NOTE: I don’t often do reposts, but this is a First Five Frenzy I thought was worth sharing again. This interview was first posted on March 8, and not only does it have great information, but terrific examples of voice and an unforgettable opening. Enjoy!
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, Stephen Fraser’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 that to you as an agent?
Stephen: Honestly, a great first line can catch my attention as an agent, but also a great title or a great overall concept.
While a great first line is important, I would go as far as to say that a good first page is more important. I have participated in many ‘first page’ events, and you can see very clearly when a first page is read aloud that a good first page, with both a good first line and the early presentation of character through dialogue plus description can either make a reader want to continue or not. You get a sense of the tone of the manuscript as well as its pacing. The danger from too much workshopping is honing the first page to death and then leaving the rest of the manuscript undeveloped.
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?
Stephen: I think I can safely say, don’t begin with, “It was a dark and stormy night”! However, I have read some very funny parodies which did begin with that line.
Of course, there are no rules. Sometimes throwing a reader into the middle of a story is a good way to begin. A more traditional way is to slowly unfold the story in a Henry James kind of way, where you get a sense of place, the weather, the time, etc.
I get tired of books with prologues, when there really doesn’t need to be a prologue and in fact is simply a way for a writer to add a very short chapter and stick it in front of the main part of the novel, because the writer doesn’t know where else to put it.
A great young adult writer, Brent Hartinger, began his landmark debut novel Geography Club with the description of a war zone and then you realize he is describing a high school. Brilliant!
Amy: When you’ve responded to a writer to request a partial or full, what was it about their first pages that piqued your interest?
Stephen: It can be any number of different story elements: a title that promises a good read to follow, an intriguing ‘voice,’ a good first line. For me, it is most often the use of language. Beautiful writing trumps a good title or clever concept for me every time.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Stephen: I learned this early on as an editor: many writers don’t know how to begin their story. Often you can cut the first five pages (or perhaps two pages) and then the story really begins.
A common mistake is to assume your reader knows the universe you have created in your head and leave out details that are essential. For instance, in a historical novel, you need to give some clues about the date or location. Sometimes just to say, “Chicago. 1887” or “ancient Babylon” is all you need.
Another common mistake is to assume that the reader already cares about your protagonist. You have to make your reader care! What details can you share with your reader or, better still, what scenes can you create which show your protagonist in a sympathetic light?
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Stephen: A unique concept can capture your attention in a query letter.
But in the actual writing, it can be several things. Voice is hard to capture, particularly in young adult novels, so when a reader creates a good voice you notice. Who can forget Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos or Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block? There needs to be an authenticity.
Pacing is important because it moves you from the first page through the next four and hopefully through the entire manuscript.
Once again, for me, it is always the writing. Does this feel fresh and startling or do I feel that I have read it before? The response I most often share about manuscripts that I reject is that the writing didn’t really feel fresh enough to grab my attention. Even a great, high concept book needs to be well-written.
Stephen Fraser is a literary agent with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City, a full-service agency which handles both juvenile and adult books. One of his clients, Margi Preus, won the Newbery Honor Medal for her novel, Heart of a Samurai (Abrams/Amulet); another client, Carol Lynch Williams, won the prestigious PEN International Award for her young adult novel Glimpse (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster); and another client, Matthew J. Kirby, won both the Edgar award for best juvenile mystery and the PEN USA award for his middle grade novel, Icefall (Scholastic). Stephen has been voted top agent for both picture books and middle grade fiction. He has more than twenty-five years’ editorial experience, including both HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Scholastic. He edited such creative talents as Mary Engelbreit, Gail Gibbons, Michael Hague, Ann Rinaldi, Kathryn Lasky, Brent Hartinger, Stephen Mitchell, Dan Gutman, Gregory Maguire, and Daniel Pinkwater. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, he has a Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature from Simmons College in Boston. Stephen is a popular speaker at writer’s conferences throughout the country.
If you’re interested in submitting to Stephen, please make sure to check the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency website for their guidelines.