QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Seven Questions Authors Need to Ask About Copyright

Writers beginning their journey to publication will eventually have to think about the issue of copyright protection.

When my first novel came out, the small press who published it took care of copyright registration. There wasn’t a heck of a lot for me to do. I saw the little copyright symbol in the front of my book and thought, Well, that’s one less thing for me to worry about.

However, when I self-produced my novel THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, I was on my own—so I needed to know what the details were.

New writers should be aware what copyright is and what it does so that they can make informed decisions regarding their work. Much of the information presented in this article comes from the Wikipedia page (noted as [1]) as well as Copyright.gov (noted as [2]).

Which leads me to the big looming disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I don’t pretend to be a lawyer. This is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, consult a professional. This article is for informational purposes only. Visit copyright.gov for the laws and regulations and processes regarding this topic.

Ok, let's get to the important stuff. Here are the questions you should be asking (as well as some answers. I have nothing against cheat sheets.)

1) What is copyright?

“Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution.” [1] It protects both published and unpublished works. [2]

Basically, it states that, if you create it, you should have the rights to it. For authors, this means that your book is your book and you control the rights to it. It also means that if you plagiarize another person’s work or distribute it without their permission, you are in violation of their copyright. You cannot copyright material that belongs to someone else.

However, there are shades and degrees all sorts of nuances. For instance, through coincidence, two people may hold copyright on substantially similar ideas and still not be in violation of copyright as long as it can be determined that one did not copy from the other.

2) What does copyright protect?

“Copyright is a form of intellectual property, applicable to certain forms of creative work. Under US copyright law, legal protection attaches only to fixed representations in a tangible medium.” [1]

Creative work includes far more than literary creations but, for us authors, we are most concerned with works such as novels, stories, poems, plays, and articles. (For an in-depth answer to this question, look at this document.)

3) What does copyright NOT protect?

The Wikipedia page lists several exceptions to what copyright will protect. Copyright will not protect:
• Names of products
• Names of businesses, organizations, or groups
• Pseudonyms of individuals
• Titles of works
• Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions
• Listings of ingredients in recipes, labels, and formulas (although the directions may be protected by copyright)

It also doesn’t protect facts or ideas. [2]

Copyright is not the same thing as a patent or a trademark. Those distinctions are described here

4) How is copyright enforced?

Copyright exists the moment an author puts work in a tangible form. In other words, he prints it out. You write a book, print it out, boom. You got copyright!

Enforcing it, on the other hand, is where all the work comes in. An author must register the work with the copyright office. Doing this is easy enough: go to http://copyright.gov and fill out an application.

You send in the form either by mail or electronically (faster) and follow up with snail-mailing a print copy of your book. They mail you a certificate once the work is registered. If you then find that someone has violated your copyright, you can take legal action.

5) What does it cost?

Registering a work with the copyright office isn’t very expensive. For a single author/single work, it costs under 50$. The fee list is here.  (The costs associated with taking legal action will vary.)

6) What is a poor man’s copyright?

It is thought that if one were to print out their manuscript, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to themselves, it would protect their work in the matter of what some call “a poor man’s copyright". If left unopened, the date on the postmark should be enough proof that the work was put into tangible form by that date. Right?

Wrong. This process won’t protect the work in the event of a copyright lawsuit. All this process does is make a nice souvenir. But you already knew that copyright exists the moment you print your work out. (If not, go back and read #4.)

7) Do you need to register your copyright?

And that’s the million dollar question. The answer is: only if you want copyright laws to back up your claim should you head to court.

Will you actually need to go to court? I hope not.

It’s kind of like auto insurance. Are you definitely going to get into an accident? I hope not. But that’s why we carry insurance. It’s protection in case an if becomes a when. What stops a person from driving a car without insurance? Nothing, really, except the threat of legal ramifications since it’s the law to maintain car insurance. But no law says you need insurance to publish a book.

So…maybe it’s not like auto insurance. Maybe it’s even more confusing.

Think about you, your book, your goals as a writer…then do your own research. You already own the right to your work. Do you want the laws to protect it for you? I guess that’s the question you need to ask.

