Apologies for infrequent posting throughout October. LitPig is in a huff as I've been unavailable to assist with the blog (trotters and keyboards don't mix). The excuse ... my goal was to submit my children's novel (for 9+) to The Chicken House /Times children's novel competition and all entries had to be in for last post on 26 October. The book was written, but I wanted to re-write sections, add sub-plots and basically re-edit the entire manuscript in time to submit (unusually this competition asks for the whole manuscript up front). So I shut myself away and got on with it. It did help that we were having the downstairs decorated at the same time, which meant I was trapped at home for almost two weeks. And I could be at my desk for 8.30am each morning, when normally I complete household chores, voluntary work, or some healthy activity (gym, swim or run) before lunch and then settle down to write in the afternoon. So these longer days really helped my productivity.
What also helped was this book: The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman (Oxford University Press). Marketed as "A writer's guide to staying out of the rejection pile". My lovely new Swanwick friend, Heather Allison, had raved about this book and how it had helped her enormously with her novel. It arrived just as I started my re-writes and I read it as quickly as I could. The premise is simple: literary agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts a month and are looking for a reason to reject. After reviewing over ten thousand manuscripts Lukeman came to recognise that most writers make exactly the same mistakes and he's gathered these together in the chapters of the book. He promotes polishing your book until it glimmers and don't give them a reason, any reason, to reject. As always much of this book is common sense, but somehow we all need this information rammed home (well I do) and each chapter has plenty of examples to hammer home Lukeman's points. The examples and exercises make this book stand out, as it was through both of these that I really understood the concepts of each chapter.
The book is divided into 3 sections: preliminary problems, dialogue and the bigger picture. The immediate challenge is for a writer to present the first five pages that will hook in an agent/publisher/reader and keep them reading. Any common errors or problems in these first five pages will guarantee your precious manuscript a place in the slush pile. I found the 5 chapters making up the Preliminary Problems to be the most enlightening. I have an addiction to adverbs (phew I've said it) and once I have a first draft I then carefully edit to remove all of these beloved darlings. I also love imagery, which when writing from the POV of a 12 year-old-boy needs constant supervision, and the delete key again. After reading the chapter on "Adjective and Adverbs" I finally saw the light and not only killed my darlings, I slashed and obliterated them too.
The section on dialogue was more of a reminder, but still incredibly useful. And again all the points were carefully illustrated by worked through examples. The final section on The Bigger Picture delved into topics such as: hooks, subtlety and tone. Lukeman points out that these areas are relevant to the whole manuscript and will only be truly assessed by agents/publishers if they want to see the whole work. Again, getting them past the first five pages is critical otherwise they never get that opportunity to assess the subtlety of your prose.
Whether you are still working on your first draft or ready to submit your manuscript then I'd recommend reading this book. In fact I keep it close to hand now - to dip into when I need a reminder on what I'm trying to achieve. There's a yellow sticky on the Adverbs and Adjectives chapter as my addiction is only in remission and I'm likely to reoffend.
And yes I hit the deadline and submitted my novel on time. Whatever happens in the competition I'm pleased with the novel. The end result is I am now more confident about my writing and my ability to deliver a quality product. Thank you Noah Lukeman.