Noah Lukeman: On Being a Writer, Excerpts From The First Five Pages

February 1, 2020
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from The First Five Pages:  A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile,
(Simon & Schuster/Fireside Books), reprinted with the permission of the author.

by Noah Lukeman

© 1999 Noah Lukeman
May not be downloaded, photocopied, distributed or excerpted without
permission of the author and/or publisher

Excerpt from the Introduction

         You may feel uncomfortable thinking of yourself as a “writer.” This is commonly encountered in new writers. They will often duck the label, insist they’re not writers but have only written such and such because they had the idea in their head. There is a widely perpetuated myth that to consider yourself a “writer” you need to have had many years experience. Despite popular conviction, a writer doesn’t need to wear black, be unshaven, sickly, and parade around New York’s East Village spewing aphorisms and scaring children. You don’t need to be a dead white male with a three-piece suit, noble countenance, smoking pipe, and curling mustache. And it has nothing to do with age. (I’ve seen twenty-year-old writers who’ve already been hard at work on their craft for five years and are brilliant, and sixty-year-old writers who have only been writing for a year or two and are still amateur. And of course, one year for one writer, if he works ten hours a day on his craft, can be the equivalent of ten years for someone else, who devotes but a few minutes a week.) All you need is the willingness to be labeled “writer,” and with one word you are a writer. Just as with one stroke, you are a painter; with one note, a musician.

“…to reach the highest levels of the craft, above all you’ll need confidence.”

         This is a more serious problem than it may seem because to reach the highest levels of the craft, above all you’ll need confidence. Unshakable confidence to leap forcefully into the realm of creation. It is daunting to create something new in the face of all the great literature that’s preceded you; it may seem megalomaniacal to try to take your place on the shelf beside Dante, Faulkner. But maybe they once felt the same. The more we read, ingest new information, the greater the responsibility not to allow ourselves to succumb to the predicament Shakespeare penned some 300 years ago: “Art tongue-tied by authority.”

“The art of writing cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can.”

         Of course, gaining confidence is just the first step. The craft of writing must then be learned. The art of writing cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can. No one can teach you how to tap inspiration, how to gain vision and sensibility, but you can be taught to write lucidly, to present what you say in the most articulate and forceful way. Vision itself is useless without the technical means to record it.

         There is no such thing as a great writer; there are only great re-writers. As you’ve heard before, ninety percent of writing is re-writing. If first drafts existed of some of the classics, you’d find many of them to be dreadful. This process of re-writing draws heavily on editing. And editing can be taught. Thus the craft of writing, inspiration aside, can to a great extent be taught. Even the greatest writers had to have been taught. Did they know how to write when they were toddlers?

         As an editor, you approach a book differently than a general reader. You should not enjoy it; rather you should feel like you’re hard at work—your head should throb. You should constantly be on guard for what is wrong, what can be changed. You may relax only when you finish the book—but not even then, because more often than not you’ll awake in the middle of the night three days later, remembering a comma that should have been on such and such a page. The only time an editor can truly relax is when the book is bound. Even then, he will not.

         When an editor reads, he is not just reading but breaking sentences into fragments, worrying if the first half should be replaced with the second, if the middle fragment should be switched with the first. The better editors worry if entire sentences should be switched within paragraphs; great editors keep entire paragraphs—even pages—in their head and worry if these might be switched. Truly great editors can keep an entire book in their head and easily ponder the switching of any word to any place. They’ll remember an echo across three hundred pages. If they’re professional, they’ll be able to keep ten such manuscripts in their head at once. And if you’re the writer, and you call them a year later and ask about a detail, even though they’ve read five thousand manuscripts since then, they’ll remember yours without a pause.

“Master editors are artists themselves. They need to be.”

         Master editors are artists themselves. They need to be. Not only can they perform all the tasks of a great editor, but they’ll also bring something of their own to a text, give the writer a certain kind of guidance, let the writer know if a certain scene—artistically—should be cut, if the book should really begin on page 50, if the ending is too abrupt, if a character is underdeveloped. They’ll never impose their will or edit for the sake of editing, but like a great actor, let it grow within them and then be able to suggest changes that arise from the text itself. Like the great Zen master who can paint the priceless calligraphy with one stroke, the master editor can transform an entire page with one single, well-placed word.

         But even if you become the master editor, you will still need a support group of astute readers in order to expose your work to fresh perspectives. This is a point I will raise many times throughout the book, so it is best if you can round them up now. These readers may or may not be in line with your sensibility—it is good to have both—but they should be supportive of you, honest, critical, but always encouraging. Even the most proficient writers cannot catch all of their own mistakes, and even if they could, they would still be lacking an impartial reaction. Outside readers can see things you cannot. If you change one word due to their readers, it’s worth it.

(Editor’s note: We encourage all writers, whether beginning or seasoned, to read Noah Lukeman’s THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, as well as other books about writing by this esteemed, agent, author and speaker.)

Visit Noah’s website.

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