My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Soapy Sales

     Balph Eubank had joined the group around Dr. Pritchett, and was saying sullenly, “...no, you cannot expect people to understand the higher reaches of philosophy. Culture should be taken out of the hands of the dollar-chasers. We need a national subsidy for literature. It is disgraceful that artists are treated like peddlers and that art works have to be sold like soap.”
     “You mean, your complaint is that they don’t sell like soap?” asked Francisco d’Anconia.

     [Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged]

     This fine morning, Sarah Hoyt has an impassioned article at PJ Media about the offensive campaign by left-wing writers, critics, and publishers of fantasy and science fiction to denigrate – indeed, to delegitimize – older writers and older works in those genres that have remained popular. Here’s Sarah’s counterpunch – and she lands it right on the point of their collective chin:

     If the art is so great, how come no one is buying it? Besides the artist who is spending way too much time with absinthe and way too little time with quill and paper, or brushes and canvas, that is?

     Oh. I see. Because the general public is too stupid to appreciate the greatness of the artist. Because the artist is “ahead” of the public.

     The “artist ahead of the public” conceit has been used to rationalize just about every failure by a critically praised “artist,” regardless of his field, to make it big with the consuming public.

     The leftists’ sotto voce complaint, of course, is that despite their dominance of the heavily politicized Hugo and Nebula Awards, their books don’t sell. But why don’t they sell? They’re award winners, aren’t they? The “critics” praise them, while simultaneously casting aspersions on the “primitive forebears” of their genres. All the “best people” approve and applaud them. So why are their sales weak?

     Now, now, let’s not always see the same hands!


     I think it was Robert Ringer who said that all commercial activity of any sort requires salesmanship, and therefore, that proficiency in salesmanship is the sine qua non of commercial success. The sale of fiction is not an exception; it merely appears to be one because of the “gatekeeper” phenomenon.

     In the simplest terms, a “gatekeeper” is one who stands between the vendor and the purchaser, and who has a deciding role in determining whether the vendor’s product will reach the purchaser. In the pre-Internet era, commercial publishing houses were gatekeepers for fiction: unless the writer was willing to go to a subsidy house, he had no way to present his books to potential purchasers without the willing collaboration of a publishing house. As the publication of hard-copy fiction is a chancy business, there were never many publishing houses, and therefore not a lot of books were published each year.

     It’s possible to feel a certain sympathy for the editorial staffs of publishing houses – I call them, collectively, Pub World – while nevertheless feeling frustrated by their narrowness of vision and angered by their “progressive” impositions upon writers. Pub World editors appear to labor under the delusion that only left-wing obsessives purchase fiction, and therefore, that only fiction that expresses left-wing political sentiments should pass their scrutiny. Indeed, some writers who’ve succeeded in winning the acceptance of Pub World have subsequently lost their publishers’ favor by introducing a conservative motif in an otherwise politically indifferent story; consider Nick Cole’s travails in this regard as an archetype.

     Are there exceptions? Well, there’s Baen Books. I’ve been straining to think of another. I can’t come up with one.

     I must emphasize this strongly: A gatekeeper is not a censor. A censor has the power of the State at his back; the State’s armed agents will enforce his decisions about who may and who may not publish. However, a gatekeeper can accomplish much the same end as a censor...unless a route around him can be contrived.

     What the gatekeeper cannot do is compel readers to purchase the works the gatekeeper has offered them.


     The independent writers’ community – indies, for short – has experienced explosive growth these past few years. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other electronic distribution outlets are ever more heavily populated by fiction that Pub World will not offer us. Granted that the overwhelming majority of indie novels and stories are pretty poor...in many cases, multidimensionally poor. Traditionally, Pub World’s gatekeepers prevented poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread books from being offered for sale, though in these latter years that guarantee has expired. With indie fiction, there is no guarantee; the purchaser is on his own.

