Prologue Problems

A Friday Free-for-All [in which our heroine obsesses about writerly things]

I’ve been reading literary agent Mary Kole’s blog, Right now she’s doing a series of critiques on story beginnings and her first critique post caught me by surprise. The author wrote one word: Preface, and Kole stopped immediately to comment “Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory…” To me, this is very bad news. I love prologues, and I especially love writing them.

A brief history of my prologues:

House Red: The prologue is a total crutch, but c’mon, it’s my first novel. In this case, Mary Kole is right.

Savage Autumn: The prologue is not so much a crutch per se…but I’ll admit Chapter One starts off more slowly than what is currently popular in contemporary fantasy YA fiction. The prologue’s there because someone had to die before the story begins, so the reader can believe the antagonist is capable of killing.

The Black City: Brand new prologue, I fell in love with it immediately (which is a sure sign that something is very wrong). Buoyed by my success with the prologue, I started the first chapter. And it’s terrible. It’s really, absolutely terrible. It starts off slowly, with too much explanation and even more backstory, as well as very dull description of the world. So in this case, my prologue didn’t start off as a crutch, but I used that beginning as an excuse to let everything fall to poo-ness.

Granted, this is my very first draft for The Black City, and there will be plenty of time to fix those issues later on. Thank heavens.

Prologues aren’t always terrible, right? I mean, I’ve read plenty of  novels where they work beautifully. I find them all the time in my favorite mysteries and contemporary fantasies. A couple of fantasy examples I can come up with off the top of my head are: Fallen by Lauren Kate, Frostbitten, and Stolen, both by Kelley Armstrong. Hmm, looking at this short list, I realize that in order for a prologue to be successful, the novel’s title must end in “en.”

That’s easily remedied. Savage Autumnen. The Black Cityen.

All better!

Seriously, though, I will go back to my Chapter Ones and pretend the prologues don’t exist. Tighten up the chapters, bring in tension and whatever else is needed. Fireworks. Amorous alligators. Really angry toddlers with kicky feet.

My Friday Five

A Friday Free-for-All

1. I really do love Sarah Dessen’s blog. There usually isn’t anything particularly helpful in it, which I like in a blog (as you can probably see if you’re reading mine). Hers is entertaining. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and sometimes way too true, as she is also the mother of a toddler. Because imitation is the finest form of flattery, I’m stealing her Friday Five idea and using it today, because there are too many bits floating around in my head. [Sidenote: if you want to explore her books, my two favorites are The Truth About Forever and This Lullaby.]

2. My friend and Birthday Buddy, Cora, is not yet a year old and she is already facing her fourth surgery. At least, I think it is her fourth; I have to admit I have lost count because there have been extra trips to the hospital not involving surgery. I bet her parents could tell you without any thought at all how many surgeries Cora has had. Right now, Baby Cora needs to get her nourishment through an IV, and hopefully in a few weeks she’ll have gained enough weight to be strong enough for the next surgery. I don’t want to share details here because a) I’m terrible at medical details, being so swayed by the emotional aspect, and b) Cora is not my baby so I’m really not at liberty to share her information. At any rate, please pray for Cora, or send positive thoughts to the Universe, or virtual hugs to her and her parents, or whatever it is that you can do right now for her. She is a special little girl who does not deserve to have to go through this again. No baby does.

3. Um, it’s really hard to move on from Point #2. But let’s try. Z woke up around 2:30 and could not go back to sleep. She tried. I know, because she was in our bed and I was watching her. Z has always slept with us, from Day 1, and this was a conscious decision we made before she came home with us. I think, however, that even if we hadn’t made that decision, co-sleeping is where we would’ve ended up, anyway, since she screamed if she wasn’t with me. But back to my story. Finally, after watching her flip and flop and almost ruin her chances of a sibling with some of her kicks towards Husband, I asked her if it was her diaper. She actually said yes. So I picked her up, changed her diaper, then rocked her and sang through our current lullabies twice (“All the Pretty Horses” and “Ring Around the Moon”). Then I waited a half hour for her to fall asleep in her crib, sneaked back to my room (hmm, “snuck” comes underlined red with spell check). The creaking floors must have given me away, because she woke up and I had to do the wait-by-the-crib routine all over again. I’m a freaking hero, okay?

4. I hit the Big One with the library hold list this week. Usually I get one or two books at a time–totally manageable. Right now I’ve got eight of them, all taking up space on an already-crowded bookshelf. Then yesterday: a message that five more are just waiting on  me. Here’s my list:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, audio recording (I LOVE this book!)
  • A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb (finished on Thursday; I had the feeling I’d already read it though)
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (D-Chan’s been trying to get me to read this for years)
  • The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (MG book, random interest)
  • Accents: a Manual for Actors by Robert Blumenfeld (I’m terrible at accents, but so curious)
  • The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman (author is a literary agent who has published numerous books and articles on writing and querying)
  • Gone by Lisa McMann (may as well finish the trilogy)
  • My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent (reading now. Love her Werecats series. Unimpressed with this one)
  • The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp (hated the baby one, but friend said this one is better)
  • Urban Shaman by C. E. Murphy (might be terrible–who knows?)
  • The Dark Divine by Bree Despain (ditto the above parenthetical comment. We’ve got to take a chance occasionally)
  • Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception by Maggie Stiefvater (I’ve been on hold for months waiting for Shiver–buy more copies, library!)

5. Although it isn’t official yet, since the “official” first day isn’t until tomorrow, spring is here. From the seeds I planted last week, the lettuce has already sprouted. The weather is warm enough I can go without socks around the house, and Z and I have resumed our morning walks. Everyone seems to be happy about this, and I’m wondering: is anyone sad to see the end of winter?

