The Doctor is in the House–Novel Diagnostics


Many of you have vowed to take your craft more seriously this year, which means more conferences and many, many more queries. For those of you who have submitted before, every wonder how an agent can ask for the first 20 pages and still reject our book? Did you ever wonder if the agents really read these pages? How can they know our book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on? I mean, if they would just continue to page 103 they would see that the princess uncovers a whole underground movement of garden gnomes with interdimensional capabilitites, and they wouldn’t be able to put it down. Right?


Back in the day before I wrote full time, I paid my dues doing a lot of editing. I have edited countless manuscripts, and 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.

Years ago, when I used to edit, I never cared for being called a book doctor. I rarely ever edited an entire book. I guess one could say I was more of a novel diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. Thus, what I want to help you guys understand is why beginnings are so imporant.

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 our 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 an earlier blog from back in the fall, normal world 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 (your readers) 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 J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…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 by 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.” We can take all the asprin we 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.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings? What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell are some of my favorites. I know that I had to put down Next by Michael Crichton because it just went on and on without addressing a core problem. I was a hundred pages in and had no idea what the book was truly about, and had been introduced to so many characters, I had no clue who I was supposed to be rooting for (most of the characters were utterly unlikable).

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home


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    • Terri Dryden on January 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm
    • Reply

    Wonderful information! Maybe it’s one of these reasons I have received rejections!! Thanks so much for everything!

  1. Thanks for the informative post.

  2. You know, I sometimes live in fear that you will read my book and then tell me about it. Great post, Kristen. I vote for more posts with pictures of House–have this thing for sexy curmudgeons…

  3. There are some really useful insights for writers here. Thanks for sharing your view as a former editor. It’s great that you have been on both sides of that exchange, The other thing that those poor openings are telling you are that most writers starting out stick to cliché. They’ve been told since the second grade to make precisely the mistakes you point out, by a succession of well-meaning creative writing teachers. A good writer writes in his or her own authentic voice. Their style is often distinct, unique and unmistakeable within the first fifty pages. I like your advice that writers should become skilled at blending in the back story and details about the world and the character, while the narrative flows. Writers have to find a way to make the reader care about their characters pretty quickly. Otherwise, as you say, it’s all just self-indulgent therapy. Great post.

  4. Oh for an editor when leaving comments! I just spotted a grammatical error and can’t edit it 🙁

    1. LOL…I feel for you. No worries. I didn’t even see it. I appreciate the comments, regardless of typos 😀

  5. I’ve seen so many manuscripts that start with the protagonist waking up. Most of the times, unless we’re waking up with someone really interesting, it’s very boring. I always ask: why did you start there?

    1. Because it’s a good place to begin a scene? You have to begin *somewhere*, and if they’ve just said that starting in medias res is bad…

      I like it, because it allows you to take a look at the environment and then start with the character nicely. Like an establishing shot on a visual medium.

      Then again, I’ve read that is also bad…

  6. I bet you’ve got a load of people looking nervously through their first twenty pages today! I love this post because it’s a license to put down bad novels. Mrs Dim and I often argue about whether or not you should “work at” reading some novels. I say if it doesn’t hook me in the first few chapters, why should I plough on? I think the author hasn’t done their job. But obviously their agent and publisher must’ve seen something for it to get into print…

    Have you thought about the influence of film on the bad novelist – you mentioned the Wham Bam beginning as a problem, and then referenced Star Trek (sooo cooool!) later, but I think there’s a link. So many films use the Bond-style action opening to hookk the viewers, that I bet a lot of novelists feel that’s the right way to go too. I know at least two of my failed novels went this way.

    Looking forward to WANA Wednesday.

    1. Actually you bring up a great point and I am going to write a blog about the bad habits movies can create. Thanks!

  7. Brilliant post, Kristen – I’m tweeting this. So many writers say, ‘the agent didn’t read very far or give my book a fair chance’ – as you say, this is usually because they don’t need to. And a reader wouldn’t either.

    However, openings are always tricky. I’m dreading going back to mine…

  8. Super helpful advice as always! I know my manuscript was diagnosed with an info dump and a slight case of internalization in the beginning stages! I think as a newbie writer those are the easiest things to do when you start out with a novel.

