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, Pete Knapp’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?
Pete: They’re important. I can get past a mediocre first line, but in truth a poorly written first line often leads into a poorly written first page. Conversely, I’ve read first lines where right away I think: This is going to be good! And often times, it is. Submissions with great first lines—ones that immediately draw me in and elicit questions—are the ones I read first.
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?
Pete: Alarm clocks, weather reports, the first and last day of school, running through the woods from an unknown assailant. Many more. It’s not that these common openings can’t work, but often times they’re either dull (just because our days begin with alarm clocks doesn’t mean your story has to) or overdone or have nothing to say about the character’s world viewpoint, and so it’s clear the writer hasn’t pushed him or herself hard enough to find a fresh way into the story.
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?
Pete: A lot of my favorite openings pull me both forward and backward. I want to know, Where is this going? But I also want to know, How did we get here? I love when there’s a strong sense of mystery in the beginning of a book, and when there’s a strong psychological component. Many of my favorite books, especially in YA, begin with characters who are a little locked up inside of their own heads and need letting out. (Isn’t that one of the principal joys of fiction? To unlock the vault and step into another person’s mind?) And, of course, the voice needs to draw me in.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Pete: So many submissions I read begin before the beginning—where the first few scenes could be cut entirely. Oftentimes, I think this happens because the writer is trying to establish the character and then start the story. In truth, the character development and story need to begin in tandem. Otherwise, it often feels like the reader is using those first pages to deliver a lot of background information in a way that might feel contrived. It goes both ways, though: Starting in medias res is not an excuse to neglect character development.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Pete: It’s always some magical and unknowable combination of these things. Voice is perhaps the most important thing, because if I don’t connect with the voice, no amount of editing will make it a good fit for my taste. But I’ve also read submissions with fantastic voices where I think, Good grief, will the story start already? So, really, it’s craft. Is the opening well-crafted? If so, I keep reading.
Pete Knapp joined the Park Literary Group in July 2011, and has worked with many of the agency’s bestselling authors—including Nicholas Sparks, Emily Giffin, and Debbie Macomber—through all stages of the publication process. While at Park Literary, he has also assisted with the marketing and publicity efforts tied to several major motion pictures, including The Lucky One (Warner Bros.) and Safe Haven (Relativity). Prior to joining Park Literary, Peter was a story editor and book scout at Floren Shieh Productions, consulting on book-to-film adaptations for Los Angeles-based film companies. He has interned in the literary affairs and development offices of New Line Cinema, Overture Films, and Maximum Films & Management.
Peter represents and is an avid reader of young adult and middle grade fiction, frequently trading book recommendations with his nine-year-old sister. Having graduated from NYU summa cum laude with a B.A. in Art History, he maintains a (mostly) healthy interest in the visual arts, particularly with animation. He is an advisor for Builders Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that organizes international humanitarian trips for teenagers, and though he loves to travel, he happily calls Brooklyn home.
If you’re interested in submitting to Pete, please make sure to check the Park Literary website for their guidelines.