How Not to Start Your Romance Novel: A Case Study

Last week, I was chugging merrily along through my backlogged romance ebooks–which stretch all the way back to stuff I got in 2017 and still haven’t gotten to–when I found a novel with one of the most confusing and frustrating first chapters I’ve ever read.

I read the second chapter. I was still confused. I read the first chapter again, twice. I read the second and third chapters and managed to push forward to about 18% before giving up.

By my own standards, I could count that book as “read”–in the sense that I attempted to read it and did not finish, but I read enough to articulate why I wasn’t going to finish. You all know me by now, I’m firmly in favor of DNF reviews when they’re warranted.

But I didn’t review this. I simply deleted it from my Goodreads like I never owned it. I’m not counting it for my Mount TBR. I didn’t feel like I could review it, it was so bad and I was so confused.

Why am I talking about it at all, then? I considered doing a live-blog reading of it on Tumblr, those always look like such fun when my mutuals do them. But those are generally best-received when the book is either a new release, an already popular book, or a well-known love-to-hate-it book. This random romance novel? None of the above.

I considered breaking down its flaws for illustrative and humorous purposes here, chapter by chapter, a la Jenny Trout and her infamous series on the Fifty Shades books. But that felt like too big a commitment, and while I have no idea how monetarily successful this random novel’s author is compared to me, we are both indies–if I went after this novel, I wouldn’t be punching up. Sideways, at best. I didn’t feel right about that.

What I can do is share all the things I think it did wrong in that first 18% and why I found them so offensive, from a writerly perspective.

  1. No matter how often general writing advice says so, “in medias res” is not right for every story. The first chapter details a non-romance story line, but the Hero is already present and already in a relationship with the Heroine. Then the second chapter jumps back three months, before the relationship begins, to detail how the Hero met, not the Heroine, but the Heroine’s birth mother. Except I haven’t been given any reason (other than my confusion) to want to know why he’s meeting her and not the Heroine.
  2. Too many names, too many questions raised. The first chapter is a scene with three people waiting to be joined by a fourth. The Hero (named,) the Heroine (named,) the birth mother (no name given,) and the half-brother/son (no name given.) But later in the chapter, the Heroine’s internal narration briefly mentions her uncle by name, and then an actual internal thought gives us another name that is not connected to anyone. The thought is literally just “If [name]–“, which doesn’t lend any context. I had to read until nearly halfway through the second chapter to discover it’s the birth mother’s nickname. (Not even her real name, which is given when she’s introduced in chapter two, at the “beginning” of the story.) That could have easily been included in the first chapter simply by having someone address her directly. Instead, I was left wondering a) why my “romance” novel was starting with a long-lost-family reunion story line and the romantic relationship itself was passingly mentioned as already underway; b) how it worked out that the story was about a woman reuniting with her lost son and not the heroine herself, despite the woman only being referred to as her “birth mother, so was the Heroine adopted or what?; and c) why was the Hero there at all and how was he involved in their reunion. Okay, yes, your first chapter should raise questions for your readers, but not to the point of frustration and confusion. Also, none of these questions I had are about the romance itself, which is a problem.
  3. Killing narrative time instead of answering questions. When we finally “meet” the Heroine in the chronological story line in Chapter 3, she spends the front half of the chapter agonizing over having forgotten to bring a gift for when she met up with her birth mother (still don’t know why that’s happening or how their lives disconnected from a standard parent-child relationship) and then the second half inside a chocolate shop going on ad nauseam about chocolate and how wonderful it is. Toward the very very end of the chapter, she meets the Hero, who has also dropped into the shop, but their interaction lasts about ten seconds, narratively speaking, with no sparks and only the barest hint that they already knew each other from Way Back When.
  4. Obvious inconsistencies don’t hide secrets very well. So I did eventually get far enough to answer the “what the heck is going on with this family” question, and I’m not sure the early reveal was intentional or not. Remember how the Heroine’s uncle is briefly mentioned in Chapter 1? He shows up again later in casual conversation as the Heroine’s brother. At first, I was like, that’s obviously a mistake, how did no one catch that? Then I thought, okay, it’s not terribly uncommon to name kids after their aunts and uncles, but this makes it sound like they’re the same person… which is when I realized they were, because the Heroine was raised alongside her “birth mother” as her sister. She was a baby born to a young woman whose mother pretended to be the baby’s mother. The story itself confirmed that not long after, which is why I’m not sure if this inconsistency was intended as a clue or a simple mistake. This is what the author spent four chapters writing awkwardly around, for the sake of a shocking reveal. And by the way, the romance still hasn’t started yet.

Genre expectations, people. I’m not saying every romance has to be in alternating third-person perspectives, following the same structure of meet one lead in Chapter One and the other in Chapter Two. (Though it’s common method because it’s a successful one.) There’s a lot of ways to skin this cat. But if I can read the first 18% of a romance novel and the two leads have only met briefly in a public place and exchanged less than two minutes of pleasantries, while the entire rest of the book is devoted to what should be a subplot at best–then that’s not actually a romance novel, it’s a shaky and awkward start to a piece of women’s fiction about the fallout of teenage pregnancy and what it’s like to be part of a secretly non-conventional family structure. Which is not the novel I thought I was getting.

I’m sure I’ve revealed enough detail about the novel for someone who’s read it to potentially recognize it; that can’t be helped, not if I want to provide enough meat to substantiate the issues I wanted to discuss. But my intention here is not to publicly decry the author for writing a crummy romance–if it were, I would have splashed the cover right at the top of the post. My intention is to be able to share the flaws I perceived in the work in such a way others could learn from them, without shaming the author directly, because that just didn’t feel right to me here. I have no problem posting honest reviews of bad books, as anyone who’s followed me for any length of time will know–I’m not kind to books that piss me off. But this was bad on such a different level that I wanted to treat the book differently, as a learning opportunity instead of a punching bag.

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