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’s requested over and over.
Today, I’m proud to share Shannon Powers’ 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?
Shannon: Truthfully, it’s not something I think about too much. I think of it more as a bonus, rather than a “must.” Often it takes a few lines to set the tone of the story and I’m more than willing to ride it out a bit to get a sense of where we’re going. I can also definitely tell when a writer has tried too hard to make the first line memorable. I prefer a more natural opening – engaging, but not heavy-handed trying to force me to be interested.
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?
Shannon: I definitely agree that it’s best to avoid the run-of-the-mill when writing an opening, like these examples. I also dread the “looking in the mirror” opening – a common device to show what the character looks like but just not the best place to start the story. There are some that I don’t love in certain genres as well. In mystery for example, the detective being called the crime scene right away and there’s that whole exchange of “What do we got?” For some reason these work better on TV than in books! Also, in any kind of sci-fi or fantasy where there is a lot of world building, I instantly get lost when the opening has tons of foreign terms thrown around (things like strange place names, events referenced, random technologies, etc.).
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?
Shannon: There are a lot of things in the first five pages that could grab me. If the query/premise sound interesting, I immediately go to the initial pages to check out the writing. From there, I would say that atmosphere is an element I am particularly drawn to. If an author is right away able to set the tone and scene, I’m hooked. It’s also big for me to see the story moving right away. That doesn’t mean I need tons of action up front, but I will be intrigued if I start to have a sense of what is at stake or begin to see possibilities opening up in the first five pages. Also, never underestimate the power of a good title. Many agents and editors disregard them as they often change from the initial query, but I always look at projects that have interesting titles (hint: put them in the subject line along with the genre). Just a personal quirk, but definitely something to pique my interest.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
1) Having an uneven balance of narration, action/description, and dialogue. This one is huge for me!
2) Being overwhelming by throwing us to the wolves, so to speak, rather than gently guiding us into the world and lives of the characters.
3) Failing to show what is compelling about this world/story/the characters (aka being too generic).
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Shannon: Of course it’s great to nail all three of those. However, I would say the concept gets me first. I will give anything a chance for the first 10 pages at least if it has an awesome premise. Otherwise in the first five pages I’m looking to connect with the characters, or at the very least be intrigued by them. We’re going to be stuck with them for the whole book, so it’s great to see why we should ride it out with them!
Shannon Powers is a graduate of New York University. She began her career in publishing at McIntosh and Otis as an intern in 2011, and then went on to intern at The Book Report Network and W.W. Norton & Company. She has also worked as a bookseller. She returned to M&O in 2014, where she is a junior agent and assists Shira Hoffman and Christa Heschke. Twitter: @S_E_Powers / Blog: https://shannonepowers.wordpress.com/
If you’re interested in submitting to Shannon, please check The McIntosh & Otis website for their guidelines.