Writers in the Storm

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February 29, 2012

How to Begin a Romance Novel: Seven Tips

Today Writers in the Storm is  pleased to introduce you to debut author, Ruthie Knox.  She's got tips for writing a romance novel, but really, you can use these in any genre.  Ruthie has generously offered to give a e-copy of her book to one lucky commenter who will be chosen at random.

by Ruthie Knox

While I’m an extremely enthusiastic convert to the romance genre, I spent much of my life reading other genres, including a hefty dose of literary fiction. After I began writing romance, it quickly became clear that I was doing beginnings all wrong. They were readable, but they weren’t working with genre expectations. So with the help of my partner in crime, Serena Bell, I carried out an intensive study of some of the best of the best in romance—including Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Jill Shalvis, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Vicki Lewis Thompson, and others. Here’s what I learned.

1. Character is everything.
Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that readers are impatient for the story to get moving. This is silly. The primary thing readers expect from the first few chapters of a romance novel is that they will get to know your characters. If your characters are compelling and sympathetic, readers will tolerate all manner of tedious exposition and backstory dumping. Which isn’t to recommend poor technique—only to point out that characterization is the first, most important purpose of the beginning of a romance.

2. But stuff still has to happen.
It is possible, however, to overdo the getting-to-know-you thing. There’s the slow unfolding of a story, and then there’s the sort of book where the hero and heroine spend three chapters folding laundry and cooking dinner, and nothing happens. That doesn’t work either. The key is to find a place to ease into the action that establishes and telegraphs your plot — What sort of story is this going to be, and what kind of things can the reader expect to see happen? — but leaves you some breathing room to introduce your people before the tale picks up speed. Which leads me to Point the Third...

3. “Start where the story starts” doesn’t necessarily mean “start at the beginning.”
Characters become most interesting when you put them under pressure. If your story begins with a low-pressure meet scene, maybe the meet isn’t the best place to launch into things. Jill Shalvis begins The Heat Is On (a really excellent Harlequin Blaze title) on the morning after Jacob and Bella meet and have a one-night stand, because Bella is a flighty sort, and walking out on Jacob doesn’t put the screws to her. What puts Bella under pressure is finding a dead body outside the bakery where she works and discovering, in consequence, that (a) Jacob is a homicide detective and (b) she’s going to be seeing a lot more of him now. Uh-oh, Bella thinks. This is trouble. You want that uh-oh moment. You want emotion and intensity in scene one. Ideally, you want your characters squirming. Choose the opening scenario accordingly.

4. Beginnings set up the dominoes.
There’s a reason agents and editors who request partials ask for the first three chapters of your book. By the end of chapter 3 of a romance, every key element of the story ought to be in place. The reader should know who your characters are (in a deep sense) and what drives them. She should know what they’re going to fight about and why they belong together. The rest of the book will ideally be a matter of tipping that first domino and enjoying the experience of watching them all fall down.

5. Readers sympathize with actions.
A human being is the sum of her past, her thoughts, and her behavior. So is a character. But readers won’t like your characters on the basis of what they think or what has happened to them. They will only like them on the basis of what they do and what they say. So if your hero is being a complete asshole for three chapters straight, it doesn’t matter why. I can’t love him now, and I probably won’t really warm up to him later. Likewise, if your heroine spends the first three chapters of your book thinking and bathing and writing in a diary rather than talking to the hero and advancing the plot, I will yawn and put the book down. Make them do stuff. Make the stuff they do and say be appealing. This doesn’t mean they have to or should be perfect—only that their actions and words have to reveal their core likability, even if they do so against the characters’ will.

6. Everyone breaks the rules.
Nora Roberts head-hops! Jennifer Crusie rewrites the same scene from two different points of view! Susan Elizabeth Phillips sits her heroine down on the roof of a car and has her Think About the Past for a surprisingly long period of time! But these women write damn fine books, and they earn well-deserved plaudits for them. There are no rules. There are only stories, told better and worse. Tell yours the way you need to, even if that requires some rule-breakage. (But always be prepared to revise.)

7. A well-crafted beginning has hypnotic power.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips taught me this. I read three chapters of Dream a Little Dream, and I didn’t like the hero or the heroine. I didn’t like the set-up. I thought, This book is not at all my sort of contemporary. Too serious, too desperate. Yet I couldn’t put the damn thing down. Man oh man, does Dream a Little Dream ever begin well. It has solid characterization-through-action, useful dialogue, well-timed snippets of backstory and internal monologue, good introductions to secondary characters, excellent pacing, and deft treatment of difficult scenes. It’s a master class in miniature. Even though I didn’t especially like reading it, I couldn’t stop. That’s what an excellent romance novel beginning needs to do. If yours aren’t there yet, it’s time to revise.

What do you write?  How do you make your beginning grab your reader?

Ruthie Knox's Ride with Me, available from Loveswept on February 13, 2012!

In this fun, scorching-hot eBook original romance by Ruthie Knox, a cross-country bike adventure takes a detour into unexplored passion. As readers will discover, Ride with Me is not about the bike!

When Lexie Marshall places an ad for a cycling companion, she hopes to find someone friendly and fun to cross the TransAmerica Trail with. Instead, she gets Tom Geiger — a lean, sexy loner whose bad attitude threatens to spoil the adventure she’s spent years planning.

