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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Your "LOOK INSIDE!" Book Preview: Will it Turn Readers Away or Close the Sale?

by Anne R. Allen

I get a lot of bargain ebook newsletters: BookBub, Fussy Librarian, Kindle News Daily, EBUK, etc.

Often a book intrigues me enough that I click through to look at the book's full details on the retail site. But I almost never buy. Sometimes the full blurb or a review will stop me, but 90% of the time, it's the sample chapters that turn me off.

I do admit I'm extremely picky these days, since I have a Kindle full of unread titles. I don't really want to buy new books—I get the newsletters mostly to see what's on the market—but sometimes a book intrigues me enough to click through to the buy page.

Unfortunately, with an awful lot of books—not only self-published, but some trad-pubbed as well—I can tell I'm not in competent hands from the first few pages.

I admit this is subjective. Some people don't mind reading less than polished books as long as the story is good—and the indie movement faithful often say "writing rules don't exist anymore because of self-publishing."

But some of us see a problem with this attitude. Blogger Jefferson Smith says, "I think indie books need a bit more tough love. Too many books are being published, for which real money is being charged, that aren’t up to professional standards. Sure, I may only be one opinion, but too many of the people indie authors turn to for criticism seem willing to let weaknesses slide a little. And in that process, we all suffer."

I share his opinion. I know this is partly because I've been a professional editor and worked at a traditional publishing house, so to me, reading amateur writing feels like work. I want to relax and immerse myself in a story, not constantly fight the urge to reach for a red pencil.

So whether you're self-publishing or trying to snag an agent or publisher, remember the early chapters are the most important part of your book—and your most powerful sales tool.

Yes, I said early chapters, plural. Not just the first five pages, which is where we've been taught to put most of our energies.

This has changed, like so many other aspects of publishing, because of new technology.

The "Look Inside" on retail sites is generally 10% of the book. So we have to make sure the story and quality don't begin to sag after that big first scene.

You have more room to make your case and sell the reader on your story. But you also have more room to show your weaknesses. So polish that first 10% until it shines.

Here are some things that will stop me from buying a book after taking a  "LOOK INSIDE"

1) The story comes to a dead halt every time a new character appears—usually followed by a paragraph of police-report description.

This is classic first draft stuff. We all want to describe our characters when we meet them. But that description needs to be cut out of the final piece. Put it in your outline, writing journal, or series "bible" for future reference. But don't bore your readers with it. Let them use their own imaginations.

Yes, I know you've seen this convention in lots of classic genre writing. Garrison Keillor satirizes it in his Guy Noir radio sketches that mimic 1930s pulp fiction. (This is my own paraphrasing of a typical Guy Noir script):

"She was a curvy brunette who wore a dress so tight I could read the day of the week on her underpants. It was Wednesday. I could tell she hadn't been in Minnesota long because she didn't have that roll of fat around her midriff you get from Tater Tot hot dish…"

Do not write like this for a modern audience unless you're going for laughs.

2) Head-hopping

Head-hopping is one of the tell-tale signs of amateur writing. Everybody who has ever taught a writing class or workshop has to spend a good deal of time explaining point of view to newbies, especially the ones who stubbornly argue they should be able to write from as many points of view as they like—what was good enough for Edgar Rice Burroughs is good enough for them.

But the trouble is, this is not 1912, and you're not writing for a 19th or 20th century audience.

Because POV is one of the toughest things for a new writer to master, I advise new writers to start in first or third person limited (only one point of view character per scene).

Unfortunately, beginners are likely to choose the omniscient point of view—or what they think is omniscient—because it seems easier than trying to show the actions and feelings of many through the eyes of one character.

But it's the hardest point of view to do well. It also tends to seem old-fashioned. That's just what you want in epic fantasy, and it's fantastic for humor with a "stand-up" comedy voice. But it tends to sound dated in mystery or romance.

The problem with attempting the omniscient point of view when you're a beginner is that it usually slides into a slithery third person. The reader has to snake in and out of the consciousness of every character in the room. This leaves us not knowing who the protagonist is and we often don't know whose thoughts we're reading.

A confused reader is not buying your book.

You may be less tempted to use the omniscient POV after watching the You Tube video the Gunfighter by Eric Kissack and Kevin Tenglin. It's a brilliant parody of the intrusive narrator who takes over a story.

3) False starts

Yes, that battle between the spaceman and the dinosaur on page one is really exciting, and might make somebody turn the page. But when the reader sees on page two that it's only a dream in the head of five-year old Aiden, the protagonist's son, who can't decide if he want spacemen or dinosaurs on his birthday cake…you just lost the spaceman vs. dinosaur-loving audience.

Plus that opener did not intrigue the women's fiction readers who would enjoy the rest of the book.

Prologues can be false starts too, so be wary of using them unless you're writing epic fantasy or historical fiction, where they are often necessary to establish the historical context of the tale.

Another false start that's a pet peeve of mine is when the first point-of-view character you meet gets whacked at the end of chapter one. I'm just getting to know this person and now he's toast.

I know this is a convention of TV cop shows, but it doesn't work well in a novel. Give us somebody to root for up front and don't yank them away too soon.

