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, Marietta Zacker’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?
Marietta: First lines are akin to what is said about meeting someone for the first time: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Does it doom the manuscript if it’s not as captivating as: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” (Quick, name the title. Bonus points if you name the author!) Of course it doesn’t mean the manuscript is not worthy of being read, but if you can hook the reader from the beginning, then go for it. I always read on, regardless of the first line’s impact because there’s the possibility of finding gold beyond the first line, but certainly it is better not to wait too long to make the reader want to read to the end.
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?
Marietta: That’s an easy one – mirrors and descriptions of flowing locks of hair. Personally, I don’t need to know what characters look like (isn’t that part of our jobs as readers – to imagine the characters?), although, yes, there are circumstances and instances when giving such descriptions makes sense. I understand that, as a writer, you want us deep in your world, but remember that being too descriptive and telling us everything you see and everything that is happening will prevent us from doing what we want to do most. As readers, we want to get lost in your world and find our own way out.
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?
Marietta: It’s always the writing because, after all, it is ALL about the writing. I’ve passed on manuscripts with concepts that sound interesting because the writing didn’t captivate me. Truth be told, it’s not fair to writers (or illustrators!) if I don’t wholeheartedly believe in their work. It’s not that I know best and I am the only arbiter of every story that will be published (although I think my years of experience do play a role here), but the reality is that I can only help my clients if I am 100% behind their writing or illustrations. I want to work alongside authors and illustrators whose work will affect young readers and if I don’t have the enthusiasm from the beginning, I have to believe I’m not the right person to represent them.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Marietta: Assuming that the reader knows every inch and every aspect of the world they understand so completely. Now, this is NOT an excuse for information dumping, but it means that you have to find some space between you and your writing to make sure you are not making assumptions. Conversely, there are some who get so caught up in telling us what their characters are seeing, feeling and thinking that they forget that by showing us the characters’ lives – complete with struggles, motivations, angst, happiness, sense of humor, what have you – you are finding your way to a reader’s heart.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Marietta: Voice, voice, voice. Voice is what allows an author to channel his or her characters beyond the dialogue. It’s a way of telling the story, a means of expression, that can only be told by that author and through those characters. I wholeheartedly believe that when I am taken in by voice, it means that there is no other author to tell that story and no other characters through whom to tell that story. Are there other important elements like pacing, concept, characterization, etc.? Yes, of course. Yet, what resonates and draws me in most is voice.
Marietta has experience children’s books from every angle – teaching, marketing, publishing and bookselling. She thrives on working with authors who make readers feel their characters’ emotions and illustrators who add a different dimension to the story. Aside from her work as an Agent, she is also Book Curator at an independent toy store & bookstore. Some of the books published in 2013 that she has championed include: HEY, DUCK! by Carin Bramsen, THE TABLE SETS ITSELF by Ben Clanton, MUSK OX COUNTS by Erin Cabatingan, DINOSAUR TOOTH FAIRY illustrated by Israel Sanchez, THE VINE BASKET by Josanne La Valley, SURFACING by Nora Raleigh Baskin.
If you’re interested in submitting to Marietta, please make sure to check the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency website for their guidelines.