     With so many indies importuning the public, and with so much poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread garbage among their offerings, “big successes” among them will be uncommon. However, the indies have some advantages over Pub World:

  • Low price;
  • Diversity of viewpoint;
  • The willingness to experiment.

     These don’t completely offset Pub World’s advantages of “the mark of quality” and its intimate relations with traditional retail outlets. However, as brick-and-mortar book retailing shrinks and ever more readers turn to eBooks, indies’ edges have helped them collectively to eclipse Pub World in aggregate sales.

     In short, indies are practicing better salesmanship than Pub World. They’re offering more readers something close to what those readers seek to purchase – again, collectively. And it’s sending Pub World and its favored writers into the Slough of Despond.


     Needless to say, I “have a dog in this fight,” being an indie writer myself. However, for analytical purposes I’ve tried to view the field disinterestedly. In doing so, what’s come to mind is the old marketers’ mantra:

Differentiate the product!

     Should Pub World’s offerings become even more homogenized, they would appeal to a more narrowly defined taste, and therefore to an ever narrower slice of the reading public. Readers hungry for something different would peel away from that pack. Indeed, this trend is already in progress. The indies are the beneficiaries.

     With apologies to Ayn Rand, the comparison to soap sales is inexact. Soap is more of a necessity than fiction, at least here in the United States. However, prosperity and a taste for novelty have had their effects on soap marketing just as they have on fiction. Note the explosive variegation in soaps, particularly shower soaps, these past two or three decades. It’s possible that the “old names,” such as Ivory and Dove, still outsell any particular varietal...but the varietals, collectively, outsell the “old names” by a considerable margin.

     From here, it would be all too easy to slip into a discussion of wine and the explosive recent expansion of New York’s wine industry, but the sun’s not yet over the yardarm here on eastern Long Island. Besides, I have a novel to finish.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

An Early Morning Grump

     The something-for-nothing mentality is rampant these days. Everyone seems to think he can get what he wants without somehow paying for it. I find it tiresome. I find many of its practitioners thoughtless.

     To be brief and blunt, I don’t “do” something-for-nothing. When I’m approached by someone who wants something from me, I expect to hear him say what he’s willing to give me in recompense. I don’t always hear such an offer of value-for-value. In fact, lately it happens less often than not.

     There are a lot of indie writers hawking their latest ebooks. Some of them have something good to offer, but these are a minority. Most should have put their time and energy to something else. Good, bad, or mediocre, they all want the same two things:

  • A readership;
  • Revenue.

     For an indie writer, self-published and therefore without the promotional power of a recognized publishing house, the royal road to a significant readership is reviews, particularly reviews at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All other methods of attracting the attention of potential readers and purchasers are lower-percentage plays, though now and then one will strike gold. So the ambitious indie usually tries to goose people into reading and reviewing his book(s) by offering friends and acquaintances free copies.

     In his marvelous high fantasy Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden, the late, incomparably great Jack Vance has a Supporting Cast character propose a curious meta-ecological mechanism:

     “A theory propounded by the savants asserts that every niche in the social structure, no matter how constricted, finds someone to fill it. I admit to a specialized occupation, which in fact has not so much as acquired a name. Not to put too keen an edge on it, I wait under gallows until the corpse drops, whereupon I assume possession of the clothes and valuables. I find little competition in the field; the work is dull, and I will never become wealthy, but at least it is honest and I have time to daydream.”

     The quasi-ecological system called fiction writing and publishing has many such niches. One of the more irritating entities to fill them is the “ebook publishing house.” Such a company sells itself to indie writers with ebooks to promote. It offers to assist them by publicizing their offerings and garnering Amazon reviews for them, for a percentage of the proceeds from sales of the ebook.

