Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Review: The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman

Reviewed by Gerri Baker
2002, Gerri Baker


 

The absolute worst thing for me to hear during mail call is, "You've got a package!" after I've been sending out novel submissions. I don't want to see my handwriting on my SASE. It's depressing and frustrating, no matter how positive I try to be.  However, after enough rejections, I figured out the problem was on my end, not the editors'.

While hunting for answers, I stumbled across Noah Lukeman's book The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. This is a fascinating and useful perspective on what agents and editors look for when considering manuscripts.

In the introduction, Lukeman reminds writers that "Agents and editors...read solely...with an eye to dismiss a manuscript (13).  As an agent, he developed a criteria that helped him reject manuscripts, sometimes with a single glance. The First Five Pages details his personal, prioritized checklist for rejection.

Most conventional writing wisdom says to start with characters, plot, theme, conflict, so on and so forth. But Lukeman says when editors assess a manuscript, those elements are the last things looked at.

Instead, 99% of manuscripts are rejected on the basis of five pages. Lukeman wants to find good writing, and he knows the mistakes made in the first five pages will continue throughout the rest of the submission.

In those five pages, he first looks for poor manuscript presentation. An unprofessional manuscript tells Lukeman that the writer doesn't take the process seriously. He also points to overusing adjectives, adverbs, and comparisons as problem markers. He devotes an entire chapter to the sound, rhythm, and grammar of prose, emphasizing the need for variable sentence structures. Then he wraps up the first section with a discussion on style.

In the second section, Lukeman discusses dialogue, but instead of starting with conventional issues, he begins with the problems between the lines. He says, "What's most interesting about dialogue is that you can dismiss it without even reading it. Instead, just look at its appearance on the page (75). Frightening how much can be dismissed at a glance. The rest of the section discusses dialogue with that same brutal practicality -- commonplace and info-dump dialogue, melodramatic characters, and hard-to-follow conversations.

At this point, 99% of the submissions are already in the reject pile. Now the pressure is really on, Lukeman says, because the editors are still looking for excuses to reject the story, even though they've made it through the first five pages. Beyond this point, things like showing vs. telling, characterization, POV, plotting, pacing, etc. become important.

The only issue I had with the book was his examples. Lukeman mostly used poor writing models to make his points, only occasionally using published writers' samples. Usually these authors were classical authors like Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Camus, etc. While he pointed to writers like Stephen King, John Grisham, etc. for inspiration, he did not use any of their writing. I would have liked to see more modern authors being used as positive examples.

Nothing Lukeman discusses in The First Five Pages is new to an experienced writer. The key to this book is the emphasis he places on getting agents and editors through those first five pages. He takes the writing process and turns it on its ear to show writers how they are really being evaluated. With that knowledge, writers can then use his checklist to go back to their revisions and try to see what some poor editorial assistant is going to be reading.

Noah Lukeman. The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Fireside, 2000, ISBN 0-684-85743-X)  $11 U.S.