By Liz Fielding
"Start writing the story on the first line."
Did that grab your attention? I hope it did, because it's the most important piece of advice I've ever had as a writer. It's what I said to a journalist who wanted a quote from me recently. I was booked to give a talk about romance writing to a library group and she wanted my best advice for the aspiring writer.
"Start writing the story on the first line," I said.
There was a moment of silence while the journalist tried to decide if I was being sarcastic, or merely stupid. I waited and after a moment, because as a journalist she knew all about having to grab her reader by the throat in the first ten seconds or lose her, she laughed. "Yes,' she said. 'Of course."
She'd "got it".
This is how I did it in AN IMAGE OF YOU, my first Mills & Boon Romance.
"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.
It's a classic opening. Hero, heroine and potential conflict in thirty words. The reader who's picked up a book, scanned the cover, opened it to read the first few lines, is in the author's hands at that moment. If the opening grabs her, if she's asking, "What's going on here?", she'll buy.
I learned this the way writers learn everything. By reading. You can do it, too. Wander down the rows of glossy new books in your favorite bookstore, every one of them begging you to buy. Pick up a book -- no, not the one by your favourite romance author, you'd buy that anyway! -- try a book by someone you've never read before.
Open it and read the first few lines. Does it tempt the pounds out of your purse? No? Try again. And when you find one that you can't put back on the shelf, ask yourself why that is.
And keep doing it. The lesson can take a while to sink in. After reading the first three chapters of my second book, which concluded with the wedding of the hero and heroine, my editor gave it back to me. "Start with the wedding," she said. She was right. The wedding was the point of conflict and A POINT OF PRIDE begins:
"Smile, sweetheart ... this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life."
Don't you just know that it isn't? Don't you just want to know why?
By the time the reader had read the first tense chapter, she was ready for the backstory, which had by now been condensed from those first three chapters into eleven short pages. It's now that matters. What's happening. And why.
Hide secrets from your reader by all means; I did that in AND MOTHER MAKES THREE saving one secret, one last twist to the tale, for the end. But I haven't left the reader in any doubt about the conflict. It's there from the first page when Fitz is summoned by his daughter's head teacher to be told that there is a problem. Lucy wants her mother.
When I open the cover of a book I don't want to read about the scenery; if it's important it can be filtered in later. One sentence should do it. I don't want to know about the heroine's sick dog, her stolen car, the nightmare of public transport, one or all of which have delayed her; it's the delay that sparks the conflict. She's late, that's all that matters on page one. Why she's late can be wrenched out of her after the hero has given her hell. That's when he gets sucked in. Offers to help ... discovers that Miss Prim and Perfect has a whole other life outside the office. Whatever.
I don't want to know everything that's happened in the ten years before the story begins. I just want the story to begin. I want something happening. I want to hear the characters talking. I want to get to know them. Begin to care about them.
She's had a bad morning and he's being unreasonable. He's got a contract to win and his ultra perfect secretary decides to be late today of all days. Get sparks flying that will ignite into the kind of conflict that can only have one outcome. But not yet. Not yet.
And you don't have to write the scene from her viewpoint. Write it from his. He's mad, jobs are at stake here, he's ... oh, hell ... he's giving her his handkerchief, making her a cup of coffee ...
Heroes don't have to be nasty. Just unattainable. Or maybe she's the unattainable one. For now.
Because that's the other thing to remember. The longer you can keep the emotional conflict simmering, the more you can ratchet up the sexual tension, the keener the reader will be to get to the outcome -- and you'll have written a "page turner".
We all want to write a "page turner" but if your protagonists fall into bed on page three you're making it hard for yourself. Mills & Boon editors want the hero and heroine to spend as much time together as possible and human nature being what it is, you'll find it difficult to keep them from doing what comes naturally. How many times have you read a book where the phone, or the doorbell rings at the vital moment? Didn't you groan, just a bit?
I actually had some fun turning this convention on its head in DANGEROUS FLIRTATION when the heroine indulges herself in a long, sexy kiss with the hero, certain that she's safe because the door bell is going to ring at any moment. By the time she realises it hasn't, it's way too late.
At a writers workshop a few months back, a would-be author was bemoaning the fact that publishers wanted a synopsis and the first three chapters of her book. "It's ridiculous," she complained. "How can they make a decision on the first three chapters? My book is scarcely started by then."
So I told her what I have told you. That it is vital to begin the story on the very first line of your book at a moment of crisis, to introduce the two main characters quickly and identify their roles clearly.
"Got you, Chay Buchanan!" Sophie Nash's triumphant exclamation was a tightly contained whisper. Do you doubt that Chay Buchanan is the hero, or that Sophie is the heroine? Are you asking yourself how she's got him? Why is she whispering? If you've read PRISONER OF THE HEART, you already know, but the lesson here is to make the reader ask questions that only you can answer.
When I explained all this to the lady at the workshop it was like a light going on in her head. She'd "got it". Have you?
Copyright 1999 LIZ FIELDING
Reproduced with permission of the author. Liz Fielding's books are available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk