Deb’s Very Own Prologue

Jindo, Korea Grandmother and Tiger Monument

Hi Everyone,

As promised, I am posting the prologue to my novel Moonlight Dancer. You can decide if I violate any of agent Kristin Nelson’s prologue injunctions that I discussed in my previous post. I would love to hear what you think.

Well, sort of. I’m also scared to hear what you think! Therein lies the writer’s dilemma. But–GULP–here goes. (I included page one of chapter one to give you some reference.)

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Jindo, Korea

PROLOGUE

By the time I reached the end of the land I had renounced prayer.

The gods no longer spoke to me.

Standing there, wind whipping my skirts, looking toward Jindo, I couldn’t help but remember the legend of our island. Why not, if doing so would delay me? I welcomed even a pause of ten heartbeats. I could slice open my palm and apply a red pepper poultice to the wound, yet the pain in my heart would exceed that 10,000 times.

If only the gods had spoken to me that day. If only I had seen their silence as disapproval. But as we say, wheat bows its head deeper as it ripens. This means, Kendra JinJu MacGregor, wise people are humble.

On that day I was neither wise nor humble.

Instead, I stood at the end of the land unable to move forward, unable to retreat, and thought of the legend. Once, in the long past time of tigers and dragons, Grandmother Bbong yearned to rejoin her family.

A streak of hungry tigers, so the old ones say, had driven the villagers from their homes. Grandmother fled, but churning seawater surrounded her so she could not cross to Modo Island where her family had rafted to safety.

At the end of the land Grandmother wailed and prayed, prayed and wailed.

That night, the Sea King appeared in her dream. “Tomorrow,” he told her, “follow the rainbow.”

In the morning a ribbon of dazzling colors rose over the waters. As Grandmother stepped forward, the Sea King parted the waves. Suddenly, a walking path broke through the waters all the way to her family on Modo Island.

Every year since then, the sea splits for one hour on one day in the fourth lunar month, and the mysterious path between the islands appears.

That’s where I paused, unable to do what I came here to do. The sand beneath my feet was dry, but time was short. Below the cloud layer, a muted gray sky pressed into the sea, pressed into my heart.

I fingered a triton I had fished from the rocks. I didn’t bend my ear to the shell in case the ocean echo no longer chuffed inside its delicate coils. Kneeling, I kissed the baby’s ear, nuzzled the soft down on his head and offered him the shell.

“HanGyu, listen,” I said.

But he was distracted. Following his upward gaze, I spied a white-tailed eagle arcing her wings. No doubt she had cached her chicks beneath her.

I should have seen that as my sign. An eagle protects her young. In this way my older sister had implored me to protect HanGyu.

As she lay dying, Unni held my hand. “Tell me you will raise my son.”

My tongue lay like a sleeping dragon in a rocky cave.

Unni raised herself on one elbow. “Promise me. Take my son to a village where we—our class—are not known. You have money. Purchase him a good name.”

She clasped my arm in a fierce grip, a strength I had not seen in life. A pity she had not this strength to fight the devilish Japanese soldier.

“Promise me,” she said. Her fingers loosened.

Younger sister, I wanted to say, “This is nonsense. You will not die.” But that was impossible since I could foresee her future.

If only I had foreseen my own.

Unni’s chin trembled in her last moments. I’ll never forget her chin, that dimple. How could I when I see it now reflected in her son, his face pointed to the sea eagle? But his eyes—a soldier’s eyes, dark and alert.

As we watched, HanGyu and I, the eagle tumbled toward the sea, trailing a ghostly shock of white in her wake. A glance at the sky—I had meant to keep the sun in my sight, but while I wasn’t looking it had crept away.

No time, no time.

Water stole over my toes. Flicks of sea gained the sandbar.

Of all hard things I will tell you, younger sister, this is the hardest. I gathered my skirts, already stained by the water tip-toeing up the sides of the sandbar. I gathered my nerve and kissed the soft spot on HanGyu’s head as I set him down. I hardened my mouth against the soft spot in my heart.