And if you want to see copyright in action, here are some articles about important copyright infringement discussions:

J.K. Rowling wins copyright infringement case

When Does a Movie Infringe a Novel's Copyright?

The Shadowhunters vs. the Dark-Hunters

Authors published by traditional or small presses most likely will have their registration handled for them, as mine had been with my first novel. Indie authors who are self-producing their work will have to register their work with the copyright office on their own.

I chose to register THE HEARTBEAT THIEF because I wanted to ensure I crossed every t and dotted every i (something that, ironically, I often fail to do when handwriting. What a weird cliché for me to use.) It was only 35$. I figured it was worth the cost of insurance. Once I had the print book formatted, I printed a proof copy and mailed it in (so, another 10$ or so).

For me, it wasn’t difficult or and it wasn’t expensive...and it’s one less thing I need to worry about.

Good thing. I don’t need to spend my time worrying about things like that. I’d rather spend my time writing my next book.



Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

When the "Show, Don't Tell" police come knocking

Every writer, at some point, has heard the phrase, "There is too much telling." Perhaps the critique came from a well-meaning critique partner, or even that rare agent who offered a personalized rejection. Unfortunately, that advice has become so common that it can be about as useless as the also-ubiquitous, "Passive voice is bad!" mantra.

So what exactly does it mean to show, not tell? And when is telling better than showing? Here are some tools I try to keep in mind when editing. To digress a moment, I don't recommend going through this process while you are churning out your first draft. It's called a crappy first draft for a reason.

When you see a long expanse of text with no dialogue, and no "short action" paragraphs to break up the action (like, "the cell door slammed shut"), ask yourself if the passage is lacking some description of a person's body language as well as other sensory elements, such as touch or smell that could convey the same information, or whether the same scene could be conveyed better with dialogue rather than description. If the passage if merely a character's backstory, does it read like an information dump or can you weave in some of the back story in later chapters if it doesn't have to be established up front?

By way of example, here is some "telling."

"Mary was very angry. Her husband was late for dinner again and despite several text messages and voice mails, he hadn't bothered to tell her if he was on his way home or not. To make matters worse, her teenage son had wolfed down a dinner she had carefully prepared from scratch. He had eaten quickly while standing up and then immediately dashed out, not even bothering to tell her where he was going. Mary wondered if she should just give up. She began googling divorce attorneys."

Here is how the same situation could be more "showy."

No new messages.
"Inconsiderate jerk," Mary muttered. She punched Joe's cell number with her thumb as she ladled the congealed remains of her signature lasagna into a plastic containers with the other hand. The remnants of fresh basil, oregano and garlic wafted through the air.

Straight to voice mail. Mary clicked End Call. She tossed her phone on the counter. The dog she hadn't wanted looked up at her hopefully with a leash in his mouth.

"Go walk yourself. I'm done being everyone's maid," she told him. "Jake, where are you going?

Her son barely looked up from his phone. He opened the side door. "Out."

"But you barely touched your din-"

The door slammed shut in his wake. Mary scraped the remaining food into the sink and put it down the disposal. She opened up her laptop, poured herself a glass of wine she'd been saving for a special occasion, and typed. A few minutes later, she clicked on Schedule a Free Consultation with one our Board Certified Divorce Attorneys.

In the first example, the writer is simply telling the reader what the reader needs to know about Mary. She feels unappreciated, put upon, and has simply had enough. The second example shows the reader things Mary does and says, and how she reacts to what other people do through action and dialogue. We don't need to be told how she feels because we can see it.

This is not to suggest that "telling" is always bad. Sometimes, telling is better than showing. Consider this "all tell" passage from Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald:

"T. Harlan Bowie had to be prybarred and torch-cut out of his squashed Buick, and there was so much blood the rescue people were in a big hurry. As it turned out, they would have done a lot better taking it slow and easy rather than turning him and twisting him and working him in muscular style out of the metal carapace. Nobody could prove anything afterward. The lacerations were superficial. But there was a fracture of the spine, and between the second and third lumbar vertebrae the unprotected cord had been pinched, ground, bruised, torn and all but severed. Nobody could ever say whether the accident had done it, or the rescue efforts."

