Conferences: A Cheat Sheet

I’m a big fan of writer’s conferences. I went to two last month, have one coming up this month, and another in August. Last year I went to nine of them (which, I admit, contributed to my slight burn-out by the end of 2012). I like meeting writers from other parts of the country. I like seeing other parts of the country. And I like knowing that even in the smallest of towns far, far away from Big Literary New York City, there are tight communities that care just as much about the craft of writing as they do about the business of getting published.

No matter where and what conference I attend, there are always similarities among the writers. I’ve gotten quite good at knowing who is ready for publication and who still needs time to find their voice, as eager as they may be. Of course, the best times are when writers surprise me.

In 2011, I wrote a post on how to pitch to an agent at conferences, or rather, how not to pitch. Since then I’ve been to a lot more conferences and met a lot more writers. More than just pitching to an agent, here are a few tips to keep in mind when attending a writer’s conference:

1. You Will Not Leave a Conference With an Offer of Representation
OK, I’ll say you will very very rarely get an offer of rep at a conference because I’m sure there have been exceptions to this rule somewhere. But, 99.9% of the time, you will not get this offer at the actual conference. Going to a conference based on who the faculty will be is great, but keep in mind that even if your dream agent (which you should not have!) attends, he or she still needs to read your work before making an offer. Your pitch, premise, and overall demeanor could be perfect all weekend, and you may even make a personal connection with the agent of your choice, but that doesn’t mean we can magically pull a contract out of our back pockets. Your job is to pitch your project to an agent. Even if they say “yes,” that “yes” is usually followed by “send me your query and sample pages.” I’ve had writers stare at me blankly even after I told them to send me material, as if they expected more from me. Do you really want an agent who doesn’t even read your work first? No.

2. A Conference is For Learning
Meeting agents and editors is great, but the main reason to attend a conference is to learn. Conferences provide more than just pitch sessions. Agents and editors often critique work, and the organizers of the conference offer several excellent seminars and workshops for writers to attend. It’s about learning the craft, learning the business, and learning that just because you finished your novel doesn’t mean it’s ready for publication.

3. Writer-Friends Are Valuable
Regional conferences are the best way to meet other writers in your area. Your friends and family can provide all the support in the world, and a few of them may even be skilled enough to read your work objectively. But writer-friends? They are a special breed. They can turn into Real Friends, but unlike your non-writer friends, they know exactly what you’re going through. They’re going through it too. They know what writer’s block is; they know what querying is like; they know the hell that is the revision process. Having them in close proximity means you can also get offline and grab a drink (or a cupcake) with them, which is just as important as sharing your work sometimes.

4. No One is Forcing You to Attend a Conference
Conferences are expensive. Organizers need to pay for the location, provide meals, cover travel and hotel costs for faculty, and a lot of other minor expenses that add up. That means you, the writer, have to pay to attend. You get quite a bit for your money, but it’s still your money. Remember that you volunteered it for the opportunity to be there. It’s amazing how many writers yawn their way through seminars, become defensive over critiques, and ask questions such as “what good is an agent anyway?” during Q&A sessions. It makes one wonder, why are you even here???

5. Agents and Editors are People Too
Please treat us with respect. This post at From the Write Angle is one to bookmark and memorize about this point. Also, understand that the time to pitch your book is not when we are chewing our food or going to the bathroom. Thanks. ūüôā

How many of you have attended writer’s conferences? What do you wish you knew about them before you attended that you know now?

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I’ve stumbled across a few blog posts and tweets recently that have been both flattering and troubling. The posts come from writers who are either querying agents or preparing to query agents, and have very nicely named me as their “dream agent.” When I say “a few” posts I mean just that. I’m not implying I have legions of fans or anything. But a few posts – and really even if it was just one post – are too many. Here’s why.

Resting all of your hopes and dreams on one person is dangerous. This is true for life in general, but let’s stick with talking about publishing.¬†If you’re a writer and you’re querying agents, you should have a healthy list of agents (say 10-20) whom you deem the best fit for your work. If they all say no, find 20 more. And if they all say no, OK well maybe you need to revise. The point is, there is never just one agent to query. The number of websites devoted to curating lists of literary agents is staggering, so no one with Internet access has an excuse for not doing research.

