Prologues – with hindsight

Browsing my favourite fiction authors, what do Helen Dunmore, Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Margaret Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) do, that Margaret Atwood, Ian McKewan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) don’t?

1411219Clue: It was good enough for Chaucer and (sometimes) Shakespeare, but has a reputation as a turn-off in submissions to agents and publishers. At the Guardian Masterclass I attended, the invited agent said: “Never send me a submission with a prologue!” And here are two more, quoted on the Writer’s Digest:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”

“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

In the Facebook group Book Connectors the thread “Do you read the prologue?” has given me a blog theme for the second week running. It’s turned into something of a straw poll. It seems most people do read prologues, regarding them as part of the story. I’m in that camp – in a well-written story, every word and section is there for a reason. If you skip something, you’re receiving incomplete information. But one BC, Melvyn Fickling, responded he’d skip the lot rather than read a prologue:  If I’m checking the Look Inside feature on Amazon and see a prologue, it’s not just the prologue I don’t read… 

In the BC discussion there are also references to prefaces and introductions. Let’s clear up the difference. Here’s an easy definition, from American Dorrance Publishing:

ExposureThe primary reason to include a prologue is if there’s an important element of the story that took place prior to your book’s main plotline. A rule of thumb is that the prologue will explain important information that doesn’t necessarily follow the timeline of the rest of your book. (It follows that an epilogue covers events that take place after the main timeline. But I might alter “prior” to “outside” – I’ve found a number of prologues whose events occur midway or late in the stories they introduce. For example, in the prologue to Helen Dunmore’s Exposure – reviewed here – a protagonist is going home towards the end of the story.

An introduction might be by someone else, and discusses the background, style, genesis and authorship of the story, but isn’t part of the story itself. It gives insight, and may contain spoilers, which is why I usually read it at the end. Introductions overlap with prefaces: there’s a useful discussion here, too long to quote, of what a preface should contain – the main thing is, it’s also not part of the story and it may or may not be by the author. Fortunately the thread hasn’t mentioned forewords – yet. Don’t get me started on those!

There’s general agreement that prologues should be relatively short, and contain business that occurs outside the main story that the reader needs to know in order to follow it. There’s a fine line between relevance to the approaching story and an information dump, though! I found a sober pro prologue summary by Carol Benedict and  elsewhere Kristen Lamb identifies seven deadly prologue sins in colourful detail.

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A lazy plotting style?

Lamb’s sinful prologues can be summarised as superfluous, irrelevant, tautologous or too long. The information they give could either be left out, or easily  communicated at some other point in the story, for example in a flashback, through a character remembering or recounting events, or as some form of story-within-the-story. Fickling was vehement: Too many times it presages a lazy writing and/or plotting style. 

Let’s imagine a heroine, Lazy Author. (No relation to me personally, oh no.) Lazy Author gets to the end of her first draft, realises she’s making unreasonable assumptions of reader knowledge – how could her readers know all the details inside her excited authorial head? So she sticks the missing facts in a prologue before the story opens. Just so we all know where we are.

I can’t believe the Dunmores and Ishiguros bumble along like that. What’s their approach?

28921The Remains of the Day opens with 17 pages of prologue, set in 1956. Chapter 1 then harks back to 1922. I make that two of some people’s rules broken, but Ishiguro is such a master, it’s fine. Memory tells me the film version used the same structure, so director James Ivory must have agreed.

Exposure: only 2 pages, their chronology within the story unclear until the very end of the book. One rule broken, but a tale told with such élan is above rules.

My Brilliant Friend – 4 pages of prologue, with chapter 1 onwards a flashback. Not fancying a scrap with Elena Ferrante, I’ll turn a blind eye to this and her many other broken rules (repetition, internal monologue, ranting…) Her prose screams along the page and seems to demand fierce interruptions the better to rebuff them, insert a blank page, and return to the fray.

The Twelfth Department, by William Ryan – who just before publication of it was running the very Masterclass on which his agent colleague banned prologues – has a 5 page prologue which establishes a setting and some characters, provides backstory for those who may not know his detective Korolev from previous books, and contains a violent, though not fatal, hook. Could that have been done in Chapter 1 instead? I was reading so fast I didn’t care.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith has 40 pages (40 pages!!!) of prologue before what she calls not chapter but Book 1. It introduces the main character and the unusual theme. I read it a long time ago and the enormous prologue obviously didn’t stick in my mind as a fault.

Margaret Forster’s non-fiction Precious Lives has a 14 page prologue, setting out her reasons for writing her memoir, but in anecdotal, quite emotional style, which distinguishes it (in my mind anyway) from a non-fiction introduction.