You can't convince me that there is a better way to convey this information about poor Mr. Bowie than to just say it. There is no need to draw it out with "showing" techniques because the reader only needs to know Mr. Bowie's predicament in order to set the stage for actual plot, which doesn't really involve how he became physically disabled. Stephen King similarly introduces us to retired Detective Hodges in Mr. Mercedes by just telling us in straightforward, unembellished  fashion, about how he spends his days post retirement watching television and gaining weight.

So when to show and when to tell? That is often in the eye of the beholder. But say that Mary in our first example is a fleeting character in a slasher novel who gets killed off rather quickly at the beginning. Maybe a little "tell" works better because we don't really need to know the details of her lasagna and her kid. But if Mary is the main character in a chick lit novel, then yes, we need to be able to identify with the every day experiences of feeling overwhelmed and under taken for granted. In that case, the second example works better.

In your own writing, if you notice a lot of first-version Mary writing that goes on for pages and pages, this should be a red flag to ask yourself a few questions. Can I write this scene referencing facial expressions, glances, smells, or by use of dialogue?  Instead of  saying "Lady Macbeth was convinced blood was everywhere and on her hands and she couldn't get clean," show a character scrubbing an already immaculate surface until her knuckles bleed while someone pleads with her to stop.

The next step in editing is to identify  the filler words we all use  when we try to "show, don't tell."  My writing's  worst offenders are eye rolling and shrugging. But that topic has to wait until next month.

Happy show and tell until then.



Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2016. Her website is Kim-

Friday, June 17, 2016

Hello! Again.

This is the second time I have made this introduction, but for those who have never heard of me (in other words, all of you except Patrick) I will do it again.  If you are so inclined, you can go all the way back to 2007 to view my first introduction.

My name is Jason Robinson, and I have been with Query Tracker in some form or another since its inception.  Pat and I have been through the pain of writing and mailing query letters.  Yes, actually putting letters in envelopes, sticking stamps to them, dropping them in a big blue box, and then waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting some more.  It was a trying time for us both, but pain accompanies every birth, and it was through this pain that Query Tracker was born.  No more would struggling authors have to keep handwritten lists of agents they had queried or run the risk of making themselves appear unprofessional by querying the same agent twice.  No more would they be stuck in query limbo, never knowing if their query had been rejected or if that full request had just been lost in the mail.  No!  We would create a tool to make this process less painful and less confusing.  We would give authors the resources they needed to first find literary agents and then target their queries to the right agents.  Ah, yes, we would bring new hope to the next Stephen King and JK Rowling.  Well, Patrick would.  I mostly just cheered him on.

It is important to note the motivation behind all this.  Patrick gets asked all the time, "How can you offer this for free?  What's in it for you?"  The answer is pretty simple.  We wanted to help people.  There were plenty of sites and services out there that were happy to take advantage of writers who didn't understand the industry, and in the beginning, we waded through all that muck and tried to figure it out on our own.  That wasn't fun.  We passed along what we had learned and at the same time tried to make querying just a little bit easier for those whose pain we understand very well.

So, I will be around here to present my musings, share my struggles, and offer advice.  I am excited to once again be a visible member of the QT team.  Lurking in the shadows was fun too, but that's a story for another post.

Keep rewriting,
Jason

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Plagarism and the Indie Author

Recently I read a disturbing article about an author who’d discovered that someone had plagiarized her book, causing such substantial physical and financial distress that she eventually pursued the offender in court.

Plagiarism is not a new concept (in fact, you can revisit Carolyn's article here) but it seems to be finding a new group of easy targets: self-published books on Amazon.

If a thief tries to steal a traditionally published book, you can bet that the legal team employed by the Big House will descend like bees on a honey-stealing bear.

But self-published authors don’t necessarily have that back-up plan. And Amazon is full of self-published books, ripe for the plucking.

This isn’t an article meant to deter writers from choosing self-publishing. Many writers seeking agent representation still opt to self-publish other work not deemed generally query-able: short stories, anthologies, or poetry books...

