Is it necessary?September 8, 2008
I emailed a question to agent Kate Schafer’s “Ask Daphne” blog and Daphne answered last Monday, Labor Day (I know, it has taken me ages to get around to blogging about this — but I did work on my novel every morning last week, so that’s something). My question was about prologues, whether to include them in the first pages you send with your submission, and I was wondering Kate’s opinion on them. (Click here for the full question and answer.)
Kate, sorry, Daphne posed a series of questions to ask about the prologue, and in my mind, I edited them down to this: “Is it necessary?”
To me, this is the heart of revising. When we’re first writing our book, screenplay, short story, article…, we shouldn’t hold back. Get down every idea, because you don’t want to ignore something that could be great.
But when we’re revising, we need to look at every scene, paragraph, sentence and word and truly ask ourselves, “Is it necessary?” Does it move the story forward? Does it show character? Is it there for a bit of comedy? (Farts or the like are always welcomed by middle-graders, but don’t usually move the story forward — although they could say something about the character…)
At the 2007 SCBWI Summer conference, author John Green read an absolutely beautiful passage from a very well known classic writer (of course, a year later I can’t remember the author’s name and it’s not in my notes; was it Hemingway?). After wowing all of us with these beautifully written words, Green told us that they were the original beginning to an equally famous book by the famous author, who I now can’t remember. But, when that author was revising his novel, he recognized that, although the beginning was lovely, it was not necessary for the story, and he cut it.
Flowing prose is all well and good, but apart from being writers, we are story tellers, whether we’re writing a novel, a screenplay, a short story or even a non-fiction article. Our main goal is to tell an entertaining, interesting, perhaps touching story.
So, back to prologues, my question to Daphne was for practical reasons; my novel does have a prologue and an epilogue, tieing the story together in a neat bow. But, are they necessary to the story? I had a quick answer to that question: No. I really like them both, and they have gotten great feedback from members of my critique group. But I realize now that they’re not necessary and don’t really add anything more than a “hmmm” from readers. So, I have chosen to cut them… for now. Who knows, maybe one day when I have an agent or editor signed on to the book (always think “when”, not “if”), maybe I’ll show them the prologue and epilogue and say, “What do you think?” I suspect they’ll say the same thing: Nice, but not necessary. We’ll see.
Either way, I’m keeping “Is it necessary?” front and center in my revising.
How’s your writing or revising coming?
P.S. I just closed my notes from Green’s talk last year and noticed something I really liked and wanted to share: “Great books don’t happen by accident. Work for every word.” I’m not sure if that was a direct quote from him or if I paraphrased when I was jotting down my notes, but either way, the meaning is there. And so I say again, Write On!