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Taejang
10-23-2014, 06:41 PM
My WIP uses one to introduce themes and do a little world building, and while the whole prologue is only a page long, I got to wondering if it was a good idea.

Is that an appropriate use of prologue? How should prologues be used within the context of fantasy or sci fi, and what are some no-nos that should be avoided?

Osulagh
10-23-2014, 06:47 PM
A prologue is an opening section to a story--that's not exactly connected to the story, but gives information that might help the audience understand better what they'll come across. That's it. Do whatever you want, however you want with it. There are no hard and fast rules, and no genre guidelines to follow or not to follow.

Maximiljen
10-23-2014, 06:54 PM
I started my novel with a prologue too, and by the looks of it, it's going to be as long as a full chapter. It does provide a glimpse into the world I'm building, but not enough to kill off the reader with too much info right from the start. And I'm using it to set in motion the main events of the novel.

But awkwardly enough, none of the main characters are in it. Hopefully I'll be able to pull it off honourably.

CrastersBabies
10-23-2014, 07:46 PM
I ended up dropping mine because about 80% of the agents I stalk... er....... follow on Twitter or FB or whatnot have come out at some point saying, "DO NOT SEND ME A PROLOGUE OR I WILL REJECT YOU11!!!" It's still there if I need it, but, I'm seeing most agents trend toward not liking them.

A few are still like, "Heck yeah, prologues!"

As a reader, I like them okay. I read them and am happy with most of them. But as a writer, I kinda want to get published. :) That's not to say everyone would have my prologue (or yours), but just something to keep in mind.

mrsmig
10-23-2014, 07:51 PM
As long as a prologue is centered around a character/characters involved in an event, I don't mind it. If it's just a giant infodump about your world's history and/or structure, my brain shuts down and I stop reading.

Marian Perera
10-23-2014, 08:07 PM
As long as a prologue is centered around a character/characters involved in an event, I don't mind it. If it's just a giant infodump about your world's history and/or structure, my brain shuts down and I stop reading.

Same here. If I read a prologue that's mostly themes and worldbuilding... the worldbuilding had better be spectacular. I'm talking Jack Vance level or better. Otherwise, I'd move on to another book which starts with characters doing something, whether they do it in a prologue or in chapter 1.

Taejang
10-23-2014, 08:21 PM
Consensus so far seems that prologues are fine if it isn't an encyclopedia entry masquerading as a story, except for some (many?) agents who despise them. Thanks for the comments so far, and more opinions welcome!

Does anyone know why some agents hate them so much?

rwm4768
10-23-2014, 08:34 PM
I can only think of one worldbuilding prologue I've ever liked. That was the one-page prologue in Brandon Sanderson's Elantris. It was short, and it was also interesting (a rarity in that type of prologue).

hefronica
10-23-2014, 08:39 PM
Does anyone know why some agents hate them so much?

I may be totally off-base here, but the feeling I get from reading agent blogs is they really don't like them in the submission process. I'm sort-of querying right now and a lot of agents are only asking for 5-10 pages. That gives you 5-10 pages to show off how awesome your manuscript is and get them invested in the story. They don't want half of that to be backstory that has nothing to do with the plot/main character. They want action that pulls them in that makes them want to keep reading.

Whether or not they're fine with that once they ask for the full manuscript is another matter and one that I'm not familiar with because I've never gotten that far. :)

KMTolan
10-23-2014, 11:10 PM
Dusted this off from an old blog entry - all my opinion of course. Several of my novels employ a prologue, a few don't.

Kerry
--------------------------------
Prologues tend to be misunderstood creatures for new writers. By their very nature, they seem to be the practical way to start a story. The opening scene, if you will. That’s what snares folks. My story must have an opening scene, hence it requires a prologue.
Truth is, ninety percent of most stories don't need prologues. What you end up with in most cases is a thinly disguised first chapter. More often than not, the “prologue” ends up being an info-dump as well, an excuse for the writer to get past the initial explanations in long droning narratives.

Now the neat thing about prologues is that, when you do need them, they serve as a perspective on your story that might otherwise be impossible to provide. For me, that is the key – the perspective must be completely different. A chance to step away from something your main character knows, but you want the reader to be aware of. A well-crafted prologue can, through dialog and action (not narrative) prepare the reader far more than any back-fill will.

