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, Michelle Johnson’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?
Michelle: I can’t stress enough how important it is to give a great first line. A good first line should catch the reader off guard and set up the tone of the book. My best advice is to go to the book store and find the bestseller rack – particularly the bestsellers in your genre – and open them and read the first few lines of each one. See what is interesting about it and what pulls you in. This is something I do every time I’m in a bookstore. (Guilty pleasure!)
I often read sample pages and find the ideal first line buried on the second or third page, so it would be a very good thing to really think about what the hook of your book (or your main character) is and tie that in with your opening line.
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?
Michelle: Having the character waking up then looking in a mirror to describe himself is the single most common cliché opening. Waking up and seeing the sun shining through the window – this happens a lot, too. Dream sequence openings are also overdone.
It’s hard because all the good openings have been done, so you have to think about an interesting or original reason to be doing something.
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?
Michelle: A good opening line, a strong connection to the main character, and great writing/voice. The most important thing to me is to connect with the main character. If I care about the character quickly and deeply and that character feels real to me, I will want to read the entire book. If the character is intriguing but the writing not polished, it will quickly eliminate my desire to read on.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Michelle: Starting off too abruptly. When you start a scene off with someone getting hurt or betrayed or abandoned, the problem is that we haven’t seen enough of that character to care that this is happening to them. You need to start a book with an introduction to your character – have them acting in a way that they would normally act on any normal day and make that character compelling. If you don’t do this the readers won’t care when the character’s world gets turned upside down.
Speaking of turning the world upside down – another common mistake writers make is the use of clichés. We want to see new and fresh, not cliché. Though I have seen old clichés dressed up to be original and funny. That takes skill and good humor, and I always appreciate that when it is well done.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Michelle: All of the above. Voice is huge, of course, as it is an indication of how the writing will be all the way through. The pacing is important to set the tone of your novel. You don’t want your thriller to start out with a long, drawn-out descriptive scene of the flowerbed in the backyard next door. Unless, of course, someone is burying a body in said flowerbed, then you could aptly describe the annihilation of the rosebushes…
As for unique concept – I have come across very few queries that weren’t original ideas, or unique twists on familiar ideas. I don’t think there is ever a shortage. The secret lies in the execution of these ideas.
Michelle L. Johnson is a literary agent, the founder of Inklings Literary Agency and has a business administration background in addition to a lifetime of working with books (sales, editing, and writing) and authors (marketing, promoting, event planning). She is also a script/story consultant for an independent film under production in Halifax, NS.
Before founding Inklings Literary Agency, she was with Corvisiero Literary Agency. She has spent many years in the editing field for private clients and multiple independent publishing houses.
She has also owned and operated a Writers’ Center and Bookstore in Virginia Beach, organizing numerous special events for authors and artists alike.
If you’re interested in submitting to Michelle, please make sure to check the Inklings Literary Agency website for their guidelines.
I’m going dark for a week. But I’ll be back with more great interviews and guest posts to finish out June. Enjoy the weekend!