Friday, June 17, 2011

Back is Best...Right?

My beautiful baby boy has been in the world for six and a half months and every time we buy some sort of sleep attire we’re attacked by the BACK IS BEST catch phrase. Hey, I understand the saying, so don’t feel like you have to explain it to me—my wife has read every article known to (wo)man about the reasons back is truly best for infants while sleeping. My mother, though (like many women of the “old guard”), laughs at this catch phrase and says, “Um…sure.” When I press her for her real thoughts, she tells me when I was a baby I slept on my back, stomach, side, and heck, even on my head sometimes. My mother also likes to explain that I ate all kinds of food when I was an infant, stuff that doctors say is “dangerous” in the present. My mother-in-law also talks about things she used to do that are now taboo. It gets you thinking: when did these practices become bad? And, are they really bad, or is it just trending presently?

That got me thinking about the literary world, and the things we are told are “bad.” Not are bad, but things we are told are bad. 

My son, A.J., getting ready to sleep (on his BACK).

Take, for example, prologues. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the “no prologues, please” cry from agents and editors. "Start the book where it starts," they say. But is it really a no-no to have a prologue? Take a look at your favorite MG book—is there a prologue? A book I just finished and LOVED was the EMERALD ATLAS (highly, highly recommended). Great book…with a prologue. Another favorite, ARTEMIS FOWL, has an awesome prologue. The list is actually pretty long. Is this a “back is best” type thing? Not sure.

Another supposed no-no is front-loading your story with backstory. Cringing agents and editors alike ask to merely sprinkle this backstory throughout your story. But tell me…ever read a good MG book and, say, fifty pages in you’re like, “This is a ton of backstory, man”? Sure you have. Did it make those books bad? Probably not. There are plenty to choose from as examples, but to name a few: MANIAC MAGEE (prologue included), the aforementioned EMERALD ATLAS (again, prologue included), and HOLES. Is this a “back is best” type thing? Again, not sure.

Tell me, can you think of other things we’re told are bad in the literary world, but upon further inspection, may not be bad after all? Do tell.

* Oh, and by the way, my son always sleeps on his back, never his head. Don’t want him ending up like me (thanks, Mom).


  1. How about the old "show, don't tell"? A novel that is only telling could be boring, but sometimes we need to sum things up in a line or two and move on, without showing everything in excruciating detail.

  2. There seems to be many 'don't do this' kind of stuff in the literary world. Sometimes it overwhelms me, and all I can do is write the way I write, revise to improve it, and see what happens. And yes, there are always examples of the things writers aren't supposed to do but they did them anyway (and now it's in a BOOK!).

  3. OMG! He is soooo cute! :)

    My debut had prologue! I've heard having the word WAS too many times in a manuscript is a no-no. Sure, it can be over used, but a lot of writers become obsessed with it! I say don't!

    Great post, Michael and I want that baby!


  4. What a cutie! Hope your little man is sleeping solidly through the night - however it happens - ha!

    I agree - there are many "rules", but any of them can be broken if it's done well.

    I've heard the don't have the character waking up in the first scene, looking into a mirror for self-description, etc, but see these all the time. I think, though, the rules are helpful for our writing craft. Trying not to write a prologue can challenge us to get that information in other creative ways. Even if you end up with the prologue (or whatever) trying to do without can be a good challenge.

  5. Andrea: I tend to agree with the show don't tell, but you're right about moderation. I mean, everything in moderation, right?

    Barbara: Yes, it is overwhelming. It gets inside your head when you revise and you wonder if you are doing those "bad" things, so you go back and revise with that idea in mind. Then--shoot--there's another on of those "bad" things. It's a vicious cycle if you let it get to you.

    Hilary: No way, A.J. is mine! Back away slowly. And yeah I remember you had a prologue. Worked for NIGHTSHADE CITY.

    Marissa: Yeah, those scenes looking at a reflection for the sake of describing physical attributes are way too obvious. I agree that the rules are good for the sake of honing our craft, but I just hate the way some are described as absolute.


    I think agents sometimes say to avoid tricky tactics because so few beginning writers can really make them pay off.

    Any writer with an iron grip on his/her material should not be deterred!

  7. What about how it's been said not to start out your book with the weather? Yet the first line in A Wrinkle in Time: "It was a dark and stormy night." !!

  8. Awwwwww, A.J.'s adorable!!

    Yeah, for every "don't do this" there is a book--or many books--that successfully break the rule.

    Like Tim said, if you can make it work, don't be deterred. If multiple people and agents and editors read your manuscript and tell you it's not working, then is the time to re-think.

  9. Very cuts baby, Michael! On a writing note, I can't stand it when people say you shouldn't use semicolons in kidlit. Sometimes semicolons make sense. I'm going to use them anyway (sparingly).

  10. Great post. Other first page/chapter don'ts I find in books: Waking up (Hunger Games) and looking in mirrors. I think agents and publishers say don't because they have read it a million times but if the story is right they make an exception. Percy Jackson and Ranger's Apprentice both have prologues.

  11. Rules are made to be broken. You just have to be aware of what they are so that WHEN you break them, you're doing it on purpose, and with good reason.

  12. My kids are 5 and 3 and I swear they'd sleep at night if only I'd put them on their fronts, just sayin ;)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!