Most stories do not need such preparation – so think twice before considering a prologue. It really must deliver the bang for the buck so that the reader will both tolerate and appreciate the change in venue between the prologue and the start of the story.

My own rule on prologues is that they should be separated from the main story in both time and distance. They are best presented from the point of view of other than the main character. This character may or may not play a role in the main story. What is crucial for me is that the event itself should be something that itself has an impact on the story and is otherwise not able to be shown in the main story itself.

A prologue is indeed a complete scene. I prefer just one scene. A good prologue for me is a short one – we’re talking only a couple pages at best. We’re not telling another story here, we are setting up for one. The scene should be vivid, dramatic, and set the flavor for what is to follow. This is doubly important because the prologue will now contain your initial “hook” to grab the reader. If this scene does involve your main character, keep in mind that the reader already knows that your main character is going to live, so the element of risk here is minimal. On the same thought, never make your prologue a situation where a character is looking back at the story to come and reminiscing about it. You just told your reader that everything to follow has already happened...and sucked the drama right out of it.

So, in summary, here is a quick gut check for you to help decide if you are dealing with a prologue or a first chapter (keep in mind this is just my opinion here):
1. It is removed from the main story in time and or distance. The first chapter begins elsewhere.
2. It is being told from a perspective that would be difficult to otherwise present.
3. It is one stand-alone scene.
4. It has impact on the story to come but is not directly a part of that story.
5. It contains a dramatic moment.
6. It tells something far easier than back-fill would in the main story.
7. It is not all narrative.
8. It has a definite hook.
9. It passes the “Do you really need this?” question.

CrastersBabies
10-23-2014, 11:36 PM
From what I've seen in submission guidelines, agents want "Chapter 1" so they can get into the story right away and not be bogged down by, "And so.... Earth was born. And the great alien spaceship seeded earth with little pod dinosaurs. And those dinosaurs grew into gigantic creatures! And T-Rex begat little T-Rex. And little T-Rex begat baby T-Rex... and a great war came... and then stuff happened. And it happened to people/dinosaurs we won't see in chapter one, but I'm telling you now anyway."

Here's one agent (http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-prologues-often-dont-work.html) who talks about it (but doesn't outright say "NO," just... "it's tricky")

My prologue? Wasn't working and the beginning of my story changed anyway, so it's all good.

scifi_boy2002
10-24-2014, 12:21 AM
I've never been real big on prologues, but in my current wip, it may actually work better. People have suggested that they want to know more about what's going on in the first chapter. My writing is much like a James Bond movie. In the first chapter, I start with an action scene, then the second chapter my mcs learns what the threat is. My mcs aren't even in the first chapter. But, people seem to want to know more, so I think a progue would help.

Twick
10-24-2014, 06:37 PM
Here's my problem:

The first chapter starts slow. The MC is basically a toddler, so it's hard to give him an action scene. There's a punch to the gut (I hope) at the end of the chapter, but it's not a "hook me in your first sentence" sort of chapter.

So I wrote a prologue, which does start with a relatively good sentence (IMHO), but it is, indeed, a prologue. Which would be best? Prologue, or a first chapter that you'll need to read about 3 scenes to really hit the hook?

robjvargas
10-24-2014, 08:06 PM
Story, story, story. That is the tyrant of the work, IMO.

If it (whatever "it" is) does not serve the story, get rid of it. If it serves the story, keep it.

Is a prologue an active participant in moving the story? In my experience, it never is. It's the author providing something he or she believes the reader needs, but it does not, of itself, get the story moving. It could be fantastically written, but if it's this sort of "thing" attached to the front end of the work, and not the story itself, it should be gone.

If that prologue moves the story, gets it running, then I don't think it's a prologue at all. It's chapter one. Or part of chapter one.

I'm a radical anti-prologue advocate. I feel that if a story needs this discrete piece or bit, then the story is flawed and should be retold. Or the author isn't giving readers credit for wanting to discover their world as the story takes them through that world.

No, Twick mentions something very important. "The first chapter starts off slow." Is that slow part fixed by tacking more information in front of it, or is that section still slow?

