Authors 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.