I’ve just had a rather frustrating experience with a book sample. I was looking forward to this book. It’s SF from an award-winning author who I have previously read and enjoyed. The overall themes of the book are ones that interest me: Fermi’s paradox and first contact. It promised to be a good, intellectual story. The problem was that when I got to the end of the sample, the story had not yet begun.
The e-book samples for the Kindle are typically about 10% of the book. If it’s overloaded with front-end material, you might not get much of the narrative text, but most fiction books keep that relatively short. The paper version of this book is listed at about 800 pages, and the sample felt pretty long, though perhaps closer to 50 pages than 80. Still, it was a fair amount of text.
And yet, all of those pages were spent on introducing various characters going about their lives and showing off all the cool technology the author had imagined for this world. By the end of the sample, I had met seven or eight characters and also had some background text on the Fermi paradox, some poetry, and some of the recent history of this particular future Earth.
But I didn’t feel like the story had actually started. Instead, I had half a dozen story lines that did not seem to connect at all except that the character in scene fourteen was apparently the mother of the guy in scene nine. In fact, the only character I saw twice was really just one scene broken into two pieces a mere fifteen minutes apart.
In short, the author spent all those pages, and he never hooked me. I had not had enough time with any single character to develop a connection. In fact, the only character that had summoned any emotion from me was a spoiled brat who looked like he was about to die. My emotional reaction? “Good riddance!”
So when I reached the decision point for my purchase, I had not developed any connection with any character, had no desire to see what happened to anyone, and I still had no idea what the book was going to be about. The only reason I know that it’s going to be about Fermi and first contact is because the author has been promoting it like a broken record.
I think this has always been true, but it’s true now more than ever: You need to hook the reader early. How?
- Give me a few characters to care about. There can be others, but focus on just a few.
- Show how these characters are going to interact with each other. If they’re not obviously connected, give me some hints on how they will eventually connect.
- Make it clear what the inciting incident is and that it’s happening right now. Yank these characters out of their ordinary world in the first few pages.
- Show me a source of conflict early on. It doesn’t have to be THE conflict for the whole book, but at least put something or someone in jeopardy to keep me turning pages.
That’s about it. If you can hit those four things, I’ll keep going past the sample without even looking at the price tag. Miss all of them, and I’m going to go write about it on my blog instead.
And it’s a shame, too, because I was really looking forward to see what this author had to say on the Fermi Paradox. Maybe I should see if he wrote an essay on it.