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The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile

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The First Five Pages

Editors always tell novice writers that the first few pages of a manuscript are crucial in the publishing process -- and it's true. If an editor or agent (or reader) loses interest after a page or two, you've lost him or her completely, even if the middle of your novel is brilliant and the ending phenomenal. Noah Lukeman, an agent in Manhattan, has taken this advice and created a book that examines just what this means, and I have to tell you, it's one of the best I've read.

I've written (and seen published) pretty close to a dozen novels in as many years -- some are still to be published and will be out shortly; others are already out of print after four years. But I wish I had read Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages, when I began writing fiction.

I'm glad I did now. It has helped, immediately. I'm already embarrassed about some of the goofs I made in my writing -- and I've been revising recent prose with his advice in mind.

First off, Lukeman is a literary agent who once was an editor, and his editorial eye is sharp. If every novelist and short story writer in this country had Lukeman as an editor, we'd have a lot more readable prose out there.

He writes:

Many writers spend the majority of their time devising their plot. What they don't seem to understand is that if their execution -- if their prose -- isn't up to par, their plot may not even be considered.

This bears repeating, because in all the books I've read on writing, this is an element that is most often forgotten in the rush to come up with snappy ideas and sharp plot progressions. You can always send a hero on a journey, after all, but if no reader wants to follow him, you've wasted your time.

In a tone that can be a bit professorial at times, Lukeman brings what prose is -- and how it reads to others -- into sharp focus. He deals with dialogue, style, and, most importantly, sound.


How does prose sound?

It must have rhythm, its own kind of music, in order to draw the reader into the fictive dream. Lukeman's tips and pointers are genuinely helpful, and even important with regard to the sound of the prose itself.

Lukeman also brings in on-target exercises for writers of prose and the wonderful advice for novelists to read poetry -- and often.

Those first five pages are crucial, for all concerned. But forget the editor and agent and reader. They are important for you, the writer, because they determine the sharpness of your focus, the completeness of your vision, the confidence you, as a writer, need to plunge into a three- or four- or five-hundred-page story.

The First Five Pages should be on every writer's shelf. This is the real thing.P#151;Douglas Clegg

Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous novels and stories, including The Halloween Man and the collection The Nightmare Chronicles. In addition, Clegg is the author of the world's first publisher-sponsored Internet email novel, Naomi.

208 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2000

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About the author

Noah Lukeman

23 books107 followers
In addition to being an active literary agent, Noah Lukeman is also author of the best-selling The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which was a selection of many of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers and is part of the curriculum in many universities. His The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martins Press, 2002) was a National Bestseller, a BookSense 76 Selection, a Publishers Weekly Daily pick, a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club, and a selection of many of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers. His A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation (W.W. Norton, 2006 and Oxford University Press in the UK, 2007) was critically-acclaimed, a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club and the Forbes Book Club, was profiled on NPR, and is now part of the curriculum in over 50 universities and writing programs. His e-book How to Write a Great Query Letter, which he gives away for free as a way of giving back to the writing community, was the #1 Bestselling title on Amazon Shorts for many months. His most recent book geared to help aspiring authors is How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent. To help aspiring authors, he has also made available free chapters from all his books, which you can read by clicking here.

Noah has also worked as a collaborator, and is co-author, with Lieutenant General Michael “Rifle” Delong, USMC, Ret., of Inside Centcom (Regnery, 2005), a selection of the Military Book Club. His Op-Eds co-authored with General Delong appeared in the Sunday New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News. He has contributed articles about the publishing industry and the craft of writing to several magazines, including Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, The Writer, the AWP Chronicle and the Writers Market, and has been anthologized in The Practical Writer (Viking, 2004).

Creatively, Noah is author of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Part II, (Pegasus Books, 2008) an original play written in blank verse, which aspires to pick up where Shakespeare’s Macbeth left off. Macbeth II was critically-acclaimed, and featured as recommended reading in New York Magazine’s 2008 “Fall Preview.” He has also written several screenplays, one of which, Brothers in Arms, was chosen as one of Hollywood’s 100 Best Scripts of the Year on the 2007 Black List and is currently in development at a major studio.

Noah Lukeman has been a guest speaker on the subjects of writing and publishing at numerous forums, including Harvard University, The Hotchkiss School, The Juilliard School, the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University, the Writers Digest Panel at Book Expo America, the MFA at Northern Michigan University, the National Society of Newspaper Columnist’s annual Boston conference, and Riker’s Island Penitentiary. He earned his B.A. with High Honors in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University, cum laude.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 420 reviews
Profile Image for Kelly H. (Maybedog).
2,588 reviews225 followers
August 25, 2013
This isn't at all what it claims to be. I was looking for a book that would give examples of what to do and not to do in the first five pages of a book to get an editor to look at the work, the hook. In fact, he didn't think hooks are that important. Every other writing book I've read said that if you don't grab the editor on the first couple of pages, your book won't get read.