Roped into the cycling equivalent of a blind date by his sister, Tom doesn’t want to ride with a chatty, go-by-the-map kind of woman, and he certainly doesn’t want to want her. Too bad the sight of Lexie with a bike between her thighs really turns his crank.

Even Tom’s stubborn determination to keep Lexie at a distance can’t stop a kiss from leading to endless nights of hotter-than-hot sex. But when the wild ride ends, where will they go next?
Ruthie Knox figured out how to walk and read at the same time in the second grade, and she hasn’t looked up since. She spent her formative years hiding romance novels in her bedroom closet to avoid the merciless teasing of her brothers and imagining scenarios in which someone who looked remarkably like Daniel Day Lewis recognized her well-hidden sex appeal and rescued her from middle-class Midwestern obscurity. After graduating from Grinnell College with an English and history double major, she earned a Ph.D. in modern British history that she’s put to remarkably little use.

These days, she writes contemporary romance in which witty, down-to-earth characters find each other irresistible in their pajamas, though she freely admits this has yet to happen to her. Perhaps she needs more exciting pajamas. Ruthie abhors an epilogue and insists a decent romance requires at least three good sex scenes.

One lucky WITS commenter will be randomly chosen to win a digital copy of Ride with Me. The winner will pick up the copy through Net Galley. Good luck to all!

0 comments on “How to Begin a Romance Novel: Seven Tips”

  1. Hi Ruthie,
    Thanks for a great post! I have a curmudgeon-like hero who really has a good heart so you've reminded me I'd better let readers know early enough so they don't put the book down.
    Great insights!
    Sharon Struth

    1. Thanks! Isabel Sharpe told me about grumpy heroes, "The reader has to start falling in love with him right away, even if the heroine doesn't." Helped me enormously.

  2. What a great post! If your writing style is anything like your blogging style I'm so picking up your books. 🙂
    And I'm going to go find that Jill Shalvis book. What a fun idea for a story.
    Have a great week!

  3. I agree, wonderful insights, Ruthie!

    I'm a bike rider, but the guy I ride with doesn't look ANYTHING like your hero (sorry, Honey!)

    Going to download your book now -- can't blame a girl for dreaming, right? 😉

  4. This is a very timely post for me. I've just started a new book and gotten a bit stuck on the second chapter. This gave me a great idea that I'm about to rush off and work on. Thanks!

  5. Ruthie,
    Great way to start my day - your 7 Steps and a cup of coffee. # 4 is an excellent reminder on the first 3 chapters. Good luck with Ride with Me!

  6. Fabulous post! I wrote a romance novel during NaNo and I need to buckle down and get the first edit done. These pointers will really help as I work my way through it 🙂

  7. Hello Ruthie, so glad to meet you here at WITS, one of my favorite visits in the world of the blog. I write stories about NYC women ... as I say ... living on the edge. I enjoy their travails and their personal journeys, whether it is a romantic suspense or a straight mystery ... or even my stand alone upmaket women's fiction ... each of them tells me their story and then I sit down and attempt to tell it to someone else. If I can learn to do good, the reader will enjoy hearing about them as much as I did. Great tips by the way 🙂

  8. Love the tips, Ruthie! And you're right it doesn't matter what genre you write, they still matter. Though I DO love a good romance...I'm off to check out yours. 🙂

  9. Ruthie, Great information here. I've always read to start the story at the moment of change for your character. But I've also read to show a glimpse into their ordinary world. I struggle with how to do both. And the authors you mentioned are some of my absolute favorites. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It's challenging, Jenna, I agree! It helps me to realize I don't have to do everything FAST. I get stuck on the idea that I need to do everything at once! I was reading a Joyce Carol Oates story in Harper's recently, and I noticed just how many words she expended letting her first-person narrator describe herself. It was fascinating, great writing -- and yet I'd never allow myself so much space to introduce one of my own heroines in a first chapter! It reminded me again that there are no rules, and that characters are inherently interesting, especially when readers first meet them. It's okay to step back and take it slow at first, giving readers a chance to get to know them.

  10. Hey well done Ruthie! I don't write romance but I had to share this on Facebook because it crosses all genres. I especially liked the advice to get your characters 'squirming'. Ha, that was brilliant! It's the pithy sort of advice that will really stick with me.
    Btw; excellent choice of cover on your first book Ride with me!
    Yvette Carol

    1. Thanks for sharing, Yvette! I had nothing to do with the cover, unless you count wanting to lick it. But I'm glad you liked the squirming advice. 🙂

  11. Great point about starting where the story starts. I've found that my starting point is different from the reader's. As a part of my "process," I have to write all the backstory and descriptions at the beginning, but I've also learned to edit ferociously to find the real starting point of the story.

  12. Great post. Very informative. You have alerted me to some major mistakes I am making. Now, I'm off to correct yesterday's work. Sigh.

    Thanks so much for the advice.

  13. Thank you for the information! I hope one day to start my project. Wishing you continued success!


  14. Great tips Ruthie! I think 5 is so vital and something I've seen as a problem in some stories I've critted when they write dominate/rakish types....They need a pet the dog moment or something.... (You can leave me out of the drawing as I already have your book)

  15. I found this post very interesting & helpful... I'm attempting to write an adult contemporary/romance & will definitely keep these tips in mind... Thanks!

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