The secret grammar of love

THIS tale is a romantic one—or so it may appear. The story begins with an email that John received one day from his new girlfriend. Consider how pleased he must have felt to read this note from Jane:

Dear John:I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
Jane

Unfortunately, John was far from pleased. In fact, he was heartbroken. You see, John was familiar with Jane’s peculiar ways of misusing punctuation marks. And so to decipher the true meaning of her email, he had to reread it with the marks altered:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Yours,
Jane

This old grammarian’s joke was made up, of course.

To get a whole buncha grammar lessons, click here: DailyGrammar.com

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction tips: How to write a sex scene

SEX scenes are notoriously difficult to write well. Even celebrated authors struggle to describe this basic, essential human behavior in ways that are actually sexy. Too often their best attempts still fall into the realm of the too cheesy, too flowery, too technical, too cold, or too . . . well, icky. Poorly written sex scenes in novels are so common that the Literary Review (U.K.) has an annual competition to award the worst sex scenes in literature. Here’s one winner:

“I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below. All the while, we stifle our noise and whisper like a church congregation during the sermon. He pinches my lips when I yelp, I shove my fingers in his mouth when he opens it to howl. ‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.” He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

Arrrgh! This guy needs to get off the farm more often.

William F. Buckley called lovemaking episodes the “O.S.S.”—the Obligatory Sex Scene. Of course scenes that include sexual acts aren’t obligatory at all, but many writers include them nevertheless. You must decide whether such intimate activity should be shown to the reader (and how much you should show) or skipped altogether. Having two of your story people make love is a natural occurrence, and it could be a wonderful part of your reader’s experience. One can argue that a reader wants to escape the drabness of the world in a novel, where lovemaking is always perfect. But nowadays even romance novels shy away from anything perfect, including sex. Readers today are too sophisticated to believe in perfect sex, even as a fantasy. It’s better to create a sex life for your characters that seems real.

Sex scenes can help develop characters

On the plus side, sex scenes can give the writer an opportunity to deepen the characterization of someone or create a change in one or both participants or in their relationship. Such character-driven couplings serve a better purpose than trying to stimulate the libido. If the sex scene doesn’t reveal more about the characters involved, and hence have some importance for character development and for the plot, either remove it or rewrite it so that it that does. If the rest of your story is written well, you won’t lose information by leaving out the scene. Remember that you can always refer obliquely to the lovemaking or have one of your characters think about it afterward.

My view on this subject is that less is more and that a writer can be explicit without being clinical—without sacrificing passion for physical details. I think a sex scene can be rendered effectively if the writer keeps the five senses in mind and strives for the sensual, the tactile, and the passionate, all of which target the heart. That’s what a writer should always do, because emotions are much more significant to a reader than ideas—or the graphic description of sexual gymnastics. If a writer can do no more than offer a standard-issue play-by-play of physical actions that are familiar to readers, then I’d rather see the writer stop short and go to a scene break, leaving the details to the reader’s imagination. One more thing: Don’t include multiple scenes of gratuitous sex with the hope of attracting readers unless you have embraced the dubious goal of writing another Fifty Shades of Grey.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

English language: Funny new words

The Washington Post  once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.\

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absent mindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Fiction tip: The importance of Chapter 1

Chapter One is extremely important. Do I really need to tell you this? In both commercial and literary novels, this is where you have to hook readers and reel them into your story. It should include a motivating incident (a.k.a. the catalytic event); the problem or at least a hint of the problem that the main character has to deal with; the main character’s response; and the conflict (internal or external) that the problem creates for the main character.

When you consider your main character’s response, you should ask yourself, “What is this person’s goal(s)? What does he or she want? Everybody wants something. I want to be paid for writing this blog, but I’m not holding my breath. The goal can be explicit or implicit, the latter being an intimation, a glimmer, or a hint that readers with an I.Q. higher than room temperature will sense. Why is at least an inkling of the protagonist’s goal so important? Because without a goal the protagonist will take no action and experience no conflict as he/she strives to reach the goal. And without conflict your story will be snore fest.

