I have read all 1500+ entries! I think I pulled a paragraph muscle in the process, but I have decided on the finalists. All shall be revealed tomorrow.
In the meantime, a contest tradition, the Stupendously Ultimate Word Cloud courtesy of the good folks at
My favorites were ones that had a unique or interesting voices or characters or that folded me into the place and story. I like it when beginnings feel like beginnings rather than being startled or dropped into something so as to be hooked. I think you can hook and still bring your reader in without trying to startle and bang and jab.
(I'm writing on an empty stomach so I fear I'm not making much sense. Oh well).
Here is my long list of favorites:
MBee (hole in the sky!)
Vinyl & Mono (made me laugh)
Shannon (I want to know what she did to ruin that woman's life)
February Grace (succinct, but voice is strong)
So many were good!
Eleni Alexandraki says
Wow, you got through 1500+? I only got through about 50! That's amazing! Thank you for holding this contest for the 4th year, even though you don't have to do it! You definitely have what it takes to be a literary agent.
Honestly, I read most of the entries (probably up to around a thousand or so), and only one sticks out to me. Most people dealt with death, which became redundant after a while. I really believe that this person nailed the hook. I loved Rebecca's paragraph about the city of Surya being devoured by the ground. Even though it's in passive voice and I generally tend to dislike passive voice usage, this opening really grabbed me. It was short and sweet. I am actually a bit envious of this hook.
Personally, I started with dialogue which made it very difficult to submit into a paragraph contest. I think there's something to be said for opening with dialogue versus a full paragraph of text, but now I see from Rebecca's entry how effective a short paragraph of text can be.
As always, thanks for the learning experience Nathan. This contest is great.
D.G. Hudson says
Reading all those paragraphs is a test in endurance. I wasn't able to read them all, and like some contests, the early birds (submissions) are the ones that are read by most.
I liked several of the paragraphs, but most seemed to be trying too hard to blast you with that hook, or splash you with the blood, etc. (perhaps a side effect of all the paranormal/thriller books out now?)
My preference is a good hook that doesn't slap you in the face, and a little info before you drop me in the action.
I really liked Kiersten's entry. It's really only one of the few that truly stood out. The first sentence to do with the burning hair kept me wanting to read more. Why is the girl burning her hair?
Just my thoughts. It said so much with so little.
Lucinda Bilya says
Thank you, Nathan for hosting this contest.
Taking the time to read every paragraph is quite a chore, even with skimming over the “obviously too long for one paragraphs” and the adjective, adverb, saturated ones.
I started a list early on of the ones I wanted to continue reading.
Early this morning, I finished reading/skimming the last 400 entries that I didn’t complete last week. Then, I reviewed my list so I could narrow it down even more just so your Paragraph Muscle doesn’t cramp up with spasms.
Of all the ones I read, Juliana Brandt’s poisoned soup pulled me inside Henry’s mind even though this is not the type of reading I enjoy the most. This paragraph is simple and doesn’t go overboard, but just enough to make me want to know the outcome along with some back-story.
Helen S’s paragraph has a hint of ominous doom only a whisper away. I want to know what it was that's coming Miles Vincent’s direction. I am not too sure about the crickets being gone, however. This confuses me as to the time of day here.
Each time I read through the entries, I stopped when I read my entry. Although I am guilty of including more than the first hard-return paragraph, it always makes me want to read more. This has been one of my favorite books to edit and rewrite. (not just putting in a plug here, either, I think I am in love with the characters)
Leatherdykeuk submitted one that I really liked. His MC Eric Chambers made me feel his tired-of-all-this yawn. He got me to care already about the MC, not just the things he has to deal with. It is not burdened with too much description, either.
C Scott Morris – A drunk poet tripping over dead bodies in the middle of the night. I sense a character with a reason to drink, yet keeps a sense of humor about himself. I would like to read more about this character and the troubles he gets into.
Amy’s first sentence caught my interest about space, the final wasteland. I wonder what the pilot needed more, love?
Kim’s paragraph instills fear and curiosity in the same breath, but I tripped over the details and strange way of saying the little girl was five years old. Details slow the plot down, and if I have to read a sentence more than twice, it trips.
