Pub Rants

Starting A Novel In The Wrong Place

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STATUS: Just another manic Monday.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? RED RIVER VALLEY by Frank Macchia and Tierney Sutton

This weekend was an interesting one for me. I read our slush pile for the first time in several years. Grin.

What do I mean by that? Well, I hired Sara Megibow more than four years ago and once she was fully trained, she read all incoming submissions to set aside the ones that I actually needed to review. In other words, I read only a third of all the actual submissions that came to the agency.

As we train Anita, somebody needs to read behind her to make sure she’s forwarding the right submissions on to Sara and to me. Anita will become the reader of all things while Sara and I can have a reduced workload. There isn’t enough time in the day for us to read ALL incoming submissions.

So this weekend I read eleven different sample page submissions and one salient point became very clear. There are decent writers out there who are totally starting their stories in the wrong place which can obscure what the novel is really about. If I’ve read 30 pages and it’s clear to me that we still haven’t gotten to the right beginning, it’s a pass.

So the biggest writing culprit writers need to watch for that will indicate a story starting in the wrong place?

Back story.

One submission had several scenes that weren’t really relevant to where the novel actually started—which was in chapter three (around page 27). The opening scenes were essentially back story—info the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t. Back story needs to be integrated throughout the novel in a masterful way.

Second biggest culprit?


In other words, the writer is overcompensating for the wrong beginning by including beginning scenes with too much detail about the characters and all the underlying tension of the relationships so all that is clear before the novel can “begin.” The details are certainly good to have but they are placed in scenes that don’t actually move the story forward. In other words, the only purpose of the scene is to introduce characters. Then by chapter three or four, suddenly we have the actual story.

I know this is happening when I read and think, not bad writing here but this author needs some judicious editing as I’m getting bogged down in details but the story isn’t actually moving forward with momentum and tension.

Writers who are actually ready for agent submission have mastered the art of seamlessly integrating back story and relevant character details into a plot that moves the story forward.
Those who haven’t are probably getting passes on sample pages and no requests for the full (although an agent might highlight there is decent writing on the page).

And I know what you are thinking. Why can’t agents just say this? Because it would take too much time to point it out and clearly illustrate it. That would be critiquing the manuscript which is too time-consuming.

Which is why I’m trying to use this blog entry to point this out. I know examples would help but I don’t have permission from submitters to use their work on this blog.

ps. Thanks for all the embed songs into blog tips. I’ll check out the sites and see what I can start using.

53 Responses

  1. LeeAnn Flowers said:

    Since I know that I submitted to the slush pile this weekend, if you wish to use my pages as an example, you have my permission. If you can teach myself and others by example, then by all means, do so.

  2. Jordan McCollum said:

    Great point! I just read a craft book that said the moment of change is the best place to start the book. One of my friends pointed out that it’s also good to start with ONE incident that’s a case study for what’s wrong with the character’s life. I agree—as long as we can see that failure constitutes a change somehow (it’s a worse failure, or the character reacts differently than previous times). So the backstory is, as you say, essential for us to know—but probably not for our readers to have to witness.

    (Incidentally, I’m actually doing a blog series on backstory right now, so this has been on my mind a lot over the last week!)

  3. Anne R. Allen said:

    Thanks so much for this! I’m going to send links to this post to everybody in my critique group. So many otherwise good writers want to take us through endless introductions before they let anything happen.

  4. Tzalaran said:

    This is exactly the type of thing that really points novice writers in the right direction, explaining the fundamental elements of story that must be in place in order to grab your attention.

    Thanks for the pointer!

  5. Laurence MacNaughton, Author said:

    I always suggest to other writers that they axe the prologue. I usually go back to my first chapter, cut it, and literally take the paper manuscript pages and circle the crucial info that the reader absolutely must know. Then, I work those sentences into the manuscript over the next couple of chapters. I often find that the amount of actual “must have” information is vanishingly small. Readers are smart; they don’t need all of the backstory spelled out up front. They’ll pick it up as they go along.

