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, Pooja Menon’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?
Pooja: The first line is very important. It’s what hooks the reader in, introduces the kind of voice we’re going to be following, and makes us want to read more. I kind of envision it like the first bite of a completely new dish you’ve never tried before, but you’re excited to try it out because you’ve heard such good things about it. If the first bite sucks, then the next couple of bites will be forced, and you may just abandon the meal midway. That being said, I think the first line is not the only thing that’s important. The beginning should be strong for us to get to the middle, the middle should be strong (and this is what usually lags in most submissions) to make us want to get to the end. If there is a scene/section in the book you don’t think is detrimental to keep us moving, then that needn’t be there at all.
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?
Pooja: Dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car :) Sorry, had to repeat those. I don’t mind if the ride in the car is because the protagonist is shit scared and is escaping from something. Then this is a beginning that will keep me reading more. But, typically, scenes of waking up, staring at the room and describing the ceiling or the cracks in the wall, or staring at the mirror while describing oneself self-deprecatingly, or beginning from the protagonist’s place of work (if that work does nothing to progress the story), or anything mundane is best to be avoided. Unless that aspect of the book is detrimental in furthering the plot. Even then, start from an interesting beginning. From a beginning that isn’t too explosive so that we aren’t lost when this explosive event occurs, and a beginning that is too mundane. Find that beginning that is in the middle of both these extremes. If you want to have a dream in your book, then don’t start the book with it, slide it in after that amazing beginning you’ve concocted.
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?
Pooja: Usually it’s a combination of the following: the first line, the setting (if it’s a unique setting that I haven’t read before), the voice (this is very important), the scene we begin from, the stakes in the story (needs to keep getting higher), the plot (needs to be something that is larger than life, touches on a number of themes, and has a vivid setting as a background for great prose), and the pace. If the pace is fast or feels like the right pace for the story, this will definitely make me want to keep turning the pages.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Pooja: Starting with a mundane scene of the protagonist going through the motions. I’d rather be introduced to their lives at a point of conflict, big or small, within their mundane lives-this forces them to act unlike themselves. This is what is interesting to me.
– Starting with an explosive scene that has a lot of action, I usually get completely lost in such scenes because I have no clue what’s happening, who these characters are, what are the stakes, and why I should care if something good or bad happened to them.
– Lots of backstory at the beginning of the story, it would be a better idea to start in the present with an important scene and then do page breaks or chapter breaks or simple lines in the present that give us smidgets of important backstory. This will keep the pace moving.
– Prologue. I don’t particularly have issues with the prologue, but my problem with prologues is that most of the time they’re used as vehicles to build an immense amount of suspense at the beginning, either by giving us a taste of the past (this kind of prologue I don’t have too many issues with), or a taste of the present/future (this I have issues with because I’d rather see this in the manuscript as opposed to being put up in the front and being repeated in the middle/end of the ms). What often happens is that the scene following this prologue section, in the first chapter, is something that is completely ordinary or boring. This is a huge let down for me. This is also why most of the time I pass on books, because after such an adrenaline pumping prologue, I spend chapters and chapters reading about the most banal situations ever in order to get to a place where the excitement builds again.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Pooja: A combination of all. Voice, first. Unique concept, second. And pacing, third. If the first two are solid, then with a little work, the third aspect can be tweaked and revised. The first two have problems, a fast-pace will not save the story.
Pooja Menon joined Kimberley Cameron & Associates as an intern in the fall of 2011, with the aim of immersing herself in the elusive world of books and publishing. She soon realized that being an agent was what she was most drawn to as the job was varied and challenging. In the fall of 2012, she began taking on her own clients. As a relatively new agent, Pooja is looking to build her client list and is eager for submissions by debut novelists and veteran writers. She represents both Adult and YA fiction/non-fiction and select Middle Grade.
Adult fiction: She is looking for upmarket women’s fiction, literary/commercial fiction, historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries/suspense, horror, dark fiction with a psychological twists, and multi-cultural fiction.
YA fiction: She is looking for strong voice-driven contemporary fiction (light/romantic reads as well as fiction that deals with darker subject matters), thrillers, mysteries, suspense, horror, fantasy, and historical fiction. She’s looking for stories that are unique and freshly spun, with voices that are strong and multi-layered. She’s also looking for multi-cultural fiction that is either set abroad or is set in the US with characters from a different culture or background.
MG fiction: She is looking for voice-driven contemporary fiction, fantasy, adventure/action, historicals, mysteries/thrillers, and horror/gothic.
If you’re interested in submitting to Pooja, please make sure to check the Kimberley Cameron & Associates website for their guidelines.