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One Size Fits All: Rethinking the way we think about heroines

Go look in the mirror. What do you see? Are you thin, white and within a reasonable proximity to the age of 25? Do you have luxurious long hair, a flat stomach, slender legs, a perfect smile and porcelain skin? If yes, then more power to you. If not… Welcome, to the club!

If life mimicked art – the art of romance fiction that is – no woman over the age of 30, that wears a size 6 or larger, with a complexion any darker then “olive” would find love. She would always be the best friend of the woman who finds love. You know, the gal who looks like a supermodel, but still can’t seem to figure out why any man would want her.


Read: One Size Fits All

This article first appeared in the Feb. 2012 edition of LARA Confidential, the official newsletter of the Los Angeles Romance Authors chapter of RWA (Romance Writers of America).

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Go look in the mirror. What do you see? Are you thin, white and within a reasonable proximity to the age of 25? Do you have luxurious long hair, a flat stomach, slender legs, a perfect smile and porcelain skin? If yes, then more power to you. If not… Welcome, to the club!

If life mimicked art – the art of romance fiction that is – no woman over the age of 30, that wears a size 6 or larger, with a complexion any darker then “olive” would find love. She would always be the best friend of the woman who finds love. You know, the gal who looks like a supermodel, but still can’t seem to figure out why any man would want her.

We all know that most romance fiction is written for women by women. According to RWA’s statistics on readership, 91% of romance book buyers are women. Yet, even though we are the ones responsible for the creation and consumption of this fabulous art form, we continue to churn out heroines that could give Mattel a run for their money.

I know what you are going to say…

“There are plenty of romance novels out there where the heroine is not perfect!” – Yes, that’s true. Since any good story comes with a nice helping of conflict, writers work hard to weave a believable amount of inner turmoil into their heroine… Damaged childhoods, broken relationships and feelings of inadequacy are just some of the things that help female readers feel closer to their heroine counterparts. Which begs the question: If a dose of realism in the heroine’s emotional identity draws the reader in and inspires them to root for the heroine on her journey to a happily ever after, then why wouldn’t a little dose of realism in the heroine’s outward appearance have the same effect?

“Romance novels are about escapism, women don’t want to read about a ‘realistic looking’ heroine” – If ever I thought this was true, Sherrilyn Kenyon changed my mind. The first time I read Night Play, book 6 of her wildly popular Dark-Hunter series, I was hooked. Night Play doesn’t just feature a heroine with “curves,” she’s a size 18! That’s right people, she gives us a number! For the first time, I wasn’t trying to reconcile how a size eight could be “rubenesque,” I was picturing a woman closer to my own size. Someone with whom I could actually relate. So when it came time to delve into the mind of the hero, his desire for her was all the more meaningful to me.  (For an interesting case study, please refer to the end of the article).

 Taking a stand against industry standards…

Romantic love is a universal experience, one that should be ageless and colorless. Yet, most books only depict a small segment of the population falling in love during a very specific window of their life.

For those of us looking to read or write a book where the heroine is age 40+… Good luck! Despite the fact that the mean age for romance book buyers is in their 40s (http://www.rwa.org/cs/readership_stats), heroines of this age can usually only be found in Women’s Fiction or in some Paranormal Romances (where aging doesn’t even matter because you always look like you are in you 20s).  If you’re trying to find a more mature woman in a Contemporary Romance or a Romantic Suspense, chances are she’s been relegated to a secondary character where she serves as comic relief or the evil villain.

Ready for a change…

“As an avid reader of romance, I wanted to read about someone closer to my age.  Usually, the older heroine was a secondary character in the younger love story.  I wanted to read about the middle-aged woman—a woman with more history under her belt—what could entice her to fall in love again?” said Lynne Marshall, a Contemporary Romance author.

In response to her own desire to explore something different, Ms. Marshall wrote, One for the Road, a witty, yet tender story featuring a 46 year old heroine who finds love again with a cool country crooner, following the death of her husband.

Unfortunately, the journey to publication wasn’t without its bumps. “At first I thought I had a shot at the new line from Harlequin – NEXT – which was supposed to feature more mature heroines.  One of the editors carried my manuscript around with her for several months before rejecting it.  Then that line folded.  I found an e-publisher looking for older heroines and submitted it there, got an offer to publish, and six weeks after my book was released, that e-publisher folded.  I put the book in a drawer and, after all the heartache, forgot about it for a while.