There are more that I enjoyed reading, but if I listed them all and what I thought about them, one of three possibilities would happen:
1. Eyes will roll back and cease reading.
2. Eyes will roll back and cease reading.
3. Eyes will roll back and cease reading.
Thanks again, Nathan. This exercise helps us see beyond writing and beyond even what an agent must endure. It has also helped us to understand the different tastes of agents. If I submitted my YA novel to an agent who is interested in romance, they wouldn’t read past my first hard-return mark.
Kristin Laughtin says
Interesting that "like" is the most dominant word in that cloud. I'm guessing most of the entries included some sort of simile! "Eyes" and "time" also seem to be expected results. I didn't read through all the entries, but I saw a few that jumped out at me. I'm excited to see the finalists!
Elena Solodow says
I have a comprehensive list of my "turn-offs" after reading all 1,515 here:
Biggest trends noted:
People waking up
People waking up tied to a chair or in other harrowing situations
"My father/mother/uncle always told me"
Describing sunlight/wind (or rain, which I've mentioned)
Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts
People moving and arriving at their new house
First day back at school
People being called "crazy"
The main character has just murdered someone
Dreams (recurring or otherwise)
Forgot to note that I also quite liked Austin L. Church's "Peter Frampton ruined my life" paragraph.
And, Nathan, I vote you announce the finalists as Ron Swanson. And talk a lot about meat. Or Leslie Knope, which would also be cool.
Ooop Word Clouds. They are like, very fun. 🙂
I'm so impressed that you not only read them all, but made considered choices, Nathan. You are talented.
I skimmed through them – my favorites tend to be the ones with strong voice and wit that grab me quickly. That's only because that's the type of book I like to read. If I liked other types of books, I'm sure that other paragraphs would have been my favs.
And I really didn't see a single paragraph I didn't like!
Very much looking forward to the results. Good luck everyone!
D.G. Hudson says
Suggestion to Nathan: next year (if you're doing this in 2012), perhaps offering a second prize to those who select the winners (such as a first page critique, talk to Nathan,etc.) would inspire more of us to read all the entries, even if we didn't post a paragraph. A little incentive of lesser value.
Just an idea. I'm one of those who needs a reason other than my own edification to read that many entries.
Good Luck to those in the running for the big prize!
I didn't read all entries, but Jen Barton's stuck in my head. I wonder what will happen to the plumpest baby.
Still working my way through them, but I wanted to take a peek at what everyone else was thinking. (Ah, peer pressure.)
Way to go, Nathan! Can't wait to vote!
I am totally blushing, Alexandra LC. Thank you!
For my part, I did read many of the entries, though I never got around to making a list. I was the most drawn to the paragraphs that created an interesting atmosphere and demonstrated a confident, unique voice. I'm pleased to say there were a lot of them!
I have read maybe a couple of hundred. I was going to pin down my ten favorites or something, but it might prove impossible…
Some that stuck with me:
William and the rats in the cell. I loved the idea of some being evil, some being good, and the fact that the protagonist was so focused on them. I mean, it's rats. It's very mundane, but there's some nice POV of the protagonist in noticing them.
Patrick O'Donnell – I loved this whole passage, especially the phrase "the magical miracle of a normal day". There's something very intriguing about this; it describes mundane everyday activities, but they obviously aren't normal or taken for granted by the protagonists. I'd definitely read more.
Rick Fry and Hallucinating the Kid – I love the fact that it begins with him being declared insane, then he shows us his inner world and states that he prefers it to reality if it's not real. It felt original and true.
Mister Fweem – this begins with Amundsen and how the narrator feels he lied aobut something. It might feel random, but I loved it. It says a lot about the character and the way he relates to the world.
karenmkrueger: the memory of the mother telling the child a story on the porch. This was such a beautiful description, subtle yet poetic in some way. The feel I got from reading fairy tales as a child. beautiful.
Stacey – standing behind a door and wondering what will await on the other side. I liked how this was very subtle and gave very little away. It could go any way, and it was clearly withholding suspense, but it didn't feel like "I am keeping the readers in suspense", it felt like "character stopping at a door wondering what happens next". Very real.
Cynthia Armes and alcoholic Lucille's husband. There was something very touching about this. The addiction is clearly ruining the marriage, but the husband still loves his wife and wants to help her out, even if it is by enabling her. I loved his tenderness about her and his desperation.
My favorite is from Jessica Oliveros. It presented the hook and the intrigue right away without giving away what the story is actually about. I wanted to read more based on the character, not just the plot.
