Ditch the Prologue (For Now)

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

In January, I wrote about my quandary over whether I should keep the prologue of my middle grade novel or scrap it. (Read that post here.) At the time, I decided it could stay. After all, the very literary agent and author who brought this issue to my attention read the opening of my book and said it was a strong start. I figured it would be silly to mess with a sure thing.

Content with my decision, I honed my query letter to a quirky perfection and sent it out to the masses. I received rejections, which I expected. What discouraged me, however, was the number of agents who did not respond at all. It’s normal to a point, even for agents to throw away SASE’s, but even the agents who invited writers to query again if there was no response didn’t respond to my reminders.

It’s hard to face the truth sometimes, especially when it meant that the book I’d poured myself into for ten-plus years didn’t even merit a “no, thank you.” And I did everything I was supposed to, following submission guidelines to a T, never sending attachments, the whole bit. The only thing that left was the story itself: something had to be wrong with it.

I mulled over this issue a lot but felt too discouraged to sit down and make any more changes. And I’ve been busy, too. But while I’ve gone about my life, the whole prologue or not issue has continued to percolate. You see, when I first wrote the book, there was no prologue, so I should be able to go back and just cut it out, right?   But the thing my readers liked when I added the prologue was that is answered some of their questions while still keeping the characters in the dark. My problem became: if I go back to starting with Chapter One, how will I keep my readers happy? I don’t want to bog the story down with too much background information up front. Prologues are great for plunging readers into the world of the story. On the flip side, they’re notorious for hiding very tedious first chapters.

I’ve considered my favorite books and the methods their authors employ. Michael Crichton’s books often have introductions as well as prologues, sometimes involving characters that don’t appear at all in the greater book. They do pack an early punch, but he had a knack for introducing facts in a way that don’t interrupt the story. Now, I am no Michael Crichton, so I should probably not write a prologue just because he did.

Stephenie Meyer, author of The Twilight Saga Collection, also uses prologues, and although I love her books, I can see how her prologues are literary devices, meant to pull readers in. To be honest, I read them but immediately forgot about them. They are poor teasers that really do not add to the story.

When put in that light, I suppose prologues are somewhat expendable. Or even if they’re not, people may read them as such. I don’t want to turn off an agent by having the word “Prologue” at the beginning of my novel.   Which is where Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) comes in. Often, prologues pre-date the story with an important bit of backstory, so when this particular book opens ten years before the rest of the book, it could easily be labeled a prologue – yet author J.K. Rowling calls it “Chapter One” instead. This makes a difference, although it’s a subtle one: by calling it the first chapter, I think that Rowling makes a statement about how readers should approach the story. In essence, she says, “Listen up! The story is starting.”

Hmm… I wonder if this works on literary agents, too.

Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to simply change “Prologue” to “Chapter One” in my own book and have done with it. There are still some prologue-y things about it that need to change, which include making a smooth transition into the next chapter, along with spreading out any possible info dumping to make it more palatable. I have my work cut out for me. But after letting my novel sit so long, I think I am ready to make these difficult changes and send it out again. Maybe it will grab someone’s attention this time.

To Prologue or Not to Prologue?

Storm Brewing, Vancouver

 Photo credit: world of jan

I am getting ready to do the whole submit-and-reject thing again with my list of agents. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky this time. Like I’ve said before, my novel is much improved from the last time I tried to get an agent. And this time I have a little more hope for my query. The thing I’m nervous about, however, is the bit of story I’m submitting, the bit that will make an agent excited (or not) about my writing. The bit that kids will probably read and then decide if they want to spend their allowances on my book.

I recently attended a webinar with agent Mary Kole, and the first topic she addressed in her Q&A (and it also gets a good-sized section in her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers) is about prologues—and she strongly suggests not to write them. The argument against them is that the prologue will pack a punch, fooling readers into thinking the first chapter will continue being just as exciting. In actuality, the first chapter is a big disappointment, including back story and info dump and blah-ness. Why not just write a strong start to begin with?

I’d never considered prologues in that light before. I can think of plenty of books that had prologues that I really enjoyed, but in none of them did I feel cheated when I got to Chapter One. The first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone is like a prologue in that it starts years before the present of the rest of the story. Whether you call it a prologue or the first chapter, it is what it is, right?

