The First Five Pages

 A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
by Noah Lukeman

If your book hasn’t piqued the interest of an editor, The First Five Pages will help you diagnose and correct problems that may have doomed it to the slush pile. Its chapters are arranged in the order of what editors look for when trying to dismiss a submission, because the harsh reality of the publishing world, according to Lukeman, is they want to find a reason to reject your manuscript.

If you’ve honed your writing skills through classes or personal study, many of the problems he identifies won’t surprise you. However, if you take the time, at the end of each chapter to do the exercises, you may discover that these problems still plague your manuscript. My nemesis was adjectives and adverbs. I knew I had to limit their usage and choose strong verbs and nouns. I even used the ‘find’ tool in my word processor to assess every occurrence of ‘ly’ in my novel. Nevertheless, when I did Lukeman’s exercise for this topic, it transformed my first page. The improvement in conciseness and readability convinced me to think twice before using modifiers to prop up my writing.

I share this example to emphasize that at first glance, you may feel you already know ‘this stuff.’ In fact, Lukeman’s examples of how not to write are so bad they could mislead you into believing your writing is fabulous by comparison. Don’t. He provides helpful solutions to fix your work. The exercises incorporate your WIP and if you do them, your writing will improve. He says many amateurs spend more time plotting their novel than developing their prose, but if they want to sell their work, they need to master the craft of writing well, because a great plot will never be considered if the “prose isn’t up to par.”

He identifies nineteen problem areas from ‘Presentation’ to ‘Pacing and Progression’. His chapter on ‘Setting’ shows how to create a compelling setting that uses details to make an “atmospheric impression.” A few lines of description is not enough. Characters need to interact with the setting and be changed by it. Likewise his chapter on ‘Showing vs. Telling’ clarifies common misconceptions. Showing gives the reader the opportunity to come to his own conclusion, to enter the world of the story, but “telling has its place.” And “deciding what you do, and don’t want to dramatize is as much an art as the dramatization itself.”

Overall I recommend this book as an economical reference tool and a mandatory revision checklist before you shop your next manuscript.