The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile

The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile

by Noah Lukeman


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Whether you are a novice writer or a veteran who has already had your work published, rejection is often a frustrating reality. Literary agents and editors receive and reject hundreds of manuscripts each month. While it's the job of these publishing professionals to be discriminating, it's the job of the writer to produce a manuscript that immediately stands out among the vast competition. And those outstanding qualities, says New York literary agent Noah Lukeman, have to be apparent from the first five pages.
The First Five Pages reveals the necessary elements of good writing, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, journalism, or poetry, and points out errors to be avoided, such as
* A weak opening hook
* Overuse of adjectives and adverbs
* Flat or forced metaphors or similes
* Melodramatic, commonplace or confusing dialogue
* Undeveloped characterizations and lifeless settings
* Uneven pacing and lack of progression
With exercises at the end of each chapter, this invaluable reference will allow novelists, journalists, poets and screenwriters alike to improve their technique as they learn to eliminate even the most subtle mistakes that are cause for rejection. The First Five Pages will help writers at every stage take their art to a higher — and more successful — level.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684857435
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 01/20/2000
Edition description: Original
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 319,773
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x (h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Noah Lukeman is a literary agent based in New York City whose clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees, New York Times bestselling authors, Pushcart Prize recipients and American Book Award winners. Prior to becoming an agent, he worked on the editorial side of several major publishing companies. He has been a guest speaker on the subjects of writing and publishing at forums conducted by numerous organizations, including the Writer's Voice, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt


Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It's ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great. What would have become of Beethoven's music if he'd chased rules instead of inspiration? Of van Gogh's paintings?

There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing. This, simply, is the focus of this book: to learn how to identify and avoid bad writing. We all fall prey to it, to different degrees, even the greatest writers, even in the midst of their greatest works. By scrutinizing the following examples of what not to do, you will learn to spot these ailments in your own writing; by working with the solutions and exercises, you may, over time, bridge the gap and come to a realization of what to do. There is no guarantee that you will come to this realization, but if you do, at least it will be your own. Because ultimately, the only person who can teach you about writing is yourself.

People are afraid to admit they'd dismiss a work of art instantaneously, whether it's the first five pages of an unsolicited manuscript or the first five pages of Faulkner. But the truth is they do. When it's a "classic," most read on and finish the book to keep up pretext and not seem so presumptuous as to pass instant judgment on a great work. But they've secretly made up their mind after page 5, and 99 percent of the time, they're not going to change it. It is not unlike the person who walks into a museum and dismisses van Gogh in the flash of an eye; he would be scorned by critics, probably called a fool, but ultimately art is art, and this person has the right to pass his own judgment whether he's stared at it for a second or for a year.

In truth, though, this book is not concerned with the argument of whether one should dismiss a work of art instantaneously — this we'll leave to sophists — but rather, more simply, with whether a work is technically accomplished enough to merit a serious artistic evaluation to begin with. It is not like walking into a museum and judging the van Goghs and Rembrandts; it is like walking into an elementary school art fair and judging which students exhibit more technical skill than others. An artistic evaluation is another, largely subjective can of worms. This book's objective is much simpler, much more humble. It is like a first reader who has been hired to make two piles of manuscripts, one that should be read beyond the first five pages and one that shouldn't. Ninety-nine percent of today's unsolicited manuscripts will go into the latter. This book will tell you why.

When most professional literary agents and book editors hear the title of this book, they grab my arm, look me in the eyes and say, "Thank you." I can see their pent-up frustration at wanting to say so many things to writers and simply not having the time. I've come to understand this frustration over the last few years as I've read thousands of manuscripts, all, unbelievably, with the exact same type of mistakes. From Texas to Oklahoma to California to England to Turkey to Japan, writers are doing the exact same things wrong. While evaluating more than ten thousand manuscripts in the last few years, I was able to group these mistakes into categories; eventually, I was able to set forth definite criteria, an agenda for rejecting manuscripts. This is the core of The First Five Pages: my criteria revealed to you.

