Thursday, February 12, 2015

Query Question: unusual prologue

My novel has an unusual prologue and I'm wondering how (or if) to present it when I get requests for pages.

My novel involves a sitcom, and the first chapter takes place during the taping of an episode. The book begins with four pages of the teleplay for that episode. These pages have a photographic look to ensure they are understood as intentional and not weird screenplay formatting in a novel.

This four-page scene sets the reader up with what's supposed to happen on stage. Then the actual chapter shows how that all goes wrong.

I know a prospective agent isn't going to care how well I can write sitcom pages, but how well I can write a novel. So my instinct is to never submit the pages (which can't even be pasted into the text of an email, as many agents require). But to read the first chapter without seeing the teleplay pages feels like watching the second act of "Noises Off" after skipping the first. I worry that the comedy pay-off doesn't pop without the setup.

How would you suggest I handle this?

Exactly as you did here. In your query, you tell the agent that the first four pages are the screenplay and the first chapter is how everything goes horribly wrong. The reference to Noises Off! is good because I can instantly see what you mean.

Email formatting won't allow proper script formatting as you've pointed out.  BUT you CAN simply change the format and label the first four pages TELEPLAY and then write it as dialogue with stage directions.

The point of a query is to entice an agent to read the manuscript. No agent is going to let a little thing like format stand in the way of reading a good idea, as long as the format is clean and legible.

When the time comes to submit a full manuscript, you might inquire about submitting as a PDF. I generally do not like PDFs because I can't make notes on the actual manusript or mark anything with track changes. Also, most editors I work with require mss in .doc style format so it's better to get that at the query stage rather than discover the author has no clue about that format later in the game.

This is yet another instance where meeting agents in a face to face situation will be a good thing. Actual pages will solve this problem and get you to the real question: is this a novel I want to read.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

If I may, for a moment, step aside from this questioner’s particular dilemma, (the formatting of a prologue), and speak to actual prologues; I love them. I hear laughter and moans and groans out there, and I see a few eyes rolling, get over it.

The whole set-up aspect is very important to some stories I think.
It’s been said, “…if it’s that important why not include it in your novel.”
Hey, after the kid is born, recalling his conception in the rear lav of a 747 in a prologue, makes more sense than on the day he gets his wings.

Both of my novels, (women’s fiction), have awesome prologues, amazing little set-ups related to depth of character and story. That both books remain un-agented and unpublished, I’m sure, is not related to their lack of brilliance or my humility, but to QAD.
I suffer from Query Affective Disorder.

Anonymous said...

I second what 2N's said about prologues. I don't mind them a bit, and when I open a book and see it beginning with one, I don't think "aw, damn, backstory dump," or "this writer doesn't know what they're doing." I begin reading with enthusiasm, trusting that the writer knows their story and knows how to tell it best. Which is sort of a Twilight Zone moment because obviously I'm holding A BOOK, which means some editor somewhere didn't mind it either.

And on other rules, or ways of presenting our stories, recently we discussed the use of italics on this blog and most of us agreed that using it sparingly, to emphasize a character's inner thoughts, or as a way to emphasize a specific word, was best.

So, get this. I just finished DESCENT, by Tim Johnston last night. GREAT book. He has a Cormac McCarthy style about his writing, (and if you've seen my reviews, you'll know that McCarthy tends to fry my brain)but, unlike McCarthy you can read Johnston's story without the need of an Oxford Dictionary. Here's the thing, he had several pages throughout in italics. Did it bother me? Nope. I thought about our discussion out here, and hoped I'd be able to bring it up, b/c the MAIN point is, I think writers can get away with just about ANYthing, if the story is totally intriguing and the writing stellar. And that was the case here.

This writer's idea sounds like a unique concept, and I bet if they nail the query -not only from the point of explaining it opens with a teleplay - and how the opening chapter after reveals an epic failure - who wouldn't want to read on to see what happens? I would.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Aha! I knew it wouldn't take long to get to the "to prologue or not to prologue" debate!

FWIW, this prologue seems entirely appropriate. Also, the description alone makes me want to read it.

Steve Forti said...

I agree with Miss 2Ns. I also have a fondness for a well done prologue. Sometimes it doesn't even need to be part of the actual story, as long as it engages and, to use the mantra, entices you to read on. Greg Iles' "Natchez Burning" is a good example here, where it's not directly part of the story, it just sets the mood and the theme of the novel to come. (And has some beautiful, powerful lines.)

Granted, a poorly done prologue can kill the novel, too. I started two of my novels with prologues initially. The first I later embedded in the middle of chapter one as that seemed more natural.

The second is a little tougher. It's in the vein of Fight Club's opener, where it's a snippet of an intense scene out of context, then chapter one jumps back and starts you on the path of eventually catching back up to the prologue. Not sure how others feel about that, and I don't know if it will survive additional rewrites, but I'm of the camp that enjoys them.

