The Doctor is in the House–Novel Diagnostics

We’ve spent the past several weeks talking about my Deadly Sins of Writing, which are seven newbie mistakes that interfere with our fiction. “Was” clusters and ellipses overkill are distracting, and POV shifts just make us want to lie down until the dizziness passes. Ah, but once you have successfully removed the offending sins, you can more clearly see the actual story…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more trouble ahead. There still might be more work to do.

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?


For those of you hoping to win my contest, you might be wondering exactly how much my 5 or 15 page critique is going to help you. Well, today is a peek inside my head. Please ignore the laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

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 5-20 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?


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 or some alien history 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 and even plotting. 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 read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs. 

Sci-fi/fantasy writers are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip is wrong…well, it needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation. Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So, when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. 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 last 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 we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We 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.

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained. For more why over-explaining is a total story-killer that RUINS tension, I recommend a visit to my post What Went Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels.

There are three 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). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, 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?

I do want to hear from you guys!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

Last Week’s Winner of Five-Page Critique–Ted Henkle.

Please send your 1250 word Word doc to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Gigi will make sure I get your pages.

NOTE: For those of you who haven’t yet gotten your pages back, I am going on an exploratory mission in my spam folder to see if anyone has been missed. If you don’t have your pages back by Thursday then please resend to my assistant. I get about 500 e-mails a day, so I am redoing things so submissions don’t get lost in the ether. Thanks for your patience.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of September I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: GRAND PRIZE WILL BE PICKED THIS MONTH. I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced at the end of September) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.


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  1. I’m not grossly guilty of any of those things, but I do have a major tension problem. There are pitfalls all the way through but no ticking clock. However, I have read MG books recently with no ticking clock as such, just exciting twists and turns so we’ll see. I’m leaving it alone for a while. PiBoldMo is handy timing. Thanks for the craft book recommendations 🙂

  2. I am currently struggling with making the beginning of my book better. I recognize that I have done several of the mistakes you always talk about it is just difficult to know what needs to be cut and how exactly to fix it. I need another pair of eyes (other than friends/family). As always, thank you for your helpful and thought provoking posts!

  3. Well, assuming the back blurb catches me, I always read the preview online of the first page. If there isn’t one, I won’t buy it. On the first page, I give it the first two or three paragraphs (if I’m not busy).
    If I’ve already bought the book, I usually give the novel 100 pages to grab me (depending on genre – epics for sure get 100 pages, mass market paperbacks maybe 50). However, there are a few on my shelves where I found a nice spot for a bookmark and they never got picked up again. That makes me really mad though, and I rarely look at another book by that author.

    • Trish Loye Elliott on September 26, 2011 at 8:50 am
    • Reply

    Fantastic post! I unfortunately see myself in a couple of these problems (especially starting right in the middle of the action). I’m in the middle of revisions right now, so this post comes at a perfect time. Thank you for the advice.

  4. Great stuff Kristen! My weakness is info-dumping. At least I know it, right? I loved your comparison to stories and Wikipedia. That is very true and makes total sense. Thanks, as always for your wisdom and my fingers are crossed for that critique! 🙂


  5. Awesome post!

    I especially like the one about NOT starting in the center of the main action.

    Many thanks


  6. Got an awesome beginning thanks to the ladies at @4KidsLit, but the story petered out at the half-way mark. I know, it happens, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take. I’ve ended up with a great beginning that goes no-where and I’m in the process of re-working the plot. Has that ever happened with any of the stories you’ve edited? What was your recommendation?

  7. Thank you for this post! Easy to follow and insightful! I especially appreciate the reminder that self-pubbing a rejected manuscript is not (always) the solution. We need to look deeper, take any recommendations to heart, and *work* to create the best novel possible. I’m not opposed to self-publishing, I just don’t think ignoring problems in our writing will gain us long-term readers. So, back to the beginning to make sure I’ve headed your advice. Thank you!

  8. I found this to be excellent advice. I recently joined a critique group and the honest feedback has been invaluable. I don’t disagree with any of your post. Character development can come in 100 words of how they order food or have a conversation with someone. Tossing your protagonist in the middle of a South American drug war with their ex lover is a little much.

    One of the short stories I’m writing starts with showing the character at her lowest in the midst of her humdrum life. The response I’m getting from readers is she’s immediately relatable and rootable. This is something I didn’t expect because the story is exceptionally gritty.

    Thanks again for the post.

  9. I’m trying to figure out if my YA 1st person opening is internalizing or the protagonist narrating what she’s doing. And simply writing that makes me realize it’s probably the wrong opening. Ghah!