In short: Goal ➔ Conflict ➔ Struggle ➔ Drama ➔ Emotions ➔ Reader connection

Before you introduce the components of scene-setting, you should have an attention-getting first line in order to pull readers into your story. This is one of my favorites from John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”

How could you not be sucked into a story that begins with that line?

From a much newer novel, Head Games by Craig McDonald, the first line is:

“We were sitting in a back room of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under the table and plunked down the Mexican general’s head.”

The severed head of a dead Mexican general? That gets your attention. Notice how much scene-setting info the author includes in this first line. He tells us that there are at least two characters in this scene, probably male, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The sentence does double duty—grabbing the reader’s attention and dropping him into the fictional scene.

You can find many notable first lines by googling that subject. Here’s one good site: http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp

I have read far too many uninspiring openings written by inexperienced novelists. Often they begin with backstory. They set up the story by downloading a ton of info to readers instead of getting right into the action of the story. In other cases the writer makes a minimal effort to get the story moving by beginning with a dull bit of commonplace action, soon followed by backstory, something like this:

“When Julia woke up, her bedroom was still dark. She shuffled to the bathroom and looked at her tired face in the mirror.”

Then the writer has to tell us why she’s tired, what color her hair and eyes are, how old she is, where she was born, where she went to college, where she lives now, where she works, what guy she has just broken up with, why she’s anorexic, why her mother hates her (or vice versa), her favorite color, the name of her best friend, and how she and her BFF bonded at age six after that day in the bathroom. Etcetera. I’m exaggerating so you get the idea.

This doth not a compelling opening make. Beginning a story with the main character waking up in the morning—used more than you might think—is one of the worst ways to start a novel. It’s beyond cliché.

Writing a reader-grabbing first line, first graf, and first chapter takes a lot of thought and experimentation. I urge you to read the beginning of a truckload of novels, analyze them, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Before long you will get the hang of it.

Tip: If reading the first page induces a coma, that’s not the way you should write.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

 

 

Grammar tip: “who” and “whom”

Deposit this statement into your memory bank:

Who is the subject, and whom is the object in a sentence.

The subject of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute about which something is asserted or asked in the predicate (the predicate is the part of a sentence comprising what is said about the subject).

The object of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute governed by a transitive verb, a nonfinite verb, or a preposition. A direct object is any noun or a noun substitute that answers the question What? or Whom? after a transitive verb. A direct object frequently receives or is in some way affected by the action of the verb. Example:

John hit the ball. (ball is the direct object of the verb hit)

Subject: Who hit the ball? John hit the ball.

Object: John hit the ball to Linda. Linda is the object of the verb hit.

I should define one more term: case. Case is the form of a noun or pronoun in a specific context that shows whether it functions as a subject, an object, or a possessive. We use the terms subjective case for the subject of a sentence and objective case for the object of a sentence.

The pronouns who and whoever are in the subjective case, meaning that they are used as the subject of a sentence. The pronouns whom and whomever are in the objective case, meaning that they are used as the object of the subject in a sentence. See direct object above.

Zzzzzzzzz . . . Right?

Wake up. There’s more.

To find the correct pronoun case in a sentence, you must determine whether the pronoun functions as a subject or an object. To do that, use these tests:

Test for who or whom in the subjective case

Example: I wondered (who, whom) would vote.

Test: Substitute he and him (or she and her): “He would vote” or “Him would vote.” Answer: He. Therefore, because he is subjective, who, which is also subjective, is correct: “I wondered who would vote.”

Test for who or whom in the objective case

Example: Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people (who, whom) others have ignored. Test: Try using they and them at the end of the sentence: “Others have ignored they” or “Others have ignored them.” Answer: Them. Therefore, because them is objective, whom, which is also objective, is correct: “Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people whom others have ignored.”

I hope all this makes sense to you so you can apply these rules in your writing.

One final point: Some grammatically correct sentences sound too fussy. If a sentence that says “We had a minister whom everyone seemed to like” sounds that way to you, then recast the sentence:

Everyone seemed to like the minister of our church.

