Prologues: Thumbs Up or Down?

I just began another workshop with authors Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba. This one is called Write Your YA Novel in Nine Months. Its focus is to get at least a first draft completed in nine months, as well as gathering and polishing marketing material we will need to sell the book once it is complete. We will also discuss craft as it specifically pertains to YA and Middle Grade.

Our group is a lively one, and we got into an online discussion about Prologues. While I had been under the impression that agents and publishers did not look favorably on them, others pointed to a plethora of prologues in current books.

We also discussed whether or not readers actually read prologues. I always do. Another person in the group admitted to never reading them. I have found this split among my friends, too. It seems to be a stark black-and-white policy—no one “sometimes” reads prologue. It’s all or nothing.

So today I open the floor to those of you who have been around the publishing block a few times, as well as the readers among us:

Thumbs up or down on prologues? Why?

When It Rains, It Pours

Have you ever noticed how things in life all seem to happen at once? Like the day I had a pediatrician appointment for my daughter, then had a class, then faced a 5-hour drive to Virginia (in the rain)—until the skylights in my house started pouring rain on my head.

Everything at once. You all could tell your own version of the story. That’s life.

That’s also what makes compelling fiction. Piling one complication on top of another so fast that the protagonist can’t breathe—and raising the stakes each time.

You start small and build up: A guy and his wife buy a house. Then they find out she’s pregnant—with twins. She gets pregnancy complications and has to quit her job. Then he gets fired for a mistake someone else made. He starts doing something slightly illegal to make money. Then it gets more illegal. Then he gets in way over his head, only to find out that there’s about to be a terrorist attack sponsored by his employers. He snitches to the FBI but his identity is leaked. Now he’s on the run, but the bad guys grab his way-too-pregnant wife to lure him out. He finally gets to her, but there’s a bomb ticking down. They have time to run—but she goes into labor.

You get the idea.

I’m currently devouring the House of Night series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. I read the first one as a recommendation by our local librarian, and got hooked. The books are addictive, not just because of the strong voice of the protagonist Zoey and the well-drawn individuality of the other characters, but because Zoey’s life is a never-ending series of problems that simply get worse and worse. Every time she (and the reader) think that maybe she finally has things under control, that maybe things will start to go her way, that she can take a break and maybe even relax for a second, something else heaps on top of the burden she’s already carrying. Zoey’s problems start off normal—overbearing step-father and drunken boyfriend issues—and eventually (in Book 4) ramp up to saving the world.

There are nine books in the series (so far).

Zoey’s already trying to save the world in Book 4. What worse problems can she possibly deal with in the next 5 books?

I don’t know, but I’m sure going to read on to find out!

Camazotz, USA

Some images in books stay with you for a long time. I find that many of the most lasting images have come from books I read as a child—perhaps because children are so impressionable.

One of my favorite authors as a child was Madeline L’Engle, particularly her Murray family series. The other day as I was taking a walk, I saw something that reminded me powerfully of an image in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

In A Wrinkle In Time, the Murray children land on the planet Camazotz. At first it seems comforting, familiar, until they start to notice that all the houses are identical, all the mother figures could be the same woman, and all the children are playing in coordinated isolation. As the Murrays walk down the street, they notice a single child playing in front of each house. Every child is bouncing a ball—and the eerie part is that each ball is bouncing at exactly the same moment. The children and balls are all moving in perfect unison, as if controlled by a single mind.

I am not the first person* to equate L’Engle’s identical Camazotz houses with the sprawling suburbia of America. The fact that we often refer to subdivisions as “cookie-cutter” homes means that everyone understands the assembly-line mentality that has bled so much of the individuality out of our lives. The mind-numbing sameness of the houses is not, however, the image that struck me the other day.

Basketball nets stood in front of a dozen houses on a single street. As I watched, children came out with their basketballs and started shooting hoops. A single child at each basket. Seven of them, in all. They never even looked at each other, although they could all obviously see each other (since I could see all of them at once). And although they were not in unison, I could hear the sameness of their play—bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish.

