Dear Editor, I don’t know where to start my romance novel!

Every now and then, we like to revisit some of our classic blog posts, which are still helpful (we hope). From our Advice from the Archives


Dear Editor,

I don’t know where to start my romance novel! Help!


Dear Leah,

Never fear! You’re not alone in this quandary. Sometimes, a writer will pen several chapters before realizing that the story really begins on p. 23. This is what crafting and rewriting is all about! The more you write, the more your instincts will kick in as far as where to begin your story.

Some warning signs that you’re not starting in the right place:

If your characters are doing a lot of driving, preparation beforehand. Are they thinking and driving to get to that exciting place where they need to go? Is your heroine trying on a lot of dresses and agonizing over which one to wear to the big night out? This can take up ten pages at least, ten pages the reader doesn’t care about. You want to begin at that exciting destination, not en route.

You are drowning your reader in backstory. Of course, you need to inform your reader, but it doesn’t have to be at the beginning. You can weave in that backstory gradually. You want to capture the intensity from the very first page.

Clichés can kill plausibility! Are the hero and heroine literally bumping into each other and does the heroine drop everything in her hands as a result? This is a cliché, one of those acts that occurs in so many stories. Be creative about how the hero and heroine meet and make it realistic (as much as possible).

So if you nix the dress scene and the heroine’s life story and the predictable “meet cute”, what’s left? How can you avoid the lackluster opening? First, consider that editors read so many beginnings of stories. Some of us only read that first page, while others go a little further. Ideally, you want the editor to read that entire book. But let’s take baby steps and focus on the beginning and how to fine tune it to grasp your reader’s attention.

What gripping interaction or conundrum can you present on that first page? Again, avoid clichés unless your voice/situation puts a different spin on them. What is inviting the character into the journey? Did the heroine just make an offer the hero can’t refuse or visa versa? Did the elevator stop working mid-floor, leaving two people stuck with each other for twelve hours?

Watch the language. Some writers can pull off the ultra-descriptive opening with the low-hanging clouds, sliver of moon piercing through on a dull, dreary Sunday. But sometimes, the flourishes fail miserably and we editors skip over them. See if you can communicate a provocative situation/POV in the simplest language, then embellish from there.

Get to the heart of your character on that first page. Whether it’s the hero or the heroine, let us know who he/she is. Editors love to fall in love with characters, so let us do that from page one. How is your hero or heroine lovable? You can do this through point of view, but really dig deep.

Give us the hooks! Along with character and premise, it’s important to show us the hooks of the story early on. Is the setting unique or one that readers love? For instance, is the story set in a cozy small town or glitzy urban environment? Is the heroine a single mom? How did two strangers wake up married?

Once you digest these points above, you can start in a place that makes the reader never want to put down the story. Even better, you might have more fun writing.

We hope you find these tips helpful, and best of luck with your winning beginning.

Happy writing!

Patience & the SYTYCW Team

19 replies on “Dear Editor, I don’t know where to start my romance novel!”

The station was emptying of the evening rush. Gone were the bowler-hatted bankers and the lines of soldiers on their way to the front. A solitary guard swept the platform and a newspaper boy pushed his empty barrow towards the exit.
The girl was waiting by the telegram office. Riley had been right, she was beautiful. Red curls stole from underneath a neat navy hat and the light cotton collar of her dress was matched by the white of the row of small buttons that ran from its scooped neck to the hem. Long elegant fingers clasped a small clutch bag. Her foot tapped a light and impatient rhythm on the grey concrete as she waited.
Mark hesitated for a few seconds before walking across to her. Sometimes this seemed a heavy price to pay for friendship. By nature Mark was honest; he hated secrets. And yet here he was making up stories to cover for Riley.
“It’s Miss Riverton isn’t it?” he asked her.
“Ginny,” she wrinkled her nose into a small puzzled smile.
“Mark Duggan,“ he said. “I’m a friend of Riley Savage. He asked me to bring you a message.”
“I see,” she said. She smiled and nodded as if it was a joke. Mark noticed her blue-green eyes. “You’ve come to tell me that he’s not coming,” she said.
Mark ran his hand through his thick dark hair, embarrassed for his friend. “Not exactly,” he said. “He’s hoping to get away from his studies before long. It’s more of a delay than a cancellation.”
It was hardly fair to call the late lunch with an old flame ‘studying’. How dare Riley use him as a go-between for his sordid little affairs? It wasn’t the first time he had been ‘delayed’ in the snooker hall or at the horse race. It didn’t take much to disturb Riley’s diary. Anything could, and would make him late. And that was where Mark came in handy.
“Be a pal old thing,” Riley would say. “Take a message for me. Say it’s urgent, something’s come up. I’ll only be an hour late. Keep the girl warm for me. You know the drill.” And he’d smile in that way he did and before Mark knew it, he was halfway across town repeating excuses he would never use himself.
And still women loved Riley. They seemed to fall over one another just to be near him. With his blonde hair and light blue eyes he had only to smile at them and they were besotted. He never saw a girl for long. He was careful to make sure that all his love affairs were just that. “Don’t want any little Rileys running around do we?” he would say to Mark.
Mark wondered sometimes how he could have a friend like Riley.
“Don’t know why I do it,” he’d say.
But they both knew. All those years at school, Mark had no-one. He’d been alone. Until that one day when Riley walked in. Tall, blonde and with a confident swagger he had that air of having lived. The other boys, immediately envied his composure. He had crossed the room, he had held out a hand to Mark and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “Fairfax? I believe we’re cousins.”

