Thursday, February 21, 2008

Epigraphs and Other Front Matters

Posted by Lynne Griffin

A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day. --Emily Dickinson

Last week Amy wrote eloquently about the joy of writing the dedication and acknowledgment pages of her book. Lisa started this week off with a poem by Emily Dickinson, which got me thinking about epigraphs. Those snippets of famous quotes or poems often found at the beginning of a book and sometimes the beginning of each chapter.

Most know the intent of an epigraph is to in some way summarize or link a theme from one work to another. Sometimes they're used as a counter example, and sometimes simply to set the tone of the work. A personal preference among writers, some use them, some don't.

As a reader, I love finding them in books and trying to make the connection. As a writer, I love searching for just the right one to fit the theme of my writing. In fact, the working title for Life Without Summer came from an epigraph. I so loved this seed for my novel, that though I abandoned my first title for the book, I worked the phrase into my novel at a pivotal scene.

Just as it is critical to get constructive feedback on your writing, I think it's important to get feedback on your choice of epigraph. It won't serve your purpose of drawing the reader in, if no one gets even a hint of a possible connection. Getting feedback can also help you avoid a common pitfall, one I fell into with my first epigraph for Summer. Some quotes are overused, and you need someone brave enough to tell you so. My editor, though she liked my original choice, thought it had been used a lot, and she advised me to branch out to find something that better captured the redemptive tone of my novel.

Another downside to the use of epigraphs is that they can come off as pretentious. Alyssa McDonald of The Blog Books wrote a great post on this. She said, A good epigraph doesn't need to be learned or literary in itself, it just has to add something.

And keep in mind there is a time and a place for epigraphs. Miss Snark wrote in her much beloved blog, that epigraphs are a total pain in her asterisk. Her advice, and mine, is to keep them out of your query letter and sample pages. You can add them to the final manuscript, when the time comes.

So in the spirit of sharing poems this week at The Writers' Group, I'll share my epigraph for Life Without Summer. I hope it draws you in, making you want see inside the world I've created. To me it captures a tangle of emotions, as night casts a shadow on a glorious day.

O summer day beside the joyous sea!
O summer day so wonderful and white,
So full of gladness and so full of pain!
Forever and forever shalt thou be
To some the gravestone of a dead delight,
To some the landmark of a new domain.

From A Summer Day by the Sea

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Carleen Brice said...

I love epigraphs. They always intrigue me. Sometimes I have to say I'm baffled when I finish the book and go back and read the epigraph because I still don't see a link. But I like them. And use them.

This one definitely intrigues since it seems to hint at tragedy and change coming.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks for weighing in, Carleen. I often go back to the epigraph, after reading a book, to see how it fits.

Glad you like mine! Lynne

Anonymous said...

I always pause over the epigraphs -- Stephen King has the most intriguing ones -- and then go back when I finish the book. I love the before-and-after perspective it gives me.

Lisa Marnell said...

Lynne, thank you for the epigraph you e-mailed me so many months back:

"God gave us memory, so that we might have roses in winter." By J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

It beautifully summarizes my intention for the theme of my novel. It helps to clarify the theme when I read it.

Terry Finley said...

I never thought so much about
epigraphs. Thanks for the challenge.

Terry Finley

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks Amy. If an author takes the time to choose one, like you, I want to know why.

Yes, Lisa, I remember. I can across the poem at a perfect time. Thank goodness for our writers' group.

Hello Terry, thanks for stopping by. We always try to offer a bit of food for thought. Thanks for sharing your blog link.