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’m proud to share Literary Agent, Eric Smith’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?
Eric: In terms of the cover letter, or the manuscript? Because I’d say both are pretty important. Both lines are key to getting that potential reader hooked immediately. When it comes to your book, that first line is your first impression, save for your title. Make it stand out.
As for the query letter, keep in mind, agents are getting a TON of emails every single day. I’m a new agent, and my inbox is pretty full despite that fact. Try to grab the agent you’re pitching immediately. And it doesn’t have to be something about your story. Maybe you read a blog post by that agent, or you’re familiar with the work they represent. Grab the attention. Get that hook in.
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?
Eric: Oh, I dunno. I’ve read plenty of books that I adore that happen to open in a cliché way. The main character has no memory of how they got to ex place, or they’re staring at the love interest from across a room… etc. Sometimes it’s an ordinary setting that leads to something extraordinary later. Write what feels right for you.
I will say that if you are going to open with a common opening, just make sure it’s as unique as the rest of your book. Give it that spin that keeps it from being common.
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?
Eric: Well, when I request a full manuscript, it’s based entirely on the query. I just take query emails at P.S. Literary, no attachments, no first few chapters. It’s the query that has to catch me. If the book can’t grab me in a quick paragraph, it’s just not for me. As someone who worked at a publishing house doing marketing for five years, I know how important that initial grab is.
Generally it’s the premise that grabs me. Sometimes a bio will have a few stand out tidbits in it that’ll make me look closer, so writers, make sure your bios look good! 🙂
And as for the full vs. partial thing… I just do that because I can’t stand it when I’m really loving a manuscript, and I find I only have 50 pages and desperately want the rest. Haha.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Eric: That I’ve noticed so far? I think the worst one is just dumping exposition. “This and this and this happening which is why things are this and this and that way.” Loathe that. Instead of dishing all that out to setup your story, let me experience it. Let your reader be in your world. Don’t cheat your reader out of your vision.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Eric: Voice and pacing, definitely. That first sentence and paragraph, the hook. I want to be brought in immediately. The unique concepts behind the book can be brought up later. I’m patient. But right off the bat, I should be in the world and meeting the characters.
Eric Smith is an author, blogger, and literary agent living in Philadelphia. He’s an associate literary agent with P.S. Literary, and when he isn’t working with authors on their books, sometimes he tries to write his own. His first humor book, The Geek’s Guide to Dating (2013, Quirk) was an Amazon Best of 2013 selection in Humor, and his debut Young Adult novel, Inked, came out with Bloomsbury’s digital imprint, Bloomsbury Spark, in January 2015. He’s a regular blogger for sites like BookRiot, Barnes & Noble’s Teen Reads Blog, and Paste magazine. You can learn more about him on his site, or better yet, his Twitter.
If you’re interested in submitting to Eric, please check the P.S. Literary website for their guidelines.