The First Five Pages

by Ginny Tapley
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999[K1]. 207 pages.  Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-9093-7; softcover ISBN-10: 978-0-7432-9090-3.[K2] $13.95.

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages is, as the subtitle suggests, aimed at writers trying to get their work published. With the advent of computers and a booming industry in creative writing courses and how-to-write books, more and more people are discovering the inner writer in themselves, and literary agents and editors are consequently inundated with unsolicited manuscripts. Lukeman cites overworked publishing professionals desperately searching for excuses to turn manuscripts down so they can get onto the next five thousand. I have memories of desperately searching the “slush” pile for some evidence of good writing—but in the end it amounts to the same. At a conservative estimate, 99 percent of the pile gets rejected, for better or for worse (many editors must be kicking themselves for having rejected J. K. Rowling).

It is true that publishing is not what it used to be. Gone are the days when you could turn up at a publishing house clutching your only dog-eared copy of your manuscript and importune an editor face-to-face, when manuscripts without coffee stains seemed almost too pristine to be worth anything. Gone too are the days when editors could go with a hunch. We are now in the age where slick presentations are the hallmark of a professional, and the profit motive is everything. The small, independent publisher is rapidly becoming a relic of the past, with the major conglomerates dominating the market. Even if an editor loves a book, he/she still has to convince the marketing and production gurus that this book will make money—or at least not lose any. Yet there are certain measures writers can take that will help them to get noticed, and none more so than dedication to writing as an art.

Lukeman’s basic premise is that all of us have pretty much made up our minds over a book within the first five pages, and we are unlikely to change our opinion as we read on. While publishing professionals are often seen as arrogant, not helped by the fact that many admit to rejecting manuscripts on the basis of a cursory glance, many novice authors are certainly guilty of not having taken the trouble to polish their product. The truth is that often a cursory glance is all that is needed to know that a manuscript is not worth deeper examination. Why is it that everybody accepts that musicians and visual artists must go through years of training to hone their skills, but so few accept that the same is true for writers?

In The First Five Pages, Lukeman—himself a literary agent, writer, and former editor—has analyzed the most common fundamental mistakes that many writers make, and suggests ways in which these mistakes can be corrected. It is not so much a manual on good writing as a guide to how to fix problems, and as such it will be of interest not only to writers but also to editors and even translators. His advice is pragmatic, sometimes almost brutally so, but also compassionate—the tone of a no-nonsense teacher, but one who wants to see you improve.

The book is divided into three parts, the first covering preliminary problems in prose, the second tackling common problems in dialogue, and the last looking at the bigger picture and how to engage your reader. Each chapter starts with a brief outline of the problem, followed by solutions and examples, and finally some exercises to help the reader put the advice into practice. The examples of bad writing are perhaps exaggerated, but they do get the point across, as do the occasional examples he gives of good writing (mostly from classic writers such as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, or Melville). Chapters are preceded by a quotation or thought—sometimes humorous, sometimes enlightening and even encouraging—that range from nuggets of advice on style by Strunk and White to anecdotes of the fallibility of publishers and now-famous authors who struggled for years to get published.

Lukeman has constructed his book based on the way publishing professionals tend to assess manuscripts, and he specifies the criteria for rejection in the order in which they are assessed. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the very first chapter deals exclusively with presentation. While acknowledging that this is almost offensive to the art of writing, he points out that it is the very first thing that editors or agents will see. His advice extends to margin width, font, spacing, paper quality, and so forth, and may seem almost excessively precise, but as he says, “don’t let something as petty as formatting prevent you from being taken seriously.” Part 1 continues with other fundamental problems that immediately signal a novice writer, some obvious—such as poor use of adjectives, adverbs, comparisons and so forth-and others less so, such as the sound and rhythm of the prose.

Compelling dialogue in prose fiction is one of the hardest arts to master, yet it is an essential element that, used effectively, will bring a novel to life. In Part 2 Lukeman devotes five whole chapters to it, covering issues of when to use it and when not, avoiding melodrama, and making sure it is easy to follow. Part 3 assumes that the manuscript has passed the test of the first five pages, and covers issues that are frequently harder to pinpoint and also harder to get right, but that are essential to engaging your reader: Showing Versus Telling; Viewpoint and Narration; Characterization; Hooks; Subtlety; Tone; Focus; Setting; Pacing and Progression.

Lukeman’s advice is pertinent, and even the most experienced of writers and editors will find some useful insights here. Yet ultimately literature—as any art—is a matter of subjective taste. Quite apart from matters of commercial viability, for an editor or agent to take on a manuscript they must be personally dedicated to it. However polished your manuscript is, whether or not it finds its way onto the desk of the right reader is largely luck. Lukeman encourages writers to persevere despite the many rejections they will inevitably receive, and points out that whether you can do this or not depends on your motives:“Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.”

From Newsletter No. 116 (June 2007)