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. It’s tricky to get the right balance, but I hope by reading each agent’s comments you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that’s requested over and over.
Today, I’m proud to share Stephanie Delman’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?
Stephanie: I love a good first line, but it’s all about that first paragraph—or, really, the first page. Too often, a “perfect” first sentence gives way to a disappointing opening scene, so I tend to consume the first paragraph all at once.
Amy: A lot of books open with common things like dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car, starting at a new school, etc. What are some openings you recommend writers stay away from?
Stephanie: This is very subjective, and I would never suggest a mass avoidance of certain scenes or topics. If your character witnesses a murder while she’s eating breakfast, are we going to hold that against you? What if the car ride is a means of escape from something dark and sinister? My client Jennie Melamed’s gorgeous debut, GATHER THE DAUGHTERS, opens with: “Vanessa dreams she is a grown woman, heavy with flesh and care.” If I had a rules against dream sequences, I wouldn’t have gotten past the prologue!
This may not be true for every reader, but immediate dialogue, loud noises, and heavy action turn me off, because I haven’t had time to acclimate to your world. And I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’ve never been drawn in by descriptions of the weather (unless you’re in the middle of a terrible storm!); “It was a calm, sunny day, and all was quiet in the mining town of Dunesville, Ohio…”—we’ve all seen sunny days, we’ve all been rained on. Tell me something new.
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?
Stephanie: Most of the time that I request the full, I’ve ready only the first few pages of the partial. I can tell very quickly if I’ll want to read more, and here’s how: I’m seduced by the concept or pitch, as presented in the query letter. You’re doing something I haven’t seen before, and not just for the sake of experimentation. Your writing style is elegant, clean, and uniquely yours. You’ve immersed me in the setting of this world you’ve created, whether it’s as mundane as a cafeteria or as wild as an enchanted forest. Your story is dying to unravel itself, and yet you are unspooling it deliberately, with care.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Stephanie: I see a lot of information dumps, choreography, and convenient walks down memory lane. “Sally, age 18, walked out of her Boston College classroom and onto the sidewalk, recalling the first time she had ever visited the school.” That doesn’t set the scene, that just heaps information upon us.
Those first five pages are all about the reveal. Give me enough context that I can picture the scene, but not an encyclopedic list of names, dates, and physical descriptions. Don’t state your characters’ intentions, but do let us feel the urgency (or complacency!) of their situation. Tease out the details.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Stephanie: All of the above! But in one word: immersion. Forgo the formalities and just let me into your world.
Associate agent Stephanie Delman began her career at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, Inc. in 2012, after working in online media. After a year as the junior assistant to president Heide Lange, Stephanie was promoted to senior assistant and foreign rights liaison for Heide’s authors, including Dan Brown and Brad Thor. Stephanie continues in that role as she builds her own list, further honing her skills in negotiations and editorial development.
Stephanie represents adult fiction, and is particularly enthusiastic about literary/upmarket contemporary fiction, psychological thrillers/suspense, and atmospheric, near-historical fiction (past 200 years). Stephanie does not represent fantasy or science fiction, but she loves a bit of surrealism or speculative fiction rooted in realism. She also enjoys interwoven plots, epic family sagas, and fictionalized accounts of overlooked periods in history. A graduate of Johns Hopkins’ Writing Seminars program, Stephanie considers herself a “hands-on” agent and is eager to work with debut authors who are serious about their craft.
If you’re interested in submitting to Stephanie, please check the Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, Inc. website for her guidelines.