Prologues

The novel I’m trying to publish includes a prologue, which I recently read at an open mic. Prologues I’ve discovered are tricky. It would seem they are generally discouraged in publishing. However, I’ve seen books, including bestsellers, which have them. Even in movies you’ll find them. There are different kinds of prologues too. Lital Talmor and Louise Lilley have created lists of different categories, good and bad (see Further Reading below) .

This particular prologue I have furiously tried to keep as many beta readers and fellow writers in critique groups (all of whom shall remain anonymous) gave their opinion of it and the rest of the manuscript. Why you might ask did I want to keep it so much? Was it even worth it?

I’ve learned if a prologue is going to be written, it must have a specific purpose. In order to draw readers in, the first few pages, with or without one, must hook them. If the prologue doesn’t do that, it ought to be discarded. At the beginning, what I wanted mine to do was show what is at the heart of the story, which is the beauty and importance of Nature. Throughout the manuscript and especially the prologue, when it came to Nature imagery I got a bit poetic, which at the time was what I wanted.

One of my first beta readers liked it for the juxtaposition of Nature’s beauty with its destruction, which shows what is at stake. However, as I would later learn from other readers, that was not enough. In the earliest drafts of my novel, the entire prologue was a dream sequence. However I soon learned that was a big no-no. Furthermore, it was, as Maeve Maddox (see Further Reading below) would point out, largely atmosphere. Lilley herself advises against such a prologue. Maddox says if your prologue feels “boring” then readers will want to go straight to Chapter 1. Those who read my earliest version felt it was too “detached” from the plot, and the style “wordy”. Clearly then if changes were not made it would have to go, or at least be broken up within the main plot somehow. Maddox herself offers that solution in the case of backstory.

So in an attempt to keep my prologue, I made only the second half a dream sequence, with the protagonist describing it as he was looking back on past events. So I sort of made it a cross between what Talmor calls “background” prologue and a “future protagonist” one (the idea had come around because I have considered an epilogue at the end of the trilogy where he is a young man reflecting on the story’s events). I chose to withhold his name, hoping to make readers wonder who he was and want to read more to find out. Even then, critique group members still felt it was too detached from the story.

I found inspiration from the first Iron Man film. It has a “prologue” showing Tony Stark attacked and wounded, then after the movie title shifts back to 36 hours prior. So instead of having my protagonist years later, I had it set in the main plot, with Chapter 1 beginning some days before the prologue’s events and the early pages build up to that moment, which occurs before the first quarter mark. I added dialogue between the protagonist and another character, so it would not be mere atmosphere anymore, but still there are no names included. One beta reader who read this version liked it and described it as “intriguing”. While even acknowledging publishers do not always like prologues, she felt mine “worked”. So perhaps I am on the right track. I also believe that beginning with Chapter 1 as it is now, it would feel too sudden a start.

Some still thought it too wordy, and I have continued to try to find a balance. Recently, listening to myself reading it out loud helped me simplify it even more. In the end, I am reminded of my father’s advice: the important thing is to tell a story and tell it well. He has also told me less is more, especially with writing. In the end I have come to finally accept that I maybe I did get carried away with the “poetic” feel, and it certainly could get in the way of delivering the message and drawing in readers. So perhaps a poetic style was not the right fit for a young adult audience after all.

Will this prologue be discarded before publication? Will it become something different than it is now? I cannot say. I can say not every book I write will have a prologue, nor need one, but I’d like to try it a few more times, perhaps using Talmor’s categories. If the day comes that I try screenwriting, it will be the same. But I will make sure I want it in a story, and that it will serve a purpose, or I won’t have one at all.

Watch my reading of my prologue here:

Further Reading
  1. Lilley, Louise. 6 Prologues I’m Tired of Reading.
  2. Maddox, Maeve. 3 Reasons to Ditch Your Novel’s Prologue at Daily Writing Tips.
  3. Talmor, Lital. Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue at Writing-World.com.

The Tide of Technology

In the fall, I’ll begin studying for my master’s degree in library science at the University of Maryland. When I applied, I wrote about libraries connecting the past with the present and future. They preserve our written past, as well as offer the latest technologies. I have worked for the Anne Arundel County Public Library for over two years, where I bore witness to an evolution in technology available for patrons. The tide of technology making services more efficient is reflected in my thoughts when I think about publication and marketing, as is the relationship of the past, present, and future.

I grew up after the age of the typewriter, so I never used one. For that I’m glad. I am thankful for the computer. A typewriter to me would be a novelty, something to try out for the fun of it. However I could not imagine writing and editing an entire novel on a typewriter. Nevertheless there were those who did so once. There were once those who didn’t have the internet, and had only physical books to conduct research. When I was at St. Mary’s College and had to write papers, I was able to find sources digitally thanks to that library website and its resources, as well as books. It made life much easier.