Otherwise it was another general writing book and not a good one at that. It took a long time to get to the meat of the book and it would only be useful for someone really new to writing who isn't very good and has no clue. There were even grammar errors!

Most of the examples were silly and extreme, made up to prove a point but not showing anything that might really be written in a book. They only focused on what was wrong, not on how to do it right. Only occasionally was a real book quoted but they were all similar, mostly classics, and ALL written by men. Some of them were even bad. The opening line of Kafka's The Metamorphosis is, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." It's a wonderful opening for the time and the book, but it would get rejected out of hand nowadays.

The text was long without interruption, no helpful sections, recaps, sidebars, anecdotes, nothing that would make this something other than the try and boring book it was. The section organization made no sense.

It was completely focused on print publishing. The stuff about formatting the manuscript was good, stuff I've never seen before, but I don't think anybody submits manuscripts by paper anymore.

It did have exercises but in huge paragraphs rather than a list, and they were all verbose, not short and sweet and helpful.

This was when the author really lost me: he said that missing dialog tags was a problem. Most dialog tags are completely unnecessary and clutter up the writing! If something is in quotes, it's obviously dialog; "he said" is not needed. The writing should convey who's talking and if it doesn't, that's the problem, not the tags.

He didn't differentiate between an agent and a publisher. He also didn't mention the differences in various genres. For example, he said that we're tired of the description of a male protagonist as brown-eyed and brown-haired. That would be novel in a romance.

Another poor recommendation is that you don't need to reveal the plot right away. What about in a thriller or mystery? The plot is the most important thing and key. If someone looking for suspense has to wade through two or three chapters to get any excitement, they're going to put it down.

Lastly, the beginning of each chapter has a quotation sort of about writing but that doesn't match the chapter at all.

I don't recommend this book to anyone. Instead, try Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.
Profile Image for Romie.
1,094 reviews1,270 followers
September 28, 2020
read this one for my Publishing in Practice class. it's always interesting to see the advice publishers give to writers wanting to be published since, well, as their possible future editors you want to know how to edit a manuscript properly. so yeah, interesting, a bit long, but funny at times, which is always appreciated.
Profile Image for Amanda Webster.
28 reviews
October 6, 2017
There are a few reasons I was less than thrilled with this book.
1. For each chapter on what might make an agent or publisher put your manuscript down, Lukeman gave an example. Unfortunately the examples were all so obvious or over dramatized that I couldn't help but think- "There's no way anyone actually writes like this!" I so desperately wanted examples that reminded me of my own work so I might catch my mistakes, and I don't feel like I got that.
2. Lukeman didn't even take his own advice, particularly on subtlety. He spends a whole chapter or two talking about not beating the reader over the head with useless or repeated information, and yet I lost count of the times he gave the same advice again and again.
3. He paints publishers and agents out to be soul crushing monsters who look for reasons to put your book down, but I have listened to many publishers say this isn't the case. logically, one of the two must be lying and unfortunately I don't have much trust in Lukeman.
4. Mostly I just get the feeling this book is a little outdated. I've heard many an experienced author say that the industry is changing quickly, and next time I'll look for a book that more closely reflects that.
Profile Image for Lee Dunning.
Author 11 books24 followers
November 30, 2014
My writing teacher recommended this book for novelists wishing to improve the very start of their book so it grabs people right away. I immediately put in an order for it and consumed it as soon as it arrived. Disappointing.

The title is misleading. This book, like several others I've read, goes over what you should and should not do in prose writing. Show don't tell. Passive voice. Dialogue tags. Pacing. Yeah, nothing new to see here. None of it is geared specifically for opening your story with a bang. It's all the usual rules you should follow for your entire book.

Yes, toward the back there is a chapter on memorable opening lines, where we get to read "Call me Ishamael." for the millionth time. The author doesn't explain how exactly to approach writing a memorable first line, he mostly warns against using one followed by a story which can't live up to it. If you find yourself in that situation, either tone down this awesome opening line you spent a month crafting, or drive yourself mad dragging the rest of the 300 pages up in quality.