Colin Smith said...

First, kudos (do people still say that?) to QOTKU for not dismissing the writer's prologue but hearing out his/her case for including it. This sounds like a case where query structure would be very important. I'm not an agent, so this is just my opinion based on what I've read, but if you open the query talking about the prologue, the chances are your query will die at line one. So you want to sell the novel in the opening paragraph, then talk about the novel's structure and the uniquely formatted prologue, and then put the word count/title/bio stuff at the end. In other words, if you're going to do something different with a novel, sell the story first. You don't want the agent to begin reading your query wondering how on earth s/he's going to sell it. You want them to be marveling at your genius and desperate to see pages. As I said, I'm not an agent, so that's just my impression/opinion for what it's worth.

On the prologue debate: if it works for the novel, why not? I think agents and editors rant about prologues not because there's no legitimate reason to have one, but because they've seen too many pointless prologues in the slush pile, and have found themselves turned off from reading the rest of the novel because of a bad or pointless prologue.

All the best to the writer here. Your novel certainly sounds different, and not in a bad way. I wish you every success! :)

jenny said...

This sounds like a novel I'd like to read! And, for me, starting with the teleplay doesn't feel like a prologue in the traditional sense because it is immediately relevant to what follows. It's more of a formatting thingy. I would play it safe by querying that without even using the word prologue, since there are some really strong and conflicted feelings about them out in the agent world.

Laina said...

Is there anyway you could submit the prologue/play as both a PDF as an idea of how it should "look" when you get to that point and a document of just the text for editing purposes? I imagine they wouldn't use the exact formatting anyways, right? So you could kinda cover all bases that way?

Colin Smith said...

It would be interesting to see how Stephen King first submitted CARRIE to his agent and then publisher. For those who don't know, the novel itself is barely longer than a large novella--certainly short by King's standards. To provide back story (and puff up the word count a bit), he provides fake newspaper stories and articles at various points within the text. In my edition, the publisher makes these look like they actually came from newspapers and magazines. Since there was no such thing as PDF in 1973, King would have had to put tags in his typewritten manuscript to indicate "Newspaper article" etc. I imagine, anyway. Apparently that didn't bother the publisher.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Colin, big SK fan here, and I know what you're talking about re: CARRIE.

Nowadays, even embedding ClipArt is a no no. I inserted just such a thing in my last project because..., I don't know, I guess I liked how it looked on the page. If an editor at a pub house sees it, I'm sure they'll appreciate my artistic endeavor, and then call my agent and say, "what the hell?"

Setting up type for print runs undoubtedly excludes snakes, and the like, but still. I did like that snake. :)

Anonymous said...

I was going to sit this debate out, but I'm addicted to the Sharque and her shiver.

I don't normally care for prologues. Some do them well, Frank Herbert, Diana Gabaldon, G.R.R. Martin, etc. However, some remind me of a maiden stallion, all prancing and pretense in approach, but fumbling and awkward in execution.

Do anything well in writing and I will love you for it. Toss your titian locks once too often and I will heap curses on your name and a pox on your goldfish.

Look at the opening of Dune Messiah. It's a Q and A session. A Game Of Thrones certainly set the tone with its prologue.

Karen McCoy said...

Like Jenny, I definitely want to read this novel. I also looked up "Noises Off" and now I hope to see that too.

Good to know about jpegs, etc.; thanks Donna for that info. I inserted a picture from this webpage into my current WIP--a fictional account of my experiences in libraries--and I hope I can keep it when the time comes to submit it in full.

LynnRodz said...

Apparently I'm not alone in this prologue lovefest. One of my favorites is by Anita Amirrezvani in The Blood of Flowers. I'm not sure I would have bought the book if I had started on Chapter One and I definitely wasn't intrigued by the blurb. I was looking for a fun read and a carpet maker in 17th century Persia did not fit the bill. That said, by the time I finished reading the prologue there was no way I was leaving the bookstore without it. This is a wonderful debut novel. I was only disappointed there weren't another 300/400 pages to read. Interesting fact, the protagonist is never mentioned by name.

As for the questioner, I'll have to echo Jenny and Karen and say the novel sounds like one I would want to read.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a great idea and a great opener!


As a freelance editor, I never want writers sending me images or PDFs. How am I supposed to edit it? Get out my tablet and draw notes on it? Print it off, write notes, and scan it back in? Retype everything that I want to make a comment on?

I need a drink just thinking about it.

No, the teleplay format won't transfer to emails, but make do with what you've got. Make it left-justified, copy and paste it into a text-only editor like Notepad or TextEdit, and then copy and paste from there into the email. That way it strips all the wonky formatting Word likes to force upon unsuspecting writers.

I'd explain in the query that it starts with the teleplay, like you explained here, and then begin the pages with:


and then paste your text.