     I don’t patronize such organizations. I prefer to do my own work and stand on my own merits, even if that should mean that I’ll go unread by many who might otherwise fatten my wallet with their valuta and my ego with their praise. But they don’t feel the same about me, as the following email, which I received just this morning, will attest:

Hi there,

     Nice to meet you! This is Felicity from the publishers Inkitt. I saw your review of Drifters' Alliance, Book 3 and really liked your style of reviewing and think that we have an upcoming novel that you'd really enjoy and would suit your tastes; Eric Olafson: Midship Man by Vanessa Ravencroft.

     We wanted to offer you an exclusive Advanced Reader’s Copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads or any other platform.

     I have included the blurb and important information below. Let me know if you would like to read and review and I will send along the ARC.

[Blurb and cover image appeared here, but they’ll get no free publicity from me!]

     Genre: Space-Opera/ Sci-Fi/ LGBT
     Release Date: May 24th, 2017

     So what do you think? Do you fancy coming along for the ride? :)

Over and out!
Felicity

     It’s not the first time I’ve received a solicitation such as the above. To be perfectly fair about it, it’s not a pure something-for-nothing play: I was offered an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC)of the aforementioned ebook. However:

  • I find the impersonal “Hi there” salutation discourteous,
  • ARCs are legendary for being unedited, barely readable messes;
  • The probability of the book being worth my reading time is about .01;
  • My correspondent Felicity appears quite unaware that I’m a novelist, too.

     That’s four strikes. Felicity and Inkitt ought to go back to the dugout. But I have a soft spot for indie writers, and a penchant for turning the tables on cold-call salesmen and mass-mailing marketers. So I replied as follows:

Dear Felicity,

     First point: Please note that the salutation above uses your actual name. This is considered courteous, at least among those of us who still regard courtesy as worth an effort.

     Second point: I, too, am a novelist. If you had searched Amazon for my name, rather than merely using the email address you found for me, you would have known that -- and you might have included a mention of something I wrote, which would have ingratiated you to me somewhat. That you didn't make the effort counts against you.

     Third point: These review-solicitations-out-of-the-blue are akin to spam, at least when practiced in this fashion. I know you're trying to help your client authors and make a few bucks. Aren't we all? But there are classy, courteous ways to do that. This is on the grubby end of the scale...and it's not the first time I've received such a solicitation from your organization.

     All that having been said, I dislike to disappoint anyone who's praised anything I've written, even if it's only one of my reviews (vanity, vanity, all is vanity), and I like to help other indie writers when I can. But I mean to get something more than a free ebook for my time and effort. So I’ll make a deal with you: If you or someone you nominate will read and review Which Art In Hope at Amazon, I’ll read and review whatever it is you’re hawking. But you must tell me beforehand the name of the person who’ll be doing the review (among other things, so that I can email him a free copy of the ebook) and his review must be as good an effort as the ones I write: detailed and thoughtful, regardless of the star-rating. Otherwise, I’m not interested.

Sincerely,
Francis W. Porretto
Liberty's Torch

     Would anyone care to put money on a positive response?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sex In Fiction, Especially Fantasy And Science Fiction

     I must be getting old. At least, I can’t imagine any other reason why it takes less with each passing day to light my boilers, spin my turbines, and send my pile critical. It can’t be the W-plus bosons; I swept for them yesterday.

     No, I think it must be my decreasing patience with persons obsessed with sex.

     Obsessions come in many varieties. A sexual obsession need not be about “not getting any.” This morning it’s a critic’s displeasure about fictional characters who are getting some. (With one another, of course.) It’s not the first time. But it’s got me wondering why such persons dare to read fiction in the speculative genres.

     I need more coffee if I’m to do this properly. Back in a minute.


     Regard, if you please, the panoply of Mankind across the millennia. Consider how widely our customs, especially our customs about mating and procreation, have varied. Consider in particular that many societies, including Jewish and Christian ones, have varied from what Jews and Christians of today mostly view as proper sexual conduct.

