There’s a terrific book that I often recommend to young writers—The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Mr. Lukeman is a long-time agent, editor, and publisher. The thrust of his counsel is this:

You gotta come outa the blocks FAST

Most agents and editors make up their minds about submissions within the first five pages. If they spot a single amateur mistake (excess adjectives, “your” instead of “you’re,” “it’s” instead of “its”), your manuscript goes straight into the trash.

Grind on those first five pages, says Mr. Lukeman. Make certain they are flawless.

I would go further. The make-or-break page, to my mind, is Page One. Even more critical: Paragraph One.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …

The first paragraph, the first sentence is do-or-die. It has to be more than just free of error. It has to kick ass.

All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Those two opening sentences are from A Tale of Two Cities and Anna Karenina. I’ve abbreviated them to show that they still work, even when they’re cut off. A great opening can hook a reader in as few as three words.

Call me Ishmael.

Nor does a riveting opening have to be particularly literary, or display masterful erudition, or inform the reader that the hero of the tale has just woken up to discover that he has been turned overnight into a cockroach.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

I think of Page One as a battlefield or a stage for seduction. The contest is between the writer and the reader.

We have to win that battle, you and I, and we have to win it fast. We have to complete this seduction by Paragraph One, and certainly no later that Paragraph Two.

Here’s one trick. Start at the very beginning of your book and read down till you get to a sentence, or a run of sentences, that possess genuine magic. Then look back at the sentences that precede them. Can these sentences be cut? Cut them!

The legend is that Maxwell Perkins convinced Ernest Hemingway to get rid of the first two chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Not sentences or paragraphs. Chapters. He cut them till he got to this, at the start of what was originally Chapter Three.

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed with that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing; in fact he disliked it. But he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing that he could knock down anyone who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym.

Never take the reader’s attention for granted. We have to earn it, you and I, and that ain’t easy. What we want is for the reader to stop resisting. She must trust us. She must believe us. She must surrender to us.

If you can do that in the first paragraph or the first page, there’s a good chance she’ll hang on for the whole E-ticket ride.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

7 Comments

  1. David Hughes on April 3, 2019 at 3:18 am

    I’ve always loved the opening line from the seminal Neuromancer by William Gibson:

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    Fantastic…

  2. Jason Montoya on April 3, 2019 at 5:56 am

    Great feedback, and thanks for sharing. The first chapter in my first book (for freelancers) was in line with this advice. It’s also not just about the agent, but the reader as well.

    As I’m working on finishing my second book, I’ll be keeping this advice top of mind. Here are my first three sentences on it now.

    “Bang! That was me hitting the invisible ceiling with my established small marketing company. We grew each year until finally, I hit my limit.”

  3. Mary Doyle on April 3, 2019 at 6:51 am

    Thanks for recommending this book. I bought it a few years ago, either on your recommendation or on Shawn’s – can’t remember which, but every writer should add it to their library!

  4. Joe Jansen on April 3, 2019 at 8:28 am

    Agreed. As readers, we can usually tell by the first line. Elmore Leonard knew what he was doing:

    “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.” — Freaky Deaky

    “One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.” — Gold Coast

    “The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” — Glitz

    And then of course from your Last of the Amazons:

    “When I was a girl I had a nurse who was a tame Amazon.”

    or The Profession:

    “My most ancient memory is of a battlefield. I don’t know where. Asia maybe. North Africa. A plain between the hills and the sea.”

    Many great examples.

  5. Sean Crawford on April 3, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    In a way, this advice is a means to an end: By working hard on my first five pages I learn the skills that I carry into all my other pages. Equally important, I learn the habit of mind that marks “turning pro.”

    And then it motivates and amuses me to edit the rest first, and then my first pages last.

  6. Steve Zen on April 4, 2019 at 7:50 pm

    Great advice. We want to build our story- the whole while taking the readers attention span for granted. Sixty second commercials on television went to 30 and then 10 seconds for a reason.

  7. Monike Seaux-Briquet Mcallony on April 7, 2019 at 2:04 am

    To begin a love story, maybe that sonnet from Shakespeare,
    In what the story teller had a paper notebook with the story written,
    Then thinks better waste the papers away,
    And just remembers the story by memory.

    Your gift, your tables, are within my mind
    Full characterd with lasting memory,
    Which shall above that ol’paper enlight,
    Beyond all date, ev’n to eternity,
    Or at the least, so long as mind and heart,
    Have faculty by nature to subsist,
    Faculty as heart’n’mind to be smart,
    Of you, your record never can be missed,
    That poor pile o’paper could not so much retain,
    Nor need I write your dear love to lines,

    Therefore to give them, book free was I again,
    To trust these dreams that remember you kindly,

    To read painting splashes to remember you,
    Would may imply forgetfulness in me
      

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