Killer Year–The Class of 2007


The Prologue That Wasn’t
September 2, 2006, 7:52 am
Filed under: Bill Cameron, Killer Year Members

One thing I’ve found, people have an opinion about prologues. Often enough they’ll tell you about it too.

“I don’t like them.”

“I skip them.”

“They’re cheating/sloppy writing/irrelevant, etc.”

“Prologues waste time.”

To which I say, “Huh?”

Now I realize that a prologue generally has a different character than the chapters which follow it, but I if a novel seems interesting enough, the presence or absence of a prologue is not going to change my willingness to start reading. To me, a novel starts on page one. Whether the first word on that page is “Prologue” or “Chapter” (presumably followed by “One”) doesn’t change the fact that’s where the writer decided to start the novel. From there, either a novel works or it doesn’t, incidental to its prologuosity.

All that said, I dropped the prologue from my first novel, after living with it through two full drafts. Not because I didn’t like it, and not because I thought it didn’t enhance the novel. I dropped it because it didn’t fit with the point-of-view structure I used throughout the rest of the novel. For all that I like about it, I decided I didn’t want to establish a point-of-view that I wouldn’t return to later.

That said, I still think this prologue has much to offer. It introduces a very important supporting cast member, Detective Skin Kadash. Skin happens to be the main character in my second novel, and probably found his way into that position by virtue of the prologue that isn’t. I love his voice, love his attitude, and love the way he looks at a crime scene. He’s an important character to me. His prologue introduces important information in a way that I really like. Damn that POV thing anyway.

“You’ve got to be willing to kill your babies,” is the old writer’s saw. Maybe. In this case, I settled for a kidnapping, and I offer the victim below as a glimpse into lost dog, as well as into the mind of Skin Kadash, a fellow I hope people will get to see a lot of down through the years.

lost dog

prologue

Water slapped against rocks at the base of the slope, but Kadash
couldn’t see the river, or the corpse that floated in it, through the
fog. He walked along the bike path at the top of the bank, breathing
the cold, moist air. A band of fine drizzle swept by, but he hardly
noticed. He heard movement ahead, footsteps on gravel and the rattle
of equipment. He made out flashing lights through the thick air. He’d
parked his car further upstream than he really needed to, but that
was okay. He wanted to walk in on this one, clear his head of sleep.
He dug inside his overcoat for his cigarettes, shook one into his
mouth. Dug around for his lighter, then remembered he’d loaned it to
Owen.

“Can you friggin’ believe that?” he grumbled. He stopped and sucked
air through the cigarette, tasted the sweetness of cut tobacco.
Searched through his pockets again. Gotta be some matches, something.

He shook his head, gazed toward the lights. Lot of people up there
already, looked like. He was dawdling, and he knew it.

God, how he hated pulling stiffs out of the river.

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and continued toward the
lights. Another tepid squall swept past, plastering what little
remained of his hair to his head. When he reached the police tape, he
leaned over and scooted under. Don’t bend like you used to, Skin. Seemed like he’d been thinking that a lot lately. As he
straightened up, he saw a uniform materialize out of the fog.

“Hey, Detective. Wondering if you were ever gonna show up.”

“Don’t give me any shit, Mickey. I’m an old man. Can’t move like you
smart-assed pups.”

“You beat Owen. Maybe there’s a little life left in you.”

“Owen?” Kadash took a moment to absorb the news. “If he’s on this
one, what the hell am I doing here?”

Mickey shrugged. “Who called you?”

“I don’t even know.” Kadash shook his head. “Must’ve been drunk at
the time.”

“Well, sober up. We got a stiff in the river.” Mickey turned and
headed into the lights.

Kadash grunted and followed after him, fingering his unlit cigarette.
“Hey, Mickey—you got a light?”

“Sorry, Detective. Don’t smoke.”

“How nice for you.”

