Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Writing Tip #23--The Problem With Prologues

(Author's note--not to be confused with a prologue: A couple of months ago, fellow Harper Collins author, Robison Wells, and I were debating the pros and cons of prologues. His take was that most people read prologues, and therefore my stand was wrong. My take was that the statistics would only prove my point. We did on online survey, the results of which I link to below.

Now, Robison may or may not be full of hot MBA air. But I want to point out that, at least prior to this post, we have been good friends. We share the same critique group, regularly have sushi together, and have taught at the same conferences many, many times. Shoot, he even uses the microphone I used for my Worldplay podcast on his Do I Dare to Eat a Peach podcast. Can you get any closer than that?

So while he my be totally off base in his thoughts here, and I must mock him mercilessly for it. We are still good friends. He is an awesome writer. And if you haven't read his amazing books, what the heck is wrong with you?

Carry on.)  

Wait, you thought I meant 100 writing tips in 100 consecutive days? That would just be silly, preposterous, er . . . um. Yeah, okay, that is what I was going for. But this crazy book thing has to come first, and lately I've been struggling a little with finishing up the Farworld series. It's harder than it looks. You want to make sure that the last book is the most exciting and powerful of all the books in the series, but you don't want to rush it. You want it to be something people will enjoy like a good meal.

But, excuses aside, I promised you 100 writing tips, and you shall have them. And just because I've made you wait, I'll jump into what may be my most controversial topic of all . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . Prologues.

Now just the title of this post might give you the wrong idea. (Not the writing tip #23, that's the right idea. The "problem" with prologues part, silly.) You might think I'm going to say that prologues are bad, that I don't read prologues, that you shouldn't read prologues, that you shouldn't write prologues, and that prologues cause cancer in lab rats. None of that is true. Let me repeat in all caps, NONE OF THAT IS TRUE. Believe me, I checked Snopes and the whole prologue cancer thing--a complete hoax. So let me state a few things for the record--just in case the troublemaker, Robison Wells comes snooping around trying to put words in my mouth.

1) I personally always read prologues. Not just prologues, either. I read introductions, author notes, epilogues. Shoot, I even read acknowledgements. And you know what? One of my favorite authors sneaks little Easter eggs into his acknowledgements. A little add on to the story. And just because I am mean, and think you should read acknowledgements too, I'm not going to tell you who the author is.

2) I write prologues. Not always. And not nearly as often as I used to. But I do. In my Farworld books I have one per section. I call them interludes.

3) I am not going to tell you prologues are good. I am also not going to tell you prologues are bad. What I am going to do is tell you why prologues are the literary equivalent of a spatula. (Let that sink in, baby!)

Wow! You know this is going to be a tricky post when I have to use three paragraphs and three bullet points just to set things up.

Let's start with the question that always comes up first. Do people actually read prologues? As it turns out, I have three different sources to answer this question.

Here's a poll done by agent turned author, Nathan Bransford, asking if people like prologues. As you can see, 12% of the respondents absolutely liked prologues, 16% did not, and the rest were undecided. Nothing conclusive. But it does give us a taste of the ambiguity prologues bring up.

Here's a poll done by Absolute Write, a writers' group.  In this case they worded it a little differently. Do you skip prologues? You would expect the result to be much more positive of prologues here, since most writers I know like to read and write prologues. And as it turns out they are. A whopping 76% of people who took the poll do NOT skip prologues. That's pretty impressive. Only a quarter of the respondents skip prologues always or occasionally.

Finally, here's a poll fellow author, Robison Wells did at a retreat we recently attended together. This poll probably has its flaws as well. Most of the respondents knew either Rob or me, so many of them are probably people who read or write a lot. But even then, we put in a question to see how many of the people answering the poll were involved in the publishing industry in some way. We also broke it down into even more detail: asking if people read prologues before buying a book, if they read them as completely as the rest of the chapters, and a bunch of other questions Rob put in because he loves charts and graphs.

