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 Amy Elizabeth Bishop’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.
Amy T.: 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?
Amy B.: The first line isn’t that important to me. I’m looking for the first few pages to really suck me in. Do I feel grounded as a reader in what’s going on? Do I have a good feel for the characters? Am I already engrossed in the plot or am I lost in a lot of backstory? Of course, a great first line is always going to draw me in and make me curious about what happens next, but I think how you open with your first chapter can often be even more important.
Amy T.: A lot of books open with common things like dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car, starting at a new school, etc. What are some openings you recommend writers stay away from?
Amy B.: This is a tough one, because a really good writer will take something I usually dislike and turn it on its head. Perhaps one thing I’d say to be careful of is to avoid opening with a huge chunk of reflection or commentary from the protagonist before getting into the action. We need some grounding in the beginning, but I want to see what’s going on, not be told.
Amy T.: 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?
Amy B.: They’ve set up the tension or the conflict of the novel well from the beginning pages and I feel comfortable as a reader. I feel like I know their character(s) pretty well, are invested in their futures, and I want to see what happens next.
Amy T.: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Amy B.: Some common mistakes I see are overuse of exposition or dialogue (that balance can be tricky), waiting too long to get started with the conflict (i.e.: what’s driving the story), or too much explanation via backstory.
Amy T.: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Amy B.: All of the above! I love a good voice-driven narrative. If it’s an unusual concept with good pacing, I’m sold. For me though, I’m always interested in the characters—if they have a voice that just leaps off the page, I’ll probably want to keep reading.
Amy Elizabeth Bishop joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret after interning at DG&B in 2014. Before diving into the world of publishing, she graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a degree in Creative Writing. She grew up in upstate New York and has now made the traitorous switch to downstate living. Reading-wise, she is interested in both commercial and upmarket women’s fiction, fiction from diverse authors, historical fiction (focusing on untold stories or well-known stories from a different perspective; think, minority voices), and contemporary YA. In terms of nonfiction, she’s on the hunt for a killer feminist voice and loves historical narrative non-fiction, as well as memoirs. Amy is also a poet (in her spare time) and is a reader for The Rumpus.
If you’re interested in submitting to Amy, please check the Dystel, Goderich & Bourret website for their submission guidelines.