How misguided I was! How I burn now with gnawing, unending sorrow. Unlike the Sea King, I cannot roll back the waters of time. This scene I have watched in my mind 10,000 times in the four hundred years since the day I turned and walked and would not witness the cold waters close over the baby’s head.

(End of prologue; now, first page of chapter one.)

Berkeley, California

ONE

The doll wore white silk and a melancholy gaze.

Kendra MacGregor stared at the twelve-inch figure.

Rays of light glinted on the cloisonné hairpick that pierced the doll’s chignon. Its Korean skirt billowed like parachute silk over what Kendra knew, without knowing how she knew, would be underneath—inner trousers and a stiff underskirt.

“Kenni, come on,” her friend Anna called from the next aisle. “I’m starving.”

Lips parted, Kendra remained motionless. The shaft of sunlight pierced the glass globe and played about the doll’s features, dancing in its dark irises. For a moment she thought she heard the doll whisper.

The shelf was not so high. Kendra stole a glance around. Good, she was alone in the dimly lit warehouse aisle. Without further thought, she climbed. She wedged a foot at the base of one shelf and reached to the next, pulling herself up. Almost there—

“Can I…help you?”

She jerked, concentration broken. Her fingers lost their grip. She clawed the air but tumbled backward. Just as her foot collapsed beneath her, firm hands grabbed her. Her blood stirred beneath the sure touch.

“Oh,” she gasped.

In Defense of Prologues

image courtesy of Daniel Villeneuve via Dreamstime

In Defense of Prologues

A funny thing happened to me. I’d been reading and rereading literary agent Kristin Nelson’s blog about prologues in which she denigrates the vast majority of them. Read it here.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I LOVE prologues. Not only that, my novel Moonlight Dancer begins with one.

And this is why, like a dog worrying its wound, I keep returning to Ms. Nelson’s blog.

Let’s go through her major points.

  • Nelson dislikes prologues whose sole purpose is to provide the reader with back story.

She gives one example of a prologue that works—a novel entitled Undone. Since I was at the library, I decided to check out her one stellar example of prologue, and so I brought home Undone by Karin Slaughter. Well, I felt the prologue did nothing but dump back story until the final page. I thought, Gotcha! It was then, returning to Nelson’s post, that I discovered I had not only proved her point about weak prologues but also inadvertently brought home the wrong novel. She was referring to Brooke Taylor’s Undone. Back to the library I go.

  • Nelson hates prologues that are too long.

I hate anything that is too long, prologue or not. The longest prologue I ever read opens Empire Falls, clocking in at sixteen pages. Egads! That was tough to slog through given my impatience to jump into the story.

When writing this post, I decided to go back and reread the Empire Falls prologue. I enjoyed it even more the second time. It is rich in voice, setting, foreshadowing and historical perspectives. I couldn’t do without it, all sixteen pages of it.

But here’s my problem. Who decreed that prologues be written in italics? A final legacy from Philyra, goddess of writing, before succumbing to her life in leafdom? Publishers take note: couldn’t we please, pretty please, have a typeface for prologues that’s a tad easier to read?

  • Nelson dislikes a prologue that differs in voice or style from the rest of the book.

I disagree. A book that comes to mind is Black Rose by Nora Roberts. The prologue is narrated from the point of view of a 19th-century kept woman soon-to-be-ghost and necessarily contrasts with the strong no-nonsense contemporary businesswoman of chapter one.

One of this ilk I feel sure Ms. Nelson and I would agree on is the prologue to The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble in which the author describes her writing process and trepidation of cross-cultural toe-dipping. This is interesting stuff, particularly to me as a similar toe-dipper, yet it is not a prologue. I would rather it not interfere with my immersion in the story.

  • Nelson takes exception to prologues that introduce action merely to engage the reader with the story.

Yes, but this seems symptomatic of a bad book rather than an ineffective prologue. One book that opens with an action prologue is Water for Elephants. Yet the prologue is justified in that it creates a tension-filled momentum that draws the reader forward. It also provokes reader questions: who is the murderess, what precipitates this action, why does the narrator feel he can influence her from afar?