No so long ago, all these boys would have been down at the neighborhood basketball court, scrimmaging against each other, learning to play together, fight together, and settle their differences. Or there would have been only one net on the street, and the whole group would have gathered there. Now they played alone.

Of course, that was a single moment on a single day. Perhaps at other times these boys do play together—I cannot say. But as I walked along that façade of a neighborhood, I shivered. In spite of L’Engle’s warning in 1962, we are not that far from Camazotz.

*Hettinga, Donald R. (1993). Presenting Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Twayne Publishers. pp. 27. ISBN 0-8057-8222-2.

Machetes vs. Machinists: Reaching word count

I never liked math, which is one reason I decided against becoming a scientist (always loved astronomy). I went into writing because you don’t need math, right? Wrong! Who knew how often numbers would come into play?

The business side of things obviously contains a lot of math. Like figuring out percentages in contracts or how many books you need to sell to earn out your advance. Or how far you can stretch your money in a publicity campaign. Or how many conferences or workshops you can go to in a year. Or if you can pay your babysitter in Monopoly money.

I never realized how many times numbers can figure in the actual writing of the book, though. I mean, it’s words, right? But the devil is in the details, and one of the biggest details authors need to be cognizant of is word count. You know—a number.

Every genre has its own word count range, and authors would do well to try and follow them. If the author becomes the next J. K. Rowling, then word count goes out the window, but an aspiring author had better treat that number as if it is set in stone.

How do you make sure you reach that magic number? I have found two ways of approaching it. One, you write without counting and then edit down, like using a machete to cut your way through the jungle. Two, you control precisely how long each chapter is as you go along, with very little editing needed on the back end, like a meticulous watchmaker.

Personally, I am a practitioner of formula one. I write my first draft with no thought to word count at all. Which is fine because my first drafts are usually written short—I tend to leave out a lot of description and depth. My second draft is where my manuscript packs on pounds. I elaborate on everything that needs depth and color and description, and my word count balloons. It is only in the third draft that I start working on word count, trying to trim and rearrange and streamline things. Normally, I have no trouble getting down to my word count.

Those who follow formula two are something of a mystery to me. I see them post things on Facebook like, “I’m 1,000 words from my end!” How on Earth do they know how many words away they are? Chapters I could understand, but words? I suspect these writers have a very precise outline they follow, which would help them figure out words per chapter, etc. If any reader out there can elaborate on this technique, feel free to share!

So which are you? A machete-wielder or a precision machinist?

Foreshadowing Reality

I bet Suzanne Collins didn’t know she was an oracle. That when she wrote her Hunger Games trilogy, she foretold a revolution that no political expert in the world saw coming.

While watching the Arab revolution unfold, I was suddenly struck by how similar the circumstances of the two revolutions were. I found five eerie parallels.

Revolution was “impossible”
In the Hunger Games trilogy, the Capitol of Panem ruled all, controlling everything about the 12 outlying Districts, including supplies of food and medicine. While the Capitol glutted itself, people starved in the Districts. The Capitol considered the people of the Districts too weak and too cowed to ever rebel.

An Arab democratic revolution seemed equally impossible. The regimes were too powerful. The societies were too oppressed. There was no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble. The people had been starved and terrified into unwavering compliance. The youth had known no other way of life and would therefore not even think of demanding a change.

Unbearable conditions
In Panem, the chasm between the rich in the Capitol and the poor in the Districts was vivid. Every day, every year, the poor were forced to watch the rich grow richer. The rich grew ever more lavish and wasteful, while the poor sunk deeper into the depths. The most glaring reminder of their servitude to the Capitol was the Hunger Games, where a boy and girl from each District was sent to the Capitol to fight to the death—a sacrifice as punishment for a past rebellion.

In the Arab autocracies, the money stayed in the hands of the dictator and his family and cronies. They grew incredibly wealthy while many of their citizens struggled to put food on their table. Instead of focusing on bringing down rampant unemployment and bringing up the standard of living for the entire country, the ruling class focused on lining their pockets at the expense of their people. While no literal Hunger Games existed, many people sacrificed their dreams and their children’s dreams in order to survive, and many disappeared at the hands of brutal secret police.

