Noah Lukeman is author of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, published in 2006 by WW Norton in the U.S. and by Oxford University Press in the U.K. He is also author of the bestselling and critically-acclaimed books The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster, 1999)and The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martins Press, 2002), a BookSense 76 Selection, a Publishers Weekly Daily pick, and a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club. His books are now part of the curriculum in many writing programs. To be continued tomorrow ...
He has also worked as a collaborator, and is co-author, with Lieutenant General Michael “Rifle” DeLong, USMC, Ret., of Inside CentCom (Regnery, 2004), a Main Selection of the Military Book Club. His Op-Ed pieces (with General DeLong) have been published in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News. He has also contributed to Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, The Writer, AWP Chronicle and The Writers Market, and has been anthologized in The Practical Writer (Viking, 2004). Foreign editions of his books have been published in the UK and in Portugese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Indonesian.
Noah Lukeman is also President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, a New York based literary agency, which he founded in 1996. His clients include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award, finalists for the National Book Award, Edgar Award, Pacific Rim Prize, multiple New York Times bestsellers, national journalists, major celebrities, and faculty of universities ranging from Harvard to Stanford. He has worked as a Manager in the New York office of Artists Management Group, Michael Ovitz’ multi-talent management company, and has worked for another New York literary agency. Prior to becoming an agent he worked on the editorial side of several major publishers, including William Morrow and Farrar, Straus, Giroux, and as editor of a literary magazine.
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 the Writers Digest Conference at BookExpo America. He currently teaches a course online at Writers University. He earned his B.A. with High Honors in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University, cum laude.
First of all, thanks for giving this interview. I know you’re time is limited, being a highly sought after literary agent, best-selling author, and teacher, (among other things).
Congratulations on your latest release: A Dash of Style—The Art and Master of Punctuation. I just reviewed it and couldn’t sing its praises enough. This had to be an incredibly difficult book to write, but I believe you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.
Can you tell us a little about writing A Dash of Style, the purpose of this book, and what you’ve learned from the process?
For a long time, I wanted to write another book for writers that might be useful. After I finished my previous book (The Plot Thickens), I waited several years, not wanting to venture into the genre again unless I felt I could offer something fresh.
Then came the publication of Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which got me thinking seriously about the topic of punctuation. ESL was an enjoyable, humorous book, but not designed for writers, and not at all the approach I would take.
I began seriously thinking about the concept of a different type of book on punctuation, one for creative writers. It would be a book that looked at the period, comma, semicolon and other marks not as a mere grammatical convenience (as most punctuation books do) but rather as a way of enhancing and complementing the content itself.
I wanted to examine these marks at the most profound level: for example, how and why Hemingway used the period, Melville the semicolon. I knew it would be ambitious, and perhaps obscure, but it was certainly fresh, and the more I thought about it, and studied examples from literature, the more I realized that there was indeed something important missing from the genre. Not just from the punctuation genre—but from the greater creative writing genre as well.
Writing this book was an education. Before writing it, I tended to vaguely associate certain authors with certain punctuation marks. But once you start studying their works closely, you come to realize that some authors do not use the marks you had thought they did, and others use marks you hadn’t considered. It was fascinating to see how certain authors stuck to the rules or broke them altogether—and how that impacted the content itself. By the time I was finished, I started to view content in a different way: as at least partially the result of a book’s unique tapestry of punctuation. And every book does have its own unique tapestry, and every author does have a unique punctuation fingerprint. As I say throughout the book, punctuation reveals the writer.
“Punctuation reveals the writer.” Would you explain that?
As a literary agent, one is forced to read a tremendous number of manuscripts in a short period of time, and to make instant decisions. An agent is always looking to get an immediate handle on an author’s style, to decide whether he’d like to represent him. An agent is also looking for errors, so that he can reject a manuscript, if need be, and move on.
Punctuation, more than any other aspect of style, reveals the writer. A trained agent can glance at a manuscript’s punctuation and infer a tremendous amount about the style and quality of the work.
Become a good self-editor is as important as becoming a good writer, since it is in the editing and revision that writing transforms from good to great. Oftentimes, writers look back on their own work with little or no objectivity, and thus it is hard for them to get a fix on their own writing, and hard to self-edit. Punctuation can be very useful in this regard.
By challenging writers to look at their punctuation first and content second, it forces them to view their work in a different way, and can give them the objectivity they need. And punctuation never lies.
You describe punctuation as a “fearful topic” for writers. Why do you think that is?
For most writers, punctuation is something they learned when young and which they now do mostly by instinct. Most writers have not actively studied or paid close attention to the marks on an ongoing basis, or in recent years. Since they do so much instinctually, they prefer not to dwell too deeply. It is like holding up a magnifying glass to the part they prefer to keep in the dark, or at the very least, not to be highlighted.