The opening of my book is the same—an opening years (actually decades) before the main story. It sets up the plot and gives a taste of what happened to get us to the story. And beta readers like the book much better with this bit of fore-story included. So what’s a writer to do? I’m going to include it, dadgummit. But just for kicks, I’m going to put it here, see what you think. I’ve always hesitated to put my unpublished fiction online because, if readers like it, but it gets changed, they might be disappointed with the published work. Or if it’s terrible now, I’m metaphorically shooting myself in the foot. Well, I’m shooting away. Here it is, the prologue/opening/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of what is currently titled Kingdom of Secrets. Read below, or download the PDF from the My Fiction page, and then let me have it!

 

Kingdom of Secrets: Prologue Excerpt

by Sarah Cotchaleovitch

Ella knew she shouldn’t do it. Mama wouldn’t like it one bit.

After much lip gnawing and twisting of her brown hair between her stubby fingers, Ella decided she couldn’t let the poor pup die.

She ran inside to fetch her mother’s emergency kit from the cupboard over the sink.

Climbing onto a chair, Ella scrambled onto the counter and stood on her tiptoes, but the cupboard was still too high for a girl of four to reach. Not to be thwarted, she got down and dragged the stool up to the chair. She hoisted it onto the counter, stood on top, and swung the cupboard door wide, revealing Mama’s kit.

Movement through the kitchen window caught her attention, reminding her there was a sick pilfit pup waiting outside.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Ella whispered. She nearly toppled off the stool in her haste.

Kit held in front of her, she scuttled outside. The pup lay panting in the shade of the hedge, looking for all of Terra like a cross between a raccoon and a dwarf rabbit.

“Don’t worry. I’ll make you all better.”

The pup gave a half-hearted yelp and closed his eyes.

Ella’s favorite thing about the emergency kit was the bottle of hot water. Whenever her mother bought another one, the merchant always promised her silver back if it went cold before two months’ time.

How often had she seen Mama brew a restorative? Into a bowl went a splash of hot water; steam spiraled into the air. The first part was a success, at least.

“Let’s see, let’s see.” Ella’s fingers played over the jars. She couldn’t read, so she trusted her memory of what the ingredients looked like. A bead of sweat formed on her brow and slid down her nose. She brushed it away, gave her concoction a quick stir, and held the bowl under the pup’s snout. “Drink, boy. It’s good.”

The pup opened his eyes and whimpered.

“It’s okay, I promise. Just—just take a sip.” She tilted the bowl toward him.

His black nose twitched, and the pup tested the liquid with his tongue. Starting slowly, he lapped every bit and licked the bowl clean.

Ella moved the pup’s head onto her lap, running her fingers through his silver fur. After a wash and a brush, he would be the fluffiest pilfit in Jackson Village.

The pup sighed. Ella held her breath. He opened his eyes: blue with brown flecks.

“You’re so pretty, Clumps,” she said, naming him without a second thought.

He sat up and yelped, an almost-human sound, the sound of a healthy pilfit.

“Oh, Clumps, you’re all better!” She hugged him to her chest.

“Ella!”

The girl stumbled upward, Clumps dangling without protest in her arms.

Her mother stood at the kitchen window. “Is that my emergency kit?” Dark-haired and blue-eyed like Ella, Mama was madder than a fish in firegrass at the moment.

“Mama! Mama, he was dying. I had to! His mama—she got into the poison mushrooms. All his brothers and sisters died, but I saved him, Mama! Oh, please, please can I keep him?”

Her mother’s face told Ella that she could not keep Clumps, nor would she be allowed a pet for the rest of her life. She mightn’t ever be allowed in the kitchen again, either.

But next second Mama was gone from the window, and that was worse. She was coming to Investigate the Situation.

“Clumps, maybe you’d better go.”

Too late, here she was.

Ella’s mother leaned over and scooped the pilfit pup into her arms. Gentler than her tone suggested, she scratched behind Clumps’s ears, prodded him a little, made him open his mouth. “I’ve got to be more careful around you,” she muttered. “You brewed that restorative perfectly. How did you figure it out?”

“Just. . . just watching you, Mama.” Ella pressed her lips together. This was turning out differently than expected.

“Well, you know I’m going to tell your father when he comes home. We’ll talk about whether you can keep this pup—”

“His name’s Clumps, Mama.”

“Oh, you’ve named him already?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Ella’s mother handed the pup back to her. “Let me be very clear,” she said in her this-is-your-last-warning voice. “You may never get into my things without asking permission again. And never brew a cloakbane without my help. Got it?”

Ella’s eyes were wide and tearful. She nodded slowly twice. Maybe it would be a while before she brewed another, but if she could save the life of a pilfit pup, she knew she could do other wonderful things.

She would give the whole incident some time to filter to the back of her mother’s memory before mentioning that, though.