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, Lana Popovic’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?
Lana: While it’s not a deal-breaker by any means if the first line is not astonishing, it should at least be solid—and at best, it should be as spectacular as the writer can make it. This is the first real opportunity to showcase voice, and I put a lot of stock in the power of a beautifully crafted first line. It conveys to me that the writer has both the literary goods and the savvy when it comes to knowing how to draw the reader in. That said, I will always read the first five pages, so it’s definitely not a death knell if that first line isn’t blazingly brilliant. (I’m cool with alliteration, too.)
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?
Lana: Those are definitely my top three to avoid! I also don’t love bait-and-switch openings, where the reader is thrown into an action sequence that is presented as something with mortally dangerous consequences—but is in fact the protagonist playing a video game or hide-and-seek or imagining something while in class. Those always make me roll my eyes a bit. It’s like the opposite of the “gasp!” reaction that we want.
Also, it being someone’s birthday. Especially the seventeenth.
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?
Lana: I actually don’t ask for sample pages, so I judge by query alone. I’ll request anything with a fresh, intriguing premise and a voice that shines through even in the query itself. Beautiful or punchy titles always help, too.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Lana: Because they know their own protagonist so well, writers often assume that the reader will automatically care about her or him as well, and hurl us into action before we’ve developed any emotional connection, thereby lowering the stakes for us. If I don’t know the first thing about Deliria Twist (please don’t name your character that—another common mistake. Overly whimsical names make us cringe unless they dovetail immaculately with a generally outlandish but well-executed concept), I don’t care that she’s sprinting out of a burning building while demons rain hellfire at her. I know I should care, but I don’t. I’m just cold like that.
On the other side of the spectrum is opening with pages and pages of backstory. This bogs me down because again, I don’t know the character well enough to want to delve into the context of their life. Striking the perfect balance between exposition and action in those first pages is key.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Lana: Oh, definitely voice! If I see that glimmer—my fellow agent and wonderful human Taylor Haggerty calls it “sparkle,” which is right on point—of a unique voice, it can cover a multitude of sins. I love unusual, distinctive, and/or edgy voices.
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Many thanks to Lana for sharing her thoughts on what is critical in those first five pages. In celebration of this being the 40th post in the First Five Frenzy series, Lana has graciously offered to do a query critique for one lucky writer! If you’re interested in the query critique, please comment below with your contact info!