...and, yes, novels, usually those that failed to find their footing with agents or editors. Those books aren’t automatic failures—they are just projects that didn’t get picked up. That’s not necessarily a condemnation on quality. That's why many authors pursue publication for those novels on their own.

In fact, putting forth a great self-published book can be a stepping stone to finding a dream agent because it provides an opportunity to start building an audience. An established audience is a huge enticement for an agent.

So self-publishing, when done well, isn’t the kiss of death. But it does open up an author to the plague that is plagiarism.

The vast majority of self-published novels on Amazon is romance fiction. Needless to say, those books are often the most plagiarized. (That doesn’t mean that everyone else is safe, though.) The market for romance fiction is massively huge, making it easy for a copy-cat to find a niche and sell well without being discovered. And that’s the problem—those copies have to be detected, discovered, and decried in order for Amazon to take them down.

While Amazon will take down individual offending books, so far they do not have a policy in place that will take down an author’s entire list if any of their titles are plagiarized. It’s up to authors to protect themselves when putting their products out for sale.

Here are a few things an author can do to reduce the chance your work will be plagiarized.

  • Enable your Digital Rights Management (DRM). Kindle publishers should activate this safe guard , which limits the devices upon which the book can be viewed. By doing so, you limit the ability for a person to lift your book, drop it into a word processor, and use it as their own. (There is a downside to enabling DRM, as many readers like to read between multiple devices, so do your research before making the decision that is right for your situation.)

  • Register your work with the US Copyright office. It gives you legal protection and the ability to seek damages. It doesn’t keep your work from getting stolen, but it really helps deliver the payback by giving you a case in court. (I'll be discussing Copyright Registration in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.)

  • Use websites to find your lines online. There are a few sites that scan the internet for you, such as Copyscape and Plagiarism.org using the “check for plagiarism” button. What else can you do? Author Ally E. Machate recommends using Smart Google Search to be the watchdog. Simple enter in a few random lines from your text and, if a new page pops up with those words (or very similar), you get an alert.

  • Protect your blog! May authors use their blogs to provide fresh, enticing content to keep their readers on the hook between books. Post copyright notices on your web pages and disable the right click copy function to prevent easy lifting. Use Java code as discussed in this article or look at this Java-free method tutorial. The addition of such coding helps to deter a plagiarist from lifting your blog and copy-pasting it to their own document. You can also go so far as to register your blog with the US Copyright office.

  • Watermark your images on your blog and the pages of your review copies. Adding a transparent copyright notice catty-cornered across the pages of your PDF review copies will also make it harder for pirates to throw your book up on the torrentz.

Keep this very important thing in mind: there is no way to prevent your book from getting plagiarized. Deterrence and vigilance is key.  Authors must do all that they can to post copyright notices and to make it harder for work to be swiped. Monitor the internet periodically for evidence that someone is passing your work off as their own. Obtain copyright registration so that, if you find it, you can fight it and claim your damages.

Authors put in immeasurable amounts of time and effort into creating their work. The same should go into protecting it. It’s YOUR book. Do all you can to keep it that way.




Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Querying: What to Leave Out

I see over and over again templates and suggestions about what to include in a query. For instance, Carissa Taylor posted an excellent blog on pitch as story, including a template and links to other templates (all of which are helpful!). In addition to the pitch, a query can have comp titles and a biography (although whether they are necessary varies on the agent). There is plenty of information on what to include in a query.

But your novel is most likely between 50,000 and 100,000 words. That means a LOT will be left out. What exactly should that be?

As Taylor notes in her post, your novel probably has several moments that could be used as the final moment of decision, from the first plot point way up to the final climax. Which one you choose, Taylor says, should be a matter of which one is the most exciting. Another factor to consider is which one is easier to condense.

Novels are complicated creatures by design. Subplots should roll into the main plot for a satisfying conclusion, where something seemingly unrelated becomes the cornerstone, or the subplots and main plot echo each other in a thematically resonant way. By necessity, this can't all fit into your query.

So, what exactly do you leave out?

