Sunday Writing School

We’re having another one of our periodic Sunday Writing Schools today at the Kill Zone (See the link to our inaugural school).

Here’s how it works: We post a couple of writing-oriented questions that we’ve collected over the weeks, and do our best to answer them. Readers can post more questions in the comments. Feel free to chime in with your own opinions, including snarky ripostes to our advice. This is basically intended to be a free-for-all exchange of ideas about writing, not a serious-minded Fount of Wisdom.

We’ll just have some fun.

The first question in the mail bag is from Win Scott:

Q: I know some writing books say not to use prologues, but I need to open my story with an event that precedes the main story. This event is also much more dramatic than my first chapter, and it lays the groundwork for everything that comes next. Can I use a prologue in this case?

A. [From Kathryn]: I’ll admit my bias here–I don’t like prologues. I think they’re old fashioned, and you risk turning off screeners if you use them. Readers don’t care when you start your story, so why not make your Prologue your “Chapter One,” and then turn what was your first chapter into a “forward flash” in time? You can add a date-anchor at the beginning of the chapter to orient the reader in time. I’ve seen many thrillers use this technique, and the effect is much more immediate and dynamic than if you use a prologue.

But that’s just my two cents. I’ll let the other Killers chime in.

Here’s a question from Joy F.

Q. What are some methods of getting over writer’s block?

A. [From Joe] Getting the juices flowing can be tough sometimes. We all experience it. Here are a few tips that might help. Try writing the ending first. Consider changing the gender of your character or the point of view. Tell the story or scene from another character’s POV. Just for grins, switch from third person to first or vice versa.

You don’t have to keep the results of these exercises but they might boost your imagination and get you going again.

(If you would like to ask other questions today, feel free to add them in the Comments. We’ll answer them there.)
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, James Scott Bell, Alexandra Sokoloff, and more.

13 thoughts on “Sunday Writing School

  1. Never liked prologues – until my editor stated I needed one for my first novel. We came to an agreement – no more than one page. It did provide a nice psychological link toward my MC’s state of mind. So I don’t mind short ones now.


  2. I’m not a big fan of prologues although I’ve used them in a couple of books. Kathryn’s advice is spot on. I think a writer should ask, is the info in the prologue for him or the reader? Sometimes it’s just backstory that the writer needs to know and can be sprinkled into the story later.

  3. For me, writer’s block tends to evaporate as I write. The worst block I get is usually when I’m in the first 100 pages, and the end seems so far away and there are the choices to be made that affect the story. At that point every word is like the proverbial bird’s beak pecking at granite. I always manage to get to the end despite the proverbial forks in the road.

  4. Prologues can be good hooks if you think of them as “Law & Order” types: short, intense, organic connection to the coming story. I just wouldn’t label it “Prologue.” Leave it blank (as Coben does in Tell No One) or put a stamp of some kind on it. As Joe indicates, a lot of leaden, backstory type prologues have come along, giving the whole device a bad name.

    Good tips, Joe, about writing your way out of writer’s block.

  5. I tend to follow the consensus here about prologues. Live without them if you can. If not, very short, and providing information the reader needs, not just for yourself.


    I don;t see what difference it should make when submitting. The agent or editor should, I hope, be able to tell you to change it to Chapter One if they don’t like it. Why would that be cause for rejection?

  6. I never liked prologues either- but my editors insisted on inserting them in my first two books. With my latest book I finally put my foot down, and we start with Chapter One.

    Knock wood, I’ve never had writer’s block. But then, I was a freelance journalist for years, and so missing deadlines was never an option for me (and still isn’t). My feeling is, even if you think what you’re writing is total junk, forge ahead with it and trust the editing process to improve it later. Write anything, as long as you keep writing.

    I hate the “saggy middle” too, John-realizing you have so far yet to go is always overwhelming. And since I write without an outline, always a little scary for me, too. I’m always afraid I’ll run out of story, or paint myself into a corner. But I keep reminding myself that it’s always worked out for me in the past, and hopefully this time won’t be an exception.

