In defence of prologues

CP1N5OQW8AAIQO9These days when I’m teaching (as I was this weekend at the Get Writing conference, hi! Just look how tired I am in this picture. 9am starts are not my friend.) I usually ask people if they’ve heard some rumours about prologues. Yes, they say. We’ve heard they are bad, awful, unnecessary. We’ve heard that a prologue will make an agent hurl your book across the room with great force (or delete it with such vigour their computer keys snap right off). Don’t even mention the word prologue, in fact, unless you want to be shunned from the novel-writing community forever and sent to hang out with the poets or something.

I don’t know where this bit of writing lore came from. I imagine it’s part of the panicked pseudo-knowledge new writers swap among themselves, imagining that publishing is ruled by arcane rites and rituals. I used to think exactly the same. But I’m here to tell you it isn’t true. And a quick glance at page 1 of most current bestsellers will disprove this ‘no prologue’ rule. They are everywhere. So why not use one? They’re great!

Here are just a few good reasons to use a prologue.

  • An exciting prologue can buy you about three chapters of low-tension stuff – great if you want to establish what ‘normal’ is before the story intrudes
  • It lets you use a different voice, viewpoint, setting, tense, or time, if this is something you don’t want to do all the way through the book
  • A flash-forward prologue is the promise of exciting things to come
  • It sets the tone and mood of the book as something thrilling and gripping
  • It lets you do fun things with framing, narrative stance, and foreshadowing
  • It means that, in these days of instant gratification, low attention span, and Kindle samples, you can grab the reader right away

So is it OK to use a prologue? Of course it is. Sure, it’s a cheat and a trick and a cheap little illusion, but that’s all writing really is. Even film and TV is now using pre-credit flashforward or flashback scenes. Why? Because it works. You’ll also find that in many cases, what is marked ‘chapter one’ is actually a prologue, which shows just how ludicrous the whole ‘no prologues’ rumour is.

Sometimes, if your first chapter is very gripping in itself, you won’t need a prologue. But including one certainly doesn’t mean that an agent won’t look at your work. And don’t think prologues are only for crime fiction either. They can work in any kind of book. Just be sure to actually fulfil the promise of the prologue, as readers will be putting a mental pin in it and waiting for you to pony up the goods you offered.

A lighthouse in a storm

Wanted: one lighthouse, preferably weird

There’s so much information available nowadays it can feel like standing in a deluge and trying to catch one drop of rain. Even in my lifetime – and I’m not very old – this has changed. In my schooldays, if you wanted to find something out, you had to look it up in the encyclopaedia, or if you were very swanky, on the Encarta interactive CD-Rom. It was interactive, guys! We’d never seen the like of it in my rural primary school!

Wanted: one lighthouse, preferably weird
Wanted: one lighthouse, preferably weird

But now it’s frighteningly easy to lose months of writing time in a tenuous activity called ‘the research stage’. I’ve written at length about this before so I won’t go into all my thoughts on research, but to summarise:

  • you need to do less than you think
  • even for crime writing
  • essentially it’s fine to just make things up
  • writing isn’t homework, and no one will check if you’re right about everything
  • OK some people will check but who cares about them really?? Why do they care so much? Why do they have so much time on their hands?
  • stop researching and just write your damn book already

I am a well-documented research shirker, BUT this is not to say I don’t enjoy a good research stage, when it’s on my own terms, and I can just play around with ideas and fascinating facts. Usually I’ll get obsessed with several topics and read around them. For my next next Paula book (A Savage Hunger), it was:

  • eating disorders
  • holy relics
  • hunger strikes

An uplifting set of topics, I’m sure you will agree, which led to me buying books such as ‘Hunger Strike – the anorexic’s struggle as a metaphor for our age’ and ‘Three Famines- a history’. Confession – I often don’t read these books. I sort of feel that the act of ordering, often dusty out-of-print editions, will make the knowledge seep into my brain. I’m 74% convinced this is true. Did you know that people believed the bodies of certain saints didn’t rot after death? Did you know some of the hunger strikers lived for months? And did you know you can buy your own flagellation equipment online and it’s not even for S&M?? (; thank me later)

