Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 6, 2014

Novel Diagnostics---How to Tell if Your Book Might Have Terminal Problems in TEN Pages

By Kristen Lamb

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.

For those of you who have submitted before, ever wonder how an agent can ask for the first 20 pages and still reject your 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 inter dimensional capabilities, and they wouldn't be able to put it down. Right?


I've 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 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? 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.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine

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.

Via Tumblr

Via Tumblr

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

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. 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.

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

Image via Frank Selmo WANA Commons

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 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, agent or even READER, really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before hurling it out a window?

If you think you might need some professional help, I have my First Five Pages Class coming up. Use WANA15 for $15 off. Also there is a GOLD level. This is NOT line-edit. This is ripping apart your first pages and then SHOWING you how to fix the problems not only in the beginning of your book but throughout.

A quick prize announcement!

The following people won prizes from our moving party!

$25 Amazon gift card, from the WITS bloggers - Amber Polo

Lawson Writer's Academy Class - Jann Ryan

Susan Spann's two books, and Ninja gift pack - Marsha West

Susan Squires first 3 books in her Children of Merlin series - Stephanie Cain


Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 9.10.11 AMKristen is the author of the new best-selling book, "Rise of the Machines--Human Authors in a Digital World" in addition to the #1 best-selling books "We Are Not Alone--The Writer's Guide to Social Media" and "Are You There, Blog? It's Me, Writer."

Kristen is the founder of the WANA movement, the CEO of WANA International and creator of WANATribe, the social network for creatives. She is a contributing humor blogger for SocialIn, a blog that reaches 2.5 million, is the official Social Media columnist for Author Magazine, and writes for the Huffington Post.

33 comments on “Novel Diagnostics---How to Tell if Your Book Might Have Terminal Problems in TEN Pages”

  1. Hi Kristen,

    Great post. I hate writing the first chapter of a book. It never feels quite right to me. Thanks for the tips on why it might not be working.

    1. This is why it's important to keep pressing. Write the entire book THEN futz with the beginning.

  2. My first manuscript was rejected because of a dream sequence on page 18, well, there were a few other issues, too, but that was a big one. After a while, I realized that dreams rate right up there with flashbacks.
    Now I know, now my writing is stronger, we will see if it is strong enough!

  3. Kristen, though many of would hate to admit, as readers, we do exactly what you say and then when we start writing, we forget our reading skills. Great post. Good things to keep in mind 🙂

  4. Playing devil's advocate here:

    Sometimes I have to blame editors and agents for the problem of starting too soon into the action. Ask yourself this - what is one of the 1st things they tell a new author? Answer: Start in the middle of the action!! And here's the thing. It's not "bad" advice but it may be misleading. I think you can do the guy-over-the-fish tank if the villain stands there and tells him he shouldn't have done this or that. The scene could be a prologue. Then you jump into into action in a first chapter where we learn about the character, perhaps he's getting the riot act from a boss or something. Whatever.

    It's kind of the same scenario when an editor specks at a conference and further deludes new writers by telling the to write the book of the heart. Little does the writer know that if editors are not currently buying their "kind" of book of the heart, it won't matter -- not unless the book is super duper outstanding - in their eyes. How many times does that happen with a new writer?

    For me starting in the middle of the action is usually a scene that demonstrates the instigation that is spurring the character's current actions/conflict. This scenario is like you mentioned above. We actually meet the Hero/heroine, discover the problem and the why which makes us actually care about them.

    1. People get in medias res confused a lot. When an editor says "start in the action", we mean start with CONFLICT. Protagonist wants something but then….

      The action doesn't need to be terrorists or shark tanks. But the protagonist needs to be DOING something and have a GOAL.

      And prologues are often fish heads. Readers skip them and it puts the author in the position of having to hook TWICE instead of just once.

      A lot will depend on genre. Thrillers and suspense often begin with a bad event or a murder but the protagonist is never a part of this. The first scenes with the protagonist hook small. Even in The DaVinci Code, the protagonist WANTS to finish his lecture/book signing when the police show up and insist he come look at a crime scene. He isn't thinking. He isn't running from the mad albino priest. He is giving a lecture.

      But Dan Brown starts as close to the crime as possible.

      1. All true Kristen but new writers have to learn that hard way. What they hear mostly from traditional publishing editors is "start in the middle of the action" with no explanation. Thankfully we have great teachers like yourself to dissect their meaning. 🙂

  5. Flashbacks and internalization. I suppose there are always exceptions, quite powerful exceptions to your admonition that beginning a work with flashbacks and internalization from a character we really don't yet know is unwise. Such is, I believe, the case with "No Country for Old Men." I am curious to know if you agree, or if I have misinterpreted your advice. Thank you.

  6. I still remember sitting in writing class of sorts and suddenly realizing that my good story stuff started on page 12. PAGE 12!!! *sigh* Revamping that first chapter made all the difference. Thanks for the tips, Kristen!

  7. Sage advice. I'll echo Sharla Rae, though, and say that writers get a lot of conflicting information from professionals regarding how to start chapter one. If opening with reflection is boring (agreed, and a mistake I've made in the past), and starting with exposition is even worse (agreed, though it doesn't seem to hurt fantasy and sci-fi authors very often), and starting in the middle of the action is a sign that the writer has structuring problems (not sure I agree), what is the ideal beginning?

