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It’s September! Where’s My Syllabus?

Having spent a goodly part of my adult life in college and grad school, and having, upon finishing up, immediately thereafter married a fledgling college professor, I must admit that there’s a soft, tender place in my heart for the syllabus. If I need to learn something, I want to learn it properly, and that means there must be course materials to analyze in an orderly fashion. Preferably, there must also be assignments. And Chicago-style footnotes.

It’s recently come to my attention that I need to take a closer look at how my novels begin. Sue, my editor at Random House, asked me to rewrite the beginning of THE MORNING AFTER before she bought it. It was “too in-your-face,” and she thought it would be difficult for readers to connect to the heroine, Cath. I rewrote it, and that worked, so yay! But that was only the beginning of my problem with beginnings.

Sue had bought RIDE WITH ME without any mention of problems with the beginning, but afterward I got critiques back on the opening chapters from two judges for the Maggies Contest (in which it finaled — yahoo!), one of whom turned out to be Christie Craig. Both judges thought the first scene needed some work: Not enough emotion. Not enough immediacy. Hard to connect to the heroine. Then I got notes back from Sue with the first edit of RIDE WITH ME, and she was seeing some of the same problem. Could I get more backstory in there? Or find some other way to make the heroine and hero easier to connect to right off the bat?

Meanwhile, Sue read a third novel, MAN FOR THE JOB, and didn’t especially like the entire first half. The second half really rocks, she says, but for the first forty thousand words or so, she had trouble — you guessed it — connecting to the characters.

The interesting thing to me at first was that I hadn’t heard this criticism before from anybody. Quite a few people, including my agent, have read all three of those books for me, and they were connecting to the characters just fine. But most of these people were not exclusively or even primarily “romance” readers.

And I suspect threin lies the problem: I write the wrong sort of beginnings. I write beginnings that are sort of romance novel beginnings, but sort of not. It is a genre-expectations problem, I think, as opposed to a straight-up writing problem.

I also have, I am beginning to fear, a reading problem. Because I am a very, very patient reader. Whenever I hear someone talking about how a book has to hook them within X-many pages, or how they were so alienated by a hero or heroine that they gave up in chapter 2, I am astonished. People give up? On books? I probably abandon one book a year. At most. I will read to the end of almost anything. I do not mind characters who are rude or stupid or alienating, so long as they feel like complete, rounded, real characters. I usually grow rather fond of them.

But since I do want to continue to sell books, and I do want to write books that many people who are not me will read and enjoy, I have some learning to do. I need to understand the expectations Average Contemporary Romance Reader brings to a novel, and then I need to work with those expectations to improve my own writing as romance writing. Or else I need to, like, find a whole different genre. Which I’d hate to do, because I have such a mad love for writing romance.

For what it’s worth, I have a preliminary diagnosis of my problem: I am a dropper of backstory breadcrumbs. I think romance readers want something approaching a complete loaf much earlier than I’m willing to hand it over. Sue had some questions in the early chapters of MAN FOR THE JOB, and I thought, “But I’m going to tell you that! In chapter 10!” Oy.

My instinct is to build characterization slowly over a hundred pages. This is a nice instinct if you write literary fiction. People who buy literary fiction enjoy slow characterization. I think what I’m going to find, though, when I look more closely at successful romance novelists’ beginnings, is that what romance readers want is, if not a character’s complete history, than at least something like a complete emotional portrait of the characters in chapters 1-2.

If that’s the case, there’s a tricky business for me, too. Because in order to get characters revealing emotional truths about themselves, they have to be vulnerable, and I like writing people who are so emotionally guarded that they don’t want to be vulnerable — certainly not in the first seventy-five pages. So then the trick becomes figuring out what kind of establishing situation I can put them in that reveals their characters without dumping backstory — a situation that either forces them to be vulnerable against their will or allows them to keep their hackles up but nonetheless unveils their emotional landscape in a way that attracts reader empathy, all magnetlike.

(Oh, and also, the situation cannot force the heroine to fall flat on her face in front of people — literally or figuratively — or to otherwise be weak and weenie-ish, because I have real issues with weak, weenie-ish heroines.)

Dude. I have no idea how to do all that.

The good news is, I’ve got books to study. Serena Bell and I have been chatting about our mutual need to learn how to begin our novels more effectively. (Her problem is, I think, entirely different from mine, and she can tell you all about it if she wishes to over on her own blog. Or in the comments. I’m hoping for some two-blog postin’ action, but we’ll see.) Serena is also a good student (read: geek), and together we’ve compiled a syllabus. For the next few/several weeks, we’re going to be reading and analyzing and thinking too much and taking ourselves way too seriously. There will probably be worksheets and impromptu essay questions. There are already Excel files.

Prepare to be schooled, y’all.

If your heart gets all fluttery at the idea of book learnin’ and you wish to join us — or if you happen to have beginnings problems of your own to solve — or if you simply want to chime in and tell us we’re silly — please do. Because a seminar with only two students is a sad seminar, indeed.