  6. Vryka said:

    Cool post. Interesting since I have just critiqued another author for possibly the wrong starting point for a story.

    I’ve panned an agent for ‘not getting it’. As a moderately successful author I’ve submitted my novel and found the agent in question just did not read nearly as eruditely as I anticipated. Don understood my stuff. His junior agent did not. Something I find distressing in American Agents as opposed to British ones…

  7. jessjordan said:

    Starting in the right place is tough stuff. I had to cut 30k words on one of my WIPs b/c, well, the story didn’t really get started until the 30,001 word. 🙂 But it was crazy torture to cut all of that character-building (i.e., all of the super fun scenes that I made up just to get to know my characters) nonetheless.


  8. Lydia Kang said:

    I have to say I learned the hard way. Only after a couple of rejections I saw it in my own MS, though no agent said it explicitly. I’ve been revising it like crazy after I found the “real” beginning, about 80 pages in.

  9. Lindsay said:

    Hey, I’ll be happy to send you some of my novel beginnings to use as examples. If I can’t be published and in the bookstore, being the bad example on an agent’s blog is the next best thing. Hmm. Okay, maybe it’s the 93rd best thing, but fame is fame!

  10. jrmaclean27 said:

    This is utterly timely for moi as, having written the novel I needed to write, I am currently writing the one readers need to enjoy. Yes, they are the same book. And thanks to Brenda Baker, Yoda aka, who pointed me in the right direction (and towards this blog).

    J.R. MacLean

  11. Maryann Miller said:

    One of the best tips I received early on was the fish-cleaning method of editing. Cut off the head and tail of a scene. I took that suggestion to heart and even cut off the head and tail of dialogue. Not literally, of curse, because not everything can be cut. But it does make me constantly aware of how many filler words can be in narrative and dialogue.

  12. Liz Czukas said:

    Thank you for the very straight-forward information. It’s always great to get the kind of hints that apply to everyone.

    – Liz

  13. Dawn said:

    I hate when I’m writing and realize I’ve started at the wrong place. But usually I can salvage some of what I wrote. Btw: Love Manic Monday 🙂

  14. A. Shelton said:

    Thanks for this. It’s an important thing to know.

    For those who need help with figuring out where the real beginnings of their stories are, there are sites that assist authors. One such site is Forward Motion for Writers. (It is the only one I know, but all the writers I know there are very helpful and kind and some could probably give references to other helpful writing sites.)

  15. Cole Kleinschmit said:

    Haha! When the target is painted that clearly, it’s easy to figure out when it’s on your own back! Mea culpa.

    If it will help others avoid the mistake, you most certainly have my permission to use my submission.

  16. folksinmt said:

    I was poking around on your website the other day and I couldn’t see how many sample pages you ask for in a submission–so I’m glad this subject came up. How many pages do you like to see along with the query?

  17. Vicki said:

    I tried to point out to a writer I’m critiquing that his first couple chapters drag terribly, but he came back with, “If I don’t show how things ‘used to be’, then I can’t show how they change!” I understand the concept of showing contrast, but at the same time I don’t think it’s working the way he thinks it is.

    Suggestions on how to break it to him another way?

  18. Jen P said:

    This is simple but insightful. And as I start writing my opening chapter today after months of research, perfect timing. Thank you.

  19. Sean Wills said:

    Learning where to start a story has been one of the most useful things I’ve done for improving my own writing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read something (particularly if it’s fantasy) that contains a mind-numbing amount of unnecessary padding before the plot gets started.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Great advice. I think we as writers concentrate on our own submissions so much we forget how much competition for agent spots are out there. I recently left my agent Gary Heidt after many years together and now am back to the search for agents. I do have several full ms. under review right now, and sometimes the anxiousness of waiting for a reply outweigh the reality of how many submissions the agent has to go through. The first chapters are so important.

