In Defense Of The Prologue

Ancient_Greek_theatre_Segesta996Modern practice and my personal bias suggests that there is no defense for a prologue.

The ancient Greeks used the prologue to tell a short story that explained the setting or relationship for the work that would follow. They considered the prologue a piece apart from the main narrative. Literally, “a speech before” the story begins.

Generally, the ancients used prologues to explain what was about to happen, or to give insight into the characters or action. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales starts with a prologue to introduce the various pilgrims before they’re each given a tale to tell. The literary device remained in common usage in Shakespeare’s time to literally set the stage for the action to come.

My personal distaste for the device falls squarely on the idea that it is – by definition – a separate, shorter piece intended to explain some aspect of the story before the reader is allowed to actually read the story. On its face, that seems harmless enough, but I would suggest that you won't get a better laugh if you explain the joke before you tell it.

I have the same problem with prologues.

I probably wouldn’t have worried about prologues except I kept finding them in modern novels. In fantasy, they’re often of the form of an ancient battlefield where the scion of some High House vows to get revenge through the generations, or some other rationale to justify the story to come. In science fiction, they're used to show some hidden aspect of the universe to the reader. Frequently, the historical cause or hidden aspect arises normally from the narrative, often repeating the very story recounted in the prologue. Too often they are little more than an exercise in extended world building with little actual bearing on the story to follow.

In short, they were not necessary to the story and only served as a distraction from the real story which happened weeks – or centuries – later to different people in a different setting.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. These abuses of prologue have trained readers to skip them.

Yet can we say “never” with the prologue? In as much as I find little value in the examples I regularly encounter, one must admit the value for those that actually work.

Consider The Canterbury Tales. The prologue works for that story because it provides the information needed for the various tales to hang together but which would not be available in the story itself. The key question is “why wasn’t it?” and the answer lies in the structure of the work as a whole. Each tale told by each pilgrim remained true to that point of view. The prologue served as a kind of omniscient perspective to provide a bit of background which helped to explain – not only each story – but the work as a whole. Without that prologue, the reader is robbed because the story is lessened.

In The Name Of The Rose, the epistolary prologue serves to lay the groundwork for the story to come in a way that is not possible within the structure of the liturgical calendar which governs the rest of the work. Again, structurally, some of the richness of Eco’s tapestry would be lost without that prologue.

A more questionable example is the prologue to Gruen’s Water For Elephants – perhaps the most famous NaNoWriMo novel of all time. Its spare few paragraphs sets the stage for Jacob’s remembrances and provides a sense of clarity, of reality, that anchors the rest of the book. The structure of the following story – with its hazy and sometimes questionable memories – argues that the prologue worked more by providing that anchor in the reality of sawdust and blood than by recounting the incident itself.

While each of those examples offer back story or setting or characterization, the reason they work is not because of the content but because of the structure of the stories which followed. The prologue's narrative content could not fit within the structural context of the story which made a prologue necessary – in a speech before the story began.

In the process of writing this piece, I’ve come to appreciate the limitations of my existing bias. It’s also helped me understand what a prologue might be used for so that “never” no longer applies. I still believe that back story or setting or hook are not sufficient reasons for a prologue. Back story should inform the author, not the reader. Setting is where the characters interact to derive a plot. Hooks should be reserved for the story.

Unless you can’t because of the story’s structure.

Unless the prologue works.

Which is probably the correct answer after all.

P.S. Write the prologue last. You can’t tell if the story needs it until you see the completed work.

Image Credit: Ancient Greek theatre (Segesta) by Matthias Süßen
Wiki Media Commons

Don’t miss the chance to get registered for May’s Annual Education Event

Do you have the right stuff in the right place in your book?

Do you know your genre or do you not know your genre?

Those are the questions that will be answered next month at the Annual Education Event. If you haven’t seen the information about it in the newsletter and the e-mails going out, here’s your chance to find out what’s going on.

