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.)