Friday, January 21, 2011

How to Write the Perfect 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.)

EXAMPLE 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-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
New Releases
Texas Promise-eBook-Desert Breeze Publishing
Making the Turn-print & eBook-Wings ePress


  1. Good, solid advice. Thanks, Celia.

  2. Hi Celia

    I think you have it right from the POV of a writer. But from a marketing POV, I would try to determine the author’s strongest selling point and write the excerpt to showcase that ability in a way that the best prospects could not miss seeing it.

    It’s the old theory that if only 20% of beer drinkers drink 80% of the beer, then I want to write a very persuasive ad that favorably attracts the attention of that 20%.

    I think the perfect except depends very much on the author’s book. If the author writes wise-cracking comedy, then a very funny scene may be best. If the author writes exceptionally fine outdoor descriptions, and the book takes place in Alaska, her best descriptive scene may be the perfect choice. If the author writes historical fiction with great attention to historical facts, then a scene that demonstrates this superiority could have the strongest appeal to those fans who would most likely be prospects to buy her books.

    (In a sense, the marketing person is selling the author’s skill as a writer more than a specific book.)

    The key here is not to think that one size fits all.

    I really need to read one of your books so I could determine the best except for your work from a marketing POV. Of course, I would ask you what you believe your greatest appeal to readers is.

    (Find out what your best readers like best about your books and give them a sample of that – if you can.)

    What book would you suggest that I read first?


  3. VINCE--All your points are excellent and noted. You've hit on the one big truth: the excerpt should sell the author's skill as an author. Very true, one size does not fit all.

    I wrote this when I was discussing the value of shorter excerpts vs.longer excerpts on a Yahoo group.I owned another group for two years, and my partner and I offered two days to post excerpts. We tried to read all of them, but some were so excrutiatingly long, I couldn't. In fact, it annoyed me.

    Jacquie Rogers of 1st Turning Point asked me to write an article about it, so I did.

    Are you in Marketing?

    Which book? TEXAS TRUE is a finalist in The Romance Studio Book of the Year. TEXAS PROMISE is a finalst in Love Romances Cafe Book of the year.Of the two, I think TEXAS PROMISE is better.
    (it is Book One of The Cameron Sisters--Book II: TEXAS TRUE is out in April)

    I get great reviews--mostly fives--and reviewers say the same thing--my characters jump off the page, and they can visualize a scene as something real.
    Readers tell me they love my characters--that always comes first.I have three Western Historical Romances out and one Women's Fiction.In 2011, I'll have five releases: one Western Historical, three contemporaries, and one that's sort of historical, a coming-of-age sweet romance. So. I'm scattered all over the place.

    I love to write WH. The contempories just happened, all the while I was saying...I don't like contemporaries.

    My very good wise, educated, accomplished author friend who reads everything I write, told me recently she thought my contemporary voice was really better. Now what? This surprises me.

  4. Hi Celia;

    I have been in marketing for over 30 years. I’ve written over 3,000,000 words of advertising and I have taught marketing in college over the years. However, I was trained to be a philosopher with a minor in history. I thought I would be teaching high history but marketing seemed exciting and it paid better.

    “Texas Promise” is available for the Kindle and I will download it tomorrow. Do you have an excerpt already chosen for this book? I’d be interested in the excerpt you’d choose and compare it to the one I would use.

    I think excerpts should be different than sample chapters. I like your idea of short excerpts as long as they show the author at her best. I think sample chapters are weaker than short excerpts because they are less likely to get read. Besides, as they say: “You don’t have to eat the whole egg to know if it is rotten.”

    Sales managers also say, “When the customer says ‘yes’, shut up and write up the sale. From this point on you can only lose the sale with more talk.” When salespeople keep selling after the customer says ‘yes’ and they cause the customer to change her mind, we call that “Buying the product back”.

    If the reader is sold after reading a 250 word excerpt, and she should be, then what do you gain by having the reader read the whole chapter?

    That’s an orthodox marketing view.


  5. Hi, Vince--I've never liked entire chapters as promotion, and so far, have never read a whole chapter someone posted. The very long excerpt is useless, because all the myriad authors I'm in contact with are too busy and want something quick. Thus, the shorter excerpt.

    I have three excerpts I've used for Texas Promise since its release in September. Sad to say, I have not promoted this one enough--I had another release at the same time. (not smart)

    Yes, Texas Promise is on the Kindle, and so is Texas Blue and Making the Turn (a contemporary.)
    I'll be anxious to know what you think if you can get around to reading anything.
    Thanks! Celia

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