Chasing my crazy dream in the writing world…

50TH (!) First Five Frenzy with Patricia Nelson of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency November 28, 2014

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When the idea for the First Five Frenzy series came to me in 2012, I thought there was a very slim chance agents would agree to answer my questions. I mean, come on, I was a little blogger with barely any readers. Why would they answer my questions? But as most people do, I underestimated the generosity and kindness of literary agents.


The first interview request I sent was to Bridget Smith at Dunham Literary, and within hours she replied with a “yes”. Read her F3 here. Ever since that first post, agents have agreed to answer my questions, sharing what pulls them in, and turns them off, in those important first five pages.


So today I am proud, and very humbled, to share the 50th (!!!) First Five Frenzy with Patricia Nelson from Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. I hope you’ll learn from her words of wisdom and come back time after time to enjoy what each of the participating agents have to share.


To celebrate this fun accomplishment, both Bridget and Patricia have graciously agreed to look at one lucky writer’s first five pages and give feedback. Details on how to enter are below! GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED.


Thank you as always to everyone who reads and supports this blog. I could have never gotten to this amazing milestone without your encouragement!



Many thanks again to Patricia for sharing her thoughts on those important first pages…



Amy: There is a belief among writers that having a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an agent?



Patricia: A really amazing first line in a submission will definitely get me excited to read the manuscript, but it’s by no means the be all and end all. A first line can easily be changed before we send a manuscript out to editors, which means that while a good one is a bonus, a bad one isn’t a dealbreaker.




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?



Patricia: It’s interesting that what all of the examples listed in the question have in common are that they’re things that happen at the beginning of the day – as is another one of my least favorite openings, the “arriving at school/walking into the classroom for first period” opening. It’s not that these can never work, but the issue is that often they seem to have been chosen arbitrarily: “start of the day = start of the book.” But if you were describing a day when something important happened to you, would you lead with describing the way the light looked when you first opened your eyes or the route of your standard morning commute? Get right to the point when the character gets the first hint that things are going to get interesting.




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?



Patricia: A character that I want to know better, a line of narration or dialogue that made me smile, or a beautiful sentence. I once read nearly half of a requested manuscript that wasn’t really working for me just because there was one perfect sentence in the first five pages that I had loved so much I wanted to talk myself into offering representation. (For the curious: that sentence was *not* the first line of the manuscript.) That’s the power of gorgeous writing!




Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?



Patricia: The two mistakes that I tend to see most frequently are inverses of each other: either too little information/action in the first few pages, or too much. On the one hand, something important or intriguing needs to happen at the beginning of a story to keep me reading – especially in YA contemporaries, I often see opening pages that just seem to depict an ordinary person going about an ordinary day, which doesn’t make me want to read on. But the opposite problem, which I see more often in fantasy or speculative fiction, is when an author lays out too many components of the story all at once: if I’m introduced to 4+ characters, a magic system, and lots of specifics about a different world right at the beginning, I’m likely to just get confused and give up. In other words: keep it simple, but not boring. Start me off with one interesting character confronted with one strange thing or person or dilemma. That’s enough for five pages.




Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?



​Patricia: Your unique concept should be conveyed in the query letter, so what I’m looking for in the opening pages is voice and characterization, as well as the style and clarity of your prose. If your protagonist intrigues me and your writing carries me along, chances are I’m going to want to keep reading.




Patricia Nelson is a literary agent with Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. She represents adult and YA fiction, and is actively building her list. For more about what she’s looking for, check out her agency page or her manuscript wish list, or follow her on twitter @patricianels​.


If you’re interested in submitting to Patricia, please check the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency website for their guidelines.



Giveaway details…


To enter to win a critique of your first five pages, please share a comment about what you’ve learned from reading this series. After your comment, please leave contact info (email or Twitter handle).  Entry window will be open until 5pm PST on Monday, December 1, 2014. Winners will be notified on Tuesday, December 2. Good luck!










58 Responses to “50TH (!) First Five Frenzy with Patricia Nelson of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency”

  1. Hello Amy, I’ve learned that voice, while not everything, means a great deal, especially in the middle-grade genre. That the common idea of starting the novel with action isn’t exactly accurate, and that’s it’s more important to introduce an authentic character and have his/her world shaken up in some meaningful way right from the first line. That a good novel requires good balance, knowing just the right amount of information to provide the reader with so they are hungry to find out more. Writing may be a lonely profession, but considering how much your blog has helped me, I learned you don’t necessarily have to go through the struggle alone. In fact, it’s not wise to. Thanks so much!


  2. These agent interviews spur me to keep trying to be a better writer, and remind me there is no plug-n-play formula to getting an agent and getting published. That said, I’m grateful for the advice on things to avoid. Twitter: @kjboldon

  3. Spring Paul Says:

    I really appreciate these first five posts! I appreciate the insight into the agents and what they’re looking for. I have sighed heavily and not submitted to some of them, because they’re not looking for what I’m writing, but that saves us all time. I’d love a first five review! springnpaul at gmail dot com Thanks!