IMO, a prologue doesn't fix a story, or fix the writing. If you're using a prologue to try to fix that other part of your story, you've failed before you even got started on the prologue. Slow doesn't become fast because you have an extra one, or five, or ten pages in front of it.

I don't feel that I have the right to tell one author in one work whether the prologue belongs there or not. But if you tell me it's a prologue, my first question is, "where does your story begin?" I'll follow right up with, "how does this serve to begin your story?"

What EXACTLY are you attempting to accomplish? Does it serve the story? I have my radical opinion of it. Be ready to answer some tough questions.

And remember, writing might be an art, but publishing is a business. How prepared are you to limit your options for that prologue? Because, as CrastersBabies points out, there's a pretty hefty crowd of agents and publishers that frown on, and refuse, works with prologues.

Dennis E. Taylor
10-24-2014, 10:49 PM
My favorite example of a prolog is in the novel 1632. The prolog takes place millions of years in the future; none of the characters in the book appear in the prolog, and vice-versa; It's all exposition and telling -- it does nothing but explain why the town of Grantville ends up in the middle of Europe several centuries in the past. It doesn't even affect the characters (except in the obvious way) because they never find out what actually happened.

It breaks every "rule".

But IMO it's absolutely essential to the book. SF readers as a rule don't like things that just "happen". The explanation given is admittedly a bunch of handwavium, but it's good enough. Why having been established, the reader is now able to get into the rest of the book without worrying about the absurdity of the situation.

OTOH, Island in the Sea of Time doesn't ever explain how Nantucket ends up millenia back in time (as far as I remember, anyway) and the reader, throughout the whole book, has this "maybe they'll explain it" thing hanging in the back of their mind.

I guess this may be a question of "Know your audience", but I'd just be a little leery of too-sweeping generalizations.

CrastersBabies
10-25-2014, 02:55 AM
My favorite example of a prolog is in the novel 1632. The prolog takes place millions of years in the future; none of the characters in the book appear in the prolog, and vice-versa; It's all exposition and telling -- it does nothing but explain why the town of Grantville ends up in the middle of Europe several centuries in the past. It doesn't even affect the characters (except in the obvious way) because they never find out what actually happened.

It breaks every "rule".

But IMO it's absolutely essential to the book. SF readers as a rule don't like things that just "happen". The explanation given is admittedly a bunch of handwavium, but it's good enough. Why having been established, the reader is now able to get into the rest of the book without worrying about the absurdity of the situation.

OTOH, Island in the Sea of Time doesn't ever explain how Nantucket ends up millenia back in time (as far as I remember, anyway) and the reader, throughout the whole book, has this "maybe they'll explain it" thing hanging in the back of their mind.

I guess this may be a question of "Know your audience", but I'd just be a little leery of too-sweeping generalizations.

I definitely think there are exceptions to the rules. But they have to be pretty extraordinary! This example sounds like one of them.

ScottleeSV
10-26-2014, 01:21 AM
I think I've lost more sleep over whether my 600 word prologue is necessary or not more than anything else in my entire life. At the moment it's still in, but man, it's such a dilemma.

Reziac
10-26-2014, 11:04 PM
I once defined a good prologue as "after you've written the rest of the story, the prologue is for necessary stuff that couldn't be fit in anywhere else." Which is why I'd recommend writing it last, not first.

SentaHolland
10-27-2014, 12:14 AM
I don't like prologues but if you absolutely have to - I think the trick is to 'keep it moving'. It doesn't have to be action, though. Astonishing ideas being born from each other can also keep things moving. Or some glimpses into a different time line that keeps the reader guessing...

jjdebenedictis
10-27-2014, 12:39 AM
I start reading on the first page that has prose, and I care not at all whether the phrase "Prologue" or "Chapter One" is written at the top of that page.

However, if that first page consists of a wad of backstory and "telling", then I'm putting the book back on the shelf, regardless of whether "Prologue" or "Chapter One" is written at the top of it.

It's not a matter of whether it's a prologue. It's a matter of whether it's boring.

rwm4768
10-27-2014, 01:52 AM
I start reading on the first page that has prose, and I care not at all whether the phrase "Prologue" or "Chapter One" is written at the top of that page.

