Monday, February 22, 2010

The First Five Pages

The First Five Pages:

A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile

by Noah Lukeman

Fireside Books/Simon & Schuster, 2000

Reviewed by Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore

See a submission through an agent's eyes as Noah Lukeman takes you down the list of failings that will quickly earn your work a rejection letter. At the head of the list is the obvious -- errors in presentation such as single spacing. Next the agent scans for overuse of adjectives and adverbs, for poor sentence construction, for writing that seems forced or too noticeable -- writing that gets in the way of the story.

Then comes the dialogue. Lukeman writes: "… dialogue is generally looked at second by publishing professionals, for confirmation. If, at a quick glance, our initial impression of a manuscript is that it suffers from one of the preliminary problems, we then look to the dialogue; if it, too, is poor, we needn't look any further. In this way, an evaluation of a … manuscript can sometimes take less than five seconds."

If your work makes it past a surface glance, it then will be examined for such factors as viewpoint and narration, characterization, subtlety, tone, pacing and progression. Despite the book's title, Lukeman takes his discussion well beyond "the first five pages." He offers a workshop's worth of advice (with exercises) on showing versus telling, hooking the reader with powerful first lines, bringing settings to life, and having your characters interact with the settings.

Lukeman, a New York literary agent, represents bestselling authors and American Book Award winners. Reading The First Five Pages is like looking over his shoulder as he tackles the slush pile in his office, "solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript."

But at the same time, like any agent or editor, he's looking for the 1% of his unsolicited manuscripts that deserve to be read beyond the first five pages -- that deserve serious consideration. Heeding the advice in this highly recommended book will help you get your submissions into that 1%.

To learn more about this book, visit Lukeman's website at

Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore can be found at New in paperback is Trail Fever: The Life of a Texas Cowboy, by D.J. Lightfoot (Deborah's nom de guerre) for readers 9 and up.

[Reprinted from the SCBWI Bulletin, May-June 2005]

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Adjectives and Adverbs

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs," says Stephen King in his excellent book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

It took me a while to understand that adverbs and adjectives are methods of telling, not showing. Oh, I'd been warned away from adverbs since high school or before. In my writing I've always favored strong verbs over weak-verb-plus-adverb combinations: race or sprint, not "run quickly."

But as I made the transition from nonfiction and began writing novels, I somehow got it into my head that unusual or quirky adjectives would add layers of meaning and color to my nouns. I wasted too much time digging through thesauri and even crossword puzzle dictionaries looking for nifty adjectives that writers before me had seldom dared to use:

rubicund, benignant, recondite, brumous ...

Well, maybe not these exactly, but you get the idea. For a while I was pleased with myself for taking the time to find exactly the right adjective to describe to the nth degree precisely what I wanted the reader to know about any given noun.

Then it came time to read my fiction aloud. Thank heavens I read my drafts out loud to myself before taking them to my critique group. Scritch, scritch, scritch -- my red pen stayed busy striking through all those distracting, unnecessary adjectives.

The experience taught me that nouns and verbs show, but adjectives and adverbs tell. In any sentence, it's preferable to use a solid, precise noun and a vigorous, precise verb. Tack on the modifiers only if they're really, truly needed.

Don't write: "The cat, predominantly white with red and black patches, snuck up on the green and gray bird."

Write: "The calico stalked the parakeet."

Noah Lukeman devotes chapter 2 of The First Five Pages (Fireside, 2000) to adjectives and adverbs. Lukeman says: "Most people who come to writing for the first time think they bring their nouns and verbs to life by piling on adjectives and adverbs, that by describing a day as being 'hot, dry, bright and dusty' they make it more vivid. Almost always the opposite is true ... Adjectives and adverbs often, ironically, weaken their subjects. It is as if the writer were saying to the reader, 'This noun (or verb) is not strong enough to stand on its own, so I will modify it (or build it up) with a few adjectives (or adverbs)."

