Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reader Mailbag #1: Questions On Prologues and Writer's Block

Well, would you believe that after last week's post when I mentioned never having been asked a question for the blog before, I actually received an e-mail today with a couple of questions?  Of course, the two phenomena are completely unrelated, as these questions came from a con-goer and I had to ask her if I could post them on the blog, but NEVERTHELESS I stand by my initial statement that if you want me to answer questions for you, much like a monkey dancing for an organ grinder, all you have to do is send them my way.

So today's mailbag contained a couple of questions about prologues and one about writer's block from future bestseller Steph Cassidy.  Let's dig in!

1.) Are prologues a good thing to have, especially for a first novel?

I hope this doesn't wreck up your day, but the short answer is "no."  Agents (I'm typically going to say "agents" but I mean small publishers as well) have turned very much against prologues in the past few years.  It may have to do with their business practices, since they typically ask for the first three chapters of a manuscript and would naturally get pissed when the whole first "chapter" is unrelated to anything else.  It may also just have to do with broad publishing trends, but almost universally agents are recommending no prologues, especially for debut novels.

That being said, I have snuck a stealth prologue or two into a submission by just calling it "Chapter One."  If you have your heart dead set on some kind of prologue, I recommend doing this at a minimum.  But generally speaking, I would avoid the prologue.  And when you respond that people like George R.R. Martin use prologues with deadly efficiency (which, personally, I agree with) the agent's response will be, "Let's worry about that when you're as popular as George R.R. Martin."

2.) What makes a good prologue?

As I said, I wouldn't use a prologue if you're trying to jump into the business.  Maybe keep that particular tool in your rucksack until you're a little better established. 

Maybe it's best to think of it this way: an agent is not so much looking for an excuse to take you on, they're looking for an excuse to reject you.  So if you misspelled their name?  That's an excuse.  If your query was 275 words and they said keep it to 250?  That's an excuse.  If you used a prologue and they said not to?  That's an excuse.  It's not to say that if your work is heartbreakingly gorgeous, they won't ignore all the excuses.  But the way you want to think of it is, you want to nail everything in your query package so that the agent has no excuse for rejecting you, and really has to seriously consider you.  Is a prologue an absolute deal-breaker?  No, probably not.  But it is an excuse if they're looking for one.

That being said, if you feel a prologue is absolutely integral to your plot and there's no way around it, I would just say make it your best, punchiest, sharpest writing.  Make it the best writing in the whole book.  (The goal is to hook your reader, right?  And you only have the first five pages to do that anyway, if you're lucky.)  End with a cliffhanger so that the reader feels compelled to keep reading.  Maybe as best you can make it really clear how the prologue synchs up with the rest of the book as quickly as possible.  Avoid the sort of obscure prologue that only makes sense when you've finished the last chapter of the book.

3.) How long/short should a prologue be?

The glib answer to any question like this is "as long as it needs to be."  That being said, agents typically request the first three chapters or ten thousand words.  So the expectation is that an average chapter in an average book, everything else in the universe being equal, is about 3500 words.  As a craftsman: 3500 words is something to shoot for.  As an artist: make your chapters as long as they need to be.

4.) How does one overcome writer's block?

I'm going to reference two great geniuses in my field for this one. 

a.)  First, Brian Keene (who is a lovely person and my personal hero and you should buy all of his books) said that when he had writer's block he went back to re-read the classics of his genre (horror) and remind himself why he wanted to do this in the first place.  And as soon as he re-read Richard Laymon he realized he had a Laymon-style novel in him and wrote CASTAWAYS.  But generally speaking, reading as a writer will open up new thought processes and make you re-think pieces of craft that will get you itching to write again.  Like, "That little trick Laymon pulled?  I'll bet I could pull that!" sort of thing.

b.)  Second, Chuck Wendig (who I don't know personally, so I don't care whether you support him or not, but he seems like a nice guy) once said that any jerkoff can write 300 words a day.  I can't remember this exact blogpost but I remember it was a very clever trap.  He just outlined with simple numbers and said, "Look, if you write 300 words a day, at the end of a year that's over 100,000 words, which is a full-length novel.  So to be a professional author writing a novel a year, you just need to write 300 words a day."

To put that in perspective, this entire e-mail (so far) is about 750 words.  The answer to this question (so far) is about 250.  So if you can write two to three paragraphs a day, you can be a career novelist.  When Chuck threw down this gauntlet, I furrowed my brow and decided to see if he was right.  And so I set out to write 500 words a day.  And I realized that what he had done was told us to sprinkle salt on a bird's tail.

See, there's an old wives' tale that if you can sprinkle salt on a bird's tail it won't be able to fly away and you can catch it.  The joke, of course, is that if you can be stealthy enough to get close enough to a bird to sprinkle salt on it's tail, you can just reach out and grab it.  When I sat down to write 500 (or, as he originally suggests, 300) words a day, I realized I couldn't STOP at 500 words.  The whole trick was getting your butt in a chair every day and writing.  And if you've had a terrible, shitty, no-good, awful, very bad day, and you have to force yourself to get to 500, well, you'll still have a novel in a year.  But more likely than not you'll find yourself cranking out a few thousand words a day.  I finished a full novel in about three months using that method, and I wrote Wendig to thank him for the suggestion.  

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