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 five 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, Alyssa Eisner Henkin’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 that to you as an agent?
Alyssa: While there are some great and quotable first lines in books I represent and in literature in general, for me it’s more about a feeling of being drawn in by the first couple pages/first chapter than one line in particular, though a great first line is never a bad thing.
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?
Alyssa: For me, I think the strongest openings are those that don’t dump tons of back-story or description without giving the reader i.e. me a reason to really care about the character. It’s establishing that emotional connection that is essential to keep me reading.
Amy: When you’ve responded to a writer to request a partial or full, what was it about their first pages that piqued your interest?
Alyssa: It can be many things. I’m a sucker for well-drawn settings, so often an intriguing sense of atmosphere, if conveyed in a query, goes a long way with me. I’m also intrigued by salient comps to other books or hybrids when something is pitched as x meets y, since I need to do that kind of pitching a lot to hook editor interest. Above all, though, if I’m connecting with the writing, I’m likely requesting the project in some capacity.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Alyssa: I think the biggest thing that doesn’t work with me is that information dump…the pressure to want to tell everything about the character’s back-story without really giving the reader a reason to care about the dilemma at hand. Part and parcel of that, writers sometimes don’t create enough mystery and intrigue. I think back to the first line of Mixed Up Files… “Claudia knew she couldn’t pull off the old fashioned kind of running away”, and off the bat, I’m intrigued. What does that mean exactly by old fashioned? And why can’t she pull it off? Leaving the reader guessing and turning the pages is key.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Alyssa: Off the bat, it’s voice. Likely I’ve already liked the concept described in the query letter, or otherwise I wouldn’t be reading the manuscript in the first place. And pacing is often hard to tell until you’re at least a few chapters in, and have some sense of where the story is going. But voice is omnipotent.
A former Simon & Schuster book editor, Alyssa Eisner Henkin has been a literary agent at Trident Media Group for six years, where she specializes in fiction for young people. Her clients include R.J. Palacio, Sarah MacLean and Lauren Barnholdt, and she’s always on the look-out for intriguing debut novels as well as picture-book author illustrators. She loves contemporary and historical alike, and if your book is set in The South, in a mansion, or contains such funny lines that it impels one to snarf one’s coffee while reading, there’s a good bet Alyssa will be interested.
If you’re interested in submitting to Alyssa, please make sure to check the Trident Media Group website for their guidelines.