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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, October 08, 2007

Choosing the Right Entry for the Golden Heart

Not all books, no matter how well written, make good Golden Heart entries.

The stories that tend to do best in the Golden Heart are the ones that have well drawn characters and are fast paced. The stories that keep the reader engaged from the very first page have the best chance of finaling. There needs to be conflict right from the start…a threat…a problem. Readers want to be kept on the edge of their seat whether it’s to find out who the murderer is or because they are dying for the hero and heroine to kiss for the first time.

Keep the reader anticipating a confrontation or a next meeting and your chances of finaling will improve. You want the reader to bite their nails as they wonder what will happen next. For instance, what will the hero do once he learns that the heroine’s ten-year-old daughter is HIS? If not a secret baby, have you forecasted a disaster? Is there a deadline/ticking time bomb?

If your characters start off talking at the kitchen table and the only question the reader is left with is whether their son will go to college or whether the hero and heroine will stay together, that’s not going to be enough conflict to keep the reader engaged. And it won’t be enough excitement to get you the scores you need to final.

Make sure your first chapter raises a question that the reader wants answered and be sure to end your entry with a compelling hook.

Examples:

Return of the Rose (medieval time travel): Will the twin babies survive? How will modern day heroine return to her own time? Will she be forced to marry a man she’s never met—a man from another time?

Knight (another medieval time travel): How will medieval heroine find a modern day hero to return to her time? Will she return in time to save her grandfather?

Norah Wilson, fellow noodler, believes the first chapters MUST reveal the basic story question. In her book, Lauren’s Eyes (2001): Guided by a frustratingly vague vision of murder (she sees the victim but not the murderer), can our psychic heroine figure out who’s gonna do it before it becomes a whodunit? And could the handsome, hard-edged cowboy she’s falling for, who happens to be the would-be-victim’s ex-husband, be the villain?

Now look at the story you plan to enter in the GH and ask yourself what the story question is. If it’s not obvious, then you might have some more work to do.

39 Comments:

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I think this is great advice, period, whether we are sending it in to the GH or not. An editor/agent is going to want to be hooked in that first chapter as well, aren't they? Or that first page--or that first sentence--but hey, no pressure :)

I'll definitely be revisiting my first pages with those questions in mind-- "Is it compelling? Is the problem real enough? Will anyone care about the characters?"

 
At 12:27 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Good point, Gillian. Although sometimes I think it's tougher to please a GH judge than an editor or agent. Ha!

Just kidding... :)

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger Santa said...

No pressure in deed! Not only does it have to catch the eye of the Golden Heart judge, editor or agent but it has to keep them reading and reading and loving your book as much as you do. That is, for me, one of the scariest parts of letting my MS go out into the world of publishing.

 
At 2:56 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Thanks for helpful words, Theresa. Yep, I'm going back and rereading my first 55 (for the 555th time!) to insure give-a-dang characters and heart-stopping hooks.

I'm considering two entries for the Golden Heart and both begin with prologues. I happen to love prologues (if they're skillfully written and enticing, of course!) but after witnessing a recent discussion on a writers' list I realize that they're a huge turnoff for a lot of people.

Maybe I should just change that first chapter heading to "Chapter One" instead of "Prologue." Smooth solution, huh? Any opinions?

Also, in the rules for the GH it says first 55 pages (including synopsis not to exceed, blah, blah...). I have my current entry broken into the prologue and three chapters, each ending in what I hope is a good cliffie/hook. Should blow off chapter headings altogether? IOW, should I treat the entire ms portion of the entry as Chapter One? Or does this matter?

LOL. I don't tend to sweat details in other portions of my life. I guess this is where I make up for it. ;)

 
At 3:11 PM, Blogger WriterCPA said...

"There needs to be conflict right from the start…a threat…a problem."

Ding! Ding! Ding! -- I don't know how many times I have been told to do this, but somehow this phrasing really hit home. A little foreshadowing is not enough. The problem needs to be foresquare from the start, almost like a project statement and "all the rest is commentary."

