The Doctor is in the House–Novel Diagnostics
Welcome to our third week discussing great novel beginnings. Why are we devoting so much time to the beginning of a novel? Because the first pages are the most critical. Today I am going to let you see the first 20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.
I mean no disrespect in what I am about to say. I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected. Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book.
I don’t like being called a book doctor. I rarely will ever edit an entire book. I guess I am more of a diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. So again, why are beginnings imporant? Because I generally can “diagnose” every bad habit and writer weakness in ten pages or less. I never need more than 50 pages (and neither do agents and other editors). Why? Well, think of it this way. Does your doctor need to crack open your chest to know you have a bum ticker? No. He pays attention to symptoms to diagnose the larger problem. He takes your blood pressure and asks standardized questions. If he gets enough of the same kind of answer, he can tell you likely have a heart problem. Most of the time, the tests and EKGs are merely to gain more detail, but generally to confirm most of what the doc already knows.
The first pages of your novel are frequently the same. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.
The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization all to “set up” the story.
In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout. This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.
Also, readers like to read fiction for stories. They read the encyclopedia for information.
Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action
The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.
This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.
Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster
So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been skipped. Also, if you go back to my earlier blog, normal world also serves an important function. Thus when a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.
Book Begins with Internalization
Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.
Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.
Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do I as the reader care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? I don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.
Now, give us (the reader) time to know your character and become interested in her and then we will care. But, starting right out of the gate with a character waxing rhapsodic is like having some stranger in the checkout line start telling you about her nasty divorce. It’s just weird.
Also, like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking, it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.
Book Begins with a Flashback
Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy. Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked!
Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story. I’ll give you a great example. Watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending character back story.
Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.
There are two really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Hooked by Les Edgerton and Scene and Sequel buy Jack Bickham.
Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues. It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” You can take all the asprin you want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong. Hopefully, though, today I gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on. All the best!
Until next time….
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