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 Stephanie Fretwell-Hill’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?
Stephanie: It’s pretty important! A great first line shows that the writer knows what they are doing and that they are working to grab the reader’s (and my) attention right away. However, it isn’t enough to just write one great line—the whole manuscript needs to be exceptional. And if I find a wonderful manuscript with a mediocre first line, I would certainly be willing to push past the opening sentence. I am an editorial agent and often do at least one round of edits with my clients, so we can always strengthen individual lines before we submit to editors.
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?
Stephanie: It’s hard to say, because there are always exceptions to each example. But I see lots of manuscripts beginning with the main character running, a description of the weather, or a first person introduction in which the main character just blurts out the details of his or her character profile. (“I guess I should tell you a little bit about myself. My name is x and my best friend is y…”)
I think the main thing is to look at where the story starts—what is the inciting incident and what are the scenes leading up to it?—rather than the start of the character’s day or a pure “introduction” to the character. You have to cut out those superfluous scenes that don’t advance the story itself.
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?
Stephanie: I ask for the first three chapters of a novel in the author’s initial inquiry. At the end of those pages, I should really want to know what happens next. If I don’t care by then, I figure it’s best that I move on. But if I’ve really been drawn into the story and I find myself disappointed to reach the end of the excerpt, I ask for the full manuscript. It’s a combination of factors—voice, character, plot, pacing, concept, my impression of the author—that all add up to a promising submission.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Stephanie: Lots of typos or spelling errors. Passive scenes in which no one is really doing anything. Flat characters and cliché dialogue. The start of a predictable story.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Stephanie: I would say voice, first and foremost. Everything else is also important, but the mechanics of plot or pacing can be tweaked and shifted, and an ordinary concept can be extraordinary in the right hands. But if I don’t connect with the voice, there isn’t a whole lot I can do to help the writer improve it, and I can’t stand behind the manuscript as an agent if I don’t really believe in it.
Stephanie Fretwell-Hill is a literary agent with a sales and editorial background. After starting her career in foreign rights at Walker Books in the UK, Stephanie moved home to Atlanta as an acquiring editor at Peachtree Publishers. Most recently, she joined Red Fox Literary where she represents authors and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction and non-fiction. During her ten years in the publishing industry, she has had the privilege of working with respected colleagues and award-winning authors and artists from around the world.