Get me rewrite!

WriterCPA

 
At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one of the most important writing lessons I've learned recently is the idea of starting as close as possible to the action, significant action, action that means danger or excitement or a big question for the reader. What happens next? Do they hook up/break up/get shot at/leap of the bridge/find the clue? What what what?

Make the problem important, and make the reader care which choice or action the characters take.

Not easy, but definitely fun to do!

Margaret

 
At 4:31 PM, Blogger Rianee said...

It looks like character driven stories really shouldn't be entered in GH. That's a bummer. I wish I'd known this before I plunked down my $50. Mine has no missing babies, no 'action' to that extent. Just tons of emotional conflict.

 
At 4:43 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I don't know anything about what might win GH but I read tons and tons of books each year. And not all are fast-paced, super action from page one. In fact, some of the best are not.

So, although I get this, I'm trying hard to make it happen, and I'm sure it's great advice, it feels oddly contrived.

Don't mind me... I'm struggling with revisions and fighting to make sure I have conflict written in a way to hold someone's interest other than mine.

I should probably be posting anonymously...

 
At 5:08 PM, Blogger CM said...

I don't get the impression that character-driven stories fare poorly in the GH, Margaret. I've made it a point to try and buy & read as many GH-winning & finaling manuscripts that I can find published in my genre.

It's not about having a particular type of bang in your book. It's making sure that the bang is there, loud and obvious, in the first 50 pages.

Even in a character-driven novel, there has to be a powerful reason why the two will not get together. That's what you're trying to showcase. If your book is driven by characters, then your characters need to bang in the first few pages. But there's no reason why characters can't be compelling.

In fact, I think that novels that are all action and no characters may suffer from the opposite problem--if it's all action, the "bang" seems impersonal.

 
At 5:34 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Gee, so many things to comment upon!!! The concept of hooking the editor/agent/contest judge/reader hit home with me and that's why I thought sex if the first chapter might be a good idea. That was the beginning of The Mysterious Miss M. Of course, I didn't realize the difficulties I was creating for myself!

Santa,
Just don't worry about everything! If you like the story, let it go! Share it with the world!

banksofmillbrook (I may have to call you Millie), starting with Chapter one is a good idea. You can indicate passage of time by a date right below the Chapter heading.
But don't make a 55 page long chapter. Keep your normal chapter breaks. (and by the way, I like prologues, too)

writercpa, I know that ding ding ding moment. I had it with the concept "Show don't Tell"

Margaret, I totally agree about "starting where the action is."
I think it is the most common mistakes we make when we start writing.

rianee, don't worry! Not all "action" has to be a physical altercation or a secret baby. An emotional story can hook a reader, too. In fact, my Miss M really started with a "character moment"

Patricia, I think you are absolutely right!

The trouble with trying to figure out how to sell a book is that we start to think there is only one way to write a book and if we could only figure it out, we'll sell. I can't say enough, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS!!!! Think about all this stuff but only do what makes sense to you, what fits with your story, what makes you love your book.

 
At 5:40 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Good points, cm!
Diane

 
At 5:57 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

banksofmillbrook, all of my finaling entries had prologues! So, once again, listen to your instinct...your gut feeling...and go with it! My prologues are only 3 or 4 pages long. One occurs years before the first chapter and the other prologue begins in another time altogether.

 
At 6:08 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

WriterCPA, I agree! A little foreshadowing is not enough. In fact, sometimes when I judge contests, a little foreshadowing can be downright frustrating.

Well said, Margaret!

Rianee, even character driven stories can leave the reader wanting more. If you read over your first chapter, what question is the reader left with?

Go ahead, everyone, tell us what question your story raises in the first chapter...

