What can an agent tell from the first five pages of your manuscript?
According to Noah Lukeman, plenty.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile analyzes the types of mistakes that appear in “99 percent” of the unsolicited manuscripts received by agents and editors.
His experience as a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts has led Lukeman to this conclusion:
From Texas to Oklahoma to California to England to Turkey to Japan, writers are doing the exact same things wrong.
The purpose of his book is to show writers how to be their own first readers. The First Five Pages
assumes that by scrutinizing a few pages closely enough–particularly the first few–you can make a determination for the whole. It assumes that if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come.
Even before he gets to a discussion of such things as dialogue, characterization, and point of view, Lukeman emphasizes the importance of Presentation.
By Presentation he means such purely mechanical matters as paper, margins, and enclosing a stamped addressed envelope. No matter how great the artistic merit of a manuscript, careless packaging can keep it from taken seriously. Such inattention to detail, says Lukeman,
may signal carelessness, sloppiness, ignorance or defiance of the industry’s standards; that the writer doesn’t care enough to do the minimum amount of research to make a manuscript industry presentable. Often when a writer’s presentation is careless, his writing is too.
I especially like what Lukeman has to say about the importance of an extensive vocabulary in creating a clear, specific, distinctive style. He notes a dearth of vocabulary in the work of modern writers:
It is as if all of today’s writers were working from a high school-level vocabulary–and writers who do use unusual words more ofen than not misuse them
He encourages writers to enrich their vocabulary by learning not just a word’s current meaning, but its origin and history as well–not for mere erudition, but in order to fix the word in the writer’s mind and make it his own. This “extra” lore is what I call “iceberg information,” knowledge that floats below the surface of the writing, adding substance without show.
Barely 200 pages in length, Lukeman’s guide puts the writer in the mind of the agent, packing a lot of insight into a small space. The chapters are brief, but to the point, and each one is followed by writing exercises.
For the author who has a novel ready to market, The First Five Pages is a valuable tool for the final revision.