Chasing my crazy dream in the writing world…

40th First Five Frenzy with Lana Popovic of ZSH Literary!! May 30, 2014

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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.




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!





23 Responses to “40th First Five Frenzy with Lana Popovic of ZSH Literary!!”

  1. heatherm66 Says:

    Love this First Five Frenzy …. so much to learn from every interview. Congrats on your milestone! Yay! *Throws Confestti*
    I’d love a query critique!
    On twitter, I’m @HeatherMC66

  2. Thank you so much for these posts, Amy! They are a treasure chest for those of us querying (and writing in general!). And thanks also to Lana for her helpful answers. Ad I’d love the chance at a query critique. 🙂 @LauraRueckert

  3. If there’s still the chance, I’d love to be considered for the query critique 🙂

  4. Congrats on your 40th First Five post! These are so helpful for querying writers. I would love a critique. @MelissaMenten

  5. The First Five series helped me rewrite my first pages–congrats on getting to number 40! I would love a query critique from Lana. E-mail is

  6. Great post, Amy. I’d love a query critique from Ms. Popovic. I’m at twitter: @mbelec123

  7. martymay Says:

    Great post! I’d love a query critique. Twitter @mbelec123

  8. hey there, i’d love to throw my hat in the ring, tweet me @VedBrown i love the part about staying away from names that are too whimsical, they make me cringe too when i’m critiquing others. 🙂

  9. Tiffany Rosenthal

    Thank you for these posts. They have been very helpful as I work through revisions on my manuscript and prepare to query. This information really is so valuable! Thanks again!

  10. Ashley Hearn Says:

    I would be honored to receive a query critique. Many of Lana’s tips were different than what I’ve seen in other First Fives (like the whimsical names). Contact: ahearn12 [at] gmail [dot] com

  11. pdpabst Says:

    This was a great topic! Getting the beginning correct is the most difficult part, for me. But I always hope an agent will read on and think, “Great writing. I can help with that first sentence.” LoL. But the query is even harder. I’ve had it edited and critiqued and yet the last contest I won, not one agent request. And I don’t know why because winners didn’t get feedback., just like sending a query. Was it because fairytale retellings are a hard sale? Or was something still not quite right with the query itself? Then again, maybe it’s the first sentence of my MS. Who knows. I’d love a critique, but don’t want to post my personal info for all the wackos to see:-( But thanks to Lana for taking the time to answer your questions! I enjoyed reading.

  12. Thanks for your great interviews and resources! Querying is both the most exciting and terrifying thing I’ve ever done (true fact).

    Also, thanks for the awesome query critique giveaway!

    Kat – katherine.kjcho(at)gmail(dot)com

  13. C.C. Dowling Says:

    Thanks for another great First Five. Yes please, I’d LOVE a critique 🙂

    My twitter handle is @CCDowling

    You can always find me there!

  14. Thanks for the insights Lana.
    And congrats on 40 FFF posts Amy! I appreciate all that you share. I’d love a query critique entry. Thanks.

  15. Congratulations on your 40th post, along with wonderful advice from Ms. Popovic. I love reading the First Five Frenzy posts, they have made a world of difference on how I view those first few pages. Also I would love to enter the query critique and can be reached at druanng1 at msn dot com. Good luck on your next 40 posts.

  16. Congratulations on the milestone! I love you First Five Frenzy posts and it would be so helpful to win a query critique from Lana. Thanks for the chance!

  17. Happy 40th, and thanks for sharing these wonderful interviews with all of us!

  18. Great post. Doesn’t matter how much i read it’s always intriguing and invaluable to hear the thoughts of literary agents and how they work. Sometimes the whole process feels a bit like some bizarre form of espionage, as though we’re not supposed to actually talk to one another, writer to agent. Many thanks for this,

    Andrew H Sheard (

  19. persephineia Says:

    Great interview! I am definitely interested in this opportunity for a query critique, I see Ms Popovic is interested in fantasy horror and mystery which is what I write. My contact info is

  20. George Kulz Says:

    Thanks, Lana, for sharing your thoughts and for your critique offer! My contact email is

  21. emilygmoorewriter Says:

    As often, the voice of the writing conquers all! I would love to put my name in for the query critique. Thanks for offering it!

    E.G. Moore

  22. A good balance between action and backstory is so tricky to me! I’d love to be in the running for a query critique!

  23. Karen Harter Says:

    Hi Amy, I’d love to enter my name for a query critique from Ms. Popovic! Thank you for a great opportunity! @karenharter (By the way, I check out every First Five post religiously! Thank you for all you do for your fellow writers!

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