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 MS a shining gem that will be requested time and time again.
Today, I am proud to share Literary Agent, Amy Boggs’ perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages. And yes, it is hard to outline an interview with someone who shares the same first name as you!
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?
Amy Boggs: The first line is very important, but what’s more important is the second line. And more important than that is the third, and all the way down to the end. The author should build a relationship with their reader and, much like a good pick-up line, a good first line can catch that first interest but it will not be enough to hold it.
It is also supremely important that the first line matches the rest of your book. I actually see this quite often, where it’s clear that the writer came up with a totally brilliant first line but that over the revision process the rest of the novel moved into a different tone or direction but that line stayed the same, and so now it feels off. Killing our darlings doesn’t just apply to characters.
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 beginnings you recommend writers stay away from?
Amy Boggs: Waking and traveling are the big ones. In urban fantasy, any kind of bar or club scene is rote. In YA and children’s, there’s also the protagonist finding out they’re moving, arriving to their new house, starting up the first day of school, or “It was the most boring normal day ever and I was so bored.” On a psychological level, these kind of beginnings make sense; most of them are on the crux of changes and new beginnings anyway, so of course you’d start a novel there. But that’s what makes them so boring, so expected. “I went to a bar to hit on chicks and that’s when I met your mom” is an expected beginning. “I wolf-whistled at a cute guy who was running around the track on campus, and that’s when I met your dad’s roommate” is an unexpected beginning. Which one do you want to hear more about? My money’s on the latter.
Of course, these examples can all be worked in brilliant ways to be great openings, but the main thing is to know that you’re working with a cliché so you can consciously play with reader expectation. Doing things in ignorance or because they are easy is where writing runs astray.
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?
Amy Boggs: What piques my interest is something new. This is not to say that a rewrite of Twilight with chupacabras and bigfoot will appeal to me; that’s just painting the horse another color. (Side note: Twitter hivemind helped me decide that the plural of bigfoot is bigfoot; like moose.) Newness instead comes from being beyond clichés and having a character who shows why they are worth following from page one. It’s a hard thing to describe, so I’ll give a couple of examples from now-published books I pulled from the slush pile.
The first is DRAGON BOUND, a paranormal romance by Thea Harrison. Thea had a query that was so-so, but her pages really drew me in. Here’s the first line:
Pia was blackmailed into committing a crime more suicidal than she could possibly have imagined, and she had no one to blame but herself. That line does a lot of heavy lifting. We meet our heroine, we’re introduced to the inciting incident, and we get the tone of the book, with Thea’s wonderful humor. It also gives us great questions to propel interest forward: What was she blackmailed for? What suicidal crime did she commit? Why is she the one to blame? The answers to all these questions are important to the plot and to Pia’s character. Her first five pages aren’t a throwaway opening; everything in them is tied to what comes next, and the tension is there from the very start. In the pages, Thea also, quite brilliantly, keeps weighing the familiar with the fantastic. Pia internally laments about how her ex screwed her over, something many people have gone through. But he screwed her over by blackmailing her; that’s unusual. And what did he blackmail her into doing? Stealing from the hoard of a dragon. Boom. The balance of the familiarity of Pia’s feelings with the uniqueness of her situation makes for a compelling opening.
The second is THE CITY’S SON, a dark YA urban fantasy by Tom Pollock. Here’s the first paragraph:
I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like war paint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burned stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat. Very different tone and opening. Tom focuses more on the situation, but notice he does a similar reveal to Thea’s: The character’s hunting. But wait, he’s hunting in a city? But wait, the thing he is hunting turns rats into charred bundles?! There is that little bit of normalcy, followed by the strangeness of the world. We soon find out that our narrator, Fil, is hunting the spirit of a train through the railways of modern day London. And then what does Tom do? He ups the stakes by having Fil find the body of a boy. The only thing missing would be a way of attaching the reader to the character, but Tom addresses that, too, by having a moment where this strange hunter admits to being unable to go to one part of the city. There is a being there that even he fears. That little glimpse makes Fil, the son of the Goddess of London, feel very human. His situation might be unique, but his emotions are familiar. That is a powerful blend.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Amy Boggs: This is a tricky one, because for me the only mistakes that really matter are those that deal with the writing itself. But “not engaging my interest” is not a very helpful answer. So here are some ways opening pages fail to engage:
Starting in the wrong spot. From my query reading, I feel that many writers start their story too early. This is understandable, because as a writer you need some time to get to know your character, but much of this needs to come out in later revisions. A fair few also start too late, throwing us into the middle of action that the reader doesn’t have a reason to care about yet. It’s a balancing act, finding the right moment where caring about the protagonist and plot action converge.
There is also starting the pages with a non-main character. As an agent, there’s a bit of whiplash when you’re reading a query all about a specific group of characters and story, and then the pages start and none of that story or those characters are in the pages. As a reader, why would I want to spend that time getting invested in a character that isn’t the main one? Often these non-main character starters die or disappear after the opening pages, either because they are a parental figure whose death/disappearance shapes the protagonist’s journey or because they are a hapless victim to the Big Bad to show just how big and bad they are. So a reader gets invested in them and then, whoops, that person doesn’t matter, here’s the *real* person you should care about. I find it irritating. It also ties to my answer to question one. You want to hook the reader for the long haul, and the best way to do that is give them a protagonist they will want to follow right from page 1.
Starting without any questions. I think curiosity is a great way to drive the reader and create line-by-line tension. When a reader says, “I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next.” it is because there are questions that they want to see answered. They don’t even have to be big questions; a roommate once told me that a book drew her in with simply the question of, “Will the protagonist be able to get off the phone in time to save his pasta from overcooking?” That is an average moment made tense. What I normally see in openings are average moments presented as average, likely in the hopes that when the plot starts, it seems more exciting. I think it is better to present the average as unique and then let the even more exciting elements build on that strong start. (For example, the Harry Potter series starts with a businessman commuting to work. Could have come off as plain average, but Rowling instead makes the average (amusingly) terrible.)
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Amy Boggs: All of the above? My, I am horrible at answering questions. But I think I’m going to go with voice. Yes, I’m quite sure writers are sick of hearing it, but the thing is, voice is an amalgamation of everything in your writing. It’s what makes you the storyteller, rather than someone making an elaborate list of events. In high school, my brother had a very clever friend who could come up with in-class quips quite easily, but he couldn’t pull off the delivery to save his life. My brother, bless him, couldn’t come up with such clever observations but his delivery always had the class rolling. Their powers combined, they were the perfect class clown. As a writer, you need both. It doesn’t matter how funny a joke is if you don’t deliver it right, it doesn’t matter how good a story is if you don’t tell it right. Your voice is your delivery.
Amy Boggs joined The Donald Maass Literary Agency in 2009. She is looking for fantasy and science fiction, especially urban fantasy, paranormal romance, steampunk, YA/children’s, and alternate history. Historical fiction, Westerns, and works that challenge their genre are also welcome. She is seeking projects with characters who are diverse in any and all respects, such as (but not limited to) gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. She is not looking for thrillers, women’s fiction, or picture books. She is a graduate of Vassar College.
If you’re interested in submitting to Amy, please make sure to check The Donald Maass Literary Agency for their guidelines.