Guest Blogger: Nikki Poppen

Hi All,

The conference is just a little over a month away and I can hardly wait to meet and work with so many of you! Fall is a fun time for me as a writer because it’s my ‘writer’s new year’ and everything is fresh. You probably have a ‘new year’ too depending on your own writing cycles. My new year is marked by two things: the start of any new contracts I’ve acquired over the year, the start of the ‘fall book’ (I write one book every nine weeks, so essentially every academic quarter). Fall traditionally has not be a time for me that is filled with revisions and finishing work from my editor, so it feels like my plate is cleared and I am ready to begin again! As proof of that, I just finished the revisions from my editor on a manuscript I completed in July, I just began writing the opening three chapters of the fall book and I just got the new contract for this year’s Undone Shorts at Harlequin to go with the three books slated to be written this year. It’s been a great week, and my mind has been on beginnings, so I thought I’d focus this blog on some strategies for great openers. For the sake of copyright issues, I’ve limited the examples to my own works.

Great opening lines and chapters are essentially held to the same criteria as an introduction in a public address or a good opening paragraph like the sorts we might have written in college English composition. Here’s what a good opening is supposed to do:

Grab the reader ‘s (audience’s) attention
Create a reason for that reader to want to keep on reading
Get the reader organized around the central plot (the reader needs to know early what is the focus of the story and I am a firm believer that happens in chapter 1).
Create a ‘road map’ of where the story is going (this can be a work in progress that spans the first two chapters).

The blog will talk about the first step, and if you’re interested in how to do the other 3 steaps, come to the ‘writing the romance’ session I’m hosting at the conference!

Grabbing attention, or how to construct exciting opening lines:
Here’s some techniques to help get that first line just right:

1. Start with a startling claim: An example might be the opening line from “The Viscount Claims His Bride,”
“Valerian Inglemoore, the Viscount St Just, had a secret, a dreadful secret that caused him to tremble in guilt and self-loathing as he stood alone on Lady Rutherford’s verandah.”

As you can see, the startling claim doesn’t have to be shocking or vulgar or even all that sensational. But this startling claim does do double duty. Think of all the things you now know about the hero in roughly 30 words.
a) The hero is a titled gentleman (so that creates some plot, behavior and lifestyle expectations on the reader’s part).
b) The hero has a secret AND we know how he feels about that secret. He is ashamed. This also builds in some anticipation. The reader knows at this point that he’s got to do something distasteful in regards to that secret, or that the secret is going to affect his life.
c) We know where the hero is.

2. Start with deductive reasoning: a large claim that is narrowed down specifically to the character in question: Check out Jane Austen’s opening to “Pride and Prejudice” and how the large claim is narrowed down to Mr. Darcy specifically (I’m not sure about copyright so I am not going to risk re-typing the lines here). I used this strategy in the book I just finished for Harlequin and I can put that opening lines here.

“Ballrooms were made for business. All the standard trappings of festivity aside, ballrooms were a gentleman’s office. They were the places a gentleman conducted the most important business transactions of his life; ensuring a place in society and arranging his marriage. Jack had already done the latter and had no intentions of doing the former.”

This provides us in just a few lines with a sense of:
1. Place and setting
2. An interesting ‘philosophical thought’
3. A brief look into the hero’s psyche. We can guess at this point a few things
about Jack.

3. Go ahead and opening with something shocking. I did this in “The Earl’s Forbidden Ward,” Here’s the opener:

“Peyton Ramsden, fourth earl of Dursley, was doing what he did best—technically superior, emotionally removed sex with his mistress of two years. Certain of her fulfillment, he gave a final thrust and withdrew to make a gentleman’s finish in the sheets.”

4. Start with the action! In many ways I’ve said the best for last. Here’s two examples. The first one is from “Notorious Rake, Innocent Lady”

“She would not be sold like a prized mare at Tattersalls! Julia Prentiss’s elegantly coiffed head swiveled in disbelief between Uncle Barnaby and Mortimer Oswalt,the lecherous old cit who had come to offer for her.”

Think of everything we now know about Julia:
1. She’s mad
2. She is probably living with relatives and at their mercy since there isn’t a father arranging this marriage for her
3. She’s a young woman of rank, as reflected in her knowledge and association with Tattersalls and her opinion of the merchant-class man who has come to offer for her.

And most importantly, there’s the action. We open up right away with a bargaining scene. We don’t start with Julia being called downstairs or with any back story about how she’s something of an orphan or that her family has fallen on hard times etc. We just start with the action and all those things get neatly inferred into the scene.

The second example is from “Pickpocket Countess.”
“Even in the darkness, he could sense the subtle alteration of the room. The room had been disturbed. Brandon Wycroft, the fifth earl of Stockport, muttered curses under his breath. The Cat had been here.”

Brandon’s home has been burglarized. Again we start with the action. If you read two paragraphs down in the book the reader immediately discovers the Cat is still in the room and there’s a glorious, passionate scramble for escape.

One great tip I picked up from Claire Delacroix a couple years ago is: Don’t be afraid to throw out your first 2-3 chapters. The action probably starts with chapter 3 and that’s where your final draft of the story should start too. This tip has never failed me! All the back story, all the exciting things we as writers know about our characters can be worked in throughout the story instead of laying tons of ground work too early.

Enjoy! Come by the romance writing seminar and introduce yourselves!
Nikki Poppen, writing as Bronwyn Scott

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