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, Courtney Miller-Callihan’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?
Courtney: The first line of a manuscript is definitely very important. It sets the tone, should start to establish the work’s genre, and (in many cases) gives us a sense of who the narrator is. But a great “first line” followed by a weak first page is more disappointing than a weak first line that quickly picks up speed.
That being said, I see a lot of query letters that attempt to follow the “great first line” rule– and most of them are not successful. Most agents, myself included, want the query letter to be well-written and compelling, but it shouldn’t be gimmicky. Avoid “creative” query letter tactics like opening with a rhetorical question, or writing the whole letter from your main character’s point-of-view. Tell me what genre your work is in, how long it is, and write two or three paragraphs of description that read like the back cover or jacket flap copy of a published book. (Show me that you know how to sell it.)
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?
Courtney: Those are all good ones! I have a bit of a pet peeve about characters who look in the mirror, because it’s such a cheap way to tell the reader what the character looks like. I’m much more interested in what the character thinks about, what he or she wants.
I also tend not to like it when the character talks to a pet or to someone or something else that won’t talk back; having a character speak aloud is not the same thing as including dialogue in the first few pages.
Weather descriptions tend to suggest to me that a novel will be “quiet.”
Certain openings are clichéd for certain genres, and should be avoided unless you can quickly subvert the cliché in some way. Most Law and Order episodes open with one or two random New Yorkers, going about their business, happening upon a dead body in an alley or a dumpster. Too many YA novels open with the heroine having a fight with her parents, especially if one of them is a stepparent.
As for the eating breakfast issue, the key lesson to keep in mind is that your story may not start when the day begins. I wrote a blog post about this, back when I still wrote a blog post once in a while! http://agentcourtney.blogspot.com/2012/01/eyes-color-of-ocean.html
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?
Courtney: Nine times out of ten, it’s the writer’s voice. If I’m drawn in by those opening pages, swept along by the story that’s unfolding, so that I’m more interested in reading more than in getting back to the six trillion emails looming in my inbox, or making that important phone call, I’m going to request the rest of the manuscript.
If an author’s work is in a genre I represent (and I occasionally update my “wish list” on my agency’s website), and if I’m liking the writing by the end of the first three chapters that should be included with the query letter to me, I always want to see more.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Courtney: Your goal in those first pages should be to get the reader invested in the story. Get me to forget about my stupid inbox. Tell me a great story. Leave out the stuff that readers tend to skip, as the great Elmore Leonard used to say. And please, triple-quadruple check your spelling and grammar. Your first pages are my first impression of you, and if you misuse a word in the opening pages, you may be sending me the message that you don’t care about language, and I may decide I don’t trust you to tell me a satisfying story.
Some other things to avoid: giving too much character backstory, introducing too many characters too quickly, using a lot of non-English or invented words (especially prevalent in sci fi and fantasy), or otherwise making the narrative so complicated that it’s difficult for readers to find their way into the story.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Courtney: The concept is often what grabs me in the query letter (I got some great queries when I mentioned on the #mswl hashtag on Twitter that I was looking for a fantastic time travel narrative), but it’s all about voice, in the pages themselves.
Courtney began her career in publishing at Random House, where she spent a number of years in subsidiary rights sales and in contracts before joining Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in 2005. A member of the Romance Writers of America, she works closely with authors to help them reach their full creative and commercial potential.
Courtney holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a M.A. in English from The Johns Hopkins University. She lives with her family in Southern California and travels frequently for meetings and conferences.
If you’re interested in submitting to Courtney, please make sure to check the Greenburger Associates website for their guidelines.