Hello. I’m Donald Draper, partner at Sterling Cooper, America’s leading independent advertising firm, and subject of the hit television show Mad Men. You can call me Don once we’ve had a few martinis.
You may know me for my good looks and penetrating yet soulful facial expressions, as demonstrated by this picture. You may also know me for my ability to mesmerize executives with ruminations on the American Dream during smoke-filled advertising pitch sessions. They usually buy it. And if they don’t buy it we send them to the gentlemen’s club until they’ll buy anything.
Nathan asked me to help him judge this contest. I must say, being from the ad world has taught me a few things over the years. For instance, don’t let a broad get hysterical. And bad news should be taken sitting down, with a stiff drink in your hand. Thanks. I’ll have another.
As an ad man, I was reading these paragraphs for clues. Clues on whether someone has a novel that I can sell. Because selling is the thing. People want to be eased into a novel. They don’t want to be throttled by first paragraphs. They want the scene to be set and the characters revealed. They want subtlety, and proper word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and seamless readability. Clues that the rest of the package is a sure thing.
Let’s talk about voice. I’m a man of few words. Too much chattiness wears me down, especially at the dinner table, where talking is strictly forbidden. If you look closely at your favorite novels, they are not that chatty. Just a hint goes a long way. Like paprika.
I have chosen six finalists, which are coincidentally but conveniently spread among several different genres. Please vote on your favorite in the comments section of this post. You will have until Monday at 4pm Pacific to vote, and anonymous votes will not be counted.
And look. I like to give everyone a fair shake. No e-mails to 10,000 of your closest friends asking them to vote for you, and no open campaigning on the internet.
Here are your finalists:
According to my father, the first rule of ninjutsu is KISS: keep it simple, stupid. Of course, he’s says it all ninja-like, but that’s the gist. If you can walk down the street in normal clothes, there’s no need for black garb and grappling hooks. If you can kill a dude in two moves, don’t waste your time with three. And that’s why we run a karate school for all those little kids who get beat up at school—two ninjas hiding in the most obvious place, and the last spot anyone looks.
The world is different now. What once was a time of wealth and security now is an unforgiveable Thunderdome world without heroes. I was born into this world like no other, a singular blue and brown eyed abnormality without equal—a Tetragametic Chimera with Heterochromia eyes. My mother had carried two fertilized eggs that should have become fraternal twins, one twin with blue eyes and the other with brown but our separate cells fused together inside her womb. Instead of the eggs connecting as one immediately, creating the more common Tetragametic Chimera anomaly, they formed independent of each other for the first seven days of gestation and then bonded into that rarest of rare miracle. It took God seven days to create the world and it took seven days to create what I am—two independent savant minds born inside one body, a single being with two completely different sets of DNA, one eye brown and the other eye blue—a twin inside a twin.
On a bright humid morning in June, a sixteen year old girl named Deborah Garrison stepped off the boat from Hyannis, walked ahead of her mother down into the crowded summer streets and set everything in motion. She didn’t seem special; just one more pretty girl on a summer island crowded with them. And she didn’t actually do anything; nothing that happened later was her fault. The simple, irreducible fact of her presence was enough. Even years later, the consequences and implications of Debbie’s arrival seem bizarre and implausible, far too much to balance on those thin sunburned shoulders. It was like setting off an avalanche with a sigh.
The blood pooling under the dead man’s back reminded Nicholas Avery of butterfly wings. It spread from the twin wounds, sweeping to each side in graceful arcs that sparkled beneath the kitchen lights.
If the funeral were taking place in one of my Mom’s novels then it would be winter and it would be raining. The sky would be overcast and there would be the distant rumble of thunder as the casket was lowered into the ground. The weather can’t always match the occasion though. Today the sky was a blinding blue and in the manicured graveyard there was no escape from the sun. I could feel my black dress growing damp and my feet, enclosed in unaccustomed heels, expanding by the second. I glanced at my Mom, standing ramrod straight beside me, dressed in defiant yellow and movie star sunglasses. Despite makeup her face was pale. Her bloodless lips were clamped together in the expression she had worn for the last two days, ever since she had walked into our newly rented apartment and announced, “Pack everything up, we’re going home, your Grandfather died.”
My heliophobia support group met in an old schoolhouse whose main doors had been welded shut and painted blue. You entered around back, up the Z-shaped wheelchair ramp. I’d been attending for years and knew every hall and every stairwell in that place, even saw the belfry once, having shimmied up a ladder hidden in the supply closet. Nothing up there but dust and bird shit and some failed eggs, not even a bell. Just wooden slats through which the sun broke like streaky clown tears. Which didn’t scare me. It’s not that any of us feared the sun, it wasn’t that simple. We simply loathed its intentions. We had already betrayed its destiny and, like everything else in our lives, it was born just to expire.
Congratulations to the finalists. Please e-mail Nathan to discuss your prize.
Have a good weekend. I’m going for a drive in my Studebaker. It should be lovely.
You are exactly right about my first paragraph being an info dump (which a lot of others pointed out) and this worried me, but it was a lesser of two evils. To tell is to sometimes demonstrate/draw the reader in by explaining, I had to tell the reader first and foremost because very few would know what a chimera was, but from that point onward it is more of a showing the true genius of what these twin savants can do from inside one body—one twin controlling the right side of the brain and the other controlling the left, and therein lies the conflict/plot.
Hope this clarifies this (from the writer’s point of view) and not taking anything away from the reader.
I would also like to note that the constructive criticism I have receive has helped me immensely in rewriting this first paragraph, than you Nathan and all.
