What is Fiction Technician?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how e-books are changing the publishing business. It’s generally agreed that the effects are enormous, but as yet unknown. E-books are having an effect on the profitability of brick-and-mortar stores, on the cost of self-publishing (and therefore its prevalence), on basically every aspect of publishing.

But they’re changing more than that. They’re changing the way we buy books.

For people like me, who do most of their reading on an e-reader, I suspect that the book buying process has become much the same: download a sample of the book and read it. If you get bored, stop. If you get to the end and you’re still interested, buy the book.

For the first time in history, readers have an infinite amount of time to spend with the first pages of a book before they decide to buy. The implications of this for writers are simultaneously completely obvious, and hard to completely get one’s head around. But one thing is clear:

The first ten percent of your book has become your last, and most critical, selling tool.

And that means that you must sustain reader interest at a pretty high level throughout the length of the sample. If it drops off, the reader just isn’t going to hit Buy.

The last book to fall victim to this drop-off, for me, was Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. It’s about a teenage spy who is captured and tortured by Nazis. The book takes the form of the confession they are forcing her to write. In the first pages, she makes it clear that she will confess all.

I was very into the premise, and very into those first few pages, wherein Verity outlines her grim circumstances. Had I been perusing the book in a bookstore, that’s as far as I would have read before I needed to move on with my day. On the strength of those first pages, I would have bought the book.

But as Verity moved into the meat of her confession, my interest waned. And when I got to the end of the sample, there on page 40, I wrinkled up my nose, trying to decide whether it was worth ten bucks to turn the page. I decided it wasn’t. I hit Delete.

For a while, it was hard for me to figure out exactly what it was that made me lose steam on Code Name Verity, until I remembered something Orson Scott Card said when I attended his Literary Boot Camp in 2010.

Forget “hook,” he said. Give us a reason to care.

It was then that I realized that Code Name Verity was all hook, and no reason to care. The hook was top notch: Girl spy! Being tortured! By Nazis! But once we moved past that initial hook, there was nothing to hold me. Her confession dealt with characters who the narrator seemed to find fascinating, but who I frankly did not. In fact, I found them rather typical: plucky girl pilots running about being plucky—without, as yet, any real problems to deal with. I knew they would be recruited into the war effort eventually, but it hadn’t happened yet, and I didn’t know how long it would take. And I didn’t care about any of them.

That hook was enough to get me through 40 pages. But it wasn’t a reason to care, and it wasn’t enough to sell me the book.

And that, essentially, is what Fiction Technician is about: looking at the initial samples of e-books from a writerly point of view. I’ll look at character, pacing, tension, et al, all trying to answer one question: Why is this book selling? Or why isn’t it?

If you’ve recently walked away from a book that couldn’t hold your attention throughout the sample, let me know about it in the comments. How are you buying books these days?

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