The power of media
One key to the Capitol’s continued hold over its people was that they controlled all communications. The Districts saw only what the Capitol wanted them to see, and the citizens in the Capitol never ever saw what really went on in the Districts. Katniss Everdeen’s participation in, and subsequent winning of, the Hunger Games gave her a mass platform from which the message of revolution could spread. When the rebels managed to hijack the communications network, they were able to show the truth to the Capitol citizens, rather than the lies the government told.

Most of the Arab autocracies had tightly controlled state-run television and radio, and also limited cell phone and Internet access when it suited them. Technology eventually broke through the blackout, though, as the youth used social media to find each other, form protest groups, and get the word out to the world about what was truly happening in the protests.

Going viral
In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’ mockingjay symbol became the symbol of the revolution. All the Districts, not just her own, adopted it, using it as a secret sign of loyalty to each other and of defiance to the government. Katiniss did not initially wear it as a symbol of anything except her home, but the mockingjay spread virally to become the symbol to bind the rebels together.

Through the phenomenon of “going viral” allowed by the Internet, the protests that followed Tunisia’s revolution used many of the same symbols, particularly the same chants and musical anthems. The information on how to stage successful protests and avoid the police also went viral, and was adapted for use in many of the other Arab countries.

Unwitting catalysts
Katniss Everdeen never wanted to be a revolutionary. She just wanted to survive the Hunger Games and go home. In the end, though, her desperate act of survival sparked a revolution that led to the fall of the Capitol.

Mohamed Bouazizi never intended to start a revolution, either. The Tunisian street vendor simply could not cope with his life and its many frustrations and humiliations anymore. In a desperate act that was his only means of being heard, he set himself on fire—and his death ignited his countrymen.

Perhaps many revolutions follow these patterns—I am no expert. All I know is that Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy was a brilliant, searing look at what violence does to children and humanity. It also turned out to be a pretty prescient blueprint of a revolution yet to come.

Change Is Good, Right?

First off, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my fellow Irishmen and to all those who wish you were!

Second, my Act Like a Writer workshop ended last week, and I have had some time to think about the things we’ve learned. One of the biggest things about the workshop was facing your fears. Honestly, if you step back, what’s the worst that can happen if you flub a pitch or a panel or a reading? Dreadful embarrassment, most likely, and that has never killed anyone.

Even though our logical mind tells us this, fear is not logical. We spoke about our fears in the workshop, and they were familiar. Fear of babbling or stammering or not being able to speak at all. Fear of fainting or throwing up or falling down. Fear of embarrassment or insulting someone or provoking a confrontation. Fear of looking like a fool.

All of the above are very real fears. I share all of them, as do most people. They all stem from that little voice instructor Keith Strunk talked about, the one that whispers to us, “You’re nothing special. You’re not good enough. Just who do you think you are? Why should anyone listen to anything you have to say?”

I’ve heard that voice. We all have. But those fears, prompted by that voice, are not the fears that paralyze me. Face it, you don’t reach (mumble, mumble) years of age without having actually had many of those fears manifest themselves. Although those incidents were deeply uncomfortable, I’m still here. They didn’t kill me.

So what is scaring me so much?

You see, I also hear another voice, different than the “you’re not good enough” voice. (Did I mention that, as a writer, you are allowed to have voices in your head and still be called sane?) This other voice whispers, “But if you succeed, everything will change.”

Ahh, there’s the rub. Change and I, not good friends. I like my routines. Having a baby has made me a lot more flexible, but still…I like my life. If I get an agent, and we sell the book, everything changes. I go from being able to stop writing to play with my daughter to having to tell her occasionally that Mommy can’t play with her now. I go from being able to schedule my life around my family to adding in deadlines and crises (in business there are always crises—I remember that distinctly).

More than that, I go from being able write in comfortable anonymity to having to be public author persona. To have readings and signings and be on panels and do interviews, and all of those things that are so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see them from my spot here on the couch. What sort of an idiot deliberately places herself in situations she equates with being in front of a firing squad?

Apparently…me.

Because I want this. I want my work out there. And this is what it takes to be an author in today’s world.