    After giving The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 240 PAGES! and me still not engaged or caring about anyone, I set it down. I know, people raved about it — it’s the last time I will give a book that much of my time to grab me. So I long to open with as much interest as possible, but like Jessica, I can’t always see/hear if what I’m writing is the best choice.

    Patricia Briggs opening of her first Mercy Thompson series book had me at the first sentence:
    “I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first.” The rest of the opening paragraph sets us in her world and her job.

    1. I agree with you on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – although I enjoyed the series overall, slogging through the opening of Dragon was difficult. I kept wondering when the girl with the tattoo would show up. Who are all these retired cops? Wait, this isn’t the reporter I read about on the back cover. Yeah, the begining of that book is a mess. I would cut or edit at least 50 pages to get to the better part of the story. The second book is my favorite, but it’s a long way in for a payoff.

    2. Hey Amy!
      That’s the beauty of fiction, the draw is in the eye of the beholder. We all have different tastes and different thoughts on what works and what doesn’t.
      (shhh, don’t tell anyone…I couldn’t get into any of the Harry Potter books)
      And seeing our own flaws is often very hard. Critique partners and beta readers are helpful in that respect.
      Good luck on your YA!!

  10. Lady Kristen

    You’ll probably tell me I’m an Idiot. And you probably wouldn’t be wrong :-P.

    You’ll probably tell me I shouldn’t be doing it at all – and you’ll probably be right again :-P.

    However, what is, is. And I’ll take one potential exception to your wisdom, even while agreeing with it almost entirely. Not that that whether or not I agree with it has any relevance at all. Like I said, I’m an Idiot :-).

    “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

    That’s Raymond Chandler, that is. It’s the opening to ‘The Big Sleep’. And it’s sort of my exception. My point (see? You knew I had one, right? :-P)

    Introspection is almost unavoidable in a book written entirely from first-person. Yes, that’s probably where you smack me over the head and tell me we shouldn’t be writing pure first-person books these days. Which will be a right bugger for poor Segorian :-):

    “Let me introduce myself. I’m an Idiot.

    This wouldn’t be news to anybody who knows me, apart from my mother. She believes me to be an incredible idiot, and would be amazed I’d been able to improve to just ‘idiot’. Her view’s probably more accurate, as she’s known me longer.”

  11. Hi there Kristen,

    Of course I came here from FB. I have enjoyed reading your blog and do so every week. To be honest, I have tried to reply but have not known how! I just this month got my blog up and haven’t figured it out yet either. Thank you for accepting my friendship.

    I wanted you to know that your “common problems” of novel openings are wonderful insights. I figured out “Info Dump” on my own after receiving kind responses from an agent and a professor who read my manuscript. They suggested I condense the first two chapters and get to the letters, which are the propellants of the action in the story. But, still, I had a problem. Today I realized what, after reading Book Begins with Internalization. You said that the reader needs to know the character before being privy to the character’s feelings. Viola! Thank you for this insight! I believe you have put me back on track with my queries!

    So, I would like to throw in my hat for your weekly/monthly/grand prizes. I am happy to share your links, not because I expect to win your contest but because your knowledge is valuable and can help other writers.

    Thanks so much!


  12. Love your post. I see some things I need to take care of right now. The title is what initially catches my eye then I’ll read the first page, if my mind isn’t wandering outside of the book at the end of page one then I’ll usually buy it.

  13. Excellent tips, Kristen. If a novel doesn’t grab me in the first 5-10 pages, I reject it – for good.

    I’ve published a couple of articles on the importance of the opening and first 5 pages myself, but you say it especially well. I’m going to send my writer clients to your blog to read this.

    Thanks. Articles like this mean we all win, as more high-quality, compelling novels will be published, which we can all enjoy.

  14. Oh boy, I’m often guilty of the “drop right in the middle of the action” in the first draft. The great thing about beginnings is that they’re actually easy to write once you get to the end, and understand the story you’re trying to write. Then you can go back and fill in a beginning that is both intriguing and not jarring, which I think is always the goal. But expect your beginning to suck hard…at the beginning. It’s kind of impossible not to.

  15. Wow…this is the best break down of a novel I’ve ever read, I think. Fantastic stuff! I would agree with you on every point.

    The really terrific thing about your points, Kristen, is that I think I can honestly say that I’m not doing any of this in my current book. I hate all of these types of [poor] beginnings as well, but it’s difficult to distance yourself when you’re in the middle of writing your own. Having said that, I think I’m getting my novel’s beginning right…this time.

    Thanks for the guidance, and the encouragement!

