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, Kaylee Davis’ 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?
Kaylee: The first line sets the expectations. If the manuscript starts strong from the very beginning, I’m going to be interested in continuing to read. And that is key.
Then, if I lose myself in the story and suddenly I’ve read pages ahead without realizing it, I’m going to be absolutely delighted. It’s got me hooked, and I’m going to want more!
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?
Kaylee: It’s incredible how many openings start with dreams! I also see a lot of waking up, exposition, or stopping by a reflective surface to explain the protagonist’s physical description.
More specifically, for MG I see a lot of manuscripts begin on the protagonist’s birthday. For YA, it’s walking into a new high school for the first time. For Scifi, it’s a lengthy description of the new universe/planet/species. For Fantasy, gathering herbs is huge and I don’t know how this became a thing, but it’s really popular!
A lot of those openings are more passive. On the flip side, when a writer is trying to draw the reader in with action or conflict or shock value, I see a lot of manuscripts begin by plunging into the middle of a battle or fight scene. This can be effective, but more often it comes off as disengaging—typically the stakes are undefined, and the reader hasn’t yet had the opportunity to emotionally invest in the protagonist.
That doesn’t mean that if a particular manuscript opens in one of the above ways it will automatically be rejected. But it does mean the first impression is being made on a note of heavier competition, and now those first pages have to work even harder to delineate the manuscript as being apart from the pack.
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?
Kaylee: Ultimately, I want to feel like I’m in good hands. If the ideas and execution come together in a way that intrigues and immerses me, that’s gold. I’m in, and I want to be along for the ride.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Kaylee: The mistakes I see are often a result of too little editing. In the first draft, often the writer is familiarizing themselves with the story and the characters. They’re mentally delving into backstory and descriptive detail to bring vividness and authenticity to the world. But if that is not edited out in later drafts, then those first paragraphs, or even first pages, end up being solid exposition.
I always say that whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, never underestimate the power of a critical eye during the editing stages. Just because a piece of writing is strong, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s strengthening the manuscript as a whole.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Kaylee: The concept resonates with me first, but I’m getting that information more from the query letter and the synopsis. I know beginnings can be tough, so the pacing of the manuscript as a whole is not always determinable by those first pages. However, voice can be. I’m getting to know the writer’s personal voice, and that’s establishing the whole flavor of the concept. Voice is also one of the hardest things to work on, so if a writer shows skill with that, I’ll feel confident going forward in the rest of the story.
Kaylee Davis is an Associate Literary Agent at Dee Mura Literary. She is especially interested in building her client list in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary, young adult, new adult, LGBTQ+, steampunk and literary. She is drawn to exciting, thought-provoking stories with a fresh perspective that explores what it means to be human. She is also a sucker for spies, hackers, conspiracies, ambiguous moralities, alternate realities, and giant squid. You can find her hanging out at About.Me or on Twitter at @Kaylee_Davis_.
If you’re interested in submitting to Kaylee, please check the Dee Mura Literary website for their guidelines.