Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Theory on Thursday with Ruthie Knox

Today is another Theory on Thursday with a difference. I'm very excited to bring you new author Ruthie Knox talking about what she has learnt about writing beginnings!! I had so many light bulb moments reading her post and I'm sure you will do too...

Welcome Ruthie :)

How to Begin a Romance Novel: Seven Revelations

It recently came to my attention that I have a problem with beginning.

Now, I know the beginnings to my novels aren’t awful. I’ve managed to get an agent and sell two books and even win a couple of contests with the beginnings I’m writing. But something is definitely amiss, because before I sold my second book, my editor asked me to rewrite the first few chapters. Then she asked for some changes that led to a rewrite of the beginning of the first book she bought. Then she turned down a third book and because of issues with—you guessed it—the beginning.

Hmm, I thought. Also, WTF? and Halp!

My beta readers were liking my beginnings. My agent likes them. My mother likes them. Yet my editor, who knows the romance market like nobody’s business, sees a problem. The characters are hard to sympathize with, she told me. I don’t really feel like I know them yet. She pushed me to get more emotion in, more background, more exposition.

And I found myself stumped, because I didn’t know how to take her advice in a way that would square with my instincts as a writer. I don’t want to tell that part yet, I thought. Don’t make me put in more backstory. I loathe backstory dumps. This heroine isn’t ready to be that vulnerable. Blah blah blah defensive-pants.

So I chewed on the problem, and I came to suspect I’ve been writing the wrong sort of beginnings—that I’ve established a set of expectations from a lifetime spent reading literary fiction, and I’ve carried them over to romance, where they don’t really work. Since I am, by nature, a geek, I decided to carry out a study of romance novel beginnings. I put together a syllabus and everything.

Having spent a few weeks alongside my partner in crime, Serena Bell, intensively studying 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’ve 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 I’m aiming for, and I’m nowhere close. Which means it’s time to revise.


Thanks so much for visiting Ruthie! Wasn't she just fabulous? If you want to read more of what Ruthie has learnt from her studies click here to go to her website where she's currently sharing more!

Ruthie Knox writes contemporary erotic romance with a dash of humor. She has two novels coming out with Random House’s new Loveswept imprint in 2012. Ride with Me, a love story with bicycles, will hit e-readers everywhere in mid-February, and The Morning After, the tale of a brassy Chicago bad girl reluctantly falling for an unexpectedly hot London banker, will follow in the spring. More details, along with a variety of excerpts and humorous posts about commas and grand examples of overthinking about the romance genre, can be found at


Anonymous said...

Lovely post with great advice! (I loathe backstory dumps too...made me laugh!)

Larissa Hoffman said...

Brilliant! Great advice. I love your points & examination from a romance writer POV. The critique on my romance ms came back, make your hero nicer! I read a blog guest hosted by Brenda Novak & she suggested I write the first 3 chpts, then toss & start over. I'm going to try that on my new wip.

Ruthie said...

Thanks, ladies! Larissa, a romance writer I really admire, Isabel Sharpe, told me the reader has to start falling in love w/the hero from the first moment -- even if the heroine doesn't! Suggests we have to tread carefully, especially with the grumpier heroes (who I love). I think my new process will be (1) write whole ms., (2) throw out first three chaps and write over from scratch, (3) revise rest of book. Should help!

Coleen Kwan said...

Wow, what a fabulous post. I'll have to go back and revisit all my beginnings now.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was all kinds of awesome! Thanks so much for sharing what you've learned!!!

scarlet wilson said...

Fabulous post - loved it!

Rachael Johns said...

Thanks Ruthie and everyone for stopping by.

I'm a HUGE fan of Ruthie already and can't wait for her books. Not sure I can BARE to throw out the first three chaps of each book I write!

Ruthie said...

Thanks, all! Rachael, on not being able to bear throwing out your chapters -- I know. I KNOW. But the thing is, you always love the new chapters so much more.

Cathryn Hein said...

This was really interesting, Ruthie. Thanks. You've got me thinking about the opening I've just written. Might have to take (yet)another look at it in light of your points.

Another insightful Theory on Thursday. Keep 'em coming, Rach!

Ooh, look. The word verification is sessicki. Sounds like something one gets in a boat.

Jackie Ashenden said...

Great post, Ruthie! And those tips are gold!

Jolene Perry said...

A good story is all about language and good characters for me.
Well said.

Suzanne Brandyn said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I look at my beginnings and I do filter in the past, and character description etc. I'll have to take a look, but there is a time when this information can be overdone.

My thrillers are action,action, and then a breath to filter in character background, and history etc.

Again, I loved reading your post, and will definitely check out my current manuscripts.

Thank you Ruthie, and thank you Rachel.

Suz :)

Ruthie said...

You're welcome, all! I'm glad you enjoyed, and happy to share what I've learned. It was an extraordinarily useful exercise for me to read a dozen sets of first chapters with the same questions in mind and my analytical hat on. I'd urge anyone who's having problems -- with beginnings, middles, endings, or whatever other sorts of problems -- to give it a try!

Rachael Johns said...

Yes, and thanks again Ruthie for your time. I think I need to do what you suggest on endings - they give me grief. I wonder how many chaps back I should read?

Ruthie said...

Interesting thought, Rachael! I'd do a quick survey. I'm thinking Dark Moment --> onward is probably only 4-5 chapters in most books. And that's how much you'd want to read, IMO.

ebarrett said...

Very well done post, Ruthie! You've really nailed the opening issues. I've had to work hard on several of these points and it's nice to see them articulated so clearly.