 
At 6:16 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Rianee, as others have said, I don't think a story need be disadvantaged because it doesn't have a secret baby or bombs exploding/car chase kind of action. I think all that matters is that the STAKES ARE BIG for the characters, and you make the reader feel it. I once read some great advice from Vanessa Grant to the effect that at least one (and preferably both) of your characters should be at or near some kind of crisis when your book starts out. It tends to make the ensuing, fairly rapid change their character arc is going to impose on them more believable. But it also helps hook your reader. For instance, I'm going to care more about a character who is feeling like she can't keep all the balls in the air any longer than I'm going to about someone who really is in control.

 
At 6:25 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Patricia W. you make some great points. One of my favorites books is My Darling Caroline by Adele Ashworth. It's completely character driven. No action at all. But it feels fast-paced to me. I couldn't stop turning the pages because the characters were so well drawn and sympathetic. And their emotional turmoil was that "action" that I'm talking about.

But the main point I was trying to make in this post, is that whether it's a character driven plot or not, the author should leave the reader with a question. In my opinion, if there is no story question, there really isn't any reason for the reader to care.

In Susan E. Phillips, Nobody's Baby but Mine, the reader is dying to know what is going to happen. what will the hero do when he finds out he's been set up and the heroine just wants to use him so she can have his baby?

So, by action and fast paced, I don't necessarily mean you need to have your characters being shot, etc. Am I making any sense at all? LOL

 
At 6:57 PM, Blogger Rianee said...

I think the question and hope most readers will be left with after the finish my first chapter, is why on earth does my heroine despise the hero so much. And then they'll want to know how such animosity between the two will ever be resolved.

I love nothing better in a novel than when either the hero or heroine has to plummet down to earth and reveal their true emotions.

 
At 7:52 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

BanksofMillbrook: I never put chapter headings in my GH entries -- just blank lines for scene breaks.

This not-liking-prologues is a trend thing. Changing the heading to Chapter One should solve the problem of such knee-jerk reactions. Go with it.

Rianee: Emotional action is still action. If your characters have clearly defined goals (What do they want?), motivation (Why do they want it?) and conflict (Why can't they have it?), you're still good to go.
(reading your later post) A word of caution: Not knowing what comes next excites readers. Not understanding what's happening in the present may frustrate them. You might be doing it in a way that is perfectly fine. My own experience is that when I tried to keep readers in the dark, they complained bitterly.

Patricia: I also like more relaxed-paced books. To play devil's advocate to this post, I always figured the GH was a good venue for slower-building books, because the judges HAVE to read the first 55 pages.

 
At 8:53 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

Banks, I have my chapter headings in my entries. Sometimes, I can even get part of chapter three in there. I still try to end on a hook, though.

Rianee, I think character driven stories will do well - look at the recently released books Virgin River and Sheltered Rock - both are very character driven and start with the main characters making a choice. That's key - how is this choice going to affect them?

 
At 8:58 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

You know, you make a good point, Esri. I think Georgette Heyer's books often start out a little slow, and she was a master story-teller!

 
At 8:58 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Theresa, I love your example of SEP's Nobody's Baby. (I've been re-reading all SEP's stuff lately because I think she has such great hooks/beginnings.) In Nobody's Baby, we don't even meet the characters in the first chapter -- instead, we see the sleazy machinations that eventually lead to the main characters' hook-up. No guns, drooling villains, or gore (which I happen to have in my ms, lol), just an interesting and frankly hilarious conversation in a bar. So original, and had me totally turning the pages.

And, rianee, I'm of the opinion that emotional conflict is THE integral part of a romance. I love plummeting heroes/heroines. ;-)

Thanks, everyone, for the input on prologues, chapters, etc. I appreciate it!

 
At 10:27 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Okay, now that I am completely confused. No, wait, that is my normal state. Never mind!! My story does not have any of those big bangs at the beginning. Well, the heroine does ask if the hero is going to murder her, but only because she asks him one of the most fatal questions a woman can ask a man. "Are we lost?" Then their carriage does fall into a sinkhole into an underground cave in Yorkshire. Does that count? I am ... perplexed, yes, that's the word!

