Writing Competition Tips: Great Beginnings, Great Expectations…

Here's Harlequin Presents editor Joanne Grant with some tips for all those aspiring writers getting their entries ready! This one is all about writing strong opening scenes. More posts coming soon! ~Amy

Starting something is sometimes half the battle — wouldn't you agree? I don't mean the battle to stop procrastinating and just to get on with it, but the knowing where to start part of the battle. For example, I can never decide how to start these blogs. A general 'hello, how are you all?' is polite, but not that interesting, so I tend to spend ages typing, deleting, typing… But at the end of the day, I'm not an author, and this is only a blog, so the opening line is not as important as, say, the beginning to a 50,000 word contemporary novel.

Grabbing the reader immediately is essential in a Harlequin Presents. How you go about it is up to you, your story and your characters, but here are a few tips:

  • Begin with a bang not with a slow build-up; you want your reader to be engaged straightaway. Appeal to them intellectually (in terms of the plot) and emotionally, because romance is all about feelings.
  • Set the mood and tone of your story — the author's unique voice needs to come through
?How to get your ex back How to win back your ex.
  • Various ways of grabbing your reader may include: using dialogue, a controversial statement, creating intrigue etc. By doing this you should always be making your reader question what is going on and compel them to find out the answers.

Once you have the reader's attention, keep hold of it with a gripping first scene:

  • Chose an exciting moment to start your story — this should be a point of change for one of more of the characters
  • Get your reader personally involved in the outcome of the situation presented
  • Even when the hero and/or heroine aren't on the scene, they should somehow be the focus of what is going on

It is essential that you engage the reader with your characters:

  • You need to create unique personalities in your heroes and heroines who are intriguing and empathetic
  • Engage the reader with the characters' conflict, so they are dying to know how it will be resolved and come together at the end
  • Make sure there is an immediate spark and attraction between your hero and heroine, even though they may be at odds; any antagonism must sits within the realms of realism

I hope these tips help and inspire you to write a fabulous opening to your first chapter. I'll back soon with another blog to offer some advice on how to stop the plot ruining your first chapter, if only I can work out how to start it… 😉

Related Posts
Comments ( 10 )
  1. Kerrin
    August 19, 2009 at 4:35 am

    Wow, thanks for the great advice and guidance! It is good to know i am on the right track. Now i just have to figure out what to leave out and put to in the first chapter. And i now need to figure out how much to write and when to stop…oh this could go on for forever but at least i know the start is how it should be!

  2. Joanne
    August 19, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Thanks Joanne – that’s really helpful 🙂

  3. Susanna
    August 19, 2009 at 10:43 am


    Just kidding…but it did get your attention, didn’t it?

    You are so right Joanne about the difficulties of grabbing a reader’s attention at the beginning. It is the most agonizing part for me. Once I get started, it becomes easier, but these tips you’ve provided are wonderful.

    Thank you so much,

    Karen in California

  4. Melanie Milburne
    August 19, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Good luck to all you aspiring writers with this one. I think contests are a great way to hone your talent. The feedback is so useful. I didn’t enter many in my day other than the ones run by RWA in Australia but I found the judges comments really boosted my confidence.
    Grabbing the reader’s attention is one of the things I look for in mainstream books as well as romance. Some authors lure you in and others have you gripped by the throat in the opening sentence.
    You don’t have time in a category novel to waste time and space with backstory. I often have it in while I am writing as a sort of map but then I cull it later on my subsequent edits.
    Happy writing everyone!

  5. Suzanne
    August 19, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    I have studied and studied. I’ve gone over the tips many times. Also I’ve finished my first chapter and synopsis. (well actually three chapters) I’ll let it sit for a few days.

    The tips provided are most helpful. I’m eager to get here each day to find out if there are more posts.

    I think feedback would be great. Something I’m looking forward to. 🙂


  6. Caroline Storer
    August 20, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Hook and reel your reader in like a ten pound trout! That’s what I’ve read in a million “How To Books”, (the trout bit is mine!), for a compelling opening. But boy oh boy is that harder than it looks! I’ve drafted my first chapter for the HM&B comp. but now will have to do massive editing not to mention writing the synopsis. Take care. Caroline x

  7. Suzanne
    August 22, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Hi Amy,

    I forgot to say thank you, sorry. It’s all the excitement. 🙂
    I’m looking forward to your next segment.

    Thank you once again,


  8. Trenda
    August 23, 2009 at 2:09 pm


    I submitted a requested full manuscript to Richmond in January of this year. It is targeted to Modern/Presents. Would it be permissible for me to enter this new competition, or should I wait and see what the outcome is for my other manuscript?

    Thank you for your time.


  9. Joanne Grant
    August 27, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Hi Trenda,

    As you have already caught the eye of an editor (why else would she have requested your full?!), and this submission is already under consideration, we would look for a new submission for the competition. I do however suggest that you get in touch with the editor via eEditors@hmb.co.uk (or you may have her direct email address) asking for a status update and explain that you are interested in entering the competition.

    With best wishes


  10. Trenda
    August 27, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Thank you, Joanne!

    I have begun a new manuscript, which I had thought to enter into this competition if it were permissible to do so…I recall having read once on eHarlequin.com that the Richmond office prefers to have one manuscript submission at a time per person. I didn’t want to break any rules by entering a new story in this competition whilst my other manuscript was on an editor’s desk.

    I don’t have the editor’s direct e-mail address, but I will certainly use the email address you were so gracious to provide and ask her (Mimi Berchie) whether or not she would approve of my entering the new competition.

    Thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedule to answer my question. I appreciate it so much!

    Have a gorgeous day.

    Trenda Plunkett