These are all authors whose sales and reputations survive their prologues unscathed. On my shelves I did come across one rather pointless prologue, that simply repeated later themes, in a recent highly praised debut by a creative writing graduate. Despite its evocative setting, impressive cultural knowledge, some lovely writing and a poignant subject, it was so badly edited that a redundant prologue was (in retrospect!) not so unexpected. There were no acknowledgements in the edition I had, so we don’t know who was responsible, and at least it was only half a page.  And the one page prologue in Emma Healey’s touching, otherwise brilliant Elizabeth is Missing seems at first glance disconnected with the first chapter. Readers are frustrated if the prologue sets something up and then there’s no hint of it in the following chapter – maybe that’s why some claim to skip them.

18635113(I should add that for this post some of the books I’m glancing through were read long ago. It’s not always quick to rediscover where the prologue fits in! A sharper mind would have anticipated that difficulty, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.)

Another BC dissenter said: I hate prologues. I even hated my own prologue the one time I wrote one. I just think I should be able to more eloquently tell the story than use a big, fat label like Prologue. I think if I feel I need a prologue maybe it is because I’m not starting my story correctly.

Fair point. But does it presuppose a linear narrative through a logical chronology (tautology? Ed.) Can a prologue save the situation when time, viewpoints and tenses are less traditional, or be something to refer back to during a complicated plot? I’m reminded of rewinding episodes of Inspector Morse and descendants to review the bit before the titles start.

In my first version of The Infinity Pool, I tried to increase the suspense gradually until a thing happened. A friend who teaches creative writing said: “You’ll lose your readers before they get there. Put the thing at the beginning, as a hook”. To all intents and purposes, the thing then became a prologue, but I didn’t call it that. Did I just confess to the lazy writing/plotting style lambasted above?

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I’m still learning my craft. My current WIP is done but for a decision on three possible beginnings. Should I introduce all the characters at once or one by one…nail down the theme or leave it to be discovered…frame the whole narrative with a prologue and corresponding epilogue? Clever Dunmore, in Birdcage Walk, calls her first 13 pages Prelude – even though they take place “now” and (in the book) precede a story set between 1789-1793. I must be hoping to bring off a similar trick as I’ve headed one of my possible first sections simply: Before.

Prologues, duh! This blog post is just the start of my problems…

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Reading for Remainers

After the purge of a house move, the books that survive are in a random state. The lucky ones are shelved, but many lie in boxes only to be liberated if I think they may contain something I want. Flung aside they sit in jumbled piles on the floor, like the shifting  borders of mainland Europe. The boxes were labelled, but it turns out not precisely enough: “Fiction” could be anything from Jane Austen to Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The muddle does mean I unearth unexpected gems when I scrabble through, and some are from mainland Europe.

austen-to-zafonIf I wasn’t British I’d probably possess more books not written in my mother tongue or by non British authors. Other nations buy far more translated writing than we do, in part because their publishing industries risk more, and their authors do sometimes write in a second language.(Think of Conrad, Nabokov, Yann Martel, Eva Hoffman.)

Beata Bishop’s One Spoilt Spring 51gbphv3w7l-_sx373_bo1204203200_(I’m providing the US link showing the wonderful dustjacket) was written in English and published by Faber in 1960. Beata Bishop was a Hungarian who became a BBC journalist and her novel tells of a young woman involved in the resistance against the Nazis in Budapest. Of many works about Eastern Europe under the Nazis, probably the best known by a UK author is Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, filmed by the BBC as “The Fortunes of War”. But Bishop gives us the story from the Hungarian point of view. Sadly, this quote reflects much of Hungarian reality  today: “…every second person around her was a potential victim, certain to be persecuted the moment the political situation deteriorated.”

Also from Hungary, The Door was written by Magda Szabo in 1986 and translated in 1995. It’s the strange tale of the relationship between a writer and her employee, the difficult, disturbed, faithful Emerence. Where Bishop focussed on one season of one year, Szabo the-door-szabogradually reveals Emerence’s whole life story, during the siege of Budapest, the Nazi invasion and then under communism. Emerence is controlling and disagreeable, has suffered appallingly and through a mixture of hoarding and giving, withholding and nurture, is trying to make sense of a life smashed up, just as the book tries to make sense of ageing. The image of the door, kept locked, forced open, welcoming or rejecting, may be unsubtle on a psychoanalytical level, but it’s powerful enough to act as another character in the narrative. This is not a book for the faint hearted, but there is a dream like quality to the long sentenced prose. I remember thinking it wonderful but on returning to it for this post I was repelled: it’s one of those books, like Kafka perhaps or Stefan Zweig that meets your emotions  with a slug of uncomfortable recognition so you need all your strength to read it.

