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 Kelly Van Sant’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?
Kelly: First lines should either be incredible or invisible. An incredible first line immediately establishes the voice and draws me in to the story. It’s provocative. It demands attention. An invisible first line is serviceable. It gives me information and moves me on to the next sentence and the paragraph after that. Invisible prose is not boring, and it’s not bad writing. It’s efficient, it’s clear, and it’s sophisticated in its simplicity. Whether sparkling or subtle, though, your first line should entice me to read more. Your manuscript won’t live and die by the first line–I have a bit more patience than that! But the longer it takes you to captivate me, the less likely I am to request a full. And you only have to lose me once, and I’m gone.
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?
Kelly: Cliched openings like this do become really tiresome to find in my inbox. Of course they are classics for a reason, and when executed well they can be not only effective but essential to the story. Still, I find a lot of writers start their stories in the wrong place. I also struggle a lot with openings that are too in medias res and lacking context. Stories that begin mid-conversation when we don’t know who’s speaking, or in the middle of an action sequence when we don’t know what’s going on. In general I think it’s always best to start with character. Characters give me a reason to care, and once I care I’m willing to go along with all the rest.
With genre fiction there’s a tendency to front-load with world-building exposition which just reads like a wall of word-salad. I can probably figure out what a thingamajiger is from context, but when I’m hit with a thingamajiger and a snorfblat and a dinglehopper and a whatsit (on and on and on) all at once it’s really disorienting and I’m tempted to check out. Painstakingly defining these words doesn’t help either, because then I feel like I’m reading a dictionary.
Same thing with the politics of your universe. “This is the Evil Overlord who came to power through death and destruction, overthrowing the previous benevolent government and throwing the country into chaos. Three generations ago there was a civil war and that weakness is what led to the terrible predicament in which we now find ourselves. Here is the complete line of succession and every battle ever fought that brought us to this point.” Aaaaaaand I’ve stopped reading. Details about the world should be distributed organically throughout the narrative, with meanings and ramifications made clear in context, and in general I think writers should put more trust in readers to make intuitive leaps and piece things together. Remember that even though this is all new to me, it’s everyday life for your protagonist, so make the mystical mundane.
In contemporary fiction I see a lot of biographical information dumped at the beginning. “These are my parents and my siblings and my friends and my love interests. These are things that I like and don’t like and here’s why. This is a thing that happened to me in my past and still haunts me to this day and will color every decision I make for the remainder of the book.” Again, I think this comes form a place of fear or mistrust, where the writer worries that the reader won’t “get it” unless we’re spoon-fed information. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s such a slog to read. Remember that I’m just meeting this character for the first time, and I don’t need to know absolutely everything about them upfront. Tell me what I absolutely need to know in order to hit the ground running, and then let me pick up the rest on the way.
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?
Kelly: I always ask that writers send me their first chapter along with their query letter, because the truth of it is that most writers don’t know how to write a successful query, and a writing sample gives me more accurate material to assess. I do understand that query-writing requires an entirely different skill-set than the one required to write a novel. Queries are about the hook, and it’s a promotional style of writing that necessitates that the writer distance themselves from their work, whereas fiction writing is very intimate.
When reading first pages I know by the end of the first paragraph if I’m going to make a request. I understand that a handful of sentences seems a woefully short window in which to secure my attention, but that’s the reality. When I know I just know. Within a few sentences, the voice should be firmly established and the protagonist introduced. I’m looking for strong, unique voices and well-developed characters. Those things alone are enough to make or break my desire to read more.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Kelly: Starting the story in the wrong place, front-loading the book with exposition, starting with a character other than your protagonist (!!! Why do this?! I start to form an attachment to this character only to be told that he’s a throwaway and actually this dude over here is our REAL hero! That’s so disorienting). I am also not a huge fan of prologues because it makes me worry that the author can’t find an organic way to deliver important backstory in the book proper. There are certainly exceptions where prologues are necessary and even beneficial, but exceptions are rare. Whenever I see a prologue I get cautious.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Kelly: My tastes are character-driven. A unique concept is always welcome, and it’s vital that a book be well-paced (whatever pacing is appropriate to your category and genre–there’s a gamut, of course!). But in the end, if I can’t connect with the characters I’m going to pass every time. A compelling voice and complex characters are imperative for me. The protagonist is my entry-point into the story. The voice is what keeps me mesmerized. No matter how exciting and intricate the plot is, or how innovative the concept or world-building is, I can’t keep reading if I don’t have a reason to care. Character and voice give me that reason.
Kelly Van Sant has nearly a decade of experience in the publishing industry. She cut her teeth in New York working at esteemed literary agencies such as Writers House and Harold Ober Associates before relocating to Minnesota. Switching to the publisher’s side of the fence, Kelly joined Llewellyn Worldwide as their Contracts Manager across all three imprints and then moved to Quarto Publishing Group USA where she led the contract department. She has worked as a freelance editor with various publishers and is a teaching artist at the Loft Literary Center. She also blogs about writing and the publishing industry at Pub(lishing) Crawl and co-hosts their weekly podcast. She also blogs about agenting and other things at her personal website Pen & Parsley.
Kelly’s career came full circle when she joined D4EO Literary Agency in 2017 and began actively building her client list.
Please send all queries to: firstname.lastname@example.org with the word QUERY and your title included in the subject. All queries should include the following:
- Your name, book title, genre, and word count.
- The first chapter of your novel pasted in the body of the email. I will not open attachments.
- Please include links to your website, blog, or social media accounts, if any.
Kelly responds to all queries within 4 weeks.