So here’s a writer’s guide that is not for the faint of heart (though of course writing itself and certainly attempting to get published are not for the faint of heart either): The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Unlike Anne Lamont, whose tone is funny if a little ironic and, at times, heartwrenching, this guy is like the astronomy professor in your 8 a.m. class for the science credit you and a bunch of other liberal arts majors had to get. He’s no fun. No matter how much you wanted to romanticize astronomy or referred to your lifelong fascination with it or tried to label it a fun subject, that professor would start in with his rate of declination equations and his calculable ascension angles and you’d just swim in how much not fun it was. This guy is like that guy. No matter how enthusiastically you tear into these pages or how nobly you remind yourself that you will forever hold tightly to your dream–nay, your quest for publication, Mr. Lukeman will take all the fun out of your pursuit. He’s the Debbie Downer of writer’s guides.
Here’s the thing, though: I’d rather be left downtrodden and slightly mopish about my chances in the slush pile if it means I’ve gleaned some truth about the process, and I think the book gives valid and honest advice. You won’t get anywhere reading about the glory of writing for writing’s sake or how good it feels to tweak a tale just perfectly to your liking and damn all the rejectionists out there because you have a story in which you invested your heart and soul. There are those types of writer’s guides out there, but I won’t be profiling them here. No, I’ll stick with Mr. Lukeman and his oh-so-subtle arrogance, because he says what those inspirational “guides” won’t — that you shouldn’t write commonplace conversation in dialogue because it marks you as an amateur. That one too many adverbs or adjectives in the first couple paragraphs will get you form rejected. That the sole objective of an agent or editor upon beginning to read your query or pages is to find some grounds upon which to say, “Nope, not this one.” But here’s the thing; if you follow the advice in The First Five Pages, you stand a far better chance than the typical querier.
Written in 2000, the book is a bit dated in its first two chapters on presentation–the discussion here refers mostly to the way your writing appears on paper, and he never gets into e-querying because that tsunami hadn’t quite yet hit the writing community. But the rest of the chapters present hard-core how-to advice and patiently reiterate the major flaws you as your work’s primary editor must hunt down and kill. If you don’t get the gist of each chapter in the text, he follows his topics with end-of-chapters examples and exercises that make what not to do blindingly clear–indeed, his examples are practically caricatures of bad writing. From the way he belabors show-don’t-tell, good dialogue tags, and avoiding info-dumping, I think Mr. Lukeman makes well known the auto-reject standards he upholds. From his tone, he has taught writers these same pointers over and over since he was a wee babe of an agent and editor. Reading it, you can almost hear his long-suffering sigh.