Overusing adjectives was a passing phase in my fiction-writing career. Now with every read-through of a manuscript, I'm ruthless about cutting the modifiers. Keeping in mind that "Less is more," I search for any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that I can cut.

"In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style." —Sydney Smith, Lady Holland's Memoir (1855)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My New Nook e-Reader

For Christmas 2009, I got a Barnes & Noble "Nook" e-reader. I love almost everything about it:

  • Being able to enlarge the type as big as I want.
  • Getting lots of books for free.
  • Getting lots of books for under $10 -- quite a few for $5 or less.
  • Carrying a whole library around in the size of a single volume.
  • Reading off a screen that ISN'T backlit -- a wonderful break from my computer screen.
  • Turning pages easily (never having two pages stick together).
  • Buying books instantly, avoiding the drive into town to shop at the store and never again having to wait for an online order to arrive.
  • Being able to side-load my own stuff onto the Nook's memory card.

About the only thing I don't like is the balky touchscreen. When I first got my Nook, I could hardly work the touchscreen at all. Over time, however, I'm managing it better. I don't know whether the screen has gotten broken in, so to speak, or whether I'm just perfecting my technique for navigating it. I was probably poking it too forcefully at first. It seems to respond better to a lighter touch.

I've read that the iPod touchscreen has trained its users to expect an instantaneous response. The Nook's touchscreen doesn't respond instantly. But I'm not bothered by the slight lag, since I don't own an iPod.

Anyway, it's seldom necessary to use the Nook's touchscreen. While reading a book, the only controls I use are the page-forward and page-back buttons. The touchscreen only comes into play, for me, when it's time to load up a new book.

Ease of Reading on the Nook

My Nook came with a cover, which opens book-like and contributes to the sense that one is simply reading a book. My husband, the first time he settled down to read an e-book, found himself reaching for a bookmark to slip in before he closed the Nook's cover. In very short order, he had completely acclimated. As I have. I find virtually no difference between reading on paper and reading on the Nook, except that reading on the Nook is physically easier.

For example, I enjoy the classics, but oftentimes I end up with a cheap paperback that has the type running almost into the gutter. To read the thing requires breaking the book's spine, bending the two halves of it backward, forcing it open at the gutter so that I can get at the words which are half hidden between two facing pages.

None of that is necessary with the Nook. Classics have all the white space around their pages that books should have.

It's Not Perfect

Books in the public domain don't get the careful e-presentation that current bestsellers enjoy. If, in scanning, some letters get replaced by random punctuation marks, or the scanner misses whole sentences, there's nobody cleaning up the mistakes. The uncorrected scanning is what you get in the e-book.

But hey! It's free. So I'll just mentally fill in the blanks as required.

I hear predictions that Apple's new tablet computer will render e-readers obsolete. But I don't think so. The tablet computer, after all, is a computer. It has a backlit screen. The Nook's electronic-ink screen, in contrast, looks just like a book page.

I'm quite happy with my Nook and have no plans to buy a tablet computer. Where the heck is the keyboard on a tablet computer, anyhow? A writer's gotta have a keyboard!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finding a Literary Agent

A relative of mine who aspires to write for publication -- or wider publication -- e-mailed me a question:

"I was researching publishers for another bit I'm working on. Some say they prefer to work with literary agents. Can you make any suggestions here? I'll read up on it in my SCBWI manual, but I'd sure appreciate your insight. I don't know anything about agents (aside from that crooked modeling agent I had, years ago)."

This writer will soon learn what those of us who have been in the business for a while have come to understand only too well: Many if not most of the major publishing houses are closed to unagented submissions. The editors who have spoken about this at the conferences I've attended say it has become necessary to slam the door on over-the-transom submissions as a defense against the slush piles that have grown to unmanageable heights. With ever-fewer editors receiving manuscripts from what seems to be an ever-growing pool of hopefuls, they simply cannot handle the flood.

