Saturday, 25 July 2009

First Chapters.... This much I know.

So, including my unpublished first manuscript, and the one I'm currently beavering away at, I've now written eight first chapters which hardly makes me an expert, but I have learned a few things along the way. 

Personally I'm a big fan of first chapters, they're usually the best bit of the book to write - when your characters are still fresh and exciting, all the possibilities of the plot are unfolding in your head and you've got a great hook that you just have to get on the page.... At least that's the theory. But, as anyone here who's ever tried to write a first chapter will tell you, they can also be a complete pig to write. Basically because there's so much riding on that first chapter. If you're unpubbed you need that first chapter to shine so you can showcase everything you can do to an editor or agent, and if your pubbed they're one of the major selling points of your book, especially for new readers. 

And with category romance there's even more pressure. In a 50,000 word book you don't have time to prat about. You have to be leaping straight into the action, outlining your H & h and their conflict in that first chapter while also showcasing your voice and delivering the kind of page-turning pace that is a staple of Harlequin romances. And that's before we've even got to the terrifically hooky premise.

Now there are a few hard and fast craft rules to writing first chapters (and writing good fiction generally) that are well known to anyone whose ever read a 'how to' book on writing, but that I'm going to touch on here (just for the hell of it). 

Top Tip One: Less is More

We all know about the dreaded 'info dump' right?? When you slow down the action to a snail's pace to stick in your hero and heroine's back story? So I'm not going to insult your intelligence by talking too much about that. 

Except to say that I got a great bit of advice from Susan Elizabeth Phillips during her workshop at last year's RWA conference. Which went something like this 'prologues are for whimps'. Now, that's not to say that prologues aren't a valid writing tool, or that I haven't read fantastic books with prologues in them. But what SEP was saying was that you should always try to find a way to weave your H & h's backstory into your ms where appropriate. ie. Less is more folks. And especially in that first chapter, where the temptation is even greater to get all that relevant info about your hero and heroine straight on the page. 

Well, don't! We don't need to know straight off that your heroine has sworn off marraige because her parents had a bitter divorce and then she got dumped at the altar by the guy she thought was the man of her dreams when he ran off with her best friend and maid of honour. Intrigue us, tantalise us, don't tell us everything, just tell us enough so that we sympathise with her, we have some inkling as to why she is going to have to fight for her HEA and leave us wanting more.

A good way to spot info dump is at the revision stage. Watch out for rambling internal thought.. Or too much information... And cut it out. Always think, what does the reader absolutely need to know, and leave it at that.

Top Tip Two: Show Don't Tell

Yeah, yeah, I know BORING! You've heard that one so many times now you're reciting it in your sleep. And it's also one of those pesky rules that doesn't always apply. But if you're like I was when I first started trying to write fiction you might also be wondering 'what the hell does that really mean.' Personally I figured it out by a process of elimination. ie. If the writing was making me fall into a coma it was usually a good sign that I was telling not showing. Now, did that sentence make you nod off?? Another little tip is to look for  'was' and 'felt' - as in, 'she felt excited' or 'he was overjoyed' - because those two little words are often a sign that you're telling your reader how your characters feel and not showing them. 'Her heart raced as if it were going for Olympic gold' shows the reader your heroine is excited, or scared or possibly both. Let them figure it out, they'll thank you for it. Which leads us neatly to Tip Three...

Top Tip Three: Use All Five Senses

When showing not telling, remember your characters don't just see things, they hear them, smell them, touch them, taste them. Use all of those senses to set your scene and describe your characters emotions. It'll make your writing more vivid, more colourful and draw your reading right into the heart of the action.

Okay, now we're covered the basics... Or some of them... Let's get down to some tips I've worked out for myself that might help you guys.

Top Tip Four: Trust Your Instincts

Or rather Trust Your Instincts and don't bottle it... 

If you know something isn't working be ruthless. For example, in my first published book I originally opened with this fantastic sequence where my hero was riding his Harley in the ritzy neighbourhood of Long Island where his long-lost brother and sister-in-law lived. Feeling surly and moody and desperately out of place, he spots an empty house (that he doesn't know is their's) and, being the rebel he is, he decides to take a dip. All beautifully written with lots of wonderful backstory about my hero's past and the reasons why he was there intricately woven into his internal thoughts and... 

Yep, you already know what's wrong right? And so did I, but I couldn't bring myself to cut to the chase. How the heck was I going to get all that crucial information in if I kicked off with my heroine spying on my hero in all his gorgeous naked glory while he stands soaking wet beside the pool? Answer: it was extremely hard work and some of my hero's conflict character development had to be left out of that first chapter, but it was absolutely the right decision to make and I knew it (however much it pissed me off at the time).

In short, when you come to revising your first chapter keep asking yourself questions like 'Have I started the story in the right place?' 'Does this sound right?' 'Am I showing or telling here?' 'Does the reader need to know this now?' And answer those questions honestly... However annoying - and however much more work - that answer might entail. 

That said: this is a top tip for the revision stage only. Don't edit while you write a first draft, because however wrong the Hero on his Harley may have been as a starting point for my story, writing it did give me some invaluable insights into his character.

