‘The First Five Pages’ by Noah Lukeman — review and summary

February 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

five-pages1

I’ve already reviewed Stephen King’s On Writing (here) and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (here). The third book that makes up this holy trinity of writing bibles is Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

As the title suggests, The First Five Pages is all about how not to get rejected by literary agents, editors and publishers. It’s a comprehensive technical bible that covers everything from simple things such as your manuscript’s presentation to more complex issues such as tone, pacing and characterization. In a nutshell, this is a no-nonsense book that gets to the point with clear, concise writing and helps writers through concrete guidelines and suggestions.

At just 200 pages or so, it is a nifty little guide that deserves — and probably requires — multiple readings if you are serious about getting published. A couple of times before you start writing (if you haven’t started already), once after the first draft has been completed, and probably another before you send it off to an agent or publisher. It won’t guarantee anything, of course, but it can certainly reduce the likelihood of your manuscript getting rejected. As Lukeman says up front, agents are usually swamped and look for anything they can do dismiss a manuscript, so why not eliminate as many excuses as you can?

This is one of the most useful books on writing I’ve ever read. On Writing offers a lot of solid advice on an overall level, while Bird by Bird is more of a spiritual journey littered with practical tips. The First Five Pages, on the other hand, is all business. There are moments of inspiration, but for the most part, this is all about making your manuscript better from a technical perspective.

Each chapter begins by identifying an issue or a specific problem, followed by solutions, examples and end-of-chapter exercises. Some of the examples may come across as a little too obvious, but I guess that’s what you need to illustrate a point, especially if the book is meant for a wide audience ranging from novices to experienced writers.

Anyway, I cannot recommend this book enough. Read it, digest it, and get to work.

5/5

Highlights

The book is divided into three parts: preliminary problems, dialogue and the bigger picture. Cleverly, this is also the order of the criteria that Lukeman, a New York City literary agent, uses to review — and eliminate — manuscripts.

Set out below is a brief summary of each chapter and what I learned from them (partly so they can jog my memory):

PART I

1. Presentation

It’s crazy that presentation is the first thing agents look for to dismiss a manuscript. On the other hand, whether a manuscript conforms to industry norms and requirements is indicative of the amount of effort a writer has put into selling their work. Lukeman notes that many writers spend years working on perfecting their manuscript but can’t even be bothered spending a few hours to make sure their manuscript has the right spacing, margins and format (I won’t bother putting down what the conventions are, but there are plenty of places to look).

Specific suggestions include:

  • research to find the right agent or editor for your genre
  • personalize your query letter and be specific and why you are contacting that particular agent or editor
  • be careful with punctuation, such as question marks, exclamation points, paretheses and semi-colons — misuse from a cursory glance could land your manuscript on the rejection pile immediately

2. Adjectives and Adverbs

A favourite topic for all writing guide books. Knowing when to use adjectives and adverbs is key. If you don’t know that adverbs (words that usually end with -ly) are bad, you probably need a lot of help with your writing. And the right noun/verb that encompasses the meaning you are looking for is preferable to using a bunch of adjectives to describe a plain noun/verb.

Specific suggestions include:

  • cut usage of adverbs and adjectives or strengthen words so they don’t need them
  • replace common adjectives with more unusual ones
  • substitute adjectives with similes, metaphors and analogies

3. Sound

This is all about how a manuscript reads, how it sounds when you read it aloud. It’s about the rhythm, the echoes, distasteful consonants and vowels. A poor sounding manuscript reflects bad sentence construction, but may also be a symptom of poor alliteration usage and awkward resonance (eg, mix of long and short sentences).

Specific suggestions include:

  • ask a trusted reader to see if the manuscript “sounds” wrong or strange
  • read your manuscript aloud
  • simplify and cut out repetition and poor sounding sentences or words

4. Comparison

This chapter covers how to use similes, metaphors and analogies, and explains how poor usage and overuse can be bad, while good usage can elevate the quality of a manuscript.

Specific suggestions include:

  • decide whether the comparison is appropriate and cut those that don’t work well
  • avoid cliched comparisons and stick to precise ones
  • improve your vocabulary so you can better find the right word in the right situation

5. Style

Common problems with style include writing that is too archaic, too florid, too minimalist, too academic, too clipped or too protracted — it’s about writers trying too hard hard to be distinctive or different but simply end up coming across as too self-indulgent. It’s a problem I see a lot even in published “literary” books, where the writing feels more about showing off the author’s skills than telling a story.

Specific suggestions include:

  • ask if the style of the writing is appropriate for the story — a style should complement a story, not fight against it
  • pretend you are telling the story to friends
  • insert slight twists for ideas that feel recycled or repeated

Part II

6. Between the Lines

The fact that a whole part is dedicated to dialogue illustrates just how important it is. This section covers problems with dialogue that are identifiable simply from a simple browse, which are: poor use of identifiers (ie, attributing dialogue to characters), spitfire dialogue (chatter that is too rushed and has no breaks), interrupted dialogue (too many breaks between  dialogue) and journalistic dialogue (tendency to quote characters instead of letting their dialogue flow).