However, if that first page consists of a wad of backstory and "telling", then I'm putting the book back on the shelf, regardless of whether "Prologue" or "Chapter One" is written at the top of it.

It's not a matter of whether it's a prologue. It's a matter of whether it's boring.

This.

benbenberi
10-27-2014, 02:25 AM
There's a zillion threads here on AW about Prologues: Threat or Menace?

Many people feel strongly on the topic, pro or con. Me, I used to be strongly anti-prologue, on the grounds that if it's the start of the story, it should be chapter 1, and if it's not the start of the story it has no business being in the position where the story's supposed to start.

But really, it's a matter of taste. Write your prologue if you really want it. If it sucks or to be otherwise Not a Good Thing, you'll be told so when the time comes.

Don't get hung up on it. Prologues don't really matter. Write your story, and call the pieces whatever you please.

Mr Flibble
10-27-2014, 03:42 AM
A big six/five/whatever editor asked me to add a prologue once

we didn't use it in the end but...

Reziac
10-27-2014, 04:12 AM
Some stories feel like they need one. Interesting that an Big Noise Editor thought so!

Thomas Vail
10-29-2014, 09:21 AM
Consensus so far seems that prologues are fine if it isn't an encyclopedia entry masquerading as a story, except for some (many?) agents who despise them. Thanks for the comments so far, and more opinions welcome!

Does anyone know why some agents hate them so much?
Because they don't want to read what ends up being an encyclopedia entry masquerading as a story? :D

KMTolan pretty much covers everything that needs saying, but the fact that in general, even a well done prologue is going to be someway removed from the actual story, which is what the agent wants to see.

Roxxsmom
10-29-2014, 10:34 AM
A reasonable percentage of fantasy novels still have prologues, so editors seem to think they work sometimes. I don't think most of the ones I've run across in recent years have been the old-fashioned world building infodumps, however.

If it's interesting, and it adds something to the story, then it's probably fine.

Alli B.
10-29-2014, 08:42 PM
I'm one of the few people who actually like reading prologues. (Hell, movies use them enough. Why can't we?) But the truth of the matter is no matter how much it doesn't bother me that I get information served on a silver platter before anything really happens, in my opinion, there is no denying that there are more interesting ways to give your reader the information. For my notes, I do a pretty long prologue for each main city/race/magic/belief system. For my story, I find a creative way to let people know what I want them to know.

threetoedsloth
10-29-2014, 08:57 PM
I'm not big on prologues, but I feel that Sci-fi and Fantasy generally get a pass on this subject.

However, above all else, it mustn't be boring.

Makai_Lightning
10-29-2014, 09:14 PM
I guess what I find the most helpful way to think about it is, well, exactly how you would think about any other scene in your book. Consider yourself as a reader, or who you know your audience to be, and ask; is this engaging, is this going to make me want to make me read more, does this move the story forward, etc.

Considering the prevalence of agents stating their preference for manuscripts without prologues, also ask if you can do it another way. I think in amateur fiction, part of the problem with prologues is the poor execution of them, or using them more as a crutch than a tool. The same can be said for a lot of things, I suppose. You always the goal of getting the reader to the next page, right? Ultimately, you want someone to pick up your book, and read it all the way through. If you can get someone to read a prologue, and go from sentence one to sentence two and be interested, from the first paragraph to the next, the first page to the next, and reach the end of the prologue and want to keep reading, that's good writing, right?

It's harder to do that in cases where you start either far in the future or past with characters that aren't immediately relate able to where the rest of the story picks up. Mostly, because if you do end up invested in the characters or plot in the prologue and it seems to have shifted entirely, you may make the reader frustrated. It's a bigger problem if at the end of the novel, someone looks back at the beginning and thinks, "well I found that interesting, but it didn't belong there." Often, what you learn in a prologue, has something to do with a reveal later, in which case, it may give away mystery later, or else not need to be there. Part of why they are disliked, may be because there are other, sometimes more effective ways to get the information/story/character across, etc. Sometimes there isn't.

Tl:dr; there's never a reason you shouldn't at least try, because you may do it well. But there also isn't a reason to get too attached, because it's just a structural tool.

