Rise and Shine

scissors-editI have committed one of the cardinal sins of novel-writing.  It’s a trap which many neophyte novelists fall into, although when first I fell into it, I wasn’t aware of this.

My story begins with not just one, but two characters waking up.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  My story begins with a prologue – albeit a short one, at around 350 words. But guess what? That’s another cardinal sin.

Never start your story with a prologue.  Or someone waking up.

I’m busted.

I wonder if these faux-pas explain the steady trickle of rejection emails. Each one is perfectly courteous and proclaims, using remarkably similar wording, that the agent in question does not feel passionate enough about my novel, to invest the time and effort required to launch a debut.  I understand. In a world where countless hopeful authors are chasing a finite and modest number of agents, my novel is not standing out.

But I wonder, is this because it has a prologue?  Is it because it starts with someone waking up?  Are those agents I’ve approached so far not getting past those two cardinal sins?  I don’t know whether they’re even reading beyond those first few pages.  Maybe, by the time my two characters have exited their respective hotel rooms and met in the corridor, I’ve already lost them.

For every rule there are exceptions.  One could list dozens of novels which begin with a prologue.  I’m reading one at the moment in fact, Dominion by C J Sansom.  I’ll bet there are dozens of novels which begin with a waking-up moment too. But if you’re a first-timer, a would-be, a novice… you break the rules at your peril.

You might argue I’m being naive, or misguided and put it down to my lack of experience, but I believe the wakey-uppy moment in Singled Out is important.  The reader learns things about both characters in those first few pages, including the roots of their respective frailties.  But perhaps it would go down better if I found a way to impart those essential attributes later in the narrative.

I want to keep the prologue, I’m afraid, but it’s so short I can’t believe that this alone would prompt the casting-aside of my manuscript. But if I get rid of the wake-up call and the early-riser breakfast, would it make Singled Out more buoyant?  Would this be enough to make it rise above the slush pile?

I don’t know if that’s the answer, whether it will bring agents flocking to my door (or popping up in my inbox at least). But I’m beginning to think, if I don’t try it, I might never know.

22 thoughts on “Rise and Shine

  1. If it’s a 350 word prologue, why do you need it? Why can’t it be part of the first chapter, so you avoid starting the book with waking up and you avoid a prologue?

    1. Your suggestion greeted me as I fired up my iPad first thing this morning and I confess my initial response was, ‘well, if it were that easy, I’d have done it, wouldn’t I?’. But a half-hour later, having chewed my toothbrush into submission, silenced my audiobook and filled a page of my bathroom notepad (yes, notepads everywhere), I’m going to thank you for having seriously made me think. As it stands at the moment, doing what you suggest wouldn’t work. However… having shifted my thinking from ‘it can’t be done’ to ‘how can it be done’, I think there is a way I could achieve what you suggest, with a limited amount of rewriting. It could work, and achieve both objectives – rescuing me from neophyte writer cliche-land. So I’m going to have a play with it and see how it turns out. Meantime Paul, I thank you. I thank you for making me think again.

  2. I’m a believer that these cliches have been policed so heavily in recent years that you rarely see them in novels any more (prologues excepted). Does this mean that they are no longer cliches? Another one I heard of was using describing the character as they view themselves in a mirror. Can you remember a novel with this in?
    As you know, my novel has a prologue. My novel also has somebody waking early in the book (though not in chapter one). These were not happenstance, I thought through each scene carefully and chose what was best for the story. I’ve yet to have anybody complain about either.
    The other way of looking at it is that agents receive thousands of manuscripts each year. They cannot read through them all therefore they are looking for ways to help them decide those on which to focus. If these ‘rules’ are used as such, then maybe they are best avoided.

    1. I’ve read such a lot about writing, and learned from some superb authors, but I can’t believe I let myself get caught up in this duo of cliches. The one about ‘never start with a prologue’, I do know and I have deliberately forged ahead with this anyway, whilst cutting and cutting its length until what remained was but a skeleton of the original. But the waking-up thing? I’m kicking myself. To me it seems such a logical place to start when you’re sending a group of people on holiday, on a crack-of-dawn flight. But… but… I have to keep reminding myself, I’m not the voice of authority in these matters.

      I agree entirely with your comment about agents receiving thousands of manuscripts every year and I don’t want to be one of the ones they reject on the basis of my having broken a ‘rule’. If that is happening – and I don’t know for sure, but if it is – I need to write my way out of it, or at least explore the possibility.

  3. Whether the novel is better or worse for using these ‘cliche rules’, if there is a chance they might give an agent a reason to reject it, it seems worth submitting a slightly re-written version that avoids them. Once an agent is hooked, you could show them the alternative (original) version as see which they prefer.

    As you know, my novel also begins with someone waking, though violent action swiftly follows. And I was considering using a prologue to get round another problem in the first chapter. Having read your post, I think I’ll look for an alternative to the prologue and re-tinker my opening to avoid the waking scene.

