Friday, March 19, 2010

The Perfect Excerpt

At left: Possibly the World's First Excerpt!
Excerpts—we love them, don’t we? There’s no better way to sample an author’s writing style than to read an excerpt. One entire Yahoo Group is devoted to “Excerpts Only for Romance Writers and Readers,” and many authors and readers post there on a daily basis.

However, there is a right way and a wrong way to post the perfect excerpt. Many writers have their own methods, from very long, to very short, somewhere in-between, at times concise, and at others, rambling. What is the best method of selecting a sample of your writing? How can you entice a reader to read your full excerpt? Choose one that contains dialogue or action, not just narrative, and keep it short and simple.

Consider the short story. The guidelines are: limit to a specific time, place, event, interaction, or character’s evolution. It is, in fact, a mini-novel, complete with a beginning, middle, and an ending, i.e., an abbreviated novel.

Attention span is the amount of time a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. Continuous involvement without any lapse at all is as short as eight seconds. The average adult who is engaged in an interesting activity or topic will remain focused for twenty seconds. People are also capable of longer periods up to two and a half hours when they are doing something enjoyable or motivating, such as watching a movie. Researchers have found that the modern adult’s attention span shortens as time goes on. The phenomenon of instant gratification in our technological world deters the attention span even more.

Now consider the excerpt. The guidelines are perhaps the same as those for a short story: one idea, one interaction, in one short time frame, wrapped up with a beginning, middle, and an ending, approximately three hundred words—a mini-short story with a hook at the end.

Here’s a test for you. How many words are in this article to this point? (310) How long did it take to read it? (Average adult-one minute.)

From a short novel for the Wayback, Texas Rodeo Series-Title: Showdown in Southfork.

Excerpt: Cody and Marla

Smiling lazily, he looked her up and down, at her short white shorts, pink stretch T, and red flip-flops. With that salacious grin, he continued back to her hair, hanging to her shoulders in a tangled mass of curls, but right now, there was no time to brush it properly. Some day she would just get it all whacked off and stop worrying about it.

“Stop staring,” she demanded.

“Well, I can hardly keep from it since you’re standing right in front of me.”

“Oh,” she muttered, straightened, and moved to the side.

Cody kept staring at her even though she’d moved out of his direct line of vision.

He drawled, “You know, if there’s anything I like in this world, it’s a woman with red hair.”

“It is not red. And if there’s anything I hate in this world, it’s a man saying my hair’s red. For your information, it’s strawberry blond.”

“Strawberry blond. Whadda you know? Now, I like that even better.”

Narrowing her eyes at him, she said, “Well, I’m just as pleased as punch.”


This short excerpt has three parts: Beginning: Cody stares at Marla while she watches him. Middle: they have a short argument. Ending: She has the last word. It contains 260 words. Reading time: 20 seconds.

Celia Yeary
Book Titles:
All My Hopes and Dreams
Showdown in Southfork
Texas Blue
The Wild Rose Press


  1. Perfect!! The perfect excerpt. Thanks for this, Celia. There are so many excerpts out there and while I want to read them, sometimes they're so long I don't want to commit the time.

    So what happens? *shrugs* Like many others, I say to myself I'll bookmark and come back later. Sometimes we do, sometimes we just don't feel like we have the time.

    This is right on target!


  2. CHIRON--thank you. I love to read excerpts, but I do become weary of them. But I noticed some authors had short ones with a hook at the end, like an ending or an enticement. I thought, how clever--that's the way to do it. So, see, I stole the idea! Celia

  3. Great excerpt! Thanks for sharing. I finished your book TEXAS BLUE. I loved it. I'm going to blog about it soon. Have a great Sunday!

  4. DIANE--Thank you from the bottom of my heart--you've made my day, and I thought it was already wonderful because the sun is shining! I can't wait to read your opinion--off to church here. Celia

  5. Hi Celia,
    I love your take on excerpts. In our rush-rush world I don't have time to read really long excerpts as much as I would love to. I also don't have a lot of time to post them. I really like the way you compared them to a mini-novel. Have a great day.

  6. Thanks, Rebecca--me, too! I do like to read exceprts--but as you said, I don't have all day. Celia

  7. Celia, thanks for sharing this information. Successful marketing is the key to sales, and powerful excerpts tie into that. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Hey Celia,

    Thanks for the post and the advice about excerpts. These are great things to keep in mind. Grabbing the reader's attention (and then keeping it!) are a must!

  9. Useful information. I like the points you covered.

  10. For my main excerpt, I always try to pick one that shows an example of the overall theme of the book and the underlying conflict. Then I pick others based on the situation/audience.

    Liana Laverentz

  11. Celia, I agree when posting to a list or a blog, it needs to be short (as well as have some hook, definitely). However, on the author's website, there should be more than that, enough to really be able to tell the writer's style and skill. Readers are wary buyers these days (maybe always) and I know if I don't get enough of a glimpse to be comfortable that it's worth the money, I won't bother.

    Nice post. We do tend to get saturated at times with promo and short with a hook is good. :-)

  12. Thoughtful post Celia. I like a short action excerpt. Your's is great!

  13. EA--thanks for the comments! Celia

  14. You're so right, Debra--if we lose the reader's attention, it's all for naught. Not good! Celia

  15. Good ideas, Liana. I hadn't thought about choosing excerpts for different reasons, but it makes sense. I'll add that to my list. Celia

  16. Loraine--you have a valid. I hadn't thought about excerpts we put on on websites, but yes, they should be a little longer. I was concentrating on those we post on loops--I like to read them, but I can't take the time to concentrate on one that's very long. Good advice--thanks. Celia

  17. MARY--right! Excerpts are best that have one of two things--dialogue or action. One that's all narrative usually doesn't grab the reader. Celia

  18. I tend to read the short excerpts. If they look too long, I skip over them. Great advice.

  19. KAREN-see? I knew others would agree with me! Thanks for reading--Celia

  20. Celia,
    You hit the nail on the head where I'm concerned. I like something that will grab my attention, but leave me wondering and wanting to read more. You did a great job with Cody and Marla.

    Thank you. I learn a lot from your blogs.

  21. LAUREN--I appreciate your sweet comments. I think sometimes authors just don't pay attention to the length of the excerpts--you know how it is, always rushing because of so many things on your to-do list for the day. Thanks for taking YOUR time to come by. Celia