I enjoyed the chance to participate. I really do not care if I "win" or not. It gave e a chance to jump start my muse.
Thank you very much for that.
ninidee's discussion of how it is to have faith. It rang true, and I liked the tone of the paragraph a lot.
Phil and the kettle that began to sing. I liked that the sound was described as "thin and desperate". It's a nice little personification that tells us how the character may be feeling.
Cyndy Aleo's man who doesn't know who he is was intriguing. Whether he's changed personalities or just experiencing morning amnesia, it's a nice moment and I'd read on to find out what the problem is.
Kathryn Packer Roberts. For some reason, I got a strong sense that I want to know more about the narrator and Maidy. Is she sick, physically or mentally? Is she confined for some other reason? Who is Maidy and what is their relationship? I was so drawn in.
Eden and the drinking mothe'rs search party. It's been mentioned a few times, so I'm wondering if it's gonna place. The first sentence is really interesting, because "I was six and nowhere to be found" kinda switches POV right then and there. I loved that surprise.
Jessie Oliveros and the moment of standing on the bridge, wanting to go down. I loved how the character was built up there in little details, and the story alluded to but in a subtle way.
Helen S – here I particularly liked the last sentence: "But the prairie wind, something as constant as crickets on a warm night, was silent, gone." Beautiful and doing a lot with few words. The feel of the paragraph is peaceful and the character is not pushed in your face, but rather built up with the nature observations. This comes close to the Finnish narratives I've read.
Erik Smetana and the name Oliver. I like the description of how the name tastes – it's quite original and gives a view of the character in a strangely subtle way. Intriguing.
Lisa Michelle Castignetti – Blake is repulsive and awful but I'd like to know more about his relationship with the narrator and the narrator's mother. I think the moment is described with enough detail to make me care, but not so much you'd give it all away.
J Burk says
I read the ones from the first day posted, but not the rest. I can't really say any one jumped out at me.
I will admit that it made me work for a couple of hours this weekend to change my opening paragraph since I'm going to the DFW Writer's Conf this month and hope to show my MS to a few agents.
Good luck, Nathan and thanks for the motivation.
The mom who turns into a hamster when her kids get sick is my favorite. Loved the last sentence, probably because it's too true.
Aimee Bea says
I liked the one about the poisoned soup too. But I was only able to read the first 300 or so.
I think, given the rate of reading burnout amongst us non(and-never-were-or-will-be)agents, that looking at 200 comments (or one column via blogger) at a time a day would yield more fresh-eyed views, as it seems many of the comments here admit they quit reading (understandably) after the first group.There is no way I can pick and comment from 1515 at one time. Anyone who can: wow!
(I also noticed, on the new "judges" of American Idol, that they picked everyone at first and then had to get more discriminating because it is HARD WORK being able to assess talent, let alone SO MUCH talent!
Super contest, and wow! 1500! I couldn't even get through all of these responses, much less the entries!
Carrie Keyes says
Commentor Kevin, I am reading and you are absolutely right about my opening. Thank you for reaching out and offering your support and suggestions. Nathan, thank you for this opportunity! It's so fun to read these…
I came, I saw, I read all the entries. A lot of them were excellent. 27 of the entries stood out enough for me to make note of. I cut that number to my 15 favorites:
Samuel D. Gray
Henri "It sounded like a cannon shot…"
Laura "Everyone lies on the first question…"
Sarah "The second married man…"
Lori "It was all fun and games…"
Ashley R. Graham
Margie "I'm pretty sure my mom…"
Austin L. Church
Ant "All this business…"
So those are my favorites. Great job to everyone who entered!
Helen S says
I read about 200 hundred in the middle (the middle always gets shorted). I was drawn to the short ones, Like Mimi's — "Nicki's new daughter-in-law was a harlot." And Grazia R. Svokos one about kicking the laundry basket down the stairs. And Lauren's first kiss tasting like Bubble Yum. The short ones gave us voice and situation in one punch. Great stuff.
J. T. Shea says
I'm still slowly reading through the 1,500, but haven't even got as far as my own bizarre offering yet. BTW I've just posted my REAL first paragraph in Shadow's first paragraph thread in the Forums. No kidding! I felt surprisingly nervous doing so, even after all the hundreds of paragraphs I've posted here and elsewhere in the Forums.