  21. Simon Hay Soul Healer said:

    I know everyone may not be able to afford it but getting your work professionally copy edited before submitting might solve this problem. I’m not agented or published but I recently did this, and the editor pointed out this exact same problem. I’m confident now that my manuscript is polished. I think if you take this confidence to querying you stand a good chance of success.

    My advice for finding an editor. Follow their blog and see how they interact with followers. Ask lots of questions. Don’t let your heart or enthusiasm decide. Take your time. I hope you find a good match. Good luck. Thank you Kristin. Cheers, Simon.

  22. Suze said:

    Although I realized this a year or so ago – and cut 30 pages clean away from my ms, I STILL have to remind myself of it every day. Thanks for the post.

  23. Elizabeth Lynd said:

    Vicki, it sounds to me like the writer isn’t going to hear you. Some people aren’t ready, and I’ve found in critique that the more defensive they are, the less likely they are to change–including what needs to be changed. Your job is to critique; the rest is up to the writer. You’ve done your job. Maybe he’ll be ready later, maybe not. But it’s down to him.

    I know my WIP currently does not start where it will start; part of that is just writerly housekeeping that is yet to be done this draft go round. But getting the start right is a tough thing to learn. I think I’m correct about where to begin, but I’m open to change, definitely. There’s a reason they call it a first draft!

  24. Timothy Fish said:

    James Scott Bell has said that a story should begin with a disturbance in the lead’s life. As a reminder to myself, I call this the initial disturbance. Wherever we choose to start, the first part of the story will be what the reader sees as the status quo for our protagonist and that won’t change until we get to the inciting incident later in the story. We want our status quo to be interesting enough to carry the story for a while, so we want to start at a point when the status quo is about to “kill” the character. I don’t mean that literally, but when we consider a book like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer we see a simple beginning of his aunt trying to find him and yet that beginning reveals that Tom would like to have more freedom than his aunt allows.

  25. fallen monkey said:

    “backstory–info the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t.”

    Yep, a trusted reader called me out on this early on, and I realized the first few pages that I’d written were simply me thinking through the characters and what I wanted to convey about them…I didn’t initially have the patience to let the story’s progression reveal these characteristics more naturally, and the subsequent revisions are so much stronger.

    And re: Jordan’s comment above about starting “with ONE incident that’s a case study for what’s wrong with the character’s life,” I’m hoping that is an effective way of beginning, as it’s what my first chapter briefly captures.

    Thanks to you and your commenters for the valuable insights!

  26. Anonymous said:

    Ack, I’m struggling with this at the moment. I got a personalised rejection of a partial saying that the opening chapter ‘was backstory’, when it is in fact the start of the story – a cop discovering a theft and being set on the case.

    My betas all liked the start and one even said I started too late – I should have shown the theft!

    >< I’ve looked and looked and I can’t see where else I can start it because that is where the story starts. Again, ack!

  27. Keeks said:


    I actually rewrote the entire first 30 pages of my novel after hearing you speak about pitches, plot catalysts, etc.

    I am forever thankful for that wake-up call.

  28. Liz Lee Heinecke said:

    My heart dropped when I read your post, since I’m pretty sure my story was in the slush pile. You’re more than welcome to use my pages as an example. I’d love to have your insight as to how I can make my story better!

  29. Anonymous said:

    Fantasy Author Terry Brooks addressed this in his memoir/writing advice book.

    I paraphrase, but he basically said, Nothings starts at the beginning. Things tend to begin and end in the middle of other things, so do yourself and your readers a favor and start in the middle of something interesting instead of something boring.

    The book is ‘Sometimes the Magic Works’ and it is an excellent read regardless of what genre you write in.

  30. Talei Loto said:

    Hello Kristin,

    I really enjoy your blog, and todays post is perfect for me right now. I knew my first chapter had issues and all of this makes sense. I am going back to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite! Practise makes perfect!