  7. i did use a prologue in my last book to set the scene for the murder but normally I do try to avoid them! Mine was also very short and set the tone for the book before the reader got immersed in Ursula’s world. Prologues in other people’s books don’t as a general rule bother me.
    In terms of writer’s block – my writing group initiated what we called the SFD (shitty first draft) challenge: To write 500 words every day on something other than your WIP – I found it invaluable as it freed up the mind and released me from my writer’s block at the time. My SFDs actually turned into my first novel Consequences of Sin so you never know what might come out of a battle with writers block!

  8. On prologues, I ask you all to turn to page one of The Universal Rulebook For Fiction. This is, of course, the manual that sits on the desk of every successful agent and editor.*

    Right there, at the top of the page, please read silently as I read aloud: “There Are No Rules.”

    Personally, I’ve written a prologue for every book I sold, but I’ve removed every one of them before I showed the manuscript to anyone. Somewhere along the line, I realized that they were unnecessary. In each case, I realized that I’d begun Chapter One in the wrong part of the story. In the book I’m working on now, I’ve already moved my original Chapter One to Chapter Five.

    For first-timers, I think the problem with prologues is twofold. First, there’s the word itself. There’s a conditioned response that’s evolved over the years which translates “prologue” in the ears and minds of jaded veterans to “oh, crap, the writer doesn’t know how to begin his story.” It might not be fair, but I definitely think it’s there. In that case, the solution is to use a different term. “Chapter One” works as well as any.

    The second problem is that the first problem is more often than not true.

    The trick that I personally despise is the one that I just saw in Will Smith’s latest film, “Seven Pounds,” in which the first scene is the last scene, but with the denoument left off. It’s just lazy storytelling. Anybody can write a good first scene or last scene, but the trick is to write both–not to use one for both purposes.

    As for writer’s block, the only solution for me is to tie my ass to the chair and write. I have to force myself into The Zone. If I stay at, I’ll eventually arrive.

    *I was kidding about The Universal Rulebook For Fiction. No such book exists. Well, at least it’s not available to regular people.

  9. Per Dana’s question about why a prologue might cause a rejection: it might not. On the other hand, many readers consider a prologue to be a barrier to the story, like front matter that slows down entry into the story. For that reason, I would hesitate to put anything into a submission that might trigger that reaction. I just don’t like to take chances with submissions.

  10. Another great way to get rid of writer’s block is to change from computer to paper and pen. For some reason the change seems to bring on the creative vibe:-)

    Also…I think if we realize just exactly what is blocking us… is it life getting in the way, stress over job or have we headed down the wrong plot line in our story? Once we realize the “what” then we can take a deep breath and get going again.

  11. Writer’s block is different for everybody, and as long as you understand it isn’t permanent, it’s okay. Well JD Salinger’s had it since the 50’s, but we don’t know he isn’t writing up a storm and can’t find a publisher. It’s psychological and yes, you can go insane and imagine you can’t ever write again and it becomes self-fulfilling. Usually it isn’t anything more than fear, insecurity, boredom, wanting to be out doing something else, or any number of things. Chances it is temporary, like constipation. I’ve never had it for more than a few days and usually because I need to think something out before I proceed.

  12. I posted my last comment before I saw John’s comment, which must have uploaded at the same time. He said it all about prologues!

    Concerning writer’s block, I have my worst stalls when beginning a story, because I feel that the first chapter–the first few paragraphs, even–set the stage for everything that follows. I spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over that section. Long walks and taking breaks sometimes helps. I found some good suggestions posted at:

  13. Prologues? Eh .

    Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I think as long as they are not more than a page, they are good as long as they have to do with the story. And labelling it as a prologue also makes it an optional read, the reader can skip it.

    As far as writers block, haven’t had much of it thus far. But that may be because I work so much that when writing time comes its all stored up and just pours over the top until bed time…or sunrise.

    I asked Leonard to hop in the time machine and check out what the future says about prologues. Somehow he came back two minutes before he left and now I have two Leonards and to time machines. Luckily I can tell the Leonards apart because one came back with a Maori style tatooed face. He said that its all the rage in 2109. That and the Retinal Kindle Reader implant with which you can delete prologue at will if you don’t wish to read it.

Comments are closed.