Tuesday, September 7, 2010

First Things First

Welcome back to our 'Teeth and Bones Editing Contest'. Here's the scoop:

How to enter: Comment on the Novel Matters blog anytime between Monday, September 6th, and Friday September 17th. At the bottom of your comment type TABEC (short for Teeth and Bones Editing Contest). Only comments with these letters at the bottom will be eligible to win (we understand that not all our readers are interested in this level of editing, but would still want to be free to comment and discuss editing - that's the reason we require interested people to please use the TABEC letters at the bottom of their comments). The winner will work one on one with Bonnie Grove via e-mail. The winner will consent to having the first paragraph of the work posted on Novel Matters in a before and after comparison. This means the winner will agree to have the first paragraph of your WIP appear on the blog, first as it was originally written, then in its edited form.

I want to address a crucial consideration that can be difficult to face, or even consider facing, during the editing process: does your story start in the right place? And while it may not be the wrong place exactly, are you willing to do the major rewrite necessary to make the story the best it can be?

You may have heard that many stories actually start on the third chapter. Cut the first 3 chapters and y
ou cut the fluff and get down to the action. You'll never miss them. I've had to do it myself, and it's really painful to amputate what represents many months of work and research to perfect the story. But this advice doesn't work for every genre. Opening with the action doesn't fit every story, so we have to consider who is giving the advice, which 'how-to' book we're reading and the type of fiction that particular author writes. I had this experience at a writers conference when I submitted my proposal for critique to a well-known author who writes exceptional thrillers and his advice to me was to cut away to the action. Do away with the first five pages. Start with the tension high, place the protagonist in the thick of things. Before I followed his advice, I submitted that same proposal to an editor at the conference who did not agree with the suggested change. He pointed out that it wasn't the same type of story, and happily, he liked it just fine.

At least in literary or upmarket fiction, the place where your story begins isn't always where the book should start. Most stories are linear - the story starts at the beginning and finishes at the end, but that isn't necessarily how the story should be
told. Consider Water for Elephants, with its opening sentence establishing the protagonist is near the end of his life, as does Marilyn Robinson's Gilead. There is determination and urgency in telling the story from the perspective of a life having been already lived, looking back at how it all unfolded, for good or ill. That's putting the character into the thick of things emotionally, driving the story along.

I recently read
Olive Kitteridge, which has a unique way of telling Olive's story. It's not written from beginning to end. Every chapter is written either from Olive's viewpoint, or from someone who knew her, revealing different aspects of her character in their interactions with her. The story begins with her husband's perspective instead of Olive's, which I think sets the tone for the book. I can't say that I truly enjoyed the book, but it was worth reading for the unique structure and the characterizations. (language & subject matter warning)

A word of caution: Some writers start with prologues, but these are not generally met with enthusiasm by editors. I'm sure there have been some excellent books that opened with prologues, but none come immediately to mind. So, if you have a smash-up prologue, go for it. Just don't make it a deal-breaker. Some writers get around the whole prologue issue by placing the first chapter or opening scene out of sequence with the rest of the story. It could work. It probably has.

Personally, at least for upmarket fiction, I feel it's imperative to consider your book as a whole, look objectively at what point in the story it's understood what the protagonist wants or must overcome, and begin there. Readers will only invest themselves in a book when they respect the protagonist and feel the goal is legitimate, and when this is expressed early enough to maintain interest. That kind of story is worth the rewrite.

Let us know what you think & for a chance to win that critique!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I have a wee little addiction to prologues. I'm working on it.

And yes, absolutely open to rewrites. Been proving that lately.

Still kicking around entering. Am caught up preparing for ACFW. I might enter for The Partridge Sacrifice.

~ Wendy

Christa Allan said...

The Sound and the Fury, Poisonwood Bible both intrigue me with their POVs. Faulkner's idea of using four people to tell a story about a character who never speaks herself...brilliant.

Not sure I could pull it off as a writer, but I appreciate and admire those who do.


Unknown said...

Uh-oh. I'm glad I read today's post. I have a prologue to my novel ms. Perhaps that's why I have not had any interest by agents. I think I may move it to the end of the last chapter. This throws an entirely new ending in the mix.

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I thought the voice and structure of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was really interesting. It could easily become passe if done too frequently, but the voices of the characters came alive in the letter exchanges.

I also loved the contrast/comparison of the POVs in The Help. It was the perfect way to illustrate the chasm between the characters caused by race and the character arcs.


Heather Marsten said...

I am assuming that this is a contest for fiction writers. Sadly my book is nonfiction. Does that count? I know that James Michener breaks all those rules, depending on my mood and time, sometimes it is fun to go back to the original cell and come forward to the right time. A Prayer for Owen Meany had an opening that was intriguing.TABEC

Josey Bozzo said...

Not sure if I am ready for this. I've set my novel aside. I'm struggling with what Randy Ingermanson calls my "creative pardigm" I can't seem to get from point A to point B.
Oh, well, I'll enter anyway.

MandyB said...