Here’s the thing: most manuscripts get rejected. On an average month, I receive roughly 400 queries. Of those 400, I request maybe 5-10 manuscripts. I won’t tell you how many of those requests turn into offers of representation because I don’t want to depress you too much. Let’s just say the odds aren’t exactly in your favor if for no other reason than I can’t read 400 manuscripts a month. That’s the beautiful thing about there being other qualified literary agents! What I don’t request, someone else might, and your chances of getting an agent increase. Building up¬†one person¬†out of many to pick your needle out of their haystack is absurd.¬†What happens when your dream agent says “no thanks, this isn’t for me?” Do you give up because the dream is dead? Of course not. Saying “OK, on to the next one” – and not taking personal offense – should be your only logical course of action.¬†

What’s more troubling about the “dream agent” is that when I see writers use this phrase, whether about me or someone else, I worry it may be for more personal reasons than professional.¬†The Internet has eliminated the great divide between Writer and Gatekeeper. Agents aren’t just mysterious figures in their New York City Ivory Towers who crush the dreams of writers at will. Now writers can see that we’re just regular people who love books and happen to have the right connections to get their books published by major publishers. This has been great for publishing for several reasons: Stronger relationships, built-in marketing networks, and being able to directly tell writers what I like and am looking for has made my slush pile a much more pleasant place to spend time. But, sometimes I worry the personal connections writers feel to certain agents can overshadow the real task at hand – selling books.¬†Liking me on a personal level is great, but please research me on a professional level.

The agent-author relationship is first and foremost a business partnership. If you’re querying agents, writing is probably more than just a hobby for you. This is your career. It’s not something to take lightly or “pass off to a friend.” You should want a professional who will know exactly how to sell your work.¬†Being liked is a nice feeling, and it lets me know the advice I give to the writing community on Twitter hasn’t gone unnoticed. But if you’re a writer seeking an agent, I hope you’re not just querying me because we both watch¬†Doctor Who¬†or because one time I made a joke you found funny. I have a good personal relationship with all of my clients, which I think enhances any business relationship, but that part of our relationship is a fun added bonus. I didn’t only love their books or think they were cool people – even though I did, and they are – I also knew I could help them get their work published.

Before querying, ask yourself the following questions:
– Is this agent taking on new clients?
– Does this agent represent my genre?
– Has this agent ever stated whether they specifically are or aren’t considering certain sub-genres?
– What type of success has this agent had with my genre specifically?
– What type of sales does this agent have overall? Will they have good connections even if my genre is new to them?
– What agency does this agent work for? Are they legit? What’s their reputation like in the industry?
– Does this agent share the same vision for my work that I have? If they don’t, why not?
– Will I get along with this agent on a personal level? Will this be an enjoyable relationship, as well as a successful business partnership?

You won’t know who your dream agent is until you receive that offer of representation and realize that someone saw something brilliant in your manuscript. If your pre-determined dream agent turns you down, then they weren’t the best fit to begin with. The person you need to work with is the person who needs to work with you. Don’t pretend this person exists before you even query them. Writing is hard enough, let alone querying. Take one solace where you can and know that your dream agent is¬†out there, but it’s not up to you to decide who that is until he or she reads your work. They will come to you.

Are You Writing a Dystopian?

This post has been a few months in the making and I haven’t got around to it for a few reasons. The topic started as a joke with me, HarperCollins editor Sara Sargent, and literary agent Hannah Bowman. Important note: we were not making fun of dystopian. Personally, I love it. But like with any genre, there are certain conventions you can’t avoid when writing it. The reason I didn’t write this post earlier is because I figured no one is even publishing or submitting dystopian anymore. Sure, there are still some stragglers – some established authors finishing up trilogies or the rare debut that manages to be the needle in our haystack of queries. For the most part, however, the dystopian trend has slowed to a stop to make way for whatever the next thing will be.

Like I said, I love dystopian, but writers often confuse “personal preference” and “what agents are able to sell.” My love of dystopian needs to take a backseat in the post-Hunger Games¬†market. The stakes for what makes a stand-out, original novel have been raised and there just isn’t room for 95% of them right now. The market won’t be ready to take a chance on a more traditional dystopian – especially in YA – for a few more years. (“Traditional dystopian” means a story that stays within the genre and doesn’t try to reinvent it.) Hence, not feeling the need to write this blog post.¬†Then I noticed a recent increase in dystopian submissions. It’s obvious writers who were told to shelve their dystopian manuscripts waited a month or two, and are now re-submitting under the guise of other genres. The general premise and genre elements of dystopian are still there, but writers are labeling it “sci-fi,” “futuristic fantasy,” and “dark contemporary with sci-fi elements.”

