The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

I can tell you what’s wrong with the first five pages of Noah Lukeman’s THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Actually, it goes wrong at the first sentence. “Most people are against books on writing on principle.” One has only to walk into any bookstore and gaze at the vast shelves of writer’s how-to books to see that Lukeman is incorrect.

But getting things right isn’t the point of Lukeman’s book. He’s more interested in complaining. He’s been a successful literary agent for years, but any writer can query any agent, so Lukeman has seen it all. The premise of THE FIRST FIVE PAGES is that he can judge the quality of an entire book by reading just the opening pages. I’ve no doubt this is true. I also admire his goal. He wants writers everywhere to stop making mistakes so obvious that they can be spotted in such a small sample. However, if this book is his remedy, I doubt he will achieve his goal any time soon.

It must be frustrating to watch writers make the same bonehead mistakes over and over. The problem is, those boneheads aren’t the audience for this book. Writers who buy how-to books are serious about the craft. We are investing time and money trying to improve. We don’t deserve to be bitch-slapped for daring to write an awkward sentence, and we certainly don’t deserve to be talked down to.

From the first page: “By scrutinizing the following examples of what not to do, you will learn to spot these ailments in your own writing; by working with the solutions and exercises, you may, over time, bridge the gap and come to a realization of what to do. There is no guarantee that you will come to this realization…” Clearly, Lukeman is not holding out much hope for us.

Lukeman has a set of criteria that he looks for in a manuscript, and has arranged his chapters accordingly. He first looks at presentation and formatting. If that’s okay, he next looks for excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. If he doesn’t see too many, he looks at the voice, and so on. At no time is he looking for a good story well told. He is only looking for reasons to dismiss. He freely admits that agents want to reject manuscripts. Why? Is it so they can get to the good stuff sooner? No. They reject manuscripts as quickly as possible to reduce their workload.

In the end, even if I could find useful material in this book, I couldn’t get past the tone. The entire book is a 200 page rant. Advice, when he gives it, is so basic as to be useless (cut adverbs, don’t use clichés, format your manuscript correctly, etc.). The examples and writing exercises are downright insulting. Nobody who buys this book writes this badly. I understand that he is exaggerating to make a point, but the result is–again–one learns what not to do without ever learning the correct way to do it.

“How not to get rejected” is a far cry from “how to write a good novel” and Lukeman never attempts to move from one to the other. If you want people to stop writing badly, complaining will not work. The only way to keep people from writing badly is by teaching them to write well. Lukeman never does. I suspect he can’t.

With so many other books on my shelf that actually show me what to do, I am sorry I wasted my time on one that does not.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend you read Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or Hooked by Les Edgerton instead of this book.

10 thoughts on “The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

  1. Thanks! I’m new to this whole world of writing, but I’m not an idiot. I don’t appreciate being talked AT, written AT, as though I was, so it’s good to be forewarned about such books and authors. My first thought was along the lines of “So he’s perhaps a good agent, but not a good writer”. After reading further though, I suspect he’s not a very good agent either.

    • So true. I would not like to be a client of Mr. Lukeman.

      You know who is both a good agent and a good writer? Donald Maass. his Writing the Breakout Novel made me the writer I am today.

  2. Great post. It’s been years since I picked up this book, but I won’t be revisiting it anytime soon. Not with all the other awesome how-to’s out there. See above: Maass, Donald. 🙂

  3. I read this book a very long time ago, back when I was still in college and taking creative writing courses. I don’t remember very much about it except that I found it useless, mostly because I didn’t do any of the things the author said were bad.

  4. I read the book a while back. I didn’t find it at par with a lot of others, but there was some meat in there. I do agree with the tone and the way the book is structured. But, at the end of the day it’s very difficult to look for a full story in just 5 pages, especially in a very long book. I think the point here was how to work those first five pages in such a way that you make the agent want to read more and then discover the book. It’s almost like how to put make up on the first date. It won’t teach you how to be a better person and hold on to a relationship, but it will, perhaps, get you a second and third date… From that perspective, I think the book provides some help.

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