I had to re-think/re-write my first chapter, so I completely understand that 'discarding' work can be painful. However, the result was a more intriguing start to the story and it pulls the reader in - which is, of course, what we want to happen. The process of idea to novel is a long road but so worth writing!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I don't know why prologues are so appealing, but I have to fight the urge, too. When done correctly, they give a tantalizing little bit of story that makes you want to read further. But a properly written hook in the opening chapter can accomplish the same thing and won't get cut by the editor. But that's another post!

Bonnie Grove said...

The interesting thing about prologues is they are 99% unnecessary.

Many writers don't understand the literary function of a prologue (what it is supposed to do and when to use one).
Most editors don't want a prologue because what they see is writers writing prologues that aren't prologues.

A prologue must contain information and story pieces that cannot be conveyed inside the story but are absolutely critical to the story (see how rare that is?)

A good prologue is often out of voice (from another character, or storyteller), out of sequence, and or, from far in the past or future (think eons, not just years).

Most stories don't require a prologue. Does yours? Chances are it doesn't. Ask yourself: What information is in this prologue that is critical to the story and that I cannot possibly convey in the story?

An example: My newest novel, that my agent is currently shopping, contains a prologue. It is two paragraphs, and serves as an introduction to the subject matter - this is critical because the reader needs to understand (and buy into) the kind of story this is - a story about love and time travel. To plunge into the story without these two paragraphs would be hijacking the reader. It's critical to include this information, but there is no way I could do it inside the story.

Latayne C Scott said...

They'll pry my prologue for my WIP out of my cold, dead hands...

Or out of my tear-stained live hands...

Arghh. Debbie, I know you're right. Most editors hate prologues. And Bonnie, I know you're right, too.


Bonnie Grove said...

"They'll pry my prologue for my WIP out of my cold, dead hands..."

Oh Latayne, that made me laugh SO HARD!!

Having had the privilege (and it was a privilege) of reading your WIP - I can say I understand why you don't want that amazing prologue omitted.

Is it technically a prologue? No. BUT - given the unusual structure of your novel, and the fact that the story is told as memory, your "prologue" serves as a sort of bookending with the last chapter that, in my mind at least, serves the story so well that it should be left as is.

Now I'm hoping our readers don't mind reading this kind of back and forth we so often do behind the scenes on Novel Matters. I hope everyone finds this interesting and/or helpful, and not boring!

Bonnie Grove said...

Christa, Emma, Mandy, and Vonildawrites, you all have two entries now!

Remember, if you really want to win this contest, the more times you enter, the better your chances are!

Steena Holmes said...

I find openings to be so difficult. I'd had to cut the first few chapters, and it's hard. I've also had to rework my opening so many times that I lost count. Starting your story at the right place - but the right place for whom? With my last novel, I wrote 2 opening chapters, send it out to my critique group and realized that neither chapters conveyed what I needed them to do. Editing is not fun, right?

Anonymous said...

Latayne, I just read the prologue to your amazing manuscript again. I've read it several times now, and I'm more blown away each time. As Bonnie said, it bookends with the last chapter, like one arm coming around to embrace the other with the story clutched to the heart. Not only is this the type of story for a prologue, it takes us full circle. When I finished the manuscript, that's exactly what I did -- went back and read the prologue. And sighed.

Anonymous said...

Steena,I am so with you. Editing is not fun. I read the comments here about those who enjoy the editing process, and I don't get it. I'd rather do pushups for a day. There you have it, my confession.

Anonymous said...

My current WIP has THREE prologues. :) I'm obviously having a hard time with where to start it! lol.

I definitely needed today's blog. It's taking me tremendous courage to do a complete re-vamp and get the story started where it starts. Still struggling with that.



Patti Hill said...

My most recent release (Seeing Things) has a prologue AND an epilogue...but I have my reason! Since Huckleberry Finn plays prominently in the story, I mimicked (remember flattery?) Mark Twain's writing of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where the storyteller addresses the reader directly. It was great fun to write in that voice.

But yes, I've struggled and struggled with where to start my stories, writing multiple beginnings from multiple POVs. But that's what we must do to get it right.

Great topic, Debbie.

Anonymous said...

I have often heard that we want our novels to "sing for Jesus".
I've come up with a new statement for mine. I would like my novels "dripping with the Balm of Gilad" so that they anoint my readers with love and inspiration.

Please enter me in your contest and thank you for the offer to do this for writers. :)

Sincerely, Paulette Harris.

LaurelCKriegler said...

This post raises a very important question, and one that I am currently struggling with: Does your story start in the right place? How does one know where the 'right place' is?


Marian said...

I like reading prologues. They kick-start the story for me. I'm working on my first novel and I assume I won't know if it needs a prologue until after I've read it and find it needs a kick-start.

All this to say that someone as green as myself needs this TABEC.

TABEC (there, I said it twice)

Latayne C Scott said...

Thanks, Bonnie and Sharon.

I love you guys to pieces. And all the NovelMatters ladies.

And you readers, too.

Ellen Staley said...

I'm am working on my first novel and have found many good tidbits of encouraging information in your blogs. The question of where to start my novel is compelling. I believe I've chosen an appropriate beginning to win the reader to the main protagonist. But have I really?
I would like to enter your Teeth and Bones editing contest, but am only half way through my novel. I am new to the process of writing a synopsis, but am familiar with Randy Ingermanson's suggestions for creating it.
Should I wait or go for it?
I would love your feed back.


