I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.
When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.
Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”
I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.
Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.
That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.
The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After The Sister spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.
So how do I decide when to use one? ‘The Stolen Sisters’ (currently 99p in the Amazon Kindle Deal) is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.
When Carly looked back at that day the memory was in shades of grey; the trauma had sucked the blue from the sky, the green from the freshly mown grass. She had sat on the back doorstep, the coolness of the concrete permeating through her school skirt, the late-afternoon sun warming her bare arms. Carly remembers now the blackness of a beetle scurrying down the path before it disappeared into the soil under the rose bush. The stark white of the twins’ socks, bunched below their knees.
Inconsequential details that later the police would jot in their notebooks as though Carly was somehow being a great help but she knew she wasn’t, and worse than that, she knew it was entirely her fault.
It had all been so frustratingly normal. Leah and Marie had shrieked in mock disgust as Bruno, their boxer, bounded towards them, drool spilling from his jowls. But their screams then still carried an undercurrent of happiness, not like later when their cries were full of fear and there was nowhere to run to.
The things that have stayed with Carly are this.
The way her fingers gripped the cumbersome Nokia in her hand as though she was clutching a secret. Her annoyance as she angled her screen to avoid the glare, never dreaming that soon she would be craving daylight.
The pounding in her head increasing as the girls bounced a tennis ball between them across the patio. The way she had snapped at the twins as though it was their fault Dean Malden hadn’t text her. Of all the things that she could, that she should, feel guilty about, she had never forgiven herself that the last words she spoke to her sisters before they were all irrevocably damaged was in anger rather than kindness.
Although in truth, she had never forgiven herself for any of it.
‘Shut up!’ She had roared out her frustration that the first boy she loved had shattered her thirteen-year-old heart. Crazy now to recall that she once thought the absence of a text was the end of the world. There were far worse things. Far worse people than the floppy-haired blond boy who had let her down.
Her younger sisters turned to her, identical green eyes wide. Marie’s sight trained on Carly’s face as she chucked the ball for Bruno. Carly’s irritation grew as she watched it fly over the fence.
‘For God’s sake.’ She stood, brushing the dust from the back of her sensible pleated skirt. ‘It’s time to come in.’
‘But that’s not fair.’ Marie looked stricken as her gaze flickered towards the fence.
‘Life isn’t fair,’ Carly said feeling a bubbling resentment that at eight years old the twins had it easy.
‘Can you fetch our ball, please, Carly?’ Marie pleaded.
‘Fetch it yourself,’ Carly snapped.
‘You know we’re not allowed out of the garden on our own until we’re ten,’ Marie said.
‘Yeah, well I’m in charge today and I’m saying you can. It’s not like we live in a city. Nothing ever happens in this dump.’ Carly was sick of living somewhere so small where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Where everyone would know by tomorrow that Dean Malden had rejected her. ‘Be quick and shut the gate properly.’
She turned and pushed open the back door, stepping into the vast kitchen that never smelled of cakes or bread. It never smelled of anything except freshly roasted coffee. Carly clattered her phone onto the marble island and yanked open the fridge door. The shelves that were once stocked with stilton and steak and that had groaned under the weight of fresh fruit and vegetables, were woefully bare. There was nothing except a shrivelled cucumber and some out-of-date hummus. It was all right for her mum and stepdad out for the evening at yet another corporate function. They spent more time on the business than with their children nowadays, although Mum had assured her it wouldn’t be for much longer. She’d soon be at home more but in the meantime it was left to Carly to sort out tea again. She had loved her half-sisters fiercely since the day they were born but sometimes she wished mum still paid the retired lady down the road to babysit but since Carly had turned thirteen mum felt that she was responsible enough.
She sighed as she crossed to the shelf above the Aga and lifted the lid from the teapot. Inside was a £10 note. Chips for tea. She wondered whether the money would stretch to three sausages or if they should split a battered cod.
Minutes later the twins tumbled into the kitchen.
‘Yuck.’ Leah dropped the tennis ball coated with slobber into the wicker basket where Bruno kept his toys.
‘Wash your hands,’ Carly snapped as she checked her phone again.