When I get to see the first 10% of your book, I can see that I'm going to have to start all over again with another set of characters after that exciting first chapter and I'm gone.

4) Desultory dialogue

"Hi Aiden."
"Hi Connor."
"What you doing?"
"Nothing much."

Um, no. Beginners write dialogue the way it really sounds. The pros have learned how to put in just the good stuff.

5) Clunky dialogue tags

"Hi Aiden," yelled Connor happily as he finished his oatmeal and put on his jacket and ran out to meet his friend.

"Hi Connor," screamed Aiden energetically as he jumped off his bike and pulled his catcher's mitt from his backpack.

"What you doing?" squealed Connor awkwardly as he grabbed his baseball bat and ball from the front porch.

"Nothing much," Aiden hissed lethargically.

I know most people who've gone to the trouble of publishing a book don't write this badly, and I'm exaggerating. But I want to show the things that make a dialogue tag amateurish:

  • It's unnecessary for clarity
  • Uses thesaurus words instead of "said," which is invisible to the reader
  • Describes a series of actions that's impossible to do while saying the line of dialogue, including "hissing" a phrase without an "s."
  • Uses the old fashioned: "said he" instead of "he said."

6) Adverbosity

I'm not in the 100% anti-adverb camp. I certainly don't want to make a blanket condemnation of a useful part of speech.

Saying "the man was almost good-looking" is not the same as saying "the man was good-looking."

Adverbs can show a character's personality and they're often necessary in dialogue. Plus if you're writing from the point of view of a tentative person, adverbs are going to be part of the characterization.

BUT when you run into an adverb when you're editing, always make sure you can't do without it. One of the marks of an amateur is the use of adverbs to create drama instead of active verbs.

To see some examples of cringe-worthy adverbs, see #5.

7) Imprecise word usage and incorrect spelling and grammar

A paying customer is not your third grade teacher; they won't give you a gold star just to boost your self-esteem.

Spelling and grammar count. Words are your tools.

If you don’t know the difference between lie and lay or aesthetic and ascetic and you like to sprinkle apostrophes willy-nilly amongst the letters, make sure you find a good editor with an eagle eye.

You wouldn't hire a plumber who didn't know how to use a wrench and I'm not going to buy a book by a writer who doesn't know how to use an apostrophe.

8) Clichéd openings

I read a lot, so I've seen some things so often I get a case of the yawns when they show up. The problem with some great ideas is a whole bunch of people have had the same great idea already.

The most common is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers, whether short story, novel, or script. Here’s a hilarious video from the comedians at Script Cops.They say, "78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off."

Here's a list of clichéd openings that can drive readers away if they read like same old/same old.

I'm NOT saying you can't use them. But you need to present them in a fresh new way.

Because I like breaking rules, I open my new book, So Much for Buckingham with a "weather report," but I hope it's short and funny and different enough that readers will go on.

"Morro Bay fog did not creep in on little cat feet like Carl Sandburg's Chicago mists. It galumphed on elephant hooves and moved in for the summer. Why didn't people warn you that "sunny California" could be so gloomy?"

9) Confusing the reader on purpose

I know it can be fun to withhold the information that your characters are all goldfish in an aquarium. Or name every character in your story "Irving". Or give them no names at all. Or maybe write in the second person plural and provide no dialogue tags. Or change your character's gender in every other chapter.

This kind of stuff can be brilliant and fun in flash or short fiction, but it can't often be sustained in a whole novel. Yes, I know some great authors have done it, and yes, I've read Virginia Woolf and Joshua Ferris and Brett Easton Ellis. They did some of those things brilliantly. (Although I think anybody who can get through Woolf's Orlando deserves some kind of medal.)

I'm a fan of literary fiction, but literary writers who aren't already well-known need to earn the respect of their readers first. Showing off how clever and quirky you are isn't going to make the sale if there's no solid story up front.

10) Info-dumps and "As you know Bob" conversation

When the first few chapters of a book are used for info-dumps—telling us the names of characters, what they look like, what they do for a living, and details of their backstories—before we get into the story, you know you're not dealing with a professional.

A pro knows that exposition (background information) needs to be filtered in slowly while we're immersed in scenes that have action and conflict.

Another big turn-off is "as-you-know-Bob" conversation:

"As you know, Bob, we're here investigating the murder of Mrs. Gilhooley, the 60-year-old librarian at Springfield High School, who may have been poisoned by one Ambrose Wiley, an itinerant preacher who brought her a Diet Dr. Pepper on August third…."

Bob knows why he's there. He's a forensics expert, not an Alzheimer's patient. Putting this stuff in dialogue insults the reader's intelligence, since nobody would say this stuff in real life. (In spite of the fact you hear an awful lot of it on those CSI TV shows.)

So how do you make that sale with the "Look Inside"?

1) Remember the buyer is probably skimming.

Use lots of white space, especially in the first chapter. That means short paragraphs, unburied dialogue and lean, uncluttered prose. For more on how to write for the 21st century reader/skimmer, here's my post on 6 Tips to Modernize Your Prose.

2) Introduce the protagonist on page one

Tell us what she wants and why she can't have it. Make us care about the main storyline of the book right away.

3) Give us immediate conflict.

