I send a lot of comments back on authors' partials and I can tell you that the one I hand out more often than any other is, "Although I greatly enjoyed your story, you need to begin with action."
You have to grab me (or any other reader) from the first paragraph. From the first sentence. It's my first impression not only of your story but of you as a writer. It's the moment I get to sit back and say, "Okay, show me what you've got." How well can you make me feel the urgency of the plot, the dire straits the character is already in? How much can you make me care about those characters from the moment I join them? Starting in medias res lets me begin with curiosity rather than cynicism, setting my frame of mind for the entire story.
But to accomplish this "begin with action" goal, too many writers try to grab an action scene that doesn't quite fit and make it into the opening of their book. Here we find...THE PROLOGUE. (And don't think that just because you don't call it "Prologue" that you've fooled us--we have degrees in book reading. We know these things.)
Prologues make me cry. I even suggested to my boss that we write on our website that there were no prologues allowed in partials sent to the agency. (Sadly, that does not seem to be happening any time soon.)
When a writer gives me a prologue (with very few exceptions), they put me in a rather cranky mood before I've even gotten to the meat of the story:
1) They want me to bond with characters that I will most likely never see again. Knowing this, I already don't care about them.
2) If it was important enough to write a prologue about, it will be important enough for your regular characters to talk about--in doing so, they'll end up telling me the story again. This means that when I hear the character refer to it, it has lost most of its emotional strength and shock value.
3) If it is a flash-forward to future action, I now know where the story is going and you took away the surprise.
4) I feel like I can skim it because "it doesn't really matter" and eventually I end up skimming the entire partial. It's really hard to get my interest back once you've lost it--and if you lose my interest and I love reading books all day, think about how much harder it will be for your target audience!
5) A strong writer should be able to incorporate background information within the story, not shove it into a prologue. If you need a prologue for that kind of information, you're including way too much.
In addition, the actual writing becomes stronger when you incorporate it into the body of the story. We get to hear how the information makes the characters feel, how they react to learning the information, what they choose/don't choose to share and with whom, etc. These little things make the story much stronger than plain exposition.
If you have a VERY SHORT prologue where the writer addresses the audience (in something like a diary or a letter), a prologue may make sense. Or with some historical background included as a foreword. But prologues, as a whole, only prevent the reader from getting to the actual story. Don't distract from the main attraction!
The last thing you want to do is leave the assistant, the first line of defense for the agent, groaning and writhing in pain. So please, consider VERY carefully before you include a prologue. Can the information be included within the body of the story? Do you really need that info at all? What do you hope to accomplish with it? If it's death to the assistant, send that prologue.
Until next week,