First of all, let's look at the #1 question. Do you read prologues?


Holy rice on gravy, Batman. 84% of people taking the survey always read prologues. 84%! Well that's that. Robison obviously wins the debate. Right? I mean, 84 out of 100 people always read prologues, and only 4 out of 100 never do. And look at this response.

77% of people read the prologue just as deeply as any chapter.

Now, it's true not everyone reads prologues when browsing a book, as shown below.


In fact, only 20% of readers read the prologue when deciding whether or not to buy a book online or in stores. But as Rob (look-at-me, I'm-an-MBA) Wells points out, do people read anything when buying a book? He asserts that people don't read books before buying them, so this point doesn't matter. And hey, he might be right.

So it would appear this case is closed. Roll up the mat, shut the door, and turn off the light. The mystery is solved. The majority of people read prologues. But wait. Is that what the debate was about? Or is there more more to the story? Here is where the corn starch gets added to the grave. (Hint: The plot thickens.)

Earlier, I compared prologues to spatulas. And you thought, "This man is mad. How is a prologue like a spatula? You might as well ask how a raven is like a writing desk." Now, I may be mad. But bear with me. Google spatula and look at the pictures in the shopping section of the page . Go ahead, I'll wait.

Did you find this?


Or this?
Or something like this?


See, the problem with the spatula is that nobody is quite sure what it really is or how to use it. It's not that spatulas are bad. It's that you need to understand what tool you are actually talking about and what it's for. My issue with prologues is that many people don't understand prologues and they are using them the wrong way. So let's set aside all the fancy graphs and talk about something that might actually matter to a writer, like, say, writing.

First of all, let's define a prologue. A prologue is not a chapter. If it was, all the polls above would sound stupid. Do you read chapter one of a book? Duh? Of course people do. A prologue is a separate section of the book set off from the normal chapters. It comes before chapter one, and it may have a different point of view, different setting, different voice, and even a different font from the rest of the book. If chapters were knifes, spoons, and forks set on a table, the prologue would be something like a pretty rose laid in front of each place setting.


With that in mind, let's look at how and why some authors use prologues.

First, there is the slow chapter one reason. Often chapter one is your set-up chapter. It's not the most exciting thing to start with--introducing characters, setting, story, etc. As a writer, you are concerned that readers may look at chapter one, get bored, and stop reading the book. You know you need a bang to hook the reader. So you add an exciting prologue.

That can work. In fact, Rob even has a name for it. The Ice Monster prologue, taken from the prologue at the beginning of Game of Thrones. The problem is that based on our survey question above, do you read the prologue when browsing books, only 20% of people always did. So if you are using the prologue to hook a potential reader, you may be out of luck. Because most of them aren't reading it. While it may be true that many people aren't reading the book at all before buying it, I would argue that people browsing books, who haven't already made a buying decision, will normally begin reading chapter one. If they are bored, they will put it down and read something else. And if they buy the book without browsing, even in the best case scenario above, a full 14% of readers may never see the prologue and may get bored by the first chapter. And in Nathan's poll, where only 12% of readers like prologues it could be much, much, worse. Can you live with that?

Second, let's go with something else I've seen a lot in prologues. The back story prologue. This is the prologue where you have an awesome chapter one. An amazing chapter that sucks the reader in and doesn't let them go. The problem is, you have a bunch of back story you need the reader to know. Understanding that back story in chapter one may turn a reader off, you write a prologue chock full of boring back story stuff. Now you have the opposite problem. As many as 84% of your readers, who always read prologues, are going to get the first taste of your book with . . . back story. Maybe you meant to do that. Maybe.