There were two cruisers parked on the upstream side of the Hawthorne
Bridge, both aimed toward the river with their headlights on, bubbles
rotating. Kadash heard their radios crackle and sputter through half-
open windows. High overhead, traffic noise from the Hawthorne Bridge
competed with the radios and the sound of the river. The Willamette
along this stretch was high-banked and Kadash didn’t look forward to
scrambling down the rocky slope. Maybe he wouldn’t have to. If Owen
showed, he could stand back and watch. Maybe hustle his lighter back.
That, at least, would make the trip out at five in the morning worth
something.

Mickey started down the slope toward the cluster of activity at the
water.

Kadash hesitated. “So what do we got?” he said. “Floater?”

“Afraid so. Half-dressed, drifted against the bank.”

“Like Moses in the reeds. He’s a jumper?”

“Looks that way. From the Ross Island or Sellwood Bridge, unless he
climbed up there.” Mickey gestured toward the Marquam Bridge just
upstream. Kadash twisted and looked up. I-5 crossed the Willamette
River on the Marquam. It wasn’t a jumper’s bridge—high-speed traffic,
no pedestrian walkway. The Ross Island was the next bridge upstream,
the Sellwood a mile further.

“Maybe he floated upstream,” Kadash said.

Mickey smiled grimly and shook his head. “He’s pretty fresh, I think.
The water’s cold enough that he’s not ripe at least. Not much of a
Christmas present.”

“Lucky me, I’m a Jew. Who found him?”

“Fire fighter. There’s a sub-station down there under the east end of
the bridge—”

“I know where it is.”

“Yeah. The guy was out walking, smoking actually, I think he said.”
Mickey rolled his eyes. “Fog broke and he saw the body at the bottom
of the bank.”

“Where’s this fireman now?”

Mickey pointed down toward the water. “Down there. He’s helping set
up the lights.”

Kadash peered down the bank, rolled the cigarette in his fingers. He
made out the red coal of a lit smoke bobbing at head level among the
human forms at the foot of the slope. He felt an itch at the back of
his throat and without thinking stuck the cigarette back in his
mouth. “Okay,” he said, “let’s go have a look.”

The slope was easier than he thought it would be. Most of the rocks
were big and provided enough footholds. He took it slow, and not just
because his knees protested every step. He’d taken a fall off a lava
rock wall the year before when one of the boulders suddenly rolled
out from under his foot. Broke an ankle and damn near broke a hip.

There were three other uniforms at water’s edge, plus the fire
fighter with the smoke in his mouth. The four of them were setting up
battery-powered spotlights on tripods, all aimed in a big half-circle
at a spot at the water line. Kadash caught a glimpse of the body as
he came to the bottom of the slope, but he wasn’t ready to give it
his attention yet.

“Skin! Good to see you, buddy.”

“Hey, Jefferson,” Kadash said, taking the proffered hand of the
uniform who greeted him. “You back on night shift?”

“I take what I can get, these days, and glad for it.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“What’s your story? I heard Owen was in line for this one.”

“So did I. So did everyone, except, apparently, dispatch. I’ll bet a
week’s pay against a nickel they didn’t wake Susan up.”

“I ain’t got a nickel to spare,” Jefferson said. “Hey, I’d like you
to meet Eddie Baker,” he added. “Eddie, this is Skin Kadash. Eddie
found the body.” Baker, the fire fighter, shook Kadash’s hand
uneasily. Kadash saw Baker’s eyes flicking up and down, checking out
the red patch on Kadash’s neck, but trying not to be obvious about
it. Kadash smiled and said, “Nice to meetcha. Sorry about the
circumstances.”

Baker shrugged. “What are you going to do?”

Kadash waved his cigarette. “Think I can get a light?”

“Sure.” Baker fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a lighter, then
spun the wheel and held the flame to the tip of Kadash’s cigarette.
Kadash drew deeply and slowly exhaled the smoke. Already he was glad
he’d climbed down the bank. Whatever happened next, so be it.