A couple years later, something told me to take it out and re-edit and re-submit.  I found an agent for the book, a young woman who said she could still relate to D’Anne, my protagonist.  She also said, being a New Yorker, that she still enjoyed the country music aspect and wanted to buy her husband a cowboy hat after reading it.  Things were looking up.  However, she soon realized no one wanted to publish this older heroine book.  On my own, I finally found another, stable, e-book publisher with a line specifically for over-forty heroines.”

Even though the audience for romances with a baby-boomer heroines might not be growing fast enough for a major player like Harlequin to keep it in their mass-market series portfolio, there is growing online rumble over a genre called “Hen Lit.” Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the name either, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of readers/ writers trying to put a label on this much needed genre of romance. And before you get too negative, most of the books being tagged as “Hen Lit” are wonderful stories of women age 40 to 60 finding love while living out a previously unrealized dream following the end of a marriage or the raising of children.

Sometimes all it takes is some word of mouth and that one breakout book that changes the landscape for everybody, which is exactly what happened in 1992 when Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale hit the shelves. It was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for several months. Shortly thereafter, Kingston Publishing started their Arabesque line, featuring African American lead characters. Arabesque helped introduce the careers of esteemed authors such as, Beverly Jenkins, who has published 30 novels to date. Harlequin acquired Arabesque in Dec. 2005 from BET Books and is now known as Kimani Press.

Despite all this movement towards multicultural romance, stereotypes linger, leaving progress in certain subgenres almost non-existent.

“It’s always been hard for me to let people know that I loved reading and writing science fiction.  In my first blog post on www.aliciamccalla.com, I talked about how difficult it was for me to assert my love for science fiction as a Black woman from Detroit, Michigan. So for me to mix Science Fiction and Romance in my teen novel, well, I did the unacceptable.  When I began to share my stories, it became crystal clear, that critique partners and agents had a difficult time with my brand of multicultural FFP writing.   Contest results came back as a split of high and very low.  Feedback suggested that my characters were ‘unrealistic.’  These types of comments fueled me to continue to write different characters…,” said Alicia McCalla, author of Breaking Free, a Young Adult novel, which features an African American protagonist and a supporting cast of multicultural characters all set in a dystopian society.

A call to arms…

“I’ve been a librarian for over 14 years. I’ve worked in colleges and recently in the school system. When I worked as a high school librarian, I found a shortage of books that I could recommend to my students. My students of color wanted to see themselves in books not only as sidekicks or afterthoughts but as main characters and protagonists.  Unfortunately, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Speculative fiction with Romantic elements have been slow to diversify or be inclusive,” said Ms. McCalla, who faced this inequality head on, by writing stories that place significance on race and issues that resonate with minorities.

“My novels are controversial and deal directly with ‘isms.’ I don’t hide or shy away from race, class, or gender issues.  I’m also super clear about the racial make-up of my characters. I want people to be able to visualize my characters.  I allow the ‘isms’ to play out on the page so that there is reconciliation or healing.  I do this in my blog articles as well. I believe that the FFP community must become more inclusive and needs a place to openly discuss these issues in an open, rational manner.”

The resounding message…

Don’t limit yourself or your writing. It won’t be until we start pushing against the boundaries that the “standards” for what’s acceptable will change. And if you are an established author with a dedicated fan base, then here’s your chance to make a contribution to the future of the industry. I’m not saying to shock your fans right out of buying your next book, but the next time you sit down to create your heroine, ask yourself… Does she really need to be that perfect?



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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Color: The white default of the publishing industry

We’ve all heard the popular saying, “Never assume. You’ll just make an ass out of U and me.”   I, for one, am not afraid to admit that I can be an “ass” sometimes. The truth is we all make assumptions every day. Sometimes little, sometimes big, but almost always incorrect.

