

First, a brief pause for this commercial message. DEADLY SECRETS, my first non-romantic suspense novel, is now available for sale. Although it's technically an "indie" publication, there's nothing "indie" about it. I'll talk more about that another time. Today, it's prologues.

When I was starting to learn the craft of writing (not really all that long ago), I noted that many speakers, be they authors, agents, or editors, spoke about prologues. As with everything else, opinions varied. Some agents said, "When I ask for your first five (or ten) pages, don't send me your prologue; I want to see Chapter 1, which is where your book really starts." Others wanted to see the prologue.

There was the question of what determines a prologue in the first place. If it's showing action that begins shortly before your Chapter 1, then it should BE Chapter 1.

Then there's the question, "Is it needed at all?" Could that information be woven in as back story. Are the prologue characters going to appear in the book?

And lastly, came the guideline I tended to follow. Prologues in romance used to be the norm (along with epilogues, but that's another topic). However, they were falling out of favor, and the recommendation was to avoid them.

Not being fond of prologues myself, I liked the last one, and didn't include prologues to any of my romantic suspense books. I used the "trickle the information in later" method. I did write a prologue for Finding Sarah—more as a way to get to know her back story than to add to the book. I never submitted it with the manuscript, and you can find it in "Finding Fire" where I collected several stories and vignettes I wrote about Randy and Sarah, simply because I wanted to know more about them.

But now, I've published DEADLY SECRETS. It's a mystery. Prologues in mysteries are still common. Often they show the murder, or reveal something about the victim. In many cases, this is information the reader is privy to, but the detective isn't. I did think the book needed a prologue, to set the foundation for a theme of the book. I did follow the, "It happens years before the book opens" guideline, so I felt comfortable calling it a prologue instead of Chapter 1.

Does everyone read prologues? No, not always. Will the book stand if they don't? With DEADLY SECRETS, think it will, although there are definitely clues dropped in there, and my feeling is that since I took the time and effort to write the words, I hope readers will read ALL of them.

DEADLY SECRETS is available at just about all the e-bookstores. I published it directly to Amazon for Kindle readers, and to Barnes & Noble for those with Nooks. I've published it at Smashwords, which provides formats for just about any e-reading device. Eventually, they send it to some of the other stores such as Sony, but that takes several weeks, but you can still download a format that fits most devices.

And, one of the 'perks' to readers is that they can download samples. So, if you want to read the prologue, you can do it for free. All the links for finding the book are on my website here.

What's your take on prologues? Do you read them? Skip them? Like them? Do you like them in one genre, but not another?

Tomorrow my guest, Mel Teshco, is taking us Down Under. Don't miss it.

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Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

great post! I enjoy prologues and epilogues but don't always find a need to use them.


Steven J Pemberton said...

If a book has a prologue, I always read it. If the author and the editor thought it needed to be there, it would be silly of me to skip it - like jumping over the first five minutes of a movie because you think nothing interesting ever happens in them.

Prologues are like every other storytelling device, in that some stories need them and some don't. I suppose as fashions change, the type of story that needs a prologue waxes and wanes in popularity.

I don't know why some agents didn't want to see them - perhaps they just got sick of seeing prologues that should've been chapter 1, or prologues that didn't tell the reader anything they needed to know before chapter 1, or prologues that were really chapter 30, used as a cheap way of building tension - "Keep reading and something exciting will happen, right after I've finished telling you about the protagonist's cousin's dog's life story!"

Or perhaps it's because a prologue, done properly, is about someone who isn't the main character. The agent doesn't want you to use five of your fifteen pages on someone who isn't going to be seen again. They want to know whether you can make them care about someone whom the reader will be following for 400 pages.

Terry Odell said...

Pamela - so true. Once again, it's a case of "if it works, use it; if it's simply to conform to some perceived "rule", then don't.

Steve. I think your last point is excellent. Thanks for stopping by.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I saw the same advice regarding prologues. I still use them if it seems appropriate though. It depends on the type of novel.

Anonymous said...

I tend to write prologues where I feel there needs to be explanation. Like in Heart of the Wild I wrote one to show that the hero really didn't want to do what he had to do for a friend. But because of the friendship he did kidnap the girl and take her to his cabin, but the friend was her father and trying to weave that into backstory type of thing I felt it would be easier to show the hero not wanting to do this. I like a good prologue, and epilogue to, especially an epilogue as it gives the writer the chance to show the reader how well things worked out. Great article, thanks.
Love and blessings

DL Hammons said...

