FIRST FIVE FRENZY with Jennifer Grimaldi of Chalberg & Sussman Literary
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 Jennifer Grimaldi’s perspective on what’s important in those first five 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?
Jennifer: An author’s real first line to an agent is their query: that’s what I read before anything else. However, not every good writer knows how to sum up their title in a few measly paragraphs, so I try not to hold it against them. I always request that queries include the first 5 pages of their actual manuscript so I can get an early sense of how the novel is written.
So, by the time I’ve gotten to that first line, I’ve already made some kind of quick, snap second decision. If I’m interested and the first line reads well, I’m almost always going to clear some time to read the rest of the query and possibly make a request for more pages. On the flip side, if I’m not already hooked in and the first line is poorly written or uninspired, I’m way more likely to mentally move on.
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?
Jennifer: All of the above! Your opening should be structured like you’re relating a story to a friend: If you wanted to tell them about that time you got abducted by aliens, would you walk them through bickering with your little brother first? A lot of writers feel like they have to set status quo and stakes for relationships, but readers want to jump right into the action. I don’t recommend that every novel start in media res, but if I haven’t been given a reason to keep turning the pages within the first scene, you won’t be holding my—or other reader—attention for long.
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?
Jennifer: I request more pages when I want to keep reading: This means the characters were dynamic, the setting was interesting, or the concept was unique. Hopefully all three! Of course, writing is a factor, too. But I’m an editorial agent—I like to get my hands dirty. So an exciting concept that needs some editing will always win out for me over excellent writing in service of a concept I don’t care about. I’m a big nerd, so I like to work with books I can get excited about. I love to champion the novels and authors I work with, so it’s always a good sign to me when I can’t stop talking about a manuscript I’ve just read to all and sundry; if I’m starting to pitch to the people around me, I know that I’m eager to take it into the publishing world at large.
Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?
Jennifer: Certainly all three of those come into play. I don’t think it makes sense to prioritize one over another. Concept is the first thing that will grab me in a query, since it’s the easiest to connect to, but without a strong voice and characters to serve as backbone, the idea won’t get across. Pacing is something that comes into play once I settle in to read the work. I consider it to be the easiest thing to edit, but if I’m struggling to get through a first or second chapter even though I’m interested in the plot and concept, that can be a big read flag.
Amy: What is one piece of advice you’d like to give writers about their opening pages?
Jennifer: Don’t waste your real estate! If a scene is boring or unnecessary, don’t open with it. If you don’t need to describe your character in a mirror, at cheerleading practice, or at their minimum wage job, don’t. Open with the scene where things happen. If you’re worried removing breakfast with Mom makes her death by sorcerer less impactful in scene 3, the issue isn’t the time you’ve spent introducing her on page, but the lack of emotional weight your character is struggling under. Make sure your first few pages hook me, and don’t let go.
Jennifer Grimaldi (formerly Jennifer Letwack) has always gravitated toward otherworldly, fantastical novels that reflect our own world’s past and present. Formerly an editor with Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, where she acquired and edited S. Jae-Jones’ New York Times bestseller WINTERSONG, she is now building her list as an agent with Chalberg & Sussman.
At C&S, she is actively looking for clients with historicals, romance, horror, and YA & adult sci-fi and fantasy novels, Across all genres, Jennifer loves strong, voice-driven novels, dark and romantic themes, and books that make her think—and learn. She is particularly excited by books that explore gender and sexuality, especially those with diverse, LGBTA+ leads, and own-voice writers.
If you are interested in submitting to Jennifer, please check the Chalberg & Sussman website for their submission guidelines.