Just the other day I was speeding down the freeway when I heard the heavy rumble and pop-pop sound of a Harley Davidson coming up on the passenger side of my car. I was in such deep thought over this very article that I hadn’t noticed I was veering slightly into his lane. Mr. Harley gave me a polite revving of the engine to wake me up and get me back on my side of the road before speeding past me. That’s when I realized “Mr. Harley” was actually a “Ms. Harley” right down to the slender build and long blond locks flowing out from underneath her badass helmet.


Read: Don't Judge a Book by Its Color

This article first appeared in the April. 2012 edition of LARA Confidential, the official newsletter of the Los Angeles Romance Authors chapter of RWA (Romance Writers of America).

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We’ve all heard the popular saying, “Never assume. You’ll just make an ass out of U and me.”   I, for one, am not afraid to admit that I can be an “ass” sometimes. The truth is we all make assumptions every day. Sometimes little, sometimes big, but almost always incorrect.

Just the other day I was speeding down the freeway when I heard the heavy rumble and pop-pop sound of a Harley Davidson coming up on the passenger side of my car. I was in such deep thought over this very article that I hadn’t noticed I was veering slightly into his lane. Mr. Harley gave me a polite revving of the engine to wake me up and get me back on my side of the road before speeding past me. That’s when I realized “Mr. Harley” was actually a “Ms. Harley” right down to the slender build and long blond locks flowing out from underneath her badass helmet.

My initial shock over this revelation spoke volumes regarding my own preconceived notions about motorcycle riders. I was guilty of the very offence I was going to be writing about… Arriving at a conclusion, based on a stereotype. It reminded me that not all “assumptions” are evil in their conception. Sometimes it’s simply lazy thinking. It’s like flopping back onto an old chair after a long day on your feet without looking. If you don’t turn around, you might miss the seat by a couple of inches and hit the floor. The true offense is when you are aware of what you are doing and you continue to do it.

An Unsettling Discovery

I rode into the bustling metropolis of romance fiction about four years ago on the Twilight bandwagon. Prior to that, reading had been a source of drudgery I only associated with school. So when my new obsession grew into several teetering towers around my home, I thought it might be a good idea to expel some of that energy by actually writing romance.

Several months after joining RWA, I discovered the Golden Heart contest and the 2011 winner for the Paranormal Romance category, Trisza LeAnn Ray for The Blood Sworn King. I was hunting on the internet for an interview with Ms. Ray and came across Alicia McCalla’s blog “Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Stories in Color” (www.AliciaMcCalla.com).

Ms. McCalla started out her interview with Ms. Ray by saying, “Trisza, I was so excited to see an African-American win in the Paranormal Romance category. I cried along with you at Nationals.”

I froze after reading that first sentence. I was dumbfounded. Not because I was so naïve as to think all racial barriers had already been broken, but because it suddenly occurred to me that in the 80 plus books I had devoured in the last two years, I couldn’t think of any non-white characters.  Well, maybe one or two, but they had been so minute, they were hard to recall. How could I not have noticed until now? And that’s when a little voice of reason said, “Ah, probably because you’re white and you’re represented in almost every book you pull off the shelf.”

I realize this issue has probably been talked/ blogged about for years, but it was news to my ears. Not because I was brought up in a bubble, but I hadn’t been part of the literary world.  I was born and raised in Southern California (the melting pot of melting pots) with T.V. shows, movies and music where all races seemed present. Seriously, the first Star Trek, with its multi-cultural cast, aired in 1966! Are we really still dealing with segments of the population being so under-represented to such a severe degree in any medium 46 years later?

Fact Finding Frustrations

I’d like to consider myself a master of Google searches. There’s even been times my computer technician of a husband will have trouble getting the results he needs and I’ll be like, “Have you tried blah, blah, blah?” And magically an article pops up he can use.

However, I’ve met my match when it comes to finding hard statistics on the percentage of books that are written, published and sold that contain minorities as their title characters. Likewise, I’ve had a difficult time finding demographics on romance readers, broken down by ethnicity. I even downloaded the full 32 page “RWA Romance Book Consumer Survey” and could not find anything on the race of their survey respondents. They broke them down by age, gender, employment status and income levels all in an attempt to show what a unique smattering of individuals their test group consists of but nothing on their race.

If it’s important that we hear from every age, gender and income level, shouldn’t we make sure we are hearing from every race as well?

