Hook Me Early or Don’t Bother

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.

Darn… Didn’t Finish

It’s August 1st, and I haven’t finished the draft of that next novel, Debts of My Fathers. I’m around 75,000 words, and I probably have another 15,000 words to go.

So, what happened?

Well, first of all, it’s not a disaster. I’m probably going to take a few days off and then pick up and finish it off by mid-month. However, it is a little disappointing. My previous three novels were all done as NaNoWriMo’s, and I hit the 50,000 word mark by November 30th in each case. (Plus, I did another NaNoWriMo even before those, but that novel was never completed.) So I’m used to setting a deadline and meeting it. This time I didn’t.

The deadline was to finish the novel by the end of July, and the novel felt like it was going to be around 90,000 words. So with 60 days, I set a pace of 1500 words per day. I did pretty well until mid to late July, and then I started faltering. Partly it was that I had two weekend conferences (20-22nd and 27-29th) that sucked up some of my days. They also pushed other tasks off of the weekend and into weekday time that I would have been writing. It’s also summer, and I’m dealing with the kids a lot. So, to that extent, it wasn’t so much writer’s block as much as it was having trouble making the hours in my schedule.

But it was also at least a little bit of writer’s block. I’m not a big fan of waiting for the stars to align before I can write. I put my butt in the chair and write. But still, some days I write at the pace of 1000 words per hour, and some days I write at the pace of 200 words per hour. Generally, the faster I write, the better the text, so it’s not like I’m spending hours carefully crafting those magic 200 words. The last several days of July were a lot closer to 200 words per hour than 1000 words per hour.

To some extent, I’m not that surprised. Of the three novels I completed before this, I hit a rough patch at around 70-75% of the way through on each of them. It actually caused me to set each of them aside for a while. The first one had a pause of almost two years. The second one caused a pause of about ten months. The third one was a pause of a few weeks. I’m not sure what it is about that spot, but while I won’t call it writer’s block, it might be at least a writer’s cramp. Hopefully, the pause will be even shorter this time.

So I’m going to take a few days off from the novel draft, though it probably will not be a few days off from writing. I hope to get ahead on some blog and essay writing and possibly even do a little bit of flash fiction. Then I’ll wrap this one up by mid-August.

I’ll let you know when it wraps up.