(Especially if you hate the other guy. Which I don’t, in this case. I’m just saying. I took a seminar with three people in it once. It was awful.)


Crafting Great Beginnings 101

Fall Semester, 2011


Unit I. Books We Already Own and Think Are Good Models

V. L. Thompson, Nerd in Shining Armor

N. Roberts, Sea Swept

J. Crusie, Anyone But You and Bet Me


Unit II. Books One of Us Owns and the Other Doesn’t, and the One Who Owns It Thinks It’s Awesome Sauce

J. Shalvis, The Heat Is On and The Sweetest Thing

M. Marlowe, Touch of a Thief

R. Gibson, Tangled Up in You

S. E. Phillips, Dream a Little Dream


Unit III. Books Someone Else Told Us to Read

L. L. Miller, one of the Creed books

R. Carr, Harvest Moon

V. Dahl, Good Girls Don’t

13 thoughts on “It’s September! Where’s My Syllabus?

  1. Hey Ruthie — congrats on the sales, btw πŸ™‚ As a former grad student and college instructor as well, I can tell you, I don’t miss syllabi at all. LOL In many ways, when I taught, I “pansted” my courses, planning one section at a time so that as we went, I could respond to the students’ needs, etc and plan from there. Interestingly, I think I write the same way, responding to my characters as I go… But, as to beginnings…

    I don’t like beginnings because they are so challenging in terms of setup and getting everything staged correctly so that the rest can flow, which is a different issue than the backstory one. However, I am always surprised when writers tell other writers “Don’t include backstory at the start of your book” — Better advice is “think about what backstory you need at the beginning of your book to set context for what comes later.” I think that’s where that sense of connection comes from. In single title, maybe it’s a bit different (though I’m betting not) but in category, we know we have to set that context fast and early, to make the reader feel grounded and connected, so they can move forward.

    It’s not an info dump, and it’s not the complete history of the character from the day they were born, but it’s there, filtered in, for hero and heroine.

    Then you still have to filter in more through the book, or, have the characters digesting new information in relation to their pasts, so that they can move forward. You might discover new aspects of their backstory, or whatever, but none of that can happen if you don’t have it up front in the book. It grounds the beginning, I think.

    Anyway, good luck with it πŸ™‚


    1. Thanks! I’m looking forward to getting my head around “best practices” in a more official way. As opposed to just trying to absorb them through reading, which works only to a point. πŸ™‚

      Nice to think about backstory as “grounding.” I’ve put that in my notes.

  2. This is timely for me, being on the seventh (I think, it may be more) rewrite of my chapter one.

    Also, this past Friday at my writer’s group, I pulled out Bet Me to illustrate how effectively personality can be established in just a few paragraphs. She made a face at me (she’s “not a reader”), so I don’t think she got the point. It was a useful reminder to me nonetheless.

    Can’t wait to see what you two do with this.

    1. Thanks! Feel free to chime in. Bet Me, we both thought, was a wonderful book with a “what-not-to-do” beginning, though we’re pairing it with another Crusie that Serena thought began more effectively. But it must have worked to some extent, because I ate that book right up.

  3. Ooh, I should do this! I totally do the backstory droppings, too! Heh, sounds kinda gross that way.

    I have a slight problem in that I am in love with my opening. In fact, it was my entire idea for this book that I am writing. The whole plot thing came later. And I’m really worried that it’s the wrong opening. It’s still a very important scene, but I worry that it should be the second chapter. This seems like a small change, but for me it is huge.

    And yeah… I’ve been told more than once that my stuff reads like literary. With lots of sex. I’m pretty sure this is code for unsympathetic heroine.

    It’s so very hard to be objective about this. Sigh. SIGH!

    1. Joooin usss… Or at least comment along for the ride. Whichever.

      I had the same problem with the book I just sold: the opening was the whole entire reason I wrote the book, and then I had to scrap it because it didn’t work, and THEN I had to rewrite the beginning a third time and add a new first chapter. And it was so tricky, because I had to figure out a way to do it that I liked and could live with, even though it wasn’t my idea.

      I’m with you. Sigh. SIGH! But I’m hopeful that by making a real study of beginnings, I’ll be able to understand the parameters better and diagnose my own problems and come up with my own stance on how I want to work within the genre conventions. Knowledge is power!

  4. I just ordered Sea Swept & Nerd in Shining Armor, which I had read originally as library books, so I can comb through them again for wisdom.

    Amber, I wonder if you and I have similar issues, because Ruthie said she suspected my books started too slow for romance but not necessarily too slow for literary. And I am a recovering literary writer. πŸ™‚

    1. Yay! I’ll probably start reading tomorrow or the next day. Have to beta for Meg first, but that probably won’t take long.

      “Recovering literary writer” — πŸ™‚ Isn’t this a funny business we’re in?

    2. Hehe. You know, I would have no problem with publishing my literary if there was at all a market for such a thing with lots of sex. I think no, though. “The brooding person’s erotica” Oh dear.

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