This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Now you can amaze your friends by explaining the proper use of who and whom to them. I know they will thank you for that. Surely most of them have lost sleep by wrestling with the who/whom dilemma.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com

P.S. — To reward you for reading all this gobbledygook, here’s a limerick that might amuse you:
A certain young man never knew
Just when to say whom and when who;
“The question of choosing,”
He said, “is confusing;
I wonder if which wouldn’t do.”
— Christopher Morley

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 


 

Writing tip: Avoid redundant expressions

A redundancy is an expression—usually a word pair—that says the same thing twice. One of the words can be omitted without losing the meaning. I typically delete many repetitive words when I edit a manuscript. Here is a list of common redundancies:

A

(absolutely) essential

(absolutely) necessary

(actual) facts

advance (forward)

(advance) planning

(advance) preview

(advance) reservations

(advance) warning

add (an additional)

add (up)

(added) bonus

(affirmative) yes

(aid and) abet

(all-time) record

alternative (choice)

A.M. (in the morning)

(and) etc.

(anonymous) stranger

(annual) anniversary

(armed) gunman

(artificial) prosthesis

ascend (up)

ask (the question)

assemble (together)

attach (together)

ATM (machine)

autobiography (of his or her own life)

B

bald(-headed)

balsa (wood)

(basic) fundamentals

(basic) necessities

best (ever) biography (of his—or her—life)

blend (together)

(boat) marina

bouquet (of flowers)

brief (in duration)

(brief) moment

(brief) summary

(burning) embers

C

cacophony (of sound)

cameo (appearance)

cancel (out)

(careful) scrutiny

cash (money)

cease (and desist)

circle (around)

circulate (around)

classify (into groups)

(close) proximity

(closed) fist

collaborate (together)

combine (together)

commute (back and forth)

compete (with each other)

(completely) annihilate

(completely) destroyed

(completely) eliminate

(completely) engulfed

(completely) filled

(completely) surround

(component) parts

confer (together)

connect (together)

connect (up)

confused (state)

consensus (of opinion)

(constantly) maintained

cooperate (together)

could (possibly)

crisis (situation)

curative (process)

(current) incumbent

(current) trend

D

depreciate (in value)

descend (down)

(desirable) benefits

(different) kinds

disappear (from sight)

drop (down)

during (the course of)

dwindle (down)

E

each (and every)

earlier (in time)

eliminate (altogether)

emergency (situation)

(empty) hole

empty (out)

(empty) space

enclosed (herein)

(end) result

enter (in)

(entirely) eliminate

equal (to one another)

eradicate (completely)

estimated at (about)

evolve (over time)

(exact) same

(exposed) opening

extradite (back)

F

(face) mask

fall (down)

(favorable) approval

(fellow) classmates

(fellow) colleague

few (in number)

filled (to capacity)

(final) conclusion

(final) end

(final) outcome

(final) ultimatum

(first and) foremost

(first) conceived

first (of all)

fly (through the air)

follow (after)

(foreign) imports

(former) graduate

(former) veteran

(free) gift

(from) whence

(frozen) ice

(frozen) tundra

full (to capacity)

(full) satisfaction

fuse (together)

(future) plans

(future) recurrence

G

gather (together)

(general) public

GOP (party)

GRE (exam)

green [or blue or whatever] (in color)

grow (in size)

H

had done (previously)

(harmful) injuries

(head) honcho

heat (up)

HIV (virus)

hoist (up)

(hollow) tube

hurry (up)

I

(illustrated) drawing

incredible (to believe)

indicted (on a charge)

input (into)

integrate (together)

integrate (with each other)

interdependent (on each other)

introduced (a new)

introduced (for the first time)

(ir)regardless

ISBN (number)

J

join (together)

(joint) collaboration

K

kneel (down)

(knowledgeable) experts

L

lag (behind)

later (time)

LCD (display)

lift (up)

