Bucks County Writers Workshop

Poets & Writers Jan-Feb 2000
The First Five Pages


by Noah Lukeman

Don't ever try to contact an editor or agent between 12:30 and 3. They will be lunching with otber editors or agents. Don't contact them before luncb, because they will be settling in for the day. Don't contact them between 3 and 4, because they will be recovering from lunch and returning calls from those who called during lunch. Don't call them after 5 as Hollywood is finally waking up about then, and they are also preparing to leave for the day. So -- if you absolutely must call -- then call at exactly 4:30.

To even talk of presentation in writing is almost offensive, given its insignificance in the context of art. But if we are to be realistic about a literary agent's actual, everyday criteria for rejecting a manuscript, we would be remiss not to discuss it. Consciously or not, it is inevitably the presentation that is evaluated before all else in a manuscript.

It is a shame that small -- and easily preventable -- surface errors can be determinants for an entire book, can prevent you from being taken seriously. On the other hand, these smaller signs may be indicative of a certain broader sensibility. They may signify carelessness, sloppiness, ignorance, or defiance of the industry's standards; that the writer doesn't care enough to do the minimum amount of research to make a manuscript industry-presentable. Often when a writer's presentation is careless, his writing is too.

I remember once, as an agent, receiving a final manuscript from a writer to whom I had offered representation. I had been eagerly awaiting it and was disappointed when it arrived in a substandard format, printed on a dotmatrix printer, hard to read, filled with errors, even pagination mistakes. I asked her to make changes in order to put it into a more presentable form and, to my astonishment, she refused. She said, being low on funds, she had sold her computer to a pawnshop and had not bothered to keep either a disk or hard copy of the manuscript for herself. The copy in my hands -- the one I had been about to discard -- was the only one left in existence! I asked her why, being the veteran writer she was, she had not gone to the effort to put her manuscript into a more presentable format; she said she was aware of the industry's so-called standards but had a disdain for them, a disdain apparently reinforced by the fact that she had somehow managed to sell her first three manuscripts, all of which had been in a similarly sloppy format. I made a rare exception and submitted it as it stood. It didn't sell.

You'll always find writers -- and artists in general -- who have an inherent disdain for "industry standards" advice. They will point to manuscripts that have sold despite their poor condition. We all know these types. They are the actors who get the role without the head shot, the musicians who get the record deal without the demo tape. Don't let them influence you. You'll have enough obstacles as a writer, enough areas in which you can express yourself. Don't let something as petty as formatting prevent you from being taken seriously. Agents and editors don't view someone who shies from standards as unique or unusual. They view him as a nuisance, insensitive to their wishes. Let your creativity be expressed through your writing, not your font.


Before we even get to the writing, it is important to first look at the context in which your manuscript is being judged. Like it or not, a manuscript's being taken seriously depends a great deal on who it is coming from. Stephen King's next novel would be read immediately by an agent; he would hold all calls and read it on the spot. A novel from an unknown writer, on the other hand, may sit in a pile for six months before it is even opened. More important, the agent reads a brand-name novelist's work with an eye for liking it, actively looks for reasons why it's good, and perhaps even blinds himself to its faults; the unknown writer's manuscript, however, will be read by an angry, overworked intern, one hoping to find the tiniest fault so he can get it out of the way and move on to the next five thousand manuscripts. There's not much you can do about not being Stephen King, but there are a few things you can do that may get you into a better pile -- or at least get you a better position within the slush:

1. Devote extensive time to research. The number one reason the aspiring writer gets rejected is because he has approached an agent or editor inappropriate for his work. This sounds obvious, but it amazes me how writers spend years working on their maniscripts but only minutes choosing which agent or editor to approach! In fact, I've never heard of a writer spending as much time researching gents or editors as he did writing is book.

Understandably, it is difficult for a writer to know who may or may not be appropriate. The publishing business is notoriously tight-lipped, and even if you do find the perfect match, this may work against you. Occasionally, precisely because an agent or editor already sold (or bought) a book like yours, he won't want to do another one. Still, an educated guess is better than a blind one. Use any method you can: Check the acknowledgement pages of similar books; cross-reference as many writers' guides as you can; ask anyone who might know. You'd be amazed at what time and effort can produce. And take the pressure off. Instead of feeling like you have to query twenty or thirty agents, narrow your list down to two or three. This way you can home in on the ones you choose with greater attention and care.