I took issue with the author's highly exaggerated and almost unreadable examples. For the most part he came up with the absolute worst mini scenes to show what you shouldn't do. He seldom rewrote them into something "fixed", which is understandable - there was no fixing them. He did provide a handful of examples to give the reader some idea of what he considered skilled writing. Nearly all of them were from the classics, with only one or two from anything people would read for pleasure. Using Melville to illustrate "good" writing is like shoving a person's hand into a fire to teach them what it's like to get burned. It hurts and makes them want to run away.

He also discusses the art of naming characters. I understand why he brought this up since a name consisting of only consonants or vowels can make it difficult for the average reader to hang onto. Having a bunch of similar names can cause issues too. Names which are too long can cause fatigue and slow down the story (one of my great problems - which I don't know how to fix since everyone is so formal in my stories).

However, there is a limit. I remember reading Shogun over twenty years ago and having trouble keeping all of the Japanese names straight. Does that mean Clavell should have changed everyone's names to suit my ignorance? Of course not. And Noah Lukeman offhandedly suggesting a sci-fi writer should name a space alien Bob because it's easy to remember, and would be an unusual name for a space alien, is wrong-headed too.

Ironically, many of the quotes heading each chapter are more telling than the content of the chapters. They sometimes even seem to contradict Mr. Lukeman's points. For example, all throughout the book, the author clamors about this and that Russian writer and disregards genre fiction. Yet chapter 18 starts with a quote from Mark Twain: A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. Noah Lukeman's goal appears to be to encourage you to write like people nobody wants to read.

If you haven't already read a goodly number of writing books (I recommend "Wonderbook" by Jeff VanderMeer or just about anything by James Scott Bell), then you'll get more out of this book than I did. If you're like me and read how-to writing books as often as fiction books, then this book is more likely to anger you than inform you.
Profile Image for Rain Jeys.
48 reviews36 followers
January 21, 2014
So once I stopped beating my wrists and wailing at the utter unfairness of how ruthless editors and publishers can be, I took a deep breath and considered the advice in this book. I hate that just one tiny mistake can make an editor drop your manuscript right away; I ESPECIALLY hate that editors read manuscripts HOPING they can find something wrong with them, so they can move on to their never-ending pile. But I get it. I don't like it, but I get it. And I deeply, deeply appreciate the author of this book leveling with the aspiring authors out there and telling it like it is. Learning to see your work the way an editor would is truly invaluable.

I'm one of those people who when I edit my own work, I can tell when something is off, but I can't necessarily tell what it is, or how to fix it. This book was like a road map to me, because it showed me how to identify and fix many of these issues. I feel much less lost when editing now. My writing has improved, and so has my confidence in my writing.

The book walks you through the major issues that editors look for that will get you rejected, and advises you on how to address them. Examples are given, both of how-to and how-not-to, for each step. I definitely appreciated the chapter on sound, as it is something I think many authors don't think about as much.

The only issue I have with this book is the worry that because it is over ten years old maybe the industry has changed, and so the advice may not be completely spot-on anymore, but even so, it is still a valuable look inside the publishing industry.

Source: Received as a gift
Profile Image for Jared Millet.
Author 19 books57 followers
August 4, 2010
Anyone who daydreams about being a published writer owes it to themselves to read this book and learn what they're up against. There are many, many writing books out there, but this one stands apart for a couple of reasons.

One: it's not by a writer, but by one of those evil literary agents who currently act as the bouncers of the publishing community. His focus in this book is to tell the aspiring writer exactly why their work is going to be rejected long before things like plot, setting, and characterization ever come into play. Which leads us to-

Two: While lots of writing books focus on the "big picture" themes first and only get down to the fine details of editing and word choice in a couple of chapters at the end, Lukeman does it the other way around. He begins by looking at the individual word (and punctuation mark), because that's the first thing a bouncer agent will notice.

Only after you've proven yourself in terms of style and readability will the agent be forced to give you a closer look - and then it gets worse. If you are marginally competent enough to get him past the "first five pages" you're still not in the clear - because now you've pissed the bouncer agent off by forcing him to read your work more deeply, and that's when the gloves really come off.
Profile Image for Carrie.
595 reviews13 followers
December 27, 2016
Much of this will be review for all but the newest writers. No hot secret or sure tips to nab an agent's attention; mostly common sense advice. Still, it bears repeating nonetheless, and a little review benefits even the most seasoned of writers.
Profile Image for Sarina Langer.
Author 19 books102 followers
April 24, 2017
The First Five Pages is one of the first theory books on writing I've ever read. Because I learnt so much from it I bought my own copy, and since I'm editing my second book now I figured it was the perfect time to read it again!