(little) baby

(live) studio audience

(live) witness

(local) residents

look (ahead) to the future

look back (in retrospect)

M

made (out) of

(major) breakthrough

(major) feat

manually (by hand)

may (possibly)

meet (together)

meet (with each other)

(mental) telepathy

merge (together)

might (possibly)

minestrone (soup)

mix (together)

modern ______ (of today)

(mutual) cooperation

(mutually) interdependent

mutual respect (for each other)

N

(number-one) leader in ________

nape (of her neck)

(native) habitat

(natural) instinct

never (before)

(new) beginning

(new) construction

(new) innovation

(new) invention

(new) recruit

none (at all)

nostalgia (for the past)

(now) pending

O

off (of)

(old) adage

(old) cliche

(old) custom

(old) proverb

(open) trench

open (up)

(oral) conversation

(originally) created

output (out of)

(outside) in the yard

outside (of)

(over) exaggerate

over (with)

(overused) cliché

P

(pair of) twins

palm (of the hand)

(passing) fad

(past) experience

(past) history

(past) memories

(past) records

penetrate (into)

period (of time)

(personal) friend

(personal) opinion

pick (and choose)

PIN (number)

pizza (pie)

plan (ahead)

plan (in advance)

(Please) RSVP

plunge (down)

(polar) opposites

(positive) identification

postpone (until later)

pouring (down) rain

(pre)board (as an airplane)

(pre)heat

(pre)record

(private) industry

(present) incumbent

present (time)

previously listed (above)

proceed (ahead)

(proposed) plan

protest (against)

pursue (after)

R

raise (up)

RAM (memory)

reason is (because)

reason (why)

recur (again)

re-elect (for another term)

refer (back)

reflect (back)

(regular) routine

repeat (again)

reply (back)

retreat (back)

revert (back)

rise (up)

round (in shape)

S

(safe) haven

(safe) sanctuary

same (exact)

(sand) dune

scrutinize (in detail)

self-______ (yourself)

separated (apart from each other)

(serious) danger

share (together)

(sharp) point

shiny (in appearance)

shut (down)

(single) unit

skipped (over)

slow (speed)

small (size)

(small) speck

soft (in texture) [or (to the touch)]

sole (of the foot)

spell out (in detail)

spliced (together)

start (off) or (out)

(still) persists

(still) remains

(sudden) impulse

(sum) total

surrounded (on all sides)

T

tall (in height)

tall (in stature)

(temper) tantrum

ten (in number)

three a.m. (in the morning)

(three-way) love triangle

time (period)

(tiny) bit

(total) destruction

(true) facts

(truly) sincere

tuna (fish)

(twelve) noon or midnight

(two equal) halves

U

(ultimate) goal

undergraduate (student)

(underground) subway

(unexpected) emergency

(unexpected) surprise

(unintentional) mistake

(universal) panacea

(unnamed) anonymous

UPC (code)

(usual) custom

V

vacillate (back and forth)

(veiled) ambush

(very) pregnant

(very) unique

visible (to the eye)

W

(wall) mural

warn (in advance)

weather (conditions)

weather (situation)

whether (or not)

(white) snow


Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

Fiction writing question: Should your novel have a prologue?

Should you write a prologue for your novel? Maybe yes, maybe no. To find the answer, let’s begin by defining the term:
Prologue
noun
• a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work: This idea is outlined in the prologue.
• an event or action that leads to another event or situation: Civil unrest in a few isolated villages became the prologue to widespread rebellion.

Sometimes I pick up a book and read the prologue and wonder why the author thought it was needed. I ask myself, Does it do anything that can’t be done in the first chapter? If the prologue is all backstory, shouldn’t that material be braided into the story as the plot and characters develop? Is the prologue intended only to hook the reader? If so, why wasn’t that done on page one of Chapter One, where the reader-baiting and -hooking should take place?

You may think I’m death on prologues, but I’m not. A prologue can be effective if it’s written well, with a clear view of its purpose, and if it includes significant facts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel this is and where the plot is heading. Furthermore, contrary to what some believe, I think a prologue can be used to pull readers into the story, to create a sense of place and time, to foreshadow events to follow, and to provide the voice and viewpoint of an important character.