It is clear to me that the internet is now becoming the main market for selling and buying books. Nowadays Amazon and other vendors offer greater convenience. You no longer need to go out to a bookstore to search for what you want. You can find it and order it and it comes to you. Even at the library you can find what you want to check out online, place an order, and pick it up at whichever branch you choose rather than browse the shelves. I see many patrons do this all the time. Bookstores it would seem are becoming a thing of the past. I’ve watched several close their doors. While you can still preview books online, for me it isn’t always quite the same as holding it in my hands. Still, I find it very convenient. The internet is essential now to marketing books to as wide an audience as possible. I had to start early and build a following with this blog and website, and other forms of social media.

Even books themselves are embracing technology in new forms. eBooks are now available. They weren’t years ago. I’ve seen them at the library, along with audio books. Once again, to market and sell books as much as possible, I must accept that people prefer different forms of book reading even if I may never use them personally. As a writer, for me nothing will beat the feel  of a printed book, to flip through its pages and know I wrote those words. In addition, I find it easier to concentrate with printed page. But yes, others have different tastes. I’ll have to understand these new forms regardless, especially if I continue to work in a library. Some people drive a lot and love listening to audio books. When I was little, before bed I listened to a few children’s books on audio cassette (another technology now a relic of the past), including The Polar Express and The Tale of Peter Rabbit. So perhaps there is a chance I may try other forms of books in my personal life.

Who knows now what the future will bring? Who knows how my future novels will be received? Who knows where this library science master’s degree will take me during and after my studies. I’ll do my best to be ready in the present, but always remember the past. Libraries to me are a community center where people can have access to technology but also walk through a museum preserving our written past. Having studied history, I treasure the past, for it shows how we came to be where we are now. So while embracing the tide of technology, I mustn’t let it wash away the past altogether.

Writer’s Block: A New Perspective

I stressed the importance of persistence for a writer in my first post. Nowhere in the process of writing is this more apparent when the path you’re on hits a wall, blocking your path forward. That’s right. Writer’s block – no one likes it. Nevertheless, it’s happened to me many times and I’m sure many others before me and after me will experience the same thing. There can surely be nothing more frustrating for writers to not be able to write, as is shown in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love.

Often for me it’s a case where I have an idea of what I want, but I cannot get it out. Other times I don’t know where to start, or what to start. Especially now, with one novel being queried to agents, I have so many prompts I wish to expand on into other novels. But which one should I work on first? Should it be the sequel to the one I’m trying to publish, or something different? Or both? Can I work on more than one project, like Charles Dickens (indeed he started a new novel when in the middle of another)? I have tried, but find it a struggle. What can I do?

Late author Stephen J. Cannell gave his own description of writer’s block, which for me is very eye-opening. When I’ve blocked, I keep thinking about getting it right. But yes, nothing in life is perfect. With this novel I have gone through several drafts. At times where I thought I got it right, I realized I could do better, even in the latest draft. Even back in school when writing papers there were rough drafts and final copies. Cannell reminds us that the important thing is to have fun, just like when we played sports as children.

Early on when I went to a Maryland Writers’ Association meeting in Annapolis, another writer there told me that the first draft is always bad. Hemingway had said the same thing. No bestselling book is as it was when first written, I’ve said to others. If I can accept that in my mind, perhaps I can be more prolific. Of course I’m still going to worry about getting it right, perhaps because I’m a creature of habit. But as I said in my second post, if writing wasn’t difficult I doubt I would be as passionate about it as I am. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can get as close as we can and still be happy.

So what can I do to battle writer’s block? I am reminded of a scene where in my fantasy novel, one character was encouraged by another to climb trees to see the forest from the view of birds and tree-dwellers as opposed to ground creatures. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society stressed seeing things from another viewpoint by making his students stand on their desks. I think when we block, all we can think about is the big problem of getting over the wall. It makes the wall all the more ominous, larger than it really is. We cannot concentrate then on figuring out how to get over, just that we cannot jump high enough.

Step back then and look at it from another perspective, in order to build a solid foundation from the rough materials, and refine it into a safe stairway. Get away from writing so you don’t force it. Try doing something else for a while. Take a walk. Dickens would walk for miles thinking about his work. At times I have walked and pondered over my work. Even today with this blog post I thought about it while working out. Talk to people too. They can help you find new perspectives and ideas too. Keep a notebook, and jot down whatever ideas you get, however small. A little seed can always sprout into a beautiful tree like you never imagined. More often than not, ideas come when you are not expecting them, and surprise you.

I overcame writer’s block with one novel. I must tell myself I can do it again with other projects. It will come again, I’m sure. If the wall seems too high to jump, find another way over. Connecting my first and second posts: there will be trial and error, but we live and learn. That is life, and writing. Don’t give up.

Rejection, Criticism, & A Writer’s Virtues

I didn’t think I would get the latest draft of my novel fully assembled before the new year. But to my surprise, I did. So my writing resolutions for 2016 are to secure a publisher for it and to start serious work on at least one new manuscript. However neither I know will be easy. It’ll be hard to move on after working on this manuscript for so long, and getting on the road to publication for it will undoubtedly bring something writers, especially beginners, don’t like to face, but all writers have to endure: rejection.

