[Body, Mind & Spirit] Tips for Reading Excerpts from Your Novel or Memoir

A few months ago, soon after I’d finished writing my memoir, Raw: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, I had the opportunity to share five minutes of my work at a reading. While combing through my manuscript for excerpts, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe this writing isn’t as strong as I thought. The writing felt flabby and slow. I found myself tinkering with passages so they’d read better in a shorter timeframe, and wondered if that was okay. In past readings, I’ve mostly read my poems, complete works, each one featuring a beginning, middle, and end.


But my memoir is different. It took time to develop stories in that longer format—time I wouldn’t have in a five-minute reading. I wanted to give my audience the best bang for their buck, to make my reading worth their while. I wanted them with me from the first word to the last. I have been to too many readings where restless audience members pick cuticles, scrimmage inside purses, check iPhones, or stare out windows, all overt cues that they’re desperate for the reader to just finish already. This sucks for writers, but it also means it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.  


Every time you stand up and read your work, you’re pitching it. If you don’t grab your audience, and keep them with you, they will not buy your book. I’ve given several readings from my memoir since that first one and here’s what I’ve learned: presenting an edited excerpt of your novel or memoir is a gift for your audience as well as your book! In order to most effectively share part of a long-form story in a short-form (time) venue, you will need to compress, collapse, or cut. You may also need to compose transitions, connections, or endings to create a satisfying, standalone experience.


The key is to view a time “constraint” as a container. Make it work for you in the same way specific poetry forms, such as the villanelle, shape a poem. If you honor the requirements of your reading venue and deliver a complete experience, if you craft your work with a particular reading in mind, you have a much better shot of connecting with and entertaining your audience. If you leave them laughing, crying, or nodding their head, they are with you.


I have a three-ring binder with ten edited excerpts from my memoir, along with a list of others I want to develop. At the top of each page I’ve jotted down how long the excerpt takes to read. Please note: read slower than you think you should. Take your time. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your voice rise from your belly.


Edited excerpts will serve you well even if you’re giving a featured reading and have thirty or forty minutes. Remember to consider your audience when choosing passages. Your excerpt filled with sex and “colorful” language, however well edited, might not go over so well at a conservative ladies’ luncheon. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen authors fall into this trap. You may want to share several edited excerpts that feature different flavors of your story, rather than one or two longer selections. Sadly, attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been, and while a passage might be perfectly paced in your book, it might not hold a listener’s attention. Consider crafting ten or twenty excerpts of different lengths before it’s time to promote your book. You will be surprised what you can do with five minutes, or less. Being ready to go with as many great, edited clips as possible will make the reading part of your job successful and fun!


I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you grappled with the problem of reading a passage intended to unfold more slowly in your novel or memoir? Were you resistant, as I was in the beginning, to edit your excerpts? Did you do it anyway? If so, what was the result?

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  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Joanne C. Hillhouse: Good luck with your launch. Sounds like you're asking all the right questions.

    Nancy Hinchliff: That sounds good, Nancy. Glad you found these tips helpful.

    Cindi Michael: I agree—don't skip the reading! People will care if what you read is well edited!

  • Cindi Michael

    This is REALLY helpful! I have a library event coming up and have seen in a few blogs that some people skip the reading entirely. I didn't like that idea - I think your suggestion of editing for a tighter reading is a better way to give people both a taste of the story and of the writing. I also have been wondering if I should start with a aircheck/clip of my father as the disc jockey or the sportscaster - but some people just don't care about that. They want the family dynamics only.

  • Nancy Hinchliff Writing

    Terrific piece, with lots of valuable information. I have been going through this very thing for the past few weeks. I'm getting ready to tape a few readings from my book that can also be used for library and bookstore events. I started practicing, recording what I read. Playing it back over and over prompted me to start editing it down and being more selective in the parts I included, so that it was more interesting and entertaining, in order to hold my audience.  It"s starting to work well for me. I picked up a few more tips from you, so I'm feeling very good about what I've come up with.   Thanks, Bella.

