How to choose an excerpt to showcase your novel

If you have to showcase your novel – perhaps for a reading, a book trailer or as an excerpt on a blog or website, how do you choose a piece to do it justice? I recently gave a reading at a book event in London – a landmark as it was my first – and choosing an excerpt was a little more tricky than I anticipated.

Not the beginning

I’d assumed I’d read from the beginning. Surely that was a no-brainer. There would be no need to explain anything. It introduces the narrator, charms you into the story world.

But then I was listening to Radio 4’s Film Programme and noticing how they teased  a movie they were about to feature. There would be a short spiel about the premise and then a clip. It wasn’t the beginning, but the first plot point, the first irrevocable step into a new and perilous situation.

So although we hone our beginning so that it grabs, it’s perhaps not for a live situation. It’s for settling down with, not standing up.

Waiting to go on. I remembered to put my handbag down

So I looked at my first plot point. Out of context, it was too baffling. I tried my narrator’s first hypnosis session when she goes to the future. It was spooky, but much of its power came from the interplay with the two characters. It was as much about them as it was about what they were doing, but if you hadn’t got involved with them I feared it wouldn’t sizzle.

A grounding scene

But not long before that was a scene where my narrator’s best friend is hypnotised back to the time of Jack the Ripper. This is the way hypnotic regression conventionally works, and I’d written it partly to ground the reader, to present them with the idea in familiar guise before I started to warp it. This excerpt is easy to understand if you come to it cold, it has plenty of drama and it’s narrated by a horrified friend. It’s self-contained. Perfect.

Time yourself

I had to fit into a strict five-minute slot. Reading at a pace listeners can keep with, that’s less text than you might think – though it seemed for ever with all those faces watching me. Five minutes gave me two sides of text from my print edition.

Abridge

I didn’t use the excerpt exactly as it appears. I removed sections that you could only understand if you’d read the earlier scenes. An audience’s attention will wander easily and if you confuse them, you lose them. I also trimmed the description of what the hypnotised Jerry sees in the regression. In the book, it’s part of the veracity of the experience and the details are significant later, but in radio drama descriptions tend to be shorter. Writing that works for the eye doesn’t always hold the attention of a listener. But even if your excerpt will appear in print, consider whether you need the extra details that only make sense in the full work.

Write an introduction

I had to allow for an introduction in my five minutes as well. My usual back cover blurb was too sweeping so I simplified to give my excerpt maximum impact: The narrator is Carol, a classical pianist, who is forced to stop playing because of a mysterious pain in her hands – and fears she may never play again. Her closest friend, Jerry, also has a secret burden – he has crippling panic attacks and is convinced they are caused by a trauma in a past life. In this scene Carol accompanies him to a secret theatre under a house in London, and a stage hypnotist. (If you’ve read the story you might spot I’ve taken liberties with my own ‘facts’. In the novel, Jerry’s curiosity about past lives isn’t as straightforward as this introduction suggests. But it’s all a listener needs to know for these purposes.)

Dammit, be a storyteller

As I said, I’d never read my work out loud before, even in the writer-friendly confines of a bookshop. This event was taking place in a pub. Not a place where people go to read. We had a stage and a microphone, but the crowd had their cronies and beer. They were too nice to heckle, but we had to win them over.

Delivery made a huge difference. Some readers kept their noses in their novels and never looked up. Their excerpts might have been great, but they were reading to themselves and after the first sentences the general rustle of conversation rose. The readers who commanded attentive silence looked frequently into the crowd and told their stories with a bit of swagger.

Dammit, we’re storytellers. We hold our reader with our conviction on the page, and stand-up reading needs that confidence too. (You can guess which option I favoured. It worked.) Afterwards I talked to a seasoned pro who had roared and waved through his piece and he confirmed that you could never overdo the drama.