Taejang
10-29-2014, 11:45 PM
Thank you, everyone, for the thoughts! I didn't know a lot of this stuff.

I'm evaluating the prologue on my WIP, but most of this information is getting logged in my brain for the future. After all, I'm not considering just one half-written story, but rather the many stories I have yet to write...

threetoedsloth
10-29-2014, 11:52 PM
Thank you, everyone, for the thoughts! I didn't know a lot of this stuff.

I'm evaluating the prologue on my WIP, but most of this information is getting logged in my brain for the future. After all, I'm not considering just one half-written story, but rather the many stories I have yet to write...

When you finish, try sending it to readers with and without the prologue and see what the difference in feedback is. It may turn it up being unnecessary to understand the story.

Taejang
10-30-2014, 12:22 AM
When you finish, try sending it to readers with and without the prologue and see what the difference in feedback is. It may turn it up being unnecessary to understand the story.
The information given isn't found elsewhere in the novel, would be hard to convey elsewhere, and is given quickly through action and dialog. What I don't know yet is if the information is important enough to merit a prologue. I'll need to figure it out somehow, and your suggestion is good.

In due time I'll post it on the forums with the first part of the 1st chapter. Until then, I'm just soaking in the general thoughts about prologues for future reference.

Makai_Lightning
10-30-2014, 12:44 AM
What I have found surprising, based on my old projects, is how much information your readers don't really need. Conversely, there are some things I thought were evident without explanation, which absolutely weren't. So as mentioned, it's probably best to see how people fair without it vs with it.

Just make sure the people you ask are more or less your intended audience. For instance, I ask my mom for advice still because she's a very intelligent woman, but it tends to vary from the kind of feedback I get from anyone I ask who reads more genre writing like I write. Very often helpful, but I also have to keep in mind that what she's used to expecting from a book may be different from what my regular audience would expect or desire, especially when she asks me to change something. Why someone does or doesn't like what you've done is often more important than what it is they don't like.

Peter Kenson
10-30-2014, 05:02 AM
So, in summary, here is a quick gut check for you to help decide if you are dealing with a prologue or a first chapter (keep in mind this is just my opinion here):
1. It is removed from the main story in time and or distance. The first chapter begins elsewhere.
2. It is being told from a perspective that would be difficult to otherwise present.
3. It is one stand-alone scene.
4. It has impact on the story to come but is not directly a part of that story.
5. It contains a dramatic moment.
6. It tells something far easier than back-fill would in the main story.
7. It is not all narrative.
8. It has a definite hook.
9. It passes the “Do you really need this?” question.

I have used a prologue in my latest novel. It wasn't there when I started writing but by the time I got to chapter 3, I decided I needed it.
Looking back at it now, I think it hits every one of the criteria above and I'm still pretty happy that it's in there. But then I would say that wouldn't I?

Thomas Vail
10-31-2014, 08:33 PM
What I have found surprising, based on my old projects, is how much information...

It's one of those things that can be pretty hard to get a handle on. I always infodump way too much in my first drafts. For one thing, there's all sorts of cool stuff i want to show to the readers, and for another I might be fixing setting details in my mind.

But a lot of that is stuff the readers just don't need. Carve out the infodumps, and leave the characters knowing things about the world the readers don't have thorough expanations of.

Once!
11-02-2014, 03:00 PM
Jabberwocky

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.


Woah! Hold on a cotton-picking minute. How will the reader understand all this? We haven't told him what a vorpal sword looks like or what toves are (both slithy and non slithy).

Quick, let's write a prologue ...

Then again, maybe not. Prologues certainly have their uses. They are a way of setting the scene and of explaining back story. They are particularly relevant in stories which rely on events that happened in the past, such as fantasy.

But the best writer in the world is the reader's imagination. Our job is not to give them a full HD surround-sound, pixel perfect image of every detail of our worlds. Instead we should be giving them just enough clues for them to fill in the missing details. Because they will fill in those details far more vividly and imaginatively than we ever could.

What the hell is a vorpal sword? I have no idea, but my imagination is working overtime coming up with what it might look like.

Please don't spoil that by explaining or giving me a picture.

I'm not a prologue hater. I've seen some that work fairly well. They are probably preferable to info-dumping through exposition and unrealistic dialogue.

