Wednesday, 3 August 2011

New Voices: Writing that first chapter

Anyone interested in writing for Mills & Boon has probably already heard that New Voices competition will be running again this year.  It opens on 13  September – more details here  and on Facebook - and if nothing else it’s a fantastic opportunity to get feedback on your work - although it is incredibly brave, I think, to put your writing up for everyone to see, and I would never have had the nerve.  

This year, 20 entrants will get through to the second round. Everyone on shortlist will work with their own author mentor on a second chapter, and then the shortlist will be filtered as before.  I’m not mentoring this year - still basking in the reflected glory of seeing Leah Ashton win last time! - but I’ll be very interested to see the stories that get through.

In the meantime, for those of you already busy polishing your drafts, here’s my advice on writing a first chapter that will stand out the crowd and catch the judges’ eye. I have to confess that this is a recycled blog from last year, but hey, some things just don’t change.  Besides, we’re always being encouraged to re-use nowadays, aren’t we?

So here we go … my ten top tips on writing a first chapter:

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.


  1. Thanks so much Jessica - very timely since i'm just revising my ch1 for re-submission to anna at M&B following the RNA conference last month.
    Very useful - and spot on, as ever! It's the story i began in Tuscany - that's nearly two years ago now! Incredible!

  2. Time you finished that story, Debbie! Does it still start at the marina? Good luck with it!

  3. Great post (I'm sure I read it last year, but I definitely needed to read it again) and great news that 20 people will go through to the second round this year.

    Thanks so much for the freebie of the Secret Princess from Liz Fielding's party - I loved it! I also just read Promoted to Wife and Mother which I really liked - so nice to have older hero/heroine and very real life issues.

  4. The best top ten tips ever!
    Thanks, Jessica, I've tweeted the link for help to aspiring writers.

  5. Glad it was helpful, Mel. Of course these things are always easier said than done!

    Very pleased you liked Perdita's story, Ros - I had a spell of writing older characters, but have been steered towards slightly younger heroines recently for the RIVA line. Have you read Contracted: Corporate Wife? That too has an older heroine, and is one of my personal favourites.

    And Nas, thanks as always!

  6. Thanks so much for the writing tips. :o)