The blurb isn't kidding when it hails The First Five Pages as the one book every writer needs to own, or at least read. It goes over every problem your draft could possibly have, shows you why each is a problem through examples, and shows you how you can fix it. It gives you the chance to apply what you learned right away with end of chapter exercises. On top of that, it offers small insights into how agents and publishers work, and why they might reject your manuscript. And, more importantly, it shows you how to fix it.

And on top of all that, it's encouraging:

I have never had a book, story or poem rejected that was not later published. If you know what you are doing, eventually you will run into an editor who knows what he/she is doing. It may take years, but never give up.

It's an invaluable resource and I urge you to read it, maybe even buy your own copy. It's not a dry thing you'll struggle through. It's easy to read and quite humorous throughout! (the latter is a quality my theory books must have if they want to end up on my shelf)
Profile Image for Brittany McCann.
1,827 reviews429 followers
July 13, 2023
Originally written in 2000, this book definitely features some dated advice, mainly in areas about submitting manuscripts mentioned terms like "typewriters". It is interesting to see how far technology in publishing and writing has come since this advice was first given out, but that does not mean that this book does not hold value.

There are many great passages offering advice, especially for debut authors such as myself, who can learn how to make my novel stand out from the mountain of potential ideas being critiqued each day by agents and publishers. There are many ways to get rejected, and knowing about them is a big part of figuring out what to do instead.

I do wish more focus would have been on the FIRST FIVE PAGES of a novel, as the title suggests, but it was a worthwhile read on writing anyway.

4 Stars
Profile Image for Neil.
175 reviews19 followers
August 6, 2012

I bought this for a friend who's struggling with his first novel. Idly flicking through the pages, I realised that my need was greater than his, so he'll have to wait! Slim enough not to be threatening, and yet never facile, this is great value. I constantly refer to it, and I suspect it'll never actually be 'shelved'
Profile Image for Sue Burke.
Author 43 books655 followers
March 30, 2022
If you want to write a novel, The First Five Pages should be helpful, although with a couple of minor caveats.

The book starts at the sentence level and carefully considers individual word choices, offering both basic and sophisticated advice. For example, comparisons slow down a text — which can be good or bad, depending on the pacing the author needs.

The second half of the book looks at “big picture” concerns like pacing, setting, and characterization. These can raise a novel from good to great. Some of Lukeman’s lessons might be familiar but reminders won’t hurt, and other lessons might be new and necessary.

Two caveats: First, the opening chapter, Presentation, is laughably out of date. Submissions are electronic these days, via email or website, and would-be authors need advice for how to handle those formats, not warnings about dot-matrix printers. Second, the examples of what not to do are so over-the-top bad that they rarely teach the would-be writer very much.

Beyond that, which are small problems, I think the book is worth the investment of money and time. Noah Lukeman knows that writing is hard, and he offers not just good advice but consistent encouragement.
Profile Image for Angela Blount.
Author 5 books676 followers
July 22, 2011
If they ever compile a Writer's Bible, this ought to be one of the very first books found in it. I could have spared myself a great deal of rewriting, rejection, and insult if I'd used something like this as a guide. I began reading this while awaiting the judge scores of a contest I'd entered several months prior. To my amazement, two of my four judges made reference to this book on my score sheet as a resource that would most improve my work.

It is a mercifully quick read--and to the point--categorizing errors that will get your manuscript thrown out in order of priority and stigma. The author claims to cover 99% of rejection reasons in the first half of the book alone, and I am inclined to believe him. The second half has more to do with refining your work in terms of tone, characterization, subtly, focus, and pacing.

While it is filled with hyperbolic examples of the issues being addressed, I felt it would have been even more effective if there had been more simplified tips included. (i.e., in structuring your hook, pick up a number of books you own and read the first line, then the first paragraph.) I may be abnormally dense about things like this, however. Though it's less instructional and more encouraging, I suggest reading the epilogue first. It may help you to decide if you are -truly- a writer.
Profile Image for Michael.
837 reviews615 followers
December 14, 2015
‘The First Five Pages’ was written for writers and it does a good job of covering every aspect of writing. This book was written by literary agent and former editor Noah Lukeman as a quick guide to the major aspects of a manuscript that needs to be looked at to help avoid being put into the rejection pile. The book covers topics like;

* A weak opening hook
* Overuse of adjectives and adverbs
* Flat or forced metaphors or similes
* Melodramatic, commonplace or confusing dialogue
* Undeveloped characterizations and lifeless settings
* Uneven pacing and lack of progression

The First Five Pages isn’t about being a better writer, its more about understanding bad writing and becoming a better rewriter or a better editor. This is useful for people that have a manuscript of a draft ready for polishing, but for beginners and people still writing I would recommend starting with ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. When you are ready to edit, get yourself a copy of ‘The First Five Pages’.
Profile Image for E. .
329 reviews275 followers
May 14, 2021

I sure do read a lot of books about writing for someone who hasn't written anything in years, huh? I'm sorry Mr. Lukeman for not doing the exercises before moving to the next chapter but it's a bit hard when you don't have a manuscript :(

Anyway, it was again in big part things I already knew but there's always more to learn and while the big subject stays the same, each specialist has their personal experiences to share.

