Sunday, July 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Prologues: Keep or Cut?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:
Does it work as an opening? Would you continue reading? Should I include it in a query letter or just skip to the first chapter? Do any parts seem awkward?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

It’s time.

The words echoed through the Third Sister’s head, fear cutting through her like a knife. They had packed up and fled the last time she’d heard the voice, but the knowledge that they couldn’t run forever was what scared her. Dropping the actual knife she was holding into the dishwater, she turned the tap on to wash her hands.

It’s too soon, she thought. She’s not ready...

It was the sound that alerted her, the soft patter of footsteps on the kitchen’s ceramic tiles. Her sisters wouldn’t have crept up on her. They couldn’t. After you spend a thousand years with someone, their every heartbeat becomes as familiar as your own.

Pulling the gun at her waist free, the woman spun and aimed. Then lowered her hand slightly.

A blond man leaned against the door frame, smiling sadly. He looked fairly harmless, as far as intruders went, though he would do anything his queen asked. Including give up his own family to the monsters.

“I am sorry,” he said. His green eyes, the exact same shade as hers, pleaded for her not to fight, to not make it more difficult than it already was.

“I am, too.” She raised the gun, intending to kill, when a cloaked figure stepped out from behind him.

Drowning in eyes as black as night, the Third Sister felt the gun slip from her hand. Her knees gave out, and the floor rushed up to meet her. Darkness filled her mind, her every thought and secret no longer her own. As the shadows descended, she heard that voice again, whispering, laughing.

You’re mine.

My Thoughts in Purple:

It’s time.

The words echoed through the Third Sister’s head, [fear cutting through her like a knife.] Cliché, so I'd suggest cutting They had packed up and fled the last time she’d heard the voice, [but the knowledge that they couldn’t run forever was what scared her.] Feels a little told. How would she think this? Dropping the actual knife she was holding into the dishwater, she turned the tap on [to wash] tells motive her hands.

It’s too soon, she thought. She’s not ready...

[It was the sound that alerted her,] telling a bit. Try showing the sound and then showing her reacting to it the soft patter of footsteps on the kitchen’s ceramic tiles. Good spot for an internal thought like "Someone was here" to show she knows it's an intruder. Her sisters wouldn’t have crept up on her. They couldn’t. [After you spend a thousand years with someone, their every heartbeat becomes as familiar as your own.] nice

[Pulling the gun at her waist free,] This surprised me because I didn't know she had a gun the woman spun and aimed. Then lowered her hand [slightly.] The adverb doesn't add much here, so you could cut it. What does "lower slightly" really mean? Is the gun still on him or not?

A blond man leaned against the door frame, smiling [sadly.] He looked [fairly] Careful of so many adverbs in a row, especially when most of them don't add to the scene. harmless, as far as intruders went, [though he would do anything his queen asked. Including give up his own family to the monsters.] Who's thought it this? It feels like a POV shift.

“I am sorry,” he said. His green eyes, the exact same shade as hers, [pleaded for her not to fight, to not make it more difficult than it already was.] Same here. It feels like this is his thought, but she's the POV character. Both also feel a tad info-dumpy, explaining things

“I am, too.” She raised the gun, [intending to kill,] telling motive [when a cloaked figure stepped out from behind him.] When statements typically feel detached, as if the person already knows what's happened and is relaying it after the fact.

Drowning in eyes as black as night, [the Third Sister felt] telling. Also, she's the Third Sister sometimes and the woman other times the gun slip from her hand. Her knees gave out, and the floor rushed up to meet her. Darkness filled her mind, her every thought and secret no longer her own. As the shadows descended, she heard that voice again, whispering, laughing.

You’re mine.

The questions:
Does it work as an opening?

It left me with more questions and confusion than curiosity about what's going on. Though had I read the cover copy I'd have more context and this might make more sense. The problem with prologues like this is that they don't provide a character for the reader to connect to or a situation they want to see resolved. I don't know who this woman is, or the man, or what queen she refers to, or what monsters, or what the voice is and means. It's dark and sinister, but it doesn't actually tell the me anything but "bad things are a'brewing," which is true of every novel.


Would you continue reading?
This snippet doesn't draw me in, but it's clear this isn't the actual story. I'd have to read the opening of the first chapter and decide from there. If I saw this is a bookstore I'd flip past this to where the story started.

Should I include it in a query letter or just skip to the first chapter?
I'd skip it. Agent Kristin Nelson just did a video on her blog about why prologues don't usually work. She advised leaving it out of sample pages, and then adding in if it you get a request for the full. (Though she does advise getting rid of most prologues)

Do any parts seem awkward?
The head hopping did, since I wasn't sure whose head I was in or who my narrator was. Items like the gun also appeared from nowhere, and people popped out from the shadows. A lot is thrown at me all at once and I didn't understand what any of it meant. (A common problem with prologues of this nature)

Overall, I don't think this prologue serves your story. Odds are your cover copy is going to touch on some of the things this scene does, so the reader won't learn anything new from this (just guessing here, but it has that feel to me). It's meant to be exciting, but isn't because there's no personal connection to make the reader care. You also mentioned this is written in a different style from the rest of the novel, so it's not a good representation of what the book's voice sounds like. I'd suggest starting with chapter one (and feel free to submit that if you'd like. I'm curious to see the difference)


Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. I found the use of the word "actual" to be distracting, perhaps because I skimmed the earlier sentence about fear and cutting as a cliche.

    I felt pulled in by the hint of convoluted family relations, but that occured during the snippet between sister and, presumably, brother--not the earlier allusions to a little sister who "isn't ready." The juxtaposition of sisters who are in alliance with each other and the brother who serves the queen was intriguing.

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  2. Yes there's a lot to say about the writing itself, but I just want to comment that I was intrigued and I would have kept reading. Although I'd have preferred to know more about the characters as they were introduced - I wonder if you could bulk this up and make it the first chapter rather than the prologue. It doesn't matter if you skip years or pov between first and second chapter.

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  3. I've just gone through the very same thing, and I can tell you most definitely - do not attach with your query. If and when you get requests, then you can leave it in, but for the query process itself, drop it! : )
    Best of luck! Sounds interesting! : )

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  4. Thanks so much to the author for courageously submitting your pages. We all learn from this! And Janice, thanks so much for taking the time to share your notes with the rest of us.

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  5. I was intrigued enough to want to read more. I was a little confused by the use of "the woman" and "Third Sister" because I wasn't sure at first whether or not they were the same person.

    I can't recall ever reading a book with a prologue and being annoyed by it, but I think it's definitely very important to think about what function it's serving in your story and whether or not it could be accomplished another way. It's also worth noting that some genres lend themselves more to using prologues than others - epic fantasy often has a prologue, for example, whereas urban fantasy generally does not. I can't recall reading any YA fantasy with a prologue, but I haven't really read enough in the genre to make a generalization about that. :)

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