The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman
by Gerri Baker
©2002, Gerri Baker
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'.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lukeman. The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the
Rejection Pile (Fireside, 2000, ISBN 0-684-85743-X)