    What really hooks me in a book is having me (the reader) come in about three steps away from the inciting event, while giving me bits and pieces of the main character through their actions along the way. If a book waits too long to get there, I’m instantly bored.

  9. Great stuff as always. I like the analogy about doctors diagnosing underlying problems by seeing common symptoms. I think for me, the biggest challenge of fiction–and the skill I admire the most in good writers–is creating characters that readers love and care about instantly. As I say this, the best example I’ve ever experienced hit me while I was strolling around Walmart or somewhere. I picked up Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and read the first 20-30 pages. Greatest introduction to a character to begin a book I can recall. I’ve followed Odd ever since.

  10. Wow. This was a great post. I think the one I struggle with the most is starting with sequel, instead of scene. Thanks for the tips!

    • Kathleen on January 31, 2011 at 4:35 pm
    • Reply

    Great post Kristen, lots of good information. So true that someone else can only ‘diagnose’ the problems, we as writers have to fix them.

  11. I can usually tell within a few pages if I’m going to like a book. If I buy a book, I usually end up liking it. Based on that, I can easily see how agents/editors know by the first few pages, or first page. If it’s a book from the library, I’ll give it a few chapters, or longer, if I’ve heard good things.

  12. Hi Kristen,

    This is so timely for me! Not only am I starting a new book and trying to get that balance right, but I’m reading a bunch of “try it” on my Kindle looking for the a new one to read.

    I can definitely tell in the first 20 pages whether or not I want to buy the book, and I’ve been through 20 “try it’s” already — haven’t bought a single one. The Kindle has almost paid for itself already and I’ve had it for a week.

    This simple information in your blog has the potential to shave miles off a writer’s path toward publication. I wish I knew more and understood more much earlier. 🙂

    Thanks for the reminders!


  13. Oh, and I just picked up the audiobook of Koontz’s WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS. Amazingly smooth beginning and artful suspense/plot buildup. I listen on my long drive to/from work and I’m in chapter 30 something now. Koontz is such an awesome author to learn from. Whether you like horror/suspense/paranormal or not, craft is craft across all genres.

  14. Very good things to watch out for. Coming back to my story from NaNoWriMo after several weeks off I found I had an info. dump at the beginning, and I wished there was more dialogue. It’ll be interesting to go back and really edit all of it. But, I’m excited for the challenge and thinking positive on how I can change it for the better.

  15. I confess, I saw the title for this article in a tweet and thought I was headed to something inane about formulaic diagnosis of a novel. Instead, I see an insightful and interesting article on how to build stronger story beginnings. Most of the material here I “knew” already… But seeing the additional examples and focus on the *why* for each was excellent. I’d love to read more on this subject. Thank you!

  16. There was a time, when I used to finish every book I started.
    No matter how bad it was. And – oh boy – there were a few really bad ones among them.

    Then I realized, that I do not need to do this.
    If chapter 3 ends and I still do not care what happens to the characters, it is very unlikely that I will care about them in chapter 7 or 10.

    Since then I use to say: I give the author a fair chance to hook me within those three chapters.
    If s/he fails – tough luck. 😉

    A beginning I just love is the start of David Eddings Elenium Saga “The Diamond Throne”.
    Within the first two pages I was in this world and could see Sparhawk and already felt like I knew him.

    I hope that I will be that good a writer one day. 🙂
    (Yeah, I am ambitious. *grin*)

  17. I wish I’d read this blog before I sent you my manuscript. 🙂 Thank you.

    In deciding whether to by a book, I open to a random page and read the dialogue. If it isn’t how real people talk, or if it’s full of long names I can’t pronounce — “Islfybturlentl, this boy does not like when you say that with your long face so proud” — forget it. If “Jane” and “Aurora” speak like a real people, I read the cover and the first pages.

    Thank you for being so generous with your time and talent.

  18. I had to laugh out loud about opening the book with the guy hanging over the shark tank with ninjas advancing! Once again, your sustained metaphor (doctor, not ninjas) made a lot of sense (although the sight of that syringe creeped me out, LOL).

    I’m deep in the revision stage of book 1, after a dozen editors rejected it. Apparently, the pace isn’t quick enough in the beginning, so I’ve been working on that. Any chance you could blog about narrative pace and chapter break choices in a future post? My agent says that frequent chapter breaks (with cliffhangers or questions at the end of each) quicken the pace. What do you think?