Thus, despite its title, this book is not just about the first five pages of your manuscript; rather, it assumes that by scrutinizing a few pages closely enough — particularly the first few — you can make a determination for the whole. It assumes that if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come. This is not a wild assumption. Think of another art form — music, for example. If you listen to the first five minutes of a piece of music, you should be able to evaluate a musician's technical skill. A master musician would scoff at even that, saying he could evaluate a fellow musician's skill in five seconds, not five minutes. The master musician, through diligence and patience, has developed an acute enough ear to make an instant evaluation. This book will teach you the step-by-step criteria so that you, too, may develop that acute ear and make instant evaluations, be it of your own writing or of someone else's. By its end, you'll come to see why this book should not have been titled The First Five Pages but The First Five Sentences.

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, down to the last letter. I have thus arranged the following chapters in the order of what I look for when trying to dismiss a manuscript. You'll find that, unlike many books on writing, this book's perspective is truly that of the agent or editor.

Subsequently, I hope this book might also be useful to publishing professionals, particularly those entering the industry. Unlike other fields, publishing requires no advanced degrees; many neophytes, especially today, come straight from college or from media-related fields. Even if prospective agents or editors inherently know how to judge a manuscript — even if they have that "touch" — in most cases they still won't be able to enunciate their reasoning beyond a vague "this manuscript doesn't hold my interest." It is crucial they know their precise reasons for rejecting a manuscript if they even mean to talk about them intelligently. This book will help them in this regard. Everyone will ultimately develop his own order of elimination, his own personal pet peeves, and thus this book does not pretend to be the last word on the issue; but in its nineteen chapters, it covers many of the major points of a manuscript's initial evaluation.

Young publishing professionals must also keep in mind that, in some rare cases, the first five pages might be awful and the rest of the manuscript brilliant (and vice versa). They should thus not always keep too rigidly to the criteria and should also employ what I call the three-check method, which is, if the first five pages look terrible, check the manuscript a second time, somewhere in the middle, and then again a third time, somewhere toward the end. (It is extremely unlikely you will open to the only three terrible points in the manuscript.) This method should especially be employed if you are evaluating manuscripts for the first time and should be used until you feel supremely confident in the evaluation process.

The main audience for this book, though, is you, the writer. Along with the criteria, this book offers an in-depth look at the technique and thought processes behind writing and has been designed to be of interest to the beginning and advanced writer alike, both as a general read and as a reference and workbook. There is so much to know in writing that even if you do already know it all, there are bound to be some things that have fallen to the back of your mind, some things you can use being reminded of. There is a lot of advice in this book; some you might use, some you might disagree with. Such is the nature of writing, which is, like all arts, subjective; all I can say is that if you walk away from these pages with even one idea that helps you with even one word of your writing, then it's been worth it. In the often frustrating business of writing — workshops, conferences, books, articles, seminars — this is a helpful principle to keep in mind.

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 be a "writer," you need to have had many years' experience. Despite popular conviction, a writer needn't 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 mustach. 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.

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 and Faulkner. But maybe they once felt the same. The more we read, ingest new information, the greater the responsibility we have to not allow ourselves to succumb to the predicament Shakespeare described some three hundred years ago: "art tongue-tied by authority."

Of course, 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, 90 percent of writing is rewriting. If first drafts existed of some of the classics, you'd find many of them to be dreadful. This process of rewriting 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. 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 suggest changes that arise from the text itself. Like the great Zen master who creates 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 to expose your work to fresh perspectives. This is a point I will raise many times throughout this book, so it is best if you can round them up now. These readers may or may not be in line with your own 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 the impartial reaction. Outside readers can see things you cannot. If you change one word due to their read, it's worth it.

Finally, this book differs from most books on writing in that it is not geared exclusively for the fiction or nonfiction writer, for the journalist or poet. Although some topics, to be sure, will be more relevant to certain types of writers and the majority of examples are from fiction, the principles are deliberately laid out in as broad a spectrum as possible, in order to be applied to virtually any form of writing. This should allow for a more interesting read, as writers of certain genres experiment with techniques they might not have considered otherwise, like the screenwriter grappling with viewpoint, the journalist with dialogue, the poet with pacing. It is always through the unexpected, the unorthodox, that artists break through to higher levels of performance.