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    Good read and good tips. I've experienced this challenge. I try to read a self-contained section that doesn't require too much set-up and understanding of the story...I try out a few of these in earlier readings and see what hits...and I also adjust to the audience demographics as much as possible. I wish sometimes, though that I had the patience with my work (or maybe confidence with myself) to be one of those authors who almost seems to adjust the time to fit their narrative especially when the narrative is so good, you, in the audience, don't mind...just once. Anyway, I have a different challenge now as my forthcoming book (With Grace) is a picture book and I need to pluck an excerpt that teases the story without giving it away. It'll be a shorter reading than most that's for sure...trying to come up with other activities for the launch to help fill the time...and also exploring different approaches to presenting.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Nancy Chadwick-Burke: Glad you found this post helpful. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • Nancy Chadwick Publishing

    This is a great post! Most helpful. Much is shared in terms of tips and advice as writers are pulling their manuscripts together, but learning post-manuscript completion and promotion, including giving readings is equally valuable. Thanks for sharing your experience and offering tips. 

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Thea Constantine: Congratulations on your novel! Glad this post helped.

  • Thea Constantine

    Thanks Bella! My first full length novel is due out in January and I've just been trying to figure out just the very things you've mentioned. Where to start-- what's going to make sense without a ton of backstory and whats going to engage my listeners. It's got some heavy content ( sex, drugs, prostitution, homelessness) but it also has quite a bit of humor too. This helps, nothing like first hand experience.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Thanks for joining us, Marybeth Holleman. Glad you found value here! 

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Wonderful piece, wonderful comments. Thanks to all.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Iris Waichler: That's a great suggestion! Thank you. I'll keep that in mind for future readings.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Roni Beth Tower: Congratulations on your launch! Can't wait to read your book! So glad you found this post timely. xoxo

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Dhana Musil: Wow, great additions! So on point. Look presentable. Yes. Coming from a dance background I think of things like “costume” and make up. And so true about that heavy content. Humor goes over well, I've found. The venue often dictates my choices.

  • Iris Waichler

    I agree with everything that has been said. Thank you for this piece Bella. It is a topic we all struggle with. I would add 1 thing. I think it is good to engage people right at the gate. So for example, my book focuses on caregiving issues and my role as a caregiver. I start by asking how many in the audience are caregivers or know caregivers? That creates an immediate connection and interest. I give some very brief info on how many caregivers there are. Sometimes I might ask them to think about what is more challenging, parenting a child or taking care of a parent. That way at the end of my presentation if there is a lapse in questions I can go back to this question to trigger a discussion.

  • Roni Beth Tower

    Hi Bella - and thank you for this.  It is very timely because my first "real" reading is coming up December 8th.  (My launch was an interview with reading just a few short excerpts - much easier to deal with.) I will have many alternatives and the time it takes to read them written in the margins.  Thank you also, Dhana, for pointing out that secondary trauma is real and we need to be mindful of our audience.  

  • Dhana Musil Querying

    Hi Bella! All great points. well put. I read two weeks ago at a monthly literary salon and ran into a few things I think we could add to your excellent observations. Though it was an evening event at a bar/restaurant type place, as soon as I walked in I saw that one of the readers had brought his young daughter. an 8 year old. My piece is not child friendly. Immediately I wish I had prepared a back up piece (but then realized NOTHING in my memoir is child friendly...lol) I spoke with the hosts who told me to go ahead and read anyhow. Not feeling comfortable, I spoke directly to the father. He agreed to take her for a walk when it was my turn.

    Next point: when you are reading your work out loud in front of an audience, people, please stand tall and look at least presentable. your writing is an extension of who you are. We don't need to wear heels and dresses, but at least something clean and presentable. 

    Here's another thing. Most readings last btwn 3-10 minutes. Many people are reading about trauma and abuse, which is great in long form, but we need to be aware that a heavy, descriptive piece  about, say, paedophilia, when not padded within a longer piece, can be psychically damaging to unsuspecting audience members. This happened on the night I read. A woman read a poignant piece about being sexually abused by a stranger, but it was thrown at us so immediately, and without any redemption at the end, I know some of us had a hard time digesting that. 

    Basically I am echoing your piece. have a few pieces ready to go, edit it for a shorter time frame, take pride in yourself and your words. blessings, Dhana