For Paula book 5, which I plan to start on 1 November, because I love arbitrary deadlines, it will be:

  • lighthouses (hence the title)
  • mass hallucinations/poisonings
  • cults
  • weird islands
Graphs can be interesting too
Graphs can be interesting too

I firmly believe everyone should write a weird island book. I might even go to an island off Ireland or Scotland to soak up the atmosphere. Anyone know of a lighthouse I could stay in? Spurious research trips are also part of the fun of being a writer. I say spurious because I don’t believe you really need to go to a place to write about it. Do go, by all means, if you have time and money, but don’t think this substitutes for having a great story. Neither do all those books you’ve been ordering (I saw you). Your story is the lighthouse in the storm – cling to it through the raging torrents of information, and it will see you safe to shore.

Research can be fun, in this early stage before you’ve started the book, and before the perfect idea of it gets ruined by the actual writing. So enjoy. Just know when to cut it short and plough on. And do read up on mass poisonings – lead! ergot!- as it is totally fascinating. Did you know worldwide violence levels dipped dramatically after lead was taken out of petrol, for example (see pic)? Did you know there’s a type of shellfish poisoning that causes mass short-term amnesia? I will be a font of information on this and other trivia for the next year or so. Again, you’re very welcome.

Why NOT give up the day job?

When I was starting out in writing, and devouring every tip I could get my ink-stained mitts on, there was one phrase that used to make my hopeful little heart sink: ‘don’t give up the day job’. Author Joanne Harris even included it in her very interesting and wise list of 10 things she wished she’d known before she was published.

I didn’t want to hear this when I was starting out. I’d been unhappy in my career ever since I started, and was desperate to do something, anything else. I was sure that selling a book would be my ticket out. And you know what – it was. I quit my job on the day my agent called to say the deal was done. So it is possible.

I was lucky to get a good advance and a two-book deal, and also to quickly find a part-time freelance job I could do from home. That was four and a half years ago, and since then I’ve my finances are, you know, actually fine. (Writers don’t like to talk about money, which I think does us all a huge disservice. How can you take on a career if you don’t have any idea what the industry standard is?) I’m writing two books this year, and I also teach and do extra bits and pieces (do you want to hire me to do a bit OR a piece??) and for now it works.

Obviously this approach is trickier if you have children, or a large mortgage, or lots of financial commitments, or you can’t live with a bit of insecurity, or your freelance income-sources don’t pay you on time (diversifying is the key), or you can’t write very quickly, or you want to know you’ll have security for more than a year or two at a time. And I don’t necessarily advocate immediate Bridget-Jones style walkouts the second you sell some writing. But, I will share with you some things I strongly believe to be true.

  1. There is nothing that will sap your soul and energy so thoroughly as a job you hate.
  2. Having money worries is also pretty soul-sapping (and I find it hard to write when this is the case), BUT
  3. Not having a salary is a pretty good way of motivating yourself to finally do those things you wanted to do but were too soul-sapped.
  4. There are loads of ways to make a living that don’t involve 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, sitting in an office and drawing a monthly salary.
  5. Especially as for many this is now 8-8 Monday to Saturday working, plus an hour-long commute or more.
  6. The first two  years of freelancing (or any new business) can be tricky cash-flow wise. But you can prepare for this if you know it’s coming.
  7. I used to struggle to punch in the code on my office door, I so much didn’t want to go in there. Now I genuinely look forward to settling down at my desk and getting on with things.
  8. In some ways it’s actually MORE financially secure to build your own career out of bits and bobs of freelance work. Imagine if you got fired tomorrow – that sense of security might vanish pretty fast.
  9. Don’t forget you need to put money aside for tax, and maybe get an accountant, and sort yourself out professionally. There are nearly 2 million freelancers in the UK, so it is a viable career choice.
  10. Quitting a job you hate can give you an incredible surge of energy and motivation. Exactly what’s needed to finish and book or establish a new career.

So there you go – while perhaps ‘don’t give up the day job’ is good advice, and certainly I don’t feel you should quit in order to write a book (this is a sure-fire way to never do anything at all in the acres of time that open up to you). But if the conditions are right for you, and you’re smart, and you hate what you currently do – then maybe DO give up the day job.

