I haven’t put a post up for the last couple days because I’ve been deeply involved in writing a proposal for my day job. Pondering this, I think the similarities between writing a good novel and writing a good proposal are striking. A proposal has to be very clear to the reader. Any ambiguities can create problems later. I have to be very clear about what I’m proposing, under what conditions I’ll do the job, exactly what is in scope for the job and what is out of scope, and what cooperation I need from my customer to enable me to complete the job. And, the proposal may contain conditions that must be met before I’ll start work.
Similarly, when writing your novel you may be putting some conditions on what you will deliver. For example, if you are writing through the voice of a narrator, the narrator may have limitations that keep your customer from seeing the full story. Perhaps you want to create ambiguities that you will resolve later. But be careful. Will the ambiguities frustrate or fascinate?
And, just as a proposal sets the scope of work, your introductory chapter sets the scope of what you will do for your reader. For example, if your story is a fantasy about a faraway castle, your reader better know that within a few paragraphs. Ask yourself if by the end of the first page your reader understands what your novel is about. Are you going to develop an interesting character? Are you going to describe a long historical chain of events? Is this novel filled with humor? If you lead your reader in the wrong direction and suddenly make a course correction, you may frustrate and possibly lose your reader.
So, think of your first page as your proposal. You are telling your reader what you will do for him or her. The reader may or may not be interested.
One of the other aspects of the proposal I’m helping to write is that it has to lay out the benefits the customer will receive if they choose us. Can you lay out benefits your reader should expect from your novel? In novel writing we use the term “hook.” But isn’t this really just communicating to your reader why he or she wants to read on? It certainly is! Think of it. You are in competition with thousands of other writers. People cannot read everything. And in these hard economic times, readers are becoming scarce.
Indeed, you are in fact writing a proposal for customer. You want the reader to choose your book instead of someone else’s book. No one reads a book without taking a peek first. Perhaps they look at the text on the back cover. Perhaps they have read a review that struck their fancy. Maybe the cover art is particularly fascinating. In other words, you are selling.
So, thinking of your introduction as a proposal, you must do several things. You must tell your reader what you are going to do. Will it be a mystery, fantasy, a gritty character-driven novel, or something out of the English countryside? Next you need to lay out the benefits your reader will receive. In just a few sentences your reader will be able to tell whether she thinks her money is well spent. Or, maybe she will want to spend her money on something else.
So, you are placing a proposal in front of your reader. Your reader has to understand what you are offering, how you will deliver it, how well you will deliver it, and what benefits the reader will get from reading the book. Is your reader going to be entertained, instructed, berated, coddled, or see the world in an entirely new light?
So sit back and look at your first page. Would you buy your own book? Will it give you ten bucks worth of satisfaction? Can you really take yourself into that fantasy world? Can you really navigate inside your flawed hero? If your reader can’t tell what you’re up to, he’ll move onto something else.
So, forget those long-winded, dreamy introductions. In your first sentence you must convey the scope and the benefits of your book. Yep, there’s not much difference between writing a proposal and writing a novel.