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 Kari Sutherland’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?
Kari: It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, but it definitely helps set the tone and grab my attention. I always read beyond it, but I’ll be more excited about the submission if the first paragraph or two convey a sense of character, a strong voice, or something about the plot/world that piques my interest. There are times when a writer goes to extremes to make the first sentence sensational (my ex is pointing a gun at me! The house slid into the ocean! Aliens have landed!) when it doesn’t entirely fit the story. I’d rather have the first few lines infused with the persona of a character I want to spend the next 60K words reading about than an explosive beginning for drama’s sake.
Amy: 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?
Kari: All of the above! There are exceptions to every rule, so I wouldn’t say a book that opens with one of those is not going to be one I ultimately enjoy, but beginning with a dream or waking from one, a mundane conversation or part of a routine (picking out clothes, going for a run, walking to class), or throwing your protagonist into a new school or having him/her watch a new student arrive are all very prosaic routes. In dystopian novels, a selection/choosing ceremony has become the equivalent of starting at a new school for the contemporary genre. It may not stop me from reading on, but the voice will have to work harder to impress me. Another common trope used in the first few pages is the main character looking in a mirror to give us a physical description. I prefer more organic ways of working in those descriptors.
I have been gripped by a dream opening because of stellar, compelling writing and I’ve been bored by more extraordinary and unusual beginnings because the characters, emotions, or descriptions fall flat.
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?
Kari: Beyond the voice, which is first and foremost for me, and an intriguing concept, I look for the ability of a writer to create a poignant or electrifying moment, to make me feel something, even within the first chapter, whether it’s amusement, empathy, or irritation-by-proxy. The first chapter should have a good balance of dialogue and internalization/description since we often learn more about characters when they interact with others and I should have a sense of the world/character’s life without knowing everything. It’s like a first date—you want to hook me (the reader) with your charm and personality and some fascinating anecdotes, but hold back the more detailed knowledge for later, once we’ve spent more time together. The mystery alone can be tantalizing.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Kari: Writers sometimes think they need to lay out the whole world up front. In sci-fi/fantasy or dystopian, this can be with in-depth explanations of how things came to be this way, how things work in this society, etc. In contemporary this can manifest with delving into too much backstory of a relationship anytime a new character enters the scene or an over-reliance on physical descriptions rather than showing us personality traits and temperament. Some details should be there to help readers get a feel for the setting, but we don’t need the complete history at the start. Emotionally laden interactions will be much more compelling than a sociology lesson.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Kari: Voice. I want to know the person who will be leading me on this journey. Someone snarky and gruff? Someone witty and observant? Someone scarred by the past, but hopeful of the future? Someone unapologetically sunny? Someone fiercely loyal and passionate?
The query can show me whether a concept is unique, but if the voice can’t draw me in, an original idea isn’t going to be enough.
Kari Sutherland joined the Bradford Literary Agency in 2017 after a decade of experience in publishing from the editorial side. While at HarperCollins Children’s Books, she worked with bestselling and critically acclaimed authors on projects such as Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and the Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard. With her editorial insight and experience with the entire publishing process, Kari is passionate about helping to polish each manuscript and equip her clients for success.
For full submission guidelines, please see the Bradford Literary Agency website.