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, Jessica Sinsheimer’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?
Jessica: It’s not the first line, necessarily, but the first few lines. It’s strange — I feel like we read for voice, initially, and that’s very hard to pin down. There was a paragraph in the first ten pages (included with a query) recently that had totally normal details layered wonderfully. The protagonist noted a steaming lasagna on the table and– again, lasagna is not so unusual — for some reason, because it was described so simply and perfectly, I wondered to myself for a week about when “the lasagna book” was coming in. (I mentioned this to the author, and I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m nuts, but that’s neither here nor there.) 🙂
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?
Jessica: I agree with all of these — unless you’re very sure that your writing makes them different from any other opening like this before.
I get a lot of “alarm clock goes off, character gets into shower” openings, and — ughh — the dialogue opening, where two characters talk about nothing for pages, and I have no idea where they are, who they are, or what they’re doing. I prefer a much higher ratio of narration to dialogue in those first few pages.
Also — weather. Please do not spend your first two paragraphs talking about the weather.
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?
Jessica: It’s different every time, actually. Most of the time, it’s simply that I’m intrigued and want to read it — the same way we’re intrigued when reading jacket copy and the first few pages in a bookstore, or on Amazon. There’s something there that we want to explore further.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Jessica: I’m a big believer in cutting (most) prologues — a lot of them do very little for the story, hardly advance the plot — and then, once I open chapter one, I think “Oh, gosh, finally!” There have been many times that the prologues have been so much worse than the first chapter that I’ve simply skipped ahead — and then been shocked at the difference. You’d think they’d been written by two different writers!
I think a lot of writers do a fair amount of general throat clearing in the first few pages. Always see what can be cut.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Jessica: All of these are important — and a terrible version of any of these (weak, vague voice; slow or breakneck pace; concept that is too weird or too generic) can wreck an otherwise good book.
I know you’ll hate this answer, but it’s often intuitive, subjective, and very hard to define. It’s very important to me that I think about a book after I put it down–for all I know, I’ll get an important phone call (or a not at all important phone call) after reading two pages, and then it’s time for a meeting–and I won’t get back to the manuscript until hours or even days later. It’s important that the work sticks with me — and, often, this is the best test. Do I think about the book when I’m answering emails, or in meetings — when I’m at the gym, or on the subway? Do I want to talk about it with friends? If so, that goes a long way toward making it a book I’ll fall in love with.
Currently an associate agent with Sara Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Jessica’s interests include literary, women’s, and Young Adult fiction – works that speak to life in the 21st century. Also, pretty much anything that features food is welcome. These are her favorites but is not strict about or limited to only these genres. She’s also open to MG.
If you’re interested in submitting to Jessica, please make sure to check the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency website for their guidelines.