Back to School: Better Beginnings

Ruthie Knox and I are going back to school. We are going to teach ourselves to write better romance beginnings by reading the books that we admire the most. You can read more about this on her blog, where she reveals that she misses structured education and the syllabus. I, on the other hand, swore I’d never go back to school and have done a pretty good job of keeping that promise, but I don’t mind a little bit of study if I can do it from the comfort of my couch and it involves romance novels. (Syllabus is below. You are invited, no, URGED, to join us, because as Ruthie says, a seminar with only two students isn’t much fun. Even if you love the other student, which I do.)

Ruthie has done an excellent job of diagnosing her own problem with beginnings (she leaves backstory “breadcrumbs”). I don’t have a complete diagnosis for what’s wrong with my beginnings, but I do have a succinct statement of the problem, which is that they don’t work. My beta readers call me up and say, “I’m fifty pages in, and I love it! I’m really getting into it now!” That’s great, I think, only you’re at least 45 pages too late. Ruthie sent me an e-mail critique of my second book in which she said that she didn’t want to tell me to write less sensitive and nuanced romances, but the romances she was used to developed much more quickly and, for lack of better word “baldly.”

So my tentative starting diagnosis is that my hero and heroine have to be dropped into the book at a point much closer to boiling. They have to meet when they already have much more at stake. You have to see them for the first time in a situation that–by its very nature–holds their feet to the fire. As far as I can tell, this is the problem with most bad beginnings, not just mine: They start in the wrong place, an insufficiently *intense* place.

It’s also possible that my first two book start in more or less the right place but that I haven’t done a good enough job of mining the H/h’s emotions and amping up the conflict–we don’t see their suffering clearly enough on the page (even though it’s there in my mind), and I don’t make their lives miserable enough (let them off the hook too easily).

(I think I’ve been doing a much better job of it in my third book, so I may have intuitively grasped what Ruthie and I are about to try to lay out the “rules” for.)

This weekend I read Unit One of the syllabus, so here are some additional thoughts.

The beginning of Nora Roberts’ SEA SWEPT is a great portrait of Cam. Right away, you know he works hard, plays hard, womanizes. But you also quickly learn that he’ll drop everything for the people that matter to him.

I don’t think you could get away, now, with starting a romance as slowly as she does (SEA SWEPT was 1998). She spends a long time, several chapters, with Cam before you even meet Anna. The intro to Anna is much shorter, and probably a better model for the amount of time you can realistically spend with a heroine before you drop her into the thick of things. Both chars are introduced in very deep POV, so you know exactly what they’re thinking and feeling as they encounter their new and very intense situation. Cam has substantially more at stake, but that’s OK, because it’s clearly his book.

What I learned from Nora: That the right situation reveals a tremendous amount about a character very, very quickly and that you can forgive a hero for being a jerk if he’s an over-the-top loyal-to-his-family jerk.

I’m fairly certain that NERD IN SHINING ARMOR by Vicki Lewis Thompson has one of the best beginnings ever written. If you haven’t read it, you must. Within a couple of pages, Gen, the heroine, has gotten what she’s been wishing for, and Jackson, the hero, has put himself in a position to ruin it for her. It’s pretty-much unputdownable. That’s a real word.

Part of why it works is that the characters are so distinctive and quirky that you immediately feel like they can’t be made up; they *have* to be real. And part of it is that what the characters want is so simple and elemental: Gen wants to be alone with her boss Nick, so she can convince him to marry her, and Jackson wants Gen.

What I learned from Vicki: Wacky works if you pair it with familiar, human emotions. And physical danger is an excellent aphrodisiac.

Ruthie and I paired BET ME with ANYONE BUT YOU because we thought BET ME was an example of what NOT to do and ANYONE BUT YOU was an example of what TO do. There’s some truth to that: BET ME’s beginning is so ludicrously complicated that I dare anyone to ease into it without having at least one strong urge to give up. And ANYONE BUT YOU’s beginning is so simple and elemental–lonely woman takes home pathetic dog–that only if you’re a dog-hater can you put it down. Which is pretty funny, because by super-contemporary (2011ish) standards, BET ME’s beginning leaps into the action a whole lot faster, and ANYONE BUT YOU’s (every time I type that, I feel weirdish) takes quite a while to get hero and heroine on the same page, let alone into anything that remotely resembles romance mode.

What I learned from Jenny: There’s so much going on in the beginning of a book that you can’t afford to get too fancy (unless you’re Jennifer Crusie, in which case you can do whatever the hell you want, and I’ll read it). You’ve got to introduce two characters from scratch, make them quirky/distinctive/interesting and, more to the point, SYMPATHETIC, and you’ve got to introduce, as quickly as possible, both their internal and external conflicts, while making it clear that sparks are going to fly. Why would you also include an ex-boyfriend, an ex-girlfriend, and four best friends, not to mention a whole bunch of off-stage characters we’re more or less expected to keep track of? (unless you’re Jennifer Crusie)

Or to put it another way, you’ll (I’ll) know you’ve (I’ve) arrived when you (I) can pull that kind of thing off and still manage to write one of the most popular books in the genre.

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Crafting Great Beginnings 101

Fall Semester, 2011

Unit I. Books We Already Own and Think Are Good Models

V. L. Thompson, Nerd in Shining Armor

N. Roberts, Sea Swept

J. Crusie, Anyone But You and Bet Me

Unit II. Books One of Us Owns and the Other Doesn’t, and the One Who Owns It Thinks It’s Awesome Sauce (note from Serena: use of “awesome sauce” in this context is Ruthie’s; I’m just not that cool)

J. Shalvis, The Heat Is On and The Sweetest Thing

M. Marlowe, Touch of a Thief

R. Gibson, Tangled Up in You

S. E. Phillips, Dream a Little Dream

Unit III. Books Someone Else Told Us to Read

L. L. Miller, one of the Creed books

R. Carr, Harvest Moon

V. Dahl, Good Girls Don’t