Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 3, 2012

The Doctor is in the House--Novel Diagnostics by Kristen Lamb

Back on New Year's Day, many of you might have vowed to take your craft more seriously in 2012...before the world ends, of course. This resolution likely means more conferences and many, many more queries.

For those of you who have submitted before, ever 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 capabilities, 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 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 important.

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). I know some of you are a bit confused so let me explain a little.

Back in the day, when writers got paid by the word, they often started with the protag in the womb. Kidding, but barely.  "Starting in the action", or in medias res,just means to start as close to the actual story as possible.

For instance, in Star Wars, we don't see all of Luke's growing up years on Tatooine. We begin the story just before the main antagonist's agenda intersects with his life and forces a choice--rise to adventure or grieve family and return to moisture farming?

The beginning of a good story starts with tension and conflict, but generally only hints at the problem to come.

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. Normal World serves an important function. It is part of narrative structure for a reason. 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 bag of beetles, but let's 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 like the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” We can take all the aspirin 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?

About Kristen Lamb

Kristen is the author of two 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 recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. Her methods teach you how to build your author platform and still have time left over to write more great books! Be sure to stop by Kristen Lamb’s Blog at any time for a dose of excellence. You can also find her on her website at www.kristenlamb.org.

0 comments on “The Doctor is in the House--Novel Diagnostics by Kristen Lamb”

  1. OMG Kristen, where were you when I started writing? And don't say in diapers, or I'll head for the knife drawer. I SO wish I'd have read this 12 years ago -- it would have saved me so much time and buckets of sweat (okay, accurate, but not a pretty picture!)

    I'm saving this, and rereading it before I start writing another book. The Hunger Games example made the point crystal clear for me!

    Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

    1. LOL. Your comment made me bust a gut. I am so happy this post was helpful. I know this is the stuff I struggled with so badly and it is really wonderful to be able to help other writers navigate it quicker and easier than I did.

    2. Laura, I completely agree. I, too, wish I'd read this 12 or 15 years ago. Not sure how many years I have left, but better late than never! Thanks Kristin for a wonderful post.

  2. Kristen, this is yet another example why so many of us read your blog, buy your books, link you on our own pages ... thanks so much 🙂 I was very lucky to have met a successful journalist and pub'd mystery writer in one of my writer's groups. I read the first five pages of my first mystery and her three sentence comment (condensing your great post) has been with me since. "Don't dump info in one place. Like fertilizer, you want to spread the manure evenly so you nourish the entire field. That way the entire garden gets fed and not killed off before they have a chance to grow.

    This post is a keeper 🙂

  3. "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."

    You just codified for me why I don't like memorial bumper stickers. It's trying to put the sympathy cart before the acquaintance horse. Thanks!

  4. Interesting read. Do you have any no-no's specifically for parodies/satires? I suspect The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy breaks most of these rules, yet it's still hilarious. In fact, it may be hilarious BECAUSE it breaks these rules (though it certainly does so intentionally, not accidentally, as inexperienced writers would). Thoughts?

    1. We have to know the rules to break them. By understanding the fundamentals, it is easier to know what can bend and where. But we are wise to appreciate that literary rules are there for a reason...to make the experience better for the reader. When we choose to ignore a rule, we take a risk. I hope that answers your question.

  5. Some very wise advice here, Kristen! You are a font of knowledge. Can't wait to see you at the DFW Writers Conference. Another great thing for writers.

  6. Wow, another fantastic post. Thank you Kristen. A lot of good information here, especially the 2nd tip re: starting in the middle of all the action. Beginnings are TOUGH, damnit, and we need all the help we can get. Although, for me, the endings are even tougher. Eeesh. But still - this is really, really, REALLY helpful for all of us struggling writers, so I appreciate it...and I'm going to tweet and FB it so more people can benefit from your expertise!

  7. Another great blog Kristen. Sometimes a secret code book is needed to understand what an agent or editor is talking about. Bless their hearts. 🙂

  8. It's interesting to me that my fiction writing didn't make sense until I blogged and did the non-fiction writing I was meant to do. That being said, I wish that social media and the like had existed back in the day so I could have been exposed to what I was doing wrong MUCH earlier!

    Thanks for a great post!

  9. Great post! I'm still working On a book that contained one too many of these "ailments". Hope to have it ready to pitch by May. Btw, I'm a tough customer who reads the first paragraph, and if there's still hope, a random page in the middle, and the last page. If the author still hasn't tripped my trigger, I stick it back on the shelf.

  10. [...] & Writers In The Storm Blog. I’ll be re-reading this post for a while to come: The Doctor is in the House–Novel Diagnostics by Kristen Lamb Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggMoreStumbleUponRedditTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  11. [...] to be paid for their efforts. Also caught her out at Writers in the Storm dishes the dirt on the first 20 pages of your manuscript. Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreStumbleUponRedditDiggLinkedInEmailPrintLike this:Like2 bloggers like [...]

  12. I so enjoyed your post, Kristen. You condensed so much important info into your blog. I tried to sign up for your class on blogging in Jan., but the class was closed. When will you do another one?

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