Freelance editor Tessa Shapcott joins us at RU to talk about your first chapter when writing Category Romance. There’s a lot to do in that first chapter! Let’s get cracking!
Why is it so important to write a great first chapter in a Category romance?
In terms of word length, these are short books; anywhere between 20,000 words for a novella and 80,000 words tops. Thus, there isn’t a lot of leeway for a writer to ‘warm up’, or indeed tolerance on the part of the reader, who’s waiting for the main characters to arrive. And every reader expects to have taken a ride on an emotional rollercoaster by the time she finishes the book. So it’s vital in Category to hit the ground running; first chapters make or break a novel.
There are three things a Category writer needs to do with that crucial first chapter:
*Grab the reader’s attention
*Hook the reader in
*Keep the reader turning the pages and wanting more
I was an editor with leading Category romance publisher Harlequin for many years, dealing with both published and unpublished authors. These days I work with authors wanting to publish in the indie sector, and write Category myself. When it comes to first chapters, the mistakes that we make as writers and editors are imprinted on my soul! Here is how and why we can lose the plot.
‘Writing yourself in’ is the most common felony. It’s comforting to think that your reader will be understanding and hang in there until Chapter Four or Five when your romance really gets going. But the reality is, she wants it now!
What does writing yourself in involve? It can mean having two to three opening chapters where the author is preoccupied with relaying the backstory, and so there’s no romance or hero-heroine action in sight. However, if the reader has settled herself down for the instant gratification of reading a short novel, she’s not likely to have a lot of patience with procrastination via long-winded scene-setting.
A variation on the crime is entering what I like to call No-Man’s-Land, where the hero doesn’t arrive until chapter two or even later. Readers need to have the epicenter of their fantasy established within the first few pages to pique their interest and whet their appetites.
And while we’re in the zone of characterization, two’s company, and three or more are definitely a crowd; introducing too many minor characters at the start can be fatal. The hero and the heroine are the priority, and the reader wants to establish a rapport with them; having lots of other voices can interfere with that key process, and confuse or dilute the impact of the developing relationship and an understanding of its core conflicts.
Not enough dialogue in the early pages between the hero and heroine is another variation of the ‘writing yourself in’ syndrome, and a real passion-killer. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using descriptive narrative in order to get the story going and find your balance. But in doing so, you are choosing to tell the story and so inserting yourself between the readers and the characters, rather than letting characters speak for themselves, which is much more engaging and immediate.
And then there’s the show-stopper—the writer who thinks of a great opening line or paragraph, and then her book goes downhill from there! You need to establish a momentum fast and then keep it going.
Here are my Golden Rules for Packing a Punch from the Very First Page:
*Make the writing of a synopsis of your story your very first task when you embark on your novel.
*Be sure of who your hero and heroine are before you start, and aim to get them together as soon as possible.
*Keep the focus on the hero and heroine and their developing romance as much as you can.
*Give your reader a tantalizing taste of the emotional conflict within the first few pages.
*Give evidence of the sexual attraction between the hero and heroine too.
*Aim to unfold the back-story in bite-sized pieces throughout your book, and not immediately and in one long, indigestible chunk!
*Use dialogue; when the characters speak for themselves, readers will be instantly engaged.
*Keep minor characters to an absolutely minimum and use them to support the unfolding romance; avoid giving them a life of their own!
*Keep an eye on your pace; it should be tight and fast from page one, with the aim of keeping the reader turning the pages.
*Aim to end your first chapter on a climax. This compels the reader to read on.
This may seem like a lot to do in one specific area of your novel, but it’s all about creating a focused emotional environment in which your characters and their romance can grow. If you start by writing tight, the likelihood is that you will continue to write tight throughout the rest of the book; you’ll have set the bar high and you’ll feel encouraged to keep meeting that standard as you write on.
Do you have questions about category romance? Ask Tessa!
Join us on Wednesday for Angela Ackerman – you won’t want to miss it!
Bio: Tessa Shapcott is a freelancer editor, specializing in genre and women’s fiction and also helping authors to self-publish. She also writes category romance novels. A life-long fan of romantic fiction, she spent many years working for the publisher Harlequin Mills & Boon, first leading the Harlequin Presents line and then the editorial department. She can be contacted via her website: tessashapcott.com ; or via email: tessashapcott @gmail.com.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule Jan 13 – Jan 17 
- Romance: Finding your Own Happy Ending by Tessa Shapcott 
- From Traditional to Self-Publishing: One Editor’s Journey By Tessa Shapcott 
- Second Chance at Love—Get it Right the First Time by Tessa Shapcott 
- Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often with Kat Cantrell