Lukeman is an agent. In his introduction, he says he has read thousands of manuscripts. In doing so, he discovered that regardless of whether the author came from Texas, California, or Japan (or England, or Oregon) the same exact mistakes were being made. Furthermore, he realized that by scrutinizing just the first few pages, he could make a determination about the whole manuscript. As he says: "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." And, in reality, it doesn't take the astute reader five pages to make an evaluation. In fact, Lukeman says, the book should have been titled "The first five sentences."
Harsh, you may be thinking. Lukeman's rationale is this:
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, down to the last letter.Gordon Bennett! This is positively Darwinian. But if you think about it, readers make the same evaluations. How often have you browsed in a bookstore (very often, I hope!)? You see a book your friend recommended. She usually has good taste, you think, so you read the flap, open to the first paragraph. Nope, the story didn't grab. You scan another couple of books. Same thing. And then: a book you've never heard of, but it has a prominent display on the shelf. You open it, start to read, and five minutes later you're still reading. Something has resonated with you, sucked you in. You may even hand over hard-earned cash for it.
Agents and editors are doing the same thing with manuscripts, except they can give you specific reasons why they connect or don't connect with a work. In Lukeman's opinion, this is not usually an issue of plot. ("A great writer can produce an amazing piece of writing with virtually no plot at all.") It is an issue of prose, of how you execute your writing. It is an issue of craft.
But first off, Part I talks about preliminary problems. Presentation is key. Don't come off as unprofessional. ("Agents and editors don't view someone who shies from the standards as unique or unusual. they view him as a nuisance...") Devote time to researching agents and editors, and make sure you're not sending your thriller to someone who only represents non-fiction. (Lukeman suggests you send a query via FedEx, but that sounds over-the-top to me. It also shows that the book was written before e-mail queries became almost ubiquitous!)
Lukeman spends a couple of pages talking about proper formatting, and then reveals that certain quirks will also signal an early dismissal: the overuse of question marks and exclamation points. Also, cliches. ("I can't tell you how many manuscripts open with cliches or have one on their first page. This is almost always an indicator of a commonplace sensibility and will thus lead to instant rejection.") Finally, in chapter 2, Lukeman shows how an abundance of adjectives and adverbs marks a writer as a beginner, and someone easy to reject. (The rest of Part I deals the sound of one's writing, the way one uses metaphor or simile, and stylistic errors. The end of each chapter also has a number of exercises. Very useful.)
Next Week: Part II--Dialogue as a revealer of a writer's skill.
Noah Lukeman is an agent. In addition to The First Five Pages, he's the author of The Plot Thickens.