Overall, a good approachable guide with exercises that will hammer in the point.
Profile Image for Heidi McGill.
Author 8 books830 followers
April 15, 2022
A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile… or a reader’s TBR pile, since I’m Indie (Independently) published. The Kindle edition of this is all you’ll probably need.
Profile Image for Dylan Perry.
470 reviews50 followers
May 12, 2019
A practical guide on how to improve your manuscript and to keep agents, editors, and readers' attention during those crucial first pages and beyond. It wasn't a game-changer, but I found a number of sections worth highlighting for later. Even some of the exercises--which I usually skip--have helped my own writing, particularly the ones from the similie/metaphor chapter.

If you are or know a writer looking for some help with revision, I'd recommend checking this one out. 4.5/5
Profile Image for Meghan Pinson.
248 reviews73 followers
August 12, 2012
From the introduction:

"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."

Noah Lukeman's book covers a lot of the same ground as James Scott Bell's "Revision and Self-Editing," (my favorite of its kind), but not in anywhere near as much depth, and from an agent's point of view. This book points out quite frankly that if you don't edit and revise your manuscript mercilessly before submitting it to an agent, it's not going to go anywhere at all.

The passages I found most interesting were the ones about the death sentence a writer's "commonplace sensibility" will guarantee for a book, the impossibility of being able to assess one's own manuscript for sound and pacing, and the importance of painting exactly the right picture with an apt comparison (as opposed to using description). He offers remedies for all. The second section of the book contains five chapters on problems with dialogue; there's some really good advice in there.

The third section deals with the Bigger Picture. Here's a quote from the intro to that section:

"Ninety-nine percent of manuscripts won't even make it to the Bigger Picture, won't even get a chance to be evaluated based upon the criteria laid out in this third section of the book--they will already have been eliminated [in the first five pages]. If they do make it to this section . . . this means that at least the first five pages will have to be read, and read closely, taking into account not just surface technique, but true content. . . . [If] your manuscript has passed an agent or editor's preliminary criteria, and he now must consider bigger factors, he may be more agitated: now he really has to read. He may scrutinize the following factors with greater vengeance in his rush to get you off his pile."

Lukeman goes on to cover showing vs. telling, viewpoint and narration, characterization, hooks, subtlety, tone, focus, setting, and pacing and progression. Basically, the elements that make a book a good book, if the writing hasn't already gotten in the way.

If you're looking for guidance on what problems to look for and how to revise your book, James Scott Bell's book is more thorough. But if you're interested in why you should revise it in the first place, and what sets off alarms in professional readers, agents, and publishers, this is a good, quick read, and worth the time.
Profile Image for Laura.
Author 7 books12 followers
September 18, 2009
It's fairly depressing to read. (I'm between a 2 and a 3)

Not the most helpful book on editing. I prefer Lyon's MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER, Bell's REVISION & SELF-EDITING, and Browne & King's SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. I expected it to clearly explain how to make the first five pages of my manuscript so wonderful THAT any editor or publisher would be a fool to pass the next 5 to 500 (depending on what I'm writing at the time) pages.

I suppose that was foolish thinking on my part, but I would like to avoid the slush pile at least once in my life time.

Anywho, it has good advice throughout, though very little of it is anything less than "daunting". You pretty much have to take every piece of instruction, every nugget of advice, and there are many, and run those through your entire short story, novelette, or novel. No mere concern for the FIRST FIVE PAGES will do! In that respect, I think the title is misleading. Mr. Lukeman has good intention; you can sense his overall desire to help writers overcome a myriad of obstacles to publication. His willingness to share his knowledge. (And for those who haven't read a half a dozen or so other books out there on the same subject, as I have, the book would be a great tool, just not for me.)

I think the book's organization bothers me the most, and the "end-of-chapter exercises" were not helpful at all. I recommend this book to writers who wish to work on revising their manuscript(s) as long as they understand that the title is really meant to inform them of the true nature of the beast - and what a BEAST it is! Perfection in Under Five pages? (How do YOU define insanity?)
Profile Image for Sasha.
87 reviews2 followers
February 24, 2014
Okay so first of all I will say the book addressed everything it set out to, and though it had a limited scope, I knew that from the beginning, and that in fact was an asset. I read some reviews complaining about things not touched upon- those were out of the scope, and the whys were discussed in the beginning of the book.