    One of my favorite books, Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, has a terrific first sentence: “It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first.” Gives you a flavor of the whole thing at once, and the fact that it’s a love story.

    Thanks so much!

  19. Another informative post! Thanks for the information!

  20. Every time i read a blog by you, it scares the hell out of me and i remember that combination of words, the, “ignorance is bliss” combination. But though it get’s my heart in my palm, beating precariously, it makes me want to work on my writing. From your advice, and from a few others and some actual writing it would be an amazing thing to see one’s name in print, one day. One of the people to whom the dedication must go, would be you ~

    1. You are too sweet! I hope my blog posts help get you there much faster :D.

  21. Again, good information. It made me think about how I always had to struggle with the beginnings of James Mitchner novels to get to the story. My writers’ group, Hampton Roads Writers, holds a two-day conference in September, and we have authors and agents there who do a first-pages critique of work that attendees submit beforehand. Always very informative. Come see us in September if you don’t live too far away!

  22. I don’t know what hooks me but I usually go to the library and borrow books. Only when I can’t put the book down would I buy it at the bookstore (after I finished reading it). That way, I only buy my must-have-books and not feel guilty for not finishing the book.

  23. I so want you to read my first ten pages! Just putting it out there.

    I can already see myself starting my novel with some inner though, actually its kind of a summary, i dont really know how to fully explain it cause its not REALLY inward thinking, but sorta is. ugh.

    Thanks for hte great advice!

    1. I think I will run a contest, and the prize is I look at the first ten pages of the winner’s manuscript. *thinking* 😀

      1. Do it! 🙂

  24. Ironically I learned all of these lessons after finishing the only piece of written I was ever able to complete. Ever since hen I’ve re-read ever chapter I’ve written to make sure it’s air tight…

    I can’t wait to see your next post, hopefully it will be on writing with optimism. Until next time.

  25. Great insider information! Thanks for posting. I hope you decide to do that contest 🙂

  26. Hmm, I managed to avoid flashbacks for the first 20 pages… then I think I have a few too many in the rest of it. I am very much resisting the urge to edit before I finish writing!

    Thanks for the post! It’s really helping me write a solid novel.

  27. I love this! More tools! Thank you so much for this information!

    • PeterKoevari on February 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm
    • Reply

    Nice post. I know that there are many things to learn from my first book and many things I will learn moving forward.

    However, I actually went through a lot of processes for my first book, and even more for the sequel I am writing now. I had beta readers throughout writing prophecies awakening and in the end I paid a professional proofreader as well. I wanted my manuscript in the best possible shape.

    I wrote an article on my site about how to make your manuscript publishable but it’s a different angle.

    I agree with most of your points, but I was actually asked by all my beta readers to write more about how kassina, the vampire sorceress became who she was. I was going to write more about that in the sequel but I listened to my readers.

    I opted to write a chapter about a scene that coul be called a flashback but it’s not really. It was very popular with my readers and ended up being my hook/opening chapter. Was a bit too hard hitting for a few sensitive readers, but it worked.

    I have the full first chapter on my site, so deep free to check it out and let me know what you think 🙂

    Although Kristen, if you would like to one day, I can send you a reviewers copy of my book to read.

    Looking forward to more blog posts from you, as always

  28. It’s actually more unusual for me to get through an entire book, than it is for me to stop reading before the end. The last book I read completely was “The Art of Nonconformity” by Chris Guillebeau. I found it to be a really interesting book. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, I almost stopped reading after the first chapter, but many people told me it gets a lot better after all the intro information. And, it did. I couldn’t finish “Eat, Pray, Love” the book or the movie. I have not attempted to write a novel, so I can’t comment on that.

  29. Great, informative post, Kristin. I loved it! I’m going to copy this and print it out to keep for future reference.

    Oh, and by the way, I saw the movie Winter’s Bone and really enjoyed it. I plan to buy/order the book soon. I’m glad to know that the book has a great beginning. 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing!


  30. I just spent a month going through selections for a magazine. The stories turned out great, but I found out there are a lot of writers who have one glaring weakness. Usually it is something easily fixed, but they just don’t know. We need objective eyes, like you said.