Copyright © 2000 by Noah Lukeman

Table of Contents




Chapter 1: Presentation

Chapter 2: Adjectives and Adverbs

Chapter 3: Sound

Chapter 4: Comparison

Chapter 5: Style


Chapter 6: Between the Lines

Chapter 7: Commonplace

Chapter 8: Informative

Chapter 9: Melodramatic

Chapter 10: Hard to Follow


Chapter 11: Showing Versus Telling

Chapter 12: Viewpoint and Narration

Chapter 13: Characterization

Chapter 14: Hooks

Chapter 15: Subtlety

Chapter 16: Tone

Chapter 17: Focus

Chapter 18: Setting

Chapter 19: Pacing and Progression



What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The ultimate guide to staying out of the rejection pile...worth its weight in gold, and should be read by all experienced and unpublished authors."

Inscriptions Magazine

"Novice and amateur writers alike will benefit from literary agent Lukeman's lucid advice in this handy, inexpensive little book. Writers' groups and workshops will want multiple copies."

Library Journal, "Highly Recommended"

"If every novelist and short story writer in this country had Lukeman as an editor, we'd have a lot more readable prose out there...The First Five Pages should be on every writer's shelf."

— Barnes & Noble Writers Workshop

"The difference between The First Five Pages and most books on writing is that the others are written by teachers and writers. This one comes from a literary agent — one whose clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees, New York Times bestselling authors, Pushcart Prize recipients, and American Book Award winners...Lukeman has plenty of solid advice worth listening to."


"Pragmatic, intelligent, and readable, The First Five Pages...will certainly help writers of any kind defeat rejection and possibly score."


"Lukeman grinds his teeth over amateurish writing, too, and offers practical corrections."