When I wrote my current book, it was with a prologue. But after hearing much of the same opinions you refer to, I changed it to Chapter one. But after more time went by I changed it back to a prologue. My book is a mystery/thriller, the prologue takes place six months prior to the rest of the book, invloves a key murder, and is told from a POV who is not the main character. It needed to be set apart...and labeling it as a prologue did that.

Before I became a writer I enjoyed prologues that served a purpose (Clive Cussler is a prime example). Now I wonder if using one in my novel will hurt its chances of becoming published. :)

Allison Brennan said...

I have prologues in all my books. I just finished #18, and in the first draft it didn't have a prologue. But there is a pivotal turning point in the book that gives one of the main characters her motivation for the entire story. I wrote the prologue (from another character's POV -- a character who dies) and I really think that it worked. In a nutshell, it explains why this important character will do anything to protect her sister, even if it's not the smartest thing to do -- it's her blind spot, because she made a death bed promise to her mother when she was 7 years old. Discussing it as backstory later would have diminished the power.

I have my own personal prologue rules, but I've broken them all for a variety of reasons. My personal rules (to follow unless the story demands different)

1) Prologues should be short. I prefer 3-6 pages, but I have written a 15 page prologue.

2) Prologues should happen more than a week before the story begins, and preferably long before with one of the major characters that shows or explains their motivation or conflict, but I've had one that happened immediately before (24 hours) and I'm sure there's one or two from a secondary character's POV.

3) Prologues should hint to something important in the story, preferably a clue or give the reader insight into the character that they couldn't otherwise have in the first 100 pages, that is important for them understanding or enjoying the book.

I really get angry when people say they don't read prologues. I write them because they are part of the story.

C.C. Harrison said...

I'm with you, Allison. I love prologues and always read them and I write them, too. Readers who don't read them are missing an important part of the story.

I've found that dribbling this information in throughout the story or telling about it later tends to dilute the impact of the information.

And, DL Hammon, I'm with you about Clive Cussler! He is THE BEST when it comes to prologues!

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - the rule "there are no rules" seems to hold well here.

Rita - I'm not nearly as big on epilogues as I am on prologues. Actually, I'm not big on prologues, either, but if they're needed, then they should be there.

DL - I don't think a prologue will help or hurt your chances of being published. If it needs to be there, it needs to be there. If an editor says, "Call it Chapter 1," that's an easy fix.

Allison - I totally agree with all your points. And I'm pleased to say that Deadly Secrets goes along with your suggestions. Prologue is 804 words (don't know how it translates into 'pages' because it's an e-book) It happens 5 years before Chapter 1. It reveals a clue and character that are pivotal to the mystery, but because it's a mystery, they're not revealed as such in the prologue. And I agree. When I write, I labor over each word. I want readers to read them.

Steven Brown said...

I wouldn't label them "Prologues", just name it chapter 1. I don't see where it makes any difference if the action was 20 years before the rest of the book or 1 day before the rest of the book. Chapter 1 is chapter 1. The only good reason for a prologue is if chapter 1 is really slow moving and boring.

Terry Odell said...

CC - agreed. If dribbling won't work, then it needs to be 'up front'

Steven. Ah .. a prologue by any other name ...

Paul McDermott said...

You make a valid point with the (seemingly obvious!) statement that there has to be some Purpose in writing a Prologue (as opposed to making it your First Chapter).
There are different TYPES of Prologue of course: some of Shakespeare's plays wouldn't work at all without a Prologue (to 'set the scene') ...

If you happen to be writing scripts for "Columbo" or similar formatted shows, you'll want to use the Prologue to tell the viewer whodunnit so [s]he can feel smart when the detective comes to the same conclusion at the end of the show ... [RIP Peter Falk, no offence intended here,I believe he was one of the "good guys"]

Then there's the Prologue which has been re-marketed and given its own "buzzword" title, the "Prequel". These generally have only ONE purpose, namely to squeeze a few more dollars out of a successful idea - I'm thinking of #1, 2, 3 in the "Star Wars" films, or the celluloid versions of the Harry Potter books... but are they ART?

Not sure I can accept the "Prequel" as equivalent to a well-written Prologue ...

Terry Odell said...

Paul - good points. I would say that one "prequel/prologue/scene" was the one in the Indiana Jones movie where viewers got to see why Indy is afraid of snakes. I don't think it would have worked as the opening scene to Raiders.

For Columbo, those opening scenes made what was billed as a mystery more of a suspense, because we, the viewers knew more than Columbo did. Didn't lessen the power; simply a different sub-genre.

Give me the three 'original' Star Wars movies any day.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I always read them. I've used them in 2 of my books, but I'm moving away from them now.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I like them if they're not too long - like all writing 'rules' I think it depends on the particular book - what works for one plot is not going to work for another.

mona karel said...

