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, Elizabeth Kracht’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?
Elizabeth: A great first line certainly doesn’t hurt a manuscript, but if every line that follows isn’t as meticulous, that first line alone won’t be enough to keep a reader’s (or my) interest. You can’t fool the reader (or the agent). Many writers are instructed to focus on the first fifty pages of their manuscripts. We find that many manuscripts drop off or fall apart right at page fifty-one. With the traditional publishing climate as tough as it is for debut and seasoned authors, a manuscript has to be sharp from start to finish.
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?
Elizabeth: In general, I think that’s good advice, unless a writer is truly skilled at bringing a new perspective, in which case I wouldn’t limit that writer. I’m a big fan of dreams, but most of those I come across in manuscripts aren’t written and/or utilized in the way there is potential for. I worked with one of my clients to recraft the dreams in his manuscript. First, I put a limit on the number he was allowed to have: three to four, short (half a page), and spread out evenly in the manuscript. Second, I told him the reader needs to be able to bridge the dream in some way with the related content (or personally); dreams that are too abstract in manuscripts don’t work.
I find many writers focus on unimportant details, like breakfast or travel, or heavily describe a setting or character the reader can picture with no description at all, i.e. a bike messenger with no importance in the manuscript or a cold case file warehouse (I don’t need either of these described to me; I can picture them both perfectly). If your character needs to go from LA to SF, don’t make me take that car ride; start chapter two in SF. Try and start each chapter in a new setting, if possible. And high school was bad enough the first time around, don’t make me go back to class, or any other setting we’ve all experienced countless times, unless you are bringing a truly fresh perspective. I think many authors try and walk readers through the timeline of a manuscript step-by-step when readers can make timeline jumps without having to know what happened in between. In other words, in most cases, it doesn’t do anything but improve a manuscript to remove things common enough to all of us that the details only serve to slow down the read. But if a train, plane, car, classroom, or some other commonplace setting is important to the forward movement of the story, focus on getting across what’s important or unique about that chapter rather than just getting the character from point A to point B; it has to be about more than that. I like it when manuscripts have two or three important things happening in any given chapter.
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?
Elizabeth: It may not be a writer’s first pages that have piqued my interest. In some cases I have requested pages because I have a feeling about the writer after having met them at a conference. Or, perhaps, I may approach someone who I feel has an interesting story to tell. But for those fiction writers whose pages I have read and requested, usually it’s sharp writing, a forward moving pace, and a character (or characters) I’m invested in from the start. I recently skimmed an entire manuscript, knowing there was significant revision necessary, because I was so taken by the premise, themes and characters of the manuscript. I’d requested the full manuscript based solely on the query letter since it had the promise of being the exact type of project I was looking to represent.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Below are a few problems I notice in the early pages of manuscripts:
Unsympathetic or underdeveloped characters
Lack of grounding in the setting, too abstract a start
Too much description (adverb abuse)
Too much backstory
Too voice-y (too many stream-of-consciousness tangents)
No story arc
Focus on unimportant details, i.e. characters that never reappear
Chapter is too one-dimensional, not enough happening
The start isn’t sharp enough
Writing isn’t sharp enough
Introduction of too many characters
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Elizabeth: All of the above, really. Though I may have a general understanding of what a story is about, I often begin reading without having read the synopsis first. I’m usually pulled in by voice first, and will sometimes read beyond where I should if a voice is truly unique. I’m working with an author right now whose work is at minimum two or three revisions from a final draft, but her concept was unique and the voice endearing, so I called her on the phone and gave her two hours of notes. In her case, I could clearly see how she needed to reorganize her chapters to keep the pace moving. I was able to give her very specific advice, which isn’t always easy for me to see in projects where the prose is more layered.
As I evaluate that first chapter or those first pages, some of the questions I ask myself are:
1) Is the writing sharp enough?
2) Do I like this character? Does this character read too unsympathetic? Are the other characters developed enough?
3) Is the storytelling too one-dimensional? Is this chapter crucial? Is there enough happening in each chapter to drive the story forward?
4) Is there a sense of story arc?
5) Is there unnecessary backstory? Too much description? Is it overwritten? Too voice-y?
6) Is the dialogue realistic?
Many elements combine to make a manuscript irresistible to an agent. It’s important for authors to try and develop the ability to evaluate their work from as many perspectives as possible, even a structural perspective; are your chapters fairly uniform in length?
In fiction, Elizabeth represents literary, commercial, women’s, thrillers, mysteries, and YA with crossover appeal. She is intrigued by untrustworthy narrators, tragic tales of class and circumstance, and identifies with flawed and quirky yet sterling characters. In nonfiction, she particularly loves voice—or adventure-driven memoir, and other nonfiction projects that contribute to the well-being of the self or others in addition to niche projects that fill holes in the market, offer a fresh approach, or make her laugh. She also has a soft spot for nonfiction heroic pet stories.
If you’re interested in submitting to Elizabeth, please make sure to check the Kimberley Cameron & Associates website for their guidelines