This doesn't mean plunging us into the middle of a battle scene. It can be as simple as an author getting a bad review on Amazon, which is how I open So Much for Buckingham. Camilla's response to a silly review on page one is the inciting incident for the entire catastrophe that ensues.

4) Present several characters right away.

Starting with one person musing is a snooze, and a cast of thousands will just overwhelm the reader. Give us two, three or four characters who have interesting quirks and one we can really care about.

5) Break up your story into short chapters with great endings.

I love to see several chapters in an opener, especially if different chapters present different points of view. Here's a fantastic guest post from Jessica Bell on how to write chapter endings.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you think in terms of the customer who "looks inside" when doing your final edit? Do you find it changes the way you write? What are your pet peeves when you look inside a book you're considering for purchase? Are you willing to buy a book that seems amateurish if it promises to have a good story?

A note to European readers: Apparently the EU now requires disclosure of the cookies that Google uses for its analytics to gather stats for this blog. So you readers in Europe and the UK probably see a big gray banner across the top of the blog. If you hit "got it" the gray thing will disappear, they tell me. 


No Place Like Home 
99c this week on all the Amazons, and Nook

"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy-mystery"...Abigail Padgett
"A fun, charming novel about the rich and less so" ...Karen Doering
"A cross of dry British humor and American wackiness, and it all adds up to a fun read." ...Deborah Bayles.


Narrated by award-winner C. S. Perryess and Anne R. Allen (as Camilla)

Set in San Luis Obispo. Great for that morning commute...

Nearly 8 hours of hilarious entertainment!

Only $1.99 if you buy the Kindle ebook--that's three bucks for both!


Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest $4,000 in prizes. Entry fee $10 per poem. Submit poems in modern and traditional styles, up to 250 lines each. Deadline: September 30.

BARTLEBY SNOPES CONTEST   $10 FOR UNLIMITED ENTRIES. Compose a short story entirely of dialogue. Must be under 2,000 words. Your entry cannot use any narration (this includes tag lines such as he said, she said, etc.). These are the only rules. 5 finalists will also appear in Issue 15 of the magazine. Last year they awarded $2,380 in prize money. Deadline: September 15.

Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers  Entry Fee $15. A prize of $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of the prize issue is given quarterly for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not been published in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. Using the online submission system, submit a story of 1,200 to 12,000 words. Deadline: August 31. 

Creative Nonfiction magazine is seeking new essays for an upcoming issue dedicated to MARRIAGE. TRUE STORIES about marriage from any POV: happy spouses, ex-fiancees, wedding planners, divorce attorneys. whoever. Up to 4000 words. $20 Entry fee. $1000 first prize. Deadline: August 31. 

"I is Another" Short Fiction contest FREE! UK's Holland Park Press seeks unpublished short fiction, 2,000 words maximum, inspired by Arthur Rimbaud's famous declaration "Je est un autre" -- "I is another". Write a story in the first person about someone who is not you but which is about a subject close to your heart. Therefore the storyline will really matter to you but the story should not be autobiographical. It should have a strong theme such as betrayal, sorrow, lust, jealousy or revenge. £200 prize, plus publication Deadline: August 31.

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Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—Writers, pay attention! Anne is totally on-target! Like Anne, I've spent years as an editor/publisher. I don't want to read for work, i.e. mentally picking up a red pencil every few lines/words/phrases to fix/improve/delete/question. Depending on the genre, I want fun, entertainment, insight, excitement, thrills, chills, diversion, info if it's non-fic. Don't make me work! Had enough of that! ;-)

August 2, 2015 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The fifth item made me chuckle. That would be really hard to read.
Omniscient is such a difficult point of view to get right. I admit I'm not a big fan. It feels too impersonal.
I'm sure I've made many of those mistakes!

August 2, 2015 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

Most of the above is beginner stuff. Either the writer gets better the more they write and starts selling, or they give up after no sales. That's one of the reasons not to jump out and start promoting the first book like crazy instead producing new books. There's always something new to learn, and there's a big learning curve to get to the level where the professionals start taking notice. It's a hard industry because it does take a long time to learn to do different parts well.

But I have to disagree with getting rid of the character description. Most writing advice starts out with, "Most people get this wrong, so get rid of it" -- instead of saying, "Learn how to do it well." Why give up control of your story to the reader by leaving them to picture a character you didn't describe?

If a writer is submitting to magazines that want diversity, they have to-have to-have to describe all the characters. I was at a con where an editor had been doing an anthology call. She wanted diversity. She put it out everywhere. Out of the hundreds, she got in single digits diverse characters. Most of the writers did not describe the characters at all, figuring readers would fill in the diversity parts, and thereby lost the diversity the editor wanted.

No police report descriptions of characters. Use the character's opinion to describe the characters, and practice doing it well.

August 2, 2015 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--Thanks! I've bought a lot of books without checking the Look Inside carefully enough. Then I settle in for a nice read and chapter two or three will totally take me out of the story and put me in editor mode. Not what I want on my time off.

August 2, 2015 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--We've all made these mistakes early in our career. But in the old days, we didn't have the option of publishing our books before they were ready. Now there's so much pressure to "get that book out there" and start the next one. People don't take the time to learn the basics first.