Copies, flyers and stuff

Of course, take copies of your books. But those of us who were new to the crowd didn’t sell many copies, because people don’t usually buy the first time they hear about you. Or they might want ebooks. But they will take other souvenirs and it’s worth cramming in as much as you can – bookmarks, catalogues, flyers. I had dinky Moo cards, beautifully printed slivers the size of a French train ticket. All of them disappeared.

If you’re doing a reading, here are my tips for success

  • Choose an excerpt that shows off your hook
  • Re-edit your original text
  • Take ‘souvenirs’
  • Tap your inner show-off. There’s no such thing as too much drama

Thanks for the bookshop pic, katclay

Such was my experience. Have you got any tips to share, either as an audience member or from reading your own work at events? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by madisonjohns on July 29, 2012 - 4:45 pm

    Thanks for the great tips!

  2. #3 by Dan Holloway on July 29, 2012 - 5:06 pm

    mmm, Moo mini cards are just the best things ever.
    Great piece. I’ve hosted a lot of readings and it’s something many writers struggle with. Five minutes is pretty much spot-on for a reading – many people fall into the “more is more” trap but that’s close to the limit for attention span. Excellent advice about avoiding the beginning – and avoiding anything that requires too much explanation (so many times people either go on for so long introducing a passage the audience has given up before it begins, or the flow gets interrupted at a key point to say “Oh, that’s so and so we met when and when”). And abridging is a very good plan.

    The other thing I’d recommend is picking a passage that mixes dialogue and description – show off all your assets – your reading extract is like a Victorian sampler, revealing your whole box of literary tricks. If you can find a section that has a good narrative arc that works for the same reason.

    On the subject of delivery (and choosing pieces), it’s something I’ve dedicated 3 or 4 of my bimonthly columns in Words With Jam to. The very best tip I can think of, which an actor friend gave me before my first reading, is rehearse what to do with your spare hand so you’re not suddenly thinking about it when you get up there.

    • #4 by madisonjohns on July 29, 2012 - 5:10 pm

      What is a mini moo card?

      • #5 by dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 5:28 pm

        They’re those dinky little devils in the bottom pic. Like business cards, but cut in half longitudinally. Printed on thick matte card with lovely colour repro. Adorable.

    • #6 by dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 5:34 pm

      Dan, I knew you’d have a lot to contribute here. This is absolutely your element. I’m glad you got here so quickly.

      The five-minute limit was set by the organisers as they’d found with other events that it was about the optimum attention span. But finding a piece to fit was a challenge.

      Nice point about showing dialogue etc – I found when I was listening to others that the pieces with more ‘life’ in them had this variety. And that’s another reason not to read from the start of a novel, because it’s more likely to be a considered introduction.

      Do add your links here to the pieces on Words With Jam – I’d have read them if I’d known about them. And I love that tip about the spare hand. I had both of mine firmly on my script, so no problems there. And I believe you give one of yours a flayed glove to wear…

      • #7 by Dan Holloway on July 29, 2012 - 6:02 pm

        you absolutely can’t beat a glove!
        The piece on what to read is in the June 2011 edition and tips are in the December 2010 edition (online versions of back issues can be viewed at http://wordswithjam.co.uk/#/back-issues/4539850023)
        Can I say as an organiser as well as someone who gives readings, how much it would have been appreciated that you found a piece of the right length. More than a few writers either strop that they want more time whatever you tell them about audience attention spans. And most of those will, on the night, simply ignore you and read a longer passage or do that passive aggressive thing of turning and saying “can I read a bit more?” when in mid flow. That you took the effort to follow instructions will 1. have made it a better reading and 2. have gone down very well with the organisers

        • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 6:18 pm

          Ooh that must be tricky. We journalists are used to fitting the space they’re given, regardless of how precious the copy is!

  3. #9 by Suzanne Purewal on July 29, 2012 - 5:07 pm

    Excellent advice to not read from the beginning of the novel. These are great tips that I plan to use in the near future!

    • #10 by madisonjohns on July 29, 2012 - 5:31 pm

      Thanks, I also Tweeted this post.

