Congratulations, Natalie. Very very well-deserved, and I think we’re all wondering what’s going to happen to those plucky ninjas. Good work!!
Another hearty round of applause to the finalists, and most of all to everyone (all 1300+ of you) who put themselves out there by posting their work. It was very difficult to choose only six out of over 1300, and there were many worthy paragraphs.
Since I posted the finalists, people have been asking me to explain a bit more about what went into my choices.
First off, I think it’s important to remember that as an agent I probably read these differently than the average reader. Judging from some responses I’ve received, I think a lot of people read these paragraphs thinking, “Which book would I want to read?” and then gravitate to the ones that begin with intriguing plots, voices or situations that speak to them. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that at all. But that’s not necessarily how I read these — I don’t need to know everything right away. When I’m reading a paragraph (or a partial), I’m looking mainly at the quality of the writing. Is it of publishable quality? Is it seamless, are the word choices strong, is the grammar proper, am I being enveloped in this world? If the writing isn’t publishable it really doesn’t matter how much I like the underlying idea.
Plots are subjective — people have different tastes and interests. Good writing is less subjective. It’s sometimes hard to describe, pinpoint, and define, but good writing is good writing. And these paragraphs are well-written.
So a word for the snarky anonymous commenters: Even if they are outside your genres of interest, even if they describe plots you wouldn’t gravitate toward, if you can’t see that these paragraphs demonstrate good writing… well, not only are you the type of person who might leave rude comments on a blog, I would (as kindly as possible) suggest that you take a long look in the mirror. The very first step of being a good writer is recognizing good writing.
Now! Before you start getting all depressed on me, I will readily and heartily admit that I had to pass on some gems, and if you were not chosen it does not mean that you are not talented and/or will never be published. Far from it — there were lots of very strong paragraphs, and there could only be six finalists. But I am confident in the choices, and feel that they are all, in their own way, very strong.
Here’s why I chose each paragraph.
Natalie has an immediately catchy high concept plot (ninja school!) combined with a very effective voice. In particular, I really respect the second sentence: “Of course, he’s says it all ninja-like, but that’s the gist.” A paragraph about ninja school itself might make a good opener, but this sentence builds a character: the narrator’s father adopts a ninja-like voice to say something as simple as “keep it simple stupid.” Hilarious! Natalie’s paragraph also shows a deft touch by conveying a unique voice without being too chatty. It has a breezy style, but note that other than the above-quoted sentence and the word “dude,” the rest of it is not chatty. Just enough to get to sense of the voice without being over the top. Very well done.
Morgan’s paragraph balances a couple of different elements in a way that I find very effective. This paragraph packs in quite a lot of plot, but that’s not all that it accomplishes. It also conveys a keen sense of style — there’s a breathlessness to the writing that lends a feeling of importance to the descriptions. Also, normally I don’t like it when a series of unknown words and concepts are thrown at me right away, but in this paragraph they are described and named in a way that I can get a taste of the meaning and deduce enough of the world to stay within the paragraph without worrying that I don’t understand everything. And the idea of a twin within a twin…. intriguing.
Steve Axelrod (not the agent, btw) steadily builds a memorable image: a girl walking onto a Cape Cod island without knowing the effect she’s going to have. The details are evocative and memorable, and the flow impeccable. Quite a few people have asked about the closing simile. Normally I don’t care for big bold similes, but this one really works for me. It didn’t take me out of the world because everyone knows what an avalanche is, and it also, in an effective way, contrasts directly with the sun-drenched imagery. It’s also evocative to think of setting an avalanche off with a sigh. It just works.
MA’s was the shortest of the bunch, just two sentences. It wasn’t just the image of blood in the shape of a butterfly that led me to choose this paragraph. Rather, it’s the combination of an evocative opening image along with the description of the blood sparkling on the kitchen floor (two pretty descriptions that contrast with the fact that it’s blood). Plus there’s a certain casualness and distance on the part of the observing character. It accomplishes a great deal in just a few words.
Alexa’s paragraph is a study in steadily building a memorable character. Having read so many paragraphs that began with the weather (particularly bad weather), I was sucked in by the feint that the narrator is describing how the weather would be in one of her mom’s novels. Combine that with a perfectly-described and memorable fashion choice at a funeral (“defiant yellow and movie star sunglasses” just flows), and you have a sense of a very unique individual. It’s all built through imagery rather than straightforward description.
Lastly, Chris’ paragraph snuck in precisely at the Thursday 4pm deadline. It’s an intriguing setup — a group of heliophobes meeting in a strange place with some interesting animosity toward the sun. It’s the combination of a big idea (heliophobes) with small details (the z-shaped ramp, the eggs in the belfry) that makes this come alive.
