Writing the opening chapter of a book can be a struggle, especially penning those critical first pages. There are always questions about where to start, what you should include to have the most impact, and more importantly, how to get the reader to turn the page.
The First Five Frenzy is all about getting an agent’s perspective on what works, and what fails, in those first few 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 Amy Stapp’s perspective on what’s important in those first five pages.
Amy T.: 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?
Amy S.: It’s important, but maybe let’s say a great first paragraph is more important than just a punchy first sentence. You can tell pretty quickly whether a character is speaking, a character I’d love to get to know better, a character in the middle of some intriguing moment in her life, or whether the author is speaking, perhaps even trying just a bit too hard to make that first sentence a bomb-drop moment. Think about it this way: When you’re home on a lazy night in, flipping through shows on Netflix, you’re only given one sentence telling you what a show is about, and then if that hook is enough to catch your attention, you maybe have a thirty second trailer to decide if you want to spend the next hour or two of your life with these characters. Query letters and first pages are no different; this is our first impression of your work.
Amy T.: 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?
Amy S.: Oh yes, I see these a lot. Dreams and flashbacks are rarely the best way to tell the story, but the one that irks me personally is when the protagonist breaks the fourth wall and acts like we’re already besties or like they’re a 19thcentury grandpa about to tell me a tale. Ha! “I remember it well… It all started when…” Writers sometimes feel the need to give a big preamble about how they’re about to tell us what happened instead of just fully immersing us in the world without any big setup. Trust your reader to pick up on your subtle clues without the need for a flashback or overly voicey narrator.
Amy T.: 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?
Amy S.: Often, it’s the hook. If I see a hook that reminds me of something I loved, or on the flip side just feels totally fresh and unique, I’m dying to read more. And you can tell very, very quickly whether someone can write. Don’t let that discourage you though; it’s called craft because it’s something that can be learned, studied, improved; so if you’re not getting a lot of responses from agents, maybe put that manuscript aside for a few months and work on a new project, or find some critique partners who will help you see where you can sharpen your manuscript. The biggest mistake I see is people simply submitting their work before it’s ready. A lot of writers finish a manuscript and immediately submit it to agents. The real professionals who have multiple ideas in the back of their minds and long careers ahead of them, take the time to look at their work with a critical eye, to work with critique partners and writing groups on multiple rounds of revisions, to get to know what specific agents are really looking for. There is zero need to rush to get your manuscript out the door before it’s ready.
Amy T.: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Amy S.: Yes. All of those things. Sometimes I can just tell immediately I’m going to like this character, the way you just know when a first date is really going well and you’re both going to want a second. Sometimes the writing isn’t necessarily blowing me away, but the hook is so unique, or just really hits a wishlist/catnip item for me (another reason to do your research before querying), that I can’t help but turn the pages. In the best queries, you’ve already finished the sample pages before you even realize it and can’t believe you sped through them so quickly, so you just have to ask to see more.
Amy T.: What is one piece of advice you’d like to give writers about their opening pages?
Amy S.: Unfortunately, if you haven’t hooked me, you’re not going to hook a reader either. Readers skimming the shelves at Barnes & Noble are much less forgiving. So if you know this is a genre I love or a trope I’ve said I’m looking for, and I don’t ask to read more pages, don’t take it personally. Take it as a cue that maybe you just need to workshop this a bit more to find out what’s not clicking with readers.
Read everything you possibly can in the genre you want to publish in, and think about these books critically—what worked well and what didn’t quite resonate with you. If you pick up a new book and already in the first chapter you keep getting distracted by your phone pinging messages, what would have kept you engrossed?
At the end of the day, we’re all just book nerds, so don’t stress too much. The same things that make you fall in love with a great book are going to make readers (and agents and editors) fall in love with your book.
Amy Stapp received her BA from Samford University and MA from Georgia State University before beginning her publishing career at Macmillan, where she was an editor for seven years and had the privilege of working with many New York Times bestselling authors. Amy joined Wolfson Literary in 2018 and is actively building her list, with interest in women’s fiction, mystery, suspense, historical fiction, young adult, and select nonfiction. She is particularly drawn to well-paced prose, immersive settings, and smart, multidimensional characters.
If you are interested in querying Amy, please follow the Wolfson Literary submission guidelines.