I can do it, too. Act Like A Writer showed me that not only could I do it, I could do it well. And if I continue to work hard at it, someday it may even be fun.

Panels & Pitches

Last week in our Act Like A Writer workshop, instructors Jonathan Maberry and Keith Strunk staged mock panels. All of us had a turn sitting on the panel. I never thought I would say this, but it was…fun.

Part of the fun was, of course, because our little group has gotten more at ease with each other, and we felt a measure of safety in being among friends. Had it been a hundred strangers’ eyes staring at us, that might have been a different story!

I’ve never been on a panel before, real or mock. The thing I found most comforting about it was that you are not up there alone. I felt a great deal of support from having others at the table and not because we were familiar with each other—but because we were all in the spotlight together. We were all in the same boat. We were facing the audience together, so for that moment we all became comrades in arms.

In this final week, we did our pitches again—this time standing up in front of the camera with lights and a background! Like a TV shoot, only not as hectic. As I stood, all miked up and waiting, the cameraman started talking to the assembled class about some technique or other to look more natural on camera. All the while I am standing there, sweating under the lights, forgetting to breathe, and generally screaming in my head, “SHUT UP AND FILM ME ALREADY!”

When he did finally say “Action,” I thought I might faint, because I could literally feel the blood pounding through my neck veins. I figured that couldn’t be a good thing. I did finally remember to breathe about halfway through the pitch, which helped somewhat. I finished up, got kudos, and very quickly found a place to sit down!

I haven’t seen the footage yet, but I’m not worried. Why? Because in spite of the blood-pressure spike and lack of oxygen, I did NOT have the same out-of-body experience I had in the first week’s pitch session. I controlled my mouth, rather than simply listening to it babble on without me. I consider this amazing progress in just four weeks!

I learned a ton in the Act Like A Writer workshop, and I would recommend it to anyone who can take it—you can use the tools they give you for a whole spectrum of public and social situations, not only those having to do with writing. I will also be taking it again, closer to when I am going to the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, so I can practice. Until then, I will practice pitching to my toddler. If you can hold a toddler’s attention for 3 minutes, you can enthrall anyone!

I just have to remember to breathe.

The Confidence Game

“Fake it ʼtil you make it,” advised our Act Like A Writer instructor, Jonathan Maberry. Instructor Keith Strunk showed us how to use body language to hide our nervousness and appear more at ease. Although that sounds like they are teaching us deception and downright fraud, they are not.

They are teaching us confidence.

Scientific evidence demonstrates that when you act confidently and put your body in the postures of confidence, you really do feel more confident. The body positions trigger a chemical response in your brain, making your “faking it” closer to reality.

Also, with every successful public interaction, your confidence does in fact build. It layers upon itself like a pearl, accreting until your confidence becomes a real gem instead of costume jewelry.

All of us taking this workshop need confidence. That’s why we are there. But last week, when each of us read an excerpt from our work, I noticed an interesting phenomenon.

Everyone did a great job—which is not surprising, since everyone there had a good story and an obvious passion for their work. What was surprising is that every one of us—who had struggled and sweated over the pitches the week before—had fun with it.

I figured out that the reason I had such fun with my reading: I have full confidence in my work. I enjoy sharing it with people. I have no trouble letting it speak for itself—that’s when I am most comfortable. Speaking for myself, well, that’s another issue. I don’t yet have the same level of confidence in myself as I do in my work.

But then I realized something else: when I am out there as my author public persona, I am not speaking for just myself. I am speaking for my work—the work I am so proud of, the work I have such confidence in. I am a representative for that work, and I need to advocate for it as I would for my baby girl.

I am not afraid to speak up for my daughter. My anxiety falls away and I do what needs to be done because she cannot speak for herself, and no one else cares for her welfare as I do. She needs me.

My work needs me, too. I am its strongest advocate. I must use the confidence I have in my work to represent it with boldness, tenacity, and passion. There is no room for fear.

Fear still comes, of course—a mere four-week workshop can’t rid me of it completely. But I am learning the tools to conquer it. Learning to put things in a new perspective. Learning to turn my show of confidence into true confidence.

