Writing a Prologue

I used to think that every book needed a prologue, basically a chapter which introduces the reader to the story.  I’m not sure why, just one of those things you never really question until it’s challenged.

I was sent this article by a friend of mine.  A lot of these I’d heard before, but the ‘Avoid Prologues’ one stuck with me.  I always started a project with a prologue; it was what I thought I was supposed to do.

This resulted in a number of conversations with friends and family, and I realized that a prologue, like any writing convention, isn’t always useful.  Most of my prologues were really just first chapters, with nothing but a POV shift into the book.

A prologue sets up the story, but is separated from the core of the book, either by time or distance.  The point can be world building, establishing the conflicts and challenges for the character, or just an awesome hook, but if it rolls directly into the meat of the book, it’s probably just a first chapter.

(On Basilisk Station is a good example: the prologue is a ground of politicians who appear only in the prologue, and make a decision that impacts the main character for the rest of the book.  )

Most of my books don’t have prologues anymore, they’ve all been renamed to Chapter 1.  It’s become something of a challenge with a project, to consider any prologues I might write for it that could be separated enough to work.  Most of the time, nothing comes of it.  Which is okay.  If anything, it’s a fun exercise in creative thinking.

Any examples of a nice prologue, let me know, and as always, keep on writing!

-Michael

On getting feedback

Plenty of people have started my book, but until recently no one had finished it.  Many people offered their services, but most people are busy: they have lives and jobs and houseplants, and critically reading a book is much different than reading it for enjoyment.  Luckily, someone I know had the time to read my book, for a decently modest fee.  During a nice summer evening, we floated on a boat drinking beer and discussing the particulars of what my book needed.

The fact is, for any novel, you need someone who has gone from start to finish.  Yes, an editor will do that, but I mean earlier in the process, when you don’t have a book you are ready for an editor to see.  You have questions about your story that need to be answered.  Does this work?  Does that make sense?  Did you get the right response to this event?  Did you realize what I needed you to realize at the right time?

Getting someone you know, who you can trust to give you good advice, is invaluable.  If you can get someone to do it for free or for fun, great, but it is certainly worth the money if you need to hire someone.

And now, with a number of important questions answered, I’m better prepared to finish my book.

Chapter Size

I noticed something as I was revising my book: my chapter sizes are all over the place.

With 18 chapters written, I’m averaging a little less than 3000 words a chapter, which is not bad (I don’t think).  But that’s the average.  The smallest chapter is about 1500, the largest about 5200.  Most are between 2 and 3 thousand, with a number of 3000+ and two 4000+.

I’ve never really thought about chapter size before.  For me, a chapter is simply a segment of the story, and some are going to be larger than others.  But I’m wondering if I should be thinking about paying attention.  Perhaps I need to cut some of the chapters up into smaller bits?  Will one long chapter or one short chapter ruin the enjoyment of the book?

Do you have any thoughts on chapters?  Is it important that they’re all the same size?  Or is it completely irrelevant to enjoying the story?

Thanks, and keep writing!

Cutting a Project in Half

There are a number of options an author has when a book is too long.  There is steam lining the story, removing little bits here or there.  There is cutting arcs and whole scenes.  And there is dividing the book into multiple parts.  Operating under the belief that my book is too long (153,000+ words), I’m using all three options with a goal of having a publishable book, but mostly I’m going to write about cutting the project in half.

It isn’t as simple as simply finding the halfway point and making the cut there.  Not every story will have an adequate break point in the middle, and cutting the flow of the story can make for a jarring division.  So you have to find a point where you can divide the story.  The best place to make a break in my story comes about a third of the way through.

Second, I look at the arcs involved in the story.  One of the arcs was written to produce conflict and explain the world more to the reader, but it doesn’t quite work cut up, so I’ve removed it (at least temporarily).  The main arc works, but needs a lot of clean up.

The third step is to look at what is left and ask yourself: is this a book?

My modified story is not.  It needs some expansion, and not just because it is so small, but because it needs to be able to stand on its own.  So I’ve sat down and considered how to change the book, planned and outlined and established what I want to have happen so the second book will work.

A large portion of the work is based on the realization that the character who would head into the second book would not be the same one as from the rough and first drafts.  She’ll have more time to grow and expand, become a unique individual.

But there’s still the question of plot.  The start is good for the first ten chapters, then begins to muddy up and wobble a bit.  And the ending needs a nice climax, something that the character can work towards and learn from.  I’m working on one that will make sense with the stories I want to tell, but I haven’t fully developed the concept.

I’m working, aiming to be done with this project by the end of July. I’m hoping this is the draft that I’ll submit to an editor and work out for publication. If not, at least I’m writing.

Moving on

I failed to fulfill the NaNoWriMo goals, which is okay.  The fact is I have a lot of goals I’m working on, and adding one more to the plate before I finished off a previous goal was a bad idea.  Someday, I’ll get to the challenge, but not now.

On the positive side, I finished my revisions for my book.  The next step is to sit down and figure out what to do with it.  I’ve been alternating between splitting it into two books or serializing it.  Both have their advantages.

I also need to go through my bag of goodies from the AWP (Associated of Writers and Writing Programs).  I had some ideas of submitting work to reviews and journals, and some contacts who might help me with the marketing and promotion of my book.

Slow and steady wins the race.  Focus on what I’ve got in front of me and finish something.  Then move on.