I’m barely proofing this thing in my rush to get it out. Hope it’s okay…. And happy Friday!

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

As I mentioned yesterday, I was reading The Hunger Games and LOVING it.

Scene at home on a lazy Sunday. Beth in sweats (like every day of the week) curled up reading (again, like every day of the week). Husband looking good as always, covered in toddler (like every minute that he is home and she’s awake–huge case of Daddy-worship).

Husband: Hey, Beth. (struggles to set Z down; unsuccessful)

Beth: (engrossed in book) Hmm?

Husband: There’s a huge pile of gourmet chocolate in the kitchen just waiting for you. (dances around room with Z)

Beth: Mmm-hmm.

Husband: An editor from a big-time publishing company called and wants to publish Savage Autumn. Million-dollar advance. (beckons parade of elephants through house for Z’s entertainment)

Beth: Mmm-hmm. I’m reading now, can we talk about this later?

Okay, so that’s not a real conversation. What Husband did say when he came in was, “Wow, it’s so weird to see you smile while you read.”

I usually scowl. It’s not on purpose, and usually not at all related to whatever I’m reading. Maybe I have bad eyesight, or my pensive face is more of a pissed-off look. Maybe the scowl is a defense mechanism developed over years of me wanting people to leave me alone while I read.  Whatever the reason for my usual scowl, The Hunger Games was so well-written, with such an intense and interesting plot, that I couldn’t help but smile.  I hope someday to write a novel that good–even if it never gets published, I would be thrilled. I would read it over and over again, applauding myself on an excellent selection of point-of-view character (Katniss is perfect), supporting cast, description (the sci-fi/future element isn’t in-your-face, but conveyed through very subtle clues in larger scenes). And the plot! Did Collins dream this up? It is so far out. Her imagination is incredible.

I don’t want to say more, because one of my friends hates spoilers, and I think she should be able to read it without any expectations (other than the expectation that it’s a freaky-amazing book).

Anyway, a thank-you to my friends Megan and Neda for suggesting I read it.

Beautiful Creatures by Garcia & Stohl

Tuesday Book Review

I’m never sure whether I should immerse myself in young adult fiction–especially contemporary fantasy–or avoid it while I’m writing. Since I’m between novels right now, it seemed safe to read this one, and I’m glad I did.

Beautiful Creatures is a whopping 563 pages of incredible setting and genius point-of-view storytelling. I finished the book a week ago and still can’t get over how well the small South Carolina town came through. The setting in Beautiful Creatures was a character on its own. The first sentence really gets this point across: “There were only two kinds of people in our town. ‘The stupid and the stuck,’ my father had affectionately classified our neighbors.” The fictional town of Gatlin comes alive through the people who live there, the weather (which Lena, the heroine, unwittingly changes with her moods), the physical mapping of the town, and through its history, linked forever to the Civil War (or, as many townsfolk call it, “The War of Northern Aggression”).

As a writer, I learned mostly from the setting, but also through the characterization. Macon Ravenwood is my favorite character in the book. Best quote: “I loathe towns. I loathe townspeople. They have small minds and giant backsides. Which is to say, what they lack in interiors they make up in posteriors” (p. 124). Hilarious. I bet the authors had a blast coming up with the dialogue.

The story is told from the point of view of Ethan Wate, the typical guy-obsessed-with-the-new-girl, Lena Duchannes. In the beginning I was reminded of the narrator of The Virgin Suicides–someone obsessed, always watching the girls, a little creepiness before the tragedy in which he really has no part. Instead, Ethan takes an active role. Selecting him as the POV character was a stroke of genius by the authors, because Lena, who the story actually seems to be about, is obnoxious throughout the whole book. She’s waiting for her sixteenth birthday, when fate is supposed to decide whether or not she will be a good witch or a bad witch. (By the way: ticking clock of approaching birthday–great method of keeping suspense up even when nothing exciting is happening.) This makes her whiny and moody, something with which I have no personal experience.

It’s late. Bottom line: Nebula Stamp of Approval.

Two Rules of Storytelling

I posted a version of this elsewhere long ago, but the topic warrants more attention. I am the Public, and this is my Outcry.

1) Do not leave the story open-ended. I didn’t sign up to read this book or watch this show so that I can figure out my own ending. It is not a “choose your own adventure” book. Issues must be resolved, and if you leave something out, unfinished, I will notice. Now, if the heroine walks out into the ocean to kill herself & you stop there (The Awakening?), that’s fine; I can piece that together. But if sharks start circling just as she spots a sailboat with her lover on it…not cool. Some writers think this is an artistic option to ending a story, but I usually feel cheated. I have too much imagination for open-ended endings–I come up with too many ideas and then can’t choose. I want to know What Really Happens. I find that far too many YA novels leave off an ending in the hopes that a cliffhanger will make eager readers line up outside of bookstores the night before the sequel’s release. I will not be in those lines, and I will definitely not purchase another book in the series.

2) Never kill the dog. Examples: Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Benji, and I Am Legend. All stories or movies that I never want to think about again. I watched a really terrible Sylvester Stallone movie from the mid-nineties (no, I don’t know why I watched this). All these people die in this tunnel disaster, and it looks for awhile as if the dog dies too. Then the dog shows up, alive! So even though the acting and plot left much to be desired, the dog lived and I would re-watch this movie any day over seeing I Am Legend again. If there’s a dog, and it lives, sign me up. If the dog dies, I want my money back. Now. And a memory erase procedure, a la Eternal Sunshine Etc., so I don’t have to think about it. This rule also applies to cats, but thankfully I can only think of one piece of literature to support it–some Poe story about midway through a collection I own. I stopped reading through the collection at that point. (Although I must point out on a tangent that “The Cask of Amontillado” is one of my favorite stories.)