    • #11 by dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 5:34 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne – best of luck.

  4. #12 by philipparees on July 29, 2012 - 5:17 pm

    Very useful advice and analysis of how to choose, how to read, what to think about and take. For any novice very useful. I recently attended a book launch in which a professional actor read a relatively undramatic passage from a novel. It was ‘plot’ significant, but undramatic. It was so well read that the audience was truly hooked ( admittedly not a pub with other companions) and many books were sold. It taught the most important lesson. Make the most of the dramatic potential of the text itself, and read really slowly!

    • #13 by dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 5:38 pm

      Oh Philippa, what an interesting experiment. The point about slowness is important. It surprised me how slowly I had to read (I practised by watching the clock on my computer,, reading very sotto voce so as not to scare Husband Dave. Or bore him.)

  5. #14 by Dina Santorelli on July 29, 2012 - 6:01 pm

    Roz, I too just had my first reading for BABY GRAND and am writing a blog post about it. Our experiences were so similar! Terrific post!

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 29, 2012 - 6:17 pm

      Dina, it’s too spooky that we’ve coincided like that. Especially in the week you guested on The Undercover Soundtrack. Hope yours went well. DM me on Twitter and I’ll share your post around.

  6. #16 by Carol Riggs on July 29, 2012 - 9:50 pm

    These are great suggestions!! I found myself doing the same thing as far as a 5-minute read for a retreat last year–editing out parts that would otherwise be incomprehensible without the rest of the plot. Glad to know I’m on the right track (great minds think alike). And YES–absolutely read slowly. That is key. This is, after all, the first time your audience has heard the text, unlike the writer who has read it 50 billion times!

    • #17 by dirtywhitecandy on July 30, 2012 - 7:36 am

      Hi Carol! Good reminder that the audience doesn’t know the text – and that’s another reason to make sure the drama in it comes through. I had a little voice going in my brain saying ‘guys, this is IMPORTANT’! Glad that you came to roughly the same conclusions as me.

  7. #18 by Deb Atwood on July 29, 2012 - 10:33 pm

    Great advice! I’m glad it went well.

    Ignorant me–I’d never heard of moo cards, so I had to do an internet search. At half the size of a business card, why do you think they’re so popular?

    • #19 by dirtywhitecandy on July 30, 2012 - 7:40 am

      Deb, those cards are the last word in cute. It’s the thickness (like a Continental train ticket, tres chic), the colours (very good colour printing which makes your artwork look fab). They’re substantial enough for people to want to keep them as bookmarks and small enough that they don’t take up as much room as a conventional bookmark. In short (ho ho) they look arty and edgy.

      Any other Moo fans? Dan….?

      • #20 by Dan Holloway on July 30, 2012 - 1:56 pm

        I don’t know what it is – all the things you say, plus the lovely packaging they send you (that you can keep other people’s in), and the really fabulous holders you can get. All the artists and musicians I know also love them – it’s like a community. The company attitude is lovely too – they’re very like Innocent Smoothies in the way they do things. Most of all, though, it’s a mix of the range – you can have up to 99 images one side with the same text the other – and above all else the quality both of the unctuous matte card and the crisp printing

        • #21 by dirtywhitecandy on July 30, 2012 - 2:14 pm

          Gasp, the packaging. The boxes are substantial and lined with vibrant colours, like a bespoke suit. I’ve had 4 orders from them so far and they’ve never repeated the lining colour. And the personality. The envelope has a label on the outside saying ‘Contents: Moo.’ Somehow that really pleases me.
          They make regular-sized business cards as well. Dave had a set of 100 made for his graphic novel Mirabilis, with a different image on the back of each. When he goes to meetings or bookshops, he fans them out and says ‘which one do you want’? Great also if you have more than one book to promote, you could have different covers in each.

      • #22 by Teddi Deppner on August 18, 2012 - 12:54 am

        Yes, Moo cards are GREAT. And just different enough that people really like them and remember them.

