Here’s the thing about being traditionally published: You have to follow the traditional publishing industry rules... or be really, really good about breaking them.
And since most of us simply (hopefully) aren’t that good about breaking rules, that means we shouldn’t bother pushing this particular envelope if we want to see positive results.
With that established, here’s what you need to know if you want to gain traditionally published fame and fortune as a writer:
Literary agents hate prologues.
Novice writers often start their stories with a “beginning before the beginning:” a prologue scene that sets up the plot by getting into the villain’s head or establishing some significant historical event that sets everything else off.
But if you want to be traditionally published, skip right to the beginning.
Just for the record, this is true if you want to look into small publishing companies as well. Either way, you’re going to have to write a query letter. And if your query letter completely blows its recipient away, then he or she is going to ask you for your first chapter or your first 30 pages or some such thing.
As wonderful and exhilarating as that kind of request is, it’s not even close to being an established publishing contract. If this was a relationship – and it is – then this would be the first date, which is hardly a life-long commitment.
You still need to impress that publishing contact who accepted your offer of literary coffee, or dinner and a movie, or a get-to-know-you stroll through the park. So naturally, you want to present your absolute best.
Well, in their minds, prologues are not the absolute best. They might very well be the worst. Which means the second they see a prologue, they’re going to throw it in the trash, along with their motivation to advance your career as a published author.
Here’s a correspondence that literary agent Janet Reid got on the subject from a frustrated writer:
I have been doing a lot of research on the different ways to begin a novel and have read many polarizing opinions on prologue use from various players in the publishing industry. The most common is agents saying that they HATE to see novels beginning with prologues. The reasons are perfectly valid; they’ve seen it all – prologues that are information dumps full of backstory, prologues that have no connection to the main character, prologue action that has no impact on the story. I can understand how, after receiving multiple sample page submissions of these and other examples, most agents abhor prologues.
Reid’s answer to the following question – which was essentially how to write a prologue that doesn’t turn literary agents off – was stellar. You can read the whole thing here.
But for now, I do want to highlight the very first sentence of her response, which reads: “I am fully settled in the I Hate Prologues camp too. I go so far as to NOT read them in a manuscript.”
That’s about as clear as you can get on the subject.
Now, if you want to go your own way down the freedom-heavy self-publishing route, then you don’t have to worry about breaking the rules. After all, you’re the one making them.
Well, some of them, anyway.
Just know that you might still be turning off readers with a prologue that’s an information dump full of backstory with “no connection to the main character” or no actual “impact on the story,” as Janet Reid’s writer put it.
If you want some great general ideas on what to do with a prologue, I highly recommend clicking on one of those links above. And if you want some great tailored tips, then feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d love to help you – and your prologue – out!