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, Thao Le’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.
Amy: There is a belief among many 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?
Thao: It’s not a deal breaker for me, but it’s definitely helpful! I think a great first line could impress an agent and make them want to read more. When I read a great first line, it usually means I have more to look forward to. That said, I’ve been able to overlook a mediocre first line if the rest of the first chapter is engaging and the concept is interesting. In the end you could have a killer opening line, but if the rest of the chapter is bad it’s a no go. So focus on the whole. According to our agency’s submission guidelines, we ask the writer to submit their first 10-15 pages to us along with their query letter. I always read the sample pages first and I can usually tell from these first few pages if I click with the writing or not. First impression really matters. If you are finding that your story doesn’t really pick up until the 8th chapter… perhaps consider starting the story with the 8th chapter. I need to be drawn in from the very beginning!
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?
Thao: Definitely stay away from clichés unless you have somehow turned that cliché on its head. I’ve also been seeing many stories beginning with the main character dying or in serious physical peril. This can work if executed properly, but you need to make sure the reader cares about the character first. Otherwise the serious peril won’t really matter because the reader is not invested in the character. I would also say try avoiding passive openings where the character is not really doing anything. Unless perhaps they’re locked up in a psych ward and are strapped to a bed and that’s why they can’t do anything. Basically I want to see openings that pique my curiosity and makes me want to know what’s happening and why. Avoid revealing too much in your opening pages. You want a level of mystery so the reader will be compelled to read beyond the first chapter.
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?
Thao: It is many different things and usually in combination. Whenever I start reading a submission what I’m looking for is: Do I connect with the voice? Is the concept interesting? I don’t want a cookie-cutter story. I want something fresh, unique, or a twist on something old. And finally, is the writing compelling? Does it make me want to read more? If the first few pages manages to answer all of those questions with a big YES, then that’s when I usually request more material.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Thao: I’ve kind of answered this in #2, but avoid revealing TOO much. Sometimes I see writers trying to establish their world in the first few pages by info-dumping or telling the reader too much too soon. When they do that there’s no real draw to keep on reading, no mystery to latch onto. The story becomes predictable and that’s the last thing you want your story to be.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Thao: A combination of all those things honestly. The books that I end up signing have to have all three elements. That’s why agents and editors are so selective. We’re not just looking for a good voice. We’re looking for a good voice with a great concept and excellent tight writing. So you have to have it all. Having it all is what will make your story stand out.
THAO LE handles finances and select contracts at the Dijkstra Agency. She is also an agent. She is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego with a double major in econ-management science and Chinese studies. While interning at the agency during college, she realized where her true love lies — books — and joined the agency full-time in the spring of 2011.
Thao is looking for adult sci-fi/fantasy/horror, NA (new adult), YA (young adult), and MG (middle grade). She enjoys both gritty, dark narratives and fantastically quirky stories. She is also looking for light-hearted, funny, and moving contemporary YAs with a raw, authentic teen voice. She’s particularly drawn to memorable characters, smart-mouthed dialogue, strong plots, and tight writing. Her favorite books are ones that reimagine familiar tales and tropes in a completely fresh new way and she has a soft spot for multicultural stories and lush settings.
Recent sales include: Katherine Harbour’s fantasy Thorn Jack (Harper Voyager), Lisa Freeman’s surf YA novel Honey Girl (Sky Pony Press), IPPY Award-winning S.K. Falls’ NA novel One Last Song (Forever Yours), and James Kendley’s paranormal thriller The Drowning God (Harper Voyager Impulse).
Thao is not looking for: biographies, business books, cookbooks, memoirs, picture books, poetry, religious/spiritual books, screenplays, self-help, short stories, or travel books.
If you’re interested in submitting to Thao, please check the Sandra Dijkstra website for their guidelines.