The First Five Pages is an excellent primer for a beginning writer, one of the best of its type. Lukeman walks the reader, in clear and direct prose, down a garden path of practical examples and exercises to solve the most common writing problems that beginning writers face.
A literary agent by trade, Lukeman frames his advice in professional terms: if you find your work being rejected by publishers because of your writing, then Lukeman’s book will explain why, and explain how you can avoid this.
If you are a professional/publishing writer, the book is just a refresher. I would like to walk down the garden path and find an executioner at its end, or find that it has turned into a hedge maze, and die trying to find my way out. Lukeman’s book does not address a writer like myself, so cannot be faulted. However, it does indicate a basic problem with the how-to-write industry that publishes books like Lukeman’s — where is the book I can read next? So few of these books recommend themselves beyond the beginner’s level, despite claims to the contrary.
“Whether you are a novice writer or a veteran who has already had your work publishing, rejection is often a frustrating reality,” reads the back cover. Sure. But what can a veteran gain from this book? I gained some writing exercises I can recommend to students or use in my classes, and a possible textbook/book to recommend, so I was happy to discover this book. I wouldn’t say I learned anything, though.
All that said: I like this book enough to recommend it and assign it as a textbook. It is one of the best of its kind. If you are having serious problems getting your work published, read this book.
Possibly, (probably,) your problems are superficial, or substantial but common problems that plague novice writers. The back cover also proclaims that “If you’re tired of rejection, this is the book for you.” I second that emotion.
The reason that Lukeman’s book towers above similar books is that his focus is so narrow. How do you get an editor to read past the first five pages? In reality, as Lukeman notes, you would be lucky to have an editor read that far. (This often shocks writers, but having been an editor and knowing many editors, I assure you Lukeman is right.)
Let’s run down some of the pros and cons of this book:
- The use of the masculine, to refer to both men and women.
This may seem like a minor point, but I consider it a major issue. Why not use the feminine to refer to both men and women? In my experience, most student/emerging writers are women. Regardless, I don’t see why anybody finds it confusing to switch from he to she throughout a book. This seems like an unexamined assumption, and even if it is true, the obvious solutions to the overwhelming use of the “generic” masculine is to use a “generic” feminine or simply switch between he/she every chapter or section.
Later on, Lukeman writes:
Despite popular conviction, a writer needn’t wear black, be unshaven, sickly and parade around New York’s East Village spewing aphorisms and scaring children. You don’t need to be a dead white male with a three-piece suit, noble countenance, smoking pipe and curling mustach[e].
Yes. So, you don’t need to be called he. I find the inclusion of both you don’t need to be male to be a writer and the constant use of he bizarre — especially in its unremarkable conformity across many of these books on writing, often prefaced with disclaimers that he also means she.
- Inclusion of a rejection letter from a Chinese publisher to Louis Zukofsky (rejecting “A”).
This is the epigraph to Lukeman’s book and is the only reason I made it to page five (having just read the disclaimer about the masculine on the facing page). It’s delightful:
Most honourable Sir,
We perused your MS.
with boundless delight. And
we hurry to swear by our ancestors
we have never read any other
that equals its mastery.
Were we to publish your work,
we could never presume again on
our public and name
to print books of a standard
not up to yours.
For we cannot imagine
that the next ten thousand years
will offer its ecotype.
We must therefore refuse
your work that shines as it were in the sky
and beg you a thousand times
to pardon our fault
which impairs but our own officers.
- Lukeman is not overly prescriptive.
He follows that epigraph with the following:
Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great.
So why the book? Well,
There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.
Lukeman starts from the right point, it seems to me. And the book, as a whole and as promised, performs surgical airstrikes on the common root causes of bad writing. (We could have a conversation about why what we consider bad writing would be considered good in another time and place — and maybe should. Lukeman’s book does not participate in that conversation, nor should it.)
This spells death for more complex issues, but when it comes to these simple problems that simply plague poor writers, the best cure is swallowing a system. His categories of error make sense, he focuses a large part of the book on dialogue, and he eventually delves deeper into some structural problems (at a basic level) after focusing on stylistic problems.
Although I think writers should work the other way — address structural problems before stylistic issues — Lukeman is looking at things from the perspective of a reader (the agent or editor) and explaining to writers, in sequence, the things that will kill their chances at due consideration.
- The structure of the book is elegant, simple, and smart.
As a former editor — I have run literary journals (I even founded one) and ran a micropress — I appreciate how Lukeman has organized the book. He starts with the first thing that will get your manuscript thrown into the trash, then addresses the second thing, and so on.
Writers frustrated with rejection would do well to think through how a professional reader views their manuscript — Lukeman’s approach reveals this, and even if you learn nothing else, you will learn how editors look at your manuscript.
- The book is useful to editors, who are not writers.
As an editor, you need to know more than this. But if you are a budding editor, rather than a budding writer (I believe a writer needs to be both), this is also the book for you.