Thoughts on Prologues

I came upon this post while going through my WordPress reader this morning. It’s Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of Writing.

I liked the post; I think it nicely combined some of the most basic and (let’s be honest) cliche writing advice out there. I’m not saying it’s bad advice–it’s good advice. It’s just that a lot of other authors have basically the same list under their own names.

Whatever. Point is, Rule #2 reads “Avoid prologues.”

One of the least original suggestions, but also one of the most ignored suggestions in today’s published works.

It got me thinking about prologues. So I’ll just be here, rambling about them for a while.

Enjoy.

I used to love prologues. It horrified me when I found out that one of my friends just skipped prologues. What? How can you do that? They’re part of the story!

Nowadays, prologues are pretty damn annoying. Which leads me to believe that either I’ve gotten more impatient over the years, or middle grade authors just write better prologues than young adult authors. It might just be that MG authors write less prologues.

I think prologues are a good idea. They can add mystery. They’re easy exposition. They can add that dramatic irony that we all love–when the readers know something the characters don’t.

But prologues are also boring a lot of the time. I’ve read the back of the book; I know what I want to–and should be–reading about. The prologue is not that story. Ergo, I’m impatient, rushing through a scene I don’t really understand to get to the story I want to be reading.

Prologues tend to be third person, even if the story is actually in first person, and removed from the story, usually taking place in a different time or location. They often use names that haven’t been introduced–usually in the name of that mysterious drama the prologue is there for. All of this adds up to prologues being boring and confusing. Neither of those are things authors want said about their book.

I often wonder: If this scene didn’t start with the word “prologue” written at the top of it, would it piss me off this much? Would I be as twitchy, frustrated by the attempt at drama, if I thought it was chapter one? I’ll probably never know, because people seem pretty attached to the world prologue. (Actually, Harry Potter sort of does this. The first chapters are sort of annoying with all their exposition…interesting.)

table of contents prologue bigger

 

My advice to anyone listening: If you can, avoid prologues. Put it in later, or just delete it. If you can’t, make it short. The prologue in Kristen Cashore’s Fire is great and really works with the story, but it is almost twenty pages long–waaaaay to much. When I reread the book, I always skip it.

I still don’t agree with my friend who skips prologues. Authors include them for a reason, usually to spread information. You need that information to enjoy the book.

So I’ll read your prologue. It will probably put me in a bad mood, but if chapter one is good enough, I’ll forgive you.

Note To Self–Be Careful When Writing

To outline or not to outline?

If you’d asked me this question a month ago, I would have spoken out against outlining. “It wrecks my creative process!” I would say. “It’s not how I write.”

I’m beginning to doubt myself.

My current manuscript, Devil May Care, started out as a short story. It’s over 100,000 words right now, so that didn’t really work out.

That’s okay. I like it as a novel. I’m glad it became a novel.

But I had no idea what I was doing as it grew and grew, expanding from short story to novella to novel. I was just writing.

I love doing that. I’m still not a fan of outlining.

However, not outlining is costing me down the road. I’m editing that fateful first draft right now. Without an outline to reference, I have to go through and map out ever scene in the book. I touched on my process for this in an earlier post. I’m not going to get into it again.

Here’s what I know:

My second draft will be written with an outline. I even intend to stick to that outline. I’ll have to adjust my writing process. I know this.

I stand by not outlining the first draft. I had no plot, and I need 100,000 words and hundreds of hours to figure one out. I always start writing with a vague idea, and let the plot come after, as I explore characters and situations. That was the purpose of my first draft.

first draft sandbox

I’m learning the benefits and drawbacks of not outlining.

Specifically, I’m learning that if you don’t outline, you need to leave really good Notes To Self. While recording the scenes in draft one, I found a really crucial series of days in which I had completely skipped over a weekend. It went Mon-Tues-Wed-Thurs-Fri…and then just continued the school week. I couldn’t just add in the weekend, not the way the days strung together.

Considering this problem, I have a vague memory of First Draft Me punting the problem down the road. I remember that I had a solution in mind. I just don’t remember what that solution was.

