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 just the right balance, but I hope by reading each agent’s comments you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that will be requested time and time again.
Today, I’m proud to share Literary Agent, Whitley Abell’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.
Amy: There is a belief among many writers that having a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an agent?
Whitley: It’s not nearly as important as the pitch and the first couple pages as a whole. That said, while the first line has (almost) never broken a pitch for me, the first line has definitely made a pitch. For a couple of my clients, it was their first line that made me root for them from the get-go, hoping I’d be just as in love when I reached the end. Once I’m hooked like that, I’m definitely going to keep reading.
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?
Whitley: I’m sorry to say that I see a lot of samples in MG where the first page is some variation of “My name is Hermione and I am 11 years old. I have frizzy brown hair and big teeth and brown eyes. I am in the first year at Hogwarts School of Witch Craft and Wizardry. Harry and Ron are my best friends. On a normal day, I would go to class. But today…” It’s so disappointing when a great pitch turns out to be something like this. This is my least favorite opener to see. Please don’t do that.
Other than that, what I see most (other than dreams) is too heavy a focus on the introduction of backstory and/or normal life. It’s tempting to set the scene, so to speak, to show stasis before the status quo is disrupted, but the best tactic is to begin the story immediately before the plot begins.
For example, the plot begins when a stranger steps through your front door, don’t start (1) in the kitchen, making the same ham sandwich you’ve made every day for the last three years since you learned your little brother was deathly allergic to peanut butter, and which you just finished eating when the knock came or (2) when the stranger dragged you back out the door and onto his flying carpet. Begin in that breath of a second before the first knock sounds.
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?
Whitley: For me to request, I need an authentic voice, great writing, vibrant characters who stories I care about and who I want to follow as they grow and struggle and change, and a unique (and sellable) hook. I’m looking for something that I can get excited about and something I can picture the audience and editor for.
Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?
Whitley: I see a lot of rushing through the first chapter or so, as though the author is just pushing through to get to the “good stuff”. This fosters a whole lot of telling instead of showing, and ends up weighing the sample down. Typically, it could have been solved by starting elsewhere.
There’s also a tendency to info dump. There is plenty of time to fill the reader in on any pertinent information in the backstory later. The first pages are for engaging the reader and drawing them in to the story! I actually see a lot of backstory dumping in dialogue. It’s good to see characters interacting, but if they’re just recapping the backstory line-by-line, the tension of the plot is still lost.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Whitley: Of the three, voice is the most important for me when I’m reading. I’m always looking for a narrative voice that I can really become invested in. Pacing is at a still important second. A unique concept is definitely important when talking about the query, but when it comes to the sample pages, I’ve seen many good concepts fall apart in the opening pages because the voice and pacing didn’t live up to the pitch’s promise.
Whitley Abell joined Inklings Literary Agency in 2013. Before joining Inklings, she completed successful internships with Carol Mann Agency and P.S. Literary Agency. She is based in St. Louis, MO, where she daylights writing proposals of the entirely unromantic variety. She graduated in 2011with a BA in English and Creative Writing, and again in 2012 with a MAT in Secondary English Education, which basically means she can tell you anything there is to know about feminist literary theory and the Common Core Standards.
Whitley is currently building her list and is primarily interested in Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Women’s fiction. She is open to almost anything within those arenas, be it contemporary or historical, romance or thriller, realistic or supernatural, tragic or quirky. She has a soft spot for the goofy guys, awkward ducks, April Ludgates, and devout fan girls of the world. Manic pixie dream girls will be turned away at the door.
Please, NO picture books, poetry, non-fiction, or genre romance, crime/mystery, or sci-fi/fantasy for the adult market.
If you’re interested in submitting to Whitley, please check the Inklings Literary website for their guidelines.