    1. Many successful novels have prologues and I doubt this alone is a deal-breaker if the story is compelling enough. But it seems prudent to avoid as far as possible those ‘groan’ moments, which could derail a submission before it’s had the chance to spark any interest. More tinkering required, both you and I.

  4. What an interesting question. In front of me I happen to have two books. ‘The White Raven’ by Robert Low starts with a prologue and a map. ‘Empire: The Leopard Sword’ by Anthony Riches starts with acknowledgements, two maps, an account of the organisation of the Roman army in 182AD and a prologue.
    Both authors write, and sell, well. But they write for men who like historical slash and hack, plenty of movement and lots of technical detail. For that audience relevant preliminary information is clearly welcome. So it seems to me that the expectations and preferences of the specific target audience(s) is what matters, rather than universal rules. (And incidentally Riches also has someone waking up, on the second page of the prologue!)
    For what it is worth Low and Riches both write their prologues as short flashback/flashforward pieces and both leave the readers with a question in their minds. But whether those are more generally usable features for prologues or genre–specific I have no idea.

    1. My prologue is just the sort to which you refer; a short flashback to put a question in the reader’s mind and give them a sense of things to come. And maybe that’s fine. But where an experienced, successful author gets away with it, the novice may not be so lucky. And it’s worth saying, I’m not writing in the historical slash-and-hack (I love that!) genre either. I’m edging towards an edit to deal with both problems, just in case it makes a difference. Nothing to lose, after all.

  5. The prologue thing definitely varies by genre. They’re not obligatory in fantasy, but they’re quite common. The waking up business, though…I remember half my fellow creative writing students getting grilled about that. If it makes you feel any better, it was just as common a sin in the upper level classes as the lower level ones.

    1. It’s really interesting, garnering thoughts on the waking-up business! It had never occurred to me before – and I read a whole lot – that this was an undesirable jumping-off point. I’m rewriting, I’m rewriting!

  6. I wonder it it’s about movement? Start in bed, the characters are fixed, immobile, static – OR, start in the corridor with movement and action – from an objective point of view, which would hook you in to keep on reading? Personally, I always skip the prologue.

    1. I’m fascinated that you always skip the prologue! To me, it’s just as much a part of the book as the rest of it. I wonder if you’re not alone in this? And if many people skip the prologue, then I begin to feel ever more confident in my decision to redraft those first few pages.

  7. In the past I have removed the prologue and changed it into a full chapter for a story that I was working on during highschool. Whether this made the story flow better I’ll never know since the story is burried deep in the hard drive of my laptop.

    In a published novel a prologue for me doesn’t make or break the entire book. If the prolouge sucks…sometimes it turns me off but most of the time I keep reading to see if the rest of the writing still sucks. I do this so I can go back and compare it to my own writing to see if I can make any improvements and not to be mean.

    1. I’ve been working on absorbing the prologue into the first few pages and I think I may be able to make it work. That would be preferable, for the sake of avoiding breaking those ‘rules’, even though I find myself thinking, if it were me, neither of these issues would trouble me as a reader. I’m just one reader though, and it’s certainly proving interesting, getting a variety of viewpoints through the comments on this piece. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  8. If I may be so bold to comment. Mr. Lawrence Block in two of his writing books advises switching the first two chapters. Make chapter 2 chapter 1 and then fall back into chapter 1. That way you begin in the middle of the plot. Telling Lies for Fun & Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web are wonderful resources. Also I have been following your blog and am cheering that your manuscript is published.

    1. That’s an interesting approach – I like it, but I’m not sure it would work for me. My chapters aren’t actually chapters, but much shorter, and I swapping them around wouldn’t get me far enough. However… I am now revising my opening to incorporate the prologue, having come to a bit of a light-bulb moment as a result of expressing my frustration here on the blog, and receiving so many helpful and encouraging comments in return. It’s not even a major rewrite, just 3 or 4 pages. I’m actually a bit miffed that I didn’t spot this approach myself before! Thanks for the book recommendations – I’ll check them out. And thanks too for the encouragement – I love hearing from people who are enjoying my writerly anxieties 🙂

  9. I’ve never thought of prologues as being something to avoid. I read plenty of new books by first time authors that have prologues. Good luck deciding what you do next 🙂

    1. I’ve been reworking my first few pages and I think I’ve got somewhere. It made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of writing it this way before now. It will be interesting to see if it makes a difference, now that Singled Out begins with neither a prologue, nor a wake up call…

    1. Indeed – and some of the best contemporary books have a prologue. The one I’m reading at the moment, ‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty has a riveting one that lands you right in the middle of things, wondering what the heck’s been going on. I guess when I’ve had 5 or 6 novels published, ‘they’ might let me get away with it too.

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