2. Let an agent or editor know why you're contacting him specifically. Now that you've done the research, use it. Most writers only go so far as to tell an agent, "I read in such and such a guide that you handle 'fiction' and thus am contacting you." This is the most basic level of research and will not impress an agent. Take it a step further. Use your research and be specific. A better way of catching an agent's eye is to tell him off the bat that you noticed he represented a specific title and that your manuscript is similar. An agent will appreciate that you've gone to the trouble; he will feel the submission is personalized and not part of a mass mailing. In return, he might treat you with personal care. The optimal way to approach, of course, is by referral, although this is not possible for all writers.

I remember once having received a letter from a writer who referenced a literary novel I had agented, boasting how similar his novel was. I was impressed he'd gone to the trouble, and I looked at it right away. But his novel turned out to be a commercial thriller, one that could not possibly have been more different from the novel he'd referenced. He'd obviously found out I'd sold the book but had not bothered to find out if his book was similar at all! So don't refer books just for the sake of it -- only if truly appropriate.

3. Approach agents and editors with care. When most agents receive mail, they look at the return address. If it's a name they don't recognize, it goes on the pile, where it can sit for weeks or months without even being opened. Editors are even more stringent: The vast majority of them turn an unsolicited manuscript back around with a slip saying they won't even consider it without an agent.

There are two things you can do about this. The first is to send only a one-page letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Small envelopes get opened, whereas oversized or overstuffed envelopes tend to get ignored or treated poorly. This partially stems from the fact that those of us who work in the industry are so overburdened with reading that we are terrified at the thought of having to open something of any length. The second is to send your letter by FedEx (or by some other guaranteed signature delivery method) instead of by regular mail. You might spend $11 instead of 33 cents. If it comes by FedEx, someone's forced to sign for it, and thus it usually gets opened on the spot. This doesn't guarantee it will get read -- and the agent or editor may even get annoyed -- but at least he'll be aware of it. And he just might read it with greater care, because he knows you cared enough about it to spend the money. Agents are not as stupid as you think: They know when a writer has gone to great expense to approach them, has researched them carefully and spent money on presentation and delivery. This signals to them that the writer really cares about the work, that he is not showing it to everyone in town; it makes them predisposed to take your manuscript seriously.

How much is your time worth -- $5 an hour? $IO? $20? $100? How many hundreds of hours did you invest in the writing of your book? So, in this light, how much did it cost you to write your manuscript? Probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars! (Not to mention the cost of paper, cartridges, photocopying, stationery, hardware.) Or you can look at it from another perspective: Writers have few expenses compared with other artists. Painters can spend thousands on canvases and paints; musicians spend thousands on equipment and thousands more on recording. What does the writer need? Only his computer (which almost everyone has these days anyway) and his imagination. There are many areas I would not recommend spending on, but this presentation is one I would wholeheartedly recommend. My point is not to advocate the spending of money but to advocate the greater expenditure of personalized care.

You've sent in your query letter and received an invitation from an agent or editor to send in your first five (or ten or fifty) pages. Now let's move on to the presentation itself. Your manuscript may still be read with a prejudiced eye or dismissed altogether. Let's look at a few of the things that can hinder you from getting off the ground:

Your manuscript should be printed on 8 I/2-by-11, standard 20-pound bond white (not high-gloss) paper. Text should appear on only one side of the page. You will be stigmatized as amateur if the paper is stained, torn, or in any way defaced; if it is three-hole punched and/or bound in any way (screenwriters-turned-novelists often fall prey to this error, as this is the norm for screenplays -- but not for book publishing); if the paper is legal size (or some other odd size); if the paper is colored (including off-white) or grained; if it is too thin (such as onionskin) or too thick (such as resume paper). Finally, most commonly, if it is worn. Agents and editors are very sensitive to this; they look for even the slightest slip that someone has already read it. Often a manuscript comes in that is presentable in every way and is even clean and new looking, but we can still spot tiny, tiny folds in the corners (or somewhere else along the borders), which indicate it has been read before (and usually thus rejected). We are suddenly predisposed against it. Just like that. Your years of hard work tainted because of such a minor thing.

