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.
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?
Jennifer: Picture Agent X (okay, me) slumped over her desk, scrolling through pages and pages of prose. Meh prose. Baaaad prose. Hundreds of titles. Thousands of sentences. Her eyes glaze. Suddenly, one sentence jumps out and hits her between the eyes. It’s strong. It’s fresh and edgy, and just happens to be the opening of a random novel that popped up from the slush. A first line can have the same effect as smelling salts on a swoon. In essence, it’s an invitation to a reader, an incentive to continue reading. But it’s just a start. It’s not a deal breaker for me, because I tend to read swiftly and see it in broader context. However, I’ll definitely notice if it’s weak or there are glaring faults.
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?
Jennifer: I look for high concept material, something that surprises and excites me. First pages need to grab hold and pull the reader in, and just about anything can do that if it’s done well. Even clichés can be interesting–dangerous perhaps, but interesting–if treated in innovative ways. So if something cataclysmic happens over scrambled eggs and morning buns, I have no problem with breakfast. It’s only a no no if it comes across as lazy, overused or dull. An author gives a lot away in the opening of a book, and if there are signs of humdrum writing that early on, a reader will fail to connect with the narrative. A confused or bored reader stops reading.
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?
Jennifer: Once I’m sold on premise, use of language and voice. High quality prose stands out, and it does so quickly.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Jennifer: The first five pages are like all first things. A date, an interview, a kiss. Get it wrong, and there may not be a second one. Some writers send their work out too soon, and it’s obvious that it needs to be workshopped or edited. While editing does form a substantial part of what I do, if I see that I’d need to spend months doing substantive editing, it’s just not feasible for me to take something on. Let’s see…too much showing, not enough context, or telling. Conversely, too much exposition, not enough immersion in scene. The first few pages are especially vulnerable to rejection, so they need to be polished, to convey a sense of the author’s confidence as a writer. This has to do with voice and set up and something I always go back to: use of language.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Jennifer: If I get an early impression that a writer is able to combine great storytelling with good writing, then I know I’ve struck gold. It’s rare for these qualities to coexist, but when they do, the narrative assumes a life and personality that’s impossible to ignore. And of course, then all things come together: pace, evidence of plot, characterization, setting, conflict begins to show up. There’s a sense of craftsmanship, and I become emotionally invested in some way, whatever the genre.
Jennifer Skutelsky studied English, Anthropology and Politics in South Africa and went on to do an MFA in Creative Writing in San Francisco. Her experience as a ballet coach and visual artist informs her devotion to creative expression, which she now channels into writing and editing. She worked with Manus & Associates Literary Agency in Palo Alto before moving to Veritas, and has settled in the Bay Area. Jennifer is a fan of dark, conflict ridden fiction and brave narratives that test boundaries, especially when it’s apparent that a writer knows his or her craft. She enjoys good storytelling and edgy, confident prose that reflects a distinctive and compelling voice.
If you’re interested in submitting to Jennifer, please make sure to check the Veritas Literary Agency website for their guidelines.