  4. It’s refreshing to hear that the query carries a lot of weight, because I am very nervous that my first five pages are unable to really show an agent what is cool about my manuscript. I also find it interesting that one good line or metaphor can carry a request for more pages or reading more pages. I also find that reassuring.

    Thanks for this series! It’s been informative, helpful, but most importantly, it has inspired some hope.

    Twitter handle: @Mreras

  5. Wow, congratulations on your 50th blog in the series!! That’s incredible! I’m really grateful for all the wisdom and insight you’ve shared. I think the number one thing I’ve learned is that agents are — above all else — readers, just like us. While they have a job to do and do to the best of their ability, with the ever-changing marketplace, more than anything, they’re looking for an amazing, heart-tugging, beautiful story, just like I do when I peruse shelves or check out Goodreads or book reviews. That simple truth reminds me that if we have the same goal in common, I should be *encouraged* and motivated, not discouraged! Thanks! Twitter @chylu

  6. Oh, and here I’ve learned a few things to slash, just because they are red flags, even if they are legit, I don’t want to raise them.

  7. I am struggling like hell with my opening. I slashed the original set-up in favor of starting with confrontation, but then had betas saying it wasn’t working as well because they weren’t invested in the character enough- they needed a bit of background/personality on my MC.

  8. sbcrispell Says:

    It’s always so helpful to see what specifics turn on/off an agent. And the reminder about not dumping too much world building into the first few pages and focusing more on the character is something I need to hear. Frequently. 🙂 (@sbcispell)

  9. I love this series! I recently reworked the opening of my WIP, and this series has helped me consider the kind of impression I’d like to make. @C_Bruggeman

  10. melwozniak Says:

    I actually just discovered this series and I’m already learning from it! I think what I’ve learned so far is that every agent has their own preferences, but ultimately a strong voice, compelling characters and great writing will pique interest. It’s really cool seeing what agents prefer and what draws them to certain projects. I’m hoping to start querying sometime next year, so I think this series will be helpful for me in finding agents that I might not have thought about querying too. Such a cool series idea.

    My Twitter is: @starry_eyed_mel

  11. I love this series because it offers both the opportunity to improve the first five pages of my manuscript as well as a sneak peak into the different approaches various agents take when reviewing queries. Congrats on your fiftieth, Amy, thanks to Patricia Nelson for the great answers and here’s hope for even more future first five frenzies!

  12. heatherm66 Says:

    I often use this series to research an agent before querying — and inevitably, once I’ve read the interview, also go back to the query to retool one more time before sending it out! Invaluable – love it. Thanks!! Twitter handle: @HeatherMC66

  13. This series has been very interesting, and I’ve learned a lot of what these agents aren’t looking for – which is good! I’ve been compiling notes from each interview in the series, finding trends of course, but also leaving notes for myself to look up *this* person if I finish a story in *this* flavor, and this *other* when I finish the current WIP, and of course, things to look for in the editing rounds!

    I’m on Twitter as @VlosAri.

  14. I love knowing that even a single beautiful sentence can make all the difference.

  15. I’ve always been a writer who starts out with a sort of slow beginning. My first novel began with The Dreaded Car Ride, and when I found your articles, I realized what a mistake I’d been making. I know Ms. Patricia Nelson said it depends on how it’s executed, but my beginning was really weak.

    I also love reading your articles because your interviews give insight into what each agent is like. It’s easy to fall in love with an agent’s sales, but I want to get to know an agent’s personality too.

    Thank you for this opportunity. 🙂

  16. tashaseegmiller Says:

    I’ve been deep in the sea of drafting my second novel, and have loved working through this series again, reminding myself of what tweaks can be made to strengthen the first pages. Twitter is @tashaseegmiller.

  17. Alex S Says:

    This series has provided some fantastic insight that I’ve tried to apply to my own opening pages! This is a great resource for those in the query trenches. Thanks for posting these!
    Twitter: @AlexS_Writes

  18. pdpabst Says:

    Even though I’ve heard a lot to write an attention grabbing first sentence, it can sometimes be difficult. It’s nice to know that agents can fall in love with another intriguing sentence within those first pages that makes them say, “This one please”.

  19. These column is helpful for so many reasons. I have been introduced to some agents I didn’t know about previously, had my own research about what is cliched validated, and learned that most agents feel voice is an essential part of a manuscript’s hook. Thanks for all the work you put into your blog!

  20. Amy,
    Congratulations on the success of your blog!
    As a newbie, I find your weekly interviews very informative. They remind me that a work in progress is a fluid document and can be changed to improve your chances of being noticed by an agent. Every agent is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Be true to your voice and continue to improve your craft.
    Thanks for your blog and continued success.