Actions Speak Louder than Words

According to RWA’s website, “Romance fiction generated $1.358 billion in sales in 2010.” (http://www.rwa.org/cs/the_romance_genre/romance_literature_statistics).  It repeatedly trumps all other categories of literature in mainstream publishing.

I’m no marketing professional, but if romance fiction is the biggest cow on the farm, wouldn’t you want to milk that cow for all its worth? And wouldn’t you do that by reaching out to all women?

Since statistics are scarce I figured the best way to determine if publishers are indeed marketing to all segments of the female population is to go where the advertisements are placed. I decided to use the latest issue of RWA’s Romance Writers Report (April 2012, Vol. 32, Num. 4) as a test subject. I counted 13 advertisements containing the images of approximately 45 book covers. Of those 45 covers, only two appeared to contain the image of a non-white character, while 10 of them were nondescript (either containing just the outline/ shadow of a character or no person at all).

Since a publisher purchased most of these advertisements, it left me wondering if 1. There were simply no books with minority title characters about to be released 2. If they are not willing to give a prime advertising spot to one of these titles or 3. If they felt as though RWR was not the right medium for them. No matter what the reason, the end result is still disheartening.

Next I decided to visit the online home of some popular publishers and book review websites to see if they would give a “prime spot” to a book with minority title characters by featuring it on their home page (Please note, these counts were taken on 3/31/2012 and they are solely based on my assessments, which are far from perfect). Here’s what I found:

Avon Romance: http://www.avonromance.com/
• 25 Book Covers
• 21 covers featured Caucasian looking characters
• 4 covers were nondescript

Romantic Times Book Reviews: http://www.rtbookreviews.com/  (Count taken from their “Featured Top Picks” section)
• 23 Book Covers
• 16 covers featured Caucasian looking characters
• 6 covers were nondescript
• 1 cover featured a character that appeared to be of non-Caucasian descent

Harlequin: http://www.harlequin.com/
• 17 Book Covers
• 9 covers featured Caucasian looking characters
• 6 covers were nondescript
• 2 covers featured a character that appeared to be of non-Caucasian descent

Kensington: http://www.kensingtonbooks.com/ (Count taken from their “Featured Titles” and “Coming Next Month” section. Please note all books included in this count are romance titles).
• 23 Book Covers
• 12 covers featured Caucasian looking characters
• 9 covers were nondescript
• 2 covers featured a character that appeared to be of non-Caucasian descent

Random House: http://www.romanceatrandom.com/
• 21 Book Covers
• 19 covers featured Caucasian looking characters
• 2 covers were nondescript

In the end, Harlequin did the best by dedicating 11% of the spots designated on its homepage for book cover images to novels with minority title characters. Kensington came in second with 9%.  It should be noted that each of these publishers have African American series imprints (Harlequin’s Kimani Press and Kensington’s Dafina).

Destructive assumptions that lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy

Most women love a good romance, no matter what race they are. It’s been proven time and time again by blockbuster films and top-rated television shows that don’t contain white lead characters. So why the lack of diversity in romance fiction?

The only answer I can come up with after hours upon hours of reading through countless articles, message boards and blogs is… assumptions. Assumptions made by publishers that say, “white books sell more,” which have led to the insidious practice of “whitewashing” book covers and the segregation of books into racially based categories rather than their appropriate genres.  And to those that say, “readers vote with their dollars and white books sell”… That may be true, but when the industry is flooded with books that only have white faces on the cover, you’re not exactly allowing readers to fish from a multicultural pond, are you?

In a perfect world, every woman would be able to browse the romance section of a bookstore and see covers that represent them, their friends, their co-workers and neighbors.

The Final Frontier

We live in exciting times! In a world where we don’t have to take NO for an answer anymore! Things like self-publishing, blogging and social networks allow us to expand our horizons and access content previously kept from mainstream at the click of a button. We can connect with people that think like us -and perhaps more importantly – don’t think like us. It’s not easy, but if you want to make a difference, awareness is key.

Readers – Support your favorite authors that create characters you identify with. It’s wonderful that you have purchased their book and enjoyed it, but get online and see what the author is doing. Most authors have an online footprint and nothing is better than hearing from their readers. Tell them specifically what characters/ plotlines spoke to you and why.