Detroit Free Press

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First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
RLoughran More than 1 year ago
Don't just read this book.
Following each chapter are a series of specific, helpful exercises. USE this book. It will make you a better writer.
I was in a slump between writing projects and THE FIRST FIVE PAGES kickstarted my butt into caring about writing again. The book's final paragraph sums it up: "The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake. Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory."
I've published a few books (13) and there is such a constellation of events (that we have no control over) which must be in perfect alignment in order to sell a book. I believe that superior writing will, eventually, be recognized and published. Agonizing over publishers or agents or sales of books you have in print is hell; real writers are in it for the writing. THE FIRST FIVE PAGES reminded me that if I control what I can--working at writing a superior book--I have a chance at publication.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a published, but non-paid writer. I have read lots of books about writing, and I've attended several writers conferences. This concise book answered so many things I've always wondered about. If I were to recommend one writing book, this would be the one.
HeatherMcC More than 1 year ago
This book covers everything from grammar, overuse of adjectives, conversation flow, action and tension, to point of view problems. Its a step by step guide to the things that agents look for that will make them reject your manuscript. There are assignments at the end of each chapter that will help you work on the existing problems in your manuscript. If you're working on your first book or even your third, or if you're having trouble with agent/editor rejections, you will probably benefit from this book. I loved it and highly recommend it! I'm sure my agent would agree ;)
Guest More than 1 year ago
Noah Lukeman's 'The First Five Pages' taught me many new insights on the process of writing. The title is a bit of a misnomer, since 'The First 5 Pages' covers every major aspect of writing in a lively and indepth prose style. And yet, Mr. Lukeman does demonstrate how transgressing a number of major writing principles at the beginning of one's novel can derail one's goal of getting published. One of Mr. Lukeman's key insights is a warning to young writers not to plunge into dialogue without first grounding the reader in a specific setting. Despite such instruction, Mr. Lukeman caveats his advice often, demonstrating via specific examples that the proferred 'writing principles' are guiding advice to the general reader, and are occasionally circumvented by experienced masterful authors. The real strength of 'The First 5 Pages' are the writing examples Mr. Lukeman includes to demonstrate each and every writing principle he teaches. In each of his 19 chapters, Mr. Lukeman not only teaches you how to correctly handle 'style' or 'tone' or 'pacing and progression,' etc., but also demonstrates what the major problems are in these writing areas (with specific examples for each kind of problem) and how to fix each individual problem. His 'solutions' sections at the end of every chapter contain detailed guidance, as well as splendid writing exercises readers are to employ in improving their own creative efforts. I have read hundreds of books on writing, and must confess my amazement that Mr. Lukeman masterfully taught me so many new things. I will purchase and read his other more recent book based on my reading of 'The First 5 Pages.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
This clear and concise book helps you whip your writing--and even your manuscript's appearance--into shape for publishing. It helps you to be more aware of how you use words, viewpoint, setting, and so forth. Before reading 'Description' by Monica Wood, I would have given this book five stars. However, Lukeman exhorts writers with the oft-repeated advice, 'Show! Don't tell!' Then he gives you obviously horrendous examples of telling. These supposedly prove why the practice is such a bad idea. Monica Wood encourages you to be a bit more open-minded. She shows you how you could just show, just tell, or combine both styles to create a great story. She even cites published and successful examples of both exclusive showing and exclusive telling. The First Five Pages is a great book, but writers need more than Lukeman's viewpoint to be well-rounded.
Guest More than 1 year ago
and Lukeman wrote the other one. Lukeman's guidance is invaluable. Writing is enjoyable again. His exercises have been so helpful. BUY THIS BOOK!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Author of Martyr's Cry: A Mystery for Hopeless Romantics--I recommend this book highly. Lukeman is an agent with years of experience culling through the slush pile, and he knows what works and what doesn't. Every chapter is filled with practical advice and solutions to writing problems. In addition, each chapter ends with challenging, stimulating exercises to help drive the point home. The best thing about the book is that it will help writers improve their first 5 pages, plus every page that follows.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book does not teach 'how to write,' but how to avoid the mistakes that send your manuscript to the recycle bin. That is the craft of writing. To be successful, you have to capture your audience in the first five pages. Noah Lukeman, a prestigious editor turned agent knows the secrets of successful writing. In reality, you must capture your reader in the first five words, sentences, or paragraphs with a strong hook and the good writing. Lukeman arranged the chapters in The First Five Pages to show each process in rejecting manuscripts. Follow the steps, and if you are lucky, you might get a contract. Do not follow the steps, and the only reason your manuscript will reach the one person who can make a difference is through a fluke. Each chapter concludes with write and rewrite examples and practices. The Lukeman way is included at the back of the book. The only way to become a better writer is to write. The following is only a brief synopsis of a few chapters. Presentation: The number one reason aspiring writers get rejections is that the work is inappropriate for the market. Simply put: do not send a bodice-ripper, swashbuckling tale to someone representing coffee table books. Other problems are spelling errors, sloppiness, faded text, and dirty paper; they all indicate carelessness that is generally reflected throughout the book. Research your market, and prepare your manuscript according to the instructions given by the agent, editor, or publisher. If they want Ariel font, give it to them. Adjectives and Adverbs: The next step to rejection is the overuse or misuse of modifiers. These words tell rather than show your noun. "If a day is described as 'hot, dry, bright and dusty,'" these words are tedious and the image becomes significantly unimportant. Overuse is very easy to spot by a cursory glance. Sound: If your manuscript has reached this level, it is being read. Pacing, rhythm, meter, or beat is about the way your prose reveals the story. "Prose can be technically correct, but rhythmically unpleasant." Read your work aloud; if it does not sound right to you, pay attention. Comparison: Analogy, simile, and metaphor can be overdone. I read about 1/3 of a book recommended to me as an excellent thriller. The plot, characters, dialogue, details, and descriptions were good. I could not read the book because everything is not like something else, every paragraph or three included a simile. Style: If the writing feels forced or exaggerated, or the writer began to showcase his words rather than the story, the probability of rejection is high. Another nit for me is redundancy; this is a matter of using the same or similar word in close proximity. It is also a reason for rejection.