“You going to check out the stiff?” Jefferson said.

“D.M.E. coming?”

Jefferson nodded. “Ident too. But you’re the first authority figure.”

Kadash snorted. “Not my case. Don’t expect too much from me.”

“Skin, I never expect much from you.”

Kadash didn’t know the other two uniforms. They ignored him as they
worked on setting up another spotlight.

“Long as I’m here,” he sighed, “you might as well give me the picture.”

He learned little new. Mickey had covered the basics, at least until
the Deputy Medical Examiner and Crime Scene Identification had their
go at it. Baker didn’t offer any additional details on the discovery.
Hell, Kadash thought, let Owen pump him. His case, his and
whoever didn’t know him well enough to agree to be his partner this
week
. It boiled down to a probable jumper. Stiff was male, thirty-
five to forty. Height was a guess at five-nine, weight pushing two
hundred. Pot belly, dark hair, bald on top. And then what? “You want
to take a look at him?” Jefferson said.

“No,” Kadash grumbled. Jefferson laughed and turned toward the body.
Baker drifted away behind Mickey. Kadash looked, was relieved that it
wasn’t as bad as he expected.

“C’mon, Skin,” Mickey said, “what’s your take?”

“Who the fuck am I? Sherlock Holmes?”

Jefferson smirked. “Why not? Was Moriarty involved?”

“Chronic depression is probably the only thing involved here.” But
Kadash drew on his smoke and kneeled down. A quick once-over wouldn’t
hurt. He wouldn’t tread on Owen’s turf, just take a look. Like he
gave a shit what Owen thought anyway.

Mickey was right. No smell, thank god. Kadash slowly looked the stiff
over. Nothing remarkable, really. The body lay face-up in a foot of
water, one arm hooked on a head-sized boulder sticking out of the
water near the bank. Stiff was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans
pushed down around his knees. Briefs intact and in place. Belly-flop
off the bridge the likely culprit with the pants—Kadash doubted the
guy had dropped his drawers before jumping, though you never knew.
Maybe he fell while taking a piss. The feet hung deeper in the water
and Kadash couldn’t see them in the light of the spots, but he didn’t
think they’d reveal much anyway. Hopefully there’d be a wallet in the
back pocket and a note somewhere to tie it up all neat and tidy.

“How long you think he’s been in?” Jefferson said.

Kadash shrugged, and took another look. “He looks pretty damn good,
actually. He’s kinda thin, wouldn’t you say, except for that beer gut?”

Jefferson nodded. “Yeah, now that you mention it.”

“The water’s cold, but hell, he coulda fell tonight from the looks of
him. He’s still hairy.”

“From Sellwood or Ross Island. He wouldn’t be here if he’d jumped off
the Hawthorne.”

Kadash gazed upstream. “Either bridge, long way, don’tcha think?”

“Makes you think he ought to be on the bottom, don’t it?”

“That it does. Frankly, I’d expect a man who jumped tonight’d be
unlikely to surface before Valentine’s Day.” Kadash turned his hands
over. “Course, I’m not the M.E., am I?”

“Thank God for that.”

“I don’t get it,” Mickey said from over Kadash’s shoulder. “What’s
the big deal?”

“Jumpers tend to sink,” Jefferson said. “And this time of year, they
stay down a while. Water’s too cold for ’em to gas up.”

“Oughta leave it to Owen.” Kadash muttered. He started to straighten
up. As he stood, he caught sight of a discoloration on the corpse’s
skin along the neckline of the t-shirt. He bent down again for a
closer look, but couldn’t make anything out.

“What’s up, Skin?” Jefferson said.

“Probably broken neck. But, all things considered, makes me wonder—”
He twisted around for a better angle, but the light reflected in
confused patterns off the rippling water. “Jeff, why don’t you give
me a hand here. I wanna turn him over.”