  8. #23 by Jo Carroll on July 30, 2012 - 7:40 am

    How helpful – such a well-thought out approach makes the whole thing so much easier.

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 30, 2012 - 8:32 am

      Thanks, Jo. I’m really glad I didn’t go with my first idea – especially as so many people here have confirmed that wouldn’t have been terribly sensible. Good luck

  9. #25 by Amanda on August 1, 2012 - 1:29 am

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve struggled with what part of my novel to submit when I’ve been featured on blogs in the past. I think as writers we do tend to focus on showcasing the beginning of our stories when we share excerpts, but I never realized that even the beginning of the story isn’t really the beginning, as all stories start “in medias res” :-).

  10. #27 by Jason Runnels on August 1, 2012 - 2:35 am

    I can’t wait to use this advice. Congrats on your London reading!

  11. #31 by jenniecoughlin (@jenniecoughlin) on August 2, 2012 - 2:35 pm

    Great post, Roz! My local writers group has a monthly open mic, and it’s been a great experience. We have so many reading that the five-minute time limit is key, and that always makes me practice ahead of time to make sure I have a selection that fits in the time frame. If you have open mic or other opportunities similar to that, I really recommend them – it’s a great way to get some practice and test out various passages for audience reaction. As you said, selection really is key.

    The open mics also are great because I get a good sense of my reaction to other readings and can figure out why. The folks who are performing as much as reading draw me in, ditto those who make eye contact. Last month I was reading a scene set in South Boston, which is home to some of the strongest Boston accents. For non-US folks, it’s a highly distinctive regional accent in the US. Mine’s faded over time, but even when I’m not up there I can pull it out if I think about it. So I did, and got a lot of comments on how that really made the scene I read “pop.”

    • #32 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 3, 2012 - 8:38 am

      WITH accents, Jennie? You must really be hitting your stride. I’m sure if I tried that I’d forget when to sound like what. Or it would slip into Welsh – a sort of default accent Brits adopt when accenting goes wrong. But you make a great point here about contact – audiences won’t connect with you if you don’t reach out to them.

  12. #33 by Ileandra Young on August 6, 2012 - 3:43 am

    I did a reading once and though I didn’t put anybody to sleep it didn’t have the level of punch I wanted. This is probably why. Thanks for the tips; they are certainly things I’ll remember next time I read my work. :-)

  13. #35 by Pat on August 10, 2012 - 5:46 pm

    I am not published and I have never done a reading, but I was fascinated to read how you went about this. I have read a couple of other posts on here and would like to follow. There is much for me to learn here. Thank you.

    • #36 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 10, 2012 - 8:11 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Pat – it’s always nice when a new reader steps out of the ether and says hello. I wish you productive rummaging

  14. #37 by Teddi Deppner on August 18, 2012 - 12:56 am

    Lots of great stuff here. It even gives me ideas for selecting bits to post online as teasers for pulling in new readers from various online sources. Bookmarking this post for future reference. Thanks for sharing, Roz (and commenters)!

  15. #39 by philipparees on September 15, 2013 - 2:43 pm

    Interested to know whether you applied the auditory ‘edit’ to the audio book recently released? I realise that when you are expecting the listener to embark on the whole book maybe you don’t apply the ‘hooky’ agenda, but the difference between reading and listening does make for a different experience and interested in how a writer discriminates…this may be pertinent if I stay the course!

    • #40 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 16, 2013 - 11:03 pm

      Hi Philippa (again!)
      Good question. I didn’t. The context was different, really: I was reading from the beginning and the audience would have all they needed to understand everything. Also, it would be listened to in an intimate environment of me and their ears. That’s quite different from a noisy pub where you’re having to magnify and grab attention. So I trusted that if I read the book from the beginning I would keep people enthralled by ear just as I hoped they would be if they encountered it through their eyes.
      Good question!

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