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.
10 thoughts on “The First Five Pages”
Interesting post. I bet that when he gets down to content one of his top criticisms is that many novels don’t get going fast enough. I see a lot of novels in progress, from gifted writers, that don’t really hit their stride until the second or third chapter. If they don’t hit the ground running they’re out of the race!
Dirtywhitecandy; Chekov, on rewriting, said “throw away your first three pages.” That was for short stories. Maybe for novels it should be “throw away your first three chapters.” 🙂
Ths book indicates exactly why the publishing industry is in such rough waters nowadays.
I like strange words. Dictionaries are always nice to snuggle up to. We recently got an unabridged dictionary from a neighbor. It’s a second edition Merriam-Webster. Old, but interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the dates for the words like our collegiate dictionary.
I might look into that book 😀
Seems like an interesting book. I went to Barnes and Noble looked through a couple of writer’s books and brought this one. I think it will help me.
I’ve read I don’t know how many books on creative writing (OK, I do know, 12) and this, along with Stephen King’s On Writing, is by a country mile the most useful.
It touts itself on not being a book about creative writing, but somehow manages to hit the fundamental nails on the heads in each chapter.
Lukeman’s book should be required reading for anyone writing out there.
How about someone write a book called, ‘The First Page’, cause i’ve scanned over some pretty crappy books that i didn’t even bother to read the second paragraph of…
I agree with Noah Lukeman. I feel like often times, authors are so excited to get their work out there that they fail to see their work as readers often do – something that they do not have to read. The first pages should make a reader and the writer want to find out more, even though he or she does not have to.
Years ago I began reading the first three chapters and if they didn’t lure me inside I would read the last chapter to determine if what was in between justified reading.