What’s trashed is prologue

The prologue to the novel-in-progress has just been whisked away. Whoosh. I can still feel the breeze. Now it’s just me, Kate, making my dramatic entrance there on page one, and nothing to hide behind. What’s a character to do? I’m a little uncomfortable standing here in the open.

In writing, as in anything, there’s no shortage of advice. A few years ago my author, L, had a conversation with an agent who described herself as representing mainstream commercial fiction and therefore not so interested in literary fiction, which is what L writes. The agent said words to the effect, “Listen to me: No prologue. No epilogue. One main character. One main challenge.” She also said, “Listen to everything I say. Then forget all of it and write what you ought to write.” For the most part, L continues to write what she thinks she ought to write, but it would seem spendthrift to dismiss out of hand the advice of any agent willing to talk to a writer who isn’t also her client, and so that advice is still up here in the grey matter, nestled amongst the wrinkles. Over there to my left, I think.

Despite that counsel, L decided the nearly finished novel would benefit from a prologue, and she wrote one. Writers do spend a lot of time working on things they believe to be a good idea at the time, only to zap them later on.

Another piece of advice came from Elmore Leonard’s famous (infamous?)  “Ten Rules for Writing.” Along with other sage guidance such as “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip,” Elmore Leonard said, “Avoid prologues.” Leonard’s rules have been around for years. Last February, The Guardian asked Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, A L Kennedy (who happens to be one of L’s faves) and about ten other writers to do up lists in the same vein. Perched up here inside the brain of L, I got quite a ride when those lists were posted. She poured a cup of coffee and sat down and read every list. Possibly this was one of her work-avoidance tricks. I rocked and rolled as she nodded her head and then shook it, shook it again and then nodded, rule after rule. I had to hang onto the crest one of the grey folds inside her head like the rider on that mechanical bull in the bar I walked into by mistake one night in the eighties.

Kate on a rulerRules are by nature abstract, and L would never trash a prologue just because somebody’s rule said so. A manuscript critique, on the other hand, is specific, and here L has been fortunate: recently, a generous and insightful writer, the recipient of multiple national and international nominations and awards, offered to read a draft of the nearly finished novel. She suggested — in the nicest way — that L was plunging readers into a prologue before they’d had  time to invest in the characters and the story, before they had time to understand or to care. The prologue L had written made sense, but only once the reader had read the entire novel. In the first few pages, the book and the reader don’t have much of a relationship yet, and so how can the reader trust that all will become clear? (Those were not exactly the generous author’s words, they’re just an interpretation from up here between the ears.) After thoughtful consideration of this advice, L had to agree.

Now the novel begins, bam, with me. Which is where it ought to begin if I do say so, though I remain a little insecure with the exposure. Brrr. Makes me think of the naked woman Lucky Carl tries so hard not to stare at on page 111 of the novel-in-progress.

Before I go, back to Elmore for a moment, and his rule that says, “Try to leave out the parts that readers skip.” Which readers, Elmore — the readers who don’t like L’s sort of book to begin with? Elmore Leonard’s a terrific writer, and rules like his can be a fine source of entertainment, argument and insight; sometimes L uses them in workshops to stimulate conversation. She looks them up from time to time — usually when she wants to figure out why a piece of writing doesn’t work. They make her think. But L tries to narrow things down to one main rule. She tries to ask, What does this story want to be, and how can it become that? And yes, that’s a pretty abstract question until you apply it to a specific story. On a different day, with a different novel, the answer might include a prologue.

Mentioned in this post: Guardian Rules for Writing, A L Kennedy, what’s past is prologue

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2 Responses to What’s trashed is prologue

  1. Beth says:

    Kate, I thought that as a character you’d like something I read this morning: “Frank Cornish is…the most important art collector in Canada.” This from Mark Kingwell, Toronto’s garrulously available and prolific public philosopher, in the Royal Ontario Museum’s latest magazine issue. Kingwell had me at the name – main character in Robertson Davies The Rebel Angels – but I’ve read (well, skimmed – Saturdays are for resting the brain) the short piece three times and the reason this fictional character is the most important collector in the country is there so subtly between the lines that I can’t pull it out. In any case, here’s a home-grown character (although his most interesting times were in Europe) – not Elizabeth Bennett, not a Scottish copper or an American private eye, encountered between other covers. Once L gets you out there again, who knows where you’ll end up? Courage, my love, that spotlight from page one may beam you right out to somewhere else.

  2. Thanks for this, Beth. Pretty unusual for someone from my parallel universe to be taken seriously in such a place as the ROM’s magazine. Maybe there’s hope that my next show at Wall to Wall, the little gallery on Second Avenue in Saskatoon, will be written up in Galleries West.

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