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, Sara Megibow’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?
Sara: That’s a great question and thanks for inviting me here today!
I agree – that first line of a manuscript is vitally important in grabbing my attention. I’ll tell you an insider secret…every line thereafter is equally important too.
Competition is fierce out there – an agent wants to grab the attention of an editor, an editor wants to grab the attention of their publisher, the publisher wants to grab the attention of her inside sales reps, those inside sales reps want to grab the attention of retail book buyers and retail book buyers want to grab the attention of shoppers (aka readers…aka the end user). The product must be superior in all ways in order to convince that shopper to buy our book over the thousands of other books for sale. Our agency receives 150-200 queries a day (roughly 40,000 queries last year) and many of them are for good and even very good books. Unfortunately, I can’t sell very good – I need to see absolutely superior work in order to fall in love with a book enough to be its advocate. Read THE PECULIAR by Stefan Bachmann for an example – this was a query slush pile find and is jaw-droppingly exceptional. I’m picky because the end user is picky and I agree with writers here – that first line is imperative in drawing in the reader.
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?
Sara: There are openings that can feel generic or derivative but take this piece of advice with a grain of salt. In my experience, there can be exceptions to this rule. For example, BREAKING BEAUTIFUL by Jennifer Shaw Wolf opens with the heroine, Allie, waking up. But, despite this opening, BREAKING BEAUTIFUL is an award-winning novel and on many of the Must Read lists at school libraries. If I were to pull some common examples of generic openings, though, I might include:
Looking out over a vista and thinking about the past (or the future)
Reviving from a coma
Reading a letter or diary
Dad telling the kids they are moving
Mom telling her daughter she’s spending the summer with an aunt
Jogging and thinking
Drinking coffee and thinking
Sitting and thinking
Standing outside a locker and talking
Sitting in the high school cafeteria and talking
Reciting a prophecy
Finding out that the hero/heroine has a secret magical power and is destined to save the world
Conversely, here are some outstanding openings from books that I have sold in the past two years:
Jordan playing football with her teammates in CATCHING JORDAN by Miranda Kenneally
Imogen hiding under a table at an armed robbery in BRUISED by Sarah Skilton
Avery hitting on her hot neighbor in ALL OF YOU by Christina Lee
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?
Sara: This is a great question and one I get asked frequently. What I wish I could say is, “all we need is a unicorn on page two” or “the inciting incident must be before page five” and that’s the magic key for getting a request for pages. Unfortunately, it’s much more complex than that. What I’m looking for is the same thing I look for in queries and in sample pages and in full manuscripts – superior writing and a unique concept.
The best way for a writer to see an example of this is to read books in their genre. Look for books that have been published in the past five years by major New York publishing houses – buy them (or borrow them from the library) and read them. Other than reading an agent’s slush pile, this is the best way for a writer to learn what kinds of books get published. Do you write contemporary young adult? Read more contemporary young adult. Do you write fantasy middle grade? Read more fantasy middle grade. Look for books in your genre that sell well or that have received great reviews (preferably both). Also – ask for books by debut authors as they have been in the slush pile most recently.
I’m looking for submissions that demonstrate superior writing and a unique concept. All of my clients are debut authors and they all came from slush pile queries. So, to see what piques my interest – read books by authors I represent.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Sara: Many of the submissions I see are good. I think it’s a misconception to say that the agent’s slush pile is filled with junk – it’s not. Statistically speaking, though, most queries will receive rejection letters. What mistakes might those writers be making in their first five pages?
As with the above question, take this piece of advice with a grain of salt as there are always exceptions. Here are some common mistakes I see in the first five pages of some submissions:
– too much information introduced in an inorganic way (aka data dump)
– too much dialogue
– or, too much internal monologue
– starting the book in the wrong place (like I mentioned above…announcing that the family is moving isn’t an inciting incident – it’s the announcement of an upcoming inciting incident)
– an ineffective prologue
– trying too hard to introduce the narrative voice to the reader
– opening with bodily function scenes (peeing, pooping, vomiting)
– dream sequence
– recitation of a prophecy
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Sara: My answer to #5 here is the same as my answer for #3 – what resonates with me the most in the first pages is superior writing and a unique concept. I’m looking for interesting stories told in a masterful way. One way I think about it is…balance. I want to see dialogue and plot, character motivation and world-building, action and conflict and I want all these elements to be in balance. The story should be compelling and that story should be crafted meticulously.
Keep writing, keep reading and don’t quit. One of my clients told me recently that she writes because she HAS to write – the words claw at her from the inside and the only way to keep going day-to-day is to let those words have their voice. So, keep writing. Keep doing research and asking great questions. If you sit 100 agents in a room, you’d get 100 different answers to many of these questions. And, if you sit 100 authors in a room, you’d get 100 different experiences of publishing. So, keep asking the great questions and keep writing!
If you’re interested in submitting to Sara, please make sure to check The Nelson Literary Agency website for their guidelines.