It’s probably written down somewhere. But I use almost half a dozen different ways to write down notes. I have a ColorNote app on my phone. I have Evernote across my phone and my laptop. I have Sticky Notes on my laptop’s desktop. I have a notebook that is barely organized at all. I have a stack of papers of notes I’ve made in the middle of the night on the notepad I keep by my desk.

screenshot desktop
Here’s what my desktop looks like right now. Like the sticky notes?

The problem is, I get ideas everywhere. I write down these ideas in different ways depending on where I am.

I’m going to try to consolidate all of these note-taking devices into one large document, probably an Evernote. But it’s going to take a lot of time, and I’m certain that along the way I’ve lost tons of ideas and Notes to Self I wrote.

Writing Lesson for today:

If you’re going to write a note to yourself, don’t lose it.

note to self pic

Kinda obvious, but I didn’t follow it.

Has anyone else struggled with this? Do you guys have any way to keep all of your random sparks of genius in order?

20 Books This Summer

I’ve decided to give myself a goal.

I want to have read 20 books when summer ends.

My summer ends in a little less than three weeks. (AHHHH! I’m not ready for school!!!!!!)

I can’t believe my  summer went by so quickly, and so unproductively. I haven’t edited my novel much at all. I just started Drivers Ed. I’ve been pretty sporadic about posting on this blog.

I’ve spent a lot of time with friends. I’ve watched a lot of TV. I’ve done a bit of work for my school’s Speech and Debate team.

And I have been reading a lot.

So far, I’ve read 14 books.

I want that number to be 20 when school starts on August 11.

Since my summer is nine and a half weeks long, that averages out to about two books a week. Not an awe-inspiring display of reading fortitude, but with all of the other things I’ve done, it’s not too shabby.

Why twenty? Because it’s a round number, I don’t know. Don’t you like random, arbitrary goals?

Considering the fact that the fourteen books I’ve read so far include the Harry Potter series and the Mistborn series, both of which are seriously long, I’m proud of myself.

I don’t think I reviewed all fourteen books I’ve read. When I hit twenty, I’ll post a list of all of them.

What am I going to read?

A week (ish) ago, I posted my To Be Read list, with three books other than the Mistborn series. Since I didn’t actually read any of those three, some of those books will be in the six books I need to read to hit twenty. But after having my emotions pummeled by the Mistborn series, I want something funny. I might reread something light-hearted. I’m ordering one of Janet Evanovich’s books from PaperBackSwap.com (not sure which one, because my mom is getting it for me). I might tackle Kierra Cass’s The Selection series. I’ve read the first two, but the third and final book is out, and I want to reread and finish the series. Unfortunately, that will be really sad and emotional–not what I’m in the mood for right now. I might finish the Across the Universe series by Beth Revis, but it has the exact problems as the Selection series. I might read the Sweet Evil series by Wendy Higgins, but I need to order the third book so I can finish the series (again, I’ve read books 1 and 2).

Can you tell I have no idea what to read next?

Frankly, I’m horrible at planning what I’m going to read. Just deciding what to read next involves a good five minutes of standing in my room, surrounded by my book shelves, picking up and putting back books, twitching as I waver between different series.

Here’s what I want to read: Something that is funny and light-hearted, but that has an interesting plot and is well-written. I want sweet romance without too much drama. Maybe some fantasy, maybe a paranormal romance. Probably not ChickLit, because they are rarely written well. Something that makes me question the world but that ultimately leaves me emotionally stable and happy.

Any suggestions? I’m really open to recommendations, and I’m sort of desperate. Even if it doesn’t meet the above criteria, if you really liked it, tell me about it. PLEASE!

(Otherwise, I think I’m going with Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins while I wait for the Janet Evanovich one.)

Writers’ Block–The Curse of Summer Vacation

Let’s talk about writers’ block.

This is something that everyone seems to disagrees about. Some people say it doesn’t exist. Some say you should just write through it. Others argue you should sit back and wait for it to pass.