It was a moment that had changed Mark’s life. And whenever he felt that Riley was taking him for granted he reminded himself of that lonely, friendless boy who’d suddenly found that he had a cousin.

Linnea Sinclair (Science Fiction Author Genius) once said to start the story at the point in which the Heroine starts a fire she can’t put out.
For a while, this had me always starting at the Catalyst. Then, I would have to reverse-engineer until I really found that point. Now, I’ve figured out what I tend to do. So, I go to the Catalyst and then I reverse-engineer automatically. Lo and behold, there it is, the starting point.

I first met Linnea waaay back when we were both getting our first books published. She continued on her winning streak and I had family issues, so didn’t. She’s fun and a blast to hang out with. Witty and smart and yes, she does build unique worlds very well. 🙂

Hi My mon and I used to read Harlequin books all the time unril the language got too dirty. Romance does not mean that you have to be nasrty; instead why can’t they be more private about the filthytalk that they use. I am no Author, but I love to write.

Hi Victoria – love your name – it is my new heroine’s name too. Lol. But if the language is too harsh you are reading the wrong lines. Try Heartwarming or any of the Love Inspired lines. Harlequin is still there for you, you just need to find the right line. 🙂

that is why i love the Love Inspired line. it’s no dirty language and no sex. the love inspired suspense is non stop danger and excitement

I’m writing a romance trilogy in third person omniscient. I’m being told publishers only want third person limited. Do you publish third person omniscient?

Rebeca raised the fork to her lips and looked at Ethan. “Been gone a long-time stranger. Come in.”
“I have. I’ve rodeoed the last twenty years, broken bones and pocket change is all I’ve earned. Not much for a man of maturity.”
“Ethan, maturity? How old are you?”
“Let’s just say I’m in the Bible.”
“That’s funny. Looks like you’ve seen plenty of dirt and sky. You hungry”
“I could eat. What that’s that smell? Baking a pie”
“In triple degree weather, Ethan? Take your shoes off and climb the ladder with me,” snatching Ethan’s hand.
“I don’t know if I can, Becky. I’ve busted ribs. The rungs are creaking be careful. What’s up there?”
“Get a bucket. The Spanish Moss is so thick on my roof I’ve planted Appalachian Strawberries up here.
We’ll make ice-cream for dinner. You should always eat desert first, for the just in case.”
“I tried that when I didn’t want to eat my peas.” His smile was a welcome sight.
“Yum,” taking a bite, “there in season.” Juice spilling from my mouth. “Try one?” Putting a strawberry between my lips.
“I didn’t give you permission to grow up. I have been gone to long.” Thumbs inside the straps of my overhauls, inching me closer; I waited in anticipation. “Nope, sorry. I want what every man wants this time of the evening.”
“A nap, Ethan?”
“Fuck you. I’m not that old!” I was running; he was faster. “Your blond now, won’t be in a minute.” A handful of strawberries intertwined with my hair. Our breathing slowed, “I’m hungry for something more satisfying.”
“I have your dinner.” Putting the strawberry, I’ve holding between my lips.

My old comment is still in this thread and it’s proven correct over time.
So, at this point, my best advice is to figure out your own writing weaknesses and learn to work with them. Other people will have useful advice, but you need to know yourself before you can make it work for you.

I agree one hundred percent, Kimber Li! I think I have finally found where my voice belongs within the Harlequin community and am shooting for it with everything I have. But until you know what you can and want to do, it is difficult to create what the editors want. Good to see you are still around. Hope your writing is going great! 🙂

I usually start writing a scene or idea, without an intent of turning it into a story. This can back fire a little when it comes time to edit and I have created three “beginnings” to the story. But it’s fun.

Thank you Patience. I feel like I am doing that. I believe my opening is strong and engaging. I love my heroine and I hope the editors will as well. 3/4 ways through the book. I’m almost done!

“How did two strangers wake up married?”
Waking up next to someone you never met before and finding out you just married that person sounds like a great story idea.

Finishing my book and then editing as per the coaching along with the items above. Thanks for the tips! This is why Harlequin is so awesome for new authors!

Thank you for these posts. I have 2 starting points and have, mostly by my literary fiction writing friends, found criticism with both: one only hinted at boy meets girl, in the other the heroine is aboard a landing craft on D Day +6. Both are based on actual history of the first American Evacuation size hospital to land on Normandy in 1944. So the overall backstory is love and medicine during war. These ideas lead me to think the landing craft opening is better! Thanks!

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