When:  May 14, 2016, starting at 8:30, ending at 4:00first pages

Where: Table Mountain Inn, 1310 Washington Avenue, Golden, CO  80401

Who:     The a.m. Keynote will be THE RIGHT STUFF: OPENING PAGES THAT LEAD TO YES!

Presented by Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp from the Nelson Literary Agency

Genre imageAFTERNOON GENRE-SPECIFIC MASTER CLASSES begin at 1:00, and include:

YA - Aaron Michael Ritchey          Romance - Bernadette Marie

Historical - Linda Collison            Mystery - Rebecca Bates

SciFi/Fantasy/Horror - Nathan Lowell

How Much: $80 for Members, $90 for Non-Members (includes breakfast, lunch and break goodies)

Why       Should you attend?  You won’t get many chances to have a big literary agency read your pages and tell you what changes might make them more likely to catch the right attention. You also don’t often get the opportunity to talk with multi-published authors, in your genre, that are willing to spend hours helping you ensure you’re in the right genre, and discussing how to make you manuscript stand out from the crowd.

If you’re serious about wanting to write the best possible novel, and especially if you want to be published, get registered for this event before it sells out. Not only that, it’s a perfect way to make sure you're all set for Colorado Gold in September – get those pages ready for roundtables and pitches!

For more information on the speakers and their bios, go HERE. To register on-line, go HERE. And to make the most of your writing efforts, BE THERE or be square.

Stifling Self-Doubt by Aimie Runyan

Self-doubt is the hallmark of most writers, unless maybe you’re Stephen King. I have always thought it a good thing in measured doses. False confidence leads to bad books, and so long as I can quiet the nagging voice of in my ear, I welcome Doubt as the frumpy, sarcastic cousin of the more charming Muse. But sometimes Muse is fickle and Doubt gets far too much time at the mic. The picture below encapsulates a poignant moment of self-doubt I had a few years back:

306087_10200870420059810_769244613_n

This picture was taken about 6 weeks after I started seriously working on my first novel. My two-year-old son is perched on my printed chapters and notebook, absorbed in Monsters, Inc. I snapped the photo on my phone because, in my very biased opinion, he’s adorable. And miraculously, he was actually sitting still. But when I sat next to him on the couch and posted the photo on Facebook, Doubt took her long, clammy fingers and gripped around my neck. What if my book is better off as a booster seat?

The thought was cruel, and while it’s amusing to personify Doubt, it was of my own creation. I reasoned with myself that even if the novel was crap, I would have the satisfaction of knowing I finished what I started, and would only be out about 130 naptimes for my trouble. I pushed on and got my 2,000 naptime words that afternoon. And every naptime for the next six months until I had a draft that I could shape into a readable novel.

But what if I had given in to Doubt and set aside my book? We all leave behind unfinished work, but how would I have felt leaving behind a half-written story that I longed so much to tell? Book contract or no, I have to believe I’d have felt disappointed for the rest of my days for not having told this tale.

Last month, on March 28, the picture of my son “hatching” my book came up in my timeline through the “See Your Memories” feature on Facebook. I instantly remembered that icy feeling in the pit of my stomach I felt that day, and was filled with relief that I pushed Doubt aside and kept on. Wondering what else happened on that day in my seven years on Facebook, I opened up the app and scrolled through my posts. The picture of my sweet boy was posted in 2013. Then I noticed the post from 2014:

“EEEEEEEPPPPP. That is all.”

For those of you not in my inner circles, that’s how I announced both my pregnancies… and news of almost-equal magnitude. Exactly one year after that donkey-kick to the gut from my old friend Doubt, I had gotten The Email from an agent that led to The Call three days later. That following Monday, I signed with Melissa Jeglinski of The Knight Agency. With her expert guidance, six months later I had a book I was proud of and a contract with a fantastic publisher. So on March 28 of this year, less than a month before that book was to see the light of day, I started off my morning knowing unequivocally I’d made the right decision to tell Doubt to hit the bricks. Sometimes reminders of things you know to be true come in odd places. Thanks for the memories, Facebook.

