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Category Romance: Tips for Writing a Great First Chapter with Tessa Shapcott

Freelance editor Tessa Shapcott [1]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!

Tessa Shapcott

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I was an editor with leading Category romance publisher Harlequin for many years, dealing with both published and unpublished authors.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 [2]; or via email: tessashapcott @gmail.com.

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15 Comments To "Category Romance: Tips for Writing a Great First Chapter with Tessa Shapcott"

#1 Comment By Carrie Spencer On January 13, 2014 @ 9:34 am

Morning Tessa!

Great post! I’m a big one to toss a lot of blather in my first chapter, trying to get it all in. I usually trim it up quite a bit on revisions, but having your handy dandy list above will help trim it even more.

Now I’ve got to figure out how to get that secondary character out of the first page…..=)



#2 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On January 13, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

Hi Tessa,

These are great tips even for those of us who don’t write category romance. I write the synopsis before I begin working on the story. It’s definitely more work (and angst) but I’ve discovered it’s much more useful than an outline.

I like how you’re presented the concept of ‘writing yourself in’. I try to be aware of that but it’s hit and miss on the first draft, and the reason why I keep everything I’ve cut during revisions in a junkyard file.

Thanks again for another useful post.

#3 Comment By Tessa Shapcott On January 14, 2014 @ 4:37 am

Hi Jennifer

Great to hear that you enjoyed the post. Thank you! I think we all ‘write ourselves in’ when getting the story down, but of course the trick is to recognize that and then edit.

#4 Comment By Linda F. On January 13, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

As someone writing my first romance, the Golden Rules will be so helpful because there are so many rules to remember. Thanks, Tessa!

#5 Comment By Tessa Shapcott On January 14, 2014 @ 4:37 am

Linda, you’re welcome. Good luck!

#6 Comment By Christine @ Better Novel Project On January 13, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

Great post! I had no idea that romance genre books are traditionally so short.

Do you consider Twilight a romance? I wonder if the addition of the paranormal element allowed it the extra 50k words.

I agree with you that shorter = better!

-Christine @ Better Novel Project

#7 Comment By Tessa Shapcott On January 14, 2014 @ 4:40 am

Hi Christine

Thanks for your compliments! The romance genre is huge, with lots of sub-genres within, such as Twilight. Romances can be longer and ‘mainstream’. Category you will recognise by its more branded and uniform look.

#8 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On January 13, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

I always feel like I need to set things up in the first chapter – I’m trying to get over that, because it’s self-defeating. I’ve been going over the first chapters of some of my favorite books, which is a good way to identify things I’m doing wrong.

It’s one thing knowing how I SHOULD be writing the first chapter, but it’s another thing altogether when i comes to actually DOING it.

Thanks for a very helpful post!

#9 Comment By Tessa Shapcott On January 14, 2014 @ 4:41 am

Thanks, Becke. The secret is to drop in little snippets of information as the story develops. Think how you can take a background detail and make it a useful revelation from one of the main characters!

#10 Comment By Maria On January 13, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

Great post. Yes, we can’t hear it enough. And by the way, I’ve also noticed a trend even in single title to get the hero and heroine together as soon as possible.

#11 Comment By Tessa Shapcott On January 14, 2014 @ 4:42 am

Thanks, Maria. Most bestselling novels have something compelling and eye-catching on the first page!

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#13 Comment By Romance Novels in Color On January 14, 2014 @ 9:00 am

Great tips. It’s good to get a reminder every now and again about how to hook the reader in the beginning of a story. With so much competition out there – and more every day as writers self-publish – hooking the reader has become even more important. It’s easy for them to lose interest and move on to the next book on their list.

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