Bloggers – Write about issues that you genuinely support but that may not be in line with your usual content. Shake stuff up a bit. I’ve seen bloggers double their number of comments because one day they decided to the write about something completely out of left field that they felt passionate about. Chances are if it’s bugging you, it’s bugging someone else.

Writers – Pick and choose your battles with the gatekeepers, but stick to your guns on the things that matter. If there is character, you feel strongly about with an aspect of his or her background, personality or culture that’s crucial to the story, don’t change it for anyone. I realize that’s easier said than done, but if you are changing something so essential to a character or the story that it won’t be the same without it, then maybe you’re not working with the right people.

Book Reviewers – In one word, diversify. If every book you review has the same color of people on the front cover, then something is wrong. Every genre, I don’t care what it is, has quality contributors from every culture and if you’re not taking notice, you could be missing out.

Suggested Articles & Sites:

Alicia McCalla’s Interview with 2011 Golden Heart winner, Trisza LeAnn Ray:
http://www.aliciamccalla.com/blog/34-interview-with-trisza-leann-ray-rwas-2011-golden-heart-winner-in-paranormal-romance

For more on whitewashing book covers and some startling examples:

Cover Matters: On Whitewashing

For campaigns and movements against whitewashing:
http://www.racebending.com/
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Readers-Against-WhiteWashing/309034599987

To get a feel for just how long this conversation has been going on, see this LA Times article from 1994:
http://articles.latimes.com/1994-09-29/news/ls-44432_1_love-story/2

For some suggested reading:
http://www.squidoo.com/blackromancenovel
http://www.latinabookclub.com/
Writing the <em>Multi-ethnic</em> Romance Novel: Asian American, by Camy Tang



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Is Your Paranormal Predictable?

Recently, I picked up the latest book in a paranormal series I’m absolutely loving! The universe is so fresh, so original that I can’t put it down. Then I read the first page and it features the hero standing on a rooftop overlooking a city. I busted out laughing. Not because the opening scene was meant to be funny, but because I felt as if I had read this same passage a million times.

Dark/ broody or sarcastic/ cocky hero or heroine stands or crouches on rooftop at night taking inventory of the city/ event below with insight/ knowledge of what’s truly going on, all the while their internal narration boasts of their prowess/ badassery.

I’m a reader who devours anywhere between 50 to 100 paranormal, urban fantasy and sci-fi romance novels a year. I’m easy to please and will suspend my already suspended disbelief, just to reach the satisfying happily ever after. All I need is a hunky/ vulnerable hero, a smart/ sympathetic heroine, an attraction that won’t quit and a supernatural element and voilà, you’ve got me hooked.


Read: Is Your Paranormal Predictable?

This article first appeared in the Feb. 2014 edition of LARA Confidential, the official newsletter of the Los Angeles Romance Authors chapter of RWA (Romance Writers of America).

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Recently, I picked up the latest book in a paranormal series I’m absolutely loving! The universe is so fresh, so original that I can’t put it down.

Then I read the first page and it features the hero standing on a rooftop overlooking a city.

I busted out laughing. Not because the opening scene was meant to be funny, but because I felt as if I had read this same passage a million times.

Dark/ broody or sarcastic/ cocky hero or heroine stands or crouches on rooftop at night taking inventory of the city/ event below with insight/ knowledge of what’s truly going on, all the while their internal narration boasts of their prowess/ badassery.

I’m a reader who devours anywhere between 50 to 100 paranormal, urban fantasy and sci-fi romance novels a year. I’m easy to please and will suspend my already suspended disbelief, just to reach the satisfying happily ever after. All I need is a hunky/ vulnerable hero, a smart/ sympathetic heroine, an attraction that won’t quit and a supernatural element and voilà, you’ve got me hooked.

Obviously, not every book I read each year is the “greatest book I’ve ever read.” I’m constantly dissecting the great ones, trying to identify the secret sauce, while ignoring the rest. Yet, I can’t seem to get the recipe just right. Then it occurred to me, that maybe my problem is the fact that I’m ignoring the rest. Perhaps, in order to discover what was so special about some books, I first had to identify what was “not so special” about others.

