Free Samples – A Lesson in Editing, Writing and Marketing

I have a very, very, very special guest today. Jane. Yes, the Jane! The very one! Claudia Jane Peyton and I have been friends since the summer between junior high and high

CJP's self-portrait as Tetra Petrie in Regency disguise

schools. Jane is a writer, an artist, a musician (violin), an actress, a brilliant thinker, a creative cook — the list goes on and on. She’s also a full-time caregiver for her mother and a gold-medal friend. Plus, she shares my mother’s insistence on the importance of using the possessive with a gerund.

The last time we had lunch together, she told me about what sorting through free reads had taught her about the writing process, and I asked her to write it up and send it to me to post. She did, and here it is. Read and learn, children; read   and   learn.

As soon as I acquired an e-reader, I began searching for cheap reads.  Naturally.  Using as a source, I began downloading samples from a number of books, figuring this to be a reasonable start.  After a bit, just reading the summary and comments would lead to my  turning down the sample opportunity.  Something was happening, but I still didn’t know what.

I downloaded a whole book (free) by an author I knew a little.  The premise sounded good, and the sample convinced me.  I read the book and bought the three successive books in the series.  (Kay Kenyan, The Entire and the Rose)  Now, to shorten up the tale, after a good deal of sorting through this stuff on my e-reader, I had a significant thought,  “This must be how editors feel, reading through the slushpile!”

And so the lesson begins.  Really, guys, if your first three chapters (or MAYBE four) don’t get your book going in the I’ve-got-to-read-more fashion, your baby is NOT going to sell.  Really.  Honestly.  The editor (or agent) WON’T keep going until the good part. I wouldn’t, and neither would you.  If you want to really develop a citical eye, try my experiment.  Read through the slushpile of the internet.  Be sad if your book reminds you of the ones you don’t want to buy.  Then get working and fix it.  Dialogue circular, not getting anywhere fast?  Cut it.  Too much world-building getting in your way?  Work it into the story instead.  Don’t take to a character fast enough?  It won’t get better later; no one will read that far.  You only get 3 chapters.  Three.  Maybe four.

I had to keep notes on my sample reads in order to tell them apart.  Do that.  Very short comments.  Thus you begin the work.  Examine the authority of the author’s voice.  Amateur?  Or real writer?  You don’t really believe what they’re saying?  Don’t care where they’re going with it?  You know what I’m going to say next, right?

Observations on bad writing:  Get a good grammar and figure out how to use the possessive pronoun with a gerund.  PLEASE.  Think hard about how you name your characters.  I beseech you.  Don’t name your heroine “Star” just because they did it in the “LOST BOYS.”  It didn’t work there, either.  If you’re using an ethnic name, and you don’t know squat about the correct rules of that language, DON’T do it.  I’m talking to all you vampire lovers out there.  If you don’t know about Russian patronymics, don’t think you can make it up.  I’ll delete your sample so fast it’ll make your aluminum hat liner melt.  Waiting to reveal that tasty little secret, that your character is really a vampire/werewolf/goblin/zombie/married?  Waiting to indicate exactly what genre you’re writing in?  Please don’t.  I won’t be there for it.

Now for titles:  Do the same exercise.  You’re already scrolling through dozens of cheap reads already sorted by your genre.  Now observe which titles catch your eye, and which ones are so repetitious or generic that you can only summon a yawn and not a sample download.  I’m thinking of writing a vampire novel called “Dirty Rotten Bloodsuckers.”  Might get a second glance.  Yes?

I think you can see how much fun this is.  Try it.  You’ll like it.  Really.

So there you have it. Thanks, Jane, for your insights and advice. My mother thanks you, too.

And I would TOTALLY read a vampire novel called “Dirty Rotten Bloodsuckers”!

WRITING EXERCISE: What she said.

p.s. A gerund is an -ing verb or verb phrase. We talked about my using her insights on my blog not We talked about me using her insights on my blog.


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Free Samples – A Lesson in Editing, Writing and Marketing

  1. Jane

    May 26, 2011 at 9:51am

    Marian, you are such a special friend. Thanks.

    You chose the best picture ever. Know what we need to do? Share that particular Harry Mudd story with the world. Talk about a mash-up!

    P.S. I enjoy your blog lots. (And you’ve had that authentic author’s voice for a very long time.) Bye, now.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      May 26, 2011 at 10:23am

      Tanx, Jane! 🙂 And I have shared that Star Trek fanfic — and others — at my old weblahg, where they’re still archived: Fan Fiction

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  2. MM the Queen of English

    May 26, 2011 at 1:15pm

    Marian, you tackled a complicated grammatical construction –a gerund and its possessive pronoun —

    The Queen is impressed. I hereby bestow the title and rank of Princess of Grammar upon you for your efforts in making this a less grammatically messed-up world!

    We must never tire in working toward that goal!