  16. Another great post. Too bad I only mentioned the second book in my blog. Oh, what can one do?
    Doesn’t matter. I love your blog and this post is chock full of good advice. I am one of those lucky few who has a really honest, not brutal, reader who is also an editor, a free lance writer and a novelist. Go figure. Don’t know how I got so lucky, but both of my main readers have great instincts and always find what needs to be “fixed” or reworked. I would love your reaction to my pages, but I post only once a week and I would not qualify to get into the drawing. So be it. I still benefit from your posts and each time I read them, I find another gem I can polish off and save. Thanks 🙂

  17. Kristen, you have done it again. I dub you “loving can kicker”, because I’m always inspired to reach a little higher and work a bit harder after reading your posts.

  18. Dude, I did like three of those in my first novel. No wonder it sucked.

    Thanks, K, for another good one.

  19. Hi! I just posted about this on my writing blog ( and mentioned it on Twitter. Oh and of course I plugged your books. You rock, Kristen!
    Question: My story is told from first person, present tense. Therefore, my character does a lot of “thinking” in order to move the story forward. I often worry about the dangers of internalization. How do you recommend early pacing to allow readers to get to know her without her giving TMI? Thanks! RL

  20. I think I give up on a book after the first 5 or 10 pages. I love what you said about how readers remember people. That’s definately true for me.

  21. Awesome post. I really “get” the idea of moving from RW into the action, and I also hate reading books that start with the protag internalization. So I’m struggling with the beginning of my thriller and have moved chapters around or even cut the opening. Still not convinced I’m right but it’s closer. Here’s the deal–

    My first opening was the middle of the action/bad stuff and was not the protag. So I cut it. The main character’s first chapter establishes her “normal world” and ends with a call to action that intro’s the conflict. But I’m leaning more to positioning that as the 2nd chapter instead of the opening.

    The current first chapter is from the dog VP. He does NOT talk like a human in a fur suit–dogs talk with ears, smells, tails etc and so his chapters of necessity must be more “thoughty” than I’d write with a human PV. I know that “The Art of Racing In the Rain” (love that book!) was written in dog VP throughout but mostly in terms of that human-thoughts-in-fur. Beta readers immediately embrace/root for the dog–so I felt that would be a stronger opening. *shrug* I’ll be interested what my editor says but wondered if you have a gut reaction whether to open with the protag or a very strong/sympathetic secondary PV character (that happens to be a dog *s*).

  22. Yet more fantastic info for us Kristen! I just dusted off my Plot and Structure copy last week to work through it chapter by chapter. I sometimes still have to fight my love for flashback. And the start in the middle of the action thing has been beaten into me from short story classes so I’m glad to get the caution on doing that in a book.

  23. Amy, as a freelance fiction editor, I think it would be a huge mistake to start out your novel in the POV of the dog! Start in the viewpoint of your main character, in a telling moment, not alone but with someone fairly significant. Let her personality show through. (Hope you don’t mind me voicing my opinion, Kristen.)

    1. Thanks for your suggestion Jodie.

  24. Thanks for this post, I really liked your examples and comparisons, your points have come across clearly. I agree, and I almost thought, yeah, I know that, I don’t that, I might be great – but then you came to internalization and I was like, damn, that’s it, there it goes, that sums up pretty much one of wips. 🙂
    I’ll publish a post linking to yours in the same topic on the 1/10. Thanks for those insights again!
    – andrea

  25. Great tips and I’ve been guilty of many. I need to look over my current WIP and see what it looks like:)

  26. Really great post. Thanks! As I embark on yet another ‘edit/polish’ of my manuscript, I’m going to be quite aware if I’m making any of these mistakes.

    BTW–looking forward to your workshop starting on Sat.

  27. Kristen, thanks for the great post. I have taken the advice of starting “in medias res” as in the middle of something, I think the key is to get the reader asking questions, to find out what is going on, give them some of the answers, but then keep them asking more questions to continue the rest of the book.
    As for how I pick books, I can usually figure out of a book is worth my time in the first page or so. Lots of times I’ll skip it, but sometimes it is worth it to read a book that DOESN’T work for two reasons: 1) to put on my editor cap and see I would fix the problems I come across and 2) to realize, “hey this guy got this piece of @#$% published, maybe there’s hope for me! Thanks for the great post and I look forward to the Blogging To Build Your Brand workshop.

    • Denise Wolf on September 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for clarifying what is meant by not starting with suspense when suspense is a great hook. I get the hanging over the shark’s tank vs. giving the reader a situation that is interesting but lets the reader get to know the characters.
    Very helpful.

