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:

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!
Available at Audible  and iTunes


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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