Heroes/ Heroines: We all know our favorite hero and heroine archetypes; the bad boy, the charmer, the swashbuckler, the warrior, the lost spirit, the survivor, the free spirit, the crusader, the waif and the list goes on.

Every genre has its favorite, including paranormal, which seems to flock to the archetypes that contain my aforementioned dark / broody or sarcastic/ cocky traits. The average paranormal only seems to stray on the heroine side of things… You’ll get “the waif” or “the librarian” who has her feathers ruffled in the beginning of the story and by the end she’s transformed into confident, outgoing, strong female.

It wasn’t until I acknowledged that most of the paranormals I had been reading were using the same hero/ heroine archetypes over and over again, that I realized some of my most favorite paranormals, were breaking the mold and thinking outside the archetype box. They were sticking “the professor” in “swashbuckler” situations or “the free spirit” in “seductress” situations. Not only were they using archetypes you don’t often find in paranormals, but they were challenging these archetypes within the story, forcing them to adapt.

Accessories: Every archetype has its “accessories;” the internal and external characteristics that are innate to them. This includes attire, behavior, typical dialog, pastimes and habits. When is the last time you read a paranormal when no leather was involved? Or where no one growled or hung out a nightclub/ bar or rode a motorcycle? I’m not saying that using the predictable paranormal archetype is bad, but don’t outfit them entirely with predictable “accessories” too. Some of the most memorable paranormals I’ve read had a “warrior” who kept a rose garden or a “nurturer” that liked to go to the firing range on her free time. Give the characters more layer and substance by having them do something that doesn’t subscribe to their type.

Relationship/ Chemistry:  Paranormals are known for their instant-attraction, which I love! However, it doesn’t always have to be a case of the hero recognizing, pursuing and/ or marking the heroine, does it? I’ve thoroughly enjoyed paranormals where the girl is pursuing the guy or both hero/ heroine are in denial and it takes outside forces to make them admit what’s there.  I’ve also read awesome paranormals where the hero or heroine have fought against the forces of fate and exercised some freewill by choosing another love.

I commend authors who dabble outside the lines of the instant-attraction troupe. Yet, IMHO, there are some authors who go too far in the opposite direct. In a desperate attempt to impregnate the story with conflict, they will usually have the hero absolutely resent the heroine. I’m talking serious laser-eye-hatred in the direction of the heroine. What predictably ensues is scene after scene of the hero being borderline abusive to the heroine, some of which follows them to the bedroom. Not cool! It’s called a romance for a reason, I don’t know about other readers, but I’m not into angry love.

Setting: What’s the last paranormal you read where the vamps didn’t live in a gritty metropolitan city? Did one come to mind? If so, therein lies my point….  The fact that one probably immediately came to mind means, 1. It was memorable and 2. There aren’t many.  Good or bad, it stands out from the rest. Setting can add something to the story if you let it, but when your setting is the same as everyone else’s, it means nothing.

What’s so special about another vampire skulking around a dark alley or another shape shifter who lives within jogging distance of the wildness? Nothing, but trade the two and you might have something interesting. How about a loner vamp in the perpetually sunny desert? Or a werewolf stuck in the technological jungle of Silicon Valley. Maybe the vamp’s one true love is a park ranger in Death Valley? Maybe the werewolf is a computer genius? Pick a setting that challenges your characters and their way of life, not one that lays there like a dead fish.

So will writing the next unpredictable paranormal guarantee you success?

Maybe. Maybe not. But when you tailor various aspects of your book using unpredictable elements, it can make writing easier. It beefs up everything from content to conflict. Suddenly, your story is more layered and enriched without the author having to strive twice as hard to find interest and obstacles. It makes your book stand out in a market that is saturated by the same book reinvented over and over again. As authors, we all know we are chasing a dream and every time we hit one elusive goal, there’s another just around the corner. At the end of the day, true satisfaction, comes from challenging ourselves to be better and in this case, unpredictable.



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In the Beginning…

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and probably the only book where “In the beginning” is a suitable way to start a story.

Most of us have heard the saying “First impressions are everything,” but for a writer this can make or break a career. Even before the days of Amazon and their helpful little arrow that says, “Click to Look Inside,” most devout bookstore nomads don’t simply judge a book by its cover, they pop the hood and check out the engine.