  28. Thanks for another great post Kristen. It couldn’t have come at a better time – I’m in revisions.

  29. Love this list. ^_^ As for how long I give a novel before I call it quits? No very long. But with so much out there to read, if I can’t get into the story within the first few sentences (at max the first 3-5 pages), then I’m apt to set the book down and try a few others. Normally, the cover catches my eye, the back cover makes me open a book, and the first sentence or two seals the deal… or breaks it. I want books that pull me into the story and chances are they’re not going to do that talking about the weather.

  30. Ugh. I’m guilty of all of these. Susan Bischoff and Kait Nolan have slapped me upside the head for each offense many times. But I’m learning and getting better. One day, I’ll get to slap someone upside the head. The circle of life.

  31. The shortest I’ve given a book was 30 pages. Normally I quit around 100, but that’s after spending the previous 50 wondering what the heck I’m doing reading it anyway. Info dump is probably the biggest turn off for me, as a reader. Although I recently read one where six secondary characters were going back and forth with rapid banter for 20 pages while the MC, who had only just met these people, stood around with her face pressed into a constant confused expression. Can we say, “induced schizophrenia”?

  32. Great points! When I started writing my MIP, I thought I was supposed to start right in on the action and that meant throwing the character right at the main story problem. Now, I’m working on showing her in her “normal world” first. I love the way this is working out because I can show some of the family dynamics that will be important later. Also, I can sneak in some foreshadowing and hint at a long-held secret the MC has which will drive her decisions. It seems so simple now, but I had no idea how to do this when I first started back at writing.

    Thank you, Kristen!

  33. I tend to respond to voice, flow, and/or something unusual. If it has one or two of these, I’ll give it a few extra pages of leeway. KimS_Author

    I have recently rewritten the beginning of my current MS, because my story is a slow starter. It’s a gentle, comic piece that isn’t intended to be mistake for high drama or high action. However, it was _too_ slow, and I had to bring some things forward rather quickly. So, I’m suffering from a bit of the info-dump issue, and the story still kicks into gear officially after the 1250 word mark. I’d deeply appreciate your help.

  34. Hi Kristen!
    Like Charla, I might set aside a book after the first 5 to 10 pages if I’m not fully engaged, which isn’t very fair to the author at all.
    I suppose sometimes I do this because I feel guilty that I’m reading instead of writing. Other times it’s just because I’m not really feeling the voice.
    But I should give each book a little more time…I certainly hope readers do that for my novels. I think I’d cry if I found out my hard work was set aside after a few pages:/
    Lately, however, as busy as I’ve been, I’ve done very little writing at all. I was doing so good these last few months, making such progress and all of a sudden, I lost my intensity.
    I need to get back into the groove, SOON!
    Reading your words of wisdom helps.
    My goal is 500 words tomorrow. That’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.
    And maybe it will snowball into more:)
    Have a great evening!!

  35. I love that you used Hunger Games to illustrate this, I thought it was a really great book that did illustrate exactly what you teach us. I saw normal world and the conflict and the action progress easily. I’ll be starting Catching Fire this week!

  36. Hey all,
    Three of my most compelling picks are:
    Terry Trueman’s Inside Out
    David Klass’s You Don’t Know Me, &
    Carol Plum Ucci’s What Happened to Lani Garver.
    Introspection figures highly in all these, but not at the expense of action.
    CS Perryess

  37. Of these points, my biggest fault is chosing the opening action. I don’t jump right into the middle of it, but I do have a hard time deciding where to start. I always have something like three different openings (all of which are pretty bad). I pick one and when the novel is finished I go back for a major overhaul.

    When I’m reading, I always give a novel 100 pages whether they are boring or not. Sometimes I’m glad, as in the case of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, and sometimes I think what a colossal waste of time it was.

  38. Thanks for this enlightening post, Kristin!

  39. I love reading your emails. Your sense of humor is a bit quirky, but I like it. This email, The Doctor is in the House, is on point. Although, I’ve read some books that go against several of your, tried and true, method and they not only made it big, they made it huge. One example that comes to mind, Twilight, the first in the series. I apologize; I was only able to read the first in the series.


  40. I enjoyed this analysis! I teach beginning fiction writers and this has given me a lot to think about.

  41. Kristen! I could not get through Winter’s Bone either! Thank you for the validation. As an English teacher, I pride myself on being able to push through almost anything. The only other book that whopped my butt was Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (Blech!)

