On Monday I finished reading The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. In it, Noah Lukeman breaks down a manuscript as an agent or editor would see it, then illustrates what they are looking for on their way towards rejecting it. Sort of depressing. But along the way he does give terrific advice, and, if nothing else, clarifies a set of priorities for authors when writing and revising their work. As Lukeman says, “There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.” Lukeman breaks his book into three parts and discussing the pitfalls editors are looking for in each:  Preliminary Problems,  Dialogue, and  the Bigger Picture.
Preliminary Problems focuses on the nitty-gritty rules of manuscript presentation as well as the basics of literary composition: double spaces, no strange fonts, avoid unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, sentence construction, and figurative language. This part is pretty much what you would get from any book on style or editing. But what Lukeman makes clear is that, if these basics aren’t up to snuff, your manuscript will be rejected pretty quickly–likely before the end of the first page.
In the section on Dialogue, Lukeman notes that “dialogue reveals the skill of a writer instantaneously” and so could be the first thing an editor looks at when evaluating a manuscript. He meticulously lays out his rules for writing good dialogue: avoid using unnecessary identifiers, simply cut commonplace or boring dialogue, avoid “fake” sounding dialogue used to convey information, and of course, avoid melodrama. He also provides a set of criteria for evaluating your dialogue for each of these flaws. For me, this was the best part of the book.
Finally, the section on the Bigger Picture focuses on the art of plotting and storytelling. Although authors can spend years agonizing over the plot of their novel, Lukeman notes that 99% of manuscripts will be rejected before an editor ever considers plot. Here, Lukeman discusses showing versus telling, viewpoint, focus, characterization, and setting. Again, most of this is pretty standard advice, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat. However, Lukeman does provide a nice chapter on subtlety. He emphasizes that the author should resist the urge to explain; where ever there is explanation in narration or dialogue, he suggests simply cutting it. After reading this, I went back through a couple of scenes I was writing and found a few lines here and there where I had explained a character’s actions. When writing, I think I add these explanations for myself. But Lukeman points out that, although it is good that the author to have a reason for everything, the reader will not want this. So, after making just a few cuts, my scenes read a lot faster and were much more interesting. Good advice.
My only complaint about The First Five Pages is that each chapter begins with a short quote from The Elements of Style or else an anecdote describing how many novels Stephen King wrote before Carrie was finally published. Although interesting, these openings often have absolutely nothing to do with what follows. For example, the seventeenth chapter is “Focus.” In it, Lukeman discusses the need to ensure that each sentence, paragraph, and chapter be complete in themselves, but also remain a part of a larger whole that is moving the reader from beginning, to middle, to end. It’s a good chapter, but it is prefaced with the enigmatic line: Robert Penn Warren’s first three novels were unanimously rejected by publishers.
Great! If Penn Warren had trouble, I’ll feel a whole lot better about myself as I prepare my manuscript. But what was the focus of this chapter again?