 
At 11:26 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Doglady, it does sound like you have a story question. How will the hero and heroine escape from the cave? Have they just met? Is one of them late for their wedding? LOL Is their any reason the two of them can't be together or shouldn't be?

IMO, a slow paced, emotionally heavy story will do well in the GH if there is enough conflict to keep the reader turning the pages.

Many entries that don't ever final in the GH or any other RWA contest go on to get published. That's a relief in itself.

 
At 11:50 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Thank you, Theresa! I feel much better now!!

 
At 6:56 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

doglady, that sounds like a great beginning. I'm already wondering what will happen next!

 
At 7:22 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I agree the story question is very important. When I start my short stories for BelleBooks, southern fiction, I start with a question. For example, with "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow" (More Sweet Tea 2005) the question was what would an old lady from a small Georgia town do if she lost her hairdresser and needed to get her hair done for the viewing? For "The Good Son" (On Grandma's Porch) the question was what would a young man do when his high-strung mother wants to move his father from his current cemetery to one in the small town he grew up in and hated so much he made this son promise to never bury him there? Of course, these are smaller questions that can be resolved in 25 pages. I also use a story question to get myself started with the novels. Not only is it a good check to make sure you have your GMC; that question, once tweaked and polished, can make a killer opening for a query letter!

 
At 8:53 AM, Blogger Sara Lindsey said...

Why is there such prejudice against prologues? I love prologues! That being said, I'm still going to go change my prologue to chapter one right now...
I think emotional hooks are just as powerful as action/suspense ones. My ending hook is emotional:
"She leaned into him, looked up at his beloved face and did the one thing she had sworn she would never do.
She begged.
“Please. Please, J----. Love me. Let me love you.”
I would want to read on. I guess I'll just have to hope that the judges would want to as well!

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger bria said...

This is great - The GH has made me start playing a little game with myself:
What if it was 50 pages, what would I change.
What if it was 60 pages, what would I change - and I've just kept pushing the cutoff out further.

BUT, here's my question someone alluded to: Ending on a hook, could you give some advice on picking your break point?

Thanks!

 
At 9:44 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Bria,
One great place to learn about where the right breaking point for your scenes and chapters is a favorite soap opera. Watch one or two and notice how those writers end the scene. There's always a question left in the viewer's mind. Sometimes it's a verbal gauntlet, before the protagonist can respond, they cut to commercial, but they know you'll come back. You want to do the same thing with your writing. Make them gasp, make them wonder what's going to happen next. Hope this helps!

 
At 9:57 AM, Blogger Amanda Brice said...

This advice applies for anything. You might have the greatest book ever, but if you can't hook the reader (editor, agent, GH judge, reader) in the first few pages, they're not going to keep reading.

I think sometimes that the first three chapters that you write are just for you. It's your way to warm up and get to know the characters and your voice. Then you should throw them away. They usually don't do anything for the story. It's like when a pitcher winds up.

Get right to the story.

 
At 10:45 AM, Blogger doglady said...

Thanks, Diane! I really do feel better about my story now. The funny thing is that it started as a writing exercise. A friend was taking a class and sent me an exercise to help me overcome a block about another WIP. I had to use the words - cave, soldier, and journal. LOST IN LOVE was the result. Oh and I am so glad someone asked about breaking points. It is so hard to know where to end a chapter. Great clue on the soap opera thing!

 
At 11:27 AM, Blogger M Kipp said...

So true.

Currently, I'm reading a book that began with five chapters of garden strolls and pleasant horseback rides through the country. I thought, "Is this story ever going to start?" The story would have been more captivating if the extensive travelogue was played down in favor of human drama.

Now, to analyze my GH entry to see if it's sedative or stimulant.

 
At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Margaret B. said...

The problem, for me, is defining "conflict." My book is a comedy, although some harrowing things happen. My hero is a fairly sunny type and sometimes I think judges prefer more angsty, guilt-ridden characters. Oh well, maybe I draw somebody who actually likes laughing!

