Should you or shouldn’t you have a prologue? This is a question I’m asked often.
Although some in the industry advise writers to avoid prologues, I like them—when they are done right. A prologue should be intriguing, something to hook the reader. It should not be written only because the first chapter is dull. Oftentimes, I hear authors say they want a prologue in order to start the story with something exciting, and I think that’s the wrong approach. The first chapter should grab readers as much as any prologue would.
The right approach is to use the prologue as something that is essential to the story, or something that will become important later on.
My favorite prologue is from The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It starts off:
The small boys came early to the hanging.
It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.
As the first line indicates, this prologue is about the hanging of a man in a public square. The sense of dread increases in the second paragraph through Follett’s word choices—the darkness, the blemish on the snow, the silent marketplace, and the waiting gallows.
There’s a small mystery later—why did a foreigner steal a chalice that he would not be able to sell? The prologue ends with a young woman cursing the three men responsible for the man’s death—a knight, a monk, and a priest Follett also brings it back to the small boys:
The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that something was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.
Not only does the prologue open with great narrative tension, but the reader immediately knows the curse will be important to the story. In fact, this opening is crucial to Follett’s epic historical novel. And the prologue is only two pages long. Another tip for prologues: keep them short!
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina
At some point in our lives, we all face rejection—whether in love, a job we really wanted but didn’t get, or that time we ran for student government president and lost. We tend to pull back for a while and lick our wounds.
But for writers, rejection may be constant, especially if they are sending out query letters. The odds are against you from the beginning—some agents only take on two to five new clients a year, yet receive tens of thousands of queries a year.
No one is immune from this. There are many stories of well-known authors querying hundreds of agents and publishers. Sara Gruen, author of the best-selling Water for Elephants, sent out 129 query letters for an earlier novel, Riding Lessons. This novel was no slouch either—it went on to sell several hundred thousand copies. Kathryn Stockett received 60 rejections for The Help, which went on to become a best seller and a movie. Mary Higgins Clarks, a bestselling author of more than 50 novels, was rejected 40 times, with one publisher saying, “Your story is light, slight, and trite.”
Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times (I bet those agents and publishers are kicking themselves now). Even J.K. Rowling has famously published rejection letters she got as Robert Galbraith, her alter ego. One of the letters even recommended she take writing classes! I could go on and on; there are dozens of other examples.
If you are going through the querying process, don’t feel alone. Here are five pieces of advice for those battling rejection after rejection:
1. Don’t give up too soon. Nora Roberts, who has now published more than 130 novels, submitted manuscripts for over a year. New York Times bestselling author James Lee Burke, who has 37 books published, was rejected 111 times over nine years when he queried with The Lost Get-Back Boogie. When it was finally published by Louisiana State University Press in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
2. Follow the rules. If the word count for your genre is from 60,000 to 80,000, don’t send in a 180,000-word manuscript. Agents will automatically assume you can’t write tight or don’t want to cut your darlings. And a debut novelist is not likely to have such a behemoth of a novel published. It’s costly for publishers to put out big books—they don’t have an unlimited budget, so the big bucks are going to the Stephen Kings of the world (and even King advises to cut your darlings).
3. Carefully craft your query. There are plenty of examples of good queries out there (Writer’s Digest has many of them). Study them carefully. There’s a formula for queries for good reason—because agents want to know certain things. They want to know the genre, the word count, what the book is about (briefly), and who you are. They also want to hear your “voice.”
4. Learn from the rejections. If you aren’t getting requests for partial or full manuscripts, ask yourself some hard questions—or have beta readers or an editor look at your manuscript, if you haven’t already. If there’s a theme running throughout those rejection letters, then it’s time to revise the manuscript.
5. Finally, move on to the next agent. Mary Feliz, author of the Maggie McDonald Mysteries, said it best: “It’s important to celebrate every request you get for additional chapters or a full manuscript. Those are great accomplishments. But it’s a mistake to invest too much time, emotion, or angst in each one. Celebrate, follow up, move on. It’s like dating. It’s okay for you to contact them to follow up [if you get a request for more chapters and haven’t heard back after a few weeks], but if they don’t respond, they’re just not that into you.”
For more on queries, see my book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know (free if you sign up for my newsletter).
Thought Catalog photo
What makes for a good professional editor? Granted, this is subjective, but here are a few thoughts:
As an author, you are always juggling. Not only are you writing the next book, but you are promoting your latest book, writing a monthly newsletter, keeping up with your blog (or other blogs), and updating your website. And that’s just for starters.