    MM the Queen of English

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      May 26, 2011 at 1:32pm

      Your Majesty! I am overwhelmed at the honor! My mother will be so proud of me! 🙂

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  3. kelly

    May 26, 2011 at 4:42pm

    Love it.
    I use my Kindle and samples in a similar fashion.
    With some editors, you may only get a three line pitch or a blurb to get to those first three chapters.
    If you get those first three to an editor’s eyes, they better be good.
    Love the gerund comment.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      May 26, 2011 at 4:47pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Kelly! You’re right about pitches. I need to practice. Right now, my pitch is, “Ubba-bubba blibbuh-thuh.” Not very effective.

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  4. damyanti

    May 27, 2011 at 7:11am

    Really awesome post…I was laughing and taking notes at the same time. You have wonderful friends, marian!

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  5. Sara Deurell

    May 27, 2011 at 9:41am

    Hi, Jane! 🙂 Great post! I got my pitch practise by writing “staff recommends” signs for Borders, then applying the same tactics for making OTHER people’s books sound awesome to making MY book sound awesome. So far I haven’t succeeded in hooking an agent, however, so maybe I need some more practise. 😛 LOL!

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  6. Jane

    May 27, 2011 at 10:33am

    Hi, Sara! A secret between me and Marian (and now you): I actually DID name a character “Star” in a previous lifetime. I plead youthful indiscretion. See you soon, I hope.

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  7. Jane

    May 27, 2011 at 10:35am

    Damyanti, Thanks for the kind words.

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  8. Jane

    May 27, 2011 at 10:36am

    Kelly. Glad you agree. We must be genii. Wait a minute. We must be geniuses. Yeh.

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  9. James

    May 27, 2011 at 1:33pm

    Jane, thanks. You’ve got more patience than I do, though, if you read as far as the third or fourth chapter; with me the _first_ one has to give me enough interest to go on. That said, though, if a promising beginning flags by the third or fourth, I will most likely drop it then since by then I’ll have a good idea of the author’s pacing–that is, recognizing that moments of action will be interspersed with more contemplative sections, etc., but if a balance isn’t there, then I’ll have a problem with it. Also, I have an imaginary pet called the Action Hound and if I notice he’s fallen asleep or wandered away, that’s a signal for me to do the same (he doesn’t always insist on literal action, he’s okay with conversations, descriptions, thought and/or emotion, etc., but he does insist that even the “dull parts” advance the story).

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  10. Jane

    May 27, 2011 at 7:25pm

    Hi, James. I use the Action Hound rule when I’m writing on my comic book. It’s very useful (unless the critter starts biting!). I figure that there should be NO “dull parts.” However, an interesting part doesn’t have to be explosive or in-your-face. I just want the author to get down to business by advancing the story somehow. Thanks for your comments.

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  11. Conda V. Douglas

    May 27, 2011 at 7:58pm

    Ah yes, I have a new e-reader and my experience is much like you report. We must have a hook EARLY!

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  12. Jane

    May 28, 2011 at 9:12am

    Hi Conda. You made me think of Peter Pan just then. “We must get Hook!”

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  13. Silke Juppenlatz

    May 30, 2011 at 5:48pm

    I’m clapping. Loudly.
    I tend to grab my reader by the throat — or make them laugh. Both work.
    But I also agree on the free reads and samples.
    I’ve found a lot of free reads are just…not up to par. They may have high “sales” numbers, but that’s because it’s free. Check the reviews.
    The writing has to be stellar, grammatically correct, with appropriate sentence structure. If it isn’t, then don’t put it out there.
    I understand many authors want to build a name for themselves by offering very cheap or free ebooks. Beware of rushing into it, or you could build yourself a name all right — a bad one.
    One you didn’t mention, and which is a real deal breaker for me, is if I start reading a novella — and it turns out what I *thought* was a novella (20-35k) is really a short story (5-10k) and the rest of the book is nothing but adverts for the author’s other books. (Or as I’ve had in once case, a 2k story, and no less than six excerpts making up the rest of the “book”. I won’t name names, but the book is 99c on Amazon. This kind of thing is becoming far too common.)
    I’ve bought three of those so far, and trust me, I won’t be buying any others by those authors, because I felt cheated.
    If you offer a cheap read, then make sure people get value for money. If the reader feels like they were tricked into buying one long advert, they won’t pick up another.
    I would much rather see an author give me a full book, with a listing of their other books, because if I really like the one I got, I *will* look up the others.
    And if I like the sample pages — I’ll likely buy it.
    If they feed me excerpt after excerpt in a book i just bought — I won’t.
    Basically, as a rule of thumb: Don’t take your readers for a ride. (or only an emotional one, with the story you tell.)

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  14. Jane

    May 31, 2011 at 7:08am

    S.J., hello. I didn’t mention it, but I, too, check the stars and number of reviews on an ebook. Then I look at the distribution of scores. That tells me a bit more about the other readers’ ratings., really.

    I’ve not yet been stuck with all excerpts and no story, but I did find at least one author who had a rather large inventory of what looked from the size to be novellas. Her whole body of work, in fact, seemed to be that length. It set me to thinking. The sample I read made me want to read more in her world, but, so far, I’m still considering it, trying to figure out where to start, really. (I said the inventory was large.) Anyway, imagine writing a novella instead of a huge, sprawling novel every time you have a project. Yeah, sounds appealing on a lot of levels.

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