Beware of Commonly Misstated Phrases

Try to find all the misused words and expressions in this humorous piece of writing.

DON’T embarrass yourself by saying or writing commonly misused idioms such as the following ones. The incorrect phrase is stated first, followed by the correct one:

For all intensive purposes — For all intents and purposes

Statue of limitations — Statute of limitations

I could care less — I couldn’t care less

Jive with — Jibe with

Scotch free — Scot free

Hunger pains — Hunger pangs

Beckon call — Beck and call

Butt naked — Buck naked

Mute point — Moot point

Case and point — Case in point

The spitting image — The spit and image

On tender hooks — On tenterhooks

Hone in — Home in

One in the same — One and the same

Deep-seeded — Deep seated

By in large — By and large

Nip it in the butt — Nip it in the bud

You’ve got another thing coming — You’ve got another think coming

Extract revenge — Exact revenge

It’s a doggy-dog world — It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Two peas in a pot — Two peas in a pod.

Right off the back — Right off the bat.

Peaked my interest — Piqued my interest

Wet your appetite — Whet your appetite

Piece of mind — Peace of mind

Wreck havoc — Wreak havoc

Tow the line — Toe the line

Pour over — Pore over

Tongue and cheek — Tongue in cheek

Nerve-wrecking — Nerve-wracking or nerve-racking

Escape goat — Scapegoat

Beckon call — Beck and call

After all is set and done — After all is said and done

Upmost desire — Utmost desire

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.

The top 25 grammatical terms you should know

1. ACTIVE VOICE

Active voice is a type of sentence or clause in which the subject performs or causes the action expressed by the verb. Contrast with Passive Voice below. Example: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

2. ADJECTIVE

An adjective is the part of speech (or word class) that modifies a noun or a pronoun. Example: “Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig.” (Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007)

3. ADVERB

An adverb is the part of speech that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb. Example: “There I was, standing there in the church, and for the first time in my whole life I realized I totally and utterly loved one person.” (Charles to Carrie in Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994)

4. CLAUSE

A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. A clause may be either a sentence (independent clause) or a sentence-like construction included within another sentence (that is, a dependent clause). Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)

5. COMPLEX SENTENCE

A complex sentence is a sentence that contains at least one independent clause and one dependent clause. Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)

6. COMPOUND SENTENCE

A compound sentence is a sentence that contains at least two independent clauses, often joined by a conjunction. Example: “I can’t compete with you physically [independent clause], and you’re no match for my brains [independent clause].” (Vizzini in The Princess Bride, 1987)

7. CONJUNCTION

A conjunction is a word that connects sentences, phrases or clauses. Example:  “I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.” (Vizzini in The Princess Bride, 1987). Common conjunctions include and, but, for, nor, or, so and yet.

8. DECLARATIVE SENTENCE

A declarative sentence is a sentence that makes a statement. Example: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

9. DEPENDENT CLAUSE

A dependent clause is a group of words that begins with a relative pronoun or a subordinating conjunction. A dependent clause has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Also known as a subordinate clause. Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)

10. DIRECT OBJECT

A direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of a transitive verb. Example: “I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers.” (Sophia in The Color Purple, 1985)

11. EXCLAMATORY SENTENCE

An exclamatory sentence is a sentence that expresses strong feelings by making an exclamation. Example: “God! Look at that thing! You would’ve gone straight to the bottom!” (Jack Dawson looking at Rose’s ring in Titanic, 1997)

12. IMPERATIVE SENTENCE

An imperative sentence is a sentence that gives advice or instructions or that expresses a request or a command. Example: “Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig.” (Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007)

13. INDEPENDENT CLAUSE

An independent clause is a group of words made up of a subject and a predicate. An independent clause (unlike a dependent clause) can stand alone as a sentence. Also known as a main clause. Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)

14. INDIRECT OBJECT

An indirect object is really a prepositional phrase in which the preposition to or for is not stated but understood. It tells to whom or for whom something is done. The indirect object always comes between the verb and the direct object. Example:  “The doctor sent me (indirect object) a bill (direct object) for his services.