First, the logline. With few exceptions, if the first sentence of your query could be read in Movie Trailer Voice (you know the one), it can be deleted and it probably should be. Queries don't need to start with anything along the lines of, "For star-crossed lovers Qui-gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks, the only thing separating them is 17,000 light years and parents who hate each other." or "Love. Loss. Growing up. In this epic tale of forgiveness and bittersweet romance..."

Instead, start with the characters themselves. Let the words of the plot and characters tell us about your theme instead of spelling it out.

Second, almost every single subplot. A general rule of thumb is not to name more than three characters in a query: the protagonist, the antagonist, and a sidekick or romantic interest. I fought this tooth and nail with the second book I queried. I was certain I needed the three above AND two more characters. I cut it down to three named and one mentioned but unnamed, and while I wasn't happy about it, I know my query was better for it.

Even when I receive the go-ahead on my queries from my critique partners, I usually find them woefully inadequate. But when I read queries for stories I haven't read yet, the effective ones get me excited to read the rest, and pleasantly surprised when the story turns out to be even more complicated and interesting than I had thought based on the query alone.

Instead, focus on a through-line that makes sense. Don't get distracted by details that don't relate to the main plotline. Additionally, keep in mind the third point.

The third thing you can leave out is the whole truth. I hate to be the one who breaks this to you, but queries sometimes lie. When you leave out subplots and characters, the way that something actually happens likely isn't exactly the way you're going to describe it. There is a fine line between including every detail of an intricate plot and only saying "One thing leads to another," but it's okay if that line doesn't say something exactly. If it's a minor character who shows your protagonist the key to solving her dilemma, you aren't going to introduce the minor character for just that moment.

Instead, use passive voice. I know. I'm crazy. But when it comes to simplifying things without being too vague, it can work. Instead of "The protagonist gives up and sits down for a meal at her favorite diner. To her surprise, the waitress mentions a hidden trail near the top of Mt. Hood that is just the clue the protagonist needed to set out toward the third act." Write, "When the location of the hidden trail is revealed, it's the final clue she needs. But at the top is a fork in the road and she must choose: go up and chance running into Bigfoot, or go around and risk the landslides that have been plaguing the mountain." This gets us to the important part--the choice she has to make--without bogging us down in too many details (Although the rough draft example I provided probably still has too many details.)

Finally, irrelevant biographical information. Unless an agent specifically asks for it, your biography can be nonexistent.

Instead, any information in your biography should be directly relevant to writing and/or the subject of your book. If you have an MFA or are working toward one, say so. No need to mention your five pet dogs or the amount of time you spend on Tumblr. However, if your character is a web designer and you spent ten years in the business, that's something relevant you can include.

What things are you tempted to include in your query that would be best left unsaid?

Monday, May 30, 2016

A New Frontier For Queries

As you probably know, QueryTracker is dedicated to improving the query process for authors, but that isn't always easy. A lot of the problems authors face are outside of our control, but maybe we can fix that.

Some of the biggest complaints I hear are about the long waits for queries, and the increasingly common reply of, "No reply means no." How many times have you sent a query and never received a reply? Did you wonder if the agent ever saw it? Maybe it got lost in the web? Or, worse yet, the agent did reply (requesting a full even) but you never got it.

But let's look at it from the agent's point of view. They're receiving hundreds of queries every week, and they've got plenty of other work to do besides read queries all day long. So, of course, they're seeking a faster way. Not answering is fast, but not ideal for either party. Of course, the authors don't like it, but it's a problem for the agents, too. As word gets around that they're non-responders, people are choosing to not query them, or maybe put off querying them. This means the agents might be missing out on the next big book. How many great queries went to a different agent because the author chose not to query a non-responder? We'll never know.

So what's the solution? Can both sides be made happy?

I think so.

We at QueryTracker have been busy developing a new tool for agents and publishers that we hope can solve some of these problems. It's a system for receiving and quickly processing and responding to queries. We call it Query Manager.

Here's a short video introduction:

video



There have been services in the past that attempt to ease the query pain for one side or the other. The problem with these are they tend to relieve the pain for only one side, and they always charge either the agents, the authors, or both for the service. Query Manager is totally free to all parties, and focuses on lessening the pain for both sides of the query.