If you’re wondering if what you’ve written is a dystopian, here’s a quick checklist. More importantly, this is how agents and editors know what you’ve written, regardless of what you call it:

1. Everything Has Generic Name
Your character lives in District or Zone [number], New [name of old town], or, if they’re rich, “Capitol City.” The government that controls everything is called The Corporation, The Agency, or simply The Government. The people fighting against them are The Resistance or The Rebels.

2. Story Begins with The Government Entering the Main Character’s Life
This main character is often a girl who’s either super pissed or super scared. She might even sass one of the guards before she goes with them willingly to a place where her destiny awaits.

3. The World Totally Sucks Now – Doesn’t Matter Why
To be dystopian, the modern/contemporary world needs to be destroyed. Sometimes there are references to “the old world” and other times we’re just placed in the middle of What Happened After. Usually this thing is a natural disaster or a virus, both of which are probably government conspiracies. Whatever it is, we don’t get to see the transition into dystopian society. It just exists.

4. Teenagers Matter A Lot.
Props to Hannah Bowman for making this point. Obviously in YA (which is where most dystopian novels live), teenagers need to be the focus, but rarely is it explained why society focuses on them. (Presumably there are more children and adults than teenagers in any given world, right?) Teens are the ones chosen, left behind, arranged into marriage, or sold into slavery. If you’re between the ages of 14 and 18 in a dystopian world, you’re pretty much screwed.

5. No Matter How Bad Things Get, There is Never a Shortage of Pretty Dresses
OK, this last one is kind of a joke. But seriously – why are so many dystopian¬†heroines¬†given beautiful gowns and why do we spend so much time reading about what they look like?? (You’re not above this, Katniss!)

There you have it. Keep in mind this list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. If your novel has all of these elements, it doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal, poorly written, or won’t get published. It just means it’s a dystopian. You should put just as much effort into making it perfect as you would any other project. Just be prepared to hear a lot of “I’m not taking on dystopian right now” or “Dystopian is really hard to sell…” comments from agents and editors. We like you and we like your book and we like all those fun, now-expected dystopian elements. Most of us are just taking a break from it, so query with caution, but query correctly. (I’m looking at you, “dark futuristic fantasy with romantic and sci-fi elements” people!)

Things You Didn’t Do

Writers who are ready to query can be overzealous sometimes. In their excitement and in their quest to have the “perfect” query, sometimes it’s the simplest things that make an agent scratch his or her head. While these things are rarely make-or-break for the query itself, you might want to re-think saying you did the following:

1) Enclose a SASE with your e-query. I’m sure you read all over the internet that agents won’t even respond to queries that don’t have a SASE enclosed. Going down your check list of what you need in a query, it makes perfect sense to remember your SASE – but remember which method you’re sending the query.

2) Write “(sign)” after your name as if you wrote your signature. You didn’t do this. We can see that you didn’t do this.

3) Write a fictional novel. Well, maybe you did. I mean, who hasn’t mapped out an entire novel in their minds? But you really shouldn’t query unless you put that idea down on paper.

4) Write a non-fiction novel. “Novel,” by definition, is a work of fiction.

5) Write a 10,000 word novel. This does not work in any genre or age group.

6) Write a 200,000 word MG. If you did, then chances are it’s actually a four-book series that you combined into one. Or you’re George R.R. Martin trying to mess with people.

7) Send a query letter to “Mr. Curtis Brown.” This one is specific to my agency, I know. But I see it all the time. Yes, there was a real Curtis Brown. No, he is not still alive. No, I am not “Mrs. Brown,” let alone Curtis himself.

Have any of you ever made any “common sense” mistakes you care to share?

How to Get an MFA in Five Steps

This week, GalleyCat promoted New York Writers Workshop‚Äôs free ebook of Portable MFA in Creative Writing. While I have nothing against the existence of this book as a writing guide (the people over at the New York Writers Workshop are successful, well-known, and respected in their fields), I was skeptical of it proclaiming to give writers the MFA experience. A GED does not have the same weight as a high school diploma, and a certificate from the University of Phoenix is not a college education. So how could a free ebook come close to substituting a Masters degree? [Note: I don’t think the writers of this book believe it can either. It’s just a catchy title. But, it’s one that implies “an MFA is too expensive, so buy this book instead.”]

