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, Elizabeth Harding’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?
Elizabeth: I am a patient reader, so for me the first line doesn’t make or break my decision to continue reading. But a pedestrian opening paragraph certainly can color my mindset as I read through the opening pages.
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?
Elizabeth: The types of common openings that you mention as something to avoid are all symptoms of the main problem – starting the book before the actual story begins. I think it behooves authors to honor the beginning of their story and not try to wrap it up in pretty packaging that might serve more to detract the reader than draw in the reader.
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?
Elizabeth: I’m not sure there is a singular reason, to be honest. Sometimes I ask for a manuscript because the genre is one that helps fill a hole on my list. Or the subject happens to be of personal interest to me. But always I have to feel like this is a writer who can tell a story and develop a character. Over the past 2-3 years, the overall quality of the partial or full manuscripts that I’ve requested based on emailed queries seems higher than in year’s past, so I see a lot of writing that is ‘fine’ or ‘above average.’ And by this I mean writing where I probably will read the entire manuscript if I requested it just because I want to know what happened, but not writing that I necessarily would remember in detail as I moved to the next project. But when I see first pages where it is clear that the writing is elevated or the characters and plot feel fresh and not derivative, I always find it exciting and enticing.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Elizabeth: I’ve seen plenty of opening pages which I consider to be overwritten from a descriptive language standpoint. I do think it is important as a writer to let your ability to set the stage – tone, setting, atmosphere, etc. – shine in the opening pages, but unless I have an idea of the voice and a general sense of the direction of the manuscript, I think the opening pages aren’t working the way they should to help frame the reader’s expectation of what is to come.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Elizabeth: For me, I think it always comes down to an authentic and accessible voice. Unless I connect with the voice and lose myself in it relatively quickly, I usually feel a disconnect with the writing, regardless of a snappy pace or a unique concept or plot.
Elizabeth Harding represents authors and illustrators of juvenile, middle-grade, young adult and teen fiction at Curtis Brown (www.curtisbrown.com). Elizabeth started at the agency as an assistant to the legendary Marilyn E. Marlow, and she has been at Curtis Brown for more than seventeen years. Elizabeth represents New York Times bestsellers, Newberry, National Book Award, Printz and Coretta Scott King honor award winners. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and lives in Manhattan with her husband and three young boys. @ehardingnyc
If you are interested in submitting to Elizabeth, please check the Curtis Brown website for guidelines.