This is where a virtual assistant (sometimes called an author assistant) comes in handy. They can help you gain some breathing space and may even boost sales with their knowledge of promotions. These assistants—who don’t have to be in the same office, or even same city, as you—handle a multitude of tasks, including:
How to work with a VA
Most virtual assistants charge $25 to $50 an hour for their services. You don’t need to hire them full-time, although you can. You may need them just for a few hours a month, or to work on a specific project.
“Each virtual assistant will have a different skill set,” said Jenel Looney, who works full-time for three authors. “If you want someone to create marketing graphics for you, make sure that she knows how, and that you like her style. If you want someone to help you brainstorm contests that will get readers excited about your books, make sure you hire a VA that has creative ideas that are in line with your readers’ tastes. If you want someone to handle a large mailing for you (like the 30,000 bookmarks I recently mailed to Susan Mallery’s readers), make sure you hire a VA who has mad organizational skills.”
If you know that you will have to promote your book (because your traditional publisher only does so much, or you are self-publishing), then your VA can help you come up with creative promotions. For example, Looney, who works with mystery author Kate Carlisle, designed a custom deck of cards for one of Carlisle’s books. Each face card held a different murder weapon. It was used for a giveaway for members of Carlisle’s mailing list. In addition, Looney created a video revealing each day’s random winner. It was so popular that “she had a lot of readers asking if they could buy the cards,” Looney said.
“I offer a wide variety of services that come down to this: helping authors get more organized and feel less stressed,” said Mel Jolly, who has assisted multiple New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. “The clients who utilize my services best keep me in the loop for everything involving their business. When it comes to things that need to get done (website updates, blog interviews, social media posts, newsletters, launch plans, ad booking, etc.), I either do the thing or I make sure the thing gets done.”
Another assistant, Amanda West Kassis, who also works as an editor, focuses on publishing weekly newsletters and growing subscribers. “I am in the publishing industry, which gives me unique skills and knowledge,” she said. She will help an author post on social media, write newsletters, and do other marketing.
Is it worth hiring a VA?
You may have written a wonderful book, but it won’t go anywhere without marketing. And marketing may take away time spent writing the next book, which is crucial in a series.
Most virtual assistants said this is the beauty of having help—the author can concentrate on the writing.
Having a virtual assistant, said Looney, “isn’t going to magically make you a bestseller. In my opinion, authors should not hire a VA until they’ve reached a stage in their career when it makes financial sense, and that’s a decision each author must make for herself. When you’ve reached the level of success that leaves you too busy to have a life, consider hiring a VA.”
Sarah Merchant, who specializes in social media and website/blog management, said that what may take someone else hours to do might take her minutes. “Is it worth it to you to struggle through those hours simply because you think it will save you money? Isn’t your time worth more than that?” she said. “I have a lot of respect for authors, and love putting my skills to work for them, so they can concentrate on their writing.”
She can’t say how much her work has helped with sales, but pointed to a recent Facebook promotion she did for an author. Her work resulted in an immediate increase in clicks.
Looney also said it’s hard to pinpoint whether her work has boosted book sales. “The frustrating thing about marketing is that you will rarely be able to draw a straight line from a specific promotion to specific sales,” she said. “I will say that I don’t take any credit for my clients’ success. That always, always, always comes back to the book. They write books that readers love. My work is not responsible for their success; rather, I help them manage that success.”
An author first needs to consider the budget and her priorities, said Jolly. Most of her authors only need her for five or so hours per month.
“We all wish we could outsource SO MANY THINGS, but the reality is that we have to start small and outsource just one or two things at first,” Jolly said. “That’s best for a small budget and for building trust.
“Quickly, let’s talk quickly about math. Let’s say an author can afford to hire an assistant for 10 hours/month. That’s 120 hours per year. How many more words can that author produce with an additional 120 hours per year? Let’s estimate low and say that’s one additional novella per year.
“If the author is paying the assistant a rate of $40/hour, that’s $4,800 for the year. How much can the author make by self-publishing that novella? Or selling it traditionally? At this point, there are too many variables for me to continue with the math, but do you see where I’m going with this?”