    Thanks for the great advice,

  31. Lars Pergou said:

    Interesting discussion, and good general advice if not specific advice, it would seem to me. I assume it does not mean that *some* backstory/exposition is not useful at the beginning of a story. I can see that two chapters is a bit much!

    I wouldn’t like to think that a somewhat inexperienced agent’s assistant (not in this case I’m sure, but you get my drift) had a check-list that looked something like this:

    backstory — out!
    adverbs — out!
    telling not showing –out!

    That’s what I usually call ‘creative fiction fascism’ (but again not in this case).

    It’s worth counting the number of adverbs Rowling uses in her dialogue attributions to see how readers don’t really care much about creative fiction ‘rules’ as long as it’s a good read.

  32. Ebony McKenna. said:

    I’ve just been reading competition entries and I’ve found this same problem – too much back story at the start of the book.

    Excellent advice, I’m going to link to this post on my blog because it’s such excellent information and advice.

  33. Wendy Nelson Tokunaga said:

    This feedback is worth its price in gold as is all of Kristin’s advice. Finding the right start for a novel is probably one of the toughest parts of the process. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m teaching a craft class on this very subject called “Strong Beginnings” this Saturday 5/8. Info here:

  34. Gloria said:


    I always learn from your posts. Thanks. My Professor is drilling home the same topic. I forwarded your post to him.


  35. Nicole Chardenet said:

    Good to know! I would like to see more posts like this, on what writers are doing right/wrong. Haven’t seen as much of these lately. Maybe get Anita’s thoughts from time to time 😉

  36. Nicole Chardenet said:

    One other comment I could make: It strikes me that the “not too much backstory” rule agents & editors are always going on about isn’t nearly as important as they claim. Because I keep running across books that break this rule over and over again, so despite y’all’s complaints about it, you’re still letting many of these get through the process. An example I’m reading now is “The Perfect Storm” which should have been called “The Perfect Bore” because I’m almost halfway through and it’s not even raining yet. Although a big wave has just crashed into the boat so does this mean the storm is starting? NO!!! It means it’s time to go back to yet ANOTHER long draggy passage about New England fishing techniques, sword fishing in particular, boat equipment, Newfoundland geography, how sucky it is to be at sea for a month without women, etc.

    Hell, I’m FROM New England and I find this boring! A storm, a storm, my kingdom for even a freaking drizzle! Granted, “The Perfect Storm” is non-fiction but I recently read Anna Quindlen’s “Rise & Shine” which snuck in the boring backstory every other sentence, it seemed. That can slow a story down just as much as whole chunks or chapters of backstory.

    This sort of thing just encourages beginning writers to ignore these “rules”, y’know!

  37. Victoria Mixon said:

    I had a fascinating conversation about this last weekend with Millicent Dillon, five-time O. Henry Award-winner and author of You Are Not I and A Little Original Sin, the canonical biographies of Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles.

    I mentioned the need to start with the first exciting thing that happens in your plot, and she said (nicely), “No, I have to disagree.” We talked about Henry James. We talked about Raymond Chandler. We talked about changing times.

    For a breathtaking trip through a gorgeous novel that not only starts slow, but appears not to start at all, read Maria Dermout’s lovely The Ten Thousand Things.

    Then come back to this day and age and start your story with your powerful hook.

  38. Both Sides of the Dream said:

    How do you think Alice Hoffman gets away with the beginning of The Ice Queen (a favorite of mine)? The first 13-16 pages are “life in fast forward” from an inciting incident that happened when the protagonist was a child. It is all backstory/an information dump. Why is this not okay? It sure worked well for her!

    If the beginning of a story starts with an event that changes the protagonist’s life at a young age, and then another incident happens when the protagonist is an adult that forces her to finally confront that painful event as a child, couldn’t the book logically begin with that backstory event, as in the beginning of the book The Ice Queen, and quickly work it’s way up to the present?

    I’d love comments, because this is where I’m stuck in writing my novel!