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, Maria Vicente’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?
Maria: A great first line is always an important component to a successful submission. That one line is going to draw in first readers at all stages of publication: the agent, the editor, and then the readers.
I, personally, love poetic prose; a great first line can really draw me in to the story. I expect great opening lines from all submissions, but those boasting literary writing styles have even higher expectations.
I read requested partials in bulk (I set aside some time each week to read as many as possible), so a captivating first line makes the writing stand out right away amongst all the other manuscripts I’m looking at that day.
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?
Maria: I completely agree with the ones you’ve mentioned—dreams, eating breakfast, and riding in a car are all too common. It’s not that they can’t work, but they are over-used.
Similar to dreams, I also don’t (usually) like it when a book opens with a flashback. I want to start reading the current story, not something that happened previously. Introduce me to the characters and the current situation(s) before throwing background information at me too.
I’m not a fan of dialogue at the beginning of a book—I want to be introduced to a character before hearing him/her speak. It’s impossible to imagine the character’s tone or dialect when I know nothing about them.
Finally, too many manuscripts start before a story really begins. The opening should start when the action happens. Don’t rely on your first chapter to plant an elaborate backstory.
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?
Maria: At P.S. Literary, we don’t ask for sample pages with query letter submissions. We separate the pitch and sample pages because we are looking for different things when reading queries vs. reading manuscripts. Hook us with the concept first, and then meet our expectations with your incredible writing.
With partials (generally the first three chapters), I look for an original writing style and a great voice. When I’m reading a partial, I ask myself after each chapter if I’m invested enough to continue reading. If I’m still intrigued after reading Chapter #3, then I request the full. So while writing style and voice is most important to me when evaluating partial manuscripts, great pacing is necessary for me to want to read even more.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Maria: I mentioned this earlier, but starting the story too early is the most common mistake that I see in submissions. Don’t waste the first five pages on background information. This is exactly why a lot of agents and editors dislike prologues—they rarely add to the current story.
This is a little off-topic, but I think it’s important to bring up: a super polished first five pages does absolutely nothing if that level of expertise does not continue throughout the rest of the manuscript. The first few pages of a manuscript are often revised so much that they are near perfect—and it’s a huge red flag when the quality of writing drops drastically after those few polished pages.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Maria: Once I request a partial, voice and style are the things that resonate the most with me. I’m already interested in the concept—now wow me with the writing. Voice is what makes that specific book stand out, but I’m looking for writers to represent over their entire careers. Because of this, writing style is super important. I can often tell within a few pages if I’m going to fall madly in love with the style (and this is something completely subjective, which I know is frustrating for querying writers). If I love an author’s style, then I’m going to love his/her future books too.
Maria Vicente is an associate agent at P.S. Literary Agency. She is a creative and editorial agent, providing support to her clients through all stages of the writing and publication process. Maria is dedicated to managing authors’ literary brands for the duration of their careers. Her reading preferences vary across categories and genres, which is reflected in her client list. She is actively looking for literary and commercial fiction, young adult, middle grade, illustrated picture books, and nonfiction projects in the pop culture, pop psychology, design, and lifestyle categories. She has affinities for literary writing, strong character development, and original storytelling formats. Maria is currently an editor for Underneath the Juniper Tree, a literary/art horror magazine for children, and the creator of I Believe in Story, a blog featuring book reviews, advice for writers, publishing industry articles, and lifestyle posts inspired by literature.
If you’re interested in submitting to Maria, please check the P.S. Literary Agency website for their guidelines.