    I just read a fabulous book called THE WIDOW’S WAR. It was simple in terms of plot, but I never knew what the main character, the recently widowed Lydia (somethin’ or other) was going to do. As you said, I was interested in her. Was she going to choose to live with the Indian and be excommunicated from her community forever? Or would she chose Eben Freeman, the charming lawyer who would make her give over her house that her first husband had left her in his will? Would she move in with her daughter to be with her grandchildren, but also her dick of a son-in-law, and forfeit her house rights to him? Or would she find another way? Given that the book takes place in the late 1700s when women had very few rights, I had no idea what she could realistically choose.

    It was really a lovely,book and I felt like it had all the things you talk about. As I read it was all: Okay, here’s her Big Boss Confrontation. And it was big. Everything went kaput, and then the resolution was just perfect. But unexpected. Which made it even better.

    So thank you for helping me to learn how to read with a better editors’ eye.

    Even though I teach writing, I don’t teach plotting or storytelling. I teach college essay writing and lots of mechanics. But after I read your posts, I truly feel like I’ve learned something. Like I’ve taken a crash course that will help not only my own writing but stuff that can help me to be a better teacher.

  42. *editor’s*

  43. Great advice and insight as always. I’ve seen so many of the traditional openings that it all feels a bit old now. I love it when we step into an unusual situation, environment or setting that teases out the next steps for the MC.

  44. Wow, Olene! 100 pages?! You’ve got a lot more patience and time than I do. To me, reading fiction is a fun, leisure activity, not work – except when I’m editing manuscripts! For my own reading for pleasure, if a book doesn’t grab me in the first 10 pages or so, out it goes. I’ll keep them on my bookshelf for a while, just to see if it might interest me at a later date, but usually another, newer one captures my attention.

  45. I was really bad with my was clusters but then this one day my friend was reading my story and she was reading it out loud to me and i was all like, “what the heck with the was-es, man” and i was inspired to quit using was.
    Great post. Do you offer blog diagnostics without entering the contest? 🙂

  46. Excellent and really helpful post!
    What draws me into books? Being the shallow sort, genre and cover, mostly. I’ve given up reading blurbs as too many these days morph into a synopsis and reveal about half the plot, wrecking the whole experience of the book. I’ll generally skim the first page and if I like it, I’ll take it home.
    How long do I give a book before I cry quits? It depends just how annoying I find the weaknesses. I’m a major fan of character-led stories in first person pov and I’ll tolerate quite a lot – excessive world building… slightly clunky dialogue… so long as the characterisation is strong. The big no no, for me, is when an author whisks me from one character to another while writing in multiple viewpoints without allowing me time to get to know or settle into each character.
    Books whose beginnings really ‘do’ it for me – I loved the start of ‘Mendoza in Hollywood’ by Kage Baker and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’. More recently, I enjoyed the opening of ‘The Help’ and Amanda Pitcher’s ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’.

  47. If you only knew how many times I have re-worked the beginning of my wip from your advice alone…

    Thanks for this, it arrived with perfect timing. I’ve been working on a novella off and on for a while now, and I DO have some flashback in the beginning, but its very minor. I’m going to grab those books you mentioned and find out exactly what I need to do.

    Thanks Kristen!

  48. Excellent post!! Really nailed how important beginnings are. I just finished reading “Hooked” by Les Edgerton, and he does a fantastic job on this topic. Those first pages are all about the hook and what he calls the Inciting Incident–totally in alignment with what you said here. I also agree about self-pubbing. It is certainly becoming a more acceptable avenue, but no book should be published without undergoing critique (by crit. groups, contest judges, agent/editor advice, etc.)

    Thanks for the post and contest!

  49. I think volunteering to judge writing contests is a great way to learn this lesson from the other side too. Contest entries are often only so-many pages, and we can see how it’s possible to judge the book from that sample.

    • Monique Headley on September 29, 2011 at 8:58 am
    • Reply

    Another great post, Kristen! Of all the writer’s blogs I follow, your’s is by far the most helpful. I found the explanation of getting to know your protagonist in their real world especially helpful. I will be editing my manuscript with this new wisdom today!

    As always, thank you for the post and contest!

  50. It doesn’t surprise me at all. As a reader, I usually know within in the first few pages if I’m going to love a book. And 95 percent of the time I’m right. I assume it’s no different for agents reading manuscripts. And once I’m reading manuscripts past the beginner stage and into the could-be-published stage, it’s more subjective than anything.

  51. Annnddd…that’s another blog post added to my bookmarks.

  52. Another good one, Shaman…:)

  53. I like Meridian by Amber Kizer. It’s poetic and it gives you an idea of how she was like growing up before all hell breaks loose.

  1. […] Lamb points out, “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. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.” Here are excerpts from her post: […]

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  12. […] 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 5-20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.  […]

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