A tale of two questions: it was the best of orphans, and the worst of prologues

Dear Andrea,

Two questions for you.

1-I am having trouble formatting on the new computer system I have.  I thought I set it up for regular ms formatting, but it looks like that isn’t the case yet. I am not familiar with the term:  widow/orphan control? Can you explain a little further?

2-What do you think of  prologues? Some love them, other editors, a real no no and put off?

Signed,

New Computer Owner

Dear New,

1) Just be sure to go under format–paragraph–line and paragraph breaks and uncheck the widows/orphans box before you start a manuscript. For existing manuscripts, highlight the text first and pretty much uncheck all the boxes on that tab. It’ll save you space/pages and make any publishers/agents you send it to happy. Checking that box causes paragraphs that run over the edge of a page to all go on the next page and it wastes paper and space.
2) I take prologues on a case by case basis. The general argument against them is they’re often done poorly/incorrectly, that readers skip them, and they force you to hook your readers twice. Done wrong, they can confuse the reader about what the central conflict is, and are often actually chapter one mislabeled (rule of thumb: if it’s longer than six pages, it’s not a prologue.)
In one case I’ve seen, the author combined the prologue with a chapter one technique that can be useful in some projects, if needed to hook your readers, starting the novel with a scene from the climax or end of the novel and then backing up to the beginning. The problem was her story began with the birth of the wife of the man in the opening scene, making it look as if the author had a rambling, out of control plot. However unfair that impression may be, it could well hurt her publication chances nonetheless. In addition, the actual chapter one had a far more intriguing hook.
So, not all books need a prologue, and if your book doesn’t need one, then your book shouldn’t have one.
Done right, however, a prologue shows a scene from the often-distant past that represents a defining  moment in the life of the main character, or which otherwise sets the stage for the events of the present, and in a way that intrigues the reader and hooks their interest.

In Christ’s Service,

Andrea Graham

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