     Let me be maximally explicit about this. There have been Jewish and Christian societies that sanctified plural marriage. There have been Jewish and Christian societies that accepted sex between the entirely unmarried as no more than a peccadillo, provided that if any offspring were to result, the couple would then marry. There have even been Christian societies (I don’t know of any Jewish ones) that, while they regarded homosexuality as deeply unfortunate and life-limiting, did not execrate it as a terrible sin.

     And that’s just Terrestrial Judeo-Christian societies. They haven’t all embraced Saint Paul’s dictum that the only licit sex is between spouses in a monogamous marriage.

     But I intend to speak here of fiction and fictional settings. Fictional societies will have fictional norms and customs. A fictional Christian society cut off from its Terrestrial forebears, such as the one I depicted on Hope, is unlikely to share those forebears’ norms and customs in every detail. And needless to say, a fictional non-Christian society will have its own unique norms and customs, which will be influenced by whatever degree of religiosity applies to it.

     Yet persons unhappy about Louis and Christine’s passion, or about Althea, Martin, and Claire’s triad-marriage, continue to berate me, as if such a thing must never, ever be countenanced even in a far-future speculation. What sort of fiction do they read with total approbation? Do the characters in it ever stray from their prejudices? Do they ever use contraception? Do they ever just let their hair down and fuck?

     It seems unlikely.


     Allow me to provide two sidelights of significance. Just now I’m reading Tears of Paradox, a dystopian novel by Daniella Bova. The novel’s two Marquee Characters are afflicted by sexual tension they don’t even begin to resolve until they’ve married. Why? Because they’re Catholic: one much more serious about it than the other, at least through the first quarter of the book. That’s the premise. They behave in accordance with it, as is entirely consistent and proper for persons of those convictions.

     I have no problem with that. Why should I? Miss Bova has created characters with particular convictions. Each one’s behavior accords with the degree of allegiance he feels toward his faith and its teachings. That’s her prerogative as the story’s creator. I would no more dream of criticizing her for it than I would dream of demanding a slice of the Moon.

     Another series I’ve recently enjoyed – and very much, at that – is E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” fantasy series, which I mentioned illustratively here. The sexual mores depicted in that series are far distant from what contemporary Jews or Christians (if at all doctrinally observant) would countenance. So what? It’s fantasy fiction about a world in which the Norse and Greek Pantheons are fighting a war of extermination against one another. How reasonable would it be to demand that Puritan sexual mores apply there?

     It would appear that for some readers, sex is an untouchable. A story that fails to accord with their prejudices in all details is simply unacceptable. I can’t imagine what they would read for pleasure...if pleasure of any sort is something their convictions would allow them.


     I could go on about this for pages. It’s part and parcel of one of my greatest disagreements with Christian doctrine. But this isn’t the proper time or place for that particular tirade.

     Sexual pleasure and sexual acceptance are among the great motivators of human existence. The great motivators are the things that provide events of substance to fiction. To exclude them reduces the writer’s toolset for drawing his characters into situations worth writing about.

     There was once a time when books would be banned from publication, here and elsewhere, for daring to include sex scenes. The most famous and important case of that sort was U.S. v Ulysses. There haven’t been many cases since then of comparable stature.

     Times have changed. Among other things, we’ve become somewhat more relaxed – dare I say, more realistic? – about sex, at least sex in fiction. At least, some of us have. However, readers who can’t bear to see their prejudices set aside for the sake of an involved story founded on unique premises still exist.

     I pity them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Where The Books Are Headed

     “I’m only here for the weekend,” he said.
     “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” she replied.

     [Barbara Gordon]

     In the wake of this wholly undeserved praise from Mike Hendrix, enough readers – old and new – have been asking “where’s your fiction headed?” that I figured a brief post about the matter would be appropriate.

     With Statesman, the Realm Of Essences series has left the Earth. I’m afraid my fictional USA (and the rest of the world) are in for some rough sledding. There will be more stories involving characters from that series, but the principal “story arc” terminates with Sumner’s rescue and exile to the Arcologics Habitat.

