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, Carlie Webber’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?
Carlie: It’s only important if it’s terrible. A good first line can be memorable, but it won’t survive if the rest of the book isn’t great, too. The first line should be an invitation to the rest of the book. It can make a statement, ask a question, establish a voice, or set a scene. I don’t really have any personal rules as to what makes a good first line, but I know when I feel invited to read on, and when I don’t.
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?
Carlie: A character waking up almost never works, even if they wake up someplace unusual. I’ve also seen many openings that are action-packed three-page prologues. I like action, but the problem with these prologues is that they don’t usually tell me anything about the main character. Readers connect to characters much more than they connect to events, so I feel that the opening pages should generally be used to introduce people rather than places or events.
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?
Carlie: Each manuscript has something different that draws my interest, but I think the one thing that always gets me to request more than the opening pages is showing me what’s at stake for the main character. Not every character has to save the world, but I do want to know what the main character wants most and what will (or might) happen if he or she doesn’t get it.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Carlie: Taking too much time to data dump, especially through dialogue. I’ve seen a lot of submissions where the opening pages are nothing but people sitting around and talking. I don’t need to see a car chase or anything that extreme in the opening, but it’s always most interesting when people are moving around and doing things, not just saying things.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
All of these. I don’t really have any rules for what must happen in the first pages in order for me to find a book appealing. If I ranked those three, I’d say the voice is the most important, followed by pacing, with concept a distant third. I’ve seen many good concepts fall apart in the opening pages because the voice and pacing didn’t make good on the concept’s promise.
Carlie Webber refused to major in English in college because no one would let her read Stephen King or R.L. Stine for class. She took her love of YA and commercial fiction to the University of Pittsburgh, where she obtained a Master of Library and Information Science. For ten years, she worked as a public librarian serving teens and adults, served on book awards committees, and reviewed books professionally for journals including Kirkus Reviews and VOYA. Wishing to pursue her interest in the business side of books, she then enrolled in the Columbia Publishing Course. Her professional publishing experience includes work with the Publish or Perish Agency/New England Publishing Associates and the Jane Rotrosen Agency.
If you’re interested in submitting to Carlie, please make sure to check the CK Webber Associates website for their guidelines.