Doubt has its place. It has it’s uses… but never, ever let it talk you out of pursuing a story that needs to be told.

aimieAimie K. Runyan is an author of Historical fiction whose purpose is to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. Her debut novel, PROMISED TO THE CROWN, the story of three women sent by Louis XIV to help colonize his Quebec colony, releases in April, 2016 from Kensington Books. She has also published a short work of science fiction in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS anthology (all proceeds go to the Women in Engineering Scholarship Fund). She lives outside Denver with her loving husband, adorable children, and cowardly sheepdog.

Rocky Mountain Writer #42

13045561_592692214239930_883249832_nAimie K. Runyan & Promised to the Crown

Aimie K. Runyan's first novel, "Promised to the Crown," launches this week. The novel is set in 17th Century France and New France, a.k.a. Canada.

The idea for the book started for Runyan in third grade when she took an instant interest in the French language and soon, an even deeper interest in everything to do with France.

Her interest in France stayed with her through high school and college and it was while working on her Master's thesis on the women who helped found French Canada that she won a generous grant from the Quebec government to study onsite for three months, enabling the detailed research necessary for work on her novel.

On the podcast, Runyan offers tips for guarding your writing time and how she fit work on the novel around raising two small children. She also talks about how she found her agent following a session of Pitch Wars on Twitter and the steps to finding her publisher.

The podcast includes Aimie reading the opening of Promised to the Crown.

Aimie K. Runyan

Kensington Books

On Amazon

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Focusing Your Energy Where it Counts

I'm probably the last person in the world who should be talking about focus.

You know that person with her head so high in the clouds that she put her car keys in the freezer? Or  pulls into the neighbor's garage, gets out of her car, walks into the house, and wonders who changed the linoleum and why the cat is the wrong color?

Yep, that's me. I'm the woman who starts off taking out the kitchen garbage, stops along the way to pet the cat, notices the litter box needs attention and scoops, leaving the trash bag in the house by the cat box and taking the litter to the outside trash can. I'm the woman who then notices it's a beautiful day and wanders off to see if the lilacs are going to bloom this year, coming inside an hour later to wonder who left the trash bag sitting in the bathroom.

But maybe this makes me the right person to talk about focus, after all, because I've developed some coping methods over the years that help me get important things done. (See my last post on setting priorities for some ideas on how to sort out which are your most important things.)

Following are a few of the things I've found to be helpful in finding enough focus to get my words written.

Schedule it. If writing time is important to you, signal that to yourself and everybody else in the same way you would other important events. Make it an appointment and treat it like a parent-teacher conference, a work meeting at your day job, a visit to your doctor or your hair stylist. Put it on your calendar. Don't stand yourself up.Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.46.47 AM

Minimize distractions. Figure out whether you do better in a quiet or noisy environment. Experiment with music - can you focus better with it on, or off. What location works best for you - the kitchen table, a writing room desk, a corner in the coffee shop? Whatever works best, do that. Note that this might change depending on the book you're writing, and whether you're brainstorming, drafting, revising, or editing.

Turn off the social media. How many times have you sat down to write, only to find yourself an hour later deep down some rabbit hole on Facebook? Besides the time suck component, how can you get deeply involved in your character's emotions and lives if you are constantly receiving signals from outside influences? If you're like me and lack will power, consider a program like Freedom that blacks the internet for you for a set period of time. Or, shut off the internet altogether during writing time. I recently went through a spell where I didn't turn the internet on in the morning before my words were written. I was a little bit shocked at how much more writing I got done.

Sprint. Sometimes, if you're struggling with focus, settling in for a short stretch of 15 minutes can work very well for getting things done. I love to do this with a friend through a chat window. Set the time, go, and report back in. It's easier to settle down to work when you know it's not going to be a long haul. Plus, it's highly motivating to know you'll need to fess up to your partner if you've wandered off to Twitter. (It's also amusing when you both wander off to Twitter and call each other out for bad behavior. This may just have happened to me a time or two.)

