Monday, 30 August 2010

Ten top tips on writing first chapters

Well, I say ‘ten top tips’, but that’s just for alliterative effect. I doubt there’s much here that you haven’t read or heard elsewhere. For those of you who are thinking of entering Mills & Boon’s New Voices competition, though, here’s my advice on writing a first chapter that will catch the judges’ eye. Self-editing is an important part of the writing process, so even if you’re sure you’ve finished, think about putting your chapter aside for a couple of days and then re-reading it with the points below in mind.

1. Check that you’ve started at a point of change or crisis. Your first chapter should set the situation that is going to force the hero and heroine out of their comfort zones and into a relationship that both have a good reason to resist. The reader isn’t interested in a long-winded account of how the hero and heroine meet unless it introduces the conflict straight away.

2. Ah, yes, conflict. You do have a strong conflict, don’t you? Remember, a Mills & Boon romance is not about how the hero and heroine fall in love and get married. It’s about why, when they’re so attracted to each other, they not only won’t admit that they’re in love, but feel that they CAN'T. Your job as a romance writer is to create a situation that forces the hero and heroine together, and to give them conflicting goals that will drive them apart. This creates the push-pull of attraction and resistance which should drive your story forwards and keep the reader turning the pages. So make sure that your first chapter at least hints at the problem between your characters – and, please, make sure that isn’t just a misunderstanding that can be solved by a simple asking and answering of a question.

3. Get the hero on the page as soon as possible, preferably on page 1. I know you’ll find masses of examples of published books where this doesn’t happen (I’m writing one myself at the moment, and wondering, in fact, if this is part of my problem) but for maximum impact, get the hero and heroine together straight away.

4. Your first chapter needs to convince the reader that these are characters she can care about. She wants to know who they are and what makes them individual and interesting. Why should she care whether they sort out all their problems and find happiness together or not? What is it about these two people that makes their story worth telling? Give the reader a sense of your characters’ goals, of what makes them the people they are and behave the way they do. Is your hero wary of commitment? Why is independence so important to him?

Personally, I don’t like characters who are too perfect. If a heroine is slim, beautiful, sweet and good, what is there for me to identify with? Give her a little idiosyncrasy. Give her a quirk or a flaw that makes her come alive on the page. Heroes are a little trickier, I know, but there are an awful lot of alpha male heroes out there: what is it about yours that is going to make him stand out?

5. Avoid too much detailed backstory. Having a sense of a backstory is good, because it means you understand what makes your characters act the way they do, but if you try and get it all out there at once it slows the pace and frustrates the reader. She wants to know what’s happening now. It’s worth reading through your manuscript, and ask yourself if the story wouldn’t – honestly - be more effective if you started it at Chapter 3.

6. Everyone knows the importance of dialogue, but are your hero and heroine saying something interesting and relevant to the plot, or just talking for the sake of it (i.e. like most of us do in real life)? I see a lot of mss where the hero and heroine have banal conversations about what to eat/where to go/what the weather’s like etc. Unless the conversation tells us something about the characters or the problem between them, cut it. Oh, and make sure they’re talking to each other, about the issue that’s going to keep them apart. Avoid long conversations with secondary characters, especially in the first chapter. ( In fact, avoid secondary characters altogether as far as you possibly can.)

7. Check that you have created a vivid setting. The first chapter should establish where exactly your characters are, and create a convincing world to give your reader context. What – exactly - are your hero and heroine doing while they’re talking? What can they see? Are there noises or smells in the background? This is the time to bring in all that stuff about the five senses. Beware of long descriptions, though.

8. The first chapter should also establish the tone of your story. The reader wants to know what she’s going to get. Is it going to be a fun and flirty story? Brooding and passionate? A weepie?

9. Presentation. I know, I know, it sounds obvious, but run a spell check and check that your full stops and apostrophes are in the right place before you submit your chapter. Bad grammar and sloppy presentation can all too easily pull the reader out of the story, and if you want to get through to the next round, you can’t afford to irritate the judges unnecessarily (of course, they may not be as obsessed about punctuation as I am, but I’m pretty sure it holds as a principle)

10. Have you read and absorbed some of the excellent books on writing romance out there? Kate Walker’s 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance is particularly good - a very clear, helpful guide. I’ve also found Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon a useful book.

Good luck!


Thursday, 26 August 2010

Back to the beginning

For years I have been whimpering about blogging and how it’s too difficult for me to do, but I gave myself a stern talking to while I was in Australia, and this is the result: Jessica Hart on blogger, and I am UPDATING IT MYSELF!!!! Everyone else can do it, so why not me, right? Well, we’ll see. The idea is that if I do the blog myself, I ought to be able to update it more often. And I guess we’ll see about that, too.  So this is me going back to the beginning and starting again on the blog front with a BETTER ATTITUDE. 

For now, I’m desperately trying to finish the book I, er, didn’t get round to finishing before I went to Australia (oh, the shame of a missed deadline!) but there’s a lot of other stuff happening too. Most exciting of which is Harlequin Mills & Boon’s New Voices competition which launches on 6 September.

If you’d like to write a romance and haven’t yet heard about New Voices, check out the website here (ooh, I can do links!) And actually, there's a nice segue here about beginnings, because the first round is to submit a first chapter.  A shortlist of ten aspiring authors will be selected by Mills & Boon's judging panel to go through  to the next round. At that point, they’ll be assigned to a mentoring team of an editor and author to work on their second chapter together, which will also be judged, and four will go through to the final round, writing a 'pivotal moment' scene before a final winner is selected.

I’m going to be one of the author mentors, so am really looking forward to getting involved and helping my ‘mentees’ (is that a word?) through to the next round. So polish up your first chapters, and maybe we’ll be working together!

As this is my very first blog, I'm going to see if this works, and if it does, I'll be back with my top tips for writing that first chapter ...