That impersonal detachment of the omniscient narrator can be really great for humor. Carl Hiaasen uses it brilliantly. But it only works in some genres.

August 2, 2015 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--I agree 100% about people not putting a ton of energy into promoting a first book. I think it's best to put it aside until you have a couple under your belt and know what you're doing.

I'm not saying writers shouldn't describe a character at all. And I agree that we need diversity in fiction. But all we need is a mention of something that indicates ethnicity. In my novel Food of Love I have a lot of diverse characters. Sometimes all it takes is for a character to call another "that white girl" and you know the speaker is not white. As you say, the description has to be artful, not a story-stopper.

You can say, "She brushed back her turquoise hair as she prepared to plunge a dagger into his alien heart". But don't stop the stabbing to say. "She had turquoise hair tied in a zebra-striped scarf and her toenails were painted purple and green. She was wearing a De La Renta knock-off and faux pearls....and she really hated aliens from the Delta Quadrant." That's the kind of stuff that screams "amateur."

August 2, 2015 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger Keith said...

Great list of things to avoid, Anne. Another one that I encounter in many historical novels is irrelevant detail. I suppose it's something to guard against in any world building but some historical novelists seem to believe I really care to have a revolver or room or a palace described in a way that drags down the story rather than advancing it or revealing anything new about its characters. I have been know to toss books like this across the room when the said unnecessary preoccupation occurs in the opening paragraphs.

August 2, 2015 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Bang on, yet again, Anne. Sharing this with my Crafting a Novel students, and also sharing the link on Facebook. I spend three whole hours on viewpoint in my college courses. For most students, it is a complete eye-opener. Nothing, but nothing, drives me crazier than head-hopping. As my good friend, a professional mystery reviewer said recently, "WHY can't people learn how to write BEFORE they publish?"

August 2, 2015 at 12:02 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Another brilliant quote from this post:
"We've all made these mistakes early in our career. But in the old days, we didn't have the option of publishing our books before they were ready."

August 2, 2015 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Keith--I agree! This is why I urge authors not to over-research. Then they're tempted to put every bit of it into their novels. Historicals are the worst. We don't need to know anything about that revolver unless it's used to kill somebody later on in the story and every detail that's mentioned needs to be relevant to the killing.

Everything else should stay in the author's journal. Or blog. Or Pinterest board. But don't put it in the book!

August 2, 2015 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Melodie--Thanks again for spreading the word to your students. Point of view stuff dominates so many critique groups. I know people who simply refuse to stop head hopping no matter how many people tell them it's amateurish. They're the same people who are always complaining about how agents are such meanies and "it's all rigged."

August 2, 2015 at 12:12 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Melodie--That's the crux of the problem isn't it? Self-publishing is a great thing for professional authors. But it has kept a lot of potentially good writers from succeeding. They're so busy promoting the first drafts they've dashed off that they never actually learn the craft of writing fiction.

August 2, 2015 at 12:14 PM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Anne, I'd like to personally thank you for each time in this article you said "except in epic fantasy". I was rising up several times to object and you sent me back down happy.
I think the thing about some indies pushing out a first novel "too soon" is that it has to be balanced against the learning process and their own personal satisfaction. I think I've done both better and worse than my first effort in the years since. But the achievement, having a deadline that I set for myself, a framework to build on: there is no replacement for that.
And I am sorry for your red-pen syndrome, Ruth and Anne! As a former teacher I share the impulse to an extent. But you must realize, we are in the minority? Lots of folks are JUST FINE with tales the way they're coming out now.

August 2, 2015 at 12:54 PM  
Blogger mindprinter said...

Hi, Anne, this is a fun one. The POV issue is true for a lot of writers and not just beginners. Sometimes without knowing it, we slip into another POV. I've done it and an editor caught it. But I didn't. One thing I learned a ways back at one of our Central Coast Writers Conferences from writer Sara Backer was a fun and interesting way to introduce a character. I think it's patterned on Ross Macdonald, mystery writer extraordinaire's technique that she calls The Funnel. Introduce a character in action, then provide a few telling details and end with an interpretive statement. Here's one of mine that isn't great but an example of what I mean: Letty came in carrying a trowel and a bunch of flowers. The hair was grayer, her face thinner, and she walked with a limp and a slight shaking motion as if she had a pebble in her show and was trying to dislodge it. (Not Shakespeare but in a few lines you hopefully leave an impression of the character with the reader.) Great post as always.

August 2, 2015 at 12:56 PM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Yes, the whole industry emphasis and obsession re promotion has perhaps skewed new writers into thinking mastering promotion is where they should spend their time, rather than mastering fiction skills.

August 2, 2015 at 1:14 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Will--I did think of you as I wrote those. :-) Different genres have different conventions, and editors need to keep them in mind.

As I said in the intro--some people only care about story, and they don't care about the calibre of the writing. I adored Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries when I was a kid and I'm sure they'd drive me up a wall now. But back then I was only reading for story.

August 2, 2015 at 1:32 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--It's true that we can slip up with POV even if we're pros. That's why we need editors!

I LOVE that Ross Macdonald quote. My dad was an Ivy League professor of Classics, so he wouldn't read much genre fiction. But he admired Ross MacDonald.