Put the cat in the garage. I know, this is a drastic measure. The GDC, currently in my lap and judging everything I write, takes offense. We love our fur babies and they are wonderful and often comforting. They can also be a huge distraction. If you are struggling with focus and getting your words written, you might consider finding something else for the fur babies to do while you write.

I have a few other ideas, but I'm scheduled for my writing time in about two minutes and I'm choosing to honor that commitment and am signing off now.  I'm excited to tell you that I will be presenting a session on getting your writing done at the Colorado Gold Conference this year, so if this topic is of interest to you I'd love to see you there!

I'd also love to hear the strategies you've developed for managing focus during writing time.

 

What Do You Do When It All Falls Apart?

Photo from Morguefile.com
Photo from Morguefile.com

What Do You Do When It All Falls Apart?

Cry.

That’s the whole post.

Okay, not really.

If you stick with this writing gig long enough, sooner or later everything’s going to fall apart around your ears. That’s not pessimism talking—it’s just the way publishing goes. Although, if you’re really, really lucky, maybe it won’t happen. Honestly, I hope it doesn’t. I hope somebody out there gets to have a happy, untroubled writing career.

I do know that person is not me.

I contracted my first novel in 1999, and since then I’ve had more publishers disappear under me than I care to count. Right now, I’m waiting to hear if Samhain Publishing is actually going to disappear or if there’s going to be another solution. I have seven books there. Weirdly, when the initial announcement was made that they were going out of business, I didn’t panic. Instead, I started thinking about options. I had a book out on submissions at the time, and within the next few days, it came back with yet another rejection. Which surprised me, because I really thought this was going to be a book with a wider appeal. Apparently not. But that’s life.

So what do you do when publishers disappear? When nobody wants to buy the manuscript you were sure was going to be your big break into mainstream publishing? When the manuscripts you do sell are selling in single figures on a reliable basis?

Well, you can quit. Or you can not quit.

Thing is, writers are the most stubborn creatures God ever invented. And if writing is your thing above all things, you’re not going to stop. You’re going to keep going. And going, and going, like that stupid bunny with the drum.

But should you keep going on the same path? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s my thought that if you start to feel like you’re slamming your head into a wall, then it might be time to reevaluate.

No, not quit. Reevaluate. There are so many paths to publication nowadays that it’s dizzying. If your quest to crack into traditional publishing is making you want to play in traffic, maybe it’s time to try something else. I’ve been focused on small press publishers, and I’m thinking it might be time to dive really hard off the board into the deep side of the pool of self-publishing. (Was that a good metaphor? It felt a little forced…)

So I’m reevaluating right now. I’m planning something new with the manuscript that was rejected (it’s been rejected several times). And I’ve got a few new projects that I’m thinking about tailoring to a focused self-pub effort. I’m also revamping my websites and trying to build some social media infrastructure to support those efforts when I get the stories finished. I’m also trying really, really hard to rewire my thought processes so I can set my goals according to what publishing is like now instead of what it was ten years ago. It’s a never-ending process.

So what should you do when it all falls apart? Cry if you want—sometimes it helps. Eat chocolate. Take a long, hot bath. And then get back to work.

Rocky Mountain Writer #40

Betsy 2Besty Dornbusch &
"The Silver Scar"

Betsy Dornbusch writes epic fantasy. She has also dabbled in science fiction and she has written and published short stories that have appeared in over a dozen magazines and anthologies. Her first fantasy novel came out in 2012 and her latest trilogy is wrapping up, after Exile and Emissary, with Enemy, coming soon. She just announced the sale of a new standalone, The Silver Scar, to Night Shade Books.

