By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 18, 2009
I had been writing professionally for 30 years when I read Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, a Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile–and I still learned a ton of valuable stuff. Get this book. If you’re an aspiring writer, it’ll save you from the agony of unnecessary rejection. (You may still get rejected, but at least it won’t be unnecessarily.) Even if you’re a grizzled pro, Mr. Lukeman’s short, smart book is worth reading just to re-bone on the basics.
He can tell if it’s crap in the first five pages
Noah Lukeman was a literary agent. He knows all about going home on the weekend with stacks of manuscripts, 99.9% of which will turn out to be useful only as liners for the bottoms of canary cages. How did he save himself from slogging through yet another 1200-page epic on the fall of the Moghul empire? Short cuts. Tricks of the trade. Out of sheer self-preservation, Mr. Lukeman learned how to recognize the signs of amateurism and ineptitude. He learned to spot a lousy submission within the first five pages.
It is a shame that small–and easily preventable–surface errors can be determinants for an entire book, can prematurely prevent you from being taken seriously. On the other hand, these smaller signs may be indicative of a certain broader sensibility: they may signal carelessness, sloppiness, ignorance or defiance of the industry’s standards; that the writer doesn’t care enough to do the minimum amount of research to make a manuscript industry presentable. Often when a writer’s presentation is careless, his writing is too.
In The First Five Pages, Mr. Lukeman shares with us the red flags of formatting and presentation. Wrong typeface, incorrect spacing, weird paper or mailing boxes. He illustrates the blunders that not-ready-for-prime-time writers make–so that we can catch them in our own stuff and get rid of them.
There’s a lot more to The First Five Pages (not the least of the book’s virtues is the insider’s view it shares with us of what it’s like to be on the other side of the transom, as the editor or agent who has to read our romance novel or YA or diet book). But its delineation of the deadly sins of manuscript submission is alone worth the price of admission.
Signs of an amateur submission
I confess I’m guilty of this one myself: excessive use of adjectives and adverbs.
After its presentation, the quickest and easiest way [for an agent or editor] to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs. Cut back … amazingly, you can improve your prose simply by going through your manuscript and reducing the sheer number of adjectives and adverbs.
This is elementary, I know. But mastery of the basics (and constant re-mastery) is the hallmark of a professional.
Here’s another from Mr. Lukeman’s primer: misuse of punctuation.
It is my experience that most people know how to use the period and most people know how to use the comma, most of the time. But you would be amazed at how many people use the comma poorly at least some of the time … and more amazed at how few people really know how to use the semi-colon, colon, dash and parentheses for optimal effect.
Writing for the reader
Robert Louis Stevenson once said (I’m paraphrasing), “It is not enough to write to be understood; one must write in such a way that it is impossible to be misunderstood.”
The First Five Pages may embarrass you. You may recognize yourself (as I did) as a maker of the most boneheaded, amateur-night mistakes. But the book inflicts its pain in a good cause–the cause of getting us to see our work the way others see it.
That’s the agent and editor’s job too. When she evaluates our submission, she’s projecting it in her imagination into the hands of the gimlet-eyed, real-world reader. Is it worthy of his time? Will he respond to it? Is our work up to the standards of literacy and professionalism that the reader demands when he shells out $24.95?
We as writers may not be able to deliver Nabokov-level prose or Dostoevskian insights into the Nature of Man and the Riddle of the Cosmos. But at least we can get our commas right and not mail in to Publisher Z the same recycled, thumbprint-besmirched manuscript that got shot down last week at Publisher Q.
Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages walks us through the minefield of Manuscript Submission. He points out the booby traps and trip-wires that even the best of us can carelessly or unwittingly stumble onto. We emerge with a fresh appreciation for what our stuff looks like in the eye of the real-world reader–and we come out better for it. Get this book.