MY MIND'S GONE BLANK...
(Or, Where do you get your ideas from?)
Writers get asked this question all the time and to be honest it
embarrasses them a little. The answer is we don't really know and
we're not keen to examine the process too closely in case the plot
fairies don't like being stared at and fly away.
Basically, I suspect, writers have a slightly different way of
looking at the world. We all have images, conversations, memories
- the ingredients of Story -- swilling around inside our heads.
It's why we all think we have a story inside us.
Inside the writer's brain, however, incidents and memory combine,
mingle with overheard comments and gather momentum, finally becoming
someone else's story. Someone more interesting than the writer who,
after all, just sits at a computer all day writing down the words.
I have to confess, however, that sometimes the "magic" needs a
bit of a prompt. Chocolate, obviously is essential at times like
this, but is probably best used in fairly small quantities.
A lot of writers walk. If you like to walk, well, go for it. I
live in a place where it rains a lot and getting wet doesn't inspire
me; it just makes me wish I'd stayed indoors.
So what else can you do?
You could phone a friend or maybe your sister or cousin. A major
session of "remember when" with someone who's known you from infancy
will probably throw up a number of incidents you'd much rather gloss
over. You can bet your heroine would feel the same way.
Go fifty/fifty and brainstorm with a writing friend. I once tried
this with my husband but romantic man that he is, he just doesn't
get "romance". We stopped before I murdered him. And that's just
given me an idea for a story ... but it's not a romance...
Ask the audience. Ask visitors to your website, or your librarian,
or friends who read as voraciously as you to tell you what kind
of books they like most. And what they haven't been able to find.
Closer to home, try opening your wardrobe, get down on your knees
and dig out something that's fallen from its hanger. When did you
last wear it? At work? On a beach? In the supermarket? Lying on
damp grass? And were you happy or sad?
Go and sit in a café, burger bar, wine bar... Watch the
other customers. Who are they? Harassed mothers, illicit lovers,
business contacts? Look for the details that mark them as individuals,
make up their life stories. Or imagine that you're waiting for someone
... a blind date, or the married man who you know is never going
to leave his wife for you. Who turns up?
We've all got a cupboard in our home that we wouldn't want anyone
to open. Who, in your worst nightmare, opens yours and what falls
at his or her feet?
You're waiting for a train, suitcase at your feet. The train pulls
up. The door in front of you opens. Who is standing there? The person
you most want to see? The person to least want to see? Someone you
thought you'd never see again?
We've all been woken by a noise that we can't place. Cat? Burglar?
Cat burglar? If you can find a copy of my book His Little Girl check
out what my heroine found...
How often have you found a note tucked under your windscreen wipers.
Was it the telephone number of someone who's scratched your car?
A letter from a secret admirer? A poison pen letter? Or just another
advertising flyer that promises to "change your life"?
GRABBING THE READER ON THE FIRST PAGE
THE OPENING CHAPTER …
A great opening to a romance sets up questions in the reader's mind; questions that only the writer can answer.
To achieve this the writer has to:
- Start with something happening
- Get the hero and heroine on the page
- Grab the reader's attention
The start of any book is a make or break minute. It is the minute when the writer has to convince the reader to buy the book. Not the reader in the bookstore, but the first reader. The acquiring editor at the publishing house where your manuscript will be just one among the thousands sent to them every year.
It will not have a glossy cover or a teasing blurb written by a marketing department skilled in selling fantasy to tempt her. It will be a simple typescript, exactly like dozens of others awaiting her attention. Typed on white paper, double spaced, with an elastic band around it to hold it together.
You have two pages, or maybe three if she's feeling generous, to
convince her that your book is worth more than a minute of her time.
Asked, when giving a talk to hopeful authors, if she could really decide whether a book was worth publishing after reading the first chapter, the editor of a well known publishing house replied -
'Sometimes all it takes is the first line.'
A great opening to chapter four with a crisis of heart-rending proportions won't help if the reader doesn't get that far.
- The opening is important. Start with the crisis.
More, the opening must raise expectations in the reader, set the mood, the style of the book.
- Is it sharp and direct?
- Is there a mystery?
- Will it wrench the reader's heartstrings?
IS IT SHARP AND DIRECT?
'Blackmail,' Faith muttered for perhaps the tenth time that day. Her aunt was an expert in the technique.
The reader of a romance will not be fooled by that word "blackmail".
The word "aunt" qualifies it and promises a book in which the heroine
is being manipulated by a strong willed female relative. The fact
that she has allowed herself to be manipulated suggests any irritation
will be firmly underpinned by affection. But she is still being
IS THERE A MYSTERY?
'Something woke Dora. One minute she was sleeping, the next wide awake, her
ears straining through all the familiar night noises of the countryside
for the out-of-place sound that had woken her.'
Here the opening suggests that something unexpected, maybe frightening, is about to happen. The danger may be unseen but the potential victim is right there, on the page, focussing the reader's attention, attracting her concern. Whatever happens is going to happen to Dora
WILL IT WRENCH THE READER'S HEARTSTRINGS?
