With two novel excerpt contests under our belt and a third open through mid-November, we thought it would be a good idea to share this essay from one of our contest readers on what makes a novel excerpt really pop, and some common traps to avoid when preparing your excerpt for submission. This essay was first published in the Lit Mag News Substack!
So, you’ve written a novel. And like a proud parent, you want to send it out into the world. If not the whole thing, maybe just a piece will do. Publishing a novel excerpt can be a great launching point, and numerous lit mags are willing to give novel writers this opportunity. Besides providing exposure to emerging writers, having an excerpt published is often a wonderfully validating experience.
My very first publication was a novel excerpt. I was thrilled, a stranger thought this thing that I’d been pouring my life’s blood into for years was worth reading! It gave me the confidence I needed to take the plunge into querying agents.
Now, we’re reading for our Novel Excerpt Contest here at The Masters Review, and I hope to see some fantastic writers receive the same boost I did. Yet when it comes to preparing an excerpt, it seems many writers struggle with this elusive process.
Most lit mags publishing excerpts will specify “standalone” or “self-contained” in their guidelines. The two are basically interchangeable and appear self-explanatory. A reader must be able to understand the piece without any outside information. On the surface, straightforward. But what they’re not spelling out is that the piece must be its own story. That’s where things get dicey.
Nothing breaks my heart more than reading a piece with lively characters, vivid descriptions, and stellar pacing only to reject it because it’s not a standalone excerpt. This often happens because of a misconception that the first chapter or chapters will make the best excerpt. Now, there are a few magazines which specifically seek first chapters, which is why it’s always important to READ THE GUIDELINES. Otherwise though, first chapters generally make for poor excerpt material.
I understand why writers fall into this trap. We want a piece that doesn’t need outside context. The first chapter is the context. Writers fear anything from later in the novel won’t be understood. All perfectly logical. Except, the purpose of a first chapter in a novel is at odds with the purpose of a standalone excerpt.
The first chapter is designed to draw the reader into the story and make them want to keep reading. That feeling you get at the end of a really good first chapter, when you’re going to ignore that sleep you really need because you’ve just got to read the first page of chapter two, is not the feeling you want at the end of reading a novel excerpt in a literary magazine. For a very simple reason. There is no chapter two. It’s incredibly frustrating to be left wanting to know what happens next, when there is no next. This doesn’t mean your excerpt has to tie everything up in a neat bow. Plenty of stories have unresolved endings, but the questions left unanswered must feel like a purposeful part of the ending.
Of course, not all first chapters are created equal. Yours may very well be the exception to the rule. What is important to consider, not just with the first chapter but with an excerpt from any point in the novel, is does it end on a cliffhanger? If the answer is yes, this is probably not your best option. An excerpt that ends at the moment the body is found, the employee is fired, or the overworked paralegal has coffee spilled on her by an incredibly attractive stranger generally doesn’t leave the reader with a sense of conclusion. Such excerpts may come from novels I’d love to read, but again, selling your manuscript isn’t the object here.
So, what are we looking for? What’s the magic formula that will lead to publishing glory? I wish I knew. If you ever find it, pass it on.
In the meantime, there are a few things worth considering. The first is change. Like any effective story, a novel excerpt needs an element of change in order for it to feel like it possesses a complete arc. Preferably, this will be a change with more emotional significance than say, getting a haircut. Unless the haircut is symbolic of your character breaking free from her stifling upbringing. In which case, send your haircut excerpt. That’s a scene that contains its own story.
This theoretical novel may be predominantly about the life of a beauty pageant hairstylist. The haircut scene may be just the jumping off point for the novel’s main action. But for the purposes of an excerpt, we don’t need to know where this change takes her, we just need to see it taking place. Note that this may be a scene with little action. A woman walks into a salon, sits in the chair, talks to a stylist, looks in the mirror, and leaves. There doesn’t have to be a lot of movement for there to be momentum. The journey here is an internal one. And that’s fine, so long as the reader can clearly see her moving from one phase of her life into the next over the course of the piece.
In searching your novel for this standalone structure, look for places where a character is faced with a decision. This almost always provides some type of change. Even if the character ultimately decides not to change their actions, if they’re moving forward after becoming aware of new consequences, then the stakes have changed. This sort of doubling down on a position can also provide a feeling of conflict which, when followed by the resolution to continue forward, becomes a self-contained narrative.
A lot of the successful excerpts I see seem to take place somewhere after the inciting incident but before the climax. This makes sense. This is what’s often referred to as the rising action, and it’s the place where our protagonists encounter more and more obstacles. Naturally, these complications lead to change. Complications also lead to bursts of conflict, which is another crucial element for any self-contained story. Clear conflict is what will drive your excerpt forward.
Often, I see excerpts that are full of dazzlingly dialogue or clever antics. These scenes may be amusing to read, but nine times out of ten nothing is really happening. By which I mean nothing is challenging the characters. There’s a lack of meaningful conflict. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Remember our haircut scene? Nothing physically is really happening, but a lot is going on internally. Contrast that with a car race scene. A lot may happen physically, but if nothing is changing internally, I might as well be watching NASCAR. The outcome of the race may be monumental in the context of the novel, but unless these stakes are effectively conveyed in the opening of the excerpt, it won’t feel like a significant conflict is present.
This is why climaxes generally don’t make for good excerpts. Yes, there’s a lot happening. And yes, this is a moment of big change. But there’s also been 300 pages spent establishing who these people are and why we should care about this change. It’s hard to find a few paragraphs this late in the novel that will do the same. It’s not impossible, but you’ve set yourself a much harder task than if you’d selected a smaller moment of change from earlier in the manuscript.
A final factor to consider when excerpting is consistency. I find this mainly applies to novels that use multiple points of view. This can be a great way of telling a large story, I use it myself quite often. However, in an excerpt I strongly recommend against switching POVs. It almost always leaves the reader with a sense of unfinished business at the end. Finding sections in both voices that combine to tell a standalone story is difficult. The result is often a sense of reading two separate stories, neither of which has time to fully develop.
Instead, if your novel alternates between Jane and John’s perspective it is often better to excerpt two of Jane’s sections without the intervening John one. This saves the reader from being jolted out of the story when the voice changes, and keeps them from wondering what happens to John if the narrative never returns to his voice. Herein lies what I think might be the biggest secret of novel excerpting: an excerpt doesn’t need to come verbatim from your novel manuscript. No one is going to call you up and ask to see the original for a word-by-word comparison, I promise. Editors understand that the piece is coming from a larger story. That there are inevitably things which won’t make sense out of context. This may mean cutting a single line. It may mean cutting an entire scene. The important thing is for the piece to feel continuous.
When you first sat down to write, you had to decide what story you wanted to tell. When you excerpt, you’re faced with the same decision. All the tips and tricks in the world won’t matter until you make that choice. And it’s a choice only you can make because, in the end, no one knows your novel better than you.
by B.B. Garin