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, Adriann Ranta’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?
Adriann: It’s pretty stinkin’ important. The first few lines of a book are when an author first earns the reader’s trust, and having a solid first line tells the reader “I got you.” It’s the first hook that makes agents, editors, and book buyers keep reading—it’s rare to find the sort of patient reader that’ll give an author a few pages (or chapters) to grab their interest. It’s tough out there!
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?
Adriann: Weather reports! Stop reporting weather! “It was a dark and stormy night” is a literary gag for a reason. I also hate the “girl running through the woods” scene, where something unnamed is chasing her. I think it’s a common authorial mistake to open a book like you’d open a movie: mid-punch, mid-storm, setting the scene with spooky fog, etc. I’m all about books that start with action, but it’s not the action that necessarily hooks readers, it’s the knowledge of what’s immediately at stake.
Jodi Foster can open the movie version of “The Silence of the Lambs” with running through the woods. Thomas Harris, however, opens the novel with “Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.” See what I mean?
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?
Adrian: I look for clarity of writing, fun concept, a narrator I trust to entertain me for the hours it’ll take to read their book, but more than anything else I look for voice. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I want the narrator to be interesting, clever, economical, and memorable.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Adriann: I wouldn’t call this a mistake, but authors love to start out books with quotes from songs, poems, etc. to set the tone. I nearly always skim over these to get to the writing, and authors are also generally unaware that they’ll have to pay to get permission to include those quotes in a published book. They’re often not worth the (sometimes big) expense.
I’m also not a fan of character descriptions where it isn’t relevant to the story, especially if it’s just to tell me that a character is beautiful. “She brushed her blonde hair,” “her twirled her messy curls,” and so on. If it’s important to the plot that I know that the protag has a fantastic tooshie, or that she has sparking white teeth, I’m all about it. If a big, bushy nest of curls is a fundamental part of a character, that’s cool too. But deciding that a character’s hair is auburn and twinkles in the moonlight? That’s annoying.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Adriann: All of these aspects are crucial, but voice is still the most important to me. Pacing, plotting, concept, setting, and authentic-feeling character development are all instrumental to writing a great book, but voice is the thing that makes it rise off the page and become real. The magic, the je ne sais quoi. I’ve passed on books with the most amazing, saleable concepts (and watched them go on to be represented and published elsewhere!), but there’s no combination of editorial notes that’ll inject voice—it has to come from the author.
Adriann Ranta is a literary agent at Wolf Literary Services, actively acquiring all genres for all age groups. While an avid reader of most subjects and themes, she is most interested in gritty, realistic, true-to-life stories with conflicts based in the real world. She likes edgy, dark, quirky voices, unique settings, and everyman stories told with a new spin. She is particularly interested in “cool women doing badass things”: books that examine the modern female experience, profiles of groundbreaking women thinking outside the box, and the female perspective of fresh, exciting, subversive moments of history, science, or craft.
To query Adriann Ranta, email: firstname.lastname@example.org