What I loved was how easy it is to read. I can jump to a chapter, learn about an issue, see examples, and get exercises to solve the problems. It's not this huge step my step technical manual, it's not dense and it doesn't treat you like a child either. It's perfect for me and I love it, I completely plan on reading it again (I only did the first chapters exercises and decided to read though the whole book once before doing the rest to confirm my suspicions that this is a book I'll be reading again, and I'll be wanting to buy and have as a reference myself, as the copy I have now is from the library).

The only downside is in some of the examples in the beginning, all the issues were underlined, when I'd rather try to find them myself, and then all the fixes were in a paragraph written out, when I felt reprinting the passage with the fixes would have been a better contrast. It also would have made the book longer, and it's not something that I think is completely necessary, but the visualization would have been helpful.

And there were a few typos. Well, at least one, and it was a little awkward to see it.

But you can see I gave it five stars. The book is a great reference and I felt a surge of creativity while reading it, thinking of all the fixes I can make to my work to really bring it up.
Profile Image for Peter Jones.
Author 12 books29 followers
June 7, 2011
I've read a few books on the craft of writing; most recently "Crafting Scenes" by Raymond Someone or another, Nancy Kress's "Beginnings Middles & Ends", of course, and the excellent Stephen King's "On Writing", .. but this is the most useful (sorry Mr King).

The premise is that Agents and Publishers have so many manuscripts sent to them, the only way to get through them is to sift through the first five pages looking for reasons to reject. This book tells you what those reasons are, and how to avoid them. Follow the advice given, and theoretically at least, your manuscript should stand a much better chance at publication.

The book is carefully laid out. It deals with the most heinous of crimes first and covers more subtle problems in later chapters. Most chapters are fairly short, and each has a handful of examples to illustrate the point being made followed by a few short exercises.

I buy a lot of books from Amazon - always second hand - and then I sell them again once read. To me Amazon is the world's largest lending library. But "the first five pages" is a one to keep hold of. I can see myself coming back to it again and again.
Profile Image for Kelly Holmes.
Author 2 books75 followers
December 22, 2019
Summary: A literary agent and former editor shares tips on how to make your first 5 pages shine.

Review: If you're looking for a book about editing your own work, I would recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print over this book. However, if you’re looking for another slightly different list of issues to look for in your writing, go ahead and read this book.

The advice in this one was solid, but sometimes the examples given seemed constructed just for the purpose of this book and were so ridiculous that they didn’t really help me at all.

Also, sometimes the writing exercises at the end of each chapter seemed arbitrary, like someone just thought them up and stuck them in the book without stopping to test whether they were actually helpful. I’d rather have a couple tried-and-true exercises than a bucket of this-seems-like-it-might-work exercises.
Profile Image for Tom M..
Author 1 book2 followers
September 16, 2009
Lukeman's basic message is that any manuscript you send in (unagented) will land in the slush pile where editors are actively seeking reasons to reject it. Your manuscript will not get a "fair reading," in fact, you'll be lucky if it gets read much at all.

The first five pages? You should be so lucky. Editors will scan the first five pages to see if there's too much dialog, too little dialog, too much exposition, too little exposition. If they find Just One Thing they don't like, you're tossed without a second thought and they're on to rejecting the next manuscript in their slush pile.

This isn't to say that Lukeman's book isn't without merit; this is to say that the first long section of the book is pretty depressing for an unpublished author and he rarely seems to offer much in the way of hope. Sure, there are things he suggests you do, but even if you do them, the odds are still so completely against you that even if you do them all it might not help.

Profile Image for Marnanel.
Author 7 books29 followers
December 13, 2012
When you try to sell a book to a publisher, one of the things you send them is the first few pages of your manuscript. This book promises a discussion of how best to present your work to a publisher, but what it actually delivers is a detailed discussion of how to write good prose at a low level: the use of parts of speech, "show, don't tell", euphony, and so on. It makes only a brief attempt to deal with higher-level issues such as plot and characterisation, though the author has a book on those subjects too.

This sort of book is useful in its way; heaven knows there are many would-be writers who need a remedial English lesson. But the problems it addresses affect the entire manuscript, not only the first five pages, and there is not enough of an attempt made to deal with the actual pitfalls specific to submission, such as writing the first five pages in a way that will sell the rest of the book. I was disappointed.
Profile Image for Kendra Griffin.
Author 15 books42 followers
June 24, 2019

Beginner to low intermediate
Format: Examples and exercises
Premise: Reading this book will keep your manuscript from getting rejected
Delivery: A book about common writing mistakes

I was disappointed with this book, but it grew on me.