'Lizzie French jumped involuntarily as the church door clanged noisily behind
a latecomer. Had he come? She had almost given up hope, but now,
heart-in-mouth, she turned.'
Lizzie is jumpy, waiting for someone special to arrive. Is it him? And will
he be the hero? No. The hero is standing next to her and the reader
is introduced to him before she can give the tardy wedding guest
more than a passing thought. Having informed Lizzie that the late
arrival is the vicar's wife --
'... Noah Jordan's dark brows were lifted just a fraction, his mouth turned
down slightly at the corners in a mocking expression that might
just have been an apology that he was the bearer of such disappointing
news. But somehow she didn't think so.'
The latecomer is important. But the reader recognises the hero. He's right
there on the first page.
- The opening tells the reader who the story is about.
- The opening asks questions.
- The opening must intrigue the reader. Draw her in.
IS THIS YOU?
- I don't understand how a publisher can make a decision on the first three chapters. My book is scarcely started then.
- If I don't explain what happened in the past, the reader won't understand why this is happening now.
- I need to set the scene first.
- If I haven't described the characters first, the reader won't know who they are, or why they're acting this way.
Go to the library, grab an armful of modern bestsellers and check out your beliefs against the opening paragraphs.
START WITH SOMETHING HAPPENING
The defining moment of a story is a point of crisis. For the romance writer there are certain major life changing moments which offer great opening moments. Death, birth, marriage, divorce.
The beginning of a book is a moment of change, the unexpected.
Consider the wedding.
The expected, is that the bride and groom will say 'I do' and live
happily ever after.
The unexpected is --
- -- when someone burst into the church and says "yes!"
- -- when the groom turns to the bride and says 'Smile sweetheart ... this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.'
- -- when the vicar asks the bride if she will take this man to be her lawfully wedded husband ... and in response, she picks up her skirts, dashes back down the aisle and hops on a number 38 bus which just happens to be passing.
There is clearly a crisis that has brought the heroine to this point, but given sufficient incentive to read on, the reader will be content to wait for the details.
Think of a major newspaper story. It doesn't start with ten years of backstory. It starts with a big headline.
- BIGAMIST UNMASKED AT WEDDING
- GIRL WEDS TO SAVE FATHER FROM BANKRUPTCY
- BRIDE DESERTS GROOM AT ALTAR
These are stories everyone will want to read. Does your story start with a headline?
- A romance starts with a moment of crisis - a moment of change.
- Write the newspaper headline for your story and start from that point.
GET THE HERO AND HEROINE ON THE PAGE
In each of the wedding scenarios the heroine is front and centre of the action, the star of her own story. Her co-star, with equal billing, is the hero.
These are the most important characters in a short romance. The
sooner you can introduce them the better.
On the first page is good. In the first paragraph is better. In
the first line if at all possible.
'Lukas?' Georgette Bainbridge felt her mouth go dry at her father's suggestion. 'You want me to work for Lukas?' The day which had begun so badly suddenly became a disaster.
Lukas, the hero, does not appear in person until the end of the first chapter.
But his presence is there from the opening line of the book and
the reader will recognise his status instantly.
'Got you, Chay Buchanan!' Sophie Nash's triumphant exclamation was a tightly contained whisper.
Chay Buchanan is being watched through the viewfinder of a camera. The reader is there, looking through it, along with the heroine. Seeing what she's seeing, feeling the same emotional turmoil. There is no doubt whose story this is.
The reader is like a newly hatched chick, programmed to bond with the first likely character she meets. Ensure that it is the hero or heroine.
- 'Cassandra Cornwell had a problem ...'
- 'Tom Brodie regarded the man sitting behind the ornate desk ...'
- '"Miss Carpenter?" The enquiry was simply a formality ...'
And keep the action moving during that important first scene. Novice writers always use too much description. Characters come alive on the page through their actions, not through a detailed inventory of their looks, or their clothes.
- Description of any kind slows down the action.
Read the first page of any volume of popular fiction and see just how much information the writer has crammed into those twenty or so lines. Not description, but set-up; the information that will draw the reader into the book and make her want to read on. This is the first page of my Mills & Boon romance, A POINT OF PRIDE.
'Smile, sweetheart ... this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.'
What is the most important word in that line? '… supposed
'Not by one flicker of her lashes did Casey O'Connor acknowledge that she had heard the words murmured by the tall grey-clad figure of Gil Blake, as he took her right hand firmly in his own.
'She stared resolutely ahead, her face almost the colour of her exquisitely simple ivory silk dress. The vicar smiled reassuringly and then turned to Gil. The wedding service moved inexorably on.'
He is wearing a morning coat, she is in ivory silk. Those few words inform the reader that this is not some ramshackle, hole-in-wall wedding. It is a full-dress occasion. A major social event.
He takes her hand firmly in his. He is in control. 'The wedding service moved inexorably on.' The words are doom laden, reinforcing the conviction that this wedding is not the normal happy-ever-event.
