The….. winner…… is…… atthebottomofthispost.
But first, I promised to discuss more about what went into my decisions. And before we begin delving into the ins and outs of first paragraphs, I think I should probably state this up front for the record:
It’s just a first paragraph.
Lots of really great books have very quiet and/or unremarkable first paragraphs. Your book is not going to succeed or fail based solely on its first paragraph. While I do think a good first paragraph can help grab a reader, I hope the takeaway from this contest isn’t to elevate the first paragraph more than it deserves or convey that it’s essential to cram the entire plot into the first paragraph or to make it overly clever or to treat it as anything but it what it is: your reader’s first impression of the book.
I also want to emphasize, as I did in the last contest, that I think I read these first paragraphs differently as an agent than a lot of readers do. Lots of people look at the paragraphs and think, “Is this a book I want to read? Am I hooked? Would I buy this?” When I’m reading a paragraph (or a partial), I’m looking for execution more than I’m looking for whether there’s a catchy plot introduced right off the bat. If the writing isn’t there it doesn’t matter how much I like the concept.
Also, have I mentioned how hard it was to choose the finalists? It was hard. In order to show you the kinds of decisions I was making as I was whittling the 2,500 down to the longlist and the longlist down to 10, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of the honorable mentions, both to give them credit where due for being awesome, and to show the kind of hairsplitting I had to engage in to reduce the list to just the ten finalists.
There were paragraphs, like John Askins’, where I really loved the concept. What isn’t there to like about a novel opening with a toilet-trained monkey in some bar in Guadalajara? But I felt that the transition between the second sentence and the third was a little choppy, and I didn’t feel that “potty trained” needed to be repeated in two sentences in a row and instead thought those sentences could be combined. Like I said, splitting hairs.
There were paragraphs like Jenny W.’s, which opens up such an appealing world. I love the idea of a man casually shooing away a monster going to the bathroom in the front yard. But while at first blush it read so smoothly and has such a great voice, there was a contradiction in the paragraph that I couldn’t quite get over – if it was the narrator’s first time seeing the monster, why were they on a first name basis and seemed so familiar with each other? It seemed like the catchy first line contradicted the rest of the paragraph.
There were other paragraphs, such as L.T. Host’s and Vanessa’s, where there’s a high concept hook right off the bat. These are classic “I want to know more” openers, and seriously, I really want to know more please e-mail me. But in a competition for best first paragraph, I had to leave out ones that had an interesting, straightforward concept but mainly left it at that. I really liked these paragraphs and don’t want/need a paragraph that’s overwrought or needlessly florid, but I couldn’t help but feel that there could have been something just a little bit more to invite the reader a further into these worlds even if there’s a high concept idea introduced right away.
Can you tell how subjective this gets when you’re choosing between 20-25 of the best written paragraphs? It is.
Now. Circling back: do I have an overarching philosophy when it comes to first paragraphs?
I was pretty surprised at the specificity of many of the people who weighed in on the You Tell Me on what makes a good paragraph, not to mention how contradictory many of the opinions were. Some people only wanted in media res, some hate in media res. Some want description, some don’t. Some like beginning with dialogue, some hate beginnings with dialogue. Some want to be grabbed by the throat, some want to be led in gently. Some want spare, some want florid. It definitely explains why there are such wildly divergent opinions about the paragraphs.
I don’t have any set preferences when it comes to structure and approach. frohock left a great comment that sums up my feeling about first paragraphs almost entirely. Essentially, I think the first paragraph has three important functions: it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.
The concept of flow and rhythm is especially important. It’s hard to begin reading a book. The reader is starting with a blank slate and doesn’t have much context for understanding what is happening. It takes a lot of brain power to read the opening and begin to feel comfortable in the world of that book. So even if the novel starts with action, or especially if it begins with action, it’s very important to draw in the reader methodically, with one thought leading to the next. The flow of the words and a steady building goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Quite a few paragraphs jumped around or felt scattered, and it made it difficult to stay engaged.
And on the trust issue: I shy away from anything that feels like a gimmick. A novel is simply too long for gimmicks. Not only do they get exhausting, anything that is clever merely for the sake of being clever comes at the expense of trust between author and reader. To put it another way: if a first paragraph is how an author makes their first impression, using a gimmick in the opener is kind of like going to shake the reader’s hand while wearing a hand buzzer. There might be a quick thrill, but they’re probably not going to trust you after that. There was a feeling of forced cleverness in many of the entries where I wasn’t able to lose myself in the paragraph and forget the hand of the author who was writing it.
In any contest where someone is reading 2,500 paragraphs basically in one setting, originality is probably more important than it would be normally. While there were plenty of openings in this contest that were very good, there were stretches where things kind of blended together. The ones that were different tended to stand out in the contest, even though I fully recognize that you can write a perfectly competent but unremarkable first paragraph and still write a very good book.
Lastly, I would urge everyone to read as many of the entries as possible. There really is no substitute for reading them until your eyes bleed and see what begins to jump out at you once they’ve begun to blend together. Manning a slush pile is a tremendous learning opportunity for any writer, and reading a couple thousand of these is the closest approximation.
And speaking of blending together, here are some of the things I saw a lot of as I read through the entries. Bear in mind that I’m not saying you can’t use any of these elements in your first paragraph. Anything can be done well. But these are common tropes that I picked up on:
– There were quite a lot openings with setting/rising suns and characters bathed in red colors, as well as moons and characters bathed in twilight.