     With Freedom’s Fury, the Spooner Federation series has left Hope in transition back toward States and their multifarious consequences. As the saying goes, “this will not end well,” at least for the planetside population. But Althea is unwilling to be ruled, and a bit less than willing to live out her indefinitely long life immured inside an airless rock. Further interstellar travel, in search of a new world to colonize, lies ahead for Althea, Martin, Claire, and of course Probe.

     A gratifying number of readers have asked whether there’s anything left to the tale told in Love In The Time Of Cinema. I’m of two minds about this. I love that little novel; I return to it simply for my own refreshment, embarrassingly often. However, just now I can’t find a way to evolve more stories from it. Not that I’m about to stop thinking about it! We shall see.

     The “stand-alone” novels, The Sledgehammer Concerto and Priestesses, occasionally evoke queries, but I’m content to leave them be, at least for the moment.

     Here’s what I have on the drawing board:

  • A novel founded on a “dark” version of the central motif in A Place Of Our Own and One Small Detail;
  • A novel that extends the stories told in The Warm Lands and The Common Good;
  • A novel set inside the timeline of Statesman that explores necromancy and why one might attempt it;
  • And a notional novel that would unite the timelines of the Realm Of Essences and Spooner Federation series with a set of “capping” events.

     As I’ve said before, I don’t write fiction with the ease or speed I enjoy with op-eds, so please bear with me while I sort it all out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

F.A.C.E. Press Now Considering Submissions

     Are there any other Christian indie writers out there who’d like to have a publisher’s imprint on their books? Perhaps you should talk to the F.A.C.E.:

     Yes, that’s me behind the false nose, fake mustache, and dark glasses. But I don’t intend it to be a purely personal enterprise. It will give me a vehicle for assisting other indies with the several chores involved in preparing an eBook for publication.

     NOTE: The current Website is a “starter home.” It’s likely to be moved to a non-Blogger host at some point. Don’t let that inhibit you if you’ve got material you think is worthy and would like to submit. But do put your best foot forward. My standards are rather high, so don’t submit hastily dashed-off or un-proofread, unedited dreck.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Vocabulary: A Writer’s Plaint

     The patrons of Liberty’s Torch have seldom said anything negative about the vocabulary I wield. They probably figure it’s their job to look up any terms I might use that aren’t familiar to them – and they’re right; that is their job. Moreover, most online op-ed writers share that attitude; they select the words and phrases they’ll use for their utility and their impact; anyone with an Internet connection is expected to be able to find an online dictionary, should he decide that he needs one.

     Fiction readers tend to hold the opposite opinion. At least, I’ve been gigged more often for “obscure words” than for any of the other supposed fictional sins. The premise seems to be that a story “should” be comprehensible to anyone who was passed out of eighth grade, without any need for him to expand the size of his lexicon.

     Until fairly recently, I allowed such comments to trouble me. Then I had a flash of insight:

You cannot buy an eBook without an Internet connection.
Therefore, fiction readers also have access to online dictionaries!

     Whereupon I decided that being deemed the William F. Buckley of 21st Century fiction isn’t all that bad a fate.


     Other writers, including some of considerable fame, have allowed themselves to use words that were probably known to very few beyond themselves. Only in the postwar period has anyone dared to demand that readers’ ignorance be considered privileged. It might have something to do with the deterioration of American schooling; I, having been very well educated by a gaggle of Dominican nuns who brooked no nonsense and who regarded it as my duty to win all the county spelling bees, cannot say.

     Be that as it may. I write the way I write. I don’t limit myself to the vocabulary of a marginal graduate of eighth grade from an American public school. Readers who enjoy my work are many; readers who don’t...well, I can’t say, as I hear from very few of them.