Marcia said...

I was wondering if you girls at Novel Matters regularly critique each other's work. Sounds like it. I'm enjoying the conversation!


(from the sticks of central Texas)


Marcia said...

Debbie, I was intrigued by your question, "Does your novel start in the right place?"

I have a hunch that a novel should start where a change is in the air... where the protagonist is making a significant turn, getting on a track that will take her somewhere she's never been before. Somewhere quite frightening and quite beyond herself.

Hope that hunch is right.



Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen: If you have a finished synopsis (the story has a known beginning, middle, and end written creatively), and a good first chapter, that is fine for this contest.

Someone asked about non-fiction. Because I write non-fiction as well, I'm comfortable including it in this contest. But I'd want to see a completed or very near completed proposal and at least the first chapter. Otherwise, I'm simply giving an opinion on a premise. Sound good?

Marcia: Yes, we very often pass our work between the six of us for various reasons. Sometimes we just need to know we're not crazy! We may not all be reading everyone's work, but usually a few of us are reading someone's. If that makes sense! Just this morning I sent off a question to the other ladies asking for their professional thoughts on a POV issue I'm stuck on. Still waiting ladies! *drums fingers on table*

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne, your book sounds really intruiging - looking forward to reading it.

This has been such a good discussion. I feel like my story has three distinct threads that all come together at the end, but finding where the best place to start off, with a strong hook, is really tricky.

I need help! Think I'll enter after all...


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I love hearing what everyone has to say. It's like one big conversation floating over the literary world. (We need Pumpkin Spice Lattes or something)

I should have mentioned that an editor told me they don't generally like prologues because 'nobody reads them.' The editor claimed that most people skip over them. I'm a prologue reader myself. Why pass up a juicy little tidbit? It's like an appetizer. :D

Unknown said...

I'm a believer, Wendy. I asked a member of my writing group who has not read my manuscript to read the first 20 pages of the novel beginning at Chapter 1, then to read it again beginning with the prologue. She said ditch the prologue. I am now doing some rewrites and including the prologue info within the novel itself where appropriate. That extra info deepens my characters and expands the nuances of place. The beginning is now much stronger.

Marcia said...

Emma, that's what I've done—include what could have been prologue info within the novel itself. I feel like I'm walking a fine line —giving the reader just enough information to titillate and enlighten, but not so much that the transfer of knowledge seems obvious. That's where an objective editor could help. Tell me I've got too much info here or too little there.

I can see where a prologue might be construed as a slow, unappealing start.

On the other hand, I've read books where I was so confused in the first chapter I wished the author had just spelled out what was going on in black and white. For instance, I started reading Ben Hur the other day. The way it droned on and on in its detailed description of the environment was so boring. I wanted a character with whom to relate, or an obvious purpose stated. I found myself thinking, “Who is this about and why should I care?”

Perhaps a lean, swift, prologue would have given me a little boost. But that book was written in an era when people weren't so impatient, when the reader expected to be led in a leisurely, unhurried fashion.

Today we want something that will pop us in the face and grab our attention from the get-go. Guess that's what we have to try to produce in order to get our voices heard.


Marcia said...

It's midnight in Texas, and I was so tired I forgot to write


Megan Sayer said...

Hey all, for those - like me - who have suddenly found themselves struggling with the perceived need for a prologue I just found this really cool article with a "job description" for a prologue, so you can tick each bit and find if yours really is necessary. I had no idea those little words were so complex! Link below.


Anonymous said...

Starting the story in the right place is very important. I think Sol Stein advised starting the story just before the inciting incident.

Anonymous said...

Exactly like an appetizer, Debbie. Well said. I would never pass over a prologue, or anything else. I read every word of every book I open. Every word. When I hear people say they pass over a lot of passages without dialogue I think, "What?!?"

Love all the discussion here. Excited about all the brave souls willing to hand over their babies to Bonnie. Not that Bonnie's scary . . . not exactly. Mwa-ha-ha.

Marcia said...

Megan, thanks for the link to the writer's website. After reading the article you'd mentioned, I read some other articles on the site and got some great inspiration!


(from the sticks of Texas)


Melinda Evaul said...

I tossed my first two chapters. They built the story world but didn't drop the reader into the action. I'm finding ways to inject the location and ambiance in other sections.


Anonymous said...

I've found a way to include one (of my three) prologues in the meat of the story in my WIP! Yeah! Now, maybe I can do the other two, also, once I get the timeline straightened out. It's a mess.



Steena Holmes said...

I've heard so many stories about prologues. I think I'll just stay away from them for now.

Nichole Osborn said...

After reading Hooked by Les Edgerton, I realized I had started my WIP in the wrong place. I had started where I should have ended the story. A total rewrite was in order. TABEC

Regina Jennings said...

I love prologues in the books I read. They're like appetizers, just a flavor of what to expect. Then I'm content to have the salad, knowing that the main dish will be yummy once we get through the preliminaries.