  • Nelson disavows prologues in which the evil character foreshadows the conflict.

I’m thinking of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. I recall feeling slightly unclean, uncomfortably voyeuristic when I started reading. As readers we know what’s coming; we find ourselves treading the inexorable conveyor belt to tragedy, feet locked in place. This book from my youth I doubt I would read today.

Despite Ms. Nelson’s interesting article, I still love prologues. For further reading, check out these novels. (Not an exhaustive or representative group, just what I grabbed off my shelf.) that is, with one exception. The winner in the best prologue to date category belongs to One True Thing by Anna Quindlen.

The Innocent by Harlan Coben

The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacqueline Mitchard

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

A Mango-shaped Space by Wendy Mass

Stay tuned for next time. I’m going to post my very own prologue—GULP—and you can measure it against the Nelson-ometer.

Ghost novel review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Review Part Two

Endings are so hard, aren’t they? At Laurie’s monthly book group, concerns about conclusions run high. When I listen to people describe a book, satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the ending always figures into the discussion, which generally falls into three categories.

The first category involves quilting metaphors. I hear, “the threads were tied up too neatly” or “not tied up neatly enough” or “story threads were left hanging.” In the second category, alimentary analogies prevail, as in the ending is too sweet, too bitter, too saccharine. A variation on the above, “It left a bad taste in my mouth.” The third group, boxing terms—“knocked me flat,” or “not enough punch,” or “packed a wallop.”

My problem with Niffenegger’s conclusion derives from character motivation. After such a meticulous job of developing character, the author must respect who that person is. It’s a little like gestation. Maybe you wanted to birth a doctor, but a welder emerged. It happens.

I remember watching an interview with Sheri Reynolds, the author of The Rapture of Canaan. Inconsolable over the suicide of one of her characters, Reynolds called her mother. (Trust me, it’s a writer thing.) Once her mother waded through enough of the tearful conversation to discover the deceased teen was fictional, she gave her daughter some simple advice: Re-write it. But Reynolds couldn’t. The character operated according to the dictates of his persona. For him, there would be no resurrection.

Without telling you where I feel Her Fearful Symmetry went astray, I will divulge that a trio of characters hatched a plot, bringing the book to a tidy close. This intricate machination makes perfect sense for two of the three characters. I just don’t buy the third character’s buy-in. Due to Niffenegger’s careful and beautiful rendering, I know him that well. The ending would still be plausible if more attention had been paid to the third character, if he had been forced into the deal against his will.

This disregard for the sanctity of one character so unnerved me, I put the book down. When I took it up again, I hurried through the last forty pages, telling myself I would return one day. But knowing how “way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”*

For all that, the prose of this novel is breathtakingly beautiful, and those who people the pages never fail to fascinate. The story is compelling; the setting, haunting; the writing, lyrical.

It’s 90% fabulous.

The end.

*Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.”

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Scribner, 406 pages.

A set of twenty-year-old twins, children of a twin, receives a mysterious inheritance—a London flat adjacent to Highgate Cemetery in which the twin girls must live together for one year before assuming ownership. Soon after arrival, Julia and Valentina mix with their quirky, lovable neighbors—Martin, housebound neurotic and puzzle mastermind; Robert, cemetery scholar and leal lover of the deceased. Not to be outdone, the cemetery itself dons a quasi-character role. Into this atmospheric setting, floats a tentative but narcissistic ghost who orchestrates events to the novel’s end.

I loved 90% of this book. (Of course, we will discuss at length the 10% I didn’t love. You expect no less, am I right?)

I found the exploration of desire compelling. To me, this book is about obsession—one twin’s obsession for the other, one man’s obsession with compulsion, another’s obsession with love. Added to that, these flawed but gentle characters impact each other’s lives in complex and interesting ways. Niffenegger’s novel considers the human condition minus the time shifts and plot devices of the author’s more famous work, The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Yet I felt the foundation for the ending was not properly laid, and this profoundly affected my reading experience. To read my explanation, tune in to the next installment of Ghost Novel Reviews for Her Fearful Symmetry, Part Two.