 

My Writers’ Block is a kind of emptiness. If I’m not feeling any strong emotion, I have a really hard time motivating myself to write. I don’t get ideas. I don’t care about what I’m writing. I’m easily distracted. I’ll write a sentence, and stop. I’ll open a blank document, stare at it, then abandon it for TV or the internet.

I know I’m more susceptible to this if I’m tired, or being lazy. This summer, I’ve been both. I’ve spent most of my time at home, on the internet or watching TV, sometimes reading. I’ve seen my friends but I just haven’t had any inspiration. Nothing motivating has happened. I get out of bed, but I never really wake up, mostly because I don’t have to. It’s summer. I don’t have any of the stress or emotions of school driving me to write.

writers block block

Writing, on its most basic level, is therapeutic for me. It calms me and helps me release difficult emotions. It helps me cope with stress. It helps me process situations I’ve gone through, even if I’m not writing about anything directly related to the event.

But in summer, I just haven’t needed that much therapy, because I haven’t been doing anything.

I haven’t been writing Hell and Styx. I’ve been editing draft 1 and planning draft 2 of Devil May Care, but I haven’t actually written anything for it in months.

I haven’t had any motivation to write fiction.

It’s a cruel irony, that school gives me inspiration to write but no time, and summer gives me time to write but no inspiration.

Then again, this is a pattern I’ve seen every year. I never write that much during summer. I always give myself big goals (finishing whatever novel I’m working on at the time is a classic) for summer break, and then school comes around again and I haven’t accomplished anything. This summer is actually one of my most productive ones so far, if only because I’ve been blogging.

So here’s my question:

Does blogging count as writing?

Writing as in, if you were going to challenge yourself to write 5000 words a day, would you count both blog posts and creative writing? Writing as in, does blogging make you a better writer?

Yes, I’m putting words into logical sentences. But I’m not working on plot structure or characterization. I use a very casual diction; I’ll shamelessly admit that I use too many adverbs. I’m not careful. I’m not telling a story. I’m more emotionally invested in how many likes a post gets than the post itself (which is pathetic, I know).

I guess it is good that I’m writing at all. If I didn’t have this blog, I wouldn’t have spent this entire morning working on posts to publish later, I would have watched TV or gone on Pinterest. I’m producing sentences. My fingers have remembered how to type. Yay!

But it doesn’t feel like enough. I know I should just get up off my ass and write something fictional, if that’s what I’m beating myself up about.

Unfortunately, I beat myself up way too often for it to motivate me any longer. I know they’re idle threats.

What do you guys think? What’s writers’ block for you, and how do you deal with it? And do you consider your blog posts to be the in same vein of writing as creative writing?

writers block cyanide

Book Review: The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

HOLY CRAP.

These three books are probably the best series I’ve read this year.

Not even sort of joking.

They are sooooooooooooooooooo good.

A shout-out to my amazing friend who recommended these to me. I never would have picked them out on my own…and my life would have been missing a piece of itself.

It seems redundant to say, but I give this series 5/5 stars.

Everything is perfect. Just–AHHHHHHHHHHH! How do I describe how much I liked these books?

First, the amazon description of book one, Mistborn:

Brandon Sanderson, fantasy’s newest master tale spinner, author of the acclaimed debut Elantris, dares to turn a genre on its head by asking a simple question: What if the hero of prophecy fails? What kind of world results when the Dark Lord is in charge? The answer will be found in the Mistborn Trilogy, a saga of surprises and magical martial-arts action that begins in Mistborn.

For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.
Kelsier recruited the underworld’s elite, the smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, each of whom shares one of his many powers, and all of whom relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream, not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot.
But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks more like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life. Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets, and gotten it. She will have to learn to trust, if Kel is to help her master powers of which she never dreamed.

The review (no spoilers):

There are the characters. Vin, the protagonist, begins the books as a paranoid, skittish creature who you instantly fall in love with for her fragility and at the same time her impossible strength. She grows with the series but she never stops being the person I fell in love with, only becoming more and more amazing. The other characters in the story (I’d list them, but spoilers) are complex, alive, and endearing. None of the characters were flat, and they all were important in their own ways.