    Many writers have thin skin. More writers are afraid to tell someone when something is bad. In beta reads, I have to constantly remind the reader that I have thick skin and no ego. We have to beg for red sometimes. When we let it come, the story can be so much better.

    Writing has so many pitfalls, some of which you went through. Could you talk about over description and when to use it, when not to. When to draw attention to dialog. Those sorts of things?

    Thank you. Great post.

    Draven Ames

  31. Interesting article!

    I disagree with starting in the middle of the action being a bad thing. It can be a fun way of hooking the reader from the beginning, and introducing the tone of the work, the characters and a bit of the setting through action. I know I like to read these beginnings. At least you know the book isn’t going to be a boring one where nothing happens.

    There’s a problem I have with generalizations. I think many of these things are perfectly fine if they are well written. I can read Nave-gazing if its interesting of entertaining. It doesn’t mean I’ll like the character or finish the book, but I won’t put it down. The same with flashbacks. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them unless they’re boring or confusing. And the first Artemis Fowl book has one shameless info dump on chapter 2, and it’s one of the most awesome things I’ve read.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The point is, we have to know the rules to break the rules. Too many writers do not go into their first novel understanding narrative structure and the basic rules of story-telling, and it shows. Breaking the rules without knowing the rules isn’t a style choice…it is ignorance.

      If our novel is being rejected again and again, but maybe we’re guilty of one of these”no-nos” then maybe our rule-breaking isn’t as brilliant as we believed. I think if we do these things well, we won’t have a stack of rejections.

      But, you are correct, rules get broken all the time. We just have to learn to do it with style.

      I can give just as many examples of why these tactics also fail. Movies are easier. In the recent movie, “The Crazies” the director gave us no time to get to know the people in the town. Broke the rule of establishing Normal World. Five minutes in, some guy is walking across a baseball field with a shotgun. Tossed us right in the action. BUT, had the director allowed us even 15 minutes in normal world, he would have had a greater emotional impact when these people later went crazy and had to be taken out. We had nothing to compare and contrast. The reason we cry when Old Yeller dies is because we don’t meet him as a rabid dog. Yet, we meet most of the town folk in “The Crazies” AFTER they are zombies, so we don’t care when they die. Oh, the director made sure there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth from the protags to cue us we were supposed to care…but, um…we didn’t. That was lazy screenwriting.

      “Deadline” had so many flashbacks it was impossible to keep up with the story, and the movie failed at the box office for obvious reasons. In fact, flashbacks done well aren’t convenient information dump, but rather, a parallel story-line. Think “Ya Ya Sisterhood” or “Joy Luck Club.” In movies, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” We could pull the supposed “flashbacks” out, line them up, and they would have arc.

      You mentioned that there was a shameless information dump in Chapter Two of Artemis Fowl….but, notice it was NOT in Chapter One. If we start the book vomiting a bunch of details, it is much more likely to bore the reader. We hook with characters…then readers are happy to later endure the shameless dump of facts. Do some writers break this rule? Sure. But there is also a good reason why 93% of novels fail.

      Again, it boils down to knowing the rules so we can break the rules ;).

      1. Right. What’s a rule if it can’t be successfully broken in the name of creativity and dodging cliché? But knowing and understanding the rule first may be the critical issue before it can be bent to the success of an author’s nefarious will.

  32. Great post, Kristen! It’s sometimes hard to be hard on ourselves, but if you want a publishable piece of writing in the end, you have to look for the problems. And then fix them!

  33. Oooh. Hugh Laurie is welcome to give me an injection anytime. So to speak.

  34. Thank you so much for sharing this! I am going to add it to my ‘links’ page on my blog if that’s all right.

    • Ron Brown on February 20, 2011 at 3:57 am
    • Reply

    Great insight throughout. What I am wondering is how in Hunger Games on page two, how were the boots put on first and then the trousers. I don’t know anyone who does that. Why wouldn’t an editor catch that?

  35. Reading this post just made me want to “kill my baby” = chapter 1. The protag starts on a plane, then there are flashbacks to before she got on the plane, then there is introspection. There was also a fun secondary character who the protag talks to. It will be back to the drawing board for draft 2. Thanks. 🙂

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