In an era of instant gratification, if you can’t hook a reader by the end of the first sentence, the first page or (in cases where the reader is feeling generous) the first chapter, they won’t be clicking “Add to Cart.” For those of us who are unpublished, your hard work is a one of a thousand contestants on Slush Pile Island. Your only immunity idol: An attention grabbing opener that no agent or editor can afford to ignore.

So with that in mind, I set forth to uncover the elusive mystery ingredients, which promised to help cook up the perfect provocative beginning.


Read: In the Beginning...

This article first appeared in the Jan. 2012 edition of LARA Confidential, the official newsletter of the Los Angeles Romance Authors chapter of RWA (Romance Writers of America).

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and probably the only book where “In the beginning” is a suitable way to start a story.

Most of us have heard the saying “First impressions are everything,” but for a writer this can make or break a career. Even before the days of Amazon and their helpful little arrow that says, “Click to Look Inside,” most devout bookstore nomads don’t simply judge a book by its cover, they pop the hood and check out the engine.

In an era of instant gratification, if you can’t hook a reader by the end of the first sentence, the first page or (in cases where the reader is feeling generous) the first chapter, they won’t be clicking “Add to Cart.” For those of us who are unpublished, your hard work is a one of a thousand contestants on Slush Pile Island. Your only immunity idol: An attention grabbing opener that no agent or editor can afford to ignore.

So with that in mind, I set forth to uncover the elusive mystery ingredients, which promised to help cook up the perfect provocative beginning.

First sentences are like pick-up lines

Either they work or they don’t. Either they bore you with their predictability or, if done just right, they can charm and intrigue you, resulting in successfully hooking the reader. I decided to turn to the experts for some advice. People who I felt as a reader, got it right, or as an aspiring author, know their stuff.

1. Less is more. According to LARA’s own Jennifer Haymore, Samhain editor and author extraordinaire, resist the urge to over explain. “I always try to remember to follow the K.I.S.S. rule (‘Keep it simple, stupid’)… To me, the best beginnings are usually the clearest and simplest.”

 Example: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were   perfectly normal, thank you very much.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Why, you ask? Because not only is this opener simple in tone, but Ms. Rowling cleverly picks a few words that do all the “talking” for her. Don’t believe me? Re-read the sentence to yourself without the “thank you very much.”

2. Rules are meant to be broken. “I think just using fresh writing and imagery without trying to be too clever will win a reader over. There are all kinds of ‘rules’ for that opening line. For example, you are not supposed to start with dialogue. I disagree. I think if it works for the story, then it works, no matter what those mysterious rules that float around the writer universe are,” said Darynda Jones, author of First Grave on the Right and winner of the 2009 Golden Heart for Best Paranormal Romance.

Example: “I’d been having the same dream for the past month – the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to play doctor with me.” Darynda Jones, First Grave on the Right

Why, you ask? Because I dare you to read that first line and slam the book shut. Because if Ms. Jones’ story doesn’t grab you, her fresh writing will. She constantly breaks new ground, not subscribing to the norm by masterfully using humor to give you the unexpected. Don’t agree? What if I re-wrote the opening sentence to say, “I’d been having the same dream for the past month – the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to ravage my body.”

3. Find your voice. Whether it’s humor-filled or shrouded in mystery, setting the right tone for your story from the very first sentence can save the reader from a bad case whiplash later on. According to Erin Nicholas, author of The Bradfords series and most recently, the sizzling stand alone, Hotblooded, “[The beginning] is where you first make that connection with the reader and your story… ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ (Paul Clifford, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton,) is obviously a very different book from one that starts ‘One-night stands were a lot like apple pie as far as Jaden Monroe was concerned’ (No Matter What, Erin Nicholas). The first line or paragraph sets the tone of the book. So, it’s important to know what you want to convey.”