Other sites have tried things like "Display" or "Discovery" services. These are sites where authors upload their manuscripts and hope an agent will stumble upon it. These sites don't work because agents get plenty of queries and don't need to go looking for more. They also charge the authors for the service. If you run across a site like this, don't waste your money.

Another type of query site is the "gate-keeper" site. These sites say they'll pre-screen queries for agents, and only pass on the good ones. But how do they know what an agent will or won't like? And of course, someone has to pay them to do this.

Both these types of sites pop up all the time. Rarely do they last more than a few months.

QueryManager is neither of these.

Any and all feedback on this new site is appreciated, so please post your comments below.



QueryTracker
Founder
Patrick McDonald is the founder and creator of QueryTracker. Though maintaining QueryTracker keeps him too busy to write anymore, back when he did he tended to write in many different genres. Not because he was eclectic, but because he was still trying to find his niche. Though he never discovered his genre of choice, he did find his home at QueryTracker, a place where he could spend time in his two favorite worlds: writing and programming.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Truth About Prologues

The second rule in Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Avoid Prologues.” At first this sounds like Mr. Leonard is telling us not to use prologues. Until you realize that the Rule 1 and Rule 3 don’t start with the word “avoid.” They start with the word “never.”

Avoid means steer clear of, think twice about, shy away from. Never means, well, never. Ever. Not even once. That’s a big difference. Particularly when Mr. Leonard’s comments about that rule consist largely of John Fucking Steinbeck brilliant use of a prologue.

The entire prologue situation (both the problem itself and the extent to which writers exaggerate that problem) was summed up beautifully by Angela James, an editor for Carina Press (a Harlequin digital first imprint). She said:

Of course, I’m an editor, and if you’ve heard it once you’ve probably heard it from an editor or agent: we’re not always fans of prologues. I think this has morphed into authors saying that we HATE prologues, but that’s not true. What’s true is this: we see a lot of stories come through our slush pile that start with prologues, and 9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.

I’m willing to bet she speaks for virtually every agent and editor in the business when she says it begins – and ends – with “We’re not always fans of prologues.”

That’s far from “never do it or you will immediately burst into flames and the souls of your loved ones will be doomed for all eternity,” which is how a LOT of writers tend to treat the issue. Still, it’s a really good idea to avoid them if you can.

Prologue Problems


Prologue problems come in two flavors: Problems with the prologue itself (which we will call problems with other people’s prologues, because, seriously, I’m sure yours is wonderful) and problems intrinsic to having and querying a novel with a prologue (which we will call the real problems with having a prologue).

Problems with Other People’s Prologues:

They are often used as info dumps, with all the attendant problems of info dumps.

One of the most common agent/publisher complaints about beginner novelists is that they start the novel two or three chapters too early, before the story really gets going. A prologue adds a fourth chapter of “too soon.”

Readers imprint on the first MC they meet, like baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see and follow it around assuming it’s their mama. The prologue MC usually isn’t the book MC, so readers feel cheated when you switch to your real MC.

Many readers skip them, which means they need to literally be prologues — the story needs to stand on it’s own, completely independently from the prologue. So, by definition, it has to be extra stuff.
If it’s not an info dump, it’s probably backstory, and backstory is generally a very bad way to start a novel.

Compared to working the prologue information in through flashbacks or directly through the narrative, a prologue is an easy way to get it out there (which is why the info dump/backstory concerns are so valid).

Chapter One has to manage to introduce characters and setting and lay a lot of groundwork for a story. That’s hard to do without being boring. Some people use prologues to throw something exciting on the table first, in an attempt to “hook” the reader.This often fails -- it comes off as a gimmick, then you leave the reader with your boring Chapter One (possibly more boring, since you think you’ve taken the pressure off) and the reader goes from exciting prologue to boring chapter and thinks “the first real chapter of this book sucks.” It’s like having a date show up in a Ferrari but then having him drive you to Taco Bell.

