When the idea for the First Five Frenzy series came to me in 2012, I thought there was a very slim chance agents would agree to answer my questions. I mean, come on, I was a little blogger with barely any readers. Why would they answer my questions? But as most people do, I underestimated the generosity and kindness of literary agents.
The first interview request I sent was to Bridget Smith at Dunham Literary, and within hours she replied with a “yes”. Read her F3 here. Ever since that first post, agents have agreed to answer my questions, sharing what pulls them in, and turns them off, in those important first five pages.
So today I am proud, and very humbled, to share the 50th (!!!) First Five Frenzy with Patricia Nelson from Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. I hope you’ll learn from her words of wisdom and come back time after time to enjoy what each of the participating agents have to share.
To celebrate this fun accomplishment, both Bridget and Patricia have graciously agreed to look at one lucky writer’s first five pages and give feedback. Details on how to enter are below! GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED.
Thank you as always to everyone who reads and supports this blog. I could have never gotten to this amazing milestone without your encouragement!
Many thanks again to Patricia for sharing her thoughts on those important first pages…
Amy: There is a belief among writers that having a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an agent?
Patricia: A really amazing first line in a submission will definitely get me excited to read the manuscript, but it’s by no means the be all and end all. A first line can easily be changed before we send a manuscript out to editors, which means that while a good one is a bonus, a bad one isn’t a dealbreaker.
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?
Patricia: It’s interesting that what all of the examples listed in the question have in common are that they’re things that happen at the beginning of the day – as is another one of my least favorite openings, the “arriving at school/walking into the classroom for first period” opening. It’s not that these can never work, but the issue is that often they seem to have been chosen arbitrarily: “start of the day = start of the book.” But if you were describing a day when something important happened to you, would you lead with describing the way the light looked when you first opened your eyes or the route of your standard morning commute? Get right to the point when the character gets the first hint that things are going to get interesting.
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?
Patricia: A character that I want to know better, a line of narration or dialogue that made me smile, or a beautiful sentence. I once read nearly half of a requested manuscript that wasn’t really working for me just because there was one perfect sentence in the first five pages that I had loved so much I wanted to talk myself into offering representation. (For the curious: that sentence was *not* the first line of the manuscript.) That’s the power of gorgeous writing!
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Patricia: The two mistakes that I tend to see most frequently are inverses of each other: either too little information/action in the first few pages, or too much. On the one hand, something important or intriguing needs to happen at the beginning of a story to keep me reading – especially in YA contemporaries, I often see opening pages that just seem to depict an ordinary person going about an ordinary day, which doesn’t make me want to read on. But the opposite problem, which I see more often in fantasy or speculative fiction, is when an author lays out too many components of the story all at once: if I’m introduced to 4+ characters, a magic system, and lots of specifics about a different world right at the beginning, I’m likely to just get confused and give up. In other words: keep it simple, but not boring. Start me off with one interesting character confronted with one strange thing or person or dilemma. That’s enough for five pages.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Patricia: Your unique concept should be conveyed in the query letter, so what I’m looking for in the opening pages is voice and characterization, as well as the style and clarity of your prose. If your protagonist intrigues me and your writing carries me along, chances are I’m going to want to keep reading.
Patricia Nelson is a literary agent with Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. She represents adult and YA fiction, and is actively building her list. For more about what she’s looking for, check out her agency page or her manuscript wish list, or follow her on twitter @patricianels.
If you’re interested in submitting to Patricia, please check the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency website for their guidelines.
To enter to win a critique of your first five pages, please share a comment about what you’ve learned from reading this series. After your comment, please leave contact info (email or Twitter handle). Entry window will be open until 5pm PST on Monday, December 1, 2014. Winners will be notified on Tuesday, December 2. Good luck!