In a few of my editing classes, we had to read The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Though the book, I have, came out in 2000, much of it is relevant today.
The book helps the author tune up their manuscript to ready it for submission to an agent. The book helps those seeking to publish the traditional route. The book also helps writers seeking an editor, self-publishing/editing, or publishing for an anthology.
This is what I found necessary for everyone, no matter what route you take.
Don’t misuse or overuse your adjectives and adverbs.
Too many adjectives and/or adverbs can distract the reader. By the time they get to the noun or verb, they have forgotten what they were reading.
Don’t underestimate your readers. Leave room for their imagination to run wild. You want the readers to engage with the story, not close the book and throw it aside.
Using adjectives and adverbs often weakens the story. You want the noun or the verb to stand on its own.
The overuse of commas when using adjectives and adverbs slows the pacing. A great story is a good mixture of slow and fast pace paragraphs.
Noah Lukeman suggests the writer review their work. For you to remove all but one adjective or adverbs from the noun or verb sentence.
Example: “… cool, wet, dark, and windy day.”
We have too many words, so it is best to use one, but which one? It all depends on the story. What comes before it or after it? Use the word your reader doesn’t know by the previous sentences, paragraphs, or chapters.
The adjectives and adverbs we have left, how many can you replace with unusual ones?
Where in your manuscript, can you change your nouns and verbs to stronger ones? Strengthening them will remove the unneeded adjective or adverb. Example: “He walks slowly,” can transform into, “He tiptoes.”
Another suggestion from the book is to use a comparison. Example: “She was nice and kind to everyone she met.” You can say, “She was sweet as sugar to everyone she met.” Don’t do this too much. Readers will get tired of reading the word “like” or “as” all the time. If you describe the person with character description, what can you use to shorten it? Instead of describing the characteristics of a weasel, say, “He looked like a Long-tailed Weasel.”
As a new writer, you may not notice the ‘sound’ of your words.
If you are a poet, you know how words can sing. But, as a new fiction writer, we can miss it. By English standards, the sentences you write are correct, but it may not ‘sound’ right. Noah Lukeman suggests a writer should read poetry. Reading a poem will help the writer understand the ‘sound’ a word, or a string of words can create.
His other suggestions for improving ‘sound’ are:
Improve how you construct the sentences. The idea is for the reader to understand what you wrote. You don’t want them to reread it several times to comprehend what you wrote. Besides a poor choice in words, punctuation plays a part in a poorly constructed sentence.
How can a writer improve? One way is to master punctuation. Learn what the comma, semicolon, and the rest do. Another way is to see what you can cut from your manuscript. Yes, that word again, cut. Cut anything that is repetitious that does not add to the story. The other way is to simplify. Leave the complexity writing to academic writing and journals.
The book goes into the type of style and how it can be the downfall of the writer.
Noah Lukeman states a style can be “… archaic (historical fiction), florid (romance fiction), minimalist (Gen-X authors, like me), academic (professors), or clipped/protracted (experimentalist).” Which one do you fall into?
Style differs with writers, but can our style hurt us? Yes, it can.
Readers will close the book if the style is not constant or misused. If your alpha and beta readers, and editor, are calling the style into question, then it is hurting you. A fiction writer wants the reader to become engrossed in the story. If the style is not making that happen, then it is the style you must work on.
Review the manuscript to see where you can remove the words or strengthen them. Use the information from your readers to improve your writing. We, as writers, are too close to our stories. That is why we have the alpha and beta readers, and editors as an extra pair of eyes to see what we missed. Remember, we are human and not perfect.
Dialogue, too much or not enough? Is there a happy medium? Yes, there is.
Use your dialogue tags. As Noah Lukeman said, “… as quietly as possible…” That raises a question, can you use variations? Yes, you can. You can use words like whispered, giggled, or shouted. You can add in body language. Example: “she shouted as she dashed toward the door.”
Many writers get in the flow of their dialogue, which can leave the reader gasping for air.
By breaking up a long dialogue, the writer gives the reader time to catch their breath and absorb what is going on. Read your story and pay attention to your breath. Where are you running out of breath at? You may want to slow it down.
Another dialogue problem is small talk, or as Noah Lukeman calls it, “commonplace.” It is the “Hi, how are you doing?” Or, “How about those Mets?” These are empty words filling up important space. They add nothing to the story.
Yes, it is realistic to say those things. But, if you are a reader, the small talk slows you down. You want to get to the critical part, where the action is. If you notice in the movies and television shows you watch, and in the books you read, they cut out the small talk.
If you use dialogue to provide information, you must think first, “Do people say this stuff in real life?” If not, find another way to convey through the narration. Show the reader what is happening instead of telling them.
Watch for drama in your dialogue. Noah Lukeman calls this, “Hollywood.” It is an over dramatization of dialogue. A good example is someone trying too hard to fit in. A parent who is trying to be too hip, too, with it. Plus, it’s hard to follow. If the dialogue you use is not said in real life, don’t use it.
Use slang and dialect words in the right places at the right times. Overusing them can have the reader throwing the book across the room. If you write a book with a Southern Twang to it for the entire world to read, it will not sell. Keep it simple, so everyone can understand.
When I got to chapter eleven, I found the right words to convey to my writers at Coffee House Writers.
It is an old cliché, but it still works, and everyone can understand it. “Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.” Use actions or events in place of informational description, but leave a lure of mystery.
I only touched upon what Mr. Lukeman wrote. He has much information tucked inside the 207-page book. A must-have book for both writers and editors.
Have you read the book? What did you take from it?
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