There are certainly more, but that gives a decent idea of why, as Ms. James put it, “9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.” Worse than not necessary, the things those other writers are trying to do through the prologue – provide backstory and worldbuild, start with something interesting, etc., are the things that separate great writers from the good. Great writers build incredible worlds and provide deep, rich backstories throughout the narrative core of their books.

The Real Problems with Having a Prologue


The real problem with having a prologue, even if it’s both necessary and brilliant, is: Seriously, prologues are tricky.

For starters, they present logistical problems. You’re ready to query and the agent you are querying asked for the first three pages or your first chapter or whatever. Does that mean your prologue, or Chapter One?

According to literary agent extraordinaire, Janet Reid a/k/a the Query Shark, “your first five pages” or “first chapter” obviously means the first part of the novel, not your prologue:

The five pages you attached don’t mention either character or any of the plot you cover in the query letter. It’s as though you sent five pages that have nothing to do with this query.
 That’s one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue.

Nathan Bransford, on the other hand, says that “first 30 pages” obviously means the first 30 pages that are part of your book:

I want to see the first 30 pages as you want me to send them to the editor. If that involves a prologue… let’s see it.

Oops. Those are agents (well, in Nathan’s case, now an ex-agent) who blog a lot about what they expect and want to see, and the advice is diametrically opposed. If I had to guess, I’d say more agents probably agree with Nathan, but that’s a guess. I doubt Janet is completely out in left field, so it’s safe to assume a significant portion of agents agree with her take as well. Either way, having a prologue creates a new, possibly unnecessary problem.

There’s also the issue of Pavlov’s agent (or, worse, reader). Imagine having 200 queries and sample pages to wade through in a day. Ten of those had prologues, and all ten treated you to worldbuilding, backstory, and info dumps. You open your 200th query, and discover it’s the eleventh to start with the word “Prologue.” At this point, you expect it to suck. There’s a 90% chance you’ll be right. You’ve been conditioned to expect it to suck. Maybe even conditioned to think it sucks.

It’s not your prologue’s fault. It those ten other, stupid, needless prologues that came before it. But you’ve been tainted by association. Now, at best, the reader is looking to see how much of an info dumpy, backstory filled piece of shit your prologue is, not objectively looking at how good or bad it is. Prejudice is an ugly thing, but it’s also a real thing.

The Bottom Line on Prologues?


In this case, it’s also the top line. Prologues are tricky. If possible, you should avoid having one. I don’t think agent’s and editors hate them, I don’t even think most readers skip them (although I’d bet that’s more of an issue with YA readers, for example, than with lit fiction readers). But I do think they bring a host of new problems to the party, even if they don’t suffer from the problems that are endemic to prologues generally.

Put differently, there is the way you dress for a job interview, the way you dress on your first day of work, and the way you dress when you’ve been working the same job for a few years. Prologues are a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Even if that’s how you’ll be showing up the third week, when you’re interviewing and it’s probably best to clean things up for one day. It certainly won’t hurt.

UNLESS, you absolutely understand exactly what I’m saying here, see the problems, are positive you aren’t providing background, worldbuidling, info dumping, garbage, and know that your story really, really needs a prologue for a very specific reason that can’t be handled through the body of your narrative.

Because there are some jobs – lifeguard, surf/snowboard/skateboard sales, marijuana dispensary clerk and/or gardener – where you just look like an idiot showing up for the interview in a suit.

Prologues fall into the huge category of writing issues, ranging from adjectives to introspective monologue, where the shorthand "DON'T" is inaccurately used instead of the accurate "MAKE SURE IT'S REALLY NECESSARY." If a prologue is the best way to execute and it's executed well, there's no option other than using one. The confusion arises because they are often tacked onto the beginning of novels where they aren't truly necessary and there are better ways to accomplish what the writer is trying to accomplish through a prologue. 
Michael McDonagh lives outside Boise, Idaho, with an assortment of barn cats, chickens, turkeys, and horses, as well as a cadre of stray dogs and daughters who melt his heart. A charter member of the Humor Writers of America, his personal motto is: I write dystopian fiction, but everybody else thinks it's contemporary fiction. That's what makes it satire.