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, Noah Ballard’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?
Noah: It is imperative! It’s like the first shot of a movie, the first note of a song. First impressions are lasting. Don’t start your novel on a bad beat and have to compensate for it in the rest of the paragraph, chapter, book.
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?
Noah: I tweeted recently that as an agent I’m looking for a book that’s first line doesn’t introduce a bloody corpse, the protagonist’s name and job, a sweeping vista, a salutation (don’t ever say, “Hi, my name is…”), a character waking up, the weather (there’s so many rainy nights in my queries!) or an info dump (giving us the exposition in summary form). People seemed to like that tweet.
That being said, Bill Clegg’s DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY starts with a character waking up and smoking pot and info dumping his relation to the main narrative of the novel. And critics seem to love that book, save for Dwight Garner.
This is all to say there are no hard-and-fast rules in this, but there are easy choices and hard choices, familiar territory and narrative ingenuity. In both cases, I am more interested in the latter.
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?
Noah: For the kinds of books I work on, it’s voice. Voice is confidence and an authenticity and a trust I immediately have that this writer is going to do something interesting in their prose. Plot is great, but I’m looking to be told a story in an artful way.
The best example of voice I’ve seen recently is Joshua Cohen’s BOOK OF NUMBERS that Random House put out earlier this year. From moment one, he dares you to stop reading, but you can’t. Other great voice-driven writers that come to mind: Sarah Gerard, Lindsay Hunter, Lauren Holmes, Phil Klay.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Noah: The biggest mistake I see is writers being overly eager to get to the inciting incident of the plot (see: bloody corpses). The exposition isn’t simply a montage to get us up to speed. Its purpose is to give us a baseline for who these characters are, what they want and a reason why we should care about them.
I’m currently obsessed with Mr. Robot on USA, and I think that is a great teaching tool for voice and exposition. In the opening scene, the protagonist, Elliot, establishes that he’s a computer hacker who wants to do good for the world—shown in his busting of a child porn ring hidden on the servers for a coffee shop chain. Busting this coffee shop is not what Mr. Robot is ultimately is about, but this scene shows who Elliot is, what his desires are—and it’s entertaining to see how he goes about doing it.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Noah: Concepts are fine, but regardless of genre, great novels are about people struggling against society, other people or themselves. STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel certainly has a concept—a post-apocalyptic Shakespeare company—but that’s not what the book is about. The book is about people struggling to survive—against a broken society, people with their own agendas and their internal loss of hope. This is achieved through the aforementioned voice and telling a compelling, well-paced story.
You can also tell very quickly about an author’s understanding of humanity in their early pages. That’s how I judge the books I review: What does this author understand about other people and what are they trying to share with me and, subsequently, the reader? If the answer is a viewpoint I don’t share, an insight I wish I’d thought of or generosity I respond to, I’ll definitely request more pages.
Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He received his BA in English from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and began his career in publishing at Emma Sweeney Agency where he sold foreign rights for the agency in addition to building his own client list. Noah specializes in literary debuts, upmarket thrillers and narrative nonfiction, and he is always on the look-out for honest and provocative new writers. Noah has appeared across the country at graduate programs and writing conferences speaking about query letters, building nonfiction platforms and submission etiquette.
If you’re interested in submitting to Noah, please check the Curtis Brown, Ltd. website for their guidelines.