Third, the important clue. Your first chapter is amazing. Your prologue is exciting. But you have a key clue you want to introduce early on and then come back to at the climax of the book. Put it in the prologue right? It's perfect. Except . . . here's the thing. Again, using the best case scenario above, you can only be sure that 84% of your readers will even see the clue. That might not seem like a lot. In fact, it is a huge majority. But let me put this into perspective. Let's say you sell 20,000 books. You won't hit any bestseller lists, but it's a good solid number. If 84% of your readers read the prologue, that means that there are 3200 people that won't understand the exciting conclusion. Over 3,000 people who won't have a clue how and why the story ended the way it did. 3,000 people who will say in their reviews, "The book was good, but I totally didn't get the ending." Again, I ask, can you live with that?

Now, at about this point, I imagine you are thinking I lied at the beginning of this post when I told you I wasn't going to tell you whether or not to write prologues. It sounds like I am against them. I am not. I am all for prologues used well.

What is my definition of a well-used prologue? First of all, write an amazing book--a book that can stand on its own without a prologue. Give me an interesting chapter one with some conflict. Give me all the clues I need to read and understand the book. Give me back story in judicious amounts spread over the course of the tale. Then, and only then, give me an exciting, interesting prologue that will add to the joy of those who read it and not detract from those who choose to skip it. Make it the cherry on my sundae, the rose on my plate, the clever after-the-credits Easter egg scene in my movie.

Now, that you understand the tool and how to use it, what if you still want to hide a clue in your prologue? Fine, you know what you are doing, make the call. Want to use it as your Ice Monster? I won't argue. You know the risks, and you're willing to take them. Like every other writing tip I have given before now and will give after, you can use it or not. It is an extra tool in your tool box.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Writing Tip #22/100 Motives

The next five writing tips are all going to be about motive. "Five tips?" you ask. "Seriously? Is motive really that important?" Actually, you wouldn't ask that, because you know motives are hugely important. How important?

Consider these stories.

What if Hunger Games was a story about a girl who had to kill a bunch of other kids to get everything she ever wanted? Would you still be rooting for her?

What if Harry Potter wanted to kill Voldemort so he could get his name in the paper?

What if Cinderella wanted to get the prince to make her sisters cry?

A lot of times when I talk to writers about their story, they tell me what the character is doing. But as soon as I ask "Why?" the character is doing that, they start to stutter.

Ask yourself this about your character in every story you write. What do they want most right now? What has happened in their life to make them want it? What happens if they get it? What happens if they don't?

Going back to Hunger Games, what does Katniss want most when the books starts? To protect her sister.

What happened in her life to make her want that? Her father died and her mother had a breakdown.

What happens if she gets it? Everything is cool.

What happens if she doesn't? Someone will pay.

As a reader, I need to root for your character. The motive is what makes me root for them. I may not root for a girl to kill a bunch of other kids. But I CAN root for her to take care of her little sister.

Can your character's motives change? Tune in tomorrow.:) Good night and good writing!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Writing Tips 20 and 21

I'm getting behind! The sky is falling! Ahh!!! Must start posting two at a time. Okay, maybe the sky isn't falling, but my good friend Mark Forman is right. I'm slacking off on this. So, let's do a couple of fun ones.

Tip 20: Let your readers know your character better than the character does.

At first this sounds a little counter intuitive. Don't you know yourself better than anyone else? In some ways you do. You know your favorite candy bar, you know the most embarrassing story of your life--the one no one will ever hear, you know who you had a crush on in third grade.

What you don't know is the way everyone else sees you. You also are often the last person to realize when you are acting dumb, or how much you were affected by an event you've been trying to forget about. It's not until your best friend says, "Dude, Tiffany is never going to give you the time of day and you've totally been neglecting your real friends to chase after her," that you see what you've been doing.

And lots of times, even when you are told what you've been doing, it's hard to verbalize why. You have all these jumbled up feelings, and you're not sure who you really are on any given day. Sometimes, it isn't until years later that you can look back and go, okay, that's what was really going on in my life. (Wow, deep. At least for me!)

How does this translate into creating a character? Well, let's say you want your character to be blame herself for her parents' divorce. There are several ways of communicating that to the reader.