I remember once receiving a terribly worn manuscript, covered in stains and so brittle the pages actually made noise when I turned them. I was shocked a writer could be so careless and was about to reject it when I spotted a small Post-it in the corner apologizing for its condition and attributing it to the fact that he, the writer, was currently in prison and thus unable to make new copies. So there are exceptions, and we must not take ourselves too seriously in the publishing business, must stray from our principles from time to time. And of course predisposed does not mean predetermined, and I have offered representation to the worn manuscript. But why hurt your odds if you can help it?

Your text should be printed in black ink, in a I2-point-type font. A few things that may hurt you: if your font is too large (it will look abnormal) or too small (worse, it will be hard to read; the last thing you want to give to someone overburdened with reading). Since the 12-point font size differs from machine to machine, if you're unsure of the size, always err on the side of making your font too large. Other things that may count against you: if you use different fonts (some writers do this for emphasis, but it only makes it harder to read); if your manuscript is filled with bold, underlined, capitalized, and italicized fonts (this is enough to drive an agent crazy! One look at a manuscript like this and it won't even be read); if your manuscript has fully justified margins and crop marks, as if about to be sent to the printer; if your font is too light, too dark, or printed on a dying cartridge; if your manuscript is printed on a dot-matrix printer. Most writers these days use ink-jet or laser printers. I would strongly recommend investing in a laser printer-the ink-jet is quickly becoming as second-class as dot-matrix used to be, and laser printers these days can be purchased for only a few hundred dollars.

Your manuscript should be double spaced, with one-inch margins all around the page. New paragraphs should be indented, as should dialogue. I would recommend starting halfway down the page whenever you begin a new chapter (these half pages give the illusion of turning pages quickly). A few things that will signal the amateur: if the manuscript is either single-, one and-a-half-, or more than double spaced; if there is a line break between paragraphs (a common malady); if your margins are less or more than one inch in any direction (although it bothers many publishing professionals, I personally don't mind if margins are a little bit bigger; again, it just makes it easier to read); if your paragraphs or dialogue are not indented, or are indented at less (or more) than the normal tab key.

You have no idea what a difference it makes for an overread agent or editor to receive a beautiful-looking manuscript, printed cleanly on a laser printer, in a nice, easy-to-read font, with plenty of spacing. I can't tell you how many times I've put off reading a manuscript simply because visually it was too hard to read.

Finally, there are several flourishes that can signal an amateur: if you include artwork or illustrations throughout the pages (If you truly want specific artwork or illustrations in the final book then, after your book is sold, show them to the editor; often, publishers use their own illustrators anyway and will not want yours); if you put on the first or title page what "rights" you're offering. (Most writers don't know anything about rights, they just stamp this on because it sounds fancy. The time to talk about rights -- except in a very few cases -- is after an agent or editor has said he wants your manuscript.) Then there is what I call the "paranoid" manuscript, with "Copyright" or "@" or "Confidential" stamped on every page. Legitimate agents and editors are not going to steal your ideas; they have enough to worry about. As a writer myself, I'm never worried about an agent or editor stealing my idea, because just stealing it won't get them anywhere. They still have to convince a publisher. And that's not easy!

Even if the formatting is perfect, there are other odds and ends that can cause a preliminary dismissal. Perhaps the single biggest one is the question mark. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is misused, especially when it appears early and often. Usually finding one of these is enough to dismiss a manuscript (not to mention a manuscript filled with them). The same holds true for the exclamation point. To a lesser degree, the same holds true for the parentheses, although, since more easily fixed, this is really only a problem if severely overused.

There are also textual odds and ends that might not necessarily signal an amateur but that can put off a reader immediately. These include affectations, such as the abundant use of foreign words or phrases, or the inappropriate use of fancy words; crude or vulgar language or images; graphic blood and sex; and most commonly, the cliche. I can't tell you how many manuscripts either open with cliches or have one on their first page. This is almost always a sure indicator of a commonplace sensibility and will thus lead to instant rejection.

copyright 2000 by Noah Lukeman. Published by Fireside Books.