“The D.M.E.’ll give us shit.”

“He won’t know the meaning of shit till he tries giving some to Skin
Kadash. Come on. I just wanna have a look.”

Jefferson shook his head and joined Kadash at his left. Together,
they bent down and grabbed the corpse by the shoulder and side and
rolled him over onto the rocks. Kadash noted that the back jeans
pockets showed no tell-tale bump indicating a wallet. The t-shirt was
ripped across the back. In between the man’s shoulder-blades was a
small black hole surrounded by star-like striations in the skin. A
second, larger hole down around the right kidney appeared almost torn
open. Jefferson grunted and rolled back onto his haunches. Baker and
Mickey crowded closer.

“Well, well, well,” Jefferson said. “Looks like a coupla contact
wounds to me.”

“Yep,” Kadash nodded. “And I’d bet my pension against a nickel
neither one was self-inflicted.”

lost dog, a novel of suspense

by Bill Cameron

Available April 2007 from Midnight Ink Books

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13 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You know what I find funny about prologues, and the push to scrap them? (It’s one of those writing trends – they’re either in fashion or out of fashion, it seems.) Some people just take their prologue and call it chapter 1, so it’s still a prologue but disguised as a chapter.

Just seems silly.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Extremely well done, Bill. I’d definitely be buying that novel after reading that prologue (of course, it’s already top on my list of books to buy as soon as it comes out). I hate to see this scrapped, but am glad Skin is making it into the next book.

I’m debating a similar issue for the second Bobbie Faye book. The only advantage I have is that the prologue is from her POV as is ch.1, so I may just call it ch. 1 and be done with it. The only reason why I didn’t yet is because there’s a bigger time lapse between the event in the prologue and ch. 1 than there is between any other segments in the story.

I also think it’s kinda silly for people not to like prologues just on principle. Seems too random a criteria to use to judge a book.

Comment by toni mcgee causey

i use prologues all the time and they’ve even been requested by my editor, so when i decided to look into the internet writing community i was dismayed to see all the prologue bashing. i know things go in and out of style, but that’s an issue i don’t get.

years ago i was always told to never start a book with dialogue. now dialogue is encouraged. I GET that, and never understood why people were against it to begin with.

can’t wait to read lost dog, bill!!

Comment by anne frasier

I’m anti-prologue because usually they just don’t fit. Naturally, anything well done is well done — but most of the prologues I see are not.

(I didn’t used to feel this way, but I have seen so many lousy, pointless prologues in so many books over the past few years that I’ve come to despair at the sight of them.)

My philosophy is to start the story at the beginning, wherever that might be. Don’t add a chapter before the beginning. They almost never add anything to the story.

For purely practical reasons, I would also advise against doing anything that so many readers express distaste for! The last thing you want to have happen is for a potential buyer to pick up the book, see that it has a prologue, and put it back down on that basis. That’s just too damn easy a thing to avoid.

Comment by David J. Montgomery

All good points David, though I do wonder what readers who have a dislike for prologues think when it’s simply called chapter 1? One book I read had chapters typically 10-15 pages in length, but chapter 1 was one page, written from a completely different POV than all the others. It was 100% a prologue, just not called a prologue. Isn’t that worse? Like saying to readers, “I know most of you don’t like them but I’m going to sneak it past you anyway and you can’t complain because it isn’t called a prologue?”

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

In that case, I’d just call that a lousy way to start a book. 🙂

What I find hard to understand is why any writer would want to start their book — the most important aspect of any novel — with, for example, a one-page chapter written in a different POV from the rest of the book.

It strikes me as a very soft way to open a story, which none of us can afford.

Comment by David J. Montgomery

I had prologues in my first three books. The only one that probably could have been dropped was the prologue in the first book. The other two were scenes that took place years in the past the set up the backstory of the protagonists in an active way, rather than revealing it in dialogue. In THE HUNT for example my protagonist is running for her life from a killer and watches her best friend get shot. It’s short (3 pages) and powerful and really sets up a lot in the book, which takes place 12 years later.