Then the plot.

I’m just going to put this out there: in the first pages of the book, Kelsier lays out the entire plan, in detail, that what one would assume the plot of the book will follow.

And yet, these books are the most unpredictable novels I’ve probably ever read. Even though I should have felt like I knew everything that would happen, the series always left me in a state of panic, flying blindly through the intense plot that ties the books together.

The series has something most series lack: continuity. Though the characters grow and change and each book has a distinct plot, the entire series is held together by underlying questions, common themes, and running conflicts. And the series forces you to read all three books, because these strings tying the books together aren’t exposed and explained fully until the end. All three books work together to create a whole; looking back on them, you realize that scenes you thought you understood in chapter one weren’t explained until the end of book three.

Most books out there talk about one “social issue” through their plot, conveyed through some running plot elements and themes. In Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, themes of sacrifice and destruction highlight the corruption of power and the trials of war. Through her Gemma Doyle trilogy, Libba Bray speaks about women’s roles in society and the strains power can put on friendship. Power, overcoming stereotypes, war, religion, friendship, love–these are themes we see in almost everything we read today. But usually, an author chooses one or two of these elements to focus on.

Brandon Sanderson chose them all. Over the course of the series, he tackles both sides of rebellion, the disconnect between ideals and reality, the difficulty of establishing democracy, the burdens of wielding power, the roles of kings, women’s rights, being underestimated by society, the effects of abuse, atheism and crises of faith, the power and importance of faith, the meaning of love and friendship. EVERYTHING.

Part of the reason he could work all of these themes into his series is that each book is really long. I didn’t go into the series expecting this, because the books–that I bought–were average in size. Less than an inch and a half thick. But they have very thin paper. Each book has somewhere around 500-750 pages.

But they aren’t a slow read. That is one of the most impressive things Brandon Sanderson accomplished. I never felt a lull in the plot. I was sucked in by page one and hurtled headlong straight through the last page of the third book. Looking at my physical progress though the book, it looked like I was reading slowly, but in truth, I read the entire series faster than my usual pace, desperate to find out what was going to happen next.

And the book should be a slow read. It is in third person, which, at least for me, is usually harder to get sucked into than first person. It is a different area of the fantasy genre than I usually read. It pops between characters, and in the later books, entire plot lines, continuously. By the rules of everything else I’ve read, one of these other plot lines should be less interesting than the other ones, and I expected to feel some disappointment or drag when switching between plots. I didn’t.

OOH! And a quick shout-out to the cover designer. They are really accurate, and if I’d read these books when I was judging books by their covers, this definitely would have gone in the good pile.

Please read these books. If you don’t pick up any of the other books I review on this blog, at least try these. They’re long, sure, but worth it.

Book 1: Mistborn

Book 2: The Well of Ascension

Book 3: The Hero of Ages

Character Building #2–Too Much Tragedy

I’m frustrated.

(By the way, welcome to the second installment of my series of posts about Character Building, where I will be chronically my journey as I edit my novel and focus on the characters involved, making them realer, deeper, more interesting, and more complex.)

I’m frustrated with the real world.

What is the real world?

It’s the one I’m trying to forcefully abduct, shove in the trunk of my car, drive back to my house, and keep captive in the pages of my novel, so that my readers can think, “Wow, this feel real.”

Right now, I’m focusing on making my characters real.

A cornerstone of my novel when I set out to write it the first time (that continues on to the second draft) is my need to demonstrate on a page what high school today feels like. Not what adults remember high school like. Not what adults want today’s high school to be like. I want other “young adults” to read my novel and recognize the surroundings, the feelings, the stress, the sleep deprivation. If I’m going to pay attention to the most cliche bit of writing advice, I’m writing what I know–high school.

This is a trait I have struggled to find on the shelves today. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy does a really good job of describing the classroom experience, but unfortunately, it is a rarity. 

So, I have my goal: write high school. Which for this post, translates to: write high schoolers.

Which brings me back to my first point: I’m frustrated with the real world.

