Monday, July 19, 2010

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Would you rather have an avuncular, didactic writer who walked you through the editing process, or would you prefer the guidance of an impatient, help-us-editors-not-waste-our-time author? Noah Lukeman, an agent, comes much closer to the second voice in The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (New York, 2007; 207 pp.).

It’s a book about editing a manuscript, not about starting from a blank computer screen. And it’s not a book that unveils a ten-point plan to guarantee publication. As the subtitle says, it’s about avoiding rejection: “There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing” (11). Lukeman goes through some of the more egregious faults, starting with presentation and hustling all the way to pacing and progression. Some faults, things you may have been doing unthinkingly and insist on being harmless, are cardinal sins that an editor or agent will notice in a matter of seconds and toss the manuscript into the bin. After all, editors are not reading for pleasure: “they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript” (13). Lukeman shows how to avoid making that too easy for them. (Because they read too much, says Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist, editors “become hyper-critical, gun-shy, cynical” [101].)

The author built The First Five Pages by compiling a list of common mistakes he’s encountered after years of working as an agent. Each chapter presents a general discussion of one of those problems, followed by proposed solutions, some examples, and exercises. Unlike Browne and King’s book on self-editing, most examples here are forged to illustrate a point. That generally turns them into extreme cases, but they are useful to make a particular problem palpable. Besides, no background explanations need to be provided, and supplying those often slowed down Browne and King.

A few of the end-of-chapter exercises are helpful. Some specific ideas are too. There is a long discussion of dialogue that, as always happens after reading these books, broadens the list of things to look out for (or to flout consciously as opposed to carelessly).

One chapter in particular is outstanding. That is chapter 2, called “Adjectives and Adverbs.” The earlier a chapter appears in the book, the more its problems make the manuscript easy to reject. Hence, misused adjectives and adverbs jump off the page for an editor, mark the author as an amateur, and condemn the work to rejection. I recommend that chapter above all. Plenty of other books flag adjectives and adverbs as problematic. But the pithy discussion here, and especially the end-of-chapter exercises, help diagnose and treat the problem with stunning precision and efficacy. If you’re thinking about buying this book, read (and implement) chapter 2 and judge for yourself.

I’ve mentioned before (here, for instance) how skeletal plots and the tepid exaltation of the mundane have become of one of the standard forms assumed by workshopped fiction. I’ve mentioned before (here, for instance) how skeletal plots and the tepid exaltation of the mundane have become of one of the standard forms assumed by workshopped fiction. I’ll conclude this note with two quotations that are a salutary complement to that discussion: “Unfortunately, these days, ‘literary’ writing seems to have become synonymous with ‘showy’ writing, writing that is beautiful but doesn’t tell a story. This is a misguided trend” (67); “the single biggest mistake modern-day M.F.A. writers make is to presume that the modern-day reader is interested, above all else, in realism, interested in mundane, everyday dialogue from the East Village that doesn’t go anywhere or serve any greater purpose” (92). Despite these sane comments on plot, Lukeman doesn’t discuss plot in this book. He does it in another, equally helpful volume, which I’ll describe later. This triad of notes about books on self-editing will close with my favorite: Revision.

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