One author, Susan Mallery, has worked with Looney for nine years and considers her indispensable. As an example, she mentions her latest book, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters. Looney created the content for TulipSisters.com, sent 200 copies of the book to a “Review Crew,” created a sign-up form for mailing list members to receive bookmarks, then sent out the bookmarks to 30,000 fans (Looney also designed the bookmarks). In addition, she created quote-of-the-day shareables with quotes from the book, created videos and graphics to use in Facebook ads, and executed the Facebook campaigns. During all this, she coordinated with Harlequin’s PR and digital marketing departments on the book promotion.
“Because of my virtual assistant, I can write one extra book per year,” Mallery said. “I write four or five new books every year. I couldn’t keep up that pace without help.”
All of the virtual assistants agreed that you should have a conversation with potential hires about what you need, as VAs have different specialties.
“If you don't get a love match the first time around, don’t give up,” said Looney. “You might have to kiss a few frogs.”
Special thanks to the following virtual assistants for their help: Naomi Cowan Eaton (firstname.lastname@example.org); Mel Jolly (www.authorrx.com); Sarah Merchant (www.workadayservices.com); Jenel Looney (www.jenellooney.com); and Amanda West Kassis (www.awestediting.com).
If you’re writing as a career, then Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, is a must-read. In 33 essays and interviews by Martin, writers talk about the subject that is often not discussed in polite society: money.
There’s a trend going around on Facebook where everyone lists 10 concerts they’ve attended (or nine concerts and one lie). I won’t jump on that bandwagon; instead, I decided to list 10 books—and I have read all—that I recommend for fiction writers.
1. On Writing by Stephen King. Part memoir and part writing lessons, this is a must-read for any writer.
2. How Fiction Works by James Wood. This is a little more high-brow than King. In just the first few pages, Wood references Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Henry James. Very good lessons regarding characterization and narration.
3. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. While read mostly by genre authors, this book has solid lessons for everyone wanting to take their novel to the next level.
4. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is not editing as in checking your grammar and spelling, but editing that helps you fix dialogue and narrative distance, with writing exercises at the end of each chapter. It’s an invaluable book.
5. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. This has important lessons on doing self-edits at the macro and micro level, but also is a favorite of mine for its long section showing how F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, edited Fitzgerald’s works.
6. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham. Books often stall when they have scenes that don’t move the story forward. Bickham breaks down scenes, what needs to go into each one, what sort of variations are possible, and how to effectively connect one scene with another.
7. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Written by a literary agent, this book shows you why you must grab an agent by the first five pages—and what the most common mistakes are in manuscripts. If you hope to publish traditionally, read this book!
8. The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande. Writers are often confused about grammar points, especially when it comes to punctuation. Part of the problem may be that style guides and even dictionaries provide conflicting information. Casagrande breaks it down for us, with a Punctuation Panel that gives advice when there’s no definitive answer.
9. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. What’s that? You still want to geek out even more on grammar? This is the book for you, then, with clear explanations and definitive rulings.
10. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Everyone knows that writers don’t get into the business to make money. Here, through essays and interviews, well-known writers talk about their journey, some even discussing the financial side in detail. It was eye-opening.
I’m always looking for new books on the craft of writing and editing. What are yours?
As writers, we usually turn to books to learn more, including the craft of writing. But there’s also another choice: audio, whether it’s podcasts, online interviews, and more. Here are some of my favorites:
Writing Excuses, www.writingexcuses.com, which has a tagline of “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” Although it has the name of “Writing Excuses,” it covers everything writing-related, from characterization to setting to sensory writing.
The Story Grid, https://storygrid.simplecast.fm/. This is currently one of my favorite podcasts. For the past seven months, developmental editor Tim Grahl and author Shawn Coyne have been shaping Coyne’s work in progress. Hear them talk about scenes, story structure, and characters.
The Creative Penn, http://www.thecreativepenn.com/podcasts/, are podcasts by author Joanna Penn, who interviews other authors and publishing experts. There’s especially good information for those hoping to self-publish.
StoryWonk, http://storywonk.com/podcasts/, discusses books, TV shows and movies. As their description says: “We analyse, critique, and celebrate pop culture, the art and craft of writing, the worlds, characters and relationships that fascinate us, and much more besides. Listening to a StoryWonk podcast is like having two smart friends over for dinner, and talking about the stories you love!”
Magic Lessons, http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/magic-lessons/, with Elizabeth Gilbert are podcasts of a little over an hour featuring well-known and not-so-well-known authors—but all of them interesting.
Self Publishing Formula, http://www.selfpublishingformula.com/category/podcast/, has several podcasts for indie writers.