Happy people do not make for exciting reading.
'I Gilliam Edward Blake take thee Catherine Mary O'Connor ...'
Gil's firm voice rang firmly through the church, every word clearly
heard by the congregation come to witness the shockingly sudden
marriage of Casey O'Connor to the tall, tanned stranger who had
snatched her from under the very nose of the most eligible bachelor
Shockingly sudden. Stranger. Snatched. Those words hammer home the message.
But there is a lot more information in that paragraph. Casey may
not be happy, but Gil Blake's 'firm voice' tells the reader
that he's well satisfied with events.
Tall, tanned stranger. Where has he come from? The tan
suggests somewhere warm. And he's snatched her from '... under
the very nose of the most eligible bachelor in Melchester.'
What hold does he have over her, that she would desert such a man
and agree to a marriage that she clearly does not want?
'The minister, satisfied with the groom's response, turned to her. "I Catherine Mary O'Connor take thee Gilliam ...' he prompted.
As she heard the words that would bind them together the temptation to flee was so strong that she was uncertain whether she had in fact stepped back, or if it was just her imagination that Gil's fingers tightened possessively over hers.
She glanced nervously at him from under her lashes. His grey eyes regarded
her steadily, but there was no warmth to encourage her response.
He was demanding her total surrender.'
The way characters are feeling is more important than what they are wearing. He is in control and knows it. She is unhappy and that raises a question. He knows she's unhappy and he doesn't appear to care. That makes it a story.
One page in and the reader knows a lot about these characters. The least important things are their names and the colour of Gil Blake's eyes.
GRAB THE READER'S ATTENTION
- Show the reader the characters
- Use action
- Introduce conflict
Consider how they do it in the movies. First they show you the character. Walking down the street in her neighbourhood, maybe.
- 'Hi, Grace! How're the wedding plans coming along?' Grace Darling smiled at her neighbour ...
Or working in her office.
- 'Grace, you coming for lunch?' Grace Darling grabbed her jacket ...
Perhaps having dinner in a restaurant with her husband, celebrating their first wedding anniversary.
- 'John, I'm so happy.' Grace Darling reached for her husband's hand ...
Then they introduce action.
- Grace, still laughing and talking with her neighbour, steps off the kerb and is mown down by a speeding car.
- The phone in the office rings. Grace glances at it, hesitates,
goes back to answer it.
- In the restaurant Grace looks up as a woman approaches the
A story has begun.
What happens next? Next comes the point on which the story turns.
- The man sitting beside Grace's hospital bed says that he's
her fiance. She does not recognise him.
- Grace answers the phone and is told by the caller that he
has taken her child.
- The woman produces a gun, shoots Grace's husband, then walks out of the restaurant.
At this point anything can happen. What you see is not necessarily what you get but in each case, Grace has been tossed into the maelstrom of her story.
The beginning is written. The reader is hooked.
For further guidelines on writing romance for Harlequin and for Harlequin Mills & Boon, surf to www.millsandboon.co.uk and click on "Help for Aspiring Authors"
All extracts are taken from books written by Liz Fielding and published by Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.
Writer Groups wishing to reproduce this article should ensure that Liz Fielding is acknowledged as the author and her copyright notice clearly affixed.
SOME OF MY FAVOURITE FIRST LINES
MY sins caught up with me outside the deli, on one of those January
afternoons we hardly ever get in London.
Fair Game, Elizabeth Young
ONE hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Farraday reached under
the front seat of her husband's Cadillac and pulled out a pair of
black lace underpants. They weren't hers.
Tell Me Lies, Jennifer Crusie
IT was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it.
The Moon-Spinners, Mary Stewart
"PROMISE!' The dying man grabbed her arm in a hard-fingered grip.
"Promise me, damn you, girl!"
An Honourable Thief, Anne Gracie
THE day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore
off unrequited love forever.
This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
"IT'S Cinderella, all over again. Who says fairy tales don't come
true? The only difference is, I'm a mite short of fairy godmothers."
A Penniless Prospect, Joanna Maitland
DAISY Deveraux had forgotten her bridegroom's name.
Kiss An Angel, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
OKAY, so here's the thing. My mother's worst fear has come true.
I'm a nymphomaniac.
Hot Six, Janet Evanovitch
THE last of Rachel Stone's luck ran out in front of the Pride of
Dream a Little Dream, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
ON a gloomy March afternoon, sitting in the same high school classroom
she'd been sitting in for thirteen years, gritting her teeth as
she told her significant other for the seventy-second time since
they'd met that she'd be home at six because it was Wednesday and
she was always home on six on Wednesdays, Quinn McKenzie lifted
her eyes from the watercolour assignments on the desk in front of
her and met her destiny.
Crazy For You, Jennifer Crusie
PHOEBE Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle
and a Hungarian lover to her father's funeral.
It Had To Be You, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
THE man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell
Dysart figured that was par for her course since she'd been going
to hell for a year and a half anyway.
Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie
© Liz Fielding 2001