The Genre Box

Boxman just loves being in a box.
Boxman just loves being in a box.

I’m just back from attending the Festival of Writing in York (should be essential for every aspiring writer!), where I was teaching, panelling, and book-doctoring. I really wish I had a stethoscope I could apply to people’s manuscripts. ‘Hmmm….sounds like a bad case of Excessive Exposition.’ One thing I heard come up a lot was the question of genre. I noticed the phrase ‘being put in a box’. Often, it was from people who’d just been told their book might be crime, or romance, or women’s fiction, or YA. And usually, they weren’t thrilled about it. They were perplexed. Worried. And even….a bit miffed?

I understand this. I was the same. When I met with the editor who wanted to buy my first book, The Fall (a meeting I was on my way to when my dress split all the way up,the back, because FML), he said they’d publish it as crime. I was perplexed, worried, and yes, even a little miffed. I didn’t think I’d even read any crime since the Agatha Christie binges of my childhood. (This was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how broad the crime genre now is. I definitely read it.) And I’d written a book with a murder and a detective POV character but thought I’d written women’s fiction (I am dumb) or more likely, a work of searing literary genius.

Don’t be dumb like me. Be aware that genre exists, and has a built-in architecture you can hang your unique story around. Walls are kind of useful things to have, you know. If I’d known my story might fit into crime, I’d have used more of its conventions. The whodunnit element, the suspense, the puzzles, the twists – all tried and tested load-bearing walls for your novel-building.

And what’s so bad about a box anyway? They can be useful too, for example when you want to send aomething, or present something. Wouldn’t it be nice to receive a package in a snazzy sparkly box? Genre is just that- a way of presenting something. A label, like a 3 for 2 sticker or a ‘for fans of’ blurb, that helps market a new and unknown thing. And genre has built-in readers, communities, events, blogs, fans. Don’t you want to be inside that nice cosy box?

There’s no need to feel constrained by genre, even if you familiarise yourself with the rules. And it’s fine to write first, find the box after. But to summarise:

  1. Genre doesn’t have to be generic.
  2. Boxes can be sturdy, useful, and also snazzy.
  3. The box is your friend. Do not fear the box.

The Number 1 Writing Mistake

It’s the 1 September tomorrow. I love this time of year – there’s something seductive about new beginnings, a new school or university year coming up, ditching summer clothes for cosy jumpers and writing inside a warm flat. If you’ve been wanting to start a writing project, now is a good time. It’s pouring, it’s a new month, and the publishing industry is starting to wake up after summer. Do it! Start this week!

I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s work at the moment, and as I give feedback I’ve noticed I often say the same thing. People routinely make the same mistake, over and over, when they’re starting out. It’s not the misuse of commas (though as a punctuation tyrant I can tell you that one is also RIFE) or random tense shifts (also far too common – check your work before you send it out!). No, it’s this: giving away too much.

This can be difficult to get your head around as a new author. You have to tell the readers something, right? They’d like to know who they’re reading about, and where and when they are, and what colour hair the character has, and what sort of childhood they had, and what music they’ve got on their Spotify playlist, and their feelings about Marmite? Right?

Well, no. I think the reader wants to know two things when they start a book.

  1. Roughly who/what/where/when is this all about then?
  2. What’s this story going to be eh? Why should I read this damn thing? ENTERTAIN ME.

I’m assuming all readers are as impatient as me here. Bottom line is- you’ve got to hook them in. And you have very little time to do this. Think of the reader as a sniffy judge on a reality TV show, with their finger hovering over the ‘no’ button. And so you need to use that brief stage-time really wisely. Give them tension, suspense, action, dialogue, a story that kicks off. Cut out everything that doesn’t need to be there or can come later – backstory, character information, their childhood trauma, what they look like, world-building, how they got to the place where the scene is taking place.

There’s another reason for keeping things back. If it’s juicy – a big dramatic fact, a secret, or something that could be a surprise reveal – then you’re doing yourself out of essential suspense. Keep the reader turning the pages because they want to find out things. It’s that simple. If you tell them things straight up, they won’t need to read on. Master this simple fact and your writing will instantly be better. Good luck!

