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, Moe Ferrera’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?
Moe: A good first line is always important—even if that first line changes along the way. You always want to make sure that you have a great hook that makes someone (be it an agent, critique partner, best friend, cat, or editor) want to sit up and read more. It’s the same thing all of us learned in English class when we were learning how to write essays: have a first line that draws in the reader. Personally, I love things that drop me in the middle of the action. It gives a sense of urgency to the writing and makes the reader want to know how the character got into trouble and if they will get back out. At the same time—don’t let the fear of not having the PERFECT FIRST LINE EVER stop you in your tracks either. A mediocre first line can still become a fantastic first line with the help of an editor and an okay first line doesn’t equal an automatic rejection.
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?
Moe: Avoid anything common place and feels like an excuse for an info dump about what a character looks like, the room they’re in, the world they come from, etc. Waking up from a dream or having the main character going about their morning routine would be two of my pet peeves. I don’t mind riding in a car so much because I find it can be effective if done correctly… like the character is speeding away from the bank they just robbed. Stay away from ‘looked in the mirror’ or scenes where the main character is getting together with all their friends and can thus take five paragraphs to describe each of the friends in detail since they’ll be the supporting cast throughout the rest of the book. Similarly, while I’m not in the ‘avoid prologues at all costs’ camp, make sure the prologue is actually instrumental to the book. Oftentimes the prologue or first chapter you write… isn’t really where the story starts. They’re not waste words by any stretch of the imagination—but they’re background info for you, the writer, rather than for the reader.
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?
Moe: At BookEnds, we don’t request sample pages with a query, just the query itself. So for me, when I request something, it’s because I love the voice in the query. One of my favorite things is when authors manage to work their voice into the query because it makes it so much stronger. Otherwise, I request because I like their plot or there’s some hook I haven’t seen before and I like their idea. Sometimes it’s a plot that’s so unusual and weird… that it compels me to want to see more because of sheer curiosity. Sometimes an author queries me with something that’s catnip to me (and no, I’m not telling you guys what those plots are!) and I just have to see it and hope the author can pull off my favorite type of story/plot.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Moe: Putting down too much information/backstory all at once. I want to have forward movement in the first pages (partially why I like for a book to open with an action sequence of some ilk) so it doesn’t get bogged down with exposition about this or that character. Or to feel like I’m being told every single thing about the world in the first three pages. I just watched the first episode of The Bastard Executioner and I felt like the show had the same problem with a lot of book openings: trying to introduce the audience to a huge cast of characters, trying to show us the entire world all at once, and trying to make the audience care about so many details in a short period of time with little action to carry it forward. Once the main inciting incident happens (no spoilers!), the storytelling picked up and it no longer dragged.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Moe: Concept and voice are what resonate with me the most—with pacing as a close second. The first two, I find, are something a writer inherently has. It’s harder to edit someone’s voice… because if too much work is done, it’s no longer that writer’s voice but the editor’s voice instead. I’ve always found that either a person has a good voice or they don’t—and voice is probably the most subjective thing in this industry. What one person loves another could hate and the next could adore and the next finds it meh… etc. Concept can always be tweaked here and there, but a person has to have a strong one to stand out among the thousands of emails an agent gets every month. Pacing, however… even if the pacing isn’t great, that’s something that can be fixed a lot easier than a writer’s voice.
Becoming a literary agent was fitting for the girl who, as a small child, begged her dad to buy her a book simply because “it has a hard cover.” Growing up, Moe had a hard time finding YA books outside of Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine, and instead tackled Tom Clancy or her mom’s romance novels. Though her career path zigzagged a bit—she attended college as a music major, earned a JD from Pace Law School, then worked various jobs throughout the publishing industry—Moe was thrilled to join the BookEnds team in May of 2015 as a literary agent and the subsidiary rights director.
A Pennsylvania native, she is the proud owner of one rambunctious guinea pig who is a master at stealing extra treats. When not reading, she is an avid gamer and always awaiting the next Assassin’s Creed release.
You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/inthesestones.
If you’re interested in submitting to Moe, please check the Bookends Literary website for their guidelines.