 
At 11:57 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Bria said: BUT, here's my question someone alluded to: Ending on a hook, could you give some advice on picking your break point?

Maureen, I think the soap opera idea is great. They know just where to end a scene!

Later in the month one of the noodlers will be posting on Ending with a Hook or something like that, but I wanted to give two examples of scene endings from my own work. Feel free to share some of your own...

"With each word Jack seemed to be losing ground. If she didn’t get him help soon, he was going to die."

And another...

"Dominic didn’t bother denying or confirming the accusation, he just looked at her with those arctic blue eyes of his and said, “Could you go put on a wedding dress? I’d like to get this over with.”

 
At 12:05 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Margaret, for me "conflict" in a romance is the external or internal reasons why the hero or heroine can't be together. If there is no reason they shouldn't or couldn't run off and get married on the first page, then there is no conflict, IMO.

So, external conflict could be that one of them is already married or he's a fireman and she's an arsonist, etc., etc.

Internal might be that the hero or heroine has been burned one to many times by the opposite sex in the past, or his/her mother abandoned him/her when he/she was small, or he's seen too many divorces and he doesn't believe in love, or he thinks women only want him for his money...the list goes on. But without this "thing" this "internal reasoning" or "external problems" there is no conflict.

Anybody else want to help explain "conflict." I realize I don't always make sense...LOL

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Margaret B: Regarding comedy... If you're submitting to the GH, then you must have a romance, and regardless of how many giggles you provide, there should be something keeping your main characters from their happily-ever-after (until the end).

For examples of books that substitute laughs for angst but still work well, I suggest reading MaryJanice Davidson's trilogy about the Alaskan royal family: The Royal Treatment, The Royal Pain, and The Royal Mess. The conflict in these is about as lightweight as you can get and still work.

 
At 12:45 PM, Blogger Rianne said...

Amanda,

I was a GH judge last year and the instructions say no matter what you have to read the entire entry, even if you don't want to. I followed those rules to the letter even though there were several I knew were going to be a challenge. Am I wrong that you can't just stop reading if it doesn't hook you at the beginning?

 
At 12:54 PM, Blogger CM said...

Here's how I see conflict. Maybe other people will disagree.

Real, powerful conflict between characters is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of situation. You want to present your readers with a situation where there is no way to win, no way to break even, and no way to stop playing the game.

I've just been rereading "And Then he Kissed Her" by Laura Lee Guhrke--it's entirely character driven, absolutely brilliant, and extraordinarily compelling. Within the first fifty or so pages, we find out that Harry thinks of Emma as an emotionless, boring secretary. She's slaved for him for years, and has nothing to show for it. He's hopeless without her help as a secretary, but if she stays with him, she'll never be anything other than that staid, boring woman.

At the end of those first few chapters, the precipitating incident--the one that causes her to make rapid, powerful changes in her life--is that she walks into a store and watches a young, pretty girl buy a peacock feather fan she had dreamed of buying.

None of this sounds like action. But when Emma thinks that it's too late for her at thirty--that she'll never really live, and that life, like that fan, only belongs to the young--and bursts into tears, it's probably the most powerful emotional hook I've read. And it's such a powerful moment because we think there's no way for Emma to win. She can't publish her manuscript. She can't even quit her job. And every moment of her life as Harry's secretary is destroying her.

The moment I read that page, I knew I was going to be up all night.

 
At 1:12 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Rianne, you're absolutely right. It would not be fair for a GH or any judge for that matter to not read the entire entry, whether the story hooked them in the beginning or not. I have been a judge for a very long time and I always read the entire entry, including every word of the synopsis. AND, there have been entries that I ended up liking; entries that I would not have read past the first ten pages if I had not been forced to.

 
At 1:15 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Wow, CM! You just gave me chills. I am buying that book! Great description of that pivotal scene! Great description of "conflict." Thanks!

 

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