Top Tip Five: Let Your Characters Speak For Themselves

This is a top tip that is particularly useful for Modern Heat, because an intrinsic part of the 'fun, flirty tone' is that 'sparky, sassy' dialogue between your Hero & heroine.

But quite apart from that, it's a known fact that  'Dialogue Lifts Pace'. Why? Because when it's well written, it's a great way of dispensing with reams and reams of internal thought and letting your characters show what they're feeling - and letting your readers see how they interact with each other. 

Now, that doesn't mean you want your characters dictating their thoughts or telling each other how they feel. Why? Because it would be tres boring and anyway, that's not how people talk to one another - especially when they've just met as they may well have in your first chapter. 

A great top tip when writing dialogue is to say it aloud. If it doesn't sound like something someone would realistically say, get rid of it, however clever it might be. Also, watch your genders. Men don't generally talk in long flowery sentences and they also don't beat about the bush, they say what they're thinking... And they don't get hung up analysing their feelings. Women on the other hand have been known to beat about the bush a bit. They look for the subtext... 

And so should you. Especially in that first chapter where your hero and heroine are interacting with each other for the first time (even if they've met before, this will be the first time your reader has met them) and there are going to be tons of nice juicy tensions, conflicts, etc seething beneath the surface of what they're actually saying to each other.

If it works, I love kicking off a First Chapter with a line of dialogue... Between the hero and heroine or coming from one of them and concerning the other. Now, it's not always possible, so don't force it. But if you can pull it off, it's a great way to jump right into the action, get the pace moving straight away and begin revealing those all-important conflicts from the get-go. And it can also be a lot of fun. 

If that first chapter has virtually no dialogue in it... Look at it again. Especially if you're aiming your ms at Modern Heat. 

That said, like everything else there are exceptions that prove the rule. Take Natalie Anderson's great recent release Between the Italian's Sheets. Here's a link to read the opening chapter. The first line of dialogue in that opening sequence doesn't come until the third page and then it's from an ice-cream seller, but the chapter works magnificently.... At least I think so. I was itching to read more about these two after that explosive meeting at the Opera. 

Which brings us on to Tip Number Six.

Top Tip Six: Ignore All My Tips and Work Out Your Own

Okay, before you get ready to lynch me, let me explain. 

Your opinion matters the most in your own writing. Yes craft and talent and structure, etc are important. But remember, you know what works for you and what doesn't because before you ever became a writer, you were a reader and that's the most invaluable tool you can ever have. So use it. 

If you haven't already, read as many first chapters in Modern and Modern Heat as you can (simple as pie if you use the 'Browse this Book' feature on the Harlequin/Mills and Boon websites) and think about why those chapters work and why you like them. What makes them vivid, engaging, page-turning, etc. When you've finished doing that you'll have some top tips of your own to apply to your writing.

Voila! My work is done. Let me know if it helped, confused you, or just made you think 'what the heck is she on about?'

11 comments:

Lacey Devlin said...

Hi Heidi!

Great post! Thanks for this! Showing instead of telling is still my weakness but being able to look for those key words will cut down my editing time. You're an angel :)

Felicity Roger said...

Great post. All things we probably already know, but all things that go by the wayside when are knee deep in the first chapter, which I am. Thanks...

Rachael Johns said...

Yep - thanks for another BRILLIANT post!! I'm itching to get into a new first chap now but MUST, MUST, MUST finish this wip first!

Jackie Ashenden said...

Heaps of fantastic info here, Heidi. Thanks so much! Hmmm, I'd better re-look at one of my WIPs after reading this - could use some work I think. :-)

Caroline said...

Great advice - thanks Heidi. I feel a "red editing pen" moment coming on! Take care. Caroline x

Heidi said...

Hi guys

Thanks for dropping in and glad it helped... But I know I'm preaching to the converted with you lot.

Best of luck with your first chapters for the comp and your other WIPs

Lorraine said...

Thanks Heidi,

Really useful stuff, particularly about how much back story to allow in - I always get knotted up about making things clear straight off but can see putting in enough to keep the reader sympathetic and hooked works much better.

Sally Clements said...

Hi Heidi, and hello! this is my first post on your site. This was an excellent post, I'm just writing the end of my current WIP (aimed at modern heat) and have recently looked at the first chapter and stripped out about half of it. Lots of lovely writing, descriptions, backstory has hit the 'extra stuff' file, and I've tightened it up. Now applying same principles to my first chapter comp entry! Thanks for the post.

Heidi said...

Hi Lorraine,

Yeah, backstory is always a prob for me too. Hence I wrote the first chapter for my current WIP four times... Each with a different start point. Oh joy! But I did get there in the end, and I always find that writing all that backstory and then cutting it out is better than not knowing what your H & h's backstory is (which I've also done!!).

And Sally,

Would you believe it, just as you were posting this comment I was busy reading your new blog... Now that's spooky. Love it btw, pop back here as often as you like and I'll try and list your blog on mine (if I can remember how to do it!)

mulberry said...

Heidi, you are a genius and a star! Thanks so much for your help!

Heidi said...

You're very welcome Mulberry, consider it payback for that sweet review of Hot-Shot on your blog...

And I have to admit, thinking about your hero and heroine and their dilemmas has spurred me on to get stuck right back into Leo and Issy's story... And about time to!