Rosedog.com
Interview

January, 2000

...it's a tough industry to work in—and I'm confident that if writers worked in this industry, then in no time at all their perspective would change a hundred and eighty degrees.
RoseDog interviews New York Agent Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages—A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile
Read RoseDog's review of his book here
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"Agents and editors don't read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript—and believe me, they'll look for any reason they can..."
RoseDogRoseDog:  Before we discuss your book, could you tell us something about your background in the publishing industry in New York and the type of work your own agency now handles?
Noah Lukeman:  I have my own agency and I've had it for about four years. We represent a very broad range of commercial and literary fiction and non fiction and we've done about 100 book deals in the last four years... Before I started my own agency four years ago I worked for another agency and before that I worked briefly on the editorial side for a few publishers...so I've worked on both sides of the table and been in and out of the business for 7-8 years.
RoseDogRD:  One thing we especially like in your book is the way you combine a very "frank" appraisal of the type of errors writers make with very practical but probing exercises at the end of each chapter. How important was it for you to offer constructive solutions as well as identity the problems?
NL:  I think it turned out to be more important than I'd though initially. It's funny you asked that because when I proposed the book I proposed a book about what writers shouldn't do, and by pointing out the mistakes I sort of inferred how they could correct them.  And the practical end-of-chapter exercises and solutions weren't really an integral part of the original proposal.  Those were all things which evolved out of the writing of the book.  So I spent maybe three months writing the book and two years revising it...a lot evolved in the revision process. When I finished the book it was almost two and a half years ago, so it's been a long process until it came into print.
RoseDogRD:  You devote five chapters in your book to dialogue and say it reveals the skill of a writer immediately and can swing the balance either way if an editor wavers over the quality of a manuscript.  Do you think that writers underestimate the importance of dialogue?
NL:  I don't know if the problem is that they underestimate it.  I think writers know that it's important but they just...I think they're not so used to dealing with it and working with it.  So in the back of their minds they know it's important and I think they're making sincere efforts to make it work, but I think they get a little careless at times when it comes to dialogue and they don't give it the artistic importance they give to the actual prose...I think they reach dialogue and they think: here comes a break from the heavy prose, let me just take a break and find out whatever I want to say, and they just let down their guard.  But really good dialogue shouldn't involve letting down their guard.  They should be working just as hard as they did in the actual prose.  Another thing is that dialogue really puts a writer in the spotlight—it's sort of a peak moment of creativity and ...it's dramatic.  You're really dramatizing your scene, you're really getting into characters and in a certain sense you're in a more creative realm, and sometimes writers get flustered because of that...and they just sort of rush through it and put down on paper what they've heard before.
RoseDogRD:  How important do you think it is for writers to use some form of "trusted reader" who can offer an objective opinion on their work?
NL:  I think it's crucial and I think it's good not to get just one reader but at least three, because different readers will bring different sensibilities to a work...maybe one male reader and one female reader...What I think a writer should do is try to find a support group or trusted readers that he can round up where they can all give each other feedback.  He could also take local classes.  He might not always find a good class or a good workshop, but if you keep trying and looking you eventually will...If you can find a good writers group of maybe 20 people and maybe click with one person and stay in touch, then over time you can build up a group of people you like.  And the main thing is just to keep on working on your writing, revising and trying new things...
RoseDogRD:  In your book you ask why writers seem to assume they can just 'write' with no training whatsoever—are you dismayed by how many writers do not understand that writing is a craft to be learned like any other?
NL:  Yes I am.  I'm really amazed by it and it's really the reason I wrote the book.
RoseDogRD:  Have you had any early feedback on your book from colleagues in the publishing industry who face the same frustrations?
NL:  Yes, absolutely.  Colleagues I know that have read my book so far have all loved it ...it's exactly what they wanted to say...I wanted to be firm and to tell writers what to expect and really how it is today, but also to be uplifting and encouraging while still being realistic.
RoseDogRD:  The objective of your book is very modest - to help writers avoid the errors that will consign them to the rejection pile.  But your exercises are not 'quick fixes' at all and call on writers to apply 'critical thought'.  Would you agree this is at the heart of your book - the idea that a good writer must bring "critical thought" to bear on his or her work?
NL:  Absolutely. I mean writing essentially is just thought applied to paper.  I think it's all about thought and about precision of thought, being precise about what you are thinking and being precise in your observations. Usually the best writers are the most observant people. Really good writers can bring details to the page that you've never even considered.
RoseDogRD:  The encouraging aspect of your book is that you seem to suggest this does not need to be an innate skill and that writers can train themselves in "critical thinking".
NL:  Absolutely.  I mean even the greatest writers obviously did not know how to write when they were babies...It's like great pianists that play the piano 10 hours a day for 20 years. You have a lot of incredible pianists out there, but it doesn't guarantee they'll get a record contract...technically they get very good at playing the piano but it still does not guarantee them anything.  So I think that if writers spent all that time training, hours a day for years and years, just technically, learning new words and playing with words and playing with structure, they would technically become extremely accomplished.  I think anyone can do that.  You do also need ...guidance here and there, for direction and support, but ultimately I think it's 90 percent of your own hard work and training and 10 percent feedback, direction and support. 

