A Writing Tip That Ruined Me: Prologues

prologue_114378562What do agents and editors have against prologues? Several times, at conferences or online, I’ve heard publishing experts recommend against starting your novel with a prologue. Also here. And here. And here. The prevailing wisdom seems to be this: “If your prologue is important enough to be in the book, make it your first chapter. If not, then cut it.”

I guess if I were filtering through a slush pile of 100 submissions a day, and a mere 10% of them began with prologues, I’d get pretty sick of them too. But if I analyzed that irritability, I think I’d draw the conclusion that the slush-pile/submission process is stupid, not prologues.

I think I read a LOT of books, for the average person—which is to say maybe 30 books a year. In the last year, have I read a book that begins with a character waking up? Not that I can remember. And if I did, would I have rolled my eyes and immediately judged the book to be not worthy of my time? Absolutely not. But according to industry wisdom, that’s another one of the unforgivable cliches that should never open a book:

– The main character waking up
– The main character dying (then coming back in subsequent chapters as a ghost, or in flashbacks)
– The main character looking in a mirror

Does anyone outside the established publishing industry care or notice if a book starts in one of these ways? I don’t think so. Just jaded, bleary-eyed slush-pile readers.

As a casual reader, I love prologues. They create an air of mystery. The add suspense, or foreshadowing. They can lay groundwork for the themes or the character arc of the book. They’re typeset in all italics! What’s not to love? I recently read a book, Blue Remembered Earth, that began with an all-italics, nearly incomprehensible frontispiece, and followed that with an eight-page prologue. And I loved both of them. And then the all-italics tone reappeared at the end of the book, creating a perfect wrap-up. Voila! Great!

In fact I’d probably read a book that was all prologues, kind of like how Kentucky Fried Movie was mostly movie trailers.

The writing tip that ruined me: Strict definitions

Mullet? Pinstripe shirt? Bare feet? Check. This  will be the least downloaded stock photo ever.

Mullet? Pinstripe shirt? Bare feet? Check. This will be the least downloaded stock photo ever.

Knowledge is power. But then again, ignorance is bliss. Hmm…

Colorful words are great. As a writer, I love to throw them out there willy-nilly. But what to do when some smarty-britches points out the strict definition of a word, and that definition is a little too strict for your purposes? Urgh. Over the last few years, I can think of two words that have been ruined for me. Now I’m going to pass that ruinous wisdom on to you… You’re welcome?

Max Brooks’ World War Z is a great book. I saw about 20 minutes of the Brad Pitt adaptation, and it seemed alright. But Brooks’ book is very different. It’s a bunch of snippets of narration that show how most of the planet’s most prominent nations handle a worldwide zombie outbreak. The cultural and historical ground that Brooks covers is way more interesting than the zombie action. Although some of the zombie scenes are pretty kick-ass as well.

But when Brooks speculates on how Russia would deal with a pandemic, he spends a few lines clarifying the true definition of ‘decimate.’ Decimate, as in ‘the Russian army decimated an entire town.’ Right? No, historically, ‘decimate’ means to kill one-in-ten. Doesn’t sound quite as apocalyptic does it?

So if you’re writing a sci-fi book about a super-contagious narcolepsy that wipes out more than 10% of a planet’s population (IDYLL, hopefully coming out soon), then you better do a find-and-replace if you use the word ‘decimate’ anywhere. Right?

The next word I can no longer use is ’nauseous.’ In the movie ‘Never Been Kissed’ Drew Barrymore plays a nerd who points out that ‘nauseous’ is an adjective that can refer to a gross scene or a gross smell but not a grossed-out person. So if you are describing a person in a state of nausea, you can’t use ‘nauseous.’ You should use ‘nauseated.’

‘Nauseated?’ Blech.

OK, now run along and never use these two words again.

Oh, but wait! It seems that Merriam and Webster and Roget have already dumbed down the lexicon to match common usage. So feel free to decimate the English language until you’re nauseous. Woohoo! Ignorance wins again!

Other writing tips that ruined me:
Prologues
Subjunctive Mood
Using ‘Said’

The World’s Crappiest Synonym

Stephen King is among the most talented authors to emerge in the last 40 years (and certainly one of the most popular). But in my mind, he is also the progenitor of the world’s crappiest synonym.

King was one of my favorite authors growing up. I have a theory that The Stand is the most influential genre book written in the last 30 years. Think about the boom in post-apocalyptic books that followed a dozen years later. A lot of those authors probably read The Stand in their formative years. I think the Walking Dead has more in common with The Stand than with Night of the Living Dead.

I have another theory that Stephen King’s voice is the closest any author comes to ‘speaking’ in the way that most people think. In his 2001 treatise on writing, called…wait for it… ‘On Writing,’ King describes his craft as a type of telepathy, and I think that sums up his writing style perfectly. If you try to write in a style that is as relatable and ‘unobstructed’ as possible—and if you often intersperse 1st-person inner dialog into 3rd-person POV narrative—then I think you’re writing in Stephen King’s style.