Lukeman, at the time of writing (2000) is an experienced editor with the credibility to tell his intended readers—aspiring authors—the writing mistakes agents and editors are exhausted by seeing. Lukeman’s premise is that this knowledge will, as the title states, keep writers out of the rejection pile (thus, presumably, in the “acceptance” pile). This is a lofty goal. More authentically, Lukeman’s introduction states his focus is to help readers “learn how to identify and avoid bad writing” (11). This is an accurate, if not optimistic statement about the book’s content, and the text did provide numerous examples of writing pitfalls as well as many handy exercises for improving one’s technique.

The back cover says that “rejection is often a frustrating reality,” for writers of all levels, yet an experienced writer will breeze though this in about an hour looking for useful content, perhaps trying one or two of the exercises before putting the book down. A novice might certainly benefit from the information contained in the book, but anyone who would find the content eye-opening is ironically not yet ready to query.

In addition, with the exception of a few weak attempts on Lukeman’s part to explain that all the problems demonstrated should be avoided in the first five pages of one’s manuscript, there was no tie-in to the title. This is a book about common writing errors, not a book telling an author how to be accepted by an agent. Of the three bullet points on the cover: “Avoid Common Manuscript Errors, Attract the Attention of Agents and Editors, and Take Your Writing to a Higher Level,” only the first is sufficiently addressed. (Although the last point, being so problematically vague, is perhaps up for debate).

Each chapter is structured around a writing topic or problem, such “Adverbs and Adjectives” and presents the problem and then a “solution.” For example, Chapter 2 “Adverbs and Adjectives” presents six problems agents and editors constantly encounter in their manuscript slushpile regarding such parts of speech. Then, a “solution” segment offers four very basic suggestions for improvement. Next, the “examples” section provides examples of poorly written work, in this case, an overuse of modifiers that pegs the aspiring writer as a novice. Lastly, a section of suggested writing exercises ends each chapter.

Here lie the main shortcomings of the book—the “solution” and “examples” sections. The solutions provided are often vague, topical, or anecdotal. And while the examples of poor writing are certainly relevant to the problem, they are hyperbolically bad—at times, laughable. There are occasional examples of “good” writing, but no middle ground that would help an aspiring writer understand how to progress from point A to B. It’s clear Lukeman can identify why he was annoyed as an editor, but with no discussion of the nuances between the “terrible” and the “amazing” passages, and with such topical discussions of so many, many shortcomings (nineteen chapters covered in 170 pages of content), the reader isn’t likely to learn much about how to improve and write “well” beyond merely avoiding the major mistakes. Lukeman seems to feel more comfortable listing the “don’ts” that would get a writer rejected than he is giving sound advice or craft suggestions.

However, after the example sections, Lukeman cuts to writing exercises for each chapter. Some were quite useful, similar to those I assign in college courses; good exercises improve both craft and metacognition (thinking about how we think/write). The problem with a book on writing – any book on writing—is that of course a writer can’t get feedback on the result of their writing exercises. Therefore, this book would function best as a supplement to a novice’s writing critique group or a beginning creative writing class. However, because it’s framed in the negative without much guidance toward positive outcomes, I would use it with great cautiousness for either purpose.

Not surprisingly, as the book progresses, it becomes slightly more complex. I finally became somewhat interested in Chapter 17, “Focus” and Chapter 19, “Pacing.” It was a relief to see these topics addressed; however, the treatment is again so surface-level that I gleaned little. Having said that, the exercises for “Pacing and Progression” are excellent and I would imagine any writer would benefit from them.

"The First Five Pages" is never really about the “first five pages” of a manuscript. I find this to be a bait and switch, since I picked it up looking for advice on how to edit and frame my opening submission to an agent. The book should be titled something more accurate, such as "Pitfalls to Avoid as a Beginning Novelist." In short, this book tells the reader, “don’t write poorly.” I could have guessed that on my own. (Again, I concede that agents and editors likely see such frustrating submissions daily.) A book with this title should provide hard-to-intuit advice on why agents reject manuscripts with otherwise good writing: insider advice about overused premises, framing issues, genre pitfalls, and other industry expectations. Sadly, the content simply does not match the premise. However, the book might be worth buying for the end of chapter exercise alone, which were excellent, practical, and self reflective—better than I’ve seen in most college creative writing texts.