On the podcast, she talks about the draw of world building and writing fantasy, she reveals the moment on a trip to England that sparked her writing career, and she talks about the benefits of writing short stories as a way to hone your craft.

Betsy Dornbusch

Night Shade Books

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Writers and Public Speaking

A couple of weeks ago, some RMFW author friends and I were discussing book promotion, and the topic of public speaking came up.  Public speaking. As in one of the most fearsome activities a person can do. These brave souls are willing to think about taking heart and book in hand to stand up in front of total strangers. They’ll speak with microphones or just more loudly than normal, they’ll gesture, they’ll change voices with each new character, all in hopes of selling more books. How cool is that!

Carol Berg speaks at RMFW
Public speaker Carol Berg.

I decided to look into what it would take to join or form a speakers’ bureau. To do so, I interviewed Karen Loucks Rinedollar of the Denver Speakers Bureau.  I also joined Toastmasters last May, and have found public speaking a fascinating subject.

JOINING/FORMING A SPEAKER’S BUREAU

Karen was generous with her time and she shared both some thoughts on speaking and on forming a bureau, or place where those looking for speakers can find talent to fill their needs.

“To sell more books?” asked Karen. “To sell more books, write more. Become a New York Times best-selling author before trying to join a speakers’ bureau.”  While kindly said, Karen left no doubt that people wanting to get involved with public speaking need to have credentials that make them more desirable as “draws” to a public speaking event.

But writing more doesn’t necessarily mean writing more books.  She suggested developing a great and actively read blog (I understand RMFW’s blog is always looking for contributors), or writing article in your area of expertise. If your main character is a mad scientist, is it possible to build credibility by writing scientific articles for Popular Science?

“Establish yourself as a professional,” said Karen. “That makes you more attractive as a speaker.” And more likely to be picked up by speakers’ bureaus.

Absolute speaker musts? According to Karen, there are two big items:

  • Have a good website. Event planners look for speakers on-line as much as anywhere else, and you should have a portion of your site dedicated to enticing them.
  • Post great samples of your work—Yes, you can use an iPhone recording as you get started, but be sure to show samples of how you interact with your audience and use your best video clips to do so.

As a parting thought, Karen expressed some caution. “When you work on public speaking part-time, you’ll get part-time success.”

TIPS FROM TOASTMASTERS

When I joined Toastmasters, I had visions of being coached and growing to be the next Steven Colbert. Now I spend a couple of hours each week with people who talk both extemporaneously and in prepared speeches. Colbert? Not so much, but as with a critique group, Toastmasters offers a great opportunity to test your speaking skills, as well as developing other leadership qualities. This organization is well worth the investment.  Here are some tips for public speaking from my time spent among my public speaking friends:

  • Choose a good topic to speak on. Yes, even in a book signing, you’ll want to have something interesting to talk about.  Do you write mysteries? Maybe you can research and talk about local cold cases or what it’s like to ride along with the police as a Citizen’s Academy member. There are four purposes to public speaking: entertain, educate, inform and persuade. Oh, and the persuading doesn’t include, “buy my book” talks.
  • Respect the clock. This one is a very difficult challenge, but I’ve seen speakers who go on five, ten, twenty minutes overtime, and their audiences become uncomfortable and antsy. Practice, practice, practice, with a timer!
  • Be prepared to speak extemporaneously. At many writers’ conferences I have heard speakers talk about how boring it is to be asked things like, “where do you get your ideas?” or “how long does it take to write a whole book?” But, as a librarian friend told me, “These are the questions that readers really want to hear answers to.” So be prepared. Write the story of writing a story. Buy into it, and I think you’ll find some good material for public speaking there.

Are you public speaking to promote your book?  Maybe you can share some tips with the rest of us. Would you like to see “Public Speaking for Authors” at Colorado Gold? Please let me know.