The Writer Files, http://rainmaker.fm/series/writer/, hosted by Kelton Reid, interviews authors in short podcasts of under 20 minutes.
Book Launch Show, https://booklaunchshow.simplecast.fm/, by Tim Grahl teaches you “the fundamentals of launching a bestselling book.”
Indie Author Fringe Conference
The Indie Author Fringe has daylong online events, courtesy of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Three are scheduled for 2017: in March, June, and October. There are also archives for the 2016 event. These are hourlong podcasts and interviews, all topics of interest to indie authors. http://selfpublishingadvice.org/what-is-indie-author-fringe/
Ted and Tedx Talks
Elizabeth Gilbert: Two talks at http://www.ted.com/speakers/elizabeth_gilbert, including one of my favorites, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”
Amy Tan’s “Where Does Creativity Hide?” http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_tan_on_creativity
Jessica Lourey’s “Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life” at https://youtu.be/a5vSLh3oPXI
John Dufresne on “How to Write a Story” at https://youtu.be/urJDbQl5W0I
Recently, I attended the premiere of a film about extreme athletes (Don’t Crack Under Pressure—I highly recommend it). I was impressed by the feats they have achieved, but also impressed with the passion they have, which sustains them and keeps them going. Even after breaking two legs, a skier comes back a year later to tackle a difficult mountain. A surfer almost drowns after being pounded by three massive waves. He is hesitant to go out again, but he does.
If you are a writer, you have a passion for writing. At times, it may take over your life. Other times, you struggle to fit it into the rest of your life. Here are 10 tips to help you when it comes to writing time. Surf’s up, so ride those waves of creativity!
1) Make writing your job. Schedule a time as if you were going to an out-of-the-house job. Don’t wait for the muse to show up; sit down and write at whatever time you have set aside for writing. I find it helps to use an online time tracker, such as toggl.
2) Start with half an hour a day, if that’s all you have. Build it up to an hour, then two hours, as you have time. A novel can be written in even that short amount of time. I’ve heard of authors with young children who only had 15 minutes a day some days—and made that work.
3) Once you have a schedule, don’t miss more than two days in a row. If you do so, you start a new—bad—habit, and it becomes easier to miss another day and another day.
4) Create a ritual. My ritual begins with making myself a cup of Earl Grey tea (the first of many throughout the day). My first hour is often spent answering emails before editing or doing other work. Some writers say they spend half an hour reading poetry before writing. Others may spend the first hour doing research, or reviewing what they wrote the day before. Some do free writing—a way to warm up before doing the actual writing at hand.
5) Set daily word count goals. If you are looking to write an 80,000-word novel, then break it down to how many words you need to write to finish the book in, say, six months. Make sure to build in time for editing and revising, if you hope to submit it to an agent by a certain date.
6) Set deadlines. Even if it is an arbitrary deadline—I’m going to start submitting this novel in six months—make sure you have a date in mind. Deadlines are great motivators!
7) Work with a partner. One author I know is part of a two-person team. Each week, she and her partner exchange what they have written for the week. This makes you accountable to someone else, and will spur you to write. You can also join critique groups or writing groups that meet monthly.
8) Turn off the Internet. Some writers have had to set Internet blockers in order to stay off Facebook or Twitter. It’s too easy to say you are just going to check Facebook for five minutes—only to look up an hour later. Some restriction apps are Cold Turkey, Freedom, Anti-Social, RescueTime, and LeechBlock.
9) Get out of the house. If you absolutely can’t work at home because of too many distractions—from family members to piled-up laundry—then get out of the house. Write at a Starbucks or find working spaces that rent by the hour. Some authors, such as Maya Angelou and JK Rowling, have even gone to the extreme of renting hotel rooms!
10) Plan what you are doing the next day. This can be as simple as writing a few words on a notepad you keep at your desk. When you come back to your desk the next day, you have a plan set for you.
“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
― The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Creating well-rounded, interesting, and, most importantly, believable characters is not always easy. As an editor, characterization is one of the most important elements I consider. You may have plot, setting, pacing, and dialogue down pat, but characters touch the emotions of a reader in a way that the other elements usually can’t. Michael Connelly, in Writing Mysteries, calls characterization the most important of the elements. “A good plot is empty unless filled with the blood of character,” he writes.