Contemplating punctuation brings them into a grammatical mindset they prefer not to enter, and heightens their insecurities about their craftsmanship.
The idea of contemplating punctuation is also overwhelming for many writers, since it means slowing down the craftsmanship to a macro level. It raises the bar, and makes previously smaller issues seem so much greater. With an entire book before them, most writers want to plow ahead and focus on big picture issues, like plot and character. To stop and ponder punctuation can seem like an arduous task.
In Chapter Eight, you say, “I received hundreds of letters in response to my first book on writing, The First Five Pages. Many readers loved the book, some hated it, and others told me with a dark satisfaction that they didn’t read past my first five pages. Accustomed to receiving thousands of query letters a year, some truly bizarre, none of this really surprised me.”
Let me say, I did read past your first five pages. Great book. You receive thousands of query letters? Of those, how many would you estimate you go on to offer representation to?
At this moment in time I am not taking on new clients, but over the last 10 years or so I have taken on hundreds of authors, and there would be times when I received as many as 10,000 unsolicited query letters or manuscripts a year. Of those, I would usually take on one or two annually.
Would you give us an example of a “bizarre” submission you’ve received?
I wouldn’t want to single anyone out (to prevent embarrassment), but, generally speaking, when you deal with that sort of volume, statistically you are bound to receive some strange things!
There have been queries wrapped in colorful ribbon, sent in black envelopes, sent as formal invitations; queries that included some gimmick, like a pen, or a piece of candy, or a $1 bill. Queries that demand I respond with a certain number of hours, that demand I write an essay explaining the reasons I would be qualified to represent them!
Queries that offer you a huge commission, or no commission, or long, handwritten letters from prison. Queries that threaten. There was a period of about two years when I received weekly postcards from a writer who claimed he was sailing across the world, and he mailed a postcard from every port. It was a two year prologue to a query letter which, oddly enough, never even came.
It seems today, that getting a book to publication has less and less to do with great writing, and more to do with marketing. Do you find this to be true?
First, I don’t think it’s necessarily much different today than it used to be—at least I don’t notice it being much different than how it was 10 years ago. It is true that many imprints have dissolved since then, making it harder to sell manuscripts—but then again, many new imprints have also popped up.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that getting published today has more to do with marketing than writing. Of course, if you are a celebrity, or have a national publicity platform, you will probably get a book deal regardless of the quality of your writing. But it’s pretty much always been that way.
For everyone else, it comes down predominantly to the quality of the writing and the strength of the concept. There are other factors, such as competition in the marketplace, timing. But editors, for the most part, still hold quality in high regard, and if a work of writing is utterly brilliant, more often than not it will find its way to publication eventually.
Of course, the author needs to get it into the right hands; if the author is a recluse and doesn’t share it with anyone, or gives it to the wrong people, or writes a poor query letter, or approaches agents and editors in the wrong way, then there is a chance that a brilliant manuscript can remain unpublished. So it is a combination of factors.
How helpful is an author’s marketing plan when they try to land an agent or publisher? Can you give us any advice to improving ours?
Yes, this is vital. I’ve written a lot on this topic, including an article called “How to Land an Agent,” which ran a few years ago in Poets & Writers (anthologized in The Practical Writer); a forthcoming article, “10 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Approaching the Publishing Industry,” which will be published in a Fall 2006 issue of the Brandeis University magazine; four weeks of course material for Writers University; and an entire 120 e-book called “How to Write a Great Query Letter” (available via the Lukeman site). So it would be hard for me to rehash all of it here.
Briefly, I’ll just say that you should query agents first (not editors), you should submit a one page query letter, and you should keep your query as short and professional as possible, only including what is absolutely relevant. You should also spend months researching the proper agents beforehand, and you should broaden your querying efforts to include at least 50 agents. Approaching the wrong agents, or not approaching enough of them, or writing a poor query letter, can all mean the difference in your getting published.
You said in a previous interview that often agents feel rejections more than the authors. Why is that?
When an agent agrees to represent a manuscript, he is putting his stamp of approval on it, in effect getting behind it and saying to editors, “I read this and loved it, and I vouch for it, and I’m asking you to trust my judgment and love it, too.” This is especially true because agents only have the time to work on a small number of manuscripts a year. So when an agent receives a rejection from an editor, he can feel the sting of rejection, too, as his taste is also being called into question.
Additionally, by representing the manuscript, the agent is also, in essence, telling the author that he can sell it. When the rejections come, the agent feels the double disappointment of having let down the writer, who has his hopes in him. And an agent can have a dozen or more manuscripts out on submission at any one time, each with dozens of publishers. So on any given day, an agent might receive several rejections. Few days have gone by during my last 10 years when I have not received at least one rejection for the day. So rejection becomes a part of daily life.
I’ve read that you’ve written four novels. Are they published? Do you have plans to write more fiction?
To be continued tomorrow ...