I'll sometimes write a prologue to help me solidify the pertinent issues of the back story. Haven't used one yet since it wove so well into the story on edits. My next book coming out, working title "Teach Me To Forget" has a strong, shocking prologue I might use, if not I can use it for promo.

Stephen Tremp said...

I haven't read Connelly's stuff in a few years. Used to read his books often. Now I'm off to the library to take out a few of his books. Think I'll get large print this time. Easier on the eyes.

Katalina Leon said...

I use prologues sparingly and only when information essential to chapter one is needed before the action starts.
The same goes for epilogues, I use them only to share information that can't be told as part of the story.

Wynter Daniels said...

I always read prologues. As far as writing them - I often use them then remove them in the self-editing process. Like you, I have to get to know my character before the real story begins, but I find I can drip in the information later.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - The only ones I've every skipped (more like skimmed) were in fantasy or paranormal where they were pages long, printed in italics, and did nothing but set up the history of why stuff was going to happen once the book started. Legends, etc.

Elspeth - do what works. Great advice.

Mona - I made a free read out of Finding Sarah's prologue once. Now it's part of the short story anthology that goes with the Pine Hills books.

Stephen - I'm reaching that large print era, but mostly for night reading, and then I switch to my e-reader where I can enlarge the font as needed.

Katalina - I'd rather write the next book instead of doing an epilogue. I tend to leave mine on the open-ended side just to make that an option. That's where Hidden Fire came from.

Wynter - yep. Writing those early bits helps solidify characters, but the readers don't always need to see it. I'm getting better - I used to delete the first 8 chapters!

Carol Kilgore said...

I like prologues and prefer shorter ones. My sister usually skips past and reads them after she finishes the book. My sister is funny that way :)

Karen C said...

I like prologues and I read them. I figure if the author wrote it, it was part of and important to the story. Genre doesn't matter - if it's there I'll read it. Same for epilogues.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - your sister has an interesting approach.

Karen - thanks. Authors do appreciate readers who read ALL the words.

Kathy said...

A little late chiming in here. But I will read a prolgue where it sets up the book. I'm a voracious reader so I read everything. I'm not much into the male authors though. I've read a couple of John Grisham and James Patterson novels by checking them out of the library but I doubt I would buy the books. My money is limited so I stick to authors I know or people who recommend certain books if I can swing the cost. I don't have a Kindle or a Nook so I have to download e-books to my computer. I'm just oldfashioned enough to enjoy the paper books. Paperbacks or hardbacks either one are good. If I have bought the book by my favorite author I keep it. I always wanted to have bookshelves where I could have my books out to grab and reread if I wanted to do that or share with someone as long as I get it back. I have a bunch of westerns that belonged to my husband who passed away last Wed 30 Nov. I might pick one of them up and read it one day. I know he had certain ones that were by the same authors my sister would buy them for him and his brother gave him a sack full last time we visited. The sack still has books in it. I haven't moved it either.

Barb Ross said...

This is very timely, Terry, as I am in final edits before submission on my first true cozy mystery and am debating a prologue.

This is an "origins" story--ie how the protag became the detective she is and her first paying case. The body drops much later in this book and in any I've ever written (In the Death of an Ambitious Woman I managed to drop it on page two) so I need a way to show the reader where we're going and the type of book they're reading. So I may do an "How did I end up here?" type prologue.

As a reader, I always read prologues and epilogues (actually I love epilogues), but I've also heard industry types say negative things about them.


Terry Odell said...

Kathy, so sorry about the loss of your husband. I'm sure that once the initial shock and grief have eased, those books of his will bring you comfort.

Terry Odell said...

Barb - I understand your dilemma. I think the key phrase you used is "Industry Types"

We want our readers to enjoy our books. I'm talking about a related topic at Jenny Milchman's blog (link in Tuesday's post)

Donnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donnell said...

Terry, great post. Prologues never bothered me. As a matter of fact, if it helps avoid a huge information dump later, I prefer them. And one of the best mystery writers I know, Robert Crais, said, "Sure you can write a prologue, just don't write a bad one."

And yet when a group of agents get together and tagteam and say never, ever, never... the writing community jumps on that bandwagon and a writer is done for.

My editor had me put one in in The Past Came Hunting. I, too, had fallen prey to the never, ever, never belief that prolgues especially in a debut novel were bad things.

What a relief to be able to throw all the nonsense out the window. Just write good story!

Terry Odell said...

Donnell - so often, we hear "never never" or "always always" when it doesn't really matter as long as everything works. Thanks for your comments.