I love reading scripts for shows, movies, and graphic novels. I've read many. I will always adore monospaced fonts, even though many in the literary sphere despise Courier. And I'm a university-trained graphic designer, so it can be really tempting to make my text look the way I want it to look. Sweet, sweet kerning. Times New Roman? Bleck. But that's the standard, so it's how I submit manuscripts.

Don't include a PDF or JPG of text in your submission. It makes things really difficult for editors, editorial agents, and the publisher. Nobody wants to re-type all of your text.

Leave the layout and design to the professionals. Don't change fonts or add cutesy glyphs. It comes off as a distraction, not as an enhancement. When I get something formatted by a design client, I have to reformat everything they've done. Plain text is easiest to work with. Leave the tabs and justification and glyphs and font choice to the designers.

As for prologues, I like them a lot! As long as they are short.

Anonymous said...

writelarawrite (love your id name),

All I can say is I sure hope my agent removed my snake before he sticks the ms in front of editors. :)

DLM said...

This isn't so much a prologue as (please forgive me) stage setting. :) One of my favorite intros in cinema is the ever-closer shots of newspaper clippings used at the top of "Dead Again" - builds tension and also conveys some actual backstory.

As to formatting ... dropping images into Word is super easy. I may not be understanding whether/why that isn't an option if .doc is preferred? Extremely exhausted today, my apologies if I'm sloppy-brained.

As to the concept - I am highly intrigued. Done well, and it sounds like this author has a handle on that, this could be a highly engaging intro. Good luck!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Writelarawrite, you might as well be speaking Lithuanian. You lost me at JPG.

A lifetime ago a small publisher (huge now) accepted a project of mine which involved watercolor cartoon-like images. They saw the little paintings and went all crazy loving the stuff.
They sent me to a local college art department to explain how I would have to redraw and present the pictures for the book, which was supposed to make me rich and famous and them, a ton of money.
My grasp of the procedure was less than feeble.
So, I never became rich and famous and they made a ton of money off other people who actually understood confusing procedures.

Divert from Times New Roman 12 and my heart begins to palpitate and I begin to sweat.

BTW I could have learned how to do what it was they wanted me to do but I thought buying a Cadillac and a fancy dog (which bit everybody) with the advance was where it was at.

That was way back when I was blond and stupid. I'm not blond anymore.

marcus132 said...

Hey people. I'm Marcus. This was my question.

Thank you, Janet, for your reply, and to everyone else who offered suggestions (and extra thanks to everyone who thinks my book sounds good).

The best thing about doing the prologue in this teleplay format is that it gets SO MUCH exposition out in four short pages.

Script formatting is mostly blank space. Four pages is less than 800 words. But from that the reader gets a fast introduction to who the characters are, what the show is about, the tone of the show, the quality of the show (or lack thereof*), the longevity of the show (from the episode number in the header), the time period (from the date in the header), and, of course, what is expected to happen when they shoot this specific scene.

My question mostly came from the fear of being new to the query process and not wanting to blow it with my non-standard nonsense. Like, I was worried that if I said, "Okay, so, this starts with teleplay pages, which I know is weird, but it'll all make sense once you get into the actual novel pages," the agent would be like, "I don't have time for your gimmicky B.S., junior. NEXT!"

All this said, the first ten pages of the actual novel can probably stand on their own without the script pages. So if that's all an agent requests with the query, I can just send those and kick this can of the weird prologue to a place farther down the road where the agent is more invested.

I will do as suggested and explain why the script pages are there and then approximate the teleplay formatting in text I can paste in an email.

For what it's worth, the script pages were generated with Final Draft (an industry standard for TV), then the formatted text was exported as images and mapped onto photos of a tattered-looking production script (coffee stains and all). The idea is (like the newspaper articles in CARRIE that were mentioned) to make the reader feel like, "This is a relevant in-book-universe artifact, not actual text of this novel."

The graphic pages I made were meant as a mock-up of the concept just to show what I was imagining, not as final, print-ready art. (Just like Laina said.) That's something for professional artists to do when the time comes.

After the four script pages, the rest of the MS is a standard normal Microsoft Word DOCX with no weird or cutesy formatting. So even if an agent is interested in seeing the four script pages as I mocked them up, I could submit those as a PDF and the rest as a regular Word document.

* The show is a cheesy kids sitcom. The first-person narrator spends much of the first chapter complaining about how badly written it is. I realize I'm aiming the gun at my foot and putting my finger on the trigger by starting with four pages of terrible jokes before revealing they were intentionally bad. But hey, I'm livin' on the edge.

Jenz said...

You can annotate pdfs, you just need a reader app that has the capability.

I don't mean to encourage anyone to switch from .docs to pdfs. But if you've got a pdf that you need to make notes on, it is possible. Try googling "pdf notes" and add whatever platform or device you want it for.

Pdfs are what I use for design proofs (where not just the text but also the layout is important). They're perfect for that.