It took me awhile to figure out how to post a comment as I had short term memory loss. That can happen if you’re actually old enough to have had a childhood in the time of Dan Draper. Now I’d like to add something.
Mad Men intrigues me because I can remember that time. I can remember when my father’s job description included my mother having the house ready for cocktail guests at any time, which meant stocking plenty of Johnny Walker Black and cigarettes. I’m not sure but I think Kents were the preferred brand. I hated the fact that our family was always on display. However, parenting wasn’t nearly as intense, and kids were allowed to roam free, use their imaginations and have a heck of a lot of fun.
Now back to the contest. Thank you for this contest. Just seeing what people are submitting was immensely valuable.
No, I didn’t win, and I’m disappointed, because what writer wouldn’t want to win the contest and get positive feedback from fabulous agent Nathan and helpful criticism as the prize. However, people need to get a grip! The finalists all had something that appealed to a great agent. Instead of sitting around with sour grapes — I don’t like any of them, nanna nanna boo boo — we other players would be well served to study the finalists. Maybe we could learn something.
Mechelle Avey says
Okay, Axelrod wins my vote, although he’s a literary agent. I thought they were all pretty good, though. Don Draper. . . cough, cough, more attractive without all those cigarettes.
Lady Glamis says
This is a different Steve Axelrod than the Steve Axelrod agent, I do believe. Nathan commented on it earlier. 😉
Steve Axelrod’s made me want to read the book.
Infodump in science fiction is a complex subject. Sometimes it’s needed, but more often not. It’s a high art to manage to avoid it and convey the information in a subtle way. For example, in my novella, there is a small infodump in the second paragraph, which I’m getting rid of as I expand the novella into a novel.
Genre fiction needs to grab the reader, IMHO. I vote for MA.
Zowie! For once I entered a contest and liked most of the finalist as much as (or even better) than my own entries. Steve Axelrod isn’t the one whose a literary agent, is he? Hmmmm. I liked his entry very much, but the one I liked most and am casting my vote for is Alexa .
Yay Alexa! Great opening.
All fiction is genre, in a sense. The so-called “literary fiction” is a genre of its own, just like any other.
I also meant to say–thank you Nathan and all. Just can’t seem to be able to edit. Sorry.
I liked Morgan, Chris and Steve. All three would keep me reading although I did think Steve chatted a little too vaguely in the second half of his opening paragraph. His second paragraph would have to crack on with the story pretty smartly to keep me interested.
Anyway, my vote is going to Morgan, but if I was in a book shop I could well have ended up bringing all three books home.
Steve Axelrod. The writing is gorgeous, for one. And then the mystery this paragraph creates! He just reels you in. I really liked Natalie’s idea, but I’m a sucker for poetic writing, so Steve Axelrod gets my vote.
Votin’ for Chris.
Now where do I go to read the rest?!
My favorite is Steve Axelrod’s, followed closely by Natalie’s (and no, not because I have a ninja-in-training YA novel outlined…)
Steve Axelrod’s makes me desperate to read on! I love it!
ed miracle says
Right-brain, left-brain: I hate it when that happens! Morgan’s was the most interesting (most novel?), closely followed by Chris.
But Steve’s seamless build-up to that crackerjack simile put me over the top. Though all were good, Steve’s piece gets my vote.
Good luck to all!
I vote MA. A to the point forensic hook that says buy me and read on.
I vote for Alexa
My vote is for MA.
Al and Yevette says
Congratulations to all the finalists. My vote goes to Morgan, I want to know more about the twin within the twin. Good stuff
Merry Monteleone says
Oh, I’m soooo late to vote – sorry.
My vote is for:
This is why:
Even years later, the consequences and implications of Debbie’s arrival seem bizarre and implausible, far too much to balance on those thin sunburned shoulders. It was like setting off an avalanche with a sigh.
Very, very nice.
I vote for Alexa.
I choose MA.
I want to read more of the pretty words.
Steve Axelrod, definitely.
Tara Ryan says
Morgan gets my vote, I want more! good job.
Thanks for responding, Morgan (and Leo). I appreciate it. It’ll be interesting to see what Nathan adds from the agent perspective.
I already voted, but I have a question. If you are thinking of a idea for a blog post I was wondering if you could address this statement on your posting:
“Let’s talk about voice. I’m a man of few words. Too much chattiness wears me down, especially at the dinner table, where talking is strictly forbidden. If you look closely at your favorite novels, they are not that chatty. Just a hint goes a long way. Like paprika.”
What do you consider too chatty?
When does first person become too chatty? A couple of these finalist appear rather chatty to me (the two I voted for actually), I have to admit, I having a hard time trying to decide how chatty to make my first person character.
That was a fun contest indeed. I’m voting for Alexa.
I see many people saying that they don’t see their favorites posted as finalists, and I admit the same is true for me. I was surprised by the choices, though congrats to the finalists, and I do think they are certainly worthy entries.
Is it a fair question to pose, asking which others (besides your own, of course) stuck out as particularly good that did not make the final cut?
MA is my vote. You could see it.
Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising says
Great blog. My vote is for Steve Axelrod who managed to launch an entire world in the space of a paragraph. Let me know when the book comes out 😉
Chris, Chris, Chris all the way, baby!
Okay, so I’ve only just discovered your comp, Nathan, but I count myself lucky to only have six and not six hundred to choose from.
Good luck everyone!
Martin Willoughby says
Heather Curley says
My vote goes to Steve!
Wonderful imagery, brought me into the story at once.
I vote for Steve Axelrod. Please let us know when the book is published.
I vote for Steve Axelrod. Please let us know when the book is published.