    I feel that, if a writer has a well-developed voice and great mechanics, she can make any of these approaches work. I recall Elmore Leonard being adamant that prologues are awful, yet many of his books had "pre chapter one" sequences. Aka prologues. I think he meant: Don't do these things unless you have reached a high level of refinement as a writer.

    1. As I said in an earlier reply, a lot will depend on genre. Crime books often begin with the villain. We start in a heist, a murder or with a bomb. But, the protagonist isn't really ever part of this scene.

      We have to begin with a problem that generates empathy. The problem just needs to be sympathetic and give insight into the character and needs to begin as close to the overall story problem as possible.

      All good stories begin with problems. Take "Game of Thrones." Even though Martin employs a prologue, it begins with men tracking wildling raiders. One man is dismissive and the other frightened and it ends badly. Chapter One begins with young Bran riding for the first time with his father to watch an execution of a wildling.

      In both instances there is ACTION, a PROBLEM. We see how the characters handle the problem and the decisions they make propel the story.

      In "The Road" Man awakens to search for signs of a threat.

      "No Country for Old Me" begins with "I send one boy to the gas chamber. One and only one." The character makes it clear he feels very conflicted about sending a fourteen-year-old to his death. THAT is a good hook and a story problem. It's also VERY short, which is key if we do employ a prologue. Chapter one starts with Chigurh cuffed in a sheriff's office and then he strangles a deputy and flees. This is not the POV of the protagonist.
      When we meet the protagonist, Moss, he is hunting antelope and not being too successful. Only after he gives up does he stumble across the bodies in the grass. ACTION. Why not start him hovering over bodies? Because the one or two pages of him tracking antelope are a foreshadowing and give us time to care and see a slice of who he is.

  8. Good stuff, as always. I like to be fascinated by the character right away. If I read the first page and the character waits for the light to turn red just to walk against it, I want to know more about her. I just finished Moon Over Manifest. Loved it. The protagonist, a 12 year old girl, starts the novel (in 1938) by jumping from a train just before it pulls into her stop. Okay, right away, why is a 12 year old girl traveling alone and why didn't she just wait for the train to stop? Hooked.

  9. I'd be interested in views on the prologue issue. Too many writers misuse prologues as a sort of teaser; I was taught prologues are a) set at some point in the past and b) set the stage & provide necessary background info for the story. Many readers tell me they skip the prologue, either because they feel it doesn't add to the story or because they confuse it with a preface. Because of these issues, I've heard many editors reject prologues out of hand. If a prologue is used correctly, is it still a bad thing? And will such a prologue automatically lead to a rejection slip?

    1. Nothing wrong with a prologue done properly. Problem is too few are done properly. They should be short. Usually there is a long span of time in between the prologue and the beginning of the story. For instance, in James Rollin's "The Doomsday Key" the prologue is set in the Dark Ages and the story itself is in modern times.

      But, I like to counter that with Harry Potter. Rowling likely understood the reader's tendency to skip prologues because Chapter One begins with the battle with Voldemort that kills Harry's parents.

  10. Also what I might add to this discussion is many of these no-nos are because they are done to EXCESS and not blended. George R.R. Martin begins Game of Thrones with people DOING SOMETHING in CONTEXT of their world. He doesn't spend ten pages setting up his world. He starts with PEOPLE.

  11. I'm editing all but shards of back story from chapter one. It's helping the pace a great deal and bringing out the humor. These are great tips. Thanks.

  12. Woohoo! Can't wait to read Susan's books! 🙂

    And how neat to see one of the bloggers I follow elsewhere posting here! Kristen, thanks for the insight! I eventually got to the point where my first fifteen pages had been edited to death, but the rest of my novel hadn't seen that same level of attention! That took some time to fix!

  13. I was in a writer's group and had started off my story with a sort of travelogue, or description of scenery that I thought I had done well. I was told that was too much description. Funny, I don't like description but was picturing the scene. I had to change that. I think my first page works fine now....just the rest needs work. *sigh* It's a mystery, so I think it has to be plotted carefully. And I want suspense in there and not just mystery. Anyway, I'm glad to have a second opinion from a professional about the first 10 or 20 pages.

  14. As a writing teacher, it usually takes me two pages to know whether the author knows her craft or not. Sometimes, just a few paragraphs are all I need.

    The greatest story in the world might be there under all the dross and sludge of bad craft, but not even your mother will want to slog through the sh*t to find it.

    1. LOL. Yeah. Often the new writers I work with HAVE a good story. All the melodrama and scene-setting and dream sequences and flashbacks often have to do with insecurity and simple lack of clarity about the core story problem.

  15. Some really great stuff here. I've already made notes on some of it to incorporate into my own writing. Màiri N.

  16. Great advice for books written for adults. I sent the link to one of my clients because you explained better than I did. But many kids like books to start in the action, especially boys. It's even harder to find the right balance for reluctant readers who won't stick around long enough for characters to hook them. Thank goodness for standouts like Rick Riordan who knows humor will get them all.

  17. Good advice. I'm glad you clarified about 'in medias res,' because I originally thought your advice contradicted all of the writing books I've read.

    I'd like to read more of your insights; books that don't have any of these problems still get rejected. There must be more issues to consider.

  18. I may be dense, but I don't get some of what you're saying. You're not supposed to start with a character thinking? What else are you supposed to start with? A tree thinking? You've already criticized starting with action or description. It seems to me if you didn't start with those you'd have no other choice but to start with a character thinking. I guess you could start with people talking, but don't they have to think to talk?

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