In the course of reading 1300 paragraphs, certain patterns began to emerge. Now, I’m not saying you CAN’T start a book this way, but there were three prevalent patterns that kept creeping up again and again. Here are some approximations:
1) Surprising sentence. Well, not the surprising sentence per se, but rather the surprising sentence is made more complicated by the fact that it is followed, in fits and starts, by conversational prose that, in its casualness, contrasts with the shocking statement and sets a breezy tone despite the shocking statement. That is, until the reversal.
2) Small, finely rendered observation. This is followed by the particular shape of the moon or the wisps of grass and the particular temperature that still night or perfect sunset that lulls us into a sense of place and setting. And then we linger in that scene still longer to see one more even more finely rendered detail, and still another, leading us to the very thing the author seeks. That is, until the shocking statement.
3) The tough protagonist shudders against whatever bad weather they are enduring. They check their timepiece, or weapon, and go back to the task at hand. Pithy comment. It’s not easy being the tough protagonist.
Again — anything can be done properly, even a conventional setup. But unless it’s deliberate or subverted in some way, it can come off as cliched. So if your paragraph follows one of these forms, be careful!
Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who entered! I hope everyone had a good time, and I’m looking forward to having the next contest. Once I’ve recovered.
Nathan, I was just wondering what the balance was (both for the contest and deciding on stories in general) between your personal taste and what you might see as its “commercial potential”?
So, basically, how do you blend the personal and the business when making decisions?
Some of the “I don’t like any of the finalists” posts started me thinking about this. I’m not sure why people actually posted that they didn’t like the finalists, but I didn’t see it as a sin. Readers are subjective, and they often respond very simply based on their own tastes. (I should mention that I didn’t read any really snarky comments, if there were any – too many replies! And possibly they’d already been deleted… :)). Posting this lack-of-like may make it accidentally seem like an insult… but I was just thinking that a reader and an agent probably read differently. Purely on taste, I probably would have only kept reading one of those entries (Steve’s, I think – sunburned shoulders?), and I could see none of them being quite right for a lot of readers. But I recognized they were all very well written. I loved Natalie’s, though I wouldn’t have picked up the book. It seemed YA, and I’m not really a YA reader. But it had a hook, a neat idea, and an engaging voice, and I know lots of people that I think would really like that… so from my own imaginary business side evaluation (as in, recognizing quality and envisioning a market) I thought Natalie was a great choice.
So, how does the balance play out for an agent when evaluating stories? Do you simply look for that one story where it all comes together, where personal taste, quality of writing, and wide market range all hit at once? I have an image of an agent with slot machine eyes hitting JACKPOT! JACKPOT! JACKOPOT!
I also just wanted to say thanks for having the contest (and congrats to everyone), as it was quite interesting. I put my own paragraph up because I had what I thought was the right idea for the opening, but something kept nagging me, kept telling me it wasn’t quite right, and so I thought posting it might jolt me. And, luckily, while reading and considering the first paragraphs something did jolt me, and it was the simple realization that my first paragraph was really my second paragraph, and the second paragraph was really the first… Bingo! Something about seeing all those first paragraphs line up like ducks in a shooting gallery…
Well, now I know why my paragraph wasn’t chosen. Probably not publishable. It was only the second draft. Note to self: revise more before entering contest. 😀
Nathan Bransford says
Tough question to answer. The first question I have to answer is whether the writing is of publishable quality. Once that hurdle is passed, then I have to ask if there’s a market for the book. That’s, let’s face it, an educated guess based on my experience in the industry, being plugged into what is happening and what is being in published, thinking a lot about it, and then coming up with an opinion. The third question is whether I’m passionate enough about the project to be the right advocate for it.
The exact calculus varies from project to project, but the best way of putting it is that I just know. When I have a project I want to take on and think I can sell, I just know. I don’t have any reservations or qualms or doubts. I’m not always right, but that’s the threshold.
Thanks, Nathan, it’s much appreciated.
My best, as always,
Nathan, you are too cool. But consider this. After you create an Honorable Mention List, you may well be asked for an Almost Honorable Mention List. Then of course you would feel obligated to make a, Really Close to Honorable Mention List. Then of course you’d need the list of those, who could have made the list… but were just a little, well, not quite ready for prime time, as they say. But on the other hand, if you keep doing lists for the rest of time….you may put me on one. What’s that? You already have?
GREAT JOB all you finalists!!
Applause to all who entered.
And THANK YOU Nathan.
Congratulations Natalie – Ninja power is obviously a force to be reckoned with!
