Prior to becoming an agent he worked on the editorial side of several major publishers, including William Morrow, Delphinium Books and Farrar, Straus, Giroux, and as editor of a literary magazine. He was creator of PrePub.com, one of the first publishing rights websites, which eventually became the "Booktracker" division of Inside.com.
Mr. Lukeman is himself author of the bestselling The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster), already part of the curriculum in many universities, and of the recently published The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martins Press), a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club and already a national bestseller. He has been a guest speaker on the subjects of writing and publishing at numerous forums, including the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University and Riker's Island Penitentiary. He earned his B.A. with High Honors in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University, cum laude.
ALGONKIAN: Noah, hi. First of all, what types of fiction do you represent?
NL: I represent a broad range of literary and commercial fiction. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to discover (or launch the careers of) such literary authors as Steve Lattimore, G.K. Wuori, Phyllis Moore, Carol Bly, Ellen Cooney, Paul Cody, Victoria Lancelotta, Donald Rawley, Kent Meyers, Beth Goldner, Brian Roley, John Smolens, John L'Heureux, Tom Hallman, Jr. (who won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2001) and Dan Chaon (whose story collection Among the Missing was a recent National Book Award Finalist), among many others. I've also represented many commercial fiction authors, including Victor Gischler, whose Gun Monkeys was a recent Edgar Award Finalist. These days I'm more inclined to represent established literary authors, or well-crafted commercial fiction.
ALGONKIAN: Please define for us the qualities a successful fiction manuscript must possess before you will take it on.
NL: It's hard to summarize in a nutshell, especially since every manuscript is unique. But I do talk about this at length in my book The Plot Thickens. There must be a strong plot, along with conflict, suspense, direction, pacing and progression. Above all, there must be strong characterization, which means unique characters, satisfying character interaction, and satisfying character arcs or journeys. Readers must feel as if they've journeyed by the end of the work. The qualities I look for would be the same qualities you'd look for as a discriminating reader in a bookstore. Again, to answer this properly I would need 300 pages; I'd hate to encapsulate it in a few, short sentences. But this is a starting point.
ALGONKIAN: In your book, The First Five Pages, you define these pages as crucial, but if the narrative is awkward or the prose poor, won't that be obvious right away? Why would an editor or agent need to read past the first page?
NL: Excellent question. You're right. In fact, I mention in the introduction of that book that it should really be called The First Five Sentences. The truth is that most publishing professionals needn't read further than that. They are trained to make instant decisions (they have to if they want to survive), and that means learning how to decipher what's wrong right away. Judging a book in five sentences might sound like an outrageous idea. But it's really not. Think of a piece of music. You can tell in five seconds if an amateur is playing-he would be playing discordantly, hitting the wrong notes. One needn't hear 10 minutes of such playing-only a few seconds. The same holds true for writing; you just need to know what to look for. That's what my book The First Five Pages was all about: showing you what to look for-or showing writers how publishing professionals think.
God help the publishing professional who needs 50 pages to evaluate every manuscript; he'd never survive. He wouldn't be able to get to the 10,000 manuscripts behind it, which he needs to in order to do his job. This business teaches you how to make instant decisions. Some people can't (or don't want to) do that, and they leave the industry.
Of course, there will always be exceptions, and you won't be able to make an instant decision in every case. It's easy to judge a musician's ability if he's never played the piano, but it's an entirely different situation if he's been playing for years. In that case, you're trying to evaluate whether he's excellent, or whether he's professional. This is subtle; it takes a much more finely trained ear. The same holds true for writing. In the case of an excellent work, it will take more than 5 pages, but page 50 should be the cutoff for someone used to evaluating manuscripts. The publishing professional who's been judging manuscripts for six months may not be able to do this, but the professional who's been judging them for 10 years likely can. Then again, not necessarily. There isn't always a direct correlation between time spent reading and a discerning ear. Some people can naturally evaluate manuscripts at a young age, with little or no experience, while others will never have that ability, regardless of how much they've read or how long they've worked in the business.
ALGONKIAN: I know quite a few good prose writers, and while they are able to create artful shorts--and not have to worry about such issues as uneven pacing or overuse of adverbs--they fumble with the novel hook, setting, conflict, and such as that. Given this circumstance, what MUST they do to get you to read to page fifty and beyond?