Real Life Research

I’ve always written historical fiction, mainly romance, which required a great deal of in-depth research, digging around in old documents, looking at ancient maps, reading tattered journals, even finding out what they ate that last night on the Titanic. Google was my very best friend. But after the latest “thanks but no thanks e-mail” I’ve decided to start working on a more contemporary series, and suddenly a whole new world of research opened up.

Now, I can actually find living, breathing humans who’ve been there, done that. I’ve used in-person interviews before, quite a lot, actually, for articles published in magazines and newspapers. Now it’s time to put those interview skills to work for book research.Interviewing

I started out like I always do, with a list of questions that I knew I needed answered to be able to fill in holes in my story. But the fun part was that several of the answers actually started a chain of domino reactions that took my story in different and exciting directions.

If I’d been sticking to internet or books for my research, I would have missed out on that. It’s a little out of my comfort zone, because it means going to places I wouldn’t choose to normally, like the police station. Putting myself into uncomfortable situations, like having a martial arts specialist show me what to do if I’m on my back, an assailant sitting on me, being strangled (NOT fun). But it also meant finding out some cool tricks of the trade for restoring classic cars.

Phaeton with title copy

My point is that in-person research is hugely valuable. Not only do you get information you need, but you see expressions and hear inflections in their voices that give you insight into their emotions. All of that can help your story be more realistic.

I also received more information than I needed, but since I’m working on a series, I’m pretty sure the “extra” will be useful somewhere down the line. I have a couple more people I need to meet with, and some of them are going to be difficult to find, but I’m persistent, and I can write around the missing pieces for a while. I could end up having to re-write some parts once I get that data, but I usually do with my historicals, as well, when I find a tidbit that I just can’t leave out.

I think I’m going to enjoy being in the real world again. But then, there is that paranormal, historical part of the series that will give me my history fix….

How about you? Do you use in-person interviews to add realism?

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About Your Readers

As a writer, we research. It’s what we do. We research settings. Disorders. Things that go bump in the night. Urban and suburban legends and the occasional garden gnome murder spree. We know what the height of fashion was in 1723 and who wore it best. We know our guns. Our poisons. And the quickest way to a man’s heart, which is usually a knife and not food as we’ve always heard.

We KNOW this because we’ve researched it.

Okay, maybe not the last thing, but the rest of it.

So what do you know about the/your reader?

The being a general reader in your genre, and then more importantly, the reader of your books. How old are they? What do they do for a living? How do you gain more of people like them and keep those you have?

Now many authors might not care, but not you, you smart and very attractive author. You know that the reader is the very reason you publish books. Without him or her, you might as well daydream, and avoid those pesky plot holes and dialogue tags.

The best way to research who your reader is and where to find them is by asking your current ones. I have a survey on my monthly newsletter. I can change it depending on what sort of marketing I’ll be doing and what burning questions I have about my readers. This works two-fold, I get promotional insight and I also invite my readers to engage with me.

It shows that I am genuinely interested in them. In who they are and how we can interact. Basically, I am totally nosy. If you aren’t or you don’t have this kind of time, which is fine as you can still gain the insights you need, I suggest sticking with the more generic version of demographic stats each genre has on the reader. Just google Romance reader statics and you’ll find plenty of info.

We have the how, but what about the why? How does knowing what platform a reader prefers will sell more of my books? If you’re self-published the answer might be apparent, publish to that platform. If you’re traditionally published, it’s a little harder to see.

According to Nielsen data, Amazon holds a 61% share of the ereader market. Now you as an author don’t have much say in where or the platform your publisher chooses. But you can use this information to limit your marketing scope. Why not try placing ads targeted to your reader demographics on a Kindle? I don’t suggest it though, as another stat comes into play. Most people aren’t reading on the ereader itself, but using an app on a mobile device. Wasted ad dollars, all found out because of reader research!

See, I saved you a few bucks right there.

I hope you see the value of reader research and will become a fellow stats geek with me, as I hate to geek out alone.

What type of reader research do you do? How have you used it in the past? I have plenty of ideas, so let’s talk readers!