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 Hannah Fergesen’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?
Hannah: A good first line is a nice bonus to a good query, but not if the rest of the sample (I ask for 3 pages) doesn’t seem to fit with that line, or doesn’t have the same voice/oomph. I’ve seen samples that have a first line that was clever, to the point, and sucked me right in – only to realize that the writing that follows was not given the same consideration by the writer. At that point, it didn’t matter that the first line was good. I’d rather have a solid, consistent sample than one good first line.
Amy: A lot of books open with common things like dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car, etc. What are some openings you recommend writers stay away from?
Hannah: We often see the advice “open on action”, right? And so a lot of these openings have become clichéd through writers attempting to open on action, while also fulfilling their desire to unload a lot of backstory up front. A character looking in a mirror might meditate on her appearance but also what the bullies at school say about her, what the boy she has as crush on thinks, etc. It’s a way to tell us a lot things up front, rather than show us as the story progresses. These openings are clichés because they’re crutches.
So, I’m not going to tell you to say away from XYZ openings, because if you’re not using it for backstory purposes, one of them just might be the exact right opening for your story! I will say, if you’re stuck, rather than attempting to start on action (which is what gave us these clichés to begin with), consider starting on interaction. Two characters talking or having an adventure together will always be more interesting, and give us a better sense of the cast and plot overall, than a girl eating breakfast or a boy looking into a mirror alone.
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?
Hannah: The query is usually well crafted, because I do read that first – if your query can’t engage me, I generally don’t spend as much time on the pages, to be quite honest (Not all agents are like this, of course! Many skip the query entirely and go straight for the pages. Everyone is different – account for both!). So if the query is well-written and gives me a good sense of the conflict and personal stakes, I’ll move onto the pages. Generally when I request pages it’s because the voice and prose sucks me in right away. An interesting, engaging voice and tight prose can often take a long time to hone, so I generally trust that you’ve taken the time to learn and revise your work.
Also, a good sample doesn’t try and dump too much info at once, but it does move swiftly into the story. It gives me enough to know who the character is and perhaps why they’re the main character, but withholds enough information that I have to keep reading to understand the full extent of what I’m in for.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Hannah: Too much info-dumping, too little information, starting in the wrong place (too far into the story, so that you have to info dump a lot of what happened to bring a character to the place she is now; or not far enough into the story, so it takes too long to engage).
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Hannah: Voice and pacing. Like I mentioned before, I am a big sucker for a good voice, so if you can slap me in the face with a character’s voice and amazing prose, I’m in it. In my opinion, even the most clichéd concepts can be made unique with an interesting voice and tight, well-crafted prose.
Before settling in New York, Hannah worked and went to school in Denver, where she obtained her degree in Writing for Film and Television. Opportunities in New York presented themselves before she could run off to LA, and she course corrected her career toward publishing, a dream of hers since childhood. After stints as a remote intern for a well-known agent, a bookseller at the famous Books of Wonder, an intern at Soho Press, a literary assistant at Trident Media Group, and a freelance editor working with well-known authors, Hannah joined KT Literary in 2016. Hannah is a proud geek and TV junkie, with an all-consuming love for Doctor Who, Harry Potter, and anything created by Joss Whedon. With her background in film and television, she is attracted to stories with strong visuals and sharp dialogue, whether presented in edgy speculative or contemporary YA and MG fiction, or dark and lyrical speculative adult fiction.
If you’re interested in submitting to Hannah, please check the KT Literary website for their submission guidelines.