I didn’t put a prologue in my Feb 07 release, but my editor asked me to write one. So I did. It’s short (3 manuscript pages) and now that I can stand back and look at it, it’s powerful and sets the tone. Does it need to be there? Probably not. But it does add depth, so it’s not worthless.

My rule on prologues: They should be short, active scenes and take place in the past (prior to the opening of the story) to highlight conflict or show character motivations or a major turning point in a character’s life.

I was an avid reader before I started seriously writing. I never didn’t buy a book because there was (or wasn’t) a prologue. My mom reads more than I do and she doesn’t care, either. Ditto on my best friend (neither my mom nor best friend are writers). I just think people who hate prologues are more vocal than the majority who like or are neutral on them.

Comment by Allison Brennan

“I just think people who hate prologues are more vocal than the majority who like or are neutral on them.”

I think you’re definitely right about that. I mean really, who cares about prologues? I’m almost a little embarassed that they irk me. 🙂

But we all have our pet peeves, I suppose. And I’ve never not read a book because of one. (Not that I recall, anyway.)

I sure have read a lot of lousy ones, though, that started off the book on a sour note.

Ultimately, I think the “rule” on prologues is the same as the rule on everything else with regards to writing: if you’re going to do it, do it well. And if it’s not necessary, leave it out.

Comment by David J. Montgomery

“I think the “rule” on prologues is the same as the rule on everything else with regards to writing: if you’re going to do it, do it well. And if it’s not necessary, leave it out.” And doing it well is what Allison said: “They should be short, active scenes and take place in the past (prior to the opening of the story) to highlight conflict or show character motivations or a major turning point in a character’s life.”

I think that sums it up. I’ve never skipped a book because it had a prologue or skipped a prologue… I read the book because something has made me interested in it, and try to trust that the author has made the right decisions for the right reasons.

My book doesn’t have a prologue. It did once upon a time, but I scrapped it. At this point my third ms has one, but I would make a strong argument for it in that specific case.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

For me, a well-written prologue immediately adds depth, layering, a complex use of time. In other words, I love them–if they’re done well. An intriguing opening like this would pull me in every time.

Comment by patryfrancis

I think Sandra nailed it. I chose to drop my own prologue because, in the end, it didn’t fit with what I was doing in the rest of the novel, whatever merits it may or may not have had on its own.

I am inclined to trust writers until they prove me wrong. If they do, well, then I won’t go back. But a good prologue can be as engaging as a good first chapter, and a bad prologue may be no worse than a bad first chapter. What the writers do with the tools at hand is what counts.

Great discussion! And quite a bit less, er, vociferous than many I’ve seen on this topic!

Comment by Bill Cameron

Bill,

I am preening and strutting because I have read lost dog! Yea! I got to read it and feel privileged to have done so. Now here’s the thing. I like Prologues. I never mind if a novel has them or doesn’t, and as you know I began my novel with a prologue.

However, in this case, I think you did the right thing. Not because your prologue isn’t good–because it does much in establishing setting, mood and character–but because your first chapter pulled me in just a bit faster, and we all know that it’s the goal–to capture that reader asap. And since we can’t leap out, chloroform them, and drag them in, (darn it) our best bet is to start with something emphatic.

I think you accomplished that in Chapter One. However, since Skin will be back as the protagonist of book two, maybe some of this choice stuff can be reclaimed?

Comment by Julia

I’m sorry, but the whole prologue debate just cracks me up. Honestly, I would never even think to look at whether it says “Prologue” or “Chapter One” at the beginning of a novel.

Skipping it just seems like the most insane idea I’ve ever heard. Why in the world would one skip the opening?

But I keep hearing that readers like to skip the prologue, for some mystifying reason.

Sheesh.

Comment by spyscribbler




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