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, Saba Sulaiman’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?
Saba: It makes a huge difference, but I wouldn’t throw a manuscript away if the opening line wasn’t perfect. What I’m looking for is the potential to craft a stellar first line, or perhaps another line somewhere in the opening pages that would work better as the first line. I think if the writing voice and tone has personality and purpose overall, a less than super opening line can be overlooked. That having been said, there’s nothing like a fantastic first line to get me excited to read a project, often well after I’ve begun to lose interest. So the bottom line is: make each line count, especially your opening line.
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?
Saba: Other than the ones you’ve already mentioned, I’ll add the following that come to mind:
-Kid finding out the family’s moving.
-Kid starting first day at new school and feeling overwhelmed.
-Monologue about a) wanting to be popular, or b) being too cool to want to be popular.
-Person waking up (even if there’s no dream.)
-The “My name is X, and I am Y” opening. It can work, but I see it a lot
-Couple lying in bed contemplating strained marriage
-Lying in bed and thinking in general.
-Thinking in general (start with action, if possible).
-The weather (just don’t).
Again, I always say: never say never. If an author can find a way to make even the most common opening unique and interesting, I say go for it. My mind’s always open to exceptions to any rule, especially when it comes to writing.
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?
Saba: It varies. It’s usually some combination of stellar writing + voice + characters + point of view + general concept. It’s never just concept, although it can be just the writing or the voice, if I connect with either of them hard.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
-Too much backstory and exposition
-Poor, unlayered dialogue
-Too much dialogue
-Introducing too many characters
-Overuse of cliched images and phrases
-Not starting at the right place
-Too much telling vs. showing
This may be too early for the first five pages, but it’s something I look for personally, as soon as possible: an emotional anchor to the story. This usually comes in the form of a character who I can connect with immediately, who I care about, and who I find interesting. If that’s missing, I find it very difficult to continue reading on.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Saba: Definitely the voice. And a complex, interesting, dynamic character, whose story I want to read. Ideally, a layered protagonist with a memorable voice and a unique perspective on the world. My favorite characters are relatable while still being larger than life in some sense. I’m always looking for that balance. Of course, there’s nothing like a seemingly ordinary character with an extraordinary story, and that’s where voice comes in. So, in short, voice and character.
Saba Sulaiman is a literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She’s looking to build her client list in a variety of genres (because that’s the beauty of agenting – see her website for details.) Captivating storytelling with characters who are smart and weird and wonderful engage in meaningful relationships that evolve over time is what makes her world spin. She’s an unapologetic advocate for all things Bollywood and she really, really just loves soup. For more on Saba, check out her website or follow her on Twitter (@agentsaba)
If you’re interested in submitting to Saba, please check the Talcott Notch website for their guidelines.