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, Beth Phelan’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?
Beth: It’s absolutely important. Sometimes, it can be the deciding factor between a request and a pass. For me, it sets the tone for the rest of the sample pages, and ultimately, the whole book. If you can intrigue me with your first sentence, I’ll eat up the rest. If you disappoint me, I’ll still read the sample but maybe not with the same enthusiasm. But there should also be something redeeming that keeps me reading beyond that first sentence.
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?
Beth: Those are all great examples. My eyes also tend to glaze over when the author opens with scene setting (dumping in details about the weather or the surroundings). I would also discourage openings where a character wakes up in the morning. Waiting too long to introduce me to the protagonist is also a quick way to turn me off.
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?
Beth: If I read the entire sample and was sad that I’d have to wait for the author to send more, that’s a great sign. I like to forget that I’m reading something unpublished – I want to get totally lost in the story.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Beth: I don’t like when the first five pages are full of backstory. It starts to feel like a history lesson and it takes me away from what’s actually happening. Then I panic when I finally meet the characters, trying to remember everything I’d just learned. Similarly, trying to fit too much information in those first five pages will always backfire. Set the mood and the voice first, just giving us what we need. I would also encourage authors to really work those first pages over and make sure they’re not making any stylistic errors. This is our first look at your work, and if the first few pages are riddled with common mistakes, I’ll expect the rest is. Spend a lot of time with it.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Beth: All of that combined. I want it to be all of that. Mostly, I want to hear a clear voice coming through those first pages. It’s often the most difficult thing to get right, and while we can work on the concept and the pacing, an engaging voice is much more difficult to generate.
Beth Phelan joined the Bent Agency in September 2013 after holding positions at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency and Waxman Leavell Literary. She is actively building her client list and is looking for complex fiction that pulls you in immediately, characters that you wish were your real friends and plot lines that drag you away from reality to a world you never want to leave. Her favorite stories are told with humor and sprinkled with surprises.
If you’re interested in submitting to Beth, please make sure to check the Bent Agency website for their guidelines.