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. By reading each agent’s comments, I hope you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that will be requested time and time again.
Today, I am proud to share Literary Agent, Carrie Howland’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?
Carrie: A first line, like any first impression, is always important. It shows that you, as a writer, are coming out swinging. The problem comes when you focus so much on the first line, that you forget about the rest of the page, chapter, book. I don’t think a writer should ever focus so much on any one thing that he or she forgets about the work as a whole. A great first line draws the reader in, but great second, third, and forth lines are what keep them reading.
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?
Carrie: I don’t like to say that there is any one thing to stay away from, because done right, even something as common or mundane as eating breakfast can be really powerful. I think, instead, it’s important to focus on why you’re including that scene and how you’re writing it. Does eating breakfast best serve your manuscript? Is the scene really working, both style and plot-wise? If yes, then keep going. Make sure you’re writing the most original breakfast-eating scene imaginable. If, instead, you’re using the breakfast scene as a crutch, because you’ve seen it done before, or because it’s easy, then it’s not best serving the manuscript and you, as the writer, need to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, beyond the breakfast table, to write something truly original.
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?
Carrie: A strong voice and great writing. My background is in poetry, so there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful, well-written line. Those are the first things I notice. They show themselves before plot or character development. Before concept, really. Good writing is what takes me to the next page and then the next. It’s what compels me to ask for the full manuscript. That said, I do love a good, high-concept idea. While my taste tends to skew literary, I still love a good story. And if your work is high-concept and well-written, expect a request for more!
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Carrie: Not staying true to your own voice and work. I often read things that feel derivative. Perhaps someone has read too many books like theirs that have influenced them. Perhaps they’re trying so hard to write in one genre, that they’re not allowing the work to breathe and expand, to be what it could and should be. I think it’s important to let your work evolve as you write, to go with the direction the words take you. If you start out intending to write adult literary fiction, but find you’re writing a beautiful young adult story, go with it. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. I also caution against allowing too many people to read your work, and revising based on all their ideas. It becomes too much. I can always tell early on when a writer has had input from ten other people, because the seams show. The manuscript becomes a Frankenstein’s Monster version of itself. Again, stay true to your work. Taking advice from too many different people will cause your manuscript to become a bit of a mess, and it will be obvious to anyone reading it that it’s been overworked. Not only is this a problem for the manuscript itself, but it makes me question the writer’s faith in his or her own talents. Believe in yourself as a writer, and it will show in your work.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Carrie: Voice has always been of the utmost importance to me. It’s the thing I look for in any manuscript, across any genre. If your voice is strong, unique, quirky, I’m interested. That voice will sustain me throughout the manuscript. It’s also something I can’t teach or fix. A manuscript either has it, or it doesn’t. Whereas things like plot issues and pacing problems can be edited, a strong voice needs to come from the writer and needs to be present from the beginning. I’ve taken on several projects with plot issues, because the voice was so strong, I couldn’t turn away from the project. Those voices stay with me long after I put the pages down.
Carrie Howland is a literary agent at Donadio & Olson, Inc., where she represents literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, young adult, and middle grade authors. In addition to her own clients, she handles foreign, first serial, and audio rights for the agency. Carrie is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives and writes for its newsletter. She also enjoys speaking at various writing conferences throughout the year. Carrie holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Albion College, where she was the Poetry Editor of The Albion Review. Her poetry has appeared in various literary journals and magazines. In her spare time, Carrie volunteers as a foster for a local dog rescue. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow her on twitter at @ecarriehowland or learn more about Donadio & Olson at www.donadio.com.
If you’re interested in submitting to Carrie, please make sure to check the Donadio & Olson website for their guidelines.