I’ve decided to review my library of hundreds of books of writing advice and put together a list of a small number of top recommendations for your library. I’ll review my favorites and compile a list of the essential works (IMHO) for writers (to be kept on a permanent page of my blog).
I’ll tell why I think a particular book makes the top list.
Here’s the first (in no particular order) likely candidate:
The First Five Pages
A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
by Noah Lukeman (1999, paperback 2005)
To order from Amazon.com, click here.
Focus: Fiction, but with application for nonfiction projects
Audience: Emerging writers
Why I’m recommending this: it delivers lucid, crucial knowledge about writing well. But most of all, it drives home the industry imperative: you must make a (nearly) perfect impression in the first several pages. It’s how the industry works. And as a practical principle, it holds water. If the first 5 pages don’t impress, why would the rest? If you doubt this, pick a favorite book from your bookshelf and read the first 5 pages. Are you impressed?
Let’s face it, many books pitch well. A great several-paragraph pitch to an agent can be written for most projects. A bigger test comes in the first reading at the agency (or publisher). This will be done by a very busy person, one who has an incredible quantity of other works at their fingertips to consider.
So the real value of this work on craft is in combining the issues of craft (found elsewhere) with that filter of always keeping in mind the realities of the business: you need to impress the influential people in the middle (agents, editors) . . . and you need to always remember that all readers are busy, easily distracted, unwilling to part with their hard-earned money and precious time, and that there is a ton of competition easily available. Impress (and do it from the beginning), or readers will turn elsewhere.
Furthermore, learning to please and impress and tempt in the first 5 pages is a skill that can be repeated, once you know how, throughout the book.
In a 2000 interview with Prairie Den, Lukeman summarized the rationale:
. . . [W]riters should worry about their craft before plot. I can’t tell you how many queries I receive where writers emphasize what great stories they have; that may be so, but nevertheless, if the craft isn’t there, if the execution isn’t up to par, it doesn’t matter. It’s like someone who has a great idea for a song, but doesn’t know how to play the piano.
Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction, explaining why 99% of unsolicited manuscripts end up tossed the reject pile:
When most professional literary agents and book editors hear the title of this book, they grab my arm, look me in the eyes and say, Thank you. I can see their pent-up frustration at wanting to say so many things to so many writers and simply not having the time. I’ve come to understand this frustration over the last few years as I’ve read thousands of manuscripts, all unbelievably with the exact same type of mistakes. From Texas to Oklahoma to California to England to Turkey to Japan, writers are doing the exact same things wrong.
While evaluating more than ten thousand manuscripts in the last few years alone, I was able to group these mistakes into categories; eventually, I was able to set forth a definite criteria, an agenda for rejecting manuscripts. This is the core of The First Five Pages: my criteria revealed to you.
Thus, despite its title, this book is not just about the first five pages of your manuscript. . . . It assumes that if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likewise find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come. . . . This book will teach you the step-by-step criteria so that you, too, might develop that acute ear and make instant evaluations. . . .
For the rest of this excerpt, click here:
Author Credentials: Noah Lukeman runs Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, a New York–based literary agency, founded in 1996. His clients include winners and finalists of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, National Book Award, Edgar Award, Pacific Rim Prize, and multiple New York Times bestsellers.