15. INTERROGATIVE SENTENCE

An interrogative sentence is a sentence that asks a question. Example: “What is the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse?” (Mr. Parker in A Christmas Story, 1983)

16. NOUN

A noun is the part of speech that is used to name a person, place, thing, quality, or action and can function as the subject or object of a verb, the object of a preposition, or an appositive. Example: “Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikas.” (Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally, 1989)

17. PASSIVE VOICE

Passive voice is a type of sentence or clause in which the subject receives the action of the verb. Contrast with Active Voice. Example: The jewelry was stolen by burglars. In the active voice this sentence would read: Burglars stole the jewelry.

18. PREDICATE

A predicate is one of the two main parts of a sentence or clause that modifies the subject and includes the verb, objects, or phrases governed by the verb. It is everything that is not the subject. Example: The man from the shop is a crook .

19. PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE

A phrase that begins with a preposition and ends in a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. Example: “He is from Russia.From Russia is a prepositional phrase. Common prepositions include about, below, off, toward, above, for, to, on, under, across, from, onto, after, in, out, between, by, at, around, and before.

20. PRONOUN

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. Example: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

21. SENTENCE

A sentence is most commonly a group of words that expresses a complete idea. Conventionally, a sentence includes a subject and a verb. It begins with a capital letter and concludes with a mark of end punctuation. Example: “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.” (Thelma Dickinson in Thelma and Louise, 1991)

22. SIMPLE SENTENCE

A simple sentence is a sentence with only one independent clause (also known as a main clause). Example: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

23. SUBJECT

The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. You can find the subject of a sentence if you can find the verb. Ask the question, “Who or what “verbs” or “verbed”?” and the answer to that question is the subject. Example: Jack threw the ball.

24. TENSE

Tense is the time of a verb’s action or state of being, such as past, present, and future. Example: “Years ago, you served [past tense] my father in the Clone Wars; now he begs [present tense] you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.” (Princess Leia to General Kenobi in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977)

25. VERB

A verb is the part of speech that describes an action or occurrence or indicates a state of being. Example: “Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig.” (Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007.)

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.

The dirtiest word in the English language

I have to mention a dirty wordgrammar. Oh, horrors! I know, I know. Studying grammar is about as much fun as poking yourself in the eye with a stick. But if you take writing seriously, you have to acquire the tools of the trade. If you want to build a house, you have to do the same thing—get the proper tools, learn how to use them, and learn carpentry. Unless you do that, your new home will look like a tree house built by nine-year-olds.

Most technical shortcomings are as crucial as the literary ones to providing your readers with a smooth reading experience. If, for instance, your reader notices that you have written many run-on sentences or that your page is peppered with semicolons, his/her read is disrupted as much as if your scenes lacked details of the setting or your plot wandered off on a tangent.

I also know that obvious problems with grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling are reason numero uno for rejecting a manuscript. Literary agents and acquisitions editors rarely read more than a few pages—or only one page—before hitting the Reject button, which is easy for them to do when they see writing that’s littered with technical clunkers.

Many readers who aren’t as sophisticated as literary agents also notice writing errors. As proof of that, find some self-published novels on Amazon and read their reviews, especially the one- and two-star ones, not the five-star ones the author solicited from family, friends, and all their pets. Some of these reviewers mention how grammar and punctuation errors disrupted or ruined their reading experience.

Too many self-pubbed authors have made the mistake of skipping the last step in the process in their rush to get into print—having their book professionally edited. As a result, they embarrass themselves and fail to sell books.

Sorry, friends, but you can’t get around the need for this kind of education if you want to be a competent writer. You simply must learn about all the nuts and bolts.

So okay. Maybe now you have decided to suck it up and learn about the rules of the writing road. Where to start? Take a class, either online or off. Buy a good college-level textbook and study it cover to cover. Or find a website like this one: DailyGrammar.com.

I will discuss some technical issues in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

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 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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