Guest More than 1 year ago
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES is one of the best books on writing I've ever read. Don't be swayed by the review below, which is not only wrong, but factually incorrect and completely misleading. He says the 'whole first two thirds of the book are devoted to pointers like don't have misspellings or draw on your manuscript,' which is completely untrue. Those two topics are never even raised in the book, and any minor issues are only dealt with up front, in passing, in a few pages. On the contrary, the first two thirds of the book cover such important topics as 'Sound,' Comparison,' 'Style' and five excellent chapters on dialogue. He claims the book has 'no specifics and finer distinctions about what distinguishes good writing from poor' - but this is exactly what the entire book is devoted to. In fact, there is an entire chapter devoted just to 'Subtlety' and another chapter devoted to a subtle topic, 'Tone.' He suggests, as a reading alternative to this book, three books on writing, one of which I have read and is awful. This guy sounds like a spurned writer to me. The First Five Pages is one of the best books on writing there is.
jbrubacher on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a good instructional manual for beginning writers. The negative examples are too obvious and simplified to be much help, but the advice is sound.
fiverivers on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book may be of use to the novice writer who has no knowledge of the publishing industry or of the craft of writing. For myself, I found it a bit facile, to the point I would expect this book to be standard reading in a secondary school creative writing course.
chicklit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a practical book for those who want to publish novels and short stories. While it doesn't delve too deeply into the conventions of narrative and style, it provides some useful tips for avoiding common mistakes and punching up your writing.
sirfurboy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have never written a book for publication. Well - that is not quite true. I wrote one once long ago that was immature and frankly boring, and was rightly rejected once and I never tried again! Since then I have not found time to produce a better effort.With all that out in the open, I can say I am reviewing this book as an interested writer rather than a (currently) aspiring writer. Although had I read this book back in the day I wrote my one manuscript, I would have produced something very different.To be clear, this book is not a manual on how to write a book. The author's advice there is really just to get on and write! But this book focuses on how to get your book noticed and thus published. For this purpose I can think of no better book.Speaking with the experience of having been an editor and then an agent, the author brings real world experience of what it is like to work through a large pile of manuscripts, and the tricks of the trade that are used to whittle that list down to something manageable. His advice is that a book must grab the reader in the first five pages, and avoid some key and common stylistic errors in order to get noticed. (Other tricks on piquing an editor's interest are included too).Some will consider this advice and say "well that just means that good stories are getting rejected without being read". And the answer there is presumably: "yes, they are. But follow this advice and yours won't be one of them".For an aspiring writer this, I think, is a must read. I have, in fact, recommended it to several people who have told me they wish they could get books published, and I will keep recommending it unless and until I find something better. But I am not holding my breath.
karhne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Detailed, yet very basic. It covers a lot of ground that should be a given--spell things right, proper manuscript format--and seems to expect your first five pages have not yet been written. Put it on your "borrow" list, and think about buying Lukeman's other book, The Plot Thickens.
gilroy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book offers writers a good view into the world of slush that editors and agents wade through every day. As a prospective Author (since I'm already a writer) its offers tips on how to keep a manuscript towards the top of the pile. Each chapter offers a common issue that an editor or agent finds as a reason to reject the story in front of them, as well as solutions and examples. Its worth reading for anyone who wishes to be published.
LivelyLady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Easy to read tips on how to submit your manuscript as attractively as possible.
Theamwriter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't know what to expect when it came to this book. But it was suggested to me by a friend of mine to read if I was going to be a writer, so I picked it up. I loved the way that Noah Lukeman, the author, has tons of examples and insight on what to do and what not to do when you are writing. He explains with this examples on why certain things in your writing is bad, but gives you solutions so that you can fix them. I would recommend this book to anyone who is planning on being a writer, and would like some insight on what to they publishers look for in a story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a very good synopsis of writing pointers for novelists. However, if you are looking for a book about how to write a gripping first five pages, not how to write, this is not it. It's about how to impress publishers with your writing (because they don't have time to read further more than five page—they are swamped). I'm still looking for a book about how to make a great first chapter. Many pundits opine about what not to do, few can tell you what to do.
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ellison61 More than 1 year ago
Explains the how-tos of writing a book. Very helpful.
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