The Sucker Punch of Speculative Fiction Novels
I think the falcon-chick affect (see preceding post for explanation of this syndrome) is why a writer’s first novel generally doesn’t have a prologue. For a falcon chick reader, the prologue is the ultimate sucker punch. It’s like saying, “Here, read this prologue, bond with the prologue protagonist, then learn in the first chapter that she died ten centuries before the main story begins.”
This may be why agents and editors don’t like to put them in a debut novelist’s first novel. Established writers can get away with using prologues, because they already have an audience that trusts them, and because they are less likely to use a prologue as an expository crutch.
Sampling a few debut novels from the last couple years seems to bear this out:
- Thunderer, by Felix Gilman: no prologue.
- The Windup Girl, by Paulo Baccigalupi: no prologue.
- Low Town, by Daniel Polansky: no prologue.
- The Girl of Fire and Thorns: no prologue.
- The Desert of Souls, by Howard Jones: no prologue.
Notably, Gilman’s sequel, City of Gears, has a prologue. He proved himself.
Still, being an established author does not override my falcon-chick complex. I can think of a few established authors I put down after I bonded with a prologue character who never reappears in the novel. Saberhagen’s The Book of Swords was one. Tigana, by Guy Gabriel Kay, was another. The only exception that comes to mind is the prologue to Martin’s A Game of Thrones, where the character relationships were so gorgeously crafted that (ironically) I forgave him when they died.
Kristin Nelson’s “Agent Reads the Slushpile” Workshop
I also noticed yesterday that when Kristin Nelson held a recent “first-pages” workshop she instructs participants to send the first couple pages of their manuscript: “It needs to be the actual, opening first 2 pages of your manuscript. If you have a prologue, skip it and grab page 1 and 2 from your chapter one.” That may be a coded form of Vonnegut’s advice to “throw away the first couple pages, because that’s where you explain everything” (see earlier posting on Vonnegut’s Writing Advice).
So the message to new writers of fantasy is clear: ditch the prologue till you’ve published. Of course, I had to be told this myself. In the fist draft of my first novel I had one. And it was hard to let it go: prologues are a nice crutch for exposition, and losing it made me work harder.