The bottom line is that feedback and people who try to help you and support you can only help you so much.  A virtuoso pianist who is incredible can go to a master teacher who, with just a little bit of guidance, can set him on his way for the next six months. But if somebody has never played the piano at all and doesn't know the basic scales and chords, then it'll take the instructor years and years working with that person.  So there's a lot that can be done just on your own.  I think anybody can learn and anybody can become an accomplished writer if they work hard enough and long enough.

RoseDogRD:  That conflicts of course with the romantic notion of the spontaneous, naturally gifted writer...
NL:  Not necessarily, because I think anyone can become a very talented stylist and a technically very accomplished writer and still be missing that artistic something—that one percent inspiration.  If technically you're good enough you will get published.  I think there are a lot of writers that are published today that are technically very good but I wouldn't put them on the level of a Faulkner or a Conrad.  So I think you can become a great writer but not necessarily an inspired writer.  I think there's that one percent inspiration and there's no way you can teach that—it's just what it is.

There's a writer who I sold who I think was one of the most brilliant writers I ever represented.  Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago at age 40; he was HIV positive for many years.  His name was Donald Rawley and in the last few years of his life I got him several book deals and he was just incredible.  He brought to his fiction a sort of intensity that Flannery O'Connor brought to hers in the last years of her life.  His story collection Tina in the Backseat recently came out—that was his final story collection...If you look at his writing it's so incredible and so inspired; it's beyond anything you could ever imagine...there's nothing comes close. And that's something I don't think can ever be taught to any writer.

RoseDogRD:  How do you feel now after seven years of being on the wrong end of a lot of poor writing? You have your own agency but do you see yourself in your present career ten years from now, for instance? Do you still feel good about what you do?
NL:  Well it's hard to say. As of right now I have every intention of continuing what I do.  My agency has expanded, but as I mentioned in the book it's a very high-burnout industry and there's a tremendous amount of pressure working either as an agent or an editor. You're working extremely long hours and then there's always home work...So it's hard to say what I'll be doing ten years from now, but I certainly plan on continuing to do it for the near future.  But it is a tough industry to work in—and I'm confident that if a lot of writers worked in this industry, that in no time at all their perspective would change 180 degrees. 

I entered the business as an agent to help writers, to try to help them out and get their careers going.  That is I entered with the perspective of a writer...but after a few years...you get so much really truly bad material, a lot of writers are extremely hard to deal with and you get a lot of aggravated situations.  You get a lot of hate mail in response to rejections, sometimes you get death threats. You get a lot of crazy things, and you have to become hardened to an extent if you want to function in the business, you know. 

You should keep in mind also that agents are getting rejected every day by editors...In any average day I am getting 20 rejections myself from editors and I end up selling most of the things I go out with, but in order to sell it usually you've got to go through a lot of rejections.  So the agent's experiencing as much if not more rejection than the writer.  But that's just part of the business.

 

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