Enter the agent, who has become the gatekeeper for the gatekeepers. A manuscript must first pass muster with an agent. If an agent deems it publishable, then it will get passed along to editors who may or may not share the agent's opinion.

Finding an agent -- not just any agent, but the one that's right for you -- is no easy task. At the 2010 Austin SCBWI conference, one agent told of receiving something like 18,000 queries a year -- of which he might possibly accept four.

For the benefit of my relative who's looking, and anyone else who needs a place to start, I'll list some considerations and sources:

1. Find a Reputable Agent, not a scam artist

Check out Preditors & Editors: Literary Agents, Association of Authors' Representatives, Agent Query, Harold Underdown's Purple Crayon.

2. Write a Good Query

Of those 18,000 or so queries mentioned above, most were so poorly written that the agent could tell at a glance that the writer was not serious. To see how to write a query letter, study Nathan Bransford's Query Letter Mad Lib and Anatomy of a Good Query Letter.

3. Contact Junior Agents or Hungry New Agents

They need clients. Well-established agents don't have time for you.

This barely scratches the surface. Two minutes of googling "Literary agents" will turn up an inexhaustible list of resources. But maybe this will get you started.

I Swear

I've been postponing this blog thing. I have a hard time even keeping up with my e-mail, so the thought of having yet another kind of communication to sustain is daunting. But at every writers' conference I attend, I'm told: "Blog!"

An agent who spoke at the Austin SCBWI conference in January said that the best blogs give people information. And I'm an information junkie. I'm always collecting it -- tearing articles out of magazines (yes, I actually subscribe to ink-on-paper mags); quoting the best bits I read and hear; even passing along catalogs (like the wonderfully offbeat Thinkgeek catalog) and recommending my favorite sources of essential writerly supplies (Lasermonks, for one).

So maybe this blog thing won't be a bad fit after all. Instead of sharing magazine articles, quotes, and catalogs with a "lucky few" friends (I hope they consider themselves to be the beneficiaries of my hunter-gatherer impulses), through a blog I can share stuff with the whole wide world.

For starters, then, I will discuss a piece I tore out of the August 10, 2009, TIME magazine: "Why Swearing Is Good for You." Author Tiffany Sharples says that swearing "can do more than vent frustration: it can actually reduce physical pain." A study in Britain found that test subjects could endure painfully cold water longer while swearing. Repeating "a curse word of their choice" made the ice water feel less intensely painful.

"In swearing," said the study's lead author, "people have an emotional response, and it's the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain."

I tore that article out to pass along to a writer friend who often advises his colleagues to "put more cussing in" our stories. He seems to instinctively appreciate the emotional power of swearing. Of course, for those of us who write middle-grade or young-adult fiction, swearwords can be problematical. Some teachers, librarians, and parents frown on including obscenities in stories aimed at young readers.

In my YA fantasy WATERSPELL, my deuteragonist (the character taking the part of second importance) swears like a sailor, and my protagonist, Carin, can almost match him. Their swearing habits are essential to revealing who these characters are.

To get around the objections that would surely be raised if I used standard American profanity, I've given my characters a different divinity to swear by. They're in a parallel universe, so it makes sense that their holy figures would have different names than the gods do on Earth. Instead of swearing "By God!" it's "By Drisha!" in their world.

Another helpful source of inoffensive profanity comes from old English expressions like "gorblimey," which is a euphemism for "God blind me." My wizard is fond of saying "Drisha blind me!" It makes people wince in his world, since it's such a strong oath to them. But Earthlings are not offended.

In my never-ending quest for good, pain-relieving swearing, I mine sources such as old Irish fairy and folk tales. From them I've gotten such gems as "A thousand murders!" and "My breath and blood!"

Thanks to TIME's Tiffany for giving me even more reasons to collect the best in profanity. My characters get into painful situations that require them to vent via a good outburst of colorful language.