I’ll be the first to admit that an MFA in creative writing is a luxury degree. No one needs it. That doesn’t mean that, even after my accumulated $60,000 debt, I regret getting one. I’d recommend an MFA program to anyone who’s serious about writing, but I can see why some might not think it’s worth the price of admission. The good news is there are ways to cut costs and achieve (relatively) the same results. You just need to be willing to put in the work, and realize it’s not going to come from one source or happen overnight.

So here goes – my MFA in Five (Not-Always-Easy) Steps:

1. Buy the following books:
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

There are a million writing guides all proclaiming to be the only one you need. Do you ever only need one book though? Besides, if you found this blog you’re already savvy enough to know the internet is full of free advice that comes directly from agents, editors, and published authors. The three books I mentioned, however, are what I consider “the best” of many, many books on writing. You want to pick them up, trust me. And hey, buy the Portable MFA while you’re at it (or download it for free!) because it sounds like they have some good people over there. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I promise I’m being sincere!)

2. Read Literary Fiction.
Rarely will you find an MFA program that teaches genre fiction, and the reason is not because it’s “looked down upon.” My former colleague Nathan Bransford summed up what he called “the reverse snobbery” of literary fiction quite nicely (here), and I could not agree more. There seems to have been a backlash against literary fiction – that it’s too high brow, that they want something “real,” and that it’s not accessible. The thing is, sometimes those things are true and sometimes none of those things are true. Like with every genre, the stereotypes attached to it give it a bad name.

“Accessible” literary fiction like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Lethem are what I tend to fall back on when I’m able to read for fun. We all have our favorite genres. But if you’re trying to give yourself an MFA-style education, you need to push yourself. That’s why they teach the uber-literary in MFA programs. Reading the same book you’d read while commuting or at the beach is not going to help you learn anything you don’t already know. So pick up something you’d never buy otherwise. Pynchon maybe? Nabokov that’s not Lolita? Personally, I’d recommend some post-modern Barthelme. Sometimes you need to read something that will make you scratch your head, stretch your mind, and remind yourself that you’re a scholar.

3. Go to readings at your local bookstore.
This is something all the advice in the world can’t replicate. Seeing established authors in person reading aloud from their published work. Then, if you’re lucky, speaking to them – whether in a Q&A session or during a quick handshake before they sign your book. Witness what writing is when it’s off the page.

4. Give yourself “in class” assignments.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many words as you can. It doesn’t matter what the topic is or even that they make sense as a cohesive idea. Just move your pen. Or type – whatever your preference. The goal isn’t to develop a story, but just to see where your mind takes you.

Another favorite in-class assignment of mine was to take a famous writer, study their sentence structure, and then try to replicate it. You’d be amazed at how hard this is. Pick literary writers, or the classics, for this task. Stretch your limits and go beyond your comfort zone. I once had to mimic Proust and produced a long, lyrical sentence about Wal-Mart. Like with the previous assignment, the importance isn’t placed on what you write, but rather how you’re writing it.¬†

(Although once you deem yourself ready to graduate and want to focus on publishing your work, I recommend taking authors within your genre and studying their structures. While it won’t be as “artful,” it’s a good way to learn what they’re doing, how you’d compete, and what you’d add to the market.)

5. Join a writer’s group or take a creative writing class at a local college.
Again, physically being near other writers is something you can’t find in a book. The most important aspects of an education is experiencing, learning-by-doing, and meeting people. Specifically, meeting strangers. Cheat on your beta readers and workshop your manuscript with people you don’t know, and maybe aren’t even sure you can trust. Sit uncomfortably and optimistically while your classmates tell you every single thing that is wrong with your work directly to your face. It’s wonderful and horrifying and makes you a stronger person. Their word isn’t bond, but how you interpret their advice will make you a smarter, more prepared writer.

This Five-Step Program will not, and should not, take less than one year to complete. Diplomas will be awarded upon graduation, though I cannot guarantee they won’t just be photos of corgis in party hats.

Good forth and learn, you bright young things!