Congratulations to all the finalists and Natalie in particular. That’s at least 1300 people who will think about buying your book already.
‘…although until Nathan’s comments I never realized that there were such exacting patterns to openings’
I didn’t either. Its all been very educational.
Emily Ruth says
CONGRATS NATALIE!! You’re intro really was pretty awesome 🙂
And thanks nathan for your insight; very helpful!
Nathan, I don’t think you need an honorable mention list. This isn’t kindergarten where everybody gets a gold star for participating.
I will say that I was really surprised that given over 1300 people entered, not even half that many voted. People have time to enter, but not time to vote? A little more generosity towards fellow writers would be a good thing.
Congratulations, Natalie! I would buy your book in a heartbeat if it was on the shelf, just based on the opening paragraph. 🙂
Lady Glamis says
I agree, Nathan. I think it’s great that others want an honorable mention list, but you’re very busy, I am sure.
I think your time would be more wisely spent in closely reading the query letters that some of the contestants are bound to send into you!
Sassee B says
Thanks so much for hosting these contests! It’s great to see how creative everyone can be and it’s EVEN BETTER ™ to know the methods you use during a slush triathlon.
(And next time, please don’t sacrifice your personal hygiene for us blog trolls. I could smell you all the way over here! 😉 )
dan radke says
I’d love to see an honorable mention list. And not because I yearn to see my name on there (my paragraph had a few problems, ones that you stated the majority had). But it’d be cool to see what else was close to making it. We could all do a little bit more learnin’.
But if you’re worried about all the Maker’s Mark you’ve been drinking to do all this, just remember, you’re young. That liver is just fine.
Congrats to Natalie and the rest. Well done.
We are all winners here though. Thanks Nathan for taking the extra time to explain what stood out both good and not so good! You are amazing. I don’t know if you are an extreme time manager or OCD!
Thanks for all you do.
JD Spikes says
Congrats, Natalie! And a ‘very well done’ to the other finalists. Thank you, too, to everyone who posted an opening. What a learning experience, reading through all the entries~
Nathan, great contest and thank you for not only showing us your thought process on the paragraphs chosen,but your additional comments on patterns and good/bad of those seen. That’s what makes this blog so great and so helpful.
I agree with Dutch and CapitolClio — no need for a runners-up list… would be like going for a swim in stormy seas with a monolith anchored to your ankles.
I’m afraid I disagree – I think a runner’s up list is a very good idea.
I sense there are some lingering negative feelings about this contest. Telling people they shouldn’t feel the way they feel is not usually very effective. Certainly labeling them as childish or selfish is not helpful at all.
I think it’s a better idea to think about why they feel that way, and address any lingering concerns. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, things can go awry and need to be given attention.
That’s my two cents.
Nathan Bransford says
I’ve learned when holding these contests that negativity is inevitable no matter what happens. Doesn’t matter how the contest is run, what feedback I provide, how many people I choose… some people can’t be pleased. So I just do what I can do and ignore the rest. Can’t please everyone, particularly when people have their nose out of joint because they or their favorites weren’t chosen.
Nathan – you’ve run a very successfully blog for a long time. I’m a newbie here, do not run a blog – successful or unsuccessful – and this is my first ‘contest.’ So, I may be completely out in left field.
And I certainly hope you didn’t feel my comments were a personal challenge to you – I was just weighing in on the discussion.
That said, I still think an ‘honorable mention’ list, or something like that would be a cool idea.
But I could be wrong! 🙂
Bill Mabe says
This was an extremely helpful post–your insight into the strengths of the winners and intros to be wary of.
Thanks so much for running this contest. I’ve learned a lot from it.
I enjoyed the finalists’ paragraphs; they were so well written. I had difficulty deciding between them.
Sandie Hudson says
Congratulations Natalie well deserved.
Thank you Nathan for running the contest.
Hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.
Jacquie Kubin, editor says
The word blog is pedestrian. It does not support that which t I have read here on NB-LA. And I must commend those that have made comments to this posting. It is quite refreshing to read complete sentences, grammatically correct and containing a core thought, or ideal. Well most of them at least.
For those new, as I am, to this forum (I really do detest the word and concept of blog), you can find the finalist paragraphs at https://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2008/12/finalists-as-introduced-by-donald.html.
We are always on the lookout for a few good writers. Hard to find really. I am enjoying your forum Nathan.
On the aside, may I suggest Donald watch out for the upcoming show “Trust Me.” It is based on the writers experiences at J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett in Chicago. It starts on Jan. 26 on TNT. My review of the program will be up in the next day or so.
Being a brat at Garfield -Linn, Chicago a few decades back, I found it quite funny.
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