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, Molly Jaffa’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?
Molly: It’s extremely important, though I’d ascribe a lot of importance to the opening paragraph as a whole. A few sentences are all I need to see before deciding if a particular writing style resonates with me. I probably receive two or three queries a week that pique my interest enough to read past the first paragraph.
That said, sometimes I see writers go a bit overboard with the “great first line” advice. They’ll try a little too hard to shock the reader (using a curse word or being overtly explicit in a way that doesn’t feel necessary, for example) or get a little too purple with their prose. Your first sentence doesn’t need to be crazy to stand out from the pack – it just needs to be authentic and intriguing.
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?
Molly: The first day of school or the first day after a protagonist’s move to a new town are also common. I’ll never say “never”, though. Sometimes that might really be the best place to start your novel. With any opening, common or not, authors should ask themselves: Why did I choose to start the novel here? Am I hanging on to this opening for sentimental reasons or out of fear of writing a new one? Or does it really need to begin right here?
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?
Molly: It’s usually equal parts great concept and good writing. At that point, I’ve read the author’s query and thought the concept sounded fresh, then moved on to their sample pages and found the writing to be strong as well. If the concept sounds like something I’ve read many times before, I’m not going to scroll down and read the writing sample.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Molly: Not setting the stakes is a big one for me. If I can’t tell what’s at stake for your protagonist – what they stand to lose or gain, emotionally or physically – then I’m probably not going to be invested in his or her story.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Molly All of the above! In an ideal world, a manuscript would have the perfect mix of all three. That said, it’s much easier to help a great writer develop a stronger concept than it is to help someone with an exciting concept develop a good voice. If I’m reading a requested manuscript and love the writing but find that the concept ultimately doesn’t work for me, I’ll often email the author and ask to see whatever they write next.
Molly Jaffa has been at Folio Literary Management since 2008, and is an Associate Member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). In addition to building her selective but growing list of Middle Grade and Young Adult authors, Molly is Folio’s Co-Director of International Rights. Her clients include Lana Krumwiede (author of the Psi Chronicles series, Candlewick), Julie Murphy (SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY, HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray, 2014), Kristen Lippert-Martin (TABULA RASA, Egmont, 2014), and Bryan Chick (author of the Secret Zoo series, HarperCollins/Greenwillow). You can follow her on Twitter @molly_jaffa and read her blog at mollyjaffa.blogspot.com.
If you’re interested in submitting to Molly, please make sure to check the Folio Literary Management website for their guidelines.