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, Sarah LaPolla’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?
Sarah: I won’t lie; first lines are pretty important to me. I won’t throw a book across a room and shun it forever if the first line – or even paragraph – doesn’t grab my attention. But, I will definitely be impressed by an engaging opening. Not only does it draw a reader in right away, but it also makes me want to spend more time with a book, even if the pacing slows down or I’m not 100% sold on the main character. A good first line means I’m going to keep reading because I expect you to impress me again.
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?
Sarah: Characters who wake up at the start of the novel make most agents and editors roll their eyes. Not the best first impression. It’s not bad; it’s just cliché. I’d also avoid talking about the weather unless the plot of your book involves a storm that kills everybody or something. Using it to “set the scene” is just boring. Start with your character. I’m also not the biggest fan of starting a book with dialogue, but I won’t presume to speak for all agents on that one.
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?
Within the first five pages, I’m looking for a character I want to get to know better and a writing style that engages me. If the novel is more high concept, then I also want to know the plot of the novel makes itself known. I need to know what type of story I’m in for. That said, my taste is on the more literary side, so if it takes more than five pages for the story to kick in, I’ll forgive it.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Sarah: Presenting too much backstory in the first five pages is the quickest way to lose me. Pay attention to what details are absolutely necessary to give in any given moment of your novel. Do we need to know the history of a relationship just because that character enters a scene? Probably not. Let details come out organically as needed.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Sarah: If I request a manuscript, chances are I’m already taken with the concept. So, what I’m looking for is how they present that concept. Voice is probably the most important thing to me. I need to be engaged by the narrator. If I’m not, then whatever else is great about the book probably won’t matter much to me. Pacing is also important. I don’t like feeling rushed into caring about something, but I also don’t want to wait 50 pages before I care either. It’s a tough balance.
Sarah LaPolla is an associate agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She studied creative writing at Ithaca College, and has an MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School. She joined Curtis Brown, Ltd. in 2008 as the assistant to the foreign rights department, and became an associate agent in 2010. Sarah represents both adult and YA fiction, and is looking for literary fiction, magical realism, dark/psychological mystery, literary horror, and upmarket commercial fiction with strong characters. Sarah runs a literary blog called Glass Cases (http://glasscasesblog.blogspot.com) and can be found on Twitter at @sarahlapolla.
If you’re interested in submitting to Sarah, please make sure to check the Curtis Brown, Ltd. website for their guidelines