Specific suggestions include:

  • identifiers simply need to do their job (ie, let us know who is talking) without getting in the way — “he said” or “she said” is often good enough (and better than “said he” or “said her”)
  • learn to appreciate how dialogue affects pacing and progression (see below)
  • let characters speak for themselves in their own voices

7. Commonplace

Everyday dialogue like “hi, how are you” and “fine, how are you” are easy to spot and can lead to a manuscript being dismissed as being amateurish. You may think it adds realism but in reality such dialogue just bores the hell out of everyone. The solution is simple — avoid it and cut it if it’s already there.

8. Informative

Informative dialogue is used essentially to convey a piece of information or background facts that the writer could not get across otherwise — eg, “You are having an affair with Tina, my best friend!” It may get some information across, but the dialogue ends up coming across as fake, odd and contrived. Again, the solution is rather simple — avoid and cut.

9. Melodramatic

This type of dialogue also comes across as fake because it is too exaggerated. Lukeman advises writers to identify their melodramatic dialogue, step back from it, and try and build dialogue that is not constantly dramatic but has a build up and a letdown, an arc and contrasts. Look for areas where you may be compensating for your lack of drama in the narrative with dialogue.

10. Hard to Follow

Lukeman says dialogue that is hard to follow will always inevitably lead to the dismissal of a manuscript. Common problems include writers trying to capture a certain twang or accent, lack of identifiers or cryptic dialogue. The solutions are quite straightforward as well — avoid trying to capture accents and use your identifiers properly.

Part III

11. Showing Versus Telling

Ah, the good old dilemma. Most people who have studied writing or read books about writing would be familiar with this already. Writing is generally better when the writer shows you instead of tells you, eg, instead of telling you someone is a thief, show them pick-pocketing, etc. On the other hand, Lukeman also warns against too much showing because telling still has its place in the narrative. He recommends writers identify places in their manuscript where showing should replace telling and then try and dramatize the scene with descriptions and actions, remembering at the same time to leave a bit of ambiguity and mystery for the reader.

12. Viewpoint and Narration

This is another amateurish mistake, when writers fail to maintain consistency in the narrator (eg, first person, second person, third person, etc) and having viewpoints jump from character to character when utilizing third person. Even when the narrator is supposedly omniscient it comes across as awkward and odd. Other common problems include a narrator with no originality or voice or a narrator who knows things they cannot possibly know.

13. Characterization

Problems include:

  • poor usage of character names (eg, switching between first and last names, nicknames, etc
  • use of cliched or exotic names that don’t fit
  • launching into the story without establishing characters
  • cliched character traits
  • introducing too many characters at once
  • confusion over who the protagonist is
  • extraneous characters
  • generic character descriptions
  • characters readers won’t care about
  • unsympathetic protagonist

Solutions are pretty self explanatory.

14. Hooks

The hook is what grabs the reader’s attention and compels them to read on. But Lukeman warns that the hook is more than a marketing tool and might consist of more than the first line — it could be the entire first paragraph, first page, or even the first chapter. The hook needs to be consistent with the rest of the writing and not be disproportionate with what follows. Using dialogue to start off is also best avoided.

15. Subtlety

A very underrated quality for a writer. Lukeman believes that less is always more when it comes to utilizing subtlety and achieving subtlety comes from confidence. Some of the problems can be solved by cutting extraneous text that comes from a desire to spell everything out for the reader, but it is about being able to spot the problem areas and making sure things are not too neat and tidy.

16. Tone

Tone is about intentionality and is the voice behind the work, the driving intention behind the style and sound. The three are intertwined but must work together in order to work. The tone of your manuscript should be a conscious choice and Lukeman admits there are no easy solutions. Best to show your work to someone else to see if they feel the tone doesn’t work. It is an advanced technique that takes time to master, he says.

17. Focus

This is about staying on track with your writing and not losing the focus of the story. Often a story drifts from the path you have set it but you must make sure what you set out to achieve in the beginning is resolved by the end. Lukeman says each chapter must be thought of as its own complete unit — the length is not important as long as it accomplishes what it set out to do. An unfocused manuscript may have subplots that are not resolved, a lack of continuity, and could go off on tangents and feel like it’s rambling. However, he warns against being too focused — if everything is too rigid, too neat and too perfect, then perhaps you have been too focused.

18. Setting

Setting is often ignored but can “add a whole new dimension to a text, a richness nothing else can”, according to Lukeman. Problems include writers who make no attempt to create a setting whatsoever to writers to spend too much time describing the setting.

Specific suggestions include:

  • adding small but vivid details to the setting descriptions
  • draw on all five senses when bringing a setting to life (especially smell, sound and lighting); climate can also be important
  • most importantly, have characters interact with their settings
  • great settings go one step further and make an impression

19. Pacing and Progression

This is the last thing editors might look for and might not be discernible until they’ve gotten through a sizeable chunk of your manuscript. Lukeman describes novels that are too slow and those that are too quick, neither of which are recommended. He reminds people that pacing and progression are cumulative things and therefore hard to self-edit.

If the manuscript reads too slow, then:

  • try and create scenarios where even you, as the writer, would be interested in
  • create more stakes and raise the stakes
  • look for sections that can be shortened
  • replace telling and description with drama

On the other hand, if the manuscript reads too quickly, then slow it down and try to give it a foundation and make the story come alive. Dialogue is often identified as one of the reasons why manuscripts can read too quickly.