Sunday, July 26, 2009

Do agents really read the first five pages? Or just the first five sentences?

I have purchased your book, The First Five Pages, and found it to be very valuable. I wonder, however, how likely it is that an over-worked literary agent (or editor) would have the time to read those first five pages. I would like to know what you think of making the first five sentences (or paragraphs, if need be) as vital and as impossible to ignore as those five pages?

This is a good question and shows that you are thinking in the right way, since you already realize that an author does not have the luxury of time or space in catching an agent's or editor's attention. Ten years ago, I wrote in the introduction of my book, The First Five Pages, that the title should have really been The First Five Sentences, since most agents will make a determination based upon these. This still holds true. An experienced literary agent can, in most cases, determine an author's writing ability within just a few sentences. Agents have to: if they don't have this ability, there is simply no way they will be able to survive, to sift through the thousands of manuscripts that cross their desk every year.

So, yes, it is vital that your first five sentences be as well written as your first five pages. But don't let this become an excuse to labor over the first five sentences (and the first five pages) and then let the rest of your manuscript fall apart. My point all throughout The First Five Pages was never for an author to merely labor over the first five pages, but rather that these first five pages serve as a microcosm for the rest of the book: if, for example, you overuse adjectives and adverbs in the opening pages, then you likely overuse them throughout the rest of your manuscript. The point was to take a step back, examine and revise your first five pages intensively, then take what you've learned and apply this throughout the rest of your work. The most important lesson you will walk away with is the one of craftsmanship: if you spend an entire month on your opening page, an entire week on your opening paragraph, this will change your work ethic and raise your standards dramatically. You can then apply these standards throughout the rest of your manuscript.

That is the value of your first five pages.


  1. I edited a romance anthology last year and I received many short story submissions. The first five sentences were always an example of what the rest of the pages looked like.

    And I think this is one of the areas in writing that can be learned and perfected with practice.

  2. How unusual is it to have two agents? I have one novel signed with a British agent now, and they are looking at my second book. IF they decide it's not for them, I'll look elsewhere, of course. Just wondered how uncommon that would be?

  3. Mr. Lukeman, maybe you could comment on the problem of even getting publishers to look at a manuscript. My frustrating experience has been that they simply ignore it, do not send it back even when you've included an SASE, and do not answer your polite inquiries by mail, even a year or two later. This has happened to me more than once. I've submitted the first 20 pages of my novel as per submissions requirements for a number of publishers, and even though their website says they'll answer in, say, four months, they just ignore my submission and keep it for years. I never hear a word from them. I can't even get my 20 pages back from them because they don't bother answering inquiries. This seems to be standard practice in the publishing industry these days. How does a writer get around this?

  4. Mr. Lukeman,
    i received your "Ask a Literary Agent" email and found it very interesting and informative. I don't know if you actually read these responses but I had a question that I've had for quite some time so I thought i would try this avenue and see if i get anywhere.
    I am a professional songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee and over the past few years have taken it on myself to venture into the realm of writing novels as a diversion from the requirement to rhyme. In doing so, i have completed versions of two novels and I know that, while i am pleased with them on some levels, they need work to make them better. The initial positive response I have received from the handful of people i have let read them has been encouraging enough for me to continue in this pursuit, but I know I could benefit from a good independent editor. Just wondering if you might have any suggestions for an independent editor who specializes in the Michael Crichton-type genre. I never know whether to call those kinds of stories Science Fiction or Suspense Thrillers. But my stories fall in the realm of Historical Science Fiction Suspense. Not alien/monster science fiction.

    Any input would be greatly appreciated.
    thank you,
    wayne kirkpatrick

  5. Mr. Lukeman, you've done a great service by suggesting in an interview that I have recently read that writers take an acting class. I would love to do this in New York with someone (or at some studio) who can truly work with non-actors and impart some serious insight. Can you make a suggestion?

  6. How does a person become a literary agent or an acquisitions editor?

  7. While The First Five Pages was extremely helpful, the insert at the beginning of chapter 16 was very discouraging. If an award-winning novel is rejected by its former publisher, it's evident that agents and publishers are often not even reading the first 5 words. Any advice or words of hope for us unpublished authors?

  8. If my rejection ratio is 100:1, reading even three small chapters of those 100 submissions costs a lot of money, about the same it costs the publisher to copy edit and proof read a book. Reading entire manuscripts is out of the question, the cost is astronomical. That's why publishers prefer to avoid reading unsolicited submissions. A large part of the agent commission goes into reading stuff that is rejected, your selected manuscript pays for all that.


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