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, Lara Perkins’ 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?
Lara: For me, the first line is very important. Like any reader, I want to be drawn in to a new story and a great first line does exactly that. A strong first line suggests a writer is in control of language and in control of his or her story. If the first line is great, then I’m also probably seeing the manuscript after it’s been revised and polished, which tells me the writer is serious about craft and has a professional approach. That doesn’t mean the first line can’t be improved further or even rethought (or sometimes even lifted from later in the ms), but I think it’s a missed opportunity if your first line doesn’t have some punch, some tension, and some suspense.
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?
Lara: I think it’s less about avoiding common openings and more about finding a beginning that’s truly unique to your story. The problem with these common openings is that they’re usually placeholders. The writer isn’t sure where to begin, so he or she begins somewhere familiar…but it’s not really the beginning of the specific story he or she is telling. My advice to writers would be that if your story can only logically and thematically begin with a dream, and the dream scene you’ve written is riveting and fresh (to other readers, not just to you!), then for my money, go ahead and begin that way. It likely won’t read like a “common opening” because it will actually be unique and integral/specific to your story. But if you don’t know where to start and you figure, well, The Hunger Games begins with Katniss waking up, so I’ll begin with my main character waking up, too, then I’d encourage you to go deeper and think more about the true, organic beginning of your story.
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?
Lara: It’s a combination of a character I want to know more about, writing that speaks to me, and a premise that seems big enough, interesting enough, and different enough to sustain an entire book.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Lara: I think one common mistake is beginning with action but no context or character development, so the plot is moving forward, but the reader doesn’t have a reason to be invested in the outcome. Another common mistake is beginning in a moment of great loss for your main character, but without enough context for the reader to feel the power of that loss and share the main character’s grief. As a result, we’re at a distance from the main character immediately. Another common mistake is a first chapter that stays entirely in the narrator’s head–with no dialogue, no action, etc. Except in rare cases, that gets claustrophobic very quickly.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Lara: Voice, primarily, with pacing a close second. If there are already pacing problems in the first five pages, then that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the story. But if I’m not connecting with the voice, then it’s probably not the right project for me.
Lara Perkins is an Associate Agent and Digital Manager at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She has been with the agency for three years, working closely with Senior Agent Laura Rennert, with whom she jointly represents a number of clients, in addition to building her own list. Lara has a B.A. in English and Art History from Amherst College and an M.A. in English Literature from Columbia University, where she studied Victorian Brit Lit. In her pre-publishing life, she trained to be an architect, before deciding that books, not bricks, are her true passion.
If you’re interested in submitting to Lara, please make sure to check the Andrea Brown Literary Agency website for their guidelines.