But in the majority of cases I suspect that a prologue could be rolled into the main action quite satisfactorily. It also seems to be the more modern way of doing it.

Dennis E. Taylor
11-02-2014, 06:45 PM
Woah! Hold on a cotton-picking minute. How will the reader understand all this? We haven't told him what a vorpal sword looks like or what toves are (both slithy and non slithy).


Pffft. D&D tells us in detail what a vorpal blade is.



... amateurs.

Laer Carroll
11-02-2014, 11:16 PM
It's not a matter of whether it's a prologue. It's a matter of whether it's boring.

I think this is the key point to this whole discussion. Prologues are not in general good or bad. They are just a tool for us to use. What matter is how well we write them and how well they fit into what comes after, whether they add interest or subtract it.

I always infodump way too much in my first drafts.

I suggest we try to make our first drafts as good as they can be without angsting about it too much. But first drafts are where we can afford to make mistakes, and we should not be afraid to make them. Sometimes our best ideas start out as mistakes. And if they don't lead to something good we can always delete them.

frimble3
11-03-2014, 07:22 AM
No histories of the world, neither ours or yours. That would be like starting every novel set in contemporary America with a summation of the Revolutionary War.

robjvargas
11-04-2014, 01:16 AM
Something to consider, which I posted in a previous thread (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=9028842#post9028842) about prologues:

This (https://twitter.com/brendadrake/statuses/500296222406901760) might prove telling to some:


By the questions I'm getting, there's a lot of prologues in #PitchWars (https://twitter.com/hashtag/PitchWars?src=hash). Just send us the first chapter, not the prologue. If you wondered.

Brenda Drake (@brendadrake) August 15, 2014 ( https://twitter.com/brendadrake/statuses/500296222406901760)

If your prologue is going to generate this kind of response, you should think long and hard about whether you need this.

Once!
11-04-2014, 11:30 AM
I wonder if there is a deeper issue here?

When we first think of a story, we usually imagine the chain of events leading from the start of the story to the end. This happens. Then this. Then this. The end. We might write this as:

A ... B ... C ... D ... E ... the end.

If we are writing a non-fiction book about these events, that may be how we would write it. We would start at the beginning and work our way logically through to the end.

But that doesn't necessarily work for fiction. For one thing, the main character may not have seen the absolute first part of a story. In theory, every story about world war one ought to start with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Or possibly earlier with the political tensions in Europe at the time. But hardly anyone saw Ferdinand being assassinated. If we were writing a novel about the first world war, we would probably want to show the POV of someone who was fighting in the trenches.

Instead of ABCDE, we might get BCDE. There is no need to show A.

Similarly, it can be very boring if we describe everything. I've been reviewing a book for a friend which describes every event in the order in which it happens. Unfortunately, that means that we are shown some pretty dull stuff. Day one. Day Two. Day Three.

We don't quite see the hero brushing his teeth and going to the lavatory, but it gets pretty damn close at times. That's a story told as A, B, C, D ... I gave up before we got to E.

It's a natural human reaction to write like this. I'm close to finishing a first draft of my WIP and I know I have sections that go A, B, C, D, E. I was making it up as I went along, and it shows. That's not a problem. It's the first draft. In the edit, I'll delete chunks to make it flow.

A character needs to catch a plan to Berlin. In the real world he would make a reservation, pack his bags, get a taxi to London Heathrow, pay the taxi fare, book onto his flight, check his bags in ...

In a novel, we might show him arriving at Berlin and skip all the intermediate stuff. The reader will simply assume it happened.

The real world goes A, B, C, D, E

A novel might go ... C, B (flashback), F, G

And that, I think, is one of the problems with the prologue. It might be necessary for the story. But equally it might be a sign that the writer is going to A,B,C,D,E through the rest of the book. That could be why editors and publish sometimes don't like prologues.

There is also an evolution of style thing going on here. Prologues are a little old hat. The more modern approach is to start the story from the POV of the main character, whether in first person or third. We could make a case that a work of fantasy might be deliberately written in ye olde fashioned style, but then again we might not.

Who knows? Fashions and customs may yet change. We might get bored with starting every story at B or C. The prologue may yet make a comeback. Brown is the new black, or something like that.