I recently attended the musical production Jekyll & Hyde, and was reminded of the duality that we all possess. This was a major theme in Stevenson’s work, as Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two.” In trying to separate good and evil, however, Jekyll only succeeds in alienating the dark side—a creature of pure evil who soon overpowers the good Dr. Jekyll.
The story is a good lesson in creating characters. The most interesting protagonists (and antagonists) are those who struggle with inner demons—it’s a reason why many detectives turn to alcohol, are divorced, or harbor deep family secrets. It adds dimension to the character. And, because a character must always face personal conflict in order to grow, it helps to add this inner drama.
At the beginning of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, her two main characters, essentially good people, find themselves drawn to each other. The problem: Police Chief Russ van Alstyne is married and Episcopal priest Claire Fergusson is not looking to break up his marriage. However, the attraction is strong, and it’s something they must fight against.
Louise Penny’s novels often feature characters who are capable of both good and bad. Characters are jealous of spouses and colleagues, let resentments fester, and face problems of addiction—in short, they are quite human, with these “ugly” sides that we all possess from time to time.
Michael Connelly, in the same book mentioned above, gives an example of how Det. Harry Bosch’s character is revealed through a small scene. Some might call it mean-spirited; others, humorous. Bosch is getting no information from a bureaucrat at City Hall. After she leaves her cubicle, performing a pirouette move to get through the narrow channel, he pushes the desk a couple inches closer to the wall. When she comes back in, performing the same maneuver, she hits her thigh, spilling a drink she had on her desk. Connelly says the scene was all about character, showing how Bosch doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
You might also want to play with characters who shift throughout your novel. Perhaps you introduced the character for one reason. This doesn’t mean the character’s reason for existence has to remain static. Author Alyson Richman, in a recent talk, explained that she brought in one character for a specific scene of a sinking ship. The father in the scene gives up his seat on a lifeboat so a young, gifted musician can survive. It’s a pivotal scene. Later, however, toward the end of the book, it turns out the surviving character also had another important reason to remain throughout the story.
We also have to remember that a character is often seen differently by those around them, just as in real life we behave differently around our family, co-workers, and strangers.
S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin, a 30-something Chinese-American private eye, is one example. She is one thing to her clients: a professional, no-nonsense investigator. She is something else to her partner Bill Smith, with whom there are sparks. But some of the funniest scenes are between Lydia and her traditional mother. Lydia lives with her mother, who disapproves of her daughter’s career choices, love interests (and single status), and even her clothes—and lets Lydia know it often.
Anyone can find the big mistakes, the part where you’ve suddenly changed your protagonist’s eyes from green to brown or your antagonist’s body type from slim to stout. But it’s what I like to call the “niggly” stuff that authors have the hardest time finding, not because we don’t want to, but because we’ve read and reread our work so many times.
Here are some examples, found in my “final” draft of my new release, Skeletons in the Attic (rest assured, they have been corrected!):
Misty Rivers, psychic to Callie Barnstable, protagonist: “I’ll leave you my card. Please call me if you find yourself needing any assistance, any assistance at all. And thank you for the tea and cookies.”
Editor: The tea was never poured. [Impressive catch]
Callie Barnstable to Royce Ashford, contractor/next-door neighbor/possible love interest: “I really like the way you knocked down that wall in your house.”
Editor: When was she in his house? [Answer: In a previous draft, but certainly not in this one.]
Callie: I stopped my Garmin and closed my eyes, trying to remember standing there.
Editor: What’s a Garmin? [Answer: A GPS for running that shows pace/time/mileage etc. When you’re into a sport (I’m a runner), you assume everyone in the world knows the lingo. Bad assumption. I changed it to my GPS wristwatch.]
Now, you might be thinking, these really are niggly. And you’d be correct. But it’s the small things that pull us out of a book. Sometimes we’re not even sure why, we just know something is “off.” The best editors will point those niggly things out. It’s up to the author to make it right.
Skeletons in the Attic
What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t always stay there…
Calamity (Callie) Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, though she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville—a house she didn’t know existed. However, there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: She must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.
Callie’s not keen on dredging up a thirty-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who is more than happy to expose the Barnstable family secrets. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfill her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?
Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series, was published in August 2016. Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime, The Whole She-Bang 2, Flash and Bang and Live Free or Tri. Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find Judy on her website/blog at www.judypenzsheluk.com, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life.
Skeletons in the Attic is now available for preorder on Amazon Kindle for the special introductory price of .99 (reg. $4.99).
You can also find it at http://www.imajinbooks.com/skeletons-in-the-attic
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.