– Girls looking in mirrors/brushing their hair/looking in mirrors while brushing their hair
– Holy cow, or should I say Holy Dead Bloody Cow were there a lot of corpses and blood in the first paragraphs. “Blood” was used 181 times, and that doesn’t count the euphemisms. Not necessarily a bad thing (and one of the bloody ones made the finals), but wow.
– You wrote a lot of paragraphs in the second person.
– One common trope involves a person who is dying but feels all detached from the experience. Sort of like: “I am dying, but I feel nothing but a bemused disinterest about it. Isn’t it curious that I’m dying? I suppose I should be scared right now. This is peculiar indeed.”
– Waking up/waking up in a panic/waking up in a burning down house/waking up from a really good dream/waking up from a really bad nightmare/waking up and not wanting to wake up/waking up and realizing actually dead.
– Gripping the steering wheel tightly
– Contemplating the depth of an important moment, especially: “If only this one thing hadn’t happened, then everything would have been different.” “It was just like any other day, only then this one thing happened.” “This was the precise moment when everything changed.”
– The pull the chair out from under the reader several times paragraph, like this: “Statement. Well, it wasn’t that per se, it was somewhat like this. Or should I say rather more like this. Still, it was indeed kind of like that original statement. Only kind of not really.”
– Common phrases: “consumed with fear,” “last thing I/he/she wanted/expected, “washed over me/him/her, “top of my/his/her lungs,” “farthest thing from my/his/her mind,” “(blank) – literally,” “they/my mom/my grandmother say(s) that (aphorism).”
Like I said, any of these things can be done very well, and I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t use any of them. It’s just difficult to make something unique out of elements that are very common, and I think we’re all generally drawn to something that feels different.
For instance, someone along the way pointed out that SATURDAY opens with the protagonist waking up. So it can be done, particularly if your novel takes place over the course of one day and particularly if your name is Ian McEwan. And if anything, the same trope in the beginning can result in wildly different results. “Dark and stormy night” can lead to WRINKLE IN TIME or it can lead to this paragraph from PAUL CLIFFORD, originally written by the long-dead Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the inspiration for the bad-writing contest of the same name, which I assume someone entered in an attempt to trick me.
Here is why I ended up choosing these ten finalists:
Josin L. McQuein pulls you in with the geometry-teacher-as-devil idea, and then keeps it going with a great punch line. I really love “I want to strangle myself with a hypotenuse,” not only because it’s funny, but it’s geometrically accurate! Great voice.
Alanna. Confession: I am not generally a fan of the second person. But I thought the writing and the concept here are quite spectacular and I didn’t hesitate to include this paragraph as a finalist. I thought it was moving to have the action going in reverse, the prose was top notch (love: “The dust falls out of the beam of light from your window and settles back on the scarred wooden floor”), and I found the interplay between the writing and subject very evocative. I might have liked it even better if it were third person, but this is some serious raw writing talent on display.
K and A. What I love about this paragraph is how fully-realized this world is and how effortlessly the details are melded into the paragraph. I was drawn in by the list of people and how they aren’t what they say they are, but what really drove this paragraph home for me was that the new arrival shows up with a protest sign that says “Peace not plasma.” K and A didn’t stop with the plot concept, there are small details throughout that creates a very convincing and interesting world. This is a great example of how a world can come alive with small details.
M has an instantly memorable setup: a protag with a changed name on the run from some murders. But it’s more than just an interesting concept, there’s a great voice too. I love that the character is looking out for the reader. Now. Is Mara the culprit or a witness? I guess we’ll have to read on to find out.
Jackie Brown. I really liked the interplay between inside and outside in this paragraph. At first it seemed like the child was perhaps dangerous (she’s wearing a mask and we see her staring in the door and is compared to a ghost), but then the action subtly shifts and we’re seeing things from the perspective of a very human-like child staring inside at a mysterious veiled figure. I found the experience of reading it very unsettling in a good way, almost like, “Hey, wait, my brain was just in that house what in the heck is in there?”
miridunn. I thought this paragraph had very strong writing, great rhythm, and it’s about a very wrenching subject. Quite a few people who read the first couple hundred paragraphs mentioned this one as a standout, and I think it’s a reflection of how gripping it is right away.
Travis Erwin. The humor and sense of place just shine right through. The joke about the titles of other coming of age stories is hilarious and instantly memorable. Very clever and very funny.
Simon C. Larter. This is another paragraph that combines great rhythm with great details, which suck the reader into the story. I thought the writing was smooth and the tension palpable.
Lisa Marie gave an immediate, gripping sense of grief, and I thought the contrast between the precision with which the protagonist moved on and the mystery of the note was interesting and moving. A very nice progression throughout the paragraph.
Maya. There were a whole lot of paragraphs that began with a character outside in nature and contemplating where they are in life and thinking about what’s next. I chose Maya’s to represent this group because I thought the different elements came together very nicely – the pomegranate juice, the sound of the orchard, and the bark in her back all meshed with what she is thinking about her past. I found it to be an elegant and nicely balanced paragraph that appealed to all of the senses and evoked a place.
Congratulations to all of the finalists!
I have tallied the votes.
The four runners-up are….
Josin L. McQuein
Congratulations! Please e-mail me about your query critique and signed THE SECRET YEAR bookmark.
And now, the author of the stupendously ultimate winning paragraph and the winner of a prize of his choosing and a galley and our undying admiration is….
Congratulations to Travis, and thanks so much to everyone who participated!