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, Annie Bomke’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?
Annie: A great first line does help grab my attention, but it’s not as important to me as the first page or the first chapter. The first line should set the tone for the rest of the book, it should intrigue me and give me a sense of the voice or perspective of the novel and what makes it special.
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?
Annie: All of those, as well as looking in a mirror while they’re getting ready in the morning, having a dialogue that isn’t that interesting (and won’t be important later). Anything that involves a lot of reflection and little action is a bad way to open a book.
A lot of mysteries and thrillers open with a murder, or from the point of view of the killer right before he/she does the deed. This can be exciting, but it’s just such a popular opening that writers need to find a way to make it fresh and polished.
In the first five pages, there’s a fine line between giving away too much information and giving away too little. If you give away too much information about who the characters are, what they look like, and what their motivations are, etc., the pacing of the story slows down. If you give away too little information, the opening can seem too vague, and it’ll be unclear what’s going on and what makes this story special. Either way, your readers will lose interest pretty quickly. The idea is to put enough information there to intrigue the reader and make them curious to read more.
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?
Annie: Sometimes it’s a really unique concept, but usually it’s the writing. I want to see writing that’s vivid, visceral, emotional, and unique. I like writing that’s suspenseful, and writing with a great sense of humor. I want to see ideas and images presented in a way I’ve never read before, and characters that feel rich and real.
And the writing should have some tension. By tension I mean the feeling that something is going to happen, that events are being put into motion. And for this tension to work, I have to understand the character enough to become invested in what happens to them.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Annie: They feel the need to explain some background information on the characters, the setting, or the plot before the story gets going. Or they open the book with a scene that’s not that exciting, like a character driving in their car, reflecting the past or future. They include unnecessary information, like a character’s hair and eye color. They use language that doesn’t help me visualize the scene or get to know the characters. They rely on clichés and stereotypical characters instead of showing me something new and interesting.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Annie: I’d say it’s usually the voice. The voice is what pulls me into the story and keeps me there. And interesting writing is always a plus.
Annie Bomke is a literary agent with over a decade of experience in the publishing industry. She has worked with internationally bestselling authors such as Ken Blanchard, Spencer Johnson, Bob Burg and John Assaraf. Authors have called her the pH test for good writing, and a bedrock for literary quality control. She is interested in representing a wide range of fiction and nonfiction—including commercial fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers, YA, business, self-help, health/diet, and memoir—though she is most passionate about character-driven literary fiction, and psychological thrillers.
If you’re interested in submitting to Annie, please make sure to check the Annie Bomke Literary Agency website for their guidelines.