What had she done wrong? She had thought Dean liked her.
Marie perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, swinging her legs, the toes of her shoes thudding against the kick board. How was Carly supposed to hear her text alert over that? Marie had her chin in her hands, her mouth downturned; she hated being in trouble. Carly could see the way her lip trembled with upset but she couldn’t help yelling again.
Marie slid off the stool. ‘I . . . I left my fleece in the garden.’
Carly jerked her head towards the door in a go-and-get-it-gesture before she clicked on the radio. The sound of Steps flooded the room. Marie paused and momentarily their sisterly bond tugged at them all. ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ was one of their favourite songs. Usually they’d fall into line and dance in synchronicity.
‘Let’s do this!’ Marie flicked her red hair over her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips.
‘It’s childish,’ Carly snapped although inside her shoes, her toes were tapping.
‘It doesn’t work unless we all do it.’ Marie’s voice cracked. ‘We have to be together.’
Carly pulled the scrunchie she’d been wearing like a bracelet from her wrist and smoothed her long fair hair back into a ponytail. The twins got into position. Waited. Carly reached for her phone and tried to ignore the pang of meanness that flitted through her as the smile slipped from Leah’s face. Marie’s small shoulders rounded as she headed back outside.
Minutes later she raced back in, socked feet skidding across the tiles, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. ‘Bruno’s got out. The gate was open.’
‘For God’s sake.’ Carly could feel the anger in her chest form a cold, hard ball. It was one of the last times she ever allowed herself to truly feel. ‘Who shut the gate?’
Marie bit her lower lip.
‘I did,’ said Leah, slipping her shoes back on.
‘You’re supposed to bang it until it latches, you idiot. You know it’s broken. Three times. You bang it three times.’
The girls pelted into the garden, calling the dog’s name.
Marie hesitated at the gate. ‘Perhaps we should wait—’ Under her freckles, her skin was pale. She’d been off school yesterday with a stomach-ache and although she’d gone back today, she didn’t look well. Carly knew she should ask if she was feeling okay but instead she shoved her roughly into the street. ‘It’s your fault, Marie. You search that way.’ She pointed down the avenue lined with beech trees.
Marie grabbed Leah’s hand.
‘No,’ Carly snapped. ‘Leah can come with me.’ The twins could be silly where they were together and she had enough to worry about without them getting into trouble.
‘But I want . . .’ Marie began.
‘I don’t care what you want. Move.’ Carly grabbed Leah’s arm and led her in the opposite direction, towards the cut-through at the side of their house which led to the park.
It all happened so quickly that afterwards Carly couldn’t remember which order it all came in. The balaclava-clad face looming towards hers. The forearm around her neck, the gloved hand clamped over her mouth. The sight of Leah struggling against arms that restrained her. The scraping sound of her shoe as she was dragged towards the van at the other end of the alley. The sight of Marie, almost a blur, flying towards the second man also clad in black, who held her twin, pummelling him with her small fists.
‘Stop! You can’t do this! Don’t take her. I don’t want you to take her!’
The soft flesh compacting against hard bone as Carly bit down hard on the fingers that had covered her mouth.
‘Run!’ she had screamed at Marie as the man who held Leah grabbled to find something of Marie’s he could hold onto, clutching at her collar, her ginger pigtails, as she dodged his grasp.
I decided to use a prologue for this story, not only because it’s an instant hook, but because I wanted to begin twenty years before I started the story proper. There was vital information I wanted the reader to know. The girls are snatched in the prologue but Chapter One immediately move on to the girls as adults and we learn they were returned without any abuse. As a mother the only way I could write about missing children was if we know straight away that the girls were safe and the prologue enabled me to do this. We do, as the novel prgoresses, delve back into the past where we see, not how the girls were taken, but why and in the present it’s all about what happens when their abductor reappears on the twenty year anniversary of their abduction.
To read more of the Sinclair sisters’ story download the digital version of the book for just 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.
It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.
Two of my other books (with prologues!) are also in Amazon’s October sale. Download ‘The Gift‘ or my Amelia Henley debut love story with a twist ‘The Life We Almost Had.‘ (you can read the prologue for this here.)