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, Mackenzie Brady’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?
Mackenzie: As a reader, a killer first line (or page) is essential. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a bookstore, opened four dozen books and chosen which of those to buy based on the first few lines alone. You can tell almost immediately if the voice is original and the character(s) captivating. As an agent, however, we see books far earlier, before they are in publishable form, and so it’s often the case that the first sentence of a manuscript may not end up in the finished book. Because we see manuscripts in this more malleable form, I think agents tend to be a bit more willing to look past a rocky start if they believe the idea behind the work is exceptional.
It’s important to remember that agents (and editors) are simply readers at heart. We all want to be transported, entertained, or provoked by a story. And the quickest way to hook us is by putting your best words forward. While it’s true that I’ve gone on to reject plenty of manuscripts that have had great opening lines, often getting an agent to read the full work is a victory in and of itself. Agents receive an exciting but sometimes overwhelming number of queries, so in the interest of making your book stand out against the others, I’d recommend giving your first few pages a little extra TLC. It certainly won’t hurt!
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?
Mackenzie: Truly great writers could make any opening interesting. It’s all about how they treat the seemingly boring or trite situation. A fresh voice, a funny character, a surprising musing can all infuse a liveliness into these common openings. I’m wary of telling an author to avoid beginning his/her story with a certain scenario, as a dream or car ride may be that magical moment where things are going to change for the characters in the story (I‘m thinking particularly of J. Robert Lennon’s FAMILIAR in regards to a car ride opening). It’s up to the author to decide what that moment is and write the hell out of it.
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?
Mackenzie: It almost always comes down to voice. There are so many wonderful book ideas out there, but without an assured voice, the story will rarely take off for me. Some of my favorite voices can be found in Justin Torres’ WE THE ANIMALS (second person plural – rare and surprising), Elissa Schappell’s BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS (varied, fierce female voices), Garth Stein’s ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN (a dog!), and Rainbow Rowell’s ELEANOR & PARK (endearing, but with a little edge).
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Mackenzie: The reader is encountering the characters and world for the first time upon opening a book, which can scare writers (especially of fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal) into throwing as much information as humanly possible into those initial pages. This is not only overwhelming to a reader, but it also slows the pace dramatically, which can make a book seem overly complicated and boring at the outset. My recommendation is to find active, but organic ways to reveal necessary world-building/character information via scenes.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Mackenzie: The concept outlined in an author’s query letter is what will help me determine if I even open sample pages. Is it original? Is it something I know how to handle/like to read? Is it something I think readers will be interested in? If the answer is yes, then I move on to the sample pages, at which point the voice takes the lead. Have I read prose like this before? Are the characters sympathetic or at least intriguing? I can usually tell if I’ll love the voice by the end of page 5, if not by the end of page 1.
Mackenzie joined Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency in 2011, after interning at FinePrint Literary Mgmt and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is currently looking for narrative non-fiction focusing on science, sports, psychology and travel; and compelling contemporary and voice-driven YA fiction. Mackenzie received a B.S. in Microbiology from Penn State University.
If you’re interested in submitting to Mackenzie, please make sure to check the Charlotte Sheedy Literary website for their guidelines.