Even so, I often find myself sighing with impatience when confronted with a prologue. Just get to the damn story already! I think. Show me a scene. I want to see someone doing something worth writing about. I want to hear people speak. I want setting. I want conflict. I want to know what kicks this story in the ass to get it moving.

The prologues of far too many self-published novels, especially, contain none of these things. They tell; they don’t show. The only thing they do well is extinguish any interest an intelligent reader has summoned in order to start reading the book in the first place.

That’s why I often urge new writers to deep-six their prologue. I’m pretty sure they haven’t given much thought to the craft of writing one, to its purposes and pitfalls. They just jump into the task of prologue-ing and fire away only because it seems like a good idea at the time and is an easy way to get started. All too often this results in a long-winded info dump of back story and character introduction written from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, that invisible godlike being in the sky who sees all and knows all, even when we’re in the shower (Yikes!). This kind of narrator is actually . . . Guess who? The writer.

I don’t know about you, but I find no pleasure in hanging out with a bossy, faceless narrator who’s bent on force-feeding me great globs of information that are too much to digest in one sitting before the story gets under way.

Note: Reading page after page of back story and background info about people you don’t know is not entertaining. It’s more like a chore, like trying to memorize a page of a phone book or, even worse, trying to read Ulysses.

I often tell my writers this: Readers won’t be very interested in learning about a character’s background until they’re interested in his or her foreground.

How to drive a literary agent to drink

Some people say that all literary agents hate prologues. Not true. But many of them do. Here’s what some of them say:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader that can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

“Prologues often show that the writer doesn’t know where to start the story.” — Carly Watters, P.S. Literary Agency

“Almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages.” — Kristen Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” — Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

“I’d say 99% of the submissions I receive with a prologue don’t need it. Most of the time they read (to me) like: Look at me! I can write an AMAZING scene! Oh, but sorry, you have to read 100 more pages to get to the story. — Natalie M. Lakosil, the Bradford Literary Agency.

In best-selling author Kristen Lamb’s blog (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/), she says that “there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one.” She calls prologues a big “fish head” that, in many cases, should be “cut off and thrown away.” But she also acknowledges that “prologues, when done properly, can be excellent literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one.”

She identifies “The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues,” as follows:

• The prologue is really just a vehicle for a massive information dump.

• The prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

• The prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader.

• The prologue is overly long.

• The prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story.

• The prologue is condensed world-building (especially in science fiction).

• The prologue is there solely to “set the mood.”

As you can see, she’s one pro who thinks a prologue is no place for reader-hooking and mood-setting, while others think this is okay.

So when can you use a prologue? Ms. Lamb says:

• Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

• Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the back story relevant to the plot.

To all this I’d like to emphasize these points:

1. A prologue is not a side or back story. The best ones, IMHO, are a pivotal event that leads up to Chapter One.

2. Literary agents usually read only the first three to five pages, so if you have filled those pages with prologue material, many agents will reject (or set fire to) your manuscript without going any farther.

3. Readers tend to skip a prologue.

I have made my own admittedly unscientific survey of e-novels self-published on Amazon. After reading many samples from these books, I saw how popular prologues are with this legion of writers. I’d say that about 80 percent of these novels start with a prologue.

We probably shouldn’t rush to a judgment based on this observation, but I think it indicates something for us to ponder. Most of these prologues break one or more of the rules already mentioned. Some of the ones I’ve read should be labeled “Chapter One.” Almost all the others are info dumps of back story and biography used to set up the main story. Too many of them were so long that I couldn’t bear to read the whole thing. Will other readers feel the same way? I’m going with a yes.

So before you write a prologue, consider what I and others have said here. I also urge you to go to a library or a bookstore and analyze prologues in many published novels and see what works and what doesn’t and why. Take notes. Then reread the prologue you’ve written and decide whether to keep it or cut it off.

Like a fish’s head.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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