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 Jennifer Johnson-Blalock’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?
Jennifer: A great first line will certainly make me excited, but I don’t think it’s imperative–that’s the kind of thing we can work on together. Within the first five to ten pages, though, I need to be hooked. Like every other agent, my TBR pile is enormous, and I’ll often take a look at the beginnings of things I’ve requested and then set them aside to read later if I’m not completely captivated. I think the goal is to keep me from setting your book aside.
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?
Jennifer: All of those things–probably also waking up, an ordinary conversation…it’s tough to set a firm rule; there are always exceptions. For instance, I was tempted to fall back on the showing, not telling rule, and then I remembered all the great classic novel openers (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…,” “All happy families are alike…,” “It was the best of times…”). The best advice I can offer is to think about what your primary goal is for this opener, taking into account the story, the genre, etc.. Do you want to introduce a character? Set up a main plot point? Convey a theme? Decide that, and then figure out the most vivid, compelling way to accomplish that goal.
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?
Jennifer: Liza Dawson Associates may be somewhat unique in that we only ask for queries to start–no sample pages. I know this can be tough for writers who may have lovely manuscripts but struggle with the specific kind of promotional writing a query requires. Understanding that, I don’t expect your query to be a masterpiece. If it sounds like the sort of thing I’d like to read, and the writing isn’t noticeably poor, I’ll request the first 50 pages. What I’m looking for initially varies a bit depending on genre. With nonfiction, I want to see a captivating concept and a strong platform. With YA and women’s fiction, I’m very focused on voice and character. With thrillers and mysteries, I’m most concerned with plot.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Jennifer: I think the biggest mistakes are an information dump or more general “throat clearing.” The first five pages shouldn’t feel like an introductory paragraph in a classroom essay, generally setting the stage and full of broad statements. They should be targeted and distinctive. Backstory should be revealed gradually, on a need-to-know basis, and the most memorable opening won’t work if it isn’t vital to the story.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Jennifer: I should get hooked on the concept in the query, and pacing will bear out over the course of the work. I think voice is the most important thing in the early pages. When I read a book, the voice infiltrates my brain and influences the way I think, even when I put the book down for a minute. As I read the first few pages, I think one of my subconscious questions is whether I want this voice in my head for the next few hours, days, or weeks.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Jennifer represents all genres of nonfiction and upmarket and commercial fiction in the genres of thrillers/mysteries, women’s fiction, and contemporary YA. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock.
If you’re interested in submitting to Jennifer, please check the Liza Dawson Associates website for their guidelines.