NL: This is also an excellent question. Yes, there are many authors who are skilled at the short story but for whatever reason just can't seem to craft a book-length work with equal skill. I've seen it happen dozens of times. It's not unlike the writer/director who makes a masterful short film but falls flat when it comes to making a feature. The short and the novel are different forms. The masterful short author who turns to a book might fail because he approaches a novel as if it's a short, refuses to realize that he's dealing with a different medium. Quickly resolved conflicts, for example, won't work in a novel; a premise that can sustain 10 or 15 pages also won't do you much good in a novel. It might sustain a single chapter, but even then probably not, as such chapter would be too self-encapsulated. These authors need to realize they are dealing with a truly different form, and be willing to empty their minds of what they've learned before, be humble enough to learn from scratch. Short story authors need to reconsider what issues such as conflict, pacing, progression, setting and characterization mean in a 300 page work.
At the same time, they need to bring to the table some of the skills they've learned while honing their craft. As short story authors they've learned that pages are scarce and to fill them well; that situations must be introduced and resolved; they've learned word economy; and they've learned that stories must be complete entities, must have beginnings and endings. That's half the battle. The challenge for them will be figuring out what to bring to the table and what to leave behind, what to remain confident about and what to approach as a beginner. This will be an ongoing struggle, but once they've mastered this, they'll have mastered the form of the novel.
ALGONKIAN: If you were asked by a struggling writer to recommend five or more brilliant works of fiction as must-reads, i.e., novels they could really learn something from, which ones would you recommend?
NL: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Complete Stories Flannery O'Connor, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad,
The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Night Bird Cantata by Donald Rawley. Sorry, that's six!
ALGONKIAN: Do you feel fiction writers would do well to look for guidance and inspiration from playwrights and screenwriters? If so, who would you recommend? David Mamet, e.g.?
NL: Absolutely. I think they'd do well to look for guidance from any writer-and indeed, anyone. I believe that artists must be open to learning from everything-one never knows when or how inspiration might strike, or from what one might learn. I have great respect for playwrights and screenwriters-their form appears easy, but in some ways is more difficult than the novel. There are so many talented playwrights and screenwriters out there, that I'd be hard pressed to offer a short list. But I would say this: watch films that you normally would not. Maybe for you that means foreign films, or films from the 70s, or action films, or romances. Be open minded. The very act of entering new territory can open up new horizons for you.
ALGONKIAN: How much value do you place on a unique dramatic premise or high-concept story, e.g., Albom's First Five People You Meet in Heaven? If a high-concept is made clear in the query letter, will this encourage you to spend more time on the ms than you would have otherwise?
NL: Having a strong concept is a major plus. It does make a difference, especially when it comes to commercial fiction. What's equally important is what it's indicative of: it shows that the writer has been able to achieve enough distance and objectivity to summarize his work in two or three sentences. This sounds simple, but many writers can't do this, and are at a loss when you ask them what their book is about. That said, a great concept isn't everything, since a great concept can fall apart in execution. And the majority of query letters I receive tote a high concept but are filled with amateur writing. This makes me more inclined to advise beginning writers to take a step back and stress their craft first, to warn them that concept is not everything. This is why I wrote The Plot Thickens, to examine why so many great concepts don't live up to their promise, and to show writers how they can make their actual books be as good as their concepts.
ALGONKIAN: You've acted in indie films, and this is exciting. Your most recent?
NL: Nothing that impressive. Just short films mostly, or small roles in bigger films that no one's ever heard of. What I enjoy most is having a chance to do Shakespeare in some small theater off-off-off Broadway. I learn so much more about his plays by memorizing them than merely reading them-it's an entirely different experience, and has helped me with my own writing. In fact, I highly recommend writers take an acting class; memorizing dialogue gives you a new respect for it, and a new perspective on writing.
ALGONKIAN: I agree 110%. Hey, btw, I've got a great screenplay that will make seven figures for both of us, will you read it? You can lie, it's ok, really.
NL: Of course. But why think so small? Why not eight figures?
ALGONKIAN: What does the future hold for Noah Lukeman?
NL: I wish I knew. Let me know if you do.
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org