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, Alex Barba’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?
Alex: Extremely important, but don’t lose your head over it — I always at least read the first page, so if you can hook me there, you’re doing well enough 🙂
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?
Alex: Similar to dreams, don’t start with your character waking up. Don’t have them looking in a mirror in the first several pages (or ever, if you can avoid it) or have excessive physical description right off the bat. Same with starting with a character looking out a window. All a bit cliché at this point.
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?
Alex: It’s almost always the voice. I know writers hate to hear that because “voice” is something that can’t really be described, but trust me – if you really know your characters through and through, and they are original and interesting and compelling, you’re at least on your way to great voice! On occasion I’ve requested a full based on the overall storyline, if I think it’s particularly fascinating or unique.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Alex: For one, the obvious: telling too much instead of showing. I don’t want to read that your main character is “strong, independent, and feisty.” I want to see her say something snappy or do something bold. Another common mistake is giving too much backstory off the bat. You don’t have to start right in the middle of the action (although often, that works), but don’t start too slow either. You have to grab the reader in the first page, and endless description or explanations aren’t going to do it!
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Alex: A unique concept in the pitch/synopsis will get my attention, but the voice is definitely what makes me fall into a story headfirst. Voice is based in character, and to me, there is nothing more magical than a character (or group of characters) that engage me fully and make me want to know more about them and their lives.
Alex Barba is an agent with Inklings Literary Agency with a background in publishing and entertainment. She joined Inklings after a stint as a literary consultant in New York City, having scouted the U.S. book market for film and TV clients and foreign publishers. Prior to that, she spent time in Los Angeles as an editor at a digital magazine, and doing story development on scripts with a literary management company.
She represents YA fiction and is primarily looking for realistic contemporary YA, although a clever retelling/re-spin of an old classic is always thrilling. Cinematic elements draw her eye, but ultimately she will fall in love with multi-faceted, compelling characters. For specific wish list items, check her Twitter @AlexandraBarba.
If you’re interested in submitting to Alex, please check the Inklings Literary website for their guidelines.