Today, I am honored to introduce agent extraordinaire, Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc.
Instead of doing a general agent interview, I wanted to delve into a specific aspect of submission – those critical first five pages. I asked Bridget to provide insight into what speaks to her as an agent, and what common mistakes are typically made by writers.
I think you will find her answers both thoughtful and instructive.
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?
Bridget: The first line sets the tone for the whole book. It doesn’t need to be spectacular and attention-grabbing, but it should be something special. You can do this through shock, through voice, or through content. Consider, for example, some first lines I can recite off the top of my head: from Franny Billingsley’s CHIME, from J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, and from Sarah Rees Brennan’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON.
CHIME begins: “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.” Here you’ve got the attention-grabbing, full-of-foreshadowing first sentence. You’ve simply got to keep reading to find out what exactly she’s confessed. This is a great first line when it’s completely divorced from the book, but to be honest, it’s one of my least favorite sentences in CHIME. It doesn’t capture Briony’s gorgeous, original voice. But it’s a powerful hook that pulls you into the story, and if you can write one of these, it’s a great way to get agents (and everyone else!) reading.
HARRY POTTER opens: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Rowling has a fantastic omniscient-third-person voice that we rarely see because most of the series is from Harry’s POV, and this sentence is dripping with it. It’s that “thank you very much” that gets me. And yet none of the content is striking or even interesting. Rowling uses the mundane to show you you’re about to read an extraordinary story, and she pulls it off because the voice is so vivid. I can hear this sentence in my head.
THE DEMON’S LEXICON starts: “The pipe under the sink was leaking again.” A perfectly serviceable sentence, but not one that really stands out. And the next line: “It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.” Again, a fine sentence. But it’s not shocking, and it doesn’t show Nick’s unusual voice to very good advantage. Instead, this opening shows you that Nick is the kind of guy who has a favorite sword, and it neatly displays this novel’s lovely juxtaposition of the domestic and the astonishing. Character and theme. This is a perfect example of how your first line doesn’t need to be extraordinary to be good, but it should establish a bit of what the reader will be seeing.
Amy: Many times a writer is told to stay away from common beginnings like dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car, etc…What are some common openings that you see repeatedly?
Bridget: A lot of writers begin by setting the scene. I understand the thinking behind this, but honestly, it’s boring for the reader and a bit of a crutch for the writer. Describing what you see in your head is a good way to get the story flowing in your first draft, but in later drafts, you should rewrite that to something a little catchier. This might mean you have to restructure the entire first scene, but it’s worth it. Readers tend to skim description: do you really want people skimming your first paragraph?
Then there’s the opposite: stories that start in the middle of action. Like the above, this is something that works in movies, but it doesn’t translate well to the page. A first-page explosion might seem like a flashy way to draw in readers, but it’s hard to care when we don’t know the people who are getting blown up, and fight scenes are too chaotic to follow when we’re just seeing names for the first time. We need something to grab onto.
Amy: When you have recently asked for partials or fulls, what was it about those first pages that drew you in?
Bridget: For me, the query is the biggest motivator. I’m mostly interested in the concept, the characters, and whether or not you can write. But a few gorgeous sentences or a really compelling voice will get an instant request! I’ve been known to request a manuscript because of a single killer metaphor. Anything that makes your first few pages stand out helps. Think about what keeps you reading past the first few pages when you pick up a random book off the shelf.
Amy: What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Bridget: Grammatical mistakes: if you didn’t refine your sample pages enough to make a good first impression, I’m going to assume you didn’t take care with the rest of the manuscript either.
Cliches: An over reliance on clichés is both boring for the reader and a sign that the writer hasn’t read enough to know how prevalent clichés are. The first time you encounter one, you’re blown away by it. It takes repeated exposure – the same thing that teaches you what good writing looks like and what works in the current market – to learn how overused they are. Plus, I get hundreds of queries each month and can only read a handful of manuscripts: you want yours to stand out.
Too much explanation: Again, this is boring. You need to have a solid and well-thought-out idea of your world, your characters’ background, and your premise. But then you need to dole it out in amounts that let me piece it all together myself. Try writing out a story bible first, so you’re not tempted to dump all that in the first chapter of your novel.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Bridget: For me, everything is voice. I rarely fall in love with a book on the first page, but when I do (as with, for example, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY), it’s always because of a voice that resonated with me. In the case of GUERNSEY, that was a lively, opinionated, adorable character whom I instantly wanted to spend more time with. But you don’t need to make me fall in love on the first page. All you need to do is make me want to fall in love in the next 300 or so pages – enough to want to read the rest of the manuscript.
My sincere thanks go out to Bridget who took time out of her very busy schedule to answer my questions. If you are interested in submitting to Ms. Smith, please make sure to check the Dunham Literary, Inc. website for their guidelines.
Bridget Smith is an associate agent at Dunham Literary, Inc. Previously, she was an intern at Don Congdon Associates, worked at a secondhand book store in Connecticut, and evaluated short story submissions for Tor.com under Liz Gorinsky and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. She graduated from Brown University with a major in anthropology in 2010.
She is currently accepting queries for middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction, and contemporary. Send an email with her name in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.