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 the right balance, but I hope by reading each agent’s comments you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that’s requested over and over.
Today, I’m proud to share Elana Roth Parker’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.
Amy: Many writers have the impression that a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an agent?
Elana: A great first line is…well, great. But it’s so not the most important thing if the sentences after that first one are less great. Out of all the books I’ve signed and sold, I only remember the first line of one novel by heart, if that tells you anything.
What’s more true is that a bad first line can do disproportionate damage relative to the good a killer first line can do. It’s more important that you have a solid first line followed by a solid first paragraph followed by a solid first page, and so forth. We’re looking at these cumulatively and holistically. You never want a reader to say, “Well that first sentence was the wittiest line ever. Where’d that writer go for the rest of the novel?”
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?
Elana: Those are some pretty good examples right there. I also get tired of the “It all started that day when…” opener. Or an out-of-context piece of dialogue. You want to start the book about 5-10 minutes (I hope you understand that this is not literal time…) before the big story starts. Just enough to give me some context and get to know the main character before I get derailed by a big plot point. Not enough to bore me, or confuse me (which is why dreams aren’t awesome).
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?
Elana: Ease of entry is what I’m looking for most in the sample pages I ask for in the query. I look for quality of writing that matches the pitch—i.e. if it’s a great concept, I need the writing at an equal level of quality at a minimum. I need to be brought into the character’s world naturally, and feel like the pages are inviting me in, not fighting me. And I also need those sample pages to offer me something the query didn’t in terms of depth.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Elana: Mostly writers get tripped up on where their story starts, as I mentioned above. Context is very important for a reader—we like feeling grounded. I often find the sample pages are either too slow and voicey or too caught up in some big action sequence that I have no idea what’s happening. You need to find a happy medium. Strong voice AND some movement. But not overkill on either front. And make sure the characters I’m meeting in the first pages are the same ones you’re talking about in the query. There’s nothing more disorienting than a prologue or short scene featuring some other characters.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Elana: All of the above. I need to see all of those thing. Nicely balanced. Remember that you’re welcoming a reader into a world they’ve never stepped foot in before—even if you’re writing a contemporary novel in a recognizable setting. I don’t know anything about your characters or their situation before I open the book. Ease me into it and show me my this is going to be an interesting story to continue with.
Elana Roth Parker has specialized in children’s publishing from the beginning of her career, from her very first internship at Nickelodeon Magazine followed by 5 years as an editor at Parachute Publishing. She’s been an agent since 2008, most recently at Red Tree Literary, which she founded in 2012. She joined the Laura Dail Literary Agency in 2016.
If you’re interested in submitting to Elana, please check the Laura Dail Literary Agency website for submission guidelines.