Every great book requires an epic prologue.
In fact, most industry insiders agree that you basically can’t sell a novel these days unless it has an irrelevant, multi-page, multi-character prologue, which does not feature any of the characters in the actual story that follows.
It’s all about setting the scenes, dropping in all that world-building and backstory information that you couldn’t be bothered to subtly weave into the main story narrative.
So here’s my background – my world – what you need to know before you start to follow my actual story properly.
‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
Indeed, it was the best because before I began writing, there was an absolutely absence of that ringing noise, signalling that you are not writing. The noise that follows you around, whatever you do, that is not writing, and does not allow you to focus on basic tasks such as sleeping, eating or even going to work.
It interrupts your sleep with questions like, ‘Where have you been?’ and ‘Why haven’t you opened that word document for 16 weeks tomorrow?’
The noise that builds and builds to a crescendo, that makes you scream into the night, ‘LEAVE ME ALONE! WRITING IS HARD’, and then your family members call an exorcist.
Yes, we are going back to a time before this was a regular occurrence in my life, when times were simple and good. When I dreamed of one day writing my novel and it would be published before the ink was even dry. When writing was simply something I would do when I had more time, and I’d get my story out and the world would stare at it, and I, in wonder and wouldn’t be able to imagine humanity before it.
I remember sitting alone in my London flat, days after rupturing my anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee, playing rugby, and wondering how I’d fill the next 12 months of downtime (ACL surgery and rehabilitation takes 9-12 months of recovery to get back to playing levels).
I was between teaching jobs. I had time, and I couldn’t walk, so was flat-bound. My girlfriend was out studying at university. I was feeling hollow; no sport, no job, no company.
So I drew out a map of the world I’d been imagining in my head for years. I sketched it with a pencil on the back of an A4 envelope, thinking through a real heroes quest journey as I did, and already imagining my first story. The one I would write, and instantly sell, and become a novelist, who would not need to return to teaching.
Yes, that was me. And it was bliss.
I wrote that first novel over the course of the next 3 years, while working full-time (yes, I was in London and had to get a teaching job ASAP after ‘envelope day’, to pay a small fortune for the box we were living in). I did it most nights, between 9-11pm (an important detail!), and I thought my thinly-veiled, Middle-Grade (I didn’t know what MG was at this time) Lord of the Rings rip-off was the most magnificent thing on this planet, or any other world.
Indeed, what followed was a series of ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ emails (yes, I did do that!), sent to a haphazard selection of agents, some of whom did not represent children’s books, and this now goes without saying, I received a chorus of generic (and boy did I deserve that!) replies containing rejections.
In fact, now I’ve looked back I see I decided to have an initialed, pretentious pen name, thinking I was a JRR Tolkien, or GRR Martin, or JK Rowling.
Ah, young Padawan – much to learn, you still had.
Not only was the novel a bit of a first draft mess (I didn’t realise you had to edit/rewrite a novel), it was also over 100k long (yes, for MG!) and had a classic scene at the start: my main character starting at himself in the mirror and describing his own appearance…
OH YES! The creme de la creme of noob writing.
And I’ll be honest, I did them all. I completed each and every level of rookie errors and even fought the baddie at the end. Yup, and I am owning each and every one of them, from putting down my book’s age/genre as 28/Male, to detailing my daily writing routine in my query letter (because those agents just gotta know my favourite time to write!).
But over the years that followed, I did learn a lot. About how the industry works, about novel writing craft and read and learned enough to start producing novels which were much more in line with the standard, and word count that was appropriate for the age categories, and most importantly, I started getting others to read and give feedback on my work. And I did the same.
And that’s actually the most important and valuable thing I ever did.
I did a Masters at Glasgow University – good, but very fine writing focused. Ten paragraphs describing a pernicious willow gets a better mark than an exciting lightsaber battle…like, who are these people!
And I struggled that year – boy, did I struggle. I was working full-time and doing the Masters at night, and so I missed ALL of the classes, and just did the assignments. Honestly, I don’t recommend doing that.
Despite this, I scraped a Merit. After a series of C and B pieces during the year, I snuck a wee A2 grade on my final piece to bring it up. That piece formed the basis of my third novel. I think it’s my favourite novel I’ve written to date.
And it got loads of agent requests. And I got excited. One agent discussed meeting up, before going cool (they must have read further on and gone off it), and one agent called me, yes they asked for a time to call, before rejecting me via phone call.
Now, I will say that she was absolutely lovely, and was super complimentary and said she thought my writing was ‘world-class’ but that the story wouldn’t sell. Dystopia was dead, no-one was buying it. (for reference we are in January 2016)
Anyway, I took the encouragement from a lot of close call, personal rejections from agents on that book, to catapult me into writing my next book – my quickest to write to date. This one did well, too. But after a lot of requests, there were also a lot of rejections.
One agent took a punt on it, but we didn’t sell when on submission to publishers. Instead, I’d received an offer from a small press. I made a mistake, and took it.
Luckily, upon asking around other published writers’ experiences, I discovered that what I was getting into, wasn’t what I wanted, or what anyone else had experienced…I’ll leave it there.
I moved on from both agent and publisher before publication. It was a brave move from me, one which I don’t regret (though at the time I wobbled a little), but at this stage, simply have my book published wasn’t what I wanted.
Some people write for that only, and I fully respect everyone’s own goals.
I’ve spent the best part of the 2 years since this, working on a new teen, sci-fi novel.
I took myself into a self-imposed isolation on Degobah, to discover more about myself and my writing.
If I didn’t know what I wanted, what was I striving for? If I didn’t know how to improve my craft to the level I wanted it to be, how could I ever write the book that I know I have in me?
I have almost exclusively read craft books for two years, and went through a long period of illness and my physical and mental health deteriorated to the extent that I could barely work or function as a husband or father, let alone a writer.
I felt like a shadow, a wraith version of me. 2018 and 2019 passed underneath a dark cloud in my world. But there were some positives.
It managed to somehow (in a much earlier version) get onto the longlist for Undiscovered Voices 2020.
But it was undercooked and didn’t have ‘it’. I will try to articulate what I mean by ‘it’ in a future post.
So we’re close to being up to date.
Most prologues end up with someone dying, or some antagonistic force being introduced…I’m not up for the first much, so what will be the main force of antagonism during the blog post series? It has to be something so powerful, we are all haunted by it, and it’s accomplices and minions.
Oh yes, that’s right…
Introducing: Imposter Syndrome, Self-Doubt and Procrastination!