Next weekend I’m at the York Festival of Writing, where I’ll be talking about similar things and also giving one-to-one advice. If you see me there, do say hi.

The Joy of Jump Cuts

In the first term of the writing MA I teach, we set the students an exercise in writing time. Both moment by moment time, and long periods of time passing. Invariably people find the second one harder – and I admit I do myself. Think about it – showing the passage of time usually involves telling not showing, a lack of dialogue and action, and summarising rather than dramatising. All things which lead to a reduced pace and bored, disengaged readers.

Screenwriters have the advantage here. They can show passing time via leaves falling, seasons shifting, or even a trusty montage. Typically, scripts will also cover less time than novels (because you’d have to age the actors up otherwise). A novel is distilled time. It can take three hours to read (OK YES I SKIM READ) but may cover months, years, decades. Luckily, there is a way to do this without the great Pace Killer which is recounted time. And it’s this: the jump cut.

Or in other words, the joy of just leaving things out. If you need to move the action of your book on an hour, or a day, or even twenty years, just do it. End one chapter or section, start another in the new time period. This will also create a nice sense of suspense, as the reader scrambles to work out what’s happened in the intervening time. If you think they’ll need an anchor, you can add a phrase like ‘it was the day after’ or ‘in the ten years since the accident, things had changed’. Don’t feel you need to show how we get from A to B or even A to F. Readers are smart; they will work it out. This also goes for ‘filler’ scenes of people in cars, greeting new arrivals to a scene, or showering. Consider cutting them. Think about starting the scene much later – with dialogue for example-and ending sooner. Sharon Bolton, who writes some of the paciest thrillers that ever kept you up till 3am, once told me that during editing she ‘top and tails’ each scene as much as possible.

So give it a try if you ever find yourself writing a phrase like ‘a year went by’. It’s almost always better to dramatise than summarise. Learn the joy of jump cuts, and give yourself permission to simply leave things out.

Some more about story

I’ve previously talked about the elements a story needs to have. I could say a lot about this  – in fact I do a three-hour lecture on it at City Uni, where I teach in London. It’s the first lecture the students have, and I think this is good, because when most people start writing, they have some of the elements a book needs- characters they love, nice writing (because most people writing novels seem to come to it from a love of the words rather than story), an important setting or theme they want to talk about – but fewer have an amazing story.

How do you get this?

You need a person – a dynamic character we can root for. How to create this is a whole topic in itself, but I would say that you may as well give the character as many internal conflicts as possible to start with, especially if you’re writing a series. Don’t limit your story possibilities. And make sure they take action rather than be passively engulfed by the story. They should make the story, really.

You need a goal or problem – they want something. They’re threatened with something. They must act in some way to achieve or escape this thing. I think that last point is really important so let me repeat: they must act. Low stakes, or the ‘so what’ factor, are a major weakness of most debut novels.

You need ongoing conflict and obstacles – otherwise your problem is solved in chapter three and you’ve got a very short book on your hands. Keep raising the stakes. The key is that characters must react to the plot and make choices as events occur. They must drive it rather than be swept along. I’ve highlighted those, as again passive characters can be a major issue for debuts (and not just debuts!)

Then you need a resolution – in other words, things must be different at the end of the story than they are at the start. Otherwise, arguably, there is no story. I’m not talking about having to wrap up all the loose ends – that’s a separate issue and is very tied in with genre – I’m just saying something must have changed. That’s another key question you should be able to answer about your novel. What will have changed by the end? Change be internal or external or both, but it must be there.

There’s some great information on this system in this post which I urge you to read. It’s possible to have an amazing instinct for story and not be so hot on prose, and it’s possible to write lovely prose in which nothing much happens. I think marry them up and you’ve got a winner. I also think we all have an instinctive understanding of how stories work, because, as Ursula Le Guin said, ‘The story is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding.’ Sometimes you just need to tap into this, and forget everything you learned in school about writing clear, logical, dull prose.

I’m off to Edinburgh today but will be back soon to talk more about creating stories, and the difference between story and plot. I’ll be there to scoop up inspiration from the Fringe (and steal some jokes to put in my new rom com). If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to answer on this blog, just let me know here or on Twitter.