Rejection hits hard. Like criticism it tears you apart, makes you feel as if what you poured your heart into is worthless. I have taken both hard, and in some cases I reacted badly. But they are learning experiences, not the end. I’ve learned as much, and am continuing to learn. Change your perspective when receiving criticism and rejections, and you’ll realize it’s a moment for personal growth. You made a good effort, you can now do better. After all, with the effort made, you cannot give up now. I know I cannot, not after all these years.

Patience, diligence, temperance, and humility are the chief virtues of any writer who must succeed, I believe. Writing and publication take time. I’ve learned a desire to rush to being in print will not bear the sweetest, ripest fruit. Diligence enables a writer to endure rejection and criticism, and to keep trying. Pick up any bestselling or classic novel, and you can be guaranteed virtually every time what you’ve read not only is not the first draft, but the author had to endure rejections and criticisms the same as you. With patience and diligence they endured, and became the role models for us who follow.

I must keep trying with this novel in querying agents and hopefully publishers too. While I certainly want it to be a success enjoyed by many, I must also accept the possibility that this book may not be the first published. For many writers it is a fact, their first published novel is not the first they wrote.

A classic example is Charlotte Brontë. We all know her for Jane Eyre, her first published novel, but not the first she wrote. Her first was rejected by every publisher she sent it to. But she persisted and wrote Jane Eyre. The publisher to whom she would send it had rejected her first book, but encouraged her to submit other works. Her success shows a thoughtful rejection is always preferable to a hasty acceptance. There are always vanity publishers who will take what you write right away.

Temperance and humility come into play when dealing with those who reject and criticize. Humility is a double-edged sword, in that while you must continue to break new ground and not be beat down, at the same time you must accept that you can make mistakes, otherwise you will never grow or make your writing better.

Be courteous and kind when receiving rejections and criticism. It’s hard, and has been hard for me. If you take it hard, even if you don’t agree with their opinions, don’t let it hurt those who are trying to help you. If they treat you harshly in response, you are probably better off then not working with them. Even so, if you ever react badly, you must always apologize no matter how they treat you back. Remember the next time to work together. Explain why you are hurt, but do not take it out on them.

Writing is hard, but if it weren’t, I doubt I’d be as passionate about it as I have become. For all you aspiring authors out there, take it from one who has endured hardship, self-doubt, and emotional turmoil. I still face it, and likely always will. But I cannot let it control me. I tell myself as well as you: endure, learn, be constructive, kind, and you will succeed.

Why Do I Write?

With Christmas and New Year’s on the way we start to think of New Year’s resolutions. More often than not these are taking the next step in a number of things from exercise to careers and education. For me, writing has been a recurring one. So perhaps now more than ever, with the latest draft of my current manuscript nearing completion, I start to think more of why I write and continue to write.

Thinking of the future often brings up memories of the past. At times I have had trouble answering how I came to be a writer. It started as a hobby, much like play-acting and even drawing. In all these as a child I relished the opportunity to enter make-believe, to imagine myself as someone else in another world. Sometimes I imagined friends and others joining me in my fantasies. Some even thought I might have as easily become an artist as a writer.

So why didn’t I? Looking back, the answer seems to be I didn’t have persistence or confidence. While I enjoyed drawing, I never pushed myself into getting better. Acting was for fun too, which I pursued most especially in high school. With writing, and my first attempt at writing a novel at age 13, I poured my heart and soul into it and getting better. I persisted, and pushed myself for the first time. There I found my artistic expression, with words instead of pictures.

I have enjoyed the challenge of weaving words together. It has given me a sense of purpose outside of work. I write because I alone drive myself to reach greater heights. But I am not alone. Were I alone, I might have crumbled. Sharing my experiences with family, friends, and fellow writers every time brings out my confidence, my belief that I can do this. And I admit, there have been times where I am consumed with doubt that I will ever be any good.

In my yearbooks from middle school onward, even before I took writing seriously, many peers and teachers encouraged me to keep writing. One even said I might be the next J. K. Rowling. Even today people speculate on how if my work appears in print they can say they know the writer. While such talk makes me smile, I have to remind myself that fame and fortune are not the motives of a true writer.

I must bear in mind my father’s advice to me: tell a good story and tell it well. Without that main focus, I don’t think it is possible to be a good writer. I must continue challenging myself to tell a good story that I wish to share with others in the hope they will love it and remember it. To that end, I dream of venturing into multiple genres and even forms of writing in order that I may always travel into uncharted territory.

Not doing so would lead to what I call the Misery Complex (in reference to the Stephen King novel), where the author’s wants conflict with those of his or her audience. From the start I have never wanted to be confined to one or two genres, and I intend not to. Nor will I write anything of a serial nature without a set ending in mind, or a set number of books. Ultimately what I write will be what I want to write, otherwise my heart will not be in it. Without heart, without experimentation, trial, and error I feel I can never grow as a writer.

So what are my New Year’s Writing Resolutions this year? Not merely to keep writing and finish this book and search for a publisher, but to write more, and try new things. And this time I need to be serious about it, like I was when I began writing my first draft of a novel. There will be errors no doubt, but I must remember those are learning experiences too.

Many thanks to all those who have been there for me and are here for me now. Happy Holidays!