Choosing a Book Excerpt

Book ExcerptAuthors have a lot of blind spots when it comes to their own books. Writing the book turns out to be the easiest part of all the other stuff you have to do. A lot of authors have trouble selecting a passage to feature as a book excerpt. I believe there are two major reasons for this. The first (and probably the biggest contributing factor) is that the author knows the context of every scene in the book and is therefore unable to understand why someone reading the passage without context might not get it. The second reason is an almost paranoid impulse to prevent “spoilers.” A number of sites showcase book excerpts as either a stand-alone feature, or in combination with author interviews. A lot of authors also provide book excerpts on their own websites. It’s a good opportunity to get a sample of your writing out there in front of some readers (hopefully future fans) who may not yet be acquainted with your work. Of course if the sample falls flat the reverse effect is achieved. It’s worth putting a little thought into choosing the right excerpt. Here are a couple of considerations that may help you:

1. Don’t give away what the reader can already get for free. When looking for an excerpt, just forget all the stuff they can already see from the “look inside” feature. That’s already out there for them to see. Give them something else, something exclusive. If it piques their interest enough to go to the book page and have a look, you get a second chance to hook them with the “look inside.”

2. Choose a passage that is representative of the themes of your book. The purpose here is to give readers a chance to get to know what the book is about and the style and voice in which it is written. The passage you choose should be a good ambassador for your book. Don’t choose the single funny scene in a book that isn’t really meant to be humorous. If it’s an action-adventure novel with lots of fights and car chases and explosions, don’t choose a scene where the main character is having coffee and talking to her mom.

3. Don’t give away big secrets, but little ones are okay. Worried that every little twist and turn is just too precious to give away? Don’t be. Show off your ability to surprise a reader and they’ll want more. It would be a spoiler to show the prospective reader that Darth is Luke’s father, but it will intrigue them when Obi uses the mind trick on the guards, telling them these are not the droids you’re looking for.

4. Don’t go past the hook. More is at stake than choosing a sample of the correct length. Don’t get sucked into thinking you have to go all the way to the end of the scene if there is a good hook before that. Likewise, don’t feel you have to start at the beginning. You can probably leave out the bit about your character picking out a tie.

5. Choose a scene that does not require context. Of course every word you write is a solid gold nugget crapped out by the ghost of Hemingway, but if the excerpt requires the rest of the book to be understood or appreciated, it fails in its primary mission. Make sure the scene can stand alone.

6. Avoid flashbacks. A flashback can be a useful literary device to remind readers of a series about things that have gone before, or to explain the motivation of certain characters, but your book isn’t about a flashback (probably). You’re working with limited space. Keep it in the now.

7. Look for a good balance between dialogue and narrative. If your whole book isn’t dialogue, why act like it is? Likewise with narrative. Show off a little of both, so your soon-to-be readers will get a nice taste.

8. Obey the rules. If you are submitting an excerpt to another site, make sure you are clear on their criteria. They may ask for a certain word limit, or that you not submit scenes with graphic sex or violence or a lot of F-bombs. Sometimes that takes a little work, but it is usually doable.

9. Ask your readers. Still having problems? Ask your readers which was their favorite scene in the book. Mine your reviews to see what people talk about the most. Sometimes, you just need an opinion from someone who is not waist-deep in the book.

In summary, a book excerpt can help you or hurt you. If you bear these suggestions in mind when making your choice, you’ll find the task less daunting. Got any tricks for finding a great excerpt? We’d love to hear about it.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

27 thoughts on “Choosing a Book Excerpt”

  1. Stephen, you make some excellent points, and some that I had not considered, either. Great, insightful post. I”ll definitely keep it in mind in the future.

  2. Great advice. I struggle with excerpts but have been flexing that muscle with microcerpt and bublish. And of course, features on IU…

    1. Thanks, Julie. This is just another one of those things we take for granted, that seem almost a no-brainer, but sometimes end up becoming mind-boggling.

  3. Stephen, how long would you suggest for an excerpt? Or does that primarily depend upon the reason for/ place of submission? (Point #8.) I have my marketing post for Amazon and other product sites all drafted up, and that includes a one paragraph italicized excerpt before the “book description”.

    Also, and on an unrelated note, I’m still bumbling my way around IU–all sorts of helpful articles like this one–but I can’t seem to find a mailing list or anything other than an RSS feed or specific posts to which I can subscribe. If you could point me in the right direction for a newsletter or the like, that would be great 🙂

    1. Oh my…Just saw the “Subscribe” header. I have nothing to blame but my absentmindedness for that! Please ignore the latter part of my post.

    2. Christian, I don’t think there is a good answer for that. It needs to be as long as it needs to be to get the job done, but it is only a sample. Very often, especially in the middle part of books, the beginning of one chapter connects to the ending of the previous one. In those circumstances, you can probably discard the first part and get right to the meat. In some circumstances, the real hook is the shift of POV that comes between chapters, so using the end of one and the beginning of the next can be quite powerful. Here, we have two approximate excerpt lengths we use in different features. One is a 150-word excerpt and the other is a 750-word excerpt. I know some other sites offer longer excerpts. If you select the right passage (and your writing is good), you should be able to hook a reader quickly.

      1. Thanks for the information, Stephen. I think its a good excerpt. Sets the tone quite nicely, since the “meat” of the book description is mostly character focused. We’ll see in a few weeks once its launched and all out in the open 🙂

  4. Great advice, Stephen! A lot of sites want “first chapters”; but when given the choice, I will opt for a more interesting excerpt that represents the theme of my novel. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Linda. I think giving people a little something more or different than they can get from what they can already see when they use the “look inside” feature is a pretty sound approach, even if your fist chapter is awesome. 🙂 But in truth, a lot of writers use the first chapter to introduce the cast and set the stage. Very often, the story doesn’t really get underway until later.

  5. Great page Stephen. I so agree with you. You covered all the bases and did a good clear job of it. It’s so hard to give away (secrets) even if they are rather small. I am getting better. I mean so much is given away in people’s reviews. Sometimes the entire storyline so I have learned to let go a little. I do like sharing excepts but cutting them off mid-sentence even. Kind of cruel. That’s what I like about it. If it’s that cruel the reader will want to pick up the book.

    Awesome advice on each point. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brenda. It is hard to let go of those little surprises we so carefully build into our stories, but we use those to keep people turning pages, and we can use them to pique interest in the book as well. 🙂

  6. Good points, Stephen, thank you. The one about choosing a passage representative of the book is particularly helpful. Or else you could end up giving the reader a bait-and-switch. And that’s never pretty.

  7. Better late than never to see this. Many thanks. Great advice to use from now on. Now that you point things out, it does seem rather obvious. I have missed half of your list of suggestions, but no more. Thanks again.

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