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, Diana Finch’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?
Diana: For me, the first line alone is not as important as the entire first page and first scene of the novel. I’ve seen manuscripts with very clever first lines and then there’s a falling-off and the rest of the page doesn’t live up to the promise of the first line.
However a weak first sentence is a disaster – there’s really no reason to read further, especially if there’s an obvious typo or grammatical error in the first sentence.
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?
Diana: The most common opening I see, by far, is a detailed, lyrical description of the weather – usually the sky for some reason, a sunrise or a sunset. Of course you want to establish a setting immediately – readers are used to watching film and tv, mediums in which they instantly see the setting and the physical qualities of the characters. But there can be more original and more apt ways to do that than by describing the weather in the first sentences of your novel.
Amy: When you have recently asked for partials or fulls, what was it about those first pages that drew you in?
Diana: What draws me in is the voice and also the presentation of the book’s central problem. I do believe that novels should begin much like mysteries do. That is, in the first scene, the reader should learn what the crime is, who was murdered – or, if it’s not a mystery, what the central problem of the story is. The reader should also be given a reason to read through to the very end – there has to be something that the reader needs to find out that she can only learn by reading through to the end of the story.
I’ve recently taken on a first novel in which the voice drew me in – it’s a really witty, insightful running commentary on the absurdities of working for a big corporation. I didn’t find out until more than mid-way through the novel that there was also a mystery to be solved, high-level skullduggery going on in the company that the heroine needs to expose. So the author and I are now working on bringing that aspect up into the opening of the novel, so that the reader at least knows that there will be more to the story than witty insights, however enjoyable those are – although maybe the heroine still won’t know until she’s so involved in the situation that there’s no easy way out . . .
Amy: What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Diana: I think that hands down the biggest mistake writers make is to load the opening with exposition – nondramatic explanations of the context and background. I realize it’s tricky because this is information that the reader often needs to know, and it’s definitely information the author needs to know and to work through, and it’s easy to think of it as ‘here’s what you need to know before I tell you this story.’ But this kind of writing usually doesn’t belong in the opening pages, which should be focused on a dramatic scene that immediately involves the reader with the characters and the story.
A related mistake is to have an opening that involves something that’s not mentioned at all in your query letter – for instance, an opening scene that involves a minor character not mentioned in the query, or a bit of prologue that hasn’t been referenced. You don’t want an agent to find a disconnect between your query and the first five pages, as those may be the only pages the agent ever reads.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Diana: All three, in that the voice must be distinctive, even idiosyncratic, and appealing to me, and the opening scene must be dramatic or have a strong dramatic tension. (It doesn’t however need to be an action scene – dramatic tension doesn’t necessarily require action.) I think it’s better to say that the concept needs to be distinctive rather than unique. There are those who think that there are no original plots for stories any more, and one of our greatest writers, Shakespeare, used plots from previous works by others and from history. I am always hoping to find a well-written story about life as it is lived now – not a unique concept, but a story full of great observation and wonderful insight into what’s going on in our lives today.
And rather than looking for a unique concept, I look for plenty of creative, imaginative elements in the work – by which I don’t mean fantasy elements (I like gritty real-world fiction), but original and inspired material.
Diana represents a wide variety of books and has particular enthusiasm for narrative nonfiction, memoir and journalists who are writing about current events. She opened her own agency in 2003 after nearly 18 years with the Ellen Levine Literary Agency.
If you’re interested in submitting to Diana, please make sure to check The Diana Finch Literary Agency for their guidelines.
NOTE: This is my final post for 2012. Happy Holidays to you all. Here’s to a 2013 filled with writing, reading and overall good health and success!