I’m fakin’ it, but I know someday I’ll be makin’ it!

What was the best advice you ever got about how to tame your fear and gain confidence?

Epiphany

Okay, so I’m taking this workshop called Act Like A Writer. It’s supposed to help nervous-wreck hermit-type writers like me build their public persona and gain confidence in all sorts of public situations, from pitching agents to meeting fans. 

I was scared down to my socks.

My wonderful musician aunt told me to “breathe to the floor,” but I focused more on not collapsing onto the floor because my legs trembled so badly. Instructors Jonathan Maberry and Keith Strunk threw us to the wolves immediately—into the hot seat to pitch. And just to make our terror complete, they VIDEOTAPED us for critique purposes!

When my turn came, I could barely walk to the hot seat. I sat there on the tipping point of a panic attack. The mess inside my head whirled around like a tornado, and I thought throwing up, passing out, or having my head explode was a real possibility. The oddest phenomenon—that of sitting on my own shoulder listening to my mouth talk—capped the out-of-control sensation.

Then I was done. Until the video got posted online.

Due to technical glitches, I did not get to see my video until the day of the next class. One by one, as others watched their videos, they posted traumatized messages about how hard it was to watch themselves. I agonized as I waited—I’d been such a mess, how could this not be painful to watch?

So I held my breath and pressed “play.” And…elation! Far from being the travesty I’d expected, I looked calm. I sounded coherent. I appeared so…normal. Sure, I had things to work on, but I was overjoyed all the same. If I take away nothing else, I will take away this valuable lesson:

My external presentation does not reveal my internal panic-stricken maelstrom.

Talk about a confidence booster! The way I felt and the way I looked could not have been farther apart. I realize that my fear of the fear’s effect on my performance had been more debilitating than the anxiety itself. It was an epiphany.

Will I still be nervous when I pitch? Absolutely. I will always be nervous. But now I will not be a nervous wreck.

Into the Woods

The fairy tale has always exerted a powerful pull on our psyche. That’s why re-envisioned fairy tales by such writers as Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey, and Gregory Frost in his Fitcher’s Brides are popular. One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods. The writing is fantastic and the cast of the 1991 television performance (including Joanna Gleason, who won the 1988 Best Actress Tony for it) was spectacular.

A large part of the charm of the show (at least for a writer) is how Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wove together several well-known fairy tales into a single narrative. A Baker and his Wife go on a quest to lift a curse from their family, tying together the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. One by one, the characters go into the woods, that archetypal metaphor for the darkest parts of human nature. There their paths cross as they face the evil in the world and the worst in themselves.

The tales are woven seamlessly, the lyrics are witty, and the emotion is true. It is fun and funny while being true to human nature. It is no wonder that it won Best Score and Best Book Tonys in 1988. But also, as I writer, I enjoy premise of the (much darker) second act. This is a look at what happens after “happily ever after.”

**SPOILER ALERT**

What happens is that happily ever after isn’t what any of them expected, and even though they had achieved their wish, they now wish for something else. When an angry giant attacks the land, they all get thrown together to try to stop it.

Another twist that appeals to my writerly heart is when the characters decide to sacrifice the Narrator to the giant. They reason that since he is the only person “outside” the story, he is expendable. He argues that he is the only one who knows how the story ends, so he is essential. When he dies, the characters are left on their own to make decisions for the first time in their lives.

The musical is a study in the law of unintended consequences. The pursuit and attainment of seemingly harmless wishes (to go to the ball, to have money for food, to have a child) have disastrous repercussions not just for the wisher but for those around them. As the cast sings in the show – “Wishes come true, not free.”

One of these unintended consequences is the lessons we teach our children by what we say and do. Anyone with children in their lives knows all too well that nothing escapes children’s sharp eyes and ears. They see and emulate everything. The writers of Into the Woods (a show definitely NOT for young children) are acutely aware of the powerful effect our actions and our stories have on our children. Stories are magical, a spell woven with words rather than potions. One of the final admonishments of the show is a piece of advice every writer should take to heart: “Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell. Children will listen.”

What fairy tales still haunt your dreams? And what lessons did you learn from them?

WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien