You should always very carefully read any contract you are a party to, that goes without saying. These days it applies particularly to contracts with traditional publishing. In fact, you probably should get a lawyer, because trad pub has been learning their tricks from another gentleman who also offers amazing deals and smells ever so slightly of sulfur.
But more importantly, whether you’re indie or traditional, and whatever kind of book you write — with the possible exception of non-fic, because I haven’t really studied them enough to know the rules there — you should always be aware of the contracts you make with your readers.
And right now, you’re looking at the screen, with your eyebrows all scrunched up and those vertical wrinkles on either side of your nose we all get when reading the news these days, right?
And you’re going “Sarah, if you’re going around signing contracts with your readers, you’re working completely differently than most writers.”
Well, not really, not.
When you start a book, particularly in the first few pages, you’re signing an invisible contract with your readers.
This contract promises several things:
1- This book will be worth your money and more importantly your time.
2- I will amuse you, entertain you, and make you want more.
3- Whatever things I set you up to expect consciously or not, in the first chapter or two will be fulfilled.
Number three is essential to fulfilling the other ones. And it is something worth talking about, because if you’re at least my age or younger (and probably if you’re ten years older than I which would put you at near seventy) we were born into a profoundly broken world, when western culture had decided the knowledge, art and craft slowly learned over the last six thousand years meant nothing, and it all needed to be erased in favor of the new cool because we were so much smarter now. In their defense, at least in my field, a lot of them were doing heavy psychadelic drugs.
So a lot of us who were cursed with taking literature courses, or even just — being nerdy kids — read a lot of reviews and theorizing on story, got the idea that the important thing, in fact the only thing in the world was to SURPRISE the reader.
Which is why at near forty, with two books published and three proposals bought, I had to learn from Dave Freer that I didn’t have a problem with plotting. I had a problem with foreshadowing. That is, I was fulfilling what I thought was the promise to the reader. I was just playing keep away with what that promise was, because if I never made it explicit, I could still suckerpunch the reader at every turn, which in my head constituted high craft.
A minor digression here, to point out that I get characters and a lot of other stuff for free and words come easily, but in the thirteen years I spent throwing words into a void from which at regular intervals emerged a cryptic rejection slip, no one — no editor, assistant editor, or agent — ever said “You know, your problem is foreshadowing.” They usually said “Your book is plotless” leaving me completely baffled, as I’d carefully worked out a plot, studied every method of plotting (mostly because a lot of people told me I had issues with plot) and was, in any way, steeped in literary traditions from Greek plays onward. (Was Portugal. We had two TV channels and books were very, very expensive. So I read everything that was printed, including my grandparents’ and great grandparents’ libraries, and books on literary analysis, and history and…. Am ADD. Was bored. There’s nothing more horrible than boredom. Hell is an afternoon with nothing to read.) Others just said “you need to learn to plot” and a now-famous for how-to-write books agent bafflingly told me I’d never be published because I didn’t understand timing, and that was something that couldn’t be taught. (Years later he represented me briefly, and that was a mistake on my part.)
It took Dave Freer to read my book and say “Honey, you need to foreshadow.” And then explain the concept to me.
Foreshadowing is all tied up with the writers’ contract with the readers. In a way it is the bones of the contract. The book signals what the plot will be/where it’s going to go at many levels, conscious and not. The reader picks that up, gives you chicken money (Hey, a book should be the same cost as a fryer. The problem of most trad pub is making it the price of roasters. Organic roasters. For that it needs to be an amazing book, by an author who already has a name and whom you already have the other books in the series for.)
So, what is the writers contract?
Well, the first chapter (to be fair, the first page, but you can get away with taking a little longer than that if you have a cover that signals the genre, and maybe the pacing.) should make it clear, in no uncertain terms, three things:
1- What genre the book is.
2- Who the main character/s or type of main character/s are.
3- What the feel of the book is, including pacing, level of violence, etc.
One of the best books for making a deal with the writer upfront is Monster Hunter International. It starts with the title: What is the book about? Well, monster hunting, right? But it doesn’t tell you quite enough. I mean, I have a series plotted (yes, time is being a big issue right now. And The Trouble with Time would make a great pulp novel title, yes.) called Alien Hunter, and while it has mayhem and death and stuff, it is not the point of the series. The point of the series is a chick who is the mental twin of Dyce Dare in the furniture refinishing mysteries, and who gets recruited into an organization that hunts hidden aliens on Earth. So, zany, light, fun, where even the violence manages to be somehow hilarious.
However Larry Correia makes it obvious from page one that his will be a violent, fast page turner. Which is important, since I hate horror books, but Larry’s books, though the horror is fairly horrific are not about that, but the fight back. I had avoided them out of a perception they were horror, but my kids made me read them. And once I read the first chapter I was hooked. And I knew exactly what I was getting into, because it’s right there, in the first chapter.
The hidden part of the first chapter is that, after reading about Owen’s upbringing and his father, no matter how vaguely, we know there is something special about Owen, and that his specialness (supernatural, from the nature of the book) will come through throughout the series.
That too is the contract.
Now imagine Larry had that first chapter, but the rest of the book was about Owen wooing Julie by teaching her ballroom dancing, and the only references to monster hunting were her asking him for help in straightening out the company’s books. How fast would you wall that book?
Or take the Prince Roger series, which I took far too long to read, because from the Baen slide shows at cons, I’d got the impression it was a completely different thing. (Don’t ask. I’m a dumbass, okay?) and which has become one of my main stay through 2020 and sequels, because I can put it on audio while cleaning house, and it’s fun even on tenth re-listen.
In the first chapter, the Empress sends her useless clothes horse of a third son out to a ceremony on a planet of no importance. From the fact he’s sent on a military vessel, and we see his military bodyguards pov, we know this is going to be mil sf (It kind of is, just not standard) and probably have fights. From his utterly useless, slightly crazed attitude and the fact his relationship with his mom sucks, and that he’s the third son, with no hope of inheriting, you — the experienced reader — know he’s going to end up as Emperor. You know it, because otherwise why are we following him? And from knowing that, you know that he’ll have to be made worthy. Which means you should buckle your seat belt, and bring your reading seat to its upright and locked position, because it’s going to be a wild ride and this guy is going to be put through hell, by his heels, sideways and upside down, in a spiny infested with hostile aliens.
Now suppose after that opening, the book was all about the ceremony in the nowhere planet, how the prince botched it, and how angry the natives were. And then suddenly at the end of the book, his entire family died in a spaceship crash and he’s the emperor. Tada! Aren’t you happy? Put down that knife. That’s not what the authors did, and you’re not allowed to gut my friends, anyway.
You’d be amazed how many writers do exactly the bad examples above. Some of them I intuit (I don’t usually read them) are the darlings of the ahem more conventional trad pub. A lot are indie writers without a clue. I read a lot of those, because my stress reads are Jane Austen fanfic on kindle unlimited. (Look, my depression reads are true crime. And my utter bottom of the barrel can’t even function are dinosaur books. Below that is just hanging out in weird websites reading about the aliens among us, which is my REM state. (Not because I believe them, but because I find them funny. Though in 2022, I disbelieve them slightly less. Which is still a lot of disbelief.))
There was for instance the notable book whose description says that Mr. Bennet had improved the family fortunes, and so Lizzy and Darcy met on equal footing, which I stopped reading halfway through.
It wasn’t because our protagonists had not yet met. Yes, sure, the promise of any Jane Austen fanfic is that the couple will meet and have a happy ever after. I could have stayed with it, if they were having adventures leading up to “Everything between them changed in these ways.” It was that with that premise, the writer proceeded to give us exactly how Mr. Bennet improved family fortunes. To do her credit, she’d researched regency money and investment structures, and landowning, and how to improve land, and the price of cereals and….. Did I just fall asleep and drool on the table?
Yeah, after a first chapter that introduces the Bennet family, the author decided she’d suffered for her knowledge and we should too. When I got to the actual calculations pages, I gave up and hied to easier pastures. To be charitable, perhaps she’d been driven insane by the people who write regencies that assume that noblemen are businessmen, doctor is a revered status, and some dukes are accountants. It was still a major welshing on her contract with the reader.
Also in my own defense, my problems with foreshadowing were never as bad as the bad examples above. I just failed to establish the “range of the possible” in a book, and then had things happen that — to the reader — amounted to dropping an elephant from the ceiling onto the main character, with no warning.
So, say that Monster Hunter started with Owen being in trouble for computing interest wrong for a client, and we get the feeling that this will be one of those “in the corridors of power” corporate things, and we’ll find out there’s corruption everywhere, including the white house. And then in the second chapter, his boss turns into a werewolf. And you sit there, stunned, feeling like you were hit on the head with a brick. Even if the first chapter mentions the company he made the mistake on was a monster hunting firm. That is the level of mistake i was making, in the belief that it was clever and edgy and interesting to ambush your reader out of nowhere and scream “Surprise! Now everything changes.”
Fortunately my first three books were literary fantasy with Ace. If I’d done that sh*t to the type of readers I have now, I’d have been shot in the face.
Anyway, be aware of what promises you’re making in your first chapter, as to genre, pacing, level of violence, and what’s possible in that world. (Even if it’s technically our world, you’re still recreating the world for your readers. For instance, I get away with having Dyce Dare‘s parents being crazy enough in any sane universe they’ve locked up for good, because we’re inside her head and her voice and way of relating to the world is zany enough that you know insanity will follow, and it’s not to be taken seriously.) And make sure you realize what the implied promises you’re making are. If you devote a lot of time to a gun, or inheritance to a throne, say, we will expect the end to relate to that.
Go forth and re-read your favorites, and study how the contract is made, and the foreshadowing done. (No, foreshadowing doesn’t destroy the surprise for books that need it, like mysteries. It will instead have the ending so cleverly suggested that when you come to it it’s both a complete surprise and you know you should have seen it coming.)
And if you already have some in mind, feel free to share examples in the comments.