Take a look at this suggestion from ‘On Writing,’ in which King illustrates the point that a writer should never let a fancy (or stiff) vocabulary come between the writer and the reader:

“…never say ‘John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion’ when you mean ‘John stopped long enough to take a sh_t.’ If you believe that ‘take a sh_t’ would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say ‘John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps ‘John stopped long enough to push.’)”

Push it real good

Push it real good

Ew. Excuse me a moment while I try to ‘push’ that quote out of my head.

Ah. I can’t do it. Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is one of the best writing-advice books out there, and I gathered many great insights from it. But this particular passage, King mixing tautology with scatology, has always stuck with me. In some ways, it’s embedded a more enduring, disturbing image in my head than anything I’ve read in Pet Sematary, Carrie, or It. I guess, to me, ‘push’ is one of those words (like ‘moist’) that apparently has an inherit ickiness to it.

Perhaps Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, the writer-creators of The Venture Brothers also read ‘On Writing.’ In their episode “What Color is Your Cleansuit,’ they wrote this scene involving the series’ primary antagonist, and his ‘anti-villain’ girlfriend.

The Monarch: Excellent! Then we drop in our mutant henchmen, as if taking an evil, mighty push!
Dr. Mrs. The Monarch: That is so foul! Can you say “movement” instead of “push”?
The Monarch: Okay, movement. I don’t even know why I said push. It’s really gross when you think about it. Push…

Again, ew.

I guess the ultimate lesson would be, there’s no good way to chronicle the ‘act of excretion.’  Maybe writers should just avoid the subject altogether.

For other writing tips that traumatized me, click here. Or here.

 

The State of My Writing: Editable

sled_231740350Editing, editing, editing. You might not be able to glean this fact from my blog posts, but man I love editing! For me, the last round of editing is like a downhill sled-ride—whereas a novel’s first draft is a Sisyphean trudge—the hauling of an unwieldy and volatile load across a snowy blank screen.

With editing, the hard part is done. (Damn you, creativity!) Now it’s time to pare down words, to search out and eradicate redundancies and extraneous phrases—to burnish each chapter into a lustrous, aerodynamic shape. That’s what I’ve been doing this month with LINE OF DESCENT.

And during this process, I’ve stumbled upon a good trick that’s been helping me immensely. I emailed a Word Doc of my book to my Kindle Fire using the subject line “convert” and listened to it through the Fire’s Text-to-Speech feature. I’ve heard that your eye can’t be trusted to find typos in your own work. I’ve seen this (or not seen it) to be true. But your ear is a lot harder to fool. Lately I’ve been plugging my earbuds into my Kindle Fire and listening for mistakes while doing chores. So how’s that for finding extra time to work on my book? Of course, this trick won’t help you much with punctuation issues, but it will surely help you double-check for tinny or repetitive prose. And if your book sounds good while being read by the Kindle’s robot narrator (and divorced from your own inner voice) then there’s a good chance it will engage and attract readers.

Now a couple more beta-reader and editing comments to gather, and it will be time to get this show on the road. I know the initial launch on Amazon is likely to be underwhelming (possibly downright depressing), but so far I’m really enjoying the ride!

A Writing Tip That Ruined Me: Prologues

prologue_114378562What do agents and editors have against prologues? Several times, at conferences or online, I’ve heard publishing experts recommend against starting your novel with a prologue. Also here. And here. And here. The prevailing wisdom seems to be this: “If your prologue is important enough to be in the book, make it your first chapter. If not, then cut it.”

I guess if I were filtering through a slush pile of 100 submissions a day, and a mere 10% of them began with prologues, I’d get pretty sick of them too. But if I analyzed that irritability, I think I’d draw the conclusion that the slush-pile/submission process is stupid, not prologues.

I think I read a LOT of books, for the average person—which is to say maybe 30 books a year. In the last year, have I read a book that begins with a character waking up? Not that I can remember. And if I did, would I have rolled my eyes and immediately judged the book to be not worthy of my time? Absolutely not. But according to industry wisdom, that’s another one of the unforgivable cliches that should never open a book:

– The main character waking up
– The main character dying (then coming back in subsequent chapters as a ghost, or in flashbacks)
– The main character looking in a mirror

Does anyone outside the established publishing industry care or notice if a book starts in one of these ways? I don’t think so. Just jaded, bleary-eyed slush-pile readers.

As a casual reader, I love prologues. They create an air of mystery. The add suspense, or foreshadowing. They can lay groundwork for the themes or the character arc of the book. They’re typeset in all italics! What’s not to love? I recently read a book, Blue Remembered Earth, that began with an all-italics, nearly incomprehensible frontispiece, and followed that with an eight-page prologue. And I loved both of them. And then the all-italics tone reappeared at the end of the book, creating a perfect wrap-up. Voila! Great!

In fact I’d probably read a book that was all prologues, kind of like how Kentucky Fried Movie was mostly movie trailers.