Your sentence is the perfect example of how to introduce a character the right way. Thanks!

August 2, 2015 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger Maria D'Marco said...

Yet another post for my 'newbie author' file! Editing primarily first-book authors leaves me with mental teeth ground down to nubbins most of the time and a bloody tongue.

The lack of sustained quality in the Amazon Look Inside option is frustrating, as I see material that could be so great -- if the author had just done two more edit passes.

I have heard many author-justified reasons for not wanting to put in the extra work to produce a well-crafted self-published book, but in the end, it comes down to who is willing to do the hard work.

When I take on an author's project, I make it clear that they have my wholehearted support, but also that I will demand that they write to a certain standard. Unfortunately, more and more of the self-published authors I encounter have no formal writing training, and in many cases, not too deep a respect for the craft either.

The path to novels via short stories, flash fiction, novellas seems to be fading with the advent/access of self-publishing and the 'everyone can write a book' perception.

I appreciate your link to the other post on Modernizing Prose, as I regularly have author clients who have difficulty grasping that concept as well.

In the end, the maturity of the book, to me, reflects the maturity of the author and their craft. I want to read a preview that releases my mind from 'editorville' and allows me the luxury of submerging in a truly well-crafted story. I want to love to hate a character, get upset over conflicts, dream about the dam thing! I want it to become part of my life experience to a point that I simply must tell other readers about it.

Thanks, Anne, for another pointed stick for my arsenal.

August 2, 2015 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Maria--I'm so glad this post will be useful to you as an editor. I think a lot of indie writers forget that, even though there aren't official "gatekeepers", readers do a lot of gatekeeping of their own.

I don't know why so many people think they can write books with no instructions or training, when they would never do such a thing with say, sailing. Or building a house. "I have an idea, so I can write a book" is just like saying "I have some wood and some nails, so I can build a house." You gotta find out HOW.

I cringe when some well meaning person says to me at a party "I'm writing a book. I'll let you read it when I'm done. You can give me a few pointers before I publish it."

I have to say "editors charge $30 an hour (and up), and I don't do editing work any more." They don't even know enough to know they'll need an editor. (And first, probably some classes and critiquing.)

August 2, 2015 at 2:02 PM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

I used to the mention method, and honestly, I always did too little when I did it like that. A busy editor could have easily skipped over and not noticed. For my main characters, I generally do a three sentence paragraph, ending with something a little emotional or opinion. Sometimes it's what they're wearing because that can be important in the setting, or what color or length the hair is.

August 2, 2015 at 4:15 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--That's good to know. Things do change in this business and we have to write for people who skim. So it makes sense that kind of subtlety might not work any more. Thanks!

August 2, 2015 at 4:36 PM  
Blogger Kessie said...

Craft is so important! My craft improves with every short story and book, and by leaps and bounds with every editor or critique partner.

Like you, I subscribe to a bunch of the book newsletters, and I read a lot of Look Insides. What I find infuriating are the people who do just what you say--polish that first 10%--then leave the rest of the book in first draft. I've recently deleted several hopefuls off my Kindle account because they were awful.

This "writing McDonalds fiction" mentality among indie writers is so unprofessional. I watch them discuss sales methods (and defend really bad craft), and I silently ask, "Don't you want to try to still be around in 50 years? Only the good books will make it."

August 2, 2015 at 8:59 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Hi Anne,
Thanks for another fine post. I use the "Look Inside" feature very much as you do. I also use it when considering a title as a producer/narrator of audiobooks. The "Look Inside" feature allows me to see more of the book than the author/publisher may have offered in the audition script. I've definitely chosen not to audition for any number of books for some of the reasons you list.

August 2, 2015 at 9:35 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kessie--Uh-oh. I didn't mean to suggest that people not polish the other 90% of the book. Just that they don't concentrate only on the first chapter.

I love your expression "McDonalds fiction". Maybe we should call it "McFiction"? And you are so right. It's all about sales techniques, not craft. And it's not only about what will be about in 50 years, but 5. Or maybe even next year.

August 2, 2015 at 10:09 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--Thanks for chiming in as an audiobook narrator!

This is becoming more and more important. Cars are even being built with audiobook players now. Audio is the future. So people should consider narrators as well as readers when polishing that final draft. Thanks for the tip!

August 2, 2015 at 10:11 PM  
Blogger Karen Pashley said...

This is one of the most useful posts I've read in a while. Thank you for offering concise, practical advice that any writer, beginner or not, should use. If only I had done more research and invested time in learning the nuts and bolts of the craft BEFORE I wrote my first few drafts of my first novel—Oh, the time that I could have saved! But, that's hindsight. We writers are a bit like slow-moving lava. The twists and turns we come across on our journey shape us into the pros we aspire to become. I will be sharing your post today. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

August 3, 2015 at 7:33 AM  
Blogger Karen Pashley said...

This is one of the most useful posts I've read in a while. Thank you for offering concise, practical advice that any writer, beginner or not, should use. If only I had done more research and invested time in learning the nuts and bolts of the craft BEFORE I wrote my first few drafts of my first novel—Oh, the time that I could have saved! But, that's hindsight. We writers are a bit like slow-moving lava. The twists and turns we come across on our journey shape us into the pros we aspire to become. I will be sharing your post today. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

August 3, 2015 at 7:34 AM  
Blogger ryan field said...