Because the real world can be pretty damn melodramatic and cheesy and shallow and unrealistic at times.

I want to write the characters I see around me every day. The girls who (literally) spent four hours a day on makeup and skin care. The boys who catcall at girls walking home after school. The students buckling under the pressure of APs and college admittance, and the even more impressive ones who manage to stay sane. I want to really punch some people in the face with the fact that parents who feel it is there right and duty to drive their child into the ground with high expectations and punish anything other than A’s with emotional abuse, perpetuating a cycle of stress and sleep deprivation until their child doesn’t know what self esteeme is, is cruel, but normal in today’s world. My peers (and in some ways, myself) suffer from crippling self-esteem issues, insomnia, sleep deprivation, self-hate, paralyzing feelings of worthlessness, and depression. These feelings come from parental pressures, sibling accomplishments and inevitable comparisons, friends and significant others or the lack thereof, the day-to-day stress of homework and extracurriculars, and the fear that we are never doing enough to get into a good college. High school often feels like a machine deliberately designed to break the spirits and bodies of everyone who passes through it.

 

It’s just that when I try to write these effects down, they feel fake.

I’ve read novels where it feels like the author was trying too hard. The characters feel fake because too much is happening to them, or has happened to them. Not so much in fantasy or paranormal genres, but in contemporary stories–it just seems like the author is over-doing it if they have a depressed character and an abused character and a pathological liar, and, and, and. The main character’s sister died and their brother is psychotic and their mom is emotionally abusive and the main character herself is depressed. And the best friend does drugs and her ex is a stalker. And–you know where I’m going with this. I think we’ve all read these books, where in trying to demonstrate the pain and suffering of real life the author goes too far and screws it up. The “Too Much Tragedy” syndrome.

I don’t want my novel to get this “disease.” As the author, I’d be the one guilty of giving it to my precious manuscript.

Thing is, real life can be pretty tragic, even if people aren’t dropping dead. I’ve been in high school one year and I’ve already met most of the overwrought cliches that I hate reading so much.

When I’m planning my characters, I find myself, in trying to make them deeper, crossing the line between interesting and “too much.”

Maybe I’m not saying this very well.

I want there to be deeper motivations behind the actions of my characters. I want to understand and demonstrate their psyches on the pages of my manuscript. But I find myself giving every character a tragic childhood or a psychological problem or a horribly cheesy inner secret. I can steer myself away from most of these. I lessen the extent of the suffering, make it read less cheesy. It’s frustrating, because some of my characters really would, probably, in real life, suffer from these issues. What is it about putting such things down on paper that makes it feel overdone?

Some authors manage the balance–real, troubled characters that don’t come off as “trying too hard.” But a lot of authors don’t. And if I’m being honest with myself, I consider myself closer to the latter group than the former group in regards to my writing skills. That’s not fishing for compliments or crappy self-esteem. It’s true.

I’m still learning. I have a long ways to go. I’m okay with the fact that I’m not the world’s best author at the age of fifteen–that I probably won’t ever be anything close to my favorite authors.

This is just one of those hurdles I need to suck it up and get over.

Just wondering, have any of you experienced this problem? Have you read books suffering from “too many tragedies”?

Character Building #1–What to Look for When People Watching

Sorry I haven’t really posted in this week. I’ve been weirdly busy. I’m still working on the third and final Mistborn novel by Brandon Sanderson. I’m loving it, and a review for the series will be coming shortly.

But hey! I’m here. Posting and everything.

Let’s talk about characters.

I love characters. They are the number one thing that draws me into a book. A bad plot can be forgiven with good characters. A great plot can sink with flat, fake, boring characters. I know authors who do it well, and authors who kinda suck at it. I’ve read waaaaaaaaaay to many blog posts about other people’s advice for building characters.

But as I’m editing my own novel, realizing that I need to overhaul basically the entire plot, I’m turning to the characters I’ve written, trying to make them better, deeper, realer–anything. Since I like reading character driven books over more plot based books, it makes sense that I would write a novel heavily invested in the characters I’m creating.

