James was right. It belonged in a prologue; every other option was worse.
I dislike prologues. I don't read them. My rationale is that prologues are a symptom of lazy or inefficient writing. Prologues mainly provide background for the main story--but it's the main story, not the background, that made me buy the book. Whatever is in the prologue, my thinking goes, should have been in the main story if it was all that important. If it's not, it shouldn't be in the book at all. And so I invariably skip prologues, starting my read at Chapter 1 with blithe confidence that I'm not missing anything I need to see.
So how did a prologue worm its way into The Just Beyond?
From the mouths of babes.
My son James and I were lucky enough to visit Hawaii last spring. It was a refreshing, exhilerating "just the boys" trip and his first to the islands. I was chipping away at the science fiction segment of the book at the time, the middle chapters where Michael learns an amazing secret from his physics professor friend Dan. My son was reading the manuscript on his laptop and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that the profile of Michael's relationship with Vicki was too low key. I needed to rachet it up, he said, and early on in the story. As early as possible. It should be established, he declared, in a prologue.
I dismissed his suggestion and articulated the view I've recounted above. James was unmoved. Prologues are exactly for this, he insisted. There are too many flashbacks in the book already. More importantly, the relationship with Vicki was vital. It couldn't wait to be "worked in." I had to lead with it. And if I wasn't willing to compromise the first chapter--which I wasn't, because I considered the kickoff with the apparition in the apartment to be a critical hook--a prologue was the only alternative.
I told him no, I told him I had other plans, I told him he couldn't really know what would and wouldn't work from reading only a third of the story. Still, his adamance nagged me. I had recently come to a similar conclusion about Vicki--I realized her profile so far was too low, that the relationship and her death were key elements deserving of prominence. I had indeed planned to "work it in" later in the book--where exactly I hadn't decided, but it would come to me. I'd worry about it when I'd hit the part of the book that called out "it's time."
I felt I was getting to that point, and so I gave it some thought. And the more I thought, the less satisfied I became with my options. My son was right, there already was more than enough flashback in the novel--another technique I disdain in principle--and I was hesitant to flesh out Vicki that way. I didn't want to interrupt the story to do it, either--things were moving along at a clip, with the road section over and the story kicking into action gear. Where to put the Vicki background to do the least harm? What to sacrifice?
And in the end--after two weeks of soul-searching, the Hawaii trip and the immediacy of his advice in the past--I slowly but resolutely settled on the answer. James was right. It belonged in a prologue; every other option was worse. And as I started writing, gripped with determination to make sure mine wasn't one of those prologues, the kind I detest... the inspiration consumed me. What lay on the page when I was done was some of what I consider the best writing in the entire book.
It doesn't invalidate my general view of the device. For one thing, my objection to prologues isn't absolute; I hate them in direct proportion to their length, and will even read a prologue that runs only a page or two. Mine went less than three pages, close enough to make me comfortable. And I did my best to charge it with vivid emotional imagery delivering critical information. I wound up content enough to include it in the "partials" (a limited number of pages or chapters requested by a publisher in order to determine whether they want to see the whole manuscript) without thinking my chances of sale would be injured by planting these few lines in front of my blockbuster first page.
It would be comforting to say I learned something from this, but I'm not that mature. :) It didn't obliterate my objection to prologues in general and it didn't convince me--though it probably should have--that I need to listen to others more, even those young enough to be my son. :) At least I had the sense to come around to a great idea that wasn't mine. The book is much better for it. Thank you, James. :) - Mark