If you’re like me, you toil for hours editing and fine-tuning the first pages of your manuscript. You look at the first lines to make sure they are compelling and tight. You examine the next few paragraphs, hoping your MC’s voice is already taking hold of the reader.
The First Five Frenzy is all about getting an agent’s perspective on what works, and what fails, in those first pages of a manuscript. By reading each agent’s comments, I hope you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that will be requested time and time again.
Today, I am proud to share Literary Agent, Sarah Negovetich’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.
Amy: Many writers have the impression that a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an agent?
Sarah: I think the first line is important, but it’s usually not a deal breaker if it isn’t the most awesome sentence I’ve read all week. What I don’t want to see is any grammar issues, passive voice, telling or info dumps. Writers will point to the greats of literature sometimes as their “get out of jail free card” for writing overly descriptive and oxygen-deprivation inducing first sentences. They forget to factor in that reader perceptions and expectations have changed from 100 years ago. Faulkner got away with it. You will not.
Amy: Many times a writer is told to stay away from common openings like dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car, etc. What are some common openings you recommend writers stay away from?
Sarah: Yes, all of these. I also advise against extreme world-building. This is where the author tells us every little detail about a character and their location before getting to the present action of the story. The reason we advise against all of these is because they are boring. I’ve seen myself eat breakfast. It’s a real snooze fest. That doesn’t mean these openings are automatic passes. Consider the main character sitting down to breakfast where he has to arm wrestle his 11 siblings for the only two slices of bread in the house. This is the opposite of a boring breakfast.
The opening is all about convincing the reader they want to turn the page. You can open with almost anything so long as it captures the reader’s attention and not in a gimmicky way.
Amy: When you’ve responded to a writer to request a partial or full manuscript, what was it about their first pages that piqued your interest?
Sarah: For me, the plot comes first. If I’m requesting pages, I’ve seen enough from the query to convince me that the plot is both unique and interesting. After that, I’m looking for clean pages that deliver on the promise of the query. Not to place any more pressure on the query, but it’s really a promise of what you will deliver to readers in the novel. If your query is funny, I want funny opening pages. If your query has a snarky voice, I want to see that in the opening pages.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Sarah: The most common mistake I see is a distant POV. A lot of readers assume that first person is automatically engaging because we are in the characters head, but that’s not true. Consider these two lines:
ex. 1: I felt a cold breeze across my bare arms and it caused me to shiver.
ex 2: A cold breeze brushed my bare arms sending spidery tingles along my skin.
This is hardly poetic genius, but it should be clear which is a better sentence. The first distances us from the character by telling us how she felt. The second lets us experience the sensation along with her.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Sarah: I think it’s impossible to isolate a single aspect though plot is a biggie for me. Great first pages use each of these to their advantage. I know I’ve read something good when I get to the end of the sample and am surprised I already read five pages. It’s a no if I stop at page two and scroll down to see how much more there is.
Sarah Negovetich knows you don’t know how to pronounce her name and she’s okay with that. Her first love is YA, because at seventeen the world is your oyster. Only oysters are slimy and more than a little salty; it’s accurate if not exactly motivational. We should come up with a better cliché. Sarah divides her time between her own writing and working with amazing authors as a Jr. Agent and PR Team Leader at Corvisiero Literary Agency. Her background is in marketing, which is not as glamorous as it sounds. FYI, your high school algebra teacher was right when they told you every job uses math. Sarah uses her experience to help authors craft amazing stories, build platforms, and promote their work.
If you’re interested in submitting to Sarah, please check the Corvisiero Literary Agency website for their guidelines.