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, Roseanne Wells’ 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?
Roseanne: A great first line pulls in readers, but what keeps them there is the story itself. I love a good snappy opening line, and I think a good opening paragraph and first page are critical for getting the reader into the story. But I think some new writers edit the first 5, 10, 25, pages so strongly to make them interesting and flashy that they don’t focus on consistency and narrative control, and the book unravels.
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?
Roseanne: Any type of dream (being in a dream, waking up from a dream, remembering a dream) can be poison for a story. I would also say looking into the mirror or out the window contemplatively (especially for YA), getting ready for school/work, or anything that is trying to say “look at how normal this person is before their conflict starts”–it can be very generic. However, there are exceptions: the opening to DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth starts with her looking in the mirror, but it’s an unusual opening, and it has more meaning than just dreamily staring into her own face.
I personally don’t usually like pages that start in dialogue or in the middle of an action sequence, since it can be hard to convey character in a conversation, or during a fight scene. I want to see the novel start a beat before that, so I can see the status quo, then their reaction to the opening conflict. Charlaine Harris starts DEAD UNTIL DARK with a vampire walking into the bar, not when Bill and Sookie start talking.
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?
Roseanne: I have already pictured myself reading it: I want to sit down with a cup of coffee and read the manuscript in my (imaginary) window seat. I can see myself getting into trouble with the main character, I can travel through this world, I can’t wait to find out what happens. When I can see the elements of a good story coming together, I get excited and want to read more.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Roseanne: It breaks my heart when authors start with an unnecessary prologue or backstory. They waste valuable pages setting up part of the story that will be revealed anyway, or is revealed too soon, and it undermines their work. It also means they might not know where the story begins. Ultimately, it tells me they don’t trust themselves, their story, or their reader.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Roseanne: Voice stands out for me in the first pages, as it can link so many elements together: use of language, tone, character, conflict, motivation, even plot and world building. In the query, I’ve seen a unique concept or a twist on something familiar, interesting characters, high stakes, a hint of voice, or something a little bit intangible–a sensibility that I’m going to be transported into this story. And then the pages are where the author proves it. If it sounds like every other story about a girl in a prom dress, or sad middle-aged man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, or a lonely housewife, then the story is falling short.
Roseanne Wells joined JDLA as an associate agent in 2012. Previously with the Marianne Strong Literary Agency, she has also worked as a proofreader and a special sales and editorial assistant. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with degrees in Literature and Dance. An avid reader, Roseanne discovered her passion for book publishing during her internship at W. W. Norton, and she approaches agenting as a writer’s advocate, editor, and partner. She is also an arts reviewer for PlayShakespeare.com and a volunteer for Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho, NYC
If you’re interested in submitting to Roseanne, please make sure to check The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency website for their guidelines.
GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER. THANK YOU TO ALL WHO ENTERED. WINNER WILL BE REVEALED MONDAY, OCTOBER 21!
I can’t believe it, but this is the Lucky 26th post in the First Five Frenzy! To celebrate, Roseanne has been kind enough to offer a query critique as well as provide feedback on, of course, those pesky first five pages!
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