The Right Excerpt

It’s not as easy as I thought it would be.

For years, I heard my author friends complain about having to select, and in some cases, create appropriate excerpts for guest blogs and readings. I would politely listen, sympathizing but wondering what could possibly be the problem after countless rewrites and edits.

As I prepare to write a series of guest blogs and organize readings in the area, I realize that picking the right excerpt can be a daunting task. What looks good on paper does not necessarily work in a live situation.

I can still recall an Open Mic I attended several years ago. I took mental notes as brave participants ranging from pre-teens to seniors shared their poetry, personal essays and short stories. The most effective readings were the shortest, and many of us were disappointed when those presenters sat down. We did not feel the same way about the gentleman who rambled on for twenty minutes, determined to read his entire short story (at least ten pages). As I surveyed the room, I caught glimpses of polite smiles, yawns, and collective watch gazing.

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Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from seasoned authors:

1. Start at the beginning. Knowing that most agents do not read beyond the first few pages, you have probably polished those pages until they gleam. However, if the first chapter is devoted to setting the scene or introducing back story, select another excerpt. One author hinted those pages should be rewritten if they don’t contain enough tension to generate interest.

2. Include a short introduction to the excerpt. At longer readings, you can discuss your writing journey and expand on the back-story. Open Mic sessions are more casual with the organizer simply stating the presenter’s name. If this is the case, include a few details about the manuscript. This is especially important if the excerpt comes from a published work or one about to be published.

3. Don’t be afraid to pull excerpts from other parts of the book, especially if you are planning several readings and participating in a blog tour. When selecting from the body of the manuscript, consider scenes that offer strong conflict or tension. A stand-alone slice-of-life moment also works well. Most important of all, keep it simple and do not waste precious minutes summarizing the entire plot or back-story.

4. Edit. This suggestion surprised me. The excerpt does not have to be cut word-for-word from the manuscript. Remove sections that can only be understood in the context of previous chapters. Descriptions can be wonderful when read at leisure but deadly if they stretch out the action and frustrate or bore the listeners.

5. Start from scratch. At one reading, a local author surprised us by creating a story based on her novel. She featured one of the secondary characters; perhaps, test-driving an idea for a subsequent novel.

6. End on the right note. While you don’t need a “happily ever after” ending, there must be some resolution or hint of a resolution. Don’t frustrate the audience and leave them hanging.

7. Don’t assume that five pages of text corresponds to five minutes of reading time. Depending on how slow or fast you read, you may only get through two pages of text. To be on the safe side, time yourself and bring only those pages you can read in the allotted period. Five minutes may seem like a long time to stand in front of a sea of faces, but it passes very quickly, and if presenters are not careful, they can lose themselves in their own work and overstay their welcome.

8. Honor the word limits. I am paying special attention to the word limits for guest posts, blurbs, and excerpts. As a guest, I do not want to impose on my host’s generosity. If she specifies 250 words for an excerpt, I will stay well within that limit. I shudder when I see blog posts with entire chapters masquerading as excerpts.

9. Experiment with swagger. We’ve all sat through readings where authors kept their noses in their novels and never looked up once. Not everyone can inspire and motivate like Tony Robbins, but authors should look up at intervals and use vocal variety and appropriate gestures whenever possible.

Most important of all, relax and use the reading, Open Mic session, or guest blog to connect with the audience and introduce those wonderful characters you have lovingly created and nurtured.

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About Joanne Guidoccio

In 2008, Joanne retired from a 31-year teaching career and launched a second act that tapped into her creative side. Slowly, a writing practice emerged. Her articles and book reviews were published in newspapers, magazines, and online. When she tried her hand at fiction, she made reinvention a recurring theme in her novels and short stories. A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne writes paranormal romance, cozy mysteries, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.
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8 Responses to The Right Excerpt

  1. Experiment with swagger. I want that on a t-shirt. Perfect, Joanne.

  2. Peggy Jaeger says:

    Joanne – fabulous tips!! I am incorporating ( read: stealing!) every one of them. My fav was the thought to edit. I never even realized this was a possibility. I just assumed you had to put in the excerpt the exact way it was published. You’ve given me PEARLS of wisdom today, girlfriend. Can’t wait to have you visit me next month -and any topic is okay!!

  3. kathybryson says:

    I agree with Peggy. I never thought about editing excerpt, but it would make sense. Do you an ellipse or just tweak?

  4. Hi Kathy, I wouldn’t bother with an ellipse. I think that would call the reader’s attention to what’s missing. Just tweak and go. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

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