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, Kirsten Carleton’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.
Amy: There is a belief among many 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?
Kirsten: I don’t know that I pay any more special attention to the first line than I do to the first paragraph as a whole, or even the first few paragraphs. What’s important to me is getting a strong sense of character right off the bat, and that I’m interested enough in finding out what he or she will do next to keep reading. It’s also about showcasing the author’s writing style. A clever sentence or skilled piece of dialogue or description can draw me in, as long as it doesn’t outsmart itself by distracting me from the story.
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?
Kirsten: I think that a lot of times, writers try to start off by showing what normal life is like for the character before everything is changed by the inciting incident, but that can make for a dull opening. It can be justified in some cases, such as when there’s a lot of worldbuilding to introduce, but generally I recommend starting the novel at the same time as the plot, or even after. Everything else is backstory that can be filled in along 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?
Kirsten: This varies from novel to novel – as it should! For me, the baseline is that the writing is good. I also need to feel connected to the character’s voice, and have a sense of something being at stake for him or her. It’s also great if the writer manages to surprise me in those early pages.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Kirsten: Getting bogged down in scene-setting detail is one – waxing poetic about the color of the sky without showing introducing me to the character, for example. On the other side of the spectrum, getting caught up in the character’s head and philosophical musings without giving me any kind of concrete description or action to hold on to can be just as alienating. I also think that there’s a delicate balance in teasing a mystery or plot development in a way that’s neither maddening oblique or overly spelled out.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Kirsten: It’s hard to see whether the pacing and concept will be able to sustain themselves throughout the novel but voice needs to be there from the very beginning. I often see great concepts that don’t have the execution to back them up. On the other hand, I also see great writing with no movement to the plot, in which the novel ends up feeling like more of a character study. In the end, all three have to work together to make the novel itself work.
Before joining Waxman Leavell in 2014, Kirsten Carleton worked at Sobel Weber Associates. She holds a B.A. in English with a Creative Writing concentration from Amherst College, and a Graduate Certificate in Publishing from the Columbia Publishing Course. Kirsten is currently seeking upmarket young adult, speculative, and literary fiction with strong characters and storytelling. She’s drawn to books that capture her attention early on with a dynamic plot, and innovative storytelling that blends or crosses genres. For more on Kirsten, follow her on Twitter @kirstencarleton.
If you’re interested in submitting to Kirsten, please check the Waxman Leavell website for their guidelines.