Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

My first post was a somewhat lengthy discussion of why, after years away from the keyboard, I finally started to write again – and, because in my case the two subjects are inextricably linked, why I chose to explore the subject matter I did.  Intense, high-level, and deeply personal stuff.  Though I am only a few days into my quest to bring The Herald’s Dark Progress to market, I can already tell that over the coming months the journey will produce plenty of additional opportunities to share such observations.  When I first launched this blog, however, one of the promises I made (both to you and to myself) was that I would go beyond simply expressing my motivations for writing and reporting on my progress with the publishing industry; I would also use this space to discuss how I go about the craft.  Therefore, in keeping with that promise, I submit for your review post number two:  a piece explaining an early decision I made regarding the manuscript.  I hope it will be of some interest to all those of you who are also writers, or who are interested in the writing process (as for everyone else, you may want to wait for the next one – it will be a snark-filled doozy, I swear).

If you head over to my writing samples, you’ll see that I’ve uploaded something new:  the first version of the prologue to The Herald’s Dark Progress, “finalized” some time circa 2011.  It is old – and early – enough that I suspect even most of my beta readers won’t recognize it.  And for good reason:  it was in need of significant edits.

The graphic above is a bit of artistic license; I don’t actually edit my work like this.  It was close, but in the end, I eventually decided to go with a faux-markup rather than the more authentic 15-minute clip of me staring silently at my laptop with my head in my hands.

But before I get to those changes and why they were required, let me reiterate the “author’s comment” above the excerpt:  you should know that this segment does contain some mild spoilers – in the form of background detail that I’ve subsequently moved further back in the narrative.  If you haven’t already completed the full novel, and want to be sure you experience it in its best form (or at least the way I intend for it to be experienced), you may want to hold off on reading any further until you’ve had a chance do that.

If, on the other hand, you’ve already read The Herald’s Dark Progress, or are more interested in my process than my work, or simply don’t mind a bit of a reveal, please continue.

Now, for those of you who are still here – or who have read further and subsequently come back – hopefully you’ve noticed a difference in the prose, and hopefully you will agree that the final iteration is superior to the original:  better flow to the language, more natural sounding dialogue, improved pacing.  This is typical of my process.  My writing – and I imagine that of most authors – starts off rough, as initially the thoughts don’t translate well to the page (frequently because they’re not yet fully-baked to begin with), and then, over time, with multiple re-readings, re-writings, and the all-important input from my trusted circle, it eventually evolves to become smoother and more coherent.

That’s not what this post is about.

I’ll certainly talk about such tactical considerations in the future, but this early draft of the prologue had a larger, more strategic flaw, and that’s what I’d like to focus on here.  Of course, any literary agents who may happen to be reading this are likely thinking they can already identify the piece’s biggest problem, even without clicking on the link:  the mere fact that it is a prologue.  Based on my early interactions with the industry and interviews I have read since I started querying, it is becoming increasingly clear that editors now consider the device passé – and as a consequence, I may eventually have to eliminate it entirely if I want the novel published through traditional channels.  If that ever happens, I promise to post a rant screed discussion about it then.  For the time being, however, let’s ignore the fact that I was gauche enough to frame this portion of the novel as such, and instead focus on the text.  It serves as an excellent example of how the book has developed over the years, pulled from some of the very first pages I ever wrote.

Oh so subtle, I know.

Consider the purpose of the prologue:  in the case of The Herald’s Dark Progress it provides some background for the story, certainly, but that is not the principle reason I chose to include it.  After all, the plot points it contains could easily be alluded to elsewhere in the narrative during any number of conversations between the characters (which is how I will likely introduce them if I am in fact forced to cut the section).  I employed the device, rather, for three very different, very specific reasons: 1) simply put, the prologue is evocative of the sub-genre I am writing, and as I am attempting to revive a form that has fallen out of favor, I wanted to lead with an element that would be instantly recognizable to fellow fans; 2) in order to set the mythic, storytelling mood I am endeavoring to establish, I start the next chapter with three pages in the narrator’s voice, and therefore wanted to precede them with a scene of high drama; and 3) of course, like any other author of any other work, I wanted a gripping hook that would capture the reader’s attention right from the first sentence.  (Once you’ve picked up the novel, we can’t have you putting it back down on the bookstore shelf, now can we?)

So it is that The Herald’s Dark Progress begins sixteen years before the birth of the main protagonist in a crowded bedchamber on the upper floor of a castle.  At the center of the room, a woman lies in a grand bed gasping out her last breaths, while resting peacefully in an alcove nearby is the babe she has just borne.  In mere moments this infant will be the last of his line, the orphan prince of a great nation.  And, it seems, he may just be a bastard.

We can argue over the quality of my execution, but come on:  you have to admit that has all the makings of a pretty gripping opening.

Holy straying way off course, Batman.

But compare my first take on the prologue to the one included in the version of the manuscript I’ve used to query agents.  In my summary above, I’ve clearly laid out the components that create the dramatic tension:  one person is dying, another has been born, and the combination of these events will cause unrest throughout the land.  And yet, how did I originally write the scene?  I had three characters discussing the problems, where two would do; one of them devoted a full paragraph of dialogue to an unnecessary explanation of how schools of magic function; and by far the worst transgression of all, they spent the vast majority of their time “on screen” discussing another tragedy, the death of the previous king nine months prior, instead of the world-shaking events transpiring before them at that moment.  Oof.  Not good.

Now look at the new version:  only two principle characters in the conversation; no mention of extraneous detail such as how the academies of magical learning operate (plenty of time for that later); and the reference to the king’s death reduced to a single paragraph  with only a small, almost throw-away hint at the additional problems it may imply.  In my opinion, not only does it read better, but it is infinitely better structured.

As I’ve said, I know I’ll eventually have to make further edits to the current version of the novel.  Any interested agents will have their thoughts on how it could be improved, and any interested editors will have yet others (hey, they have their titles for a reason).  Even if I go the self-publishing route, in the last week I just heard from a pair of beta-readers who did particularly close reads of the manuscript over the holiday break and came back with what I thought were some excellent suggestions to make the book better.  In the end, perhaps the prologue will in fact have to go; perhaps three pages in the narrator’s voice at the start of the first chapter is two pages too many; perhaps even the lone paragraph on the previous king’s death is an unnecessary distraction.  One way or another, there will be changes.  As I make them, I’ll do my best to keep you updated in this space as to how and why they happened.

4 thoughts on “Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

  1. Hi,
    Your markups remind me of a guest post I am writing. It is for a big blog. I have a mentor who is so hard on me. Every time I think I’m done, they say I’m not even close and make me virtually start over. My husband says to forget it, but I really want to guest post for the big blog.
    The frustrations of editing… you totally get it.
    Perhaps check out my site. I offer blogging tips, but I am so gentle. I would never make people feel bad or small when I give suggestions.


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