Review of the First Five Pages

January, 2000

"Agents and editors don't read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript—and believe me, they'll look for any reason they can..."
RoseDog reviews The First Five Pages—A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile by New York agent Noah Lukeman. Read our interview with Lukeman here.
A sharp bite of reality...
Noah Lukeman's portrayal of overworked editors looking for just one reason to shoot your beloved work into the rejection pile is a sharp bite of reality that some writers won't want to feel. Like it or not, Lukeman is bluntly asserting that most writers are rejected by agents and publishers because they simply can't pass first muster—and that the margin for failure is very narrow.

Lukeman's book is a gutsy reminder that success as a writer is hard won and that writing is a craft like any other and must be learned—the hard way.  If (in terms of numbers alone) the odds are stacked against you each time an editor or agent opens your work - then all the more reason you should be as good a writer as you can.

"Why do writers assume they can just 'write' with no training whatsoever - and then expect, on their first attempt, that they'll be published internationally? What makes them think they're so much inherently greater, need so much less training than any other artists?"
If the bluntness of remarks like this can be destabilizing, the great strength of Lukeman's book lies in how he scoops us up and puts us firmly back on our feet by offering real solutions.  The critical, probing exercises found at the end of each chapter are likely to be valuable to writers not only because of the very practical way in which they are presented, but because they also have the virtue of supporting Lukeman's central conviction that writers can train their minds towards critical thought—and through critical thought comes better writing.  New writers will pore over his exercises in detail, while more skilled writers will use them to throw new light on specific problem areas.

     But if Lukeman's objective in writing his book is very basic—how writers can identify and avoid the errors that without fail consign their work to the rejection pile—his end-of-chapter exercises will disappoint writers looking for quick fixes and bewilder those who believe writing is all about unfolding ideas off the top of your head.  Writing (well) means hard work and Lukeman believes that is how it should be.  One of his exercises on 'sound' for instance requires four hours working on a single paragraph. 

     Other areas he covers include overpowering versus absent narrators; learning to read as a writer; using "the other eye" (or trusted readers); building characters who give your work depth instead of blocking its development; creating relationships through real-life dialogue; the key role of dialogue per se; pacing; using your senses to establish settings, etc.

Lukeman is in fact offering a much larger opportunity to any writer who wants to seize it.
The glimpses Lukeman offers into the pent-up pressure within agent and editors offices, and the 'read to reject' rule that prevails throughout the publishing industry also represent valuable insights into the context in which each writer's work is reviewed.  And his frank assessment of some writers' abilities is obviously the result of having been on the receiving end of a lot of poor writing in his time.  But while he is sometimes impatient towards writers Lukeman is never scathing, presumably because he seems genuinely to believe that anyone can train her/himself to be a better writer. 

For this reason, although his stated objective is to help writers avoid the mistakes that will send them to the rejection pile, Lukeman is in fact offering a much larger opportunity to any writer who wants to seize it.  He is offering tools to help train self-critical thought in the minds of those whose solitary activity can so easily steer them towards self-indulgence and uncritical acceptance of their work.

It's an excellent book and at such a reasonable price it's also a great investment.


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