The Real Lesson from Harry Potter

**If the select few who only experience the Harry Potter series through the movies wish to avoid “spoilers,” then consider yourself warned.**

Like many HP fans, I went to see The Deathly Hallows: Part II this weekend. I surprised myself by not crying and mostly floated through the movie waiting to see how they would present certain scenes, rather than anticipate the scenes themselves. Despite knowing what happens, and making my peace with it, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I will probably see it again in theaters at least one more time.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. That statement alone feels sort of strange to say. The series has reached such popularity that saying you’re a fan is practically commonplace. Obviously I’m a fan. It’s like saying you think The Beatles are a good band, or you enjoy eating pizza. There’s a “duh” factor.

My inner fangirl loves Harry Potter for many, many reasons. The plot and characters, of course, but more than that, my admiration for J.K. Rowling’s storytelling ability is what keeps me such a strong advocate for this series. Each character (and there are many), no matter how insignificant, has some sort of back-story. We care about every single one of them, even when we can’t always keep everyone straight. Not only that, but in the hugely rich tale of why a boy must battle the darkest wizard of all time, there are several sub-plots – many of them independent from Harry and Voldemort – that are just as interesting. Beneath “good vs. evil,” there are socially relevant themes of government interference in schools (Umbridge), attack of independent media (The Quibbler), modern slavery/class systems (house elves), and feminism (Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall, strong women forced to take a back seat in the man’s world of their generation.) These are just to name a few, by the way.

This is all by way of saying how much I love Ms. Rowling’s writing and how much of a connection I’ve felt toward this series for so many years. That’s why in addition to not crying, I surprised myself for a different reason while watching The Deathly Hallows. I realized something – you can be brilliant and still have flaws.

Maybe it was the fatigue of writing this series for 20 years, or pressure from her publishers to turn in the next book, or simply a desire not to make each book 4,000 pages… but our beloved Ms. Rowling leaves quite a few loose ends and rushed conclusions. For example:

1. Snape. Was he actually good that whole time? The final film does a good job of redeeming his character, but the books actually keep him pretty ambiguous. Yes, he did what Dumbledore asked him to do, but why not still be a double agent for The Order? Why not let them in on Dumbledore’s plan? Even though his heart was never in it, his choice was to give himself over to Voldemort completely, knowing he’d never be allowed to escape. Is that martyrdom or stupidity? And why is such a dick all the time? This comic puts all of your Snape questions into context. OK, we get it, Snape had a soft spot for Harry this whole time because he loved Lily. But… he is still basically evil, right? Based on the books alone, we never know the real answer.

2. Harry’s connection to Voldemort. We know why they can hear each other’s thoughts, but Dumbledore seemed to think Harry could block them out with a little practice. But because Snape’s hatred of Harry gets in the way of his responsibility to The Order (see above), he basically tells Harry to fend for himself. One of my favorite lines in the final movie was Harry’s response to Hermione when she asks whether he can sever the connection to Voldemort: “I can’t! Or maybe I can. I don’t know.” It’s such a perfect comment on the fact that J.K. Rowling¬† drops this storyline with no real explanation. If Harry did learn to block out Voldemort’s presence, there goes pertinent plot points for Books 6 and 7, so it’s left open for interpretation.

3. Neville! In Book 5, we learn that the prophecy labeling Harry as Voldemort’s one true enemy could have actually applied to Neville as well. It takes about two paragraphs for J.K. to explain that Neville’s parents also defied Voldemort and that Neville was also born at the end of July, but don’t worry it really is Harry who must defeat him. Wait, what? Why bother telling us about Neville then? And didn’t Voldemort mark Harry by accident? He didn’t know the spell would backfire and just leave a scar. He was trying to kill him. Maybe the spell backfiring weakened him before he got the chance to hit up the Longbottom house. We don’t know. It’s an odd thing for J.K. to include in the series so far into it. She would have had to re-write the last two books to make Neville our hero after all. Of course, changing the game so far into the series would have been a disaster for readers who have come to love Harry. So, Neville’s would-be calling becomes a red herring. Still… is Harry really our hero?