  1. Samantha blamed herself for her parents' divorce.

    Well, it's definitely not beating around the bush. You get the point across very clearly. Unfortunately, it's sort of like interior decorating with a sledgehammer. Any intelligent reader is going to feel like they've been hit over the head. Let's move on.
  2. Samantha stared at the spot at the table where her father always sat. It felt like someone had taken a piece of her life and cut it out with a chainsaw. Was it because she hadn't been a good enough daughter?

    This is better. And it's what most authors do. At least it has moved from straight showing to a little bit of telling and a little bit of showing. It sounds like the way a teenage girl might think. It will do in a pinch. But you don't want to be just okay. You want to be good, or even great. Let's go with a little defter touch.
  3. Samantha slammed the door and cranked her music. A minute later, the door swung open and her mother stuck her head inside.

    "Can we talk?" Mom asked, her words almost lost beneath the harsh rhythms of Samantha's grunge music.

    Samantha rolled her eyes. "What?"

    Mom sat on the edge of the bed and turned off the MP3 player. "The last few weeks, you've been a different person."

    Samantha knew her mother was trying to help, but she was just so sick of everything going on in her life, she wanted to claw out her eyeballs. "The last few weeks I haven't had a dad to talk to." The minute the words left her mouth, she wished she could take them back. The hurt on her mom's face was so raw it could have left bruises.

    She expected her mother to blow up. That's what she would have done. Instead, her mom laid a hand on her arm. "You aren't blaming yourself, are you?"

    Samantha nearly fell off the bed. "Of course not!"

    What makes this better is that Samantha doesn't see it. Even when asked directly, she denies it. That's the way life usually is. It's so hard for us to see what's really going on in our head. But the reader is going, "I'll bet she does blame herself." This advances from entry-level writing to something with some depth. But there is an even better way.
  4. Let us see through Samantha's actions that she blames herself for her parents divorce without ever mentioning it outright. Readers LOVE to know more than the character. I'm not saying make the character dumb. I'm telling you to give the reader clues they can pick up like bread crumbs. Samantha is suddenly getting better grades, cleaning her room every day, bending over backwards to be the perfect child, all while inside, her life is falling apart. As a reader we see what is happening. We know that there is a ticking time bomb inside Samantha. But what makes this so readable is that Samantha doesn't know it yet. 
See how we went from an ax to a scalpel? The best stories are the stories where the reader knows what's going on without being hit over the head. 

Writing Tip 21: Kill your babies.

If you've gone to enough writers' conferences, you've probably heard this before. But do you know what it really means? I've heard people describe it as cut out the best part of your writing, and that's not it at all. What it really means is, don't be so tied to a paragraph or a sentence or a scene that you close your eyes to the fact that it isn't working.

One of the best examples of this is first sentences. You come up with a great first sentence like, "The day purple Jell-O squirted out of my mom's nose was also the day I took over the world." Now that is a pretty cool sentence. I mean it definitely beats, "Sarah Eden thought back to the first J Scott Savage book she'd ever read; it was magic." I don't burn books. But, man, I would burn a book with a beginning like that.

So great, you have this awesome first sentence. But then, as you start writing the book, you realize how difficult it is to make your character take over the whole world. And the scene with the purple Jell-O isn't working at all. But you fight against fixing your story because then you'd lose the cool first sentence. The first sentence has become your baby. Kill it! Smash it! Feed it to blood-thirsty vultures.

In a current WIP, I had a really cool bullying scene. It was fun, because the kid getting bullied ends up giving the bully bullying advice. It was clever. It was funny. It was unique. And you know where it is now? Gone! I killed it because it didn't fit the story.

I know it's hard. But the story is more important than any one scene or sentence. If it makes you feel better, save all your babies in a document called, Really cool stuff I cut. Then, when you are a rock star, you can release all those awesome books in a special limited edition authors cut.      


Any questions?