Example: “The denim-covered female butt that greeted Jack Silver as he entered the Honey Creek Family Medical clinic made him sure his day wouldn’t get any better than this.” Erin Nicholas, Hotblooded

Why, you ask? Because in the first sentence alone Ms. Nicholas has already conveyed not only the tone of the book (which is absolutely charming), but the hero’s personality (a guy with an easy-going sense of humor who knows exactly what he likes). Think I’m reading too much into it? Let’s suck the life right out of the sentence, shall we? “Jack Silver couldn’t help but admire the backside of the bent over female that greeted him as he entered the Honey Creek Family Medical clinic.” (zzzzz…)

Okay, so maybe that’s too drastic, let’s say I just remove the words “denim-covered” and shorten “Honey Creek Family Medical clinic” to “Medical clinic,” suddenly the only thing with charm is the hero, and the tone of the book falls flat. Adding the words “demim” and “honey creek” back in warm the sentence up and make me think of a small town.

Finding the perfect place to use that pick-up line

It won’t matter how great your first sentence is if your story opens up at a “blah” moment. No one wants to read about how Jane Doe dressed in her sensible clothes, hopped into her sensible car and drove down her sensible street to the local bank. They want to hear about the one night Jane was too emotional to think straight and drove to an ATM in a poorly lit shopping center and just as she was about to pull money from the machine, she felt the cold metal of a handgun pressed against the nape of her neck and a deep voice ordering her to hand over the cash.

Perhaps Kathy Attalla of the Hudson Valley RWA, a chapter whose annual contest is called the Hook, Line and Sinker Contest articulates it best, “If a writer has to explain that the action really picks up in chapter two then that is where chapter one should begin.”

So what are some guidelines that will lead to a compelling situation?

1. “Start a story with something happening. It doesn’t have to be a climactic, action moment, but something should happen in the first few pages that is ultimately life-changing for the character. Interactions should happen fairly quickly (not always on the first page, but fairly soon). No one is interested in reading pages and pages of a progression of someone’s daily life, introspection, or back story.” ~ Jennifer Haymore

2. “Make sure your opening creates empathy in the reader for your main character. The reader should be rooting for that character in one way or another… The cool thing about creating empathy is there are several ways you can do this, including using humor, sympathy, throwing your main character into a dangerous situation that puts him or her in jeopardy, giving your main character appeal with power or a skill or talent that he or she is the very best at, or simply making your MC likable. One of many ways to do this is to show your MC being liked by others. We like nice people as long as nice does not translate into boring.” ~ Darynda Jones

3. Figure out where the story really starts. “Yes, her brother running over her favorite dog when she was ten might have something to do with who she is now, but is it really, truly an important part of this story? Okay, if so, then include it somewhere. But ask yourself—Do we need to know it right now? And is this a fun, sexy contemp? You probably don’t want to start with a dead dog story. Where is the best moment to show why this story is a story the reader wants to know?” ~ Erin Nicholas

 How to hook the hottie by the end of the night

So you’ve found the perfect place and you’ve got the perfect line, but what about your first page as a whole? You don’t want to be that sad person on the first date who fills the dinner conversation with stories about ex’s, pet cats, things that make you cry and your love of flannel pajamas. You want to be the cool, confident charmer who reveals just enough to intrigue, but not so much you send your date screaming back to eHarmony.

What should you include? What shouldn’t you include?

1. First rule, there are no rules. “The answer is different for different stories… The important thing is to share information, as the story demands it. As we say at Samhain, ‘It’s all about the story.’ The story itself should rule what information you divulge at any given time.” ~ Jennifer Haymore

2. A little goes a long way “Give the reader time to adjust to your story, characters, and writing style before throwing her into the past. I think even conflict is best kept for the next pages, but don’t wait too long. The reader definitely wants that soon, right after she has had time to orient herself to your world. Page one should set the tone, give at least a hint to the time and place, and draw the reader in. I cannot stress fresh writing enough. Seduce your reader with words and she will love you all the more for it.” ~ Darynda Jones

3. Get down to the heart of the matter. “The reader needs to know who this person is, why they should care about this person, and what they want. Maybe they want an orgasm, a ride home, a paycheck, a life… whatever it is—what is it and why?” ~ Erin NicholasI hope with the help of some of the tips and tricks you’ll “get lucky” and hook your reader from the very beginning. Oh, and if you found our panel of experts as intriguing as I do, stop by and show them some love.

  • Jennifer Haymore: www.jenniferhaymore.com
  • Darynda Jones: www.daryndajones.com
  • Erin Nicholas: www.ErinNicholas.com