     So when I find that I’ve written something such as:

     A Dream Of Freedom was a ship that had once been a world.
     It first entered the Solar System in 2117, moving at ninety-three miles per second, at a slight angle to the solar ecliptic. It was a near-perfect sphere with a diameter of twenty-one miles. It had a nickel-iron surface, but showed a considerable luminosity in the gamma-ray portion of the spectrum. Its trajectory would bring it to a perigee of one hundred forty million miles, about two years after its first sighting.
     The International Astrophysical Congress assigned it the identifier X3J11 and immediately dispatched grant petitions to the world's one hundred eighty States. All one hundred eighty petitions were rejected; the war with the Spooner Federation was entering its final phase, and all resources had to be husbanded toward that end.
     The IAC continued to watch the object. As it approached, the great orbiting telescopes gradually made out more details of its composition and structure. Numerous cavity radiators became apparent in the gamma-ray images. Anomalies in its trajectory as it passed the outer gas giants caused the watchers to ponder its density. Shortly before X3J11 passed the orbit of Jupiter, the watchers could tell that the interstellar wanderer was honeycombed.
     The United Nations' combined forces had pushed Spoonerite resistance back to upper Yukon. The Spoonerites dug in for a last stand above the Arctic Circle, and the States massed their forces for the blow that would put an end to Spoonerism on Earth.
     Supreme Commander Ewan MacDonnell planned for a three-pronged strike, two land forces and an enormous amphibious group. There were ample forces available, though the supply lines were a chore to maintain, especially in view of the underenthused participation of the Russians. His staff labored for three months, calculating the affair to a nicety, allowing for an overkill factor of three and permitting no conceivable routes of egress from the killing zone. The two hundred ten thousand Spoonerites in MacDonnell's sights would have nowhere to run.
     The word went out quietly to all commanders, down to the battalion level: Spoonerite surrenders should not be deemed trustworthy. The taking of prisoners was strongly discouraged.      X3J11 approached perigee. The watchers of the IAC were electrified by what they saw. The spectra from the planetoid's cavity radiators indicated an immense core of nuclear fuels. Millions of tons of something dearer than pitchblende or carnotite resided at the center of the worldlet.
     IAC petitioned the States again, and belatedly received their respectful attention. Funds flowed into the watch group. Government representatives and advisors were attached to the effort. Spacecraft that had gone unused for more than a century were pulled out of mothballs, and a frenzied effort to recommission them began.
     MacDonnell's meticulously planned triple assault began exactly on schedule. For a full day's advance, it encountered no resistance at all. For the first few miles, he and his troops assumed that the Spoonerites had run out of fuel, or ammunition, or hope. When the advance guard first came upon abandoned Spoonerite emplacements, well stocked with shot and fuel, they began to wonder.
     The wonder culminated in a pillar of fire seen on United Nations broadcasts by more than three billion people. It was followed by another, and another, and another.
     Maddened beyond all restraint, the UN forces slew and spared not. The inner core of resistance around the Spoonerites' makeshift spaceport was incredibly tough, but before the massed military power of all the States of the world, it had to fall. The victors eventually counted nearly two hundred seven thousand Spoonerite corpses within the Arctic redoubt. The Secretary-General proclaimed the viciously immoral ideology of Spoonerism to have been extinguished for all time.
     Statists say things like that.

     ...I don’t trouble myself over the terms “ecliptic,” “perigee,” “luminosity,” “trajectory,” “cavity radiators,” “pitchblende,” “carnotite,” “egress,” or “redoubt.” Learn enough to read the book and enjoy it is my mantra. Inasmuch as a healthy sample of the book is available before one is required to make a purchase decision, I sleep untroubled by the decision. If it costs me readers, they’re readers who probably wouldn’t have comprehended the rest of the story anyway.

     (I cited that passage because it baffled a writer who’d importuned me for a review of his book: a “science fiction novel” that was a waste of perfectly good pixels. But I digress.)

     But on a lighter note, would you be surprised to hear that someone actually gigged me for the use of the word slew? “What’s that? Something to do with cole slaw?” he wrote.

     Gentle Reader, I kid you not.


