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. It’s tricky to get just the right balance, but I hope by reading each agent’s comments 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, Rebecca Podos’ 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?
Rebecca: Does the very first sentence have to be especially spectacular? No, not for me. A really well written first paragraph (and second, and third) counts a lot more than the first line, as does beginning the story dynamically, plot wise. As long as the first line isn’t a total dud, I’m more interested in seeing you build strong sentence upon strong sentence to set a great scene right out of the gate.
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?
Rebecca: There are a few common beginnings, especially in YA, that have to be really, really exceptionally done if you want me to keep reading. For instance, a teenager pulling up to her brand new house in her brand new town, staring out the car window while she describes her feelings of angst/foreboding. An alarm clock opening: beginning the story with a character waking up. Is that really the most interesting moment in your day? In your week? In your story arc? And I know a cold open on action is meant to be exciting – a character running through the woods from a demon/ demon hunter/ unknown danger as the branches whip at them – but if you place a character in danger before I know anything else about them, how am I supposed to have a stake in their survival? None of these opening are horrible, per say, but agents see them so often that it raises a red flag about the rest of the book.
That said, there are always exceptions! One of the first books I sold opened on a dream (or rather, a character trying to stay awake so she wouldn’t dream) and it was such an interesting twist on a familiar concept that I immediately wanted to read on.
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?
Rebecca: Voice is huge. I feel like I can forgive a lot if the lens through which we’re viewing your world is very strong. So voice is one of the first things that inspire me to request a manuscript. A great handle on language, which does NOT mean showing off. I don’t need the most beautiful writing in the book to happen in the first paragraph, but I want to know that language is in your tool box, and you know how to use it. And then just an opening scene that feels fresh. If it must be one of the more common openings, then you have to work harder to justify it, and to make it feel like no scene I’ve read before.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Rebecca: I think it can be hard to strike a good balance between action/ forward momentum, and character building, especially when you’re trying to make everything perfect. It’s difficult to know how much information to put in, and so some writers end up bogging down the first pages with backstory before the plot gets going, or else neglecting to develop a character and rushing headfirst into action (as with the running-through-the-woods scenario.) The first chapter can be the toughest to pace, but if you get it down, that’s a great sign for an agent.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Rebecca: Hah, I think I’ve mentioned all of those, so I’m tempted to say all of the above! But if I had to choose, I might say voice. We can work on pacing in edits, and the truth is, sometimes writers begin their story a little too early or a little too late, and it doesn’t take much in the way of cutting to change that. A unique concept is great, but if you can’t tell the story dynamically, then it’s a wonderful idea and nothing more. Voice, perspective, telling a story sentence-by-sentence in an interesting way, is something that just can’t be absent from the equation.
Rebecca Podos is a graduate of the MFA Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College, whose debut YA novel THE MYSTERY OF HOLLOW PLACES is forthcoming from Balzer + Bray. Rebecca loves YA and MG projects with compelling characters whose journeys feel human, whether they’re high school students, were-dragons or space travelers. She is thrilled to represent books like Rin Chupeco’s THE GIRL FROM THE WELL (Sourcebooks), Ryan Bradford’s HORROR BUSINESS (Month9Books), Mackenzi Lee’s THIS MONSTROUS THING (Katherine Tegen Books, 2015), Sarah Nicolas’ DRAGONS ARE PEOPLE, TOO (Entangled, 2015), Ashley Herring Blake’s SUFFER LOVE (HMH Children’s, 2016) Kenneth Logan’s THE SLOW THAW (HarperCollins Children’s, 2016), and Emily Ross’s HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH (Merit Press, 2016.)
If you’re interested in submitting to Rebecca, please check the Rees Literary Agency website for their guidelines.