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Wrapping Up: Lessons Learned about How to Begin

Serena Bell and I have come to the end of our Beginnings Seminar.

(Earlier posts in the series are herehere, and here.)

Theoretically, we ought to be reporting on Unit 3, but we did a pretty lackluster job on this unit, because we were too busy rewriting our own beginnings — which suggests that it doesn’t take three units’ worth of books to teach a romance writer new tricks. Two is sufficient.

We studied, we got all juiced up, and we set ourselves loose on our own manuscripts, which seemed, after two units’ worth of studying master works, terribly impoverished and shoddy. We rewrote. We revamped. We kicked ass.

I boasted to my editor that I’ve become a Beginnings Ninja, and that my new first three chapters of MAN FOR THE JOB will knock her flat with their awesomeness – kishaw! – but she hasn’t actually read them yet, so in the meantime I’m hunkered down here in my ninja cave (dojo? lair?), waiting, thinking, If this effing class screws up my GPA, I am so going to complain to the administration.

can tell you that I read Serena’s new first three chapters, and they kick some serious ass. So if I learned as much as she did from this seminar, it was worth the fifty bucks I spent on books. Serena summarizes the ten things she learned about beginnings on her website today, and I heartily encourage you to trundle over and check out her post. After reading hers, there really isn’t much point in mine. But here goes: My Seven Lessons Learned.

(This post first appeared in a slightly different form as Theory on Thursday with with Ruthie Knox over at Rachael Johns’s website.)

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1. Character is everything.

Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that readers are impatient for the story to get moving. This is silly. The primary thing readers expect from the first few chapters of a romance novel is that they will get to know your characters. If your characters are compelling and sympathetic, readers will tolerate all manner of tedious exposition and backstory dumping. Which isn’t to recommend poor technique — only to point out that characterization is the first, most important purpose of the beginning of a romance.

2. But stuff still has to happen.

It is possible, however, to overdo the getting-to-know-you thing. There’s the slow unfolding of a story, and then there’s the sort of book where the hero and heroine spend three chapters folding laundry and cooking dinner, and nothing happens. That doesn’t work either. The key is to find a place to ease into the action that establishes and telegraphs your plot — What sort of story is this going to be, and what kind of things can the reader expect to see happen? — but leaves you some breathing room to introduce your people before the tale picks up speed. Which leads me to Point the Third…

3. “Start where the story starts” doesn’t necessarily mean “start at the beginning.”

Characters become most interesting when you put them under pressure. If your story begins with a low-pressure meet scene, maybe the meet isn’t the best place to launch into things. Jill Shalvis begins The Heat Is On (a really excellent Harlequin Blaze title) on the morning after Jacob and Bella meet and have a one-night stand, because Bella is a flighty sort, and walking out on Jacob doesn’t put the screws to her. What puts Bella under pressure is finding a dead body outside the bakery where she works and discovering, in consequence, that (a) Jacob is a homicide detective and (b) she’s going to be seeing a lot more of him now. Uh-oh, Bella thinks. This is trouble. You want that uh-oh moment. You want emotion and intensity in scene one. Ideally, you want your characters squirming. Choose the opening scenario accordingly.

4. Beginnings set up the dominoes.

There’s a reason agents and editors who request partials ask for the first three chapters of your book. By the end of chapter 3 of a romance, every key element of the story ought to be in place. The reader should know who your characters are (in a deep sense) and what drives them. She should know what they’re going to fight about and why they belong together. The rest of the book will ideally be a matter of tipping that first domino and enjoying the experience of watching them all fall down.

5. Readers sympathize with actions.

A human being is the sum of her past, her thoughts, and her behavior. So is a character. But readers won’t like your characters on the basis of what they think or what has happened to them. They will only like them on the basis of what theydo and what they say. So if your hero is being a complete asshole for three chapters straight, it doesn’t matter why. I can’t love him now, and I probably won’t really warm up to him later. Likewise, if your heroine spends the first three chapters of your book thinking and bathing and writing in a diary rather than talking to the hero and advancing the plot, I will yawn and put the book down.Make them do stuff. Make the stuff they do and say be appealing. This doesn’t mean they have to or should be perfect—only that their actions and words have to reveal their core likability, even if they do so against the characters’ will.

6. Everyone breaks the rules.

Nora Roberts head-hops! Jennifer Crusie rewrites the same scene from two different points of view! Susan Elizabeth Phillips sits her heroine down on the roof of a car and has her Think About the Past for a surprisingly long period of time! But these women write damn fine books, and they earn well-deserved plaudits for them. There are no rules. There are only stories, told better and worse. Tell yours the way you need to, even if that requires some rule-breakage. (But always be prepared to revise.)

7. A well-crafted beginning has hypnotic power.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips taught me this. I read three chapters of Dream a Little Dream, and I didn’t like the hero or the heroine. I didn’t like the set-up. I thought, This book is not at all my sort of contemporary. Too serious, too desperate. Yet I couldn’t put the damn thing down. Man oh man, does Dream a Little Dream ever begin well. It has solid characterization-through-action, useful dialogue, well-timed snippets of backstory and internal monologue, good introductions to secondary characters, excellent pacing, and deft treatment of difficult scenes. It’s a master class in miniature. Even though I didn’t especiallylike reading it, I couldn’t stop.

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That’s all I’ve got! I’ll probably never read the beginning of a book the same way again, which is both good and bad, I suppose. I’ll probably also never write the beginning the same, and that’s definitely a good thing, because I have a better appreciation now for just how difficult it is to get those three chapters right the first time — and how necessary it is to get them right eventually, regardless of how many rewrites the task requires.

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