Finally, we are at crafting the first chapter! The lessons I've taught you so far are designed to carry you through the entire book, but crafting that first chapter for the contest is a special challenge. Indeed, crafting a first chapter of ANY story is a special challenge!
Each time I sit down to start my next story, I have to think really hard about where to start. I often have an idea or a scenario in my mind, but finding the right place to launch into that idea can take time. The more I do it, the better I get at it (and so will you, btw!).
The editors have already given you advice over at I Heart Presents, and I'm probably going to repeat much of it. When I sat down to write the opening to Spanish Magnate, Red-Hot Revenge, I knew I had to launch into a problem right away. There's not a lot of time to spend in building up to the opening. In fact, there's none. You simply must launch onto the page with a compelling story problem.
Who is this person and why should I care? That's what you need to convey to the reader. Make her care right away. No heroines waking up to leisurely breakfasts while thinking about their lives. No “As you know, Jane, I'm the oldest of my three sisters” openings where your heroine explains her life thus far to a friend. No openings where anyone is simply thinking about things.
Start with story action. Put your character in hot water immediately and then keep piling it on. Pile it on for the entire chapter, btw. And end that chapter with a compelling hook that makes the reader want to turn the page! You may say that you've seen Angela Author begin with leisurely thinking, or talking to a friend, and perhaps she even ended on a gentle note like her heroine going to bed at the end of the day.
But you are not Angela Author. You are a writer with hopes and dreams of becoming the next Harlequin Presents competition winner!
And to do that, you must keep the editors turning the pages. The action of your story needs to grow out of the issues between the characters and not simply be a comedy of errors that you toss in at every turn, thinking it'll keep the editors reading. They've seen every trick in the book hundreds of times and they won't be fooled.
What they want from you are two compelling characters, a central story problem, and a fast-paced read that leaves them wanting more at the end. (This is my opinion only, not an edict from on high!)
Now for some specific tips:
1. Start with action, not thought. Action that is relevant to the story, not something dramatic you toss in just to get attention. You can be dramatic, but it better relate to the rest of the chapter.
2. Limit the backstory. Think of it like salt, and use it sparingly. No need to know everything just yet! If you've got more than a paragraph of backstory on any one page, it's too much IMO. Try to use as little as possible.
3. Get the characters together quickly.
4. Limit side trips into the decor, the clothes they are wearing, or the cars they drive. Say it and move on. No dwelling.
5. Make sure your dialogue grows out of who these characters are and what they want. Don't use empty chatter to take up valuable space. Empty chatter can have a place if there's an undercurrent and things are being said that the reader intuits through this seemingly meaningless dialogue. This is very tricky, however; if in doubt, leave it out. 🙂
Once you've written that chapter, take a look at every scene and ask yourself what the purpose is. If your characters are exactly the same at the end of the scene as they were at the beginning, it might not be necessary. Every scene needs to build onto the last until you reach that climactic hook. Don't be afraid to rewrite your chapter. Don't be afraid to revise like crazy or toss out things that don't work. My editor always has suggestions for me on how to make that first chapter better.
So write your chapter, make it the best you can, and know that if you win, you will probably still be revising. 🙂 Don't compromise your voice, don't choose the safe word because you think it's what they want to see, and don't try to sound like any other author. Be yourself, let your characters shine, and tell the editors a story.
P.S. Be sure to join me on Tuesday when Kimberly Lang talks about writing for Modern Heat! (Monday is a holiday in the US, so no posts then.)
I go over and over all the information I have gleaned from ihearts presents and your site Lynn.
It’s fabulous. Thank you.
Oh btw, I couldn’t resist your novel on the bookshelf today, although I have read the digital edition, the cover is stunning. The aqua blue in the pool, and the twilight sky…truly romantic. 🙂
Oh Suzanne, bless you for buying yet another copy of my book! I do love that Aussie cover! But I don’t have a copy yet, sigh. They’ll send me one eventually, but for now I have to wait. I’m glad it looks as good in person as it does on the M&B site! The red and blue is simply gorgeous!
What about fragmented storyline? Like an episode of Lost. The way the main timeline goes the characters remembers, in a separated segment, their story that is conflicting with recent happenings.
HP encourages that or not?
and how it fits in the 1st chapter?
Hi, Paola! Well, I absolutely cannot speak in any official capacity for the M&B editors, so please understand this is my opinion only.
But, my gut feeling is that flashbacks aren’t a good way to start. When you go into the past, you are stopping the forward motion of the story. And while this may work extremely well on television, books are not visual. A talented author can certainly do this, but when you are unpublished and trying to get there — I’d say don’t do it.
Tell your story in forward motion. When you stop to flash into the past, you are essentially telling backstory.
Also, as far as using flashbacks in later places in the book — well, what have the HPs you’ve read done? See how the authors handle this kind of thing. If you haven’t seen it done, then maybe there’s a reason. If you have, why was it done? How well did it work? Ask yourself those kinds of questions.
And when writing, ask yourself if there’s another way you can convey this information. Is it necessary to flash into the past? If so, maybe you’ve started your story in the wrong place. Maybe you need to start earlier, or even have a prologue.
I haven’t used a prologue thus far, but the book I’m working on now has one. It’s two paragraphs long. You simply want to compel the reader to move forward.
Awesome job on this btw. I couldn’t get to your site yesterday but am glad I could today. From reading your notes on the subject and the iheart presents site, I’ve been revising like mad. Tossed this and that out – condensed the first three chapters – eliminated redundant info – worked to increase tension. Man, it’s alot of work, but very fun. Keep up the good job. Aspiring writers appreciate it.
Hey, Gibb. Not all that long ago, I was an aspiring author too. I understand how important it is to get information you can use to improve your craft! I’m glad this is helping–sounds like you know what you’re doing. Eliminating redundant info, increasing tension–very good choices. 🙂
Hi, Barbara! Glad it’s working for you. 🙂 And of course, finish working forward before going back to look at the beginning. I often do that, and often change the beginning!
Fabulous series, Lynn. Though I’m targeting MH (and looking forward to Kimberly’s posts), the information has been very helpful. Your encouraging tone has been a breath of fresh air while I’m suffering thru my *&@# synopsis and hating everything I write. Oh well, back to the computer for a little more self-flagellation as I attempt to convey a whole books worth of conflict (and the “whys and wherefores”) in a riveting two pages. – Ha!
Oh gee, good luck, Amy! I do understand the pains of fighting a synopsis! Just focus on the emotional conflict between the characters. That’s the most important thing in these books. 🙂 (I always start sneaking plot things in; I’m getting myself out of the habit though.)
This has certainly been an endeavor of love Lynn Raye and what a wonderful thing you’ve done for aspiring authors.
Hi, Marilyn! Thank you! I love helping people out. 🙂
This has been a great series, thanks so much for making the time to post your advice.
Hi, Jo! You’re welcome! 🙂