     Some write for “the masses;” others write for those who seek something out of the ordinary. I’m in the latter group. If I were determined to have an audience of millions, I’d write in simpler terms, the sort a bright twelve-year-old would grasp without needing his Webster’s Unabridged near to hand. That’s not my ambition. I seek readers who can grapple with a difficult issue set against a challenging backdrop. Readers who’d as lief immerse themselves in prime-time sitcoms are of no use to me.

     Some writers write entertainment, nothing more. I seek to challenge my readers’ assumptions. If I must challenge their intellects to do so, very well. Matters of vocabulary run a distant third.

     So to anyone out there who might be thinking of purchasing one or more of my novels: Of course I’m flattered by your interest, and of course I hope you’ll enjoy what you’re about to read, but please, please don’t assume that the journey will ask nothing of you.

     If you find that my fiction writer’s diction goes a bit “over your head,” before you toss my book aside – or as you do so; I’m no dictator – perhaps you might ask yourself, “Where ought my head to be?”

     Just a quick tirade, Gentle Reader. Ignore it if you prefer. We now return you to your regular Friday evening debauchery.

     (Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cancerous Lumps Continued: The Dreaded Prologue

     As yesterday’s piece on this subject has proved surprisingly popular, it’s impelled me to think further about the subject, particularly as it connects to the all-important realm of backstory.

     Every writer struggles with backstory. It’s a particular challenge for those of us who work in a speculative genre: science fiction, fantasy, or horror. SF writers, in particular, are under immense pressure to explain things: the sociopolitical nature of their fictional world; the scientific discoveries and technological developments that have occurred in it; the social, economic, and political positions of its most important figures. There’s this sense that the reader needs the information to grasp what will follow: what brought about the story’s initial conditions and why the actions of the characters are rational (if they are). That sense is not always incorrect. (NB: The periphrasis in the concluding sentence of the paragraph immediately above should imply something. That’s the only hint I’ll give you. And now, back to our Swedish movie.)

     To serve that sense of a need, the writer will often resort to a prologue.

     The purpose of a prologue is to convey backstory information to the reader. It can be as narratively clever as any segment clipped from the story-time present, but it is not part of the story; it is prior to the story, often separated from story-present by a large number of years. In most cases, no one involved in the prologue participates in the story’s present events.

     Just now, Pub World editors deem prologues to be bad things. They have a good case, for a prologue puts the reasons the reader bought the book some distance from the front cover. A long or awkward prologue can cause the reader to toss the book aside. If the writer has done his job really badly, that can happen in the bookstore.

     Yet there are cases in which a prologue is vitally necessary. I’ve written one that I felt the novel couldn’t do without. I might have been wrong, but so far no one who’s gone on to read the whole book has complained about it. Of course, that omits the opinions of those who didn’t read the whole book, which might be the most important ones.

     The need or lack thereof for a prologue will always be a judgment call. No one but the author is qualified to make it. Accordingly, it behooves us to consider the following questions:

  • What makes a prologue desirable?
  • How can a prologue enhance the story?
  • How can a prologue discourage the reader?


     One of the most important architectural techniques in fiction goes by a Latin name: In media res. In English, that’s “in the middle of the matter.” It denotes the technique of dropping the reader into the middle of the action without any preparation: i.e., without prior acquaintance with the setting, the characters, or the backstory. The reader is immediately confronted with events important to one or more of the Marquee Characters and is compelled to claw for a purchase on them. The opening to On Broken Wings provides a good example:

     At first, there was only darkness, and a dim sense of upward motion, like swimming through dark water. Then there was light, and noise, and incredible pain.
     Christine half-remembered the crash, but had no idea where she was or what was being done to her. The flood of pain from her face blocked her rational powers. The perception of restraint threatened her sanity. A single phrase roared through the torture.
     "She's coming awake!"
     She surged upward against whatever was holding her. Strong hands pressed her back. Something metallic attached to her face, pulling upon it, tore loose and fell off to rest against her ear. Her scream could have shattered stone.
     A needle pierced her arm. Her terror flew beyond any recall. She dropped back into the darkness, certain she would never see light again.