  21. sherryhoward Says:

    This series has a wealth of information! This most recent post helped me clarify my revision of my first five pages. It was good to know that an agent doesn’t expect the first five pages to “do everything” but rather to expose just the right balance between information and action. It’s so helpful, through this series, to learn common mistakes to use as a filter on your own work. Thanks for your work with this!

  22. schriscoe Says:

    Hi Amy! Your blog has been a huge inspiration to me and I am know in the midst of my very first Middle Grade and I am putting all of the knowledge I have read in your blog to good use! So thank you so much for your dedication and help to other writers! You are awesome! My twitter handle is @schriscoe_ email is schriscoe at yahoo dot com

  23. This series has been a huge help over the years. It’s so difficult to peg just one or two things that I’ve learned from it. Yes, the agents’ opinions have some commonalities. Things like yes, not opening a book with a dream sequence is a rule (with exceptions, of course) and a fantastic first sentence is wonderful, but a bad one is not a deal breaker.

    I think the information from this series that’s really helped me ‘spice up’ my writing, however, is the idea that each sentence requires voice and voice requires tension. If you read a sentence aloud, you should (1) ‘hear’ the voice and (2) feel compelled to read the next sentence. Tension doesn’t mean ignoring the mundane aspects of life. It’s about making those mundane moments interesting in their own right because they move the story along.

    And there are so many suggestions here on how to do that—with examples too!

  24. clmccollum Says:

    Man that is an awesome anniversary of the series! Congrats! Admittedly I only just stumbled upon this series, but I do think I’ve already learned something! I hadn’t actually seen any comments before about how often manuscripts open with a character waking up – probably because their agent or editor nips that in the bud. Something to think about for one of the novels I’m working on – I’ve got a character waking up, but the fact that she’s asleep in the first part is a pretty major part of the story. We’ll see!

    Congrats again on your 50th installment, and I’m looking forward to seeing the winners of the contest!

  25. I loved this interview. I’ve read a few that are similar, but I really enjoyed the specifics of the questions that were asked, and Ms. Nelson’s answers. I especially liked the part where Ms. Nelson said she looks for unique/beautiful lines. I immediately went and checked my first five pages, hoping I had at least one in there. 🙂 I think I might–now I’m hoping she agrees.

  26. lilk8tob Says:

    Just wanted to say congrats!

  27. The manuscript I’m querying right now has a prologue, so I’m always looking for clues in this series about how the individual agents feel about prologues in general.

  28. STW Says:

    Thanks so much for this series! It’s been helpful to learn what pitfalls to avoid, like beginning with too much world building or the character waking from a dream. Likewise, it was encouraging to discover agents do look beyond the first line, and may be swept away by the character they meet 🙂

  29. Two things I found very useful. One, the first line can be changed. Obviously, but it’s easy to forget this or not realize an agent knows this. This takes a lot of pressure off. Two: “Get right to the point when the character gets the first hint that things are going to get interesting.”

    Thanks, Patricia, for the interview! Amy, this is a terrific series. Thanks so much for all your hard work.

  30. suecoletta Says:

    Hmm. Tough question. I guess the most important thing that all your visiting agents have mentioned is “Voice”. If the voice of the manuscript cannot be heard or doesn’t resonate with that agent then you’ve lost them, no matter how great your premise or characters or even the writing might be. Here’s my email: Thank you for the opportunity!

  31. aightball Says:

    I think what I’ve learned most from reading this is learn to find a balance in your query and opening pages. There’s no magical formula for this, but from reading what agents see, I’ve tweaked my letter and opening to try to avoid some of the issues discussed here. Twitter: @Aightball

  32. laurenkdentonbooks Says:

    Sorry, forgot Twitter handle! @laurenkdenton

  33. laurenkdentonbooks Says:

    Reading all these posts reminds me to steer clear of the dreaded info dump at the beginning of the novel!

  34. lwreyes Says:

    It’s interesting to know that Ms. Nelson read so much of a manuscript based on a single “perfect” line. Sounds like she didn’t actually sign the book after all, but that she wanted to find more of that kind of writing in it and gave it a chance shows that she is a positive person searching for great writing. laurisawhitereyes at yahoo dot com

  35. René Gilley Says:

    I’ve always heard not to start a story with waking up, walking in the classroom, etc., but never thought of it as the beginning of a day. As human nature we want to start at the beginning, but I agree it’s not the most interesting part of the day. Also learned that one brilliant sentence in a submission can hook someone. Great post. Thank you!

  36. tawney13 Says:

    I’ve learned never to give up, always write the words and what agents are looking for and what they hate! You’re blog has given me the insight into agents and the publishing world. Congrats girl.

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