On Writing: Sample, Meet Wall

Now let’s hit what happens when samples go wrong.

Fair warning, I love hardcopy. I grew up without a reliable power supply, much less Internet, so I appreciate having something I can read even if the lights go poof for weeks. I also tend to have fingers in four different places in a research book at once when I’m juggling idea-bits, which is easier with paper!

That said, e-books have advantages. Key among them being that if you have power and internet, and can’t get to a bookstore, you can still browse websites, download a bunch of samples, and scurry off with them to test out which books might be for you, which just aren’t your thing, and which make you want to find the writer and, Patrician-style, hang them over a Pit of Death with “LEARN THE WORDS” carved in full view.

Ahem. As a writer, you want to avoid this fate. So how do you put your best writing foot forward in a sample?

First, remember that your cover takes up part of the file-space. If you have a simple cover and a lot of text, this will not take a huge chunk out of your 12%. If not… there’s not much more disappointing than opening a sample and finding you’re already more than halfway through the file. One LN sample I opened, I got the cover, the title page, a map – and that was it. You want people to have enough in the sample to judge your writing style and what your story’s about. If they can’t, they’re likely to not bother at all.

Second – proofread and edit. I cannot stress this enough. Misplaced punctuation marks, repeated words, “they went over they’re” instead of “there” – all of these will make me delete a sample faster than you can say, check please. They’re marks of carelessness. If the writer didn’t take the time to fix technical bits like that, what does that say about the level of effort in the rest of the story?

Third… this may be more of a personal preference, but constant uses of “he said” and “she replied” belong in hardboiled noir, not regular genre writing. The stray said or replied, no problem. If every bit of dialogue is marked that way? I’m gone.

Related to that, whether you’re writing first or third person, putting paragraphs-long character descriptions that go into lingering detail of just how fun/evil a character is, their hair, eye color, personal wardrobe style, and zodiac sign, in the first few pages, will all have me walking away. Stick to the basics of description, build up details over the course of the story. Let the character show the reader what they’re like. Open with just enough detail to hook the reader. “My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and there is a slight flaw in my character. You got a problem?”

Finally, check what’s actually in your sample. I recently walled no less than three samples, all by the same author, because the readable section consisted of: Title page. Table of Contents. Listing of all the other books by the author. A multi-page dedication to everyone who helped the author write the book, with a peppy hope that the reader would enjoy it as much as the writer enjoyed writing it.

…Which, y’know, is kind of difficult when there isn’t even page one of the story in the sample to read. Augh.

Your sample is the last advertisement before someone decides to press Buy. Make it good!

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21 thoughts on “On Writing: Sample, Meet Wall

  1. Wow, you are reminding me of a sample which had an excerpt from Shakespeare’s 12th Night, then spent the first three pages story pages rewriting it. While putting no effort into grammar or spelling.

    Yeah, that didn’t go any further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is exactly what happens — but it’s the writer’s responsibility to know that. Even if you can’t check the sample before the book goes live, you can always check it, find a problem, make a horrified face, and then reformat and re-upload.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. What I meant is that it’s entirely possible they don’t realize they have a sample.

        Someone might’ve uploaded before they started offering samples, then someone else came along and automatically generated them for all the books, and suddenly everyone can read your acknowledgements page in all it’s glory.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Note that proofreading can easily take half-a-dozen passes to get typos down to 1-in-10,000. Which I still find to be a cringe amount in my own writing. Even 1-in-100,000 is too much.

    But at some point you get sick of reading that chapter for the nth time.

    -Albert

    Liked by 3 people

      1. The one that always irk me is “weary” vs “wary” specifically because they’re close enough in meaning that you can’t tell from context which it should be.

        I am wary of potholes on the road. (I need to drive carefully)
        I am weary of potholes on the road. (I am sick and tired of potholes, so I will write to the city.)

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Then there’s the one that apparently marks me out as American. I have no idea how often I’ve gotten annoyed at someone using ‘homely,’ which I always knew as ‘ugly,’ instead of ‘homey’ meaning comfortable and cozy. Only apparently the British version means ‘comfy and cozy.’ Argh. Learn something new every day.

        Liked by 4 people

      3. Yeah, had that bit of culture clash when I first read The Hobbit. Elrond’s place is the Last Homely House? Huh? Oh….

        RE weary vs. wary: that one is very annoying. Just ran through some excellent light novels (Asato Asato’s 86 series, for the curious) and I loved them, thought the prose was actually pretty good. But weary got used when wary should have been *a lot*. I don’t know if that’s on the translator, Asato’s editor, or Asato herself but it was annoying. Though since that’s the biggest complaint I have regarding the novels right now, it isn’t much.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Sometimes samples from audio books are worse. I like to grab them to double check if I’d actually be interested, because dang can a narrator make or break an audiobook, and in the sample, they definitely cut out some passages that were in the main audiobook.

    Also, Cameron Beirele is a first rate narrator and I will accept no criticism. (Though hopping from one series with him to a different series with him was weird. Kudos to him, the characters in the new series do not have reused voices from the first one.)

    Going over a sample is useful, and kinda reminds me of when authors would include a sample from the next book in the series or another book by them at the back. Which makes it very irritating when an author doesn’t seem to understand the way samples work. I’m not going to “peek inside” if the sample I got was crap. And please, save the long acknowledgments for the end, when people have worked up a reason to care about who helped you with the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My pet peeve is “ordnance” vs “ordinance.”

    “Clip” vs “magazine” is another, although that’s more a *technical* annoyance than a “dammit autocorrect!” one.

    Once, many years ago on the (sadly now-defunct) FFML mailing list, someone tried writing a short Ranma fanfic, and then let Microsoft Word’s spell-checker correct *everything* however it wanted (this would have been late 90s, IIRC) for the lulz. The results were… *memorable*. Especially what the American-English spell checker did to all the Japanese names.

    Serious question: How much authority does an author even have over samples? I mean, if you self-pub on Amazon, and Amazon just auto-generates a “first X% by bytes” sample, can the author even do anything about it? Multiply by however many different platforms, then by how, forex Amazon.US may be completely separate from Amazon.UK…

    For audio samples, I imagine it could be even worse, especially once foreign-language versions come into play.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it may in part be a “lag” issue. Putting maps, TOCs, dedications, etc, at the *front* of a book has been pretty standard practice for a long time, in my experience. It has inertia. Meanwhile, E-Publishing and self-publishing have shaken up the entire industry in the past decade, and auto-generated samples are a new thing on top of that. A lot of these authors probably don’t even *realize* the problem yet.

        It’ll be interesting to watch how awareness of the problem propagates. Authors will probably start changing the way they structure books to compensate, while the people writing the sample-generating scripts will probably try to make the scripts smarter. Where the two ends meet in the middle will be interesting to see.

        Riding the tech tidal wave is non-stop fun, ain’t it? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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