Sándor Márai was another Hungarian whose Embers, translated by Carol Brown Janeway embers(Penguin, 2003) is also a poetic, elegiac exploration of memory and age. I found it a delight to read – no, “delight” is too diaphanous a word, but a pleasure, with beautifully translated cadences and always enough simplicity to leaven the description. A look online showed me it breeds poetry in the readers too; I’ve seldom found such beauty and feeling in a set of reviews. (The reviews are polarized through: there’s some viciously expressed dislike, along the lines of ‘how dare you waste my time when you know I wanted a plot?’) And yet more doors: “Door latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them.”

Shall we go somewhere warmer? Most of the modern Spanish fiction I’ve read has been in bringasSpanish, but my language skills aren’t up to the verbosity of the classics. That Bringas Woman  is a wonderful portrait of sycophantic upper class society in 1860s Madrid. Never have aristocrats appeared such dinosaurs. Condemned in their pointless lives to ever greater display and unable to pay for it, their economic model should be unsustainable. Rosalia the heroine is forced into finding unpleasant solutions to the conundrum. This is dense and detailed but well translated with a helpful introduction and notes, which will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Balzac or Dickens (although it’s much shorter). A detail that stayed with me years after reading it was the minutely described fashion for sewing pictures using the hair of loved ones instead of thread. Yes, you did read that correctly.

In my childhood home, there were many stories about Italy, then even more starkly divided into sophisticated North and poverty stricken South than now. I read Danilo Dolci’s To Feed the Hungry, a classic collection of interviews with Sicilians. Bread and Wine (revised 1955) by Ignazio Silone and Christ stopped at Eboli (1946) by Carlo Levi (also filmed) were both by opponents of Fascism living in internal exile.

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The opening pages of Christ Stopped at Eboli

The modern classic The Leopard (1958, also filmed by Visconti) by Guiseppe di Lampedusa begins during the Garibaldi uprising of 1860 but remains informative about the workings of Sicilian society today. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an outpouring of films to complement these books: The Tree of Wooden Clogs, set in Lombardy, Padre Padrone (Sardinia), Cinema Paradiso (Sicily again) heralded two decades earlier by Fellini’s La Strada. In some ways, with the publication of Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels, little has changed: we read of tumultuous, crime ridden, sun baked volcanic places whose inhabitants struggle with gross passions and strong, crude morals. Characters of great delicacy and potential do appear in all the works I’ve referred to, but it has to be said that the more brutish features prevail. Ferrante’s popularity, despite her often difficult, intense prose, suggests these are archetypes, and indeed one of her Communist activist characters quotes Dolci. (My daughter who recently lived in Palermo as part of her Italian degree, tells me they are less popular in Italy than in Anglophone countries, which may be because the mirror held up is hardly flattering.)

As long as there is no Dexit, Denmark remains a member of the EU. What a pleasure to unearth Peter Høeg’s Miss Smila’s Feeling for Snow (1992). (This seems to be available in two differently titled translations.) Høeg taught me about the quiet crime novel, no less menacing for the intelligent, controlled nature of its excitement. If it isn’t too much of a contradiction, it’s narratively rich in colourlessness, noiselessness, isolation and loneliness. Miss Smilla also provides an introduction to minority ethnic Greenlanders. The film of the same name did it justice, I thought, and may have been what inspired all those BBC4 Scandi noir commissions..

Finally, anyone who’s enjoyed listening to Mac the Knife, and been led from there to the The Threepenny Opera, will appreciate The Threepenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934). It’s witty, exuberant, cruel and sharp like the stage work and the prose rattles along like  a Berlin tram. If you want ways to tell modern bankers what you think of them, consult Brecht! Much more cheerful, if decadent and cynical, than the last item in that particular box, which I don’t have the courage to reread but which shaped my early ideas of justice and equality when I was a teenager. Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, originally written in French about Ernie Levy, the designated “just man” of his generation, who died at Auschwitz in 1943.