Working from an outline

I’m taking part in a Writing Month Challenge.  It’s going okay, though I’m a few thousand words behind where I wanted to be.

In preparation, I spent the weeks before hand preparing and planning an outline of the story.  I tried to figure out not only plot, but the details that normally stop me as I’m writing.

I mentioned in another post that naming a character, place or thing can be difficult because I place a great importance on it. So I tried to work out the names for everything before hand. That doesn’t mean I am not running into quick naming issues, but at least for the important peoples, places and things, I know what I’m using.

As for plot, the story really is progressing faster because I know where it is going.  I’m not anticipating any major road blocks ahead, but there is still three weeks of writing ahead.

Still, 50,000 words in a month is a lot, even from an outline.  I’ll have to spend some time playing catch-up.  But if I can pull it off, it’ll be awesome.

Five things I want to avoid when writing

A simple list of five things I want to avoid in my stories.

1) The Mary/Gary Sue Protagonist

The character who is always right and always wins.  Every likes her.  No one can defeat her.  She never does anything but always comes out on top.

2) The Cartoon Antagonist

He’s evil because he is.  No depth.  No personality beyond opposing the Protagonist.  You can’t really hate him, because there isn’t enough of him to hate.

3) Consequence Free World

Buildings are destroyed, vehicles crash, banks robbed, people hurt or killed, but in the end everything turns out okay.  Sometimes with music.

4) Static Characters

The character wakes up, goes on an adventure, experiences pain, fear, joy, and victory, and wakes up the next day the same character.

5) Repetitive Challenges

The Antagonist only interacts with the Protagonist in one or two different ways.  No real variation in their stories, and the Protagonist is never really challenged to grow.

Rule Three: If it feels wrong, fix it

Rule 3

I write what I know and what I’m good at.  A look at my collegiate and personal studies, books read, movies and shows watched and video games played, it would come to no surprise that my writings usually have a military theme.  Don’t expect horror or romance novels with my name on them anytime soon.  I think most writers are the same: they write what they know and are good at.

Recently, while planning ahead for a project, I had to admit that the big bad guy organization was not working.  It was too clunky.  I had put a lot of work into it, so  I wanted it to work as it was, but it didn’t.  I started working out an alternative, and throw out all I had done before.

Now I’ve have problems with stories I’ve written.  I’ve wondered if I could rewrite this scene, reword that response.  That’s normal, a part of every writer’s concern over his or her work.  This is more about that gut feeling that something about your story is just wrong.

When you write what you know, you feel comfortable with it.  So those strong feelings that something is wrong shouldn’t get ignored.  Some of your readers will also have experience with your genre, and they’ll probably notice it too.  So pay attention, and when necessary, be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

Write on! 🙂

Ending a Project

I’ve been researching serialization, the idea of taking a story and cutting it into episodes released in sequence instead of one giant book.  This idea appeals to me, at least for my large project that may be too big to be a first book.  While I haven’t decided on a course of action, the research has gotten me thinking about how my stories should end.

This is a rather new concentration for me, as I can start a story at the drop of a hat, but I have only finished one, and that one is the start of a series.  For only one of my projects, a fantasy trilogy, have I outlined the story from beginning to end, and that one is proceeding at a nice pace.  The rest I haven’t figured out an ending to.

So, I have spent some time thinking about my projects and how they might end.

For many projects, the answer is ‘I don’t know’.  I have an idea or a start, but no real story.  But for a couple of the projects, this exercise has paid great rewards.

For example, take the large book I mentioned earlier.  I have many stories I want to tell in that world, but not all of them revolve around the main character.  So I asked myself ‘What if I limited myself to five or six books centering on her?’  I always had an idea of how I would remover her from the story if I had to, so I made that the ending to her story.

The result on the story is favorable.  By having an end in mind, I can plan out the events and their consequences, and begin building towards the decisions that end her saga.  (Spoiler: she doesn’t die, and will still be a character in other stories set in that world).  The ending also acts as a goal: instead of feeling pressured to write as many stories as I can, I have a finish line I need to get to.  The difference is surprisingly important.

Another example is a Sci-Fi story I recently started.  The main character has been asked to go and stop a war from starting, a task made so difficult by the forces arrayed against him that it would take at least two books, if not more, to tell.  In addition, the goal of stopping a war means that the conditions currently exist for a war to occur, and that the character must keep a war from starting long enough for the situation to change.  As I contemplated the ending, I had to decide how to finish the story, and chose to give the story a Five-year arc.  However many books it’ll take, the character now has a deadline.

The lesson I’ve learned from this?  Knowing how to end your story is as important as how you start it, especially for projects that are expected to run over several books.  It provides a goal, some guidelines for how the story can and should progress.  Something I really need to think about when working on my projects.

Have a nice day, and write on!

Orphan Folder

Nothing sucks more than remembering that you had a great idea, but not remembering the idea.

Several years ago, I started to combat that problem by opening an Orphan file. It’s nothing more complex than a folder where I store flashes of inspiration. A line of dialogue, a scene, the basic concept for a story, it goes in the folder. An outline that I’m slowly working out? Saved.

It’s nice to know that I have all these ideas saved, and I have raided it a few times to get ideas enough to get around Writer’s Block. I doubt I will actually get to use all of them, but I’m okay with being more creative than productive. It means I’ll never run out of things to work on.

Happy writing! 🙂