Pros: Plenty of concrete suggestions; context; specifics; diagnostics; trouble-shooting
Cons: A couple of suggestions I can’t agree with; dry reading
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 1/19/2005
The concept behind Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile” is that editors can reject most manuscripts within minutes (or even seconds) based on a few simple criteria. He uses these criteria as a guide to show you how you can spot the flaws in your own work and then go on to solve them.
The great thing is that this isn’t just a guide to fixing surface flaws and using gimmicks to try to “sneak” your work past editors, which is what it sort of sounded like when I first heard of the book. Instead it uses those simple criteria as a way of organizing major, real issues. It delves into the idea that there’s a very good reason why editors can dismiss most manuscripts out of hand–these criteria are used to note real problems that plague manuscripts and make them not worth the editor’s time. Because of this, by going through the criteria and showing you how to apply these criteria in judging and repairing your own work, Lukeman is telling you how to make your manuscript better.
Lukeman admits his book is most useful to fiction writers but says it can be applied to almost any kind of writing. I’d apply it a bit more narrowly, and say that while some of it can apply to almost any kind of writing, you’re going to have to stretch a bit to get a lot out of this book if you don’t do any fiction-writing at all.
Lukeman approaches things in the order that he, as an editor, tends to look at and dismiss them by, suggesting that you do the exercises from the end of each section and chapter on your manuscript before proceeding to the next part. This means that with each successive pass through your manuscript, it should (in theory) last just a little longer through an editor’s evaluation.
In each part Lukeman goes into a typical problem that will cause a manuscript to get quickly rejected by editors. One of the wonderful things he does is explain why these things are seen as problems. For example, when talking about why manuscripts that are too heavy on adjectives and adverbs tend to get rejected, one of his six reasons is,
It can be demeaning to the reader when the writer fills in every last detail for him. It assumes he has no imagination of his own. As readers, we bring so many of our own associations to the table anyway, we’re going to substitute our own picture of a car, say, no matter how much effort a writer puts into describing it.
Finally you’ll understand why it is that you’re supposed to follow all of these rules your teachers have been trying to drill into you for years. He does point out that there are people who do quite well by breaking the rules, but he also makes it clear that this takes a level of skill that beginners don’t usually possess.
Next he talks about concrete, workable solutions. He’ll give his best suggestions for how you can go through your manuscript and fix those pesky problems. This is followed by examples of bad (and sometimes good) writing as well as discussion of what makes them particularly bad or good. Finally he ends the section with exercises. Not random exercises unrelated to the piece of work you’re trying to sell, but exercises specifically aimed at polishing up that particular piece. For example,
Remove every noun and verb from the first page of your manuscript and list them separately. How many are commonplace or cliche? Cross out each one and beside it write down a less expected replacement. Now go back to your first page and insert your replacements. Read it aloud. How does it read now?
I can’t agree with everything Lukeman says. For example, he recommends sending manuscripts by a method that requires a signature for acceptance. He says this guarantees the editor will notice your piece, which is good even if the editor gets annoyed by having to sign for the package. Maybe this works at large publishing houses where there’s a receptionist or someone always available to sign for packages. However, I’ve heard many a smaller-scale publisher or editor say they’ll just throw out any such package because they get so annoyed at having to waste their time potentially standing in line at the post office (or some such thing) just to get one manuscript that probably won’t meet their needs anyway. If you have to choose between two ways of doing things, choose the one that makes life easier on the editor. It’s much more likely to help your case.
The only other complaint I have is that this is rather dry reading. It’s possible to make such writing books interesting, just difficult, and this one doesn’t particularly succeed in that arena.
“The First Five Pages” is a solid book with a lot of very practical, helpful, hands-on advice. If you want to sell your writing, I highly recommend reading a copy and keeping it on hand. Use the exercises as a form of checklist when revising your manuscript.