     What’s happening in the above? If you’ve read the whole book, you already know, but did you have a firm idea before you proceeded to the subsequent material? If I managed to pique your interest with the opening, such that you felt a strong desire to discover what was going on, then my employment of in media res architecture was a success. If you frowned, muttered “I don’t have time for this,” and tossed the book aside, then I failed.

     When in media res works, which is often, it obviates the need for a prologue. Indeed, it makes adding a prologue a redundant notion, something that would insult the reader’s intelligence. But it will only work if the subsequent narration introduces the necessary information about what the reader has just read in a smooth and timely fashion: i.e., without creating any significant expository lumps. That, too, is a judgment call...one the author isn’t guaranteed to get right.

     Perhaps the most famous dispute over whether a prologue was necessary concerns J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The first volume thereof, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains a fifteen-page, single spaced prologue packed densely with important information about hobbits, the Shire, and the world of Middle Earth. Quite a number of Tolkien’s critics considered that prologue unnecessary, owing to the existence of The Hobbit, his earlier novel about the adventures of the young Bilbo Baggins. Yet a considerable percentage of those who’ve read The Lord of the Rings did so without having read the earlier novel. Perhaps for them, the prologue was vitally necessary. Needless to say, the matter will never be unanimously agreed.


     A prologue can enhance the subsequent story when:

  • It’s kept brief;
  • It doesn’t digress;
  • It functions as a story of its own.

     Brevity, of course, is relative. Tolkien’s five thousand word prologue to The Lord of the Rings is followed by a half-million word fantasy adventure. The ratio is appropriate. But were that prologue attached to a shorter novel, it would look grotesquely disproportionate.

     The prologue to Which Art In Hope is just under 1800 words long. I fretted over it, fearing that so much precursory narrative might detract from what follows. Nevertheless, I found that I couldn’t reduce it in length without omitting details I felt the reader had to have before I dragged him into the story proper. In any event, “what follows” proved to be longer and wider in scope than I’d anticipated, which eventually allowed me to relax about the length of the prologue.


     A prologue can discourage the reader in several ways:

  • By being overly long or discursive;
  • By drowning the reader in too much detail;
  • By being unappealing as a separate narrative.

     I trust the first of those conditions is self-explanatory. No one picks up a 50,000 word novel – approximately 200 mass-market paperback pages – expecting to slog through a 50 page prologue. Proportion is essential. So also is a sense for the proper degree of detail. It’s vital to remain rigidly within Chekhov’s Law:

     “Everything not essential to the story must be ruthlessly cut away. If in Act One you say that a gun hung on the wall, then by Act Two or Act Three at the latest, it must be discharged.” – Anton Chekhov

     If you violate that precept in your prologue, you risk the very worst sort of “loose end:” the sort that has the reader wondering “why did he tell me that?” throughout the rest of the novel. So don’t!

     The third condition discriminates between narrative prologues, which tell a brief, dramatic story of their own, and “encyclopedia” prologues, which do nothing but convey information. The latter are inherently dry, anti-fictional. They’re very hard to get away with. It’s been done – see the earlier material about The Lord of the Rings -- but successes of the “encyclopedia” sort are rare.

     If you decide upon a prologue for your novel, try to structure it as a narrative of its own. Imagine a Marquee character or two within it, even if none will actually appear, and write it from their perspective. One constructive approach is “a story told around the campfire.” I heartily recommend it.


     So much for prologues. If you intend to pursue “conventional” publication, remember that the majority of editors frown upon them. If you decide to “go indie,” there’s still reason for caution. You want readers; more, you want those readers to finish the book. If they don’t, how likely are they to purchase your next book – or, God help us all, this one’s sequel?

     Best of luck.