This was of necessity a random selection. A few more months, a few more open boxes and who knows where we’ll travel on the blog? Or maybe it would save disturbing them if I go browsing for some more recent titles.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

The great Amazon dinner party

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It’s time to test the water in The Infinity Pool (seen above taking its annual holiday in its spiritual home). The paperback was published twelve months ago tomorrow, preceded two weeks earlier by the ebook. Why the hiatus? Who knows, but it gives me an excuse for two birthdays, like the queen. Although at the time I remember being dizzy with impatience to hold the printed object in my hand and turn some real pages, nowScreenshot 2 I’m glad because between anniversaries I had a major boost in the Amazon rankings – by over 100,000 places! It’s been fascinating to see who I’m sandwiched between from one day to the next. This week I’ve been in proximity to Margery Allingham, Val McDermid, Jodi Picoult, Kate Morton… honoured, I’m sure. It’s like being a last-minute reserve guest at a stellar dinner party – someone must have dropped out and the hostess knew I wouldn’t be doing anything I couldn’t cancel for the sake of such a night. Three dinner parties simultaneously in fact, because of the different categories we all feature in.

My major boost came about 13872752_10153663698687231_3085885263817280783_nbecause a dear friend, who took the cover photo, returned last month to the island where I’d been inspired to write the book. He took a paperback with him and gave my Pool a plug. The guests there must all have Amazon Prime, so I haven’t made many actual sales from it, but the “pages read” on Kindle Unlimited have zoomed into the stratosphere, burning my ears and returning me to the unhealthy habit of inspecting my Amazon rankings whenever they’re updated (once an hour). That’s how I know that seated to my left is the eminent French crime writer, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret) and I’m the bulwark protecting him from having to converse with Jeffrey Archer on my right. I have my uses, after all. But it’s one of those dinner parties where guests change places between courses, or even between bites – I may have quite different neighbours by the time I post this. I may even be back where I belong, chopping onions in the kitchen (there’s more than one way to produce a tear-jerker).

Meanwhile I haven’t dined so well chez Amazon since September, when The Infinity Pool shot to no 1 in Australia. I think it was because of Stuart’s cover and the temporary promotional price – 99¢. I’m told books are very expensive in Australia so here was a bargain indeed. Amazon put me into the Crime category, and although the Australians downloaded me until they cracked their computers (I imagine), they didn’t like me much. Not enough blood! Hardly a murder! Where’s the incest and why’s the rape offstage? Boring boring boring, declaimed the worst three word, one star review. We changed the category to Literary Fiction where the expectations are more, well, literary, and I was comforted by sharing a table with Harper Lee, shunting The Girl on the Train briefly into a siding (she’s back now), rocketing past the Martian and bidding ciao to Elena Ferrante.  (No wonder Elena Ferrante’s a recluse, having to sit next to the Martian at the Amazon dinner party).

Screenshot 4Back in UK Mysteries, Thrillers and Suspense, I’m rubbing shoulders with John le Carré and Irvine Welsh. Meanwhile Sylvia Plath has not unreasonably chosen to shelter in Psychological Fiction but found herself next to me. I do hope she’s not feeling too conflicted to chat today, and I think as a grown up I could hold my own. Not like the day when, in my teens, I was introduced to Margaret Drabble at a party given by some friends of my parents. I adored, read and reread her books, identified with the heroines, tried to understand the points she was making (I didn’t attempt her sister AS Byatt). And that’s more or less what I gabbled, blushing and stuttering my generalised admiration. She smiled graciously and moved on to consort with more stimulating fellow guests.

Perhaps the memory of that toe curling embarrassment was what stopped me taking advantage of an even more impressive opportunity a few years later. I was living in Paris as part of my degree, and mentioned to my landlady that I was writing my year abroad dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. “Tiens!” said Madame. It turned out she was distantly related to or had been distantly befriended by or was an old schoolmate, or something, of “Simone”. Would I like to meet ‘er? I could per’aps interview ‘er for my studeez? I shivered. No no, I was busy that day/week/month/year. I regretted it deeply, but it would never be convenient for me to meet the greatest feminist philosopher and writer of her day, who still intimidates me now. What a dissertation chapter that might have been! What a coup over the academics of Sussex University French department!

Famous writers seemed to be two a centime in Paris. The very first day there, gawping the wrong way at the traffic as I crossed the road, I literally bumped into a monsieur who set my shoulders back in the right direction with a polite “excusez-moi, mademoiselle”. But it was the friend accompanying me who had to be picked up off the pavement. “You just jostled Samuel Beckett!” he hissed. Merde alors. Another unsuccessful encounter with a literary giant.

Maybe that’s why I prefer the Amazon dinner party. You can imagine the conversation instead of actually having to hold it, name dropping and star spotting to your hearts content. Now please excuse me: it’s time for virtual coffee and Chocolat with Joanne Harris before I slide back down the rankings and lose the opportunity.

Amazon dinner party

© Jessica Norrie 2016