4. Harry is Not Really Our Hero. Our boy who lived is an incredible wizard. There’s no question about this. He has skills beyond his years, he’s clever and resourceful, and he’s certainly not short on bravery. But if you really think about the series, Harry doesn’t really do anything at the end. He fights and wins battles the same as everyone else, but when it comes to fighting the big end-of-show evil, someone else manages to swoop in and help out at the last minute, leaving Harry to take all the credit. Hermione knows the winning spell, unexplained swords and patronuses appear out of thin air to help him out of jams, and Neville (see above!) is the one who destroys the final Horcrux, thus killing Voldemort and saving the world. Harry is a natural leader and a gifted motivational speaker, but when it comes to physical battles, he’s no more or less equipped than his friends. I’d be fine with this portrayal of Harry if that was the intention, but the series hinges on the fact that Harry really is a hero. And by himself, he’s just not. Sorry, J.K.

5. Harry’s Love Life.¬† After seeing Deathly Hallows: Part I, I made my disapproval of Harry and Ginny’s happily ever after known. I still find it insulting and unrealistic, but seeing Part II of this installment made me remember Luna Lovegood. Oh, Luna! Now, keep in mind I have a huge problem with Harry ending up with anyone romantically. He’s only 17 and just ended seven years of going through some serious shit. All I want for Harry is a tall, frosty butterbeer, and maybe a¬† vacation. The sexual tension between Ron and Hermione pays off splendidly in the end, which should be enough for readers wanting a little romance with their fantasy. But, blah blah Harry blah blah Main Character blah blah He Needs Love Too. I get it. But does it have to be Ginny? I’m a huge fan of Ginny as a character, but the two have absolutely no chemistry. The only logical explanation I can see for having Harry end up with Ginny is that Harry is too exhausted after the war to care, and he always wanted to be a Weasley anyway, and Ginny is the only girl in that family. If our boy HAS to end up with anyone, it should be Luna. (Ginny, of course, should be with Neville.) From the beginning, Harry is the only person who doesn’t think Luna is completely insane. She makes him laugh and we see them have actual fun together, as opposed to Harry and Ginny, who just give each other awkward stares. Luna and Harry also share an ability to see only what the truly bereaved can see. Plus, any time Harry is going through his woe-is-me emo phases, it’s Luna who always pops up to comfort or give him advice. This should be obvious, J.K.! Why make awesome characters like Ginny, Harry, and Luna settle for a crappy post-high school existence?

6. That F@#(@#* Epilogue. Kind readers, you know my feelings on epilogues. I will spare you all my rant. If The Deathly Hallows was a standalone title, or if the series wasn’t as popular, I’m sure J.K.’s editors would have made her remove that horrible piece of writing from the series. The level with which I hate it is akin to the S.P.E.W. sub-plot in Book 4, which is to say, quite intense.

So, does this mean that if you’re writing a series, you can cop out, be deliberately vague, and leave things unexplained? Of course not. As the series became more ambitious, so did J.K. Rowling’s writing, and sometimes adding so much more didn’t always work. But, by the time The Deathly Hallows was published, it was abundantly clear that J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and however she wanted it. Unless your series reaches that status, it’s best to stick to the script.

The real lesson here is that if you have a good story, readers will respond. If you have even better characters, readers will stick with them. Build your fan base by getting it right, but don’t become consumed by being “perfect.” Real fans will recognize your faults, and they will continue to love you anyway.

My Inevitable Prologue Post

Prologue
I had a mini-rant on Twitter today about my deep hatred for prologues. My feelings are of no surprise to people who regularly follow me. I recently compared them to bad pilot episodes and agreed (jokingly!) with Brent from Naughty Book Kitties that they were “abominations.” Still, I received a lot of responses asking why I hated them so much and what would happen if a story made no sense without one and seriously why am I such a hater. Clearly I have strong feelings on the subject of prologues, so I decided to finally turn them into a blog post.

Chapter One
Prologues are generally used for the following reasons:

1. Foreshadowing events that won’t be known until later in the novel.
2. Introducing a character who will be very important, but who we won’t meet until Chapter 7.
3. Giving back-story (a la Star Wars) that might take a reader out of the narrative if it’s presented later.
4. Offering the main character’s reflective voice before diving into the story that leads him or her to that point.
5. Using the past as a means to set up the present or give a detail about the main character.