   

Friday, August 9, 2013

What is Success Writing Tip 19/100

Publishing deadlines, a new project, and a couple of days in the mountains without internet have slowed things down a bit. But I still plan on doing 100 tips in 100 days.

Today's tip has less to do with how to write your story than it does with what it means to be a writer. Of all the questions I get asked the most, "How do I get published?" is probably at the top of the list. I have discussed the ins and outs of agents, publishers, query letters, and all that good stuff at other places on my blog. But the thing is, the publishing world is slowly changing.

It used to be that there was a kind of process to things. It went something like this:

  • Write short stories
  • Publish short stories
  • Get an agent
  • Write a novel
  • Sell the novel to a big publisher
  • Sell more novels
  • Win awards
  • Hit bestseller lists
  • Get a movie deal
  • Sell foreign rights

Sound familiar? It was kind of the writer's dream. You could tell how successful you were by where you were on the list. Got my agent? Check. Sold my second book? Check. Foreign rights? Not yet. You knew if you did certain things and hit certain numbers or won certain awards that you were doing well.

Now that has all changed. True, if you hit bestseller lists and get your book made into a movie, most people will consider you a pretty successful writer. But what if you decide to self-publish? An indie author can sell lots of books, make lots of money, hit lots of lists without ever touching an agent or a publisher.

And how much do numbers matter. 50,000 books sold is a pretty great number. But what if you gave them away for free? Is it still as good? What if you sell them for $0.99 each? That's $50,000. Pretty darn good. But is it as good as if you sold 50,000 copies at $14 each? Or what if your story was only read by ten people, but it changed one of their lives? How do you put a dollar value on that?

It's this weird sliding bar. No one really knows what the definition of success is anymore, because it's changing all the time. And hey, here's a crazy thought. What if you write an amazing story and never publish it at all? Isn't there a lot to be said for creating art in the first place?

I guess this is my point. Write the best story you can. Take whatever path you want. Set your own definitions of success, and don't worry what the next guy is doing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see your book made into a movie. But if that's the only thing that will make you happy, you may never be happy. If you only consider hitting the NYT Bestseller list successful, you might always look at yourself as a failure.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying give up your dreams. Dreams are what make this business so fun. When I was a kid, I loved fishing, because, while I might never catch anything, I might catch a huge fish. One of the most exciting things about writing a book is that it really could become a bestseller some day. Dreams are what make us strive to be better.

But I've seen myself and many of my friends go through the process of selling their first book, getting an agent, going to a book signing--all things that we dreamed of--only to realize our goals had changed. You think you'll be happy if you just get an agent. Then, you'll be happy if you just sell a book. Then, it's a certain number of sales.

Your dreams and goals shift as you reach them. They are what drive you. But happiness comes from something else. Even after publishing a dozen books, I still get a thrill from writing "The End" on a new title. I still love getting a scene from inside my head down onto a piece of paper. That's the key. Dream big. Have goals. But don't let your happiness be something you can only achieve if and when X,Y, and Z happens.

Enjoy every step of the process. Taking a story from your head and capturing it so other people can read it is magic. Enjoy the magic.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

This is something I posted on Facebook today and thought was worth sharing here as well.

Several years ago, I was having lunch with an author whose book had been expected by pretty much everyone to debut on the New York Times bestseller list, but hadn't. I knew how depressed he must be feeling. I couldn't imagine what a failure I would feel like if I was in that situation. How had I let down my publisher, my readers, my family, myself?

But he told me something that day, that I've tried to hang onto ever since. As an author, all you can control is how much you write and how good it is. All the rest is out of your hands. You can't control if an agent will like your work, if a publisher will buy it, what kind of marketing and publicity it will get, what stores will carry it, who will review it and how. And most of all, how much it sells. That is totally out of your control.

Some people think that self-publishing will change all that. And while it does give you a little more control over some things, it doesn't have much effect at all on most of those things. There are amazing books that I read and think how did this not sell millions of copies? Then I read other books and think how did this even get published, none the less hit bestseller lists?

