Literary agent Noah Lukeman’s clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees, Pushcart Prize winners and American Book Award recipients. He’s written several popular books for pre-published authors, including How to Land and Keep a Literary Agent and The Plot Thickens.
His how-to book, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Fireside 2000), is an essential tome for every writer’s bookshelf. It not only reminds us that the characteristics of good writing don’t change (picture nouns and action verbs are still in vogue), but includes exercises at the end of each chapter to help newbie writers develop their skills. The tagline–If you’re tired of rejection, this is the book for you–should get the attention of 90% of the writers out there.
I should mention: The book has been updated (February 2010, Oxford University Press), but I haven’t read it so can’t comment on what has been changed. Since Mr. Lukeman remains a respected agent, an in-demand guest speaker and teaches an online course at Writers University, I assume whatever changes he made are great. A personal note to Noah: If you’d like to send the updated book to me, I’ll review it and post my thoughts on Amazon under my Vine credentials.
Here are seventeen tips I found especially useful:
- An idea to get your letter out of the slush pile: if you’re sending a hard copy, Fedex it.
- In formatting your mss, start halfway down the page whenever you begin a new chapter
- 99% of the time, the question mark is misused, especially when it appears early and often (this tip surprised me.)
- When editing your mss, remove all but one adjective and adverb per noun and verb. It can be demeaning to the reader when the writer fills in every last detail for him.
- Occasionally, substitute a comparison (an analogy, simile or metaphor) for an adjective.
- There is a sound to prose. Writing is not just about getting a story across, but how you get there. Solution: Give your mss to a trusted colleague to read for sound only. Another solution: read it aloud.
- The proper use of comparisons (analogies, similes, metaphors) will enable you to cut a tremendous amount of description. Why do you want to cut description? It slows the reader down
- In the vast majority of unsolicited manuscripts, style is misused. What’s that mean? The writing feels forced or exaggerated, the writing is about the writing rather than the story, and/or the writing is too noticeable
- Dialogue is a powerful tool to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment
- “If I skim through a manuscript and see pages and pages filled with dialogue, with no breaks or rests in between, chances are, it’s going to be rejected. Conversely, if I skim through dozens of pages and find not one line of dialogue, chances are, it’s going to be rejected, too.”
- The most common malady is use of dialogue to convey backstory
- Many writers string together lines and lines of dialogue without ever stopping to let the reader know who’s speaking.
- When converting telling to showing, see if there is a way you can leave an element of ambiguity, of mystery, a door open for readers to come to their own conclusions.
- The poor usage of character names may signal an amateur. For example, switching between first and last names or the use of overly exotic names.
- Another distinction between an average writer and a great one: Does the intensity of the hook end with one line? One paragraph? One page?
- What best signals the proficient writer: Subtlety.
- The distinction between sound, style and tone is a subtle one. Sound has to do with the basic construction of the sentence–its flow, its rhythm–and is more of a technical issue. Style also has to do with sentence construction, but has more to do with the intention behind the construction, and thus is an artistic issue. Tone has nothing whatsoever to do with construction or grammar, rather solely to do with intentionality.
A note: Noah sponsors Ask a Literary Agent forum where he takes questions from aspiring writers. Not many, but it’s nice he does this.
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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.