The necessity of prologues are greatly exaggerated. For each of the above intentions, there is an argument against them. Remember I speak only for myself on this blog, and not for all agents, or even my own agency. If you are 100% convinced that your prologue is necessary, then good for you for having confidence. Send it to every agent in the book. But, consider the following rebuttals before sending it to me:

Numbers 1 and 2.
I’ve mentioned before (Things to Avoid) that I thought 99% of prologues can turn into the first chapter. I’m revising this previous thought, however, because sometimes prologues take place in another world/time/setting. In these cases, prologues cannot be used as the first chapter because it would be out of place, so instead just delete them. Forcing a reader to immediately swallow very important information, before they know it is important, won’t intrigue them as much as it could confuse them. A prologue used in this way isn’t confusing by itself, but when paired with an often radically different first chapter, the shift can be jarring. It forces the reader to begin the novel twice, and you don’t want them to spend what should be the second chapter thinking about what it was that they just read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for foreshadowing. That said, using an entire section of your novel to accomplish it isn’t as exciting for the reader as other forms of foreshadowing. Revealing seemingly unrelated details within a chapter in a clever, precise way will make readers intrigued. Savvy readers will want to know how and why these details will influence the story.

The same is true for introducing a character who doesn’t show up “officially” until much later in the novel. By that time, the reader has forgotten everything they were supposed to retain from the prologue because the novel itself has taken such a consistent turn elsewhere. By the time your foreshadowed characters return, the most the reader might say “Oh yeah, him.” The ends do not justify the means for a pay-off this insignificant. Instead, drop hints throughout the narrative that a very important character is about to be introduced. It will make meeting him that much more exciting.

Number 3.
Now, I love me some Star Wars and actually think all of the back-story about the wars make sense before the movie begins. This is an instance of a prologue working, but is it absolutely necessary? Not really. We get a sense that there is a war going on just from watching the movie. Obi-Wan and Yoda help us out along the way for anything involving Luke’s father. Everything else is just fluff that we can take or leave, none of which really influence the plot. Plus, if you’re worried too much back-story will take a reader out of your narrative, then you are more likely having a “showing vs. telling” problem rather than a plot problem, which, lucky for you, is fixable.

Numbers 4 and 5.
These two are tricky for me because sometimes it is nice to have a reflective voice or know a character’s past/lineage before meeting them. In these cases, just make them your first chapter. A reflective voice sustains throughout a novel regardless of prologue, and if you use your past correctly, it will be popping up again in the present fairly quickly.

I understand why writers add prologues. They are a good starting off point and help you get your thoughts together. They can answer the questions “What story am I going to tell?” and even “Where will this story end?” That’s all well and good, writers, but what ends up happening in these cases is that your prologue can read like an outline.

When you’re ready to query, go back and read your prologue. The writing might be top notch, but ask yourself if everything the prologue was meant to accomplish isn’t answered in a more thoughtful, organic way throughout the narrative. If it is, then delete your prologue. And if it’s not, then reconsider your prologue’s connection to the narrative as a whole. You see why I’m so against them. They’re self-indulgent and rarely enrich the story in a meaningful way. Even in the rare instance where the prologue actually works, I’d still rather see it tossed aside and begin the real story right away.

Does this mean I won’t accept submissions that have prologues? Of course not. I feel disappointment when I see them, but I would never begrudge someone a request just for having one. I will warn, however, that I skip them completely every single time, and I am never, ever confused when I keep reading. (If I am, there is usually a larger issue involved.)

Epilogue
Epilogues are also self-indulgent and generally useless, but I have slightly less venom for them than I do for prologues. My main reason for immediately putting an X through an epilogue is that epilogues tend to tie a neat bow around a novel, rendering the final chapter useless. Why bother coming up with a great ending line and powerful resolution if you are only going to undo it all with an epilogue?

Sometimes writers use epilogues to foreshadow the next book in a series. To me, this does your novel a disservice because all books should be able to stand alone, even if they are connected. More so, a brilliant cliffhanger ending will make readers want to buy your next book way more than a teasing epilogue would. If I had my way, my red pen would also extend to the ghastly ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After hearing that Ms. Rowling wrote it because she felt these characters deserved a future, my opinion of epilogues being self-indulgent was cemented.

You do not need them, writers, and I will almost always tell you to delete them. Other agents might not mind epilogues as much. Personally, I enjoy when things aren’t completely tied up at the end of a novel. I don’t always need to know that the main character will live happily ever after, even if their story ends less optimistically. (Note: This does not mean plot can remain unresolved. I’m referring to emotional resolution or certain aspects left open to interpretation.) So, no, I do not like epilogues either. But, at least they’re not prologues.