by Holly West
I've been struggling with structure lately. As in, how in the hell do I structure this godammed novel?
Back in October I had my current WIP professionally edited and one of the questions that came up was whether I'd waited a bit too long to introduce the dead body. I suspected it might be an an issue when I turned in the manuscript but by the time I realized it I didn't have time to re-write it. Now I have lots and lots of time to re-write it but no clue as to how to actually do it.
Have I mentioned how much I hate revising? If not, consider it said now. I HATE REVISING.
At least, I hate revising at this stage. When the book is just slightly past the first draft stage and needs a major overhaul. When you break it up into chunks and move them around, then have to go back to the beginning and fix everything so that it makes sense with the new arrangement. When you have trouble keeping track of the story because its so unwieldily and you have to pay attention to every detail for the sake of continuity. Writing a first draft is so much more fun because it's messy and you don't care because you know you have to go back to polish it anyway.
Unless you're one of those writers who write clean first drafts. I don't know how to do that.
I don't mind revising the third or fourth (or more) drafts too much because usually, by then, you've got your structure nailed and you're basically just fine-tuning. It's like staging a house--the bones of the house are there and now you get to do the fun stuff like picking out curtains and pillows and paint colors.
But right now I'm in the middle of a full-scale renovation and just like with residential renovations, it's taking three times longer than I budgeted for. Going into it, I knew my first job was fix it so that the murder happened sooner in the book. But how much sooner?
In cozies, it's pretty much a given that a dead body will show up in the first chapter, if not on the first page. But I don't think that's necessarily the case with other crime fiction sub genres. In the first draft of my WIP, the murder occurs about 15,000 words in. In draft two, I determined I'd move it to the first 10% of the book, so around 8,000 words in. After three months of half-assed work, I decided that the murder had to happen at the end of the first chapter and that's where I am now.
It's definitely a better book because of it.
The question now becomes, what do I do with the previous beginning chapters now that they're now mainly backstory? It's something I've always struggled with: balancing exposition and moving the story forward. I've solved part of the problem by re-writing some of the passages so that they simply happen in the present. That's easy. But other things, like establishing the characters and their relationships as well as some of the events leading up to the murder, are harder to incorporate. I've had to cut a lot of it altogether.
One way to approach this problem is to write a prologue. Put the murder front and center then go back in time in Chapter One and tell the story from there. Back when I started writing MISTRESS OF FORTUNE I read somewhere that prologues were frowned upon so I've never used them--they feel a little like cheating to me. But I see plenty of books by high profile authors that use prologues so it's tempting to write one for this book.
Another option is to have the action in Chapter One happen in real time then go back in time in Chapter Two. This, to me, is just a prologue by another name, but I've seen it done plenty of times. I'm just not sure it's the best way for me or for this book.
Finally, and this is the hardest way to do it, is to start the book with the murder and then fold in exposition with a light hand. It's how I've chosen to do it but right now it feels like I'm editing with big ol' Hulk fists.
Obviously I'm not the only writer to struggle with this. This is what revising is all about--figuring out the best way to tell your story. Finding the right place to begin it is crucial, so it's right that I'm taking time to experiment with it. I just need to hurry up and finish so that I can move on to installing the hardwood floors.
My question for you is: how do you feel about prologues? As a writer, do you use them? As a reader, do you mind them?
I've already answered the first question: No, I don't use them (or haven't yet). As a reader, I'm not too bothered by them but I prefer a story to start at the beginning (whatever that may be) and then go forward.