I have lots of other bloggers’ advice clattering around in my mind, which is sort of psyching me out, making me second-guess the characters I’ve built and the ones I’m still refining. I’ve read a lot of good characters, but I’m having trouble pinpointing what about them was good, or different–basically, what strategies I should steal.

I’m going to have a series of blog posts about how I approach characterization, my thoughts about other people’s advice, and what I see in published works. I’m trying to get my own thoughts in order, and I hope it will help other people in my own situation.

Here’s my first one:

What To Look For When People Watching

Reading helps. Reading blog posts about building characters helps.

But, for me, the best way to translate that vague half-formed character idea into a real, interesting, complex person on the page is to people watch.

I go to high school, and my novel is set in high school, so just keeping my ears open during the lag times in class is probably my most beneficial strategy. I get exposed to airheads and athletes and hard-core AP-ers (is that a term?) for free all the time. I have to go to school anyway. When it gets boring, I’ll think about my characters.

(Though technically, right now, I’m out of school, and it’s actually getting inconvenient. I’m trying to plot characters the likes of which I haven’t spent time with in close to two months. It is frustrating, to say the least.)

I people watch anywhere, especially if I’m bored. Restaurants, clothing stores, side walks, the people driving in the car next to me in traffic (don’t worry, I don’t have my licence yet, so I’m not behind the wheel).

I don’t advise watching people to exactly copy their character. You can’t just inject a person you like or find interesting into your plot–it won’t feel right to the reader. Also, your characters should be completely understood by you (or as much as possible); trying to copy another person without literally being that person means that you sacrifice your own story-telling instincts to the reality you’re trying to capture into the pages of your novel.

So what do I look for?

Details. Things that stand out to me about them. The thing that makes this person different from that person.

In other words, quirks.

If I’m talking to my friends, I’m noting their mannerisms, speech patterns, insecurities, annoying and/or charming habits. Anything that I could add to a character to make them feel realer, without me having to do any hard work in the manuscript.

Examples (notes I’ve taken recently):

  • a person’s voice that goes up when they lie
  • hypochondria
  • a distinctive bracelet/anklet/necklace/ring
  • a person who just sucks at unlocking doors (I’m looking at you, sis)
  • a color scheme of clothing they always wear
  • a way of sitting (on the arm of a sofa, backwards on a chair, etc.)
  • tapping out rhythms to songs on their leg (or, more specifically, walking through the motions of, for example, playing the song on the piano on their leg)
  • a certain ringtone on their cell phone
  • the design on a T-shirt (if it is geeky or retro or exceptionally trendy)
  • the vernacular people use in texts/status updates/Snapchats/etc.

What you want is a small detail that instantly gives the reader a wider or deeper understanding of the character.

You have to balance your use of the detail. You can’t mention it once and never again–it’s not doing anything for you. You can’t mention it every time the character appears in the story–then the character is reduced to only that detail. You have to string it through the story, subtly enough that the reader doesn’t even notice it, but that it makes their picture of the character clearer.

Some of these details should be used to extenuate the basic values of the character you’ve painted. Your shallow girl student doesn’t just text in class, but really blatantly. The librarian has to play with the pages of a book as they read. Your agile, ninja character doesn’t sit in a chair, but perches on it.

Other details should be surprising, drawing you into the character. Your BAMF Buffy-esque character has a habit of falling off/out of chairs. The gossip queen has a horrible memory for faces. Your computer hacker still hunts and pecks.

But the details can’t be too out of sync with the character you’ve created. It has to be interesting, but the reader still has to buy it. You want your reader to say, Oh, that’s funny…but wait, that actually makes sense. Not, what is this author doing?

We do this all the time in real life. As you meet a person, you learn more of their habits and quirks, and they slowly fill in your picture of them. Even if they at first seem weird, once you know the person well enough, you realize it’s actually just an extension of another part of their personality.

This isn’t advice to build a character from scratch. I use this technique to flesh out characters I’ve already started writing. The quirk isn’t their entire character, it’s just that twitch that your main character always notices.