I've had times when I thought my publisher must hate me. There was no other reason for how badly things were going. I've also had times where great things happened that I would never have predicted in a million years. And the crazy thing is, the writing in those books was exactly the same.

It would be so great if all you had to do was write a great book and it would soar to the bestseller lists. Then, if your book did badly, at least you could blame it on bad writing. It would stink to know your book was garbage, but you'd know where to point the blame and you could make sure the next one was better.

The only thing I can say to people having those same frustrations I've experienced is do not stop writing. You have this incredible talent and if you don't use it, you're wasting it. Through all the ups and downs, the only thing that has remained consistent is that I keep writing books and keep trying to make them better.

I won't lie. I have dreams of hitting the lists. I'd love to walk into bookstores and have people know who I am (or even know my books!) I'd love to sell a million books. But if it doesn't happen, I don't want to be because I gave up.

Where to Start Writing Tip 17/100

Again, thanks so much for the comments. It's nice to know I'm not just talking to myself. I teach lots of writing conferences and various classes where I can see and interact with my students, but I don't always no if I am connecting here. So, yay! Keep commenting.

Also, this is a great post about a really amazing MG writer talking about why he writes for middle grade and how to do it. I couldn't agree more with his all points.

A lot of the writing tips I give are mistakes beginning writers tend to make a lot. It's sort of funny when I start out with a class full of beginning writers and lay out a list like this up front. By the time I'm done, every head is hanging. Then I have to remind them that if everyone didn't start out doing these things, there would be no reason to teach about them. And every one of these things that you can learn now and fix in your work in progress is going to make it that much better.

So, next on the list is starting your story at the wrong place. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts how important it is not to start with a flashback, an infodump, or detailed descriptions of the scenery or weather. That's because according to at least one survey, by far the biggest reason people stop reading a book is because it's too boring.

Sometimes writers who understand this, try to address the problem by starting with some incredibly exciting event. A murder. An explosion. A kidnapping. That can work, but it can also feel forced. We talked about unearned emotions. Blowing up people you don't know or care about can have that effect.

You do want to keep your beginning exciting. But one of the best ways to do that is knowing where your story begins. Typically your story begins where something happens to either change the main character's life or force them into some sort of action.

Let's take Hunger Games as an example. The story begins when Katniss enters the Hunger Games. That moment changes her life. Yes, that's not what happened on page one. Not even chapter one. The author wisely let us see what the lottery was, the odds of being chosen, and the relationship Katniss had with her younger sister and Gale. But the story starts with Katniss waking up and knowing it is the day of the lottery. Everything that transpires from there is tied to the fact that "Today is the lottery. Today is the day that I might get chosen to go die."

In a character driven story, your story starts with something happening to make the MC's current life situation unacceptable. In an adventure, something has to happen to force the character on her adventure. In a mystery, a murder or other crime happens which must be solved. You can do a few other things first, especially if you use secondary conflict. But that's where your story begins and you must write with that in mind. The longer you make us wait for the beginning of the story, the more likely we will close the book and start something else.

Friday, August 2, 2013

What if My Story is Too Much Like . . . Writing Tip 16/100

Okay, quick, name the story about the boy whose parents die and he has to go live with evil relatives, until a magical person sends him on a quest.

Harry Potter, right?

Or is it James and the Giant Peach?

Or make it a girl and it's Cinderella.

Or it's one of a hundred other stories which start the same exact way.

I have people tell me all the time, I'm writing a story, but I just realized it's kind of like XYZ. The truth is, it doesn't matter. Unless your story is a complete rip off, like it's about a boy who discovers a giant peach and floats off with a bunch of huge insects, it doesn't matter if it sounds a little like another story. Because the bottom line is even if I gave three authors the same basic concept, they would all come out with something very different.

So worry less about your story sounds to much like something else, (or that someone will steal your totally cool concept) and write the darn thing!