As usual I love and agree with everything. I rarely ever use prologues with any book I'm writing, however, I have one series out and each book has a prologue because they are mystery/suspense and I found the prologue helps set up the crime right from the beginning. I keep prologues short and sweet, though. I think prologues that run too long can be dangerous.

As for what to use as a sample, I still stick with the beginning of the book. I think that it's so subjective it's impossible to know what most people are going to like. I've seen authors who write erotic romance begin with a strong sex scene (as a sample) and I never did that. I never thought the sex should rule the erotic romance. I always thought the sex should move the story forward at certain points. However, I could be making a huge mistake by thinking that way :)

August 3, 2015 at 8:31 AM  
Blogger John Wiswell said...

The LOOK INSIDE typically lets you read the beginning of the book, and if the beginning of your book doesn't appeal to your target audience, then you've already got a questionable product. We rewrite our openings over and over to best hook people.

So I largely agree with you, particularly how being careful handling the ten possibly problematic items. Though I don't know if conflict is necessary on Page One so much as something interested. Conflict is often it, but truly arresting prose like the beginning of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria has also been proven to hook readers. My recommendation would be the give a sample of your book's biggest appeals upfront. If it's conflict, though, it can be an easy hook!

August 3, 2015 at 9:20 AM  
Blogger Leanne Dyck said...

I like that you included what not to do and what to do in your post, Anne.
I especially dislike point 9. I want to be entertained. I don't want to have to fight for the story.

August 3, 2015 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Karen--I'm so glad to hear you find my advice useful! I like your "slow-moving lava" metaphor. My career has been slow-moving lava, too. :-) Thanks for sharing!

August 3, 2015 at 9:57 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ryan--Prologues are problematic because they're so often misused as info-dumps or phony come-ons. Sometimes they're really necessary for clarity.

I agree the sample should always be the beginning of the book. Plunging right into a battle or chase or sex scene doesn't entice as much a as what leads up to those scenes. Sexual tension, not the act, is what will make people want to buy.

August 3, 2015 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

This is my problem with "some" of the indie books I've read. They polish the snot out of their first three chapters and then the rest of the book is a nightmare. If you want to make it in the biz, be consistent throughout.

August 3, 2015 at 10:05 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

John--Even literary fiction should have some conflict, so even beautiful prose should show some hint of a story to come. I worry about advising new writers to put a lot of show-offy prose in the first few chapters and leave out the story. That could turn off a potential reader.

If the book genuinely has no tension or plot, then it's poetry or a prose poem, so yes, put that flowery stuff up front. But I don't think an unknown writer is going to have much luck selling a book with no plot. (and conflict is what makes plot.)

If you're writing poetry, then yes, put that beautiful language front and center, but if you have a story, don't hide it from your potential reader.

August 3, 2015 at 10:12 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

This is brilliant! I love "You wouldn't hire a plumber who didn't know how to use a wrench and I'm not going to buy a book by a writer who doesn't know how to use an apostrophe." Ha! So true. Wonderful advice for the new writer and the sage. I'm going back and rereading my first twenty pages as soon as I finish this comment. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom!

August 3, 2015 at 10:25 AM  
Blogger Roland D. Yeomans said...

You're right: the LOOK INSIDE is crucial to get right. If we fumble that, we've lost a sale. Since we are self-publishing, we can format our books so that we do not consume too much of the LOOK INSIDE with preambles, dedications, list of pronunciation and get right into the meat of the tale.

Like John, I believe we must follow our instincts with the matter of conflict on the first page or so. The reader has to care about the character in jeopardy before the conflict truly means anything to her or him.

And I have had my reading pleasure ruined lately by listening to an audiobook with three characters named Jenny, Jimmie, and Janie. Argh!!!

As always an interesting post. :-)

August 3, 2015 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Leanne--I do too. I'm tired of stories where a necessary fact is withheld from the reader in order to create a "story question". That's not the same thing as a plot. Manipulating the reader is gimmicky and annoying.

August 3, 2015 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anne--That is so true. People even hire editors for just the first 10 pages and think their book is polished. As much as I dislike a lot of things about KU, knowing the number of pages a customer actually reads of your book can help us become better writers.

August 3, 2015 at 10:30 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christine--I'm glad this will help you polish your WIP!

August 3, 2015 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Roland--You bring up another aspect of the LOOK INSIDE I should have mentioned. Too much front matter gets in the way of a sale. Also, it encourages you to have chapter titles rather than pages of numbers as your TOC.

I think we're more likely to care about a character if he has a problem, than if we just get a description of eyes and hair color or the weather. Sometimes the conflict can be just a foreboding or an ominous feeling. But I think we need an idea hint at story or we're not going to turn the page.

Another major point!! Similarity of names is a no-no in any book. But it's REALLY a problem in audiobooks. I had a problem when I had a character in one book in my series named Ratko and then two books later I had a Ronzo. So I had to kill off Ratko offstage so I wouldn't have to have them in the same book. Thanks for the reminder!

