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 Tracy Marchini’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?
Tracy: I ask for the first five pages with a query and will generally read past the first line in most samples, but it definitely does set the expectation/tone for what I’m about to read. A mediocre first line could be forgiven if it’s quickly followed by something engaging. But a cliché or terrible first line is much harder to overcome.
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?
Tracy: Waking up in bed and having the character survey their room. I’ve been seeing this a lot lately, and what I worry about as a reader is that we’re about to see a character’s every move – from morning until nightfall – instead of a narrative arc that’s structured to show me only what’s necessary to further the story.
I found that I’ve also had trouble with the immediate breaking of the fourth wall, where the character turns to the reader and says, “Let me tell you my story.” I feel like this can occasionally be done well, but it’s very difficult to maintain that sort of tone throughout an entire novel. And as a fellow writer – I get it. I’ve definitely woken up and had a character ‘speak’ to me in that way. And I’ve written out what they were saying – who they were, what they didn’t like about their situation, what they wanted to fix, etc. These pages are important as a jumping off point, but I think you’ll find in revisions that they ultimately aren’t your first pages – and maybe aren’t final pages at all. They were the character study that propelled you into your draft.
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?
Tracy: Usually, it’s a combination of voice and concept. I have to connect to their main character, to the writer’s voice, and to the story they’re about to tell.
This is part of why the industry is just so subjective. A concept that doesn’t grab me might grab another agent, and vice versa.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Tracy: While I do want to be brought into the action quickly, there are times where we meet the protagonist during a really intense scene – the character is trapped by a shadowy figure, or being held up at knifepoint, etc. But we don’t really know the character yet, so if it’s not extremely well written, it’s harder to care or connect to what’s happening to them.
I think world building is also tricky in the first five pages. Too much and you’re boring the reader, too little and it feels like your characters are just heads floating in space.
I would also pay attention to dialogue in terms of character development. When every character speaks in the same way, they all tend to blur together. Everybody doesn’t need a unique catch phrase or slang of their own (please no!) but further into the story we should be able to differentiate who is saying what just by how they say it.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Tracy: Pacing, structure, character development, etc. are all things that I can work with an author on, but finding your voice as a writer has to be done before an agent gets on board. So for me, the voice and concept are definitely the most important things I look for.
That’s not to say the other elements of craft can be ignored – the market is tough out there! But it’s much easier to teach an author how to say what they’d like, instead of trying to help them figure out what it is they have to say.
Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds representing fiction, non-fiction and illustration for children and teens. Previous to joining BookEnds, she worked as a freelance editor, marketing manager, literary agent’s assistant and newspaper correspondent. She can be queried at https://querymanager.com/query/tmarchini.
As an author, Tracy’s debut picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, is forthcoming from Creative Editions and is now available for pre-order. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.
If you’re interested in submitting to Tracy, please follow the submission guidelines for BookEnds Literary Agency.