I would recommend this book for new writers with this caveat: if you see your own writing in the examples, don’t despair. Do the exercises and find a friendly critique group, and you will no doubt improve.

For educators, I would consider assigning this as a tangential read along with a less topical, more in-depth book on craft. It would be very useful for helping students see actual samples of poor writing without an educator having to draw anonymously from students’ mistakes.
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
914 reviews302 followers
May 11, 2023
There’s something off about this book, beginning with the extremely low chance of getting one’s book draft looked at by a publisher or agent, let alone getting it published. Lukeman tells his readers to keep the manuscripts coming, even though almost all of them will not be looked at. For those that are, they are unlikely to be selected for publishing.

Then there are the publishing professionals like Lukeman who write books like this, the content of which doesn’t match the title (first five pages), cite the various rules coming out of the same journalism schools (e.g., show don’t tell, “Call me Ishmael” as a hook line), whose opening chapter quotes often don’t match the chapter’s substance, and whose writing here and there makes no sense whatsoever. And, then there is this: If well-known writers have had their manuscripts rejected multiple times before success, as is often referenced, what does that say about the publishing gatekeepers?

Lukeman uses many of the classics to illustrate his points, but I have no idea why “‘Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air’” from Moby Dick is preferable to “just saying ‘we think we know more than we do about spirituality.’” This is a matter of opinion, but I find it hard to envision an oyster viewing the sun through water. The Moby Dick line, and other lines from the classics, I don’t think are limited to the first five pages.

Beyond the first five pages, there is the rest of the story, which decides whether the reader wants to stick with the book. Regarding the rest of the story, I thought Lukeman’s characterization of over-styled works was excellent where, for example, “The writing seems to be not so much about the story or characters as about the writing itself, as if the entire book were merely an arena for the writer to exhibit his talent….The writing is too noticeable; it keeps getting in the way….Ultimately, you feel as if you’re being used as a reader, it becoming apparent that the writing is not meant for you but for the writer himself....Unfortunately, literary writing seems to have become synonymous with ‘showy’ writing, writing that is beautiful but doesn’t tell a story." And then there's this from Lukeman: A style should complement a story, not fight against it. Like a slave, it should always serve the story and never itself.” As to that last sentence, even a non-woke person might scream “ouch.”
Profile Image for Lara Lee.
Author 8 books45 followers
May 19, 2018
The title of this book is only a half-truth. One should take Noah Lukeman's advice and apply it to every page. I loved this book because it takes a lot of information I have read from other books and gives the "why" from his point of view as a literary agent browsing thousands of manuscripts a year. This is not a book about how to write a novel, but instead a book about how to polish a finished work. He does not cover plot or the skeleton of writing a story but focuses on descriptions, hooks, pacing, dialogue, tags, and setting. He also gives helpful activities to practice at the end of each chapter. It is a quick and easy read with lots of constructive advice about the publishing business. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for K.R. Hansen.
152 reviews4 followers
September 8, 2022
I am always on the hunt for great books on craft. I came to this with high hopes -- the author is a literary agent, so that peek behind the wizard curtain interested me.

It was ok. While the book states its for novice and seasoned authors alike, I found the advice pretty basic for anyone with a solid foundation in writing. Sure, we can all use reminders to create a strong opening hook, to cut excessive adjectives and adverbs,m to avoid flat or forced metaphors and similes...all things that most writers know not to do if they've been working the game for awhile.

The examples of what not to do were so over the top and badly portrayed...I had a difficult time believing anyone would send off a manuscript to query with the errors in place he mentioned. I would have preferred a more realistic approach.

That said, while the title states "first five pages" it goes through an entire manuscript top to bottom reminding the author of all the things that need consideration, to strengthen and revise.

I think that writers fresh onto the scene will find the book invaluable. For me, its a one and done read that will find its way onto my craft book shelf and rarely be re-opened.
Profile Image for Holly Davis.
Author 1 book31 followers
August 7, 2018
This book was so helpful to hear about how to improve your manuscript and make agents and editors want it from an actual agent! It was so comprehensive and goes beyond 'the first five pages' to helping you with your whole manuscript. I love how he covers a certain topic, gives examples, and then has writing exercises at the end of each chapter (essentially implementing editing strategies into your current WIP). Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Yolanda Smith.
233 reviews26 followers
March 7, 2019
The title “The First Five Pages” is a bit misleading, but the subtitle, “A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile,” is a more accurate description. I like the fact that the book division is based on level of importance. I disliked the fact that the negative examples were simplistically blatant. They were cheesy enough that I ended up skimming more often than not. Still, the advice and information in the book was solidly helpful.
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