August 3, 2015 at 10:45 AM  
Blogger Lily Silver said...

Thanks for this post, Anne. I loved the gunfighter video. reminds me of that old Carol Burnett skit years ago. The Gunfighter vid is priceless for showing how confusing oomniescent pov is?

August 4, 2015 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger Lily Silver said...

sorry for ? at end, cat bumped my hand while I was typing on ipad. Obviouly he needs to be petted. 😉

August 4, 2015 at 9:54 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lily--Watching that gunfighter video will certainly make me think twice before using the omniscient POV! Yes, it's very Carol Burnett.

August 4, 2015 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Yes. Pet the cat. :-)

August 4, 2015 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

Anne--I'm with you and Jefferson Smith all the way.
Here's how I see it: Lots of writers, almost all of them young, are quite savvy about social media. This makes them able to manipulate the new technology to market themselves and their writing. But a great many of them don't know how to write. Even so, they know how to massage strangers into becoming "friends," and friends buy other friends' books, even when they're terrible. Especially when the online friends don't know much about writing, either. Because that's what friends are for, right? In the world of online self-promotion, that's exactly what they're for.
But I've read quite a bit, and I know how to write. This means that the ONLY thing I rely on to guide me as a buyer of books written by people I haven't read before is the "look inside" feature. A page or two is all I need. With the virtual demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores, I don't know what I'd do without this feature.

August 4, 2015 at 2:53 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--You've got it down perfectly. There's a mutual admiration society of untrained indies buying each others' books. It's fine until somebody who expects professionalism stumbles by and forgets to check "under the hood." Then the customer complains to Amazon and then Amazon cracks down on all indie reviews, willy-nilly, and good writers lose legit reviews. Which has been happening recently.

The one thing I miss is the ending. I have to admit I like to check the last pages when I'm looking a book in a bookstore. I hate a downer ending, so I like to check. But I'm very weird that way.

Most people only look at the opener, and that's what counts.

August 4, 2015 at 4:52 PM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

In all my published non-short stories, I introduce at least two, maximum three characters at the beginning. With my first book, in addition to introducing three of the five main characters, I also set up the main plot of the entire book, all with the first chapter (five pages in length). Also in that book, I open with a cell phone conversation, and in my latest, I open with first with a general observation then with a very short conversation with two of the main characters.

As for perusing books the way you suggest, since I rarely buy books, I do the next best thing. At the library, if I see a book that intrigues me (title plus a few extra words on the cover, I'll pick up the book and read the inside jacket blurb, then I'll open randomly to a page and begin to read. If I'm hooked, I'll check it out and read it.

Only once has that failed me. I picked up a book (vampires in 1970's New York), but the snotty condescending attitude that the writer gave to the main character/narrator really turned me off (gave it a 2 star review I believe) and I didn't finish the book.

Father Nature's Corner

August 5, 2015 at 3:19 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

G.B.--You pick books the old fashioned way. That's what we all did before online retail sites started selling books. And that's still the way many people choose their books.

The point of the post was to tell authors how to prepare for people who shop online.

But even people who shop (or browse) in brick-and-mortar stores and libraries will be checking out the first pages (and if you're me, the final pages) They may not read the whole 10% the way they do online, but of course you want that first part of the book polished.

August 5, 2015 at 8:53 AM  
OpenID phantompoet1412 said...

I'm a new writer and I learned the hard way about studying the craft before publishing. I had a great idea (the readers loved it) but looking at a page full of two star reviews was very humbling-- to say the least.

I have a potential problem with the first ten percent of my latest novelette (The White Clover Project: Phase 1). The genera is suspense but the first ten percent (which is the first scene) reads like a murder mystery / thriller. I cannot write it another way because the beginning creates the suspense needed to pull the reader toward the event at the end of the story. If someone purchased my novelette and expected a thriller or murder mystery (based on the look inside), will that be a problem?

August 5, 2015 at 2:56 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Phantom--You probably heard all the hype out there from indie gurus who told you not to worry about the quality because "readers don't care about the rules". Yeah. Turns out they kinda do.

The lines between suspense, mystery and thriller are very blurred. You can't always tell which it's going to be in the first 10%. You have to show that with your cover design and blurbs.

There are so many flavors of all those genres. Cozy mysteries need totally different covers from noir mysteries or police procedurals or whatever. Write it first, then figure out how to market it.

August 5, 2015 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger Dr John Yeoman said...

True, Anne. You've pointed out so many of the newbie errors that beset indie books. (And a lot of others.) In these days of the 'fast gulp' Amazon sample we have to hook our reader on page one. (So we must shift all the legal boiler plate, disclaimers, acknowledgements and other dreck to the back. And try not to have page one be a mere list of chapters. Using Scrivener, that's a big challenge....)

How should we use that up-front 10% sample? By making page #1 an author's prologue that contains a teaser invitation to our web page. With a big incentive to visit it. And an incentive for folk to sign up to our mailing list, once they're there. Wherein we may tease them for many aeons to come with enticements to buy our next book. Or anything else. Who cares if that reader never buys our book? Or, if they do, even finishes it? We've captured their name.

