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, Laurie McLean’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?
Laurie: A great first line is huge. It sets the agent’s expectations from the very start that this author takes time and care to begin their tale. I advise YA writers to read the first lines of their absolute favorite books and see how in one sentence these authors have impressed the reader. Then make it a goal to make sure every first line in anything you write is the most incredible sentence you can write. Not overwritten, just perfect for each book.
Here’s a link to a wonderful blog post by my colleague Michael Larsen that not only talks about great first lines, he gives lots of examples. It’s very inspirational: http://sfwriters.org/blog/great-opening-lines-how-to-grab-readers-and-never-let-them-go/
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?
Laurie: Oh, yes. No dreams or mundane every day activities, please. Commonplace school action is also a big no-no, as in sitting in class and having something embarrassing happen. Or in the school cafeteria. Or on the bus. Try to find something different, something that encapsulates the purpose or theme of the book, and use that as your opening scene. Make it as unique as your story.
My advice with both first lines and with opening scenes, is that these are things that can be fixed and crafted during the editing phase of the writing process. Just get the words on the page initially. Write the book. But when you write ‘The End’, it is really only the beginning. Then you must edit like a house-a-fire. Then you must spend a lot more time crafting the words, pruning your prose, to turn your writing from good to publishable. A great book is not written, it’s rewritten!
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?
Laurie: Most often I respond to the voice of the writer in those first 10 pages, which is what I request. It is difficult to tell much about the story in the first 10 pages, but I can certainly tell if the writer has his or her writing “chops” down. I can tell a lot about pacing, word choice, voice, characterization, grammar fu, and other things in those first few sentences. But voice is the big one. How do you make your story stand out from the other thousand submissions I receive each month.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Laurie: Mistakes could include delving into backstory (don’t do this AT ALL in the opening scenes), telling the reader too much up front, slowing the pace to a crawl with exposition, grammar mistakes (especially words that sound right but are wrong), misspellings, set up (telling the reader you’re going to tell them a story), overwriting (using too many words to say something), overuse of adverbs and adjectives, or jumping into the action in media res to the point where the reader is confused and does not read past the opening scene.
Again, all these things could have been fixed during the editing process. Writing is a journey, a process, and you learn more about your craft and improve it with every book you write. Most submissions I read are just not ready yet and the writer is impatient to be published so they throw it out there and hope and pray. At least put it in a virtual drawer for a few weeks, or even better months, after you finish writing the first draft. Your brain will think about it at odd times of the day when you’re doing something else and certainly when you sleep. Then start editing and keep editing until you absolutely cannot make it any better. THEN, and only then, start your querying process with agents and editors.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Laurie: A unique concept will get me interested in reading something. But if the voice isn’t unique and strong and compelling, I won’t read very far into the manuscript before I reject it. It may seem unfair, and I often hear, “But if you’ll only read the fourth chapter. It really picks up and gets going there!” If that’s the case, start your book with chapter four and keep going!
Thanks for letting me answer some of these important questions, Amy.
-Laurie McLean, Senior Agent, Larsen Pomada Literary Agents