As only around 1% of the readers who sample an Amazon book ever go on to buy it, that makes rational use of a sampling strategy. What do you think?

August 6, 2015 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dr. John--As I've been getting comments here, I've realized there are many more things to consider about the "Look Inside". I may have to do a second post on the subject.

One of the big things is that table of contents. I think it's a big opportunity to use chapter headings as an enticement to read on. But they have to be hooky chapter headings. Like the old 18th century chapter headings: "In which our hero encounters a lively lady, a disappointment, and a bear." Otherwise, those numbered TOC are a total bore which need to go at the end (my formatter offers that option.)

As for sneaking in a little advert, I'm not sure. I am right now writing a post on how much I hate email newsletters and this drive to amass the addresses of everybody on the planet for the purpose of spamming their email boxes. Not my favorite trend. But a link to a blog or website might be a very good idea.

Thanks! Much food for thought in your comment.

August 6, 2015 at 11:14 AM  
Blogger Marquita said...

I'm a voracious reader - which means I actually read all those books I download. I do agree with your points, but at the same time I tend to be pretty forgiving of an author if the story engages me from the beginning. There is one writer I know who's books have clearly never crossed an editor's desk - but you know what - he's written 41 books and I've read every single one because I really enjoy the characters and stories.

On the other hand, there are authors who are apparently "bestselling" and haven't been "new" for a very long time that pack so much praise for their writing in the beginning of their books that you barely get any of the actual book to read in the preview. And for the record, I ignore all that praise just as I do the 5* reviews because I know most of that comes from peers, followers and pals. I know this because I've been asked to write "praise" and submit reviews for book launches on more than a few occasions.

August 9, 2015 at 4:41 AM  
Blogger Kate Rauner said...

I suppose it's easier - and less scary - to cruise social media, build media kits, and fill in press release forms than cast a critical eye on your latest draft and work out the problems.

August 9, 2015 at 6:26 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Marquita--As I said, I know I'm pickier than most readers because I worked as a proofreader and an editor for many years. So story doesn't carry a book for me the way it does for most people. I think your experience is more normal.

The issue of "front matter" has been brought up by several commenters here and you're right. The old fashioned 10 pages of blurbitude in the front of a book does not work well in the LOOK INSIDE era. Those high-praise blurbs have been around since the beginning of publishing. Publishing houses get their more famous authors to write blurbs for the up-and-comers. That stuff is great on the back cover, but not for the preview. That should be in the "editorial reviews" section of the buy page.

August 9, 2015 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kate--Most newbie writers don't know enough to know how much work their manuscript needs. I know I didn't when I was starting out. As miserable as the old query process was, it gave us time to hone our writing skills before jumping into learning marketing skills.

August 9, 2015 at 9:31 AM  
Blogger Leslie Tall Manning said...

Great article!!!
As an author and an English Lit tutor, I can only add that I am constantly harping on my students to edit their work until their eyes bleed. Some of them want to take the easy way out because, "I see typos in books all the time." In other words, if published authors can make mistakes why can't I? Ugh.
But I do have one student who said to me last semester, "I can't read Wattpad anymore. There are just too many mistakes." I had to hold back tears of joy.
Although there are some young readers who do not see the value of editing, there are some who do. Let's keep that latter torch burning.
Edit your work, writers. That way the "Look Inside" will become the "Bought Item."
It's a win-win. Not just for your readers, but for the children who may become writers one day. : )

August 10, 2015 at 9:44 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Leslie--That's true too! If you put mediocre work out there, you're actually diminishing the language. The next generation may never know that apostrophes were anything but random sentence decorations or that there used to be something called "standard spelling." Protect our heritage people: learn grammar! LOL.

August 10, 2015 at 11:00 AM  
OpenID opaquedreams said...

Great advice. Of course I am in about a quarter in the first draft of my first book (probably half the planet is). Short stories or poetry is were I started and still continue.

However, I am writing a book as a set of vignettes. One event, the assassination of the Emperor, is witnessed live in billions of homes, ties the stories together as the reader is trying to figure out throughout the book, who killed him.

I am guess-temating that I will tell between 12 - 15 stories (or chapters), each of course from a different character point of view. I will finish with the Emperor's story.

However, now that I read this I wonder if I should start differently or if I should chop the stories up, to switch back an forth, and thus introduce maybe 30 chapters or so.

In the case a book of vignettes what do think is an opening chapter that hooks the reader to want to read more?


August 21, 2015 at 2:45 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Marco--When you're dealing with a short story, poetry or vignette collection, you want to start with your strongest piece with the most mass appeal to the emotions.

But in your case, when the stories are all linked by one inciting incident, I think you might want to start with that incident.

But you could also start with one of the more emotionally compelling reactions to it. You probably won't know until you have the whole book written. I always write the final draft of my first chapter last.

I definitely wouldn't recommend snippets of each piece. What you want is to draw the reader in, and that doesn't happen when things are chopped up. It's when they feel an emotional attachment to the story so they want to find out what happens next.

August 21, 2015 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Hi Anne - Here's another test from a browser I never use to visit your blog.

August 24, 2015 at 8:13 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks Charlie! It did come through!

August 24, 2015 at 9:17 PM  

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