Matthew, the cheap hotel room where your narrator is held prisoner may stink, but your paragraph most certainly does not!
And, following S. Kyle Davis' advice, bananas are oblong yellow fruits, usually curved, except in the European Union, where they must be straight. A cousin of mine works as a banana straightener in Brussels. Seriously! It's a highly skilled profession!
Suzie F. says
I read through them of all too. I connected to the paragraphs I felt had a strong voice or drew me in with a bit of humor or something unexpected.
Here are some of my favorites:
kaylafina (this made me LOL)
Red Boot Pearl
Ostriches Look Funny says
Ah!! Someone liked mine!! I feel like a winner! Yay me!
As far as the rest of the contest goes, I think people need to retire all names that start or end with an "x" or a "z". Don't ask me why. We all have things that annoy us. Also? I'm sick of the undead in all it's forms.
Bethany Brengan says
I only made it 200 paragraphs in. Then I realized how many words 1500+ paragraphs is.
I enjoyed several of the paragraphs already mentioned here.
To name a few:
Vinyl and Mono (for nailing the long paragraph and making me laugh)
Juliana Brandt (a lot of killers and would-be killers in our submissions, but this one interested me)
wry wryter (a nice, slow, well-thought-out beginning–and a good voice)
Carol Riggs says
I've read the first 600. I could tell by the first sentence if I would like them. Some of them I liked the writing style of, but they didn't feel like first paragraphs–too much into the middle of a scene, too abrupt of action before I knew if I cared about the characters. A lot of entries sounded distant, and/or took place after something had already happened; I wanted to SEE something happen, not be told about it after the fact.
I wish the entries had numbers, so it would be easier to look up people's favorites, and so it would be easier to let people know which ones are MY faves.
I made note of all the ones I liked best in the first 600 (about 40) and am really curious as to whether the winner/s will be one of them. I particularly liked:
Allison: I like to burn things.
Monica Shaughnessy: A voice, scratchy and high like a fork on a chalkboard… [short, but great!]
Shelby House: I stand in the gritty bathroom…
Dan: Ensign Dorothy Paddock tugged at the base of her uniform top…
Emily White: Too many people in the world walked around trying to be different…
Empress Awesome: When a phoenix is reborn…
David Raffetto: Never trust people with silent letters in their name.
Alan Jones: Mama and Pa f—d up. [real f-word used, but I liked the voice and the last line]
barbara galvin: Mama never ate a Citizen child.
Jan Priddy: My mother catches me squeezing a zit…
Margo Gremmler: When she’s not squealing in my ear…
ddelano: I have not always been Chinese.
Sara Catterall: One Saturday, Archie was finishing breakfast…
jongibbs: 12-yr-old Doris Fairview (deceased)…
To me, these all had great voice and immediate interest.
Good job EVERYONE, and kudos for being brave and entering! Woo!
Bethany Brengan says
Oh, and Sheel's opening tickled me. I would keep reading that book.
Bethany Brengan says
And there's something simple and wonderful about JJ's paragraph: "Telephone poles zipped by like lights on a carnival ride. Shanna bit her lip, afraid to speak. Never upset the person behind the wheel was what they taught in Drivers Ed class."
Carol J. Garvin says
My eyes have glazed over and I haven't made it through half of the entries. I don't know how you did it but I'm in awe. 🙂
My two favourites so far:
Doug Marshall's It's not fair.
[dave]'s I watch Chloe almost every minute…
A few others I like:
Juliana Brandt's The soup was poisioned…
Heidi Sinnett's his mother’s personal journal files…
Eden's I was six and nowhere to be found.
Sommer Leigh's Finding the body had been an accident.
Jessie Oliveros' When my aunt Meg warned me about the drop-off…
Monica Shaughnessy's A voice, scratchy and high…
Deb's Starting your day with a gun to the head really sucks.
Richard Mabry's The body sprawled in the entryway…
Linda Clare's Mud is what I remember most.
Looking forward to seeing what your picks are.
Martin Rose says
What I find most astonishing is the wide variety of paragraphs people liked. Interesting!
I loved "There was a hole in the sky."
Marilyn Peake says
I had hoped to have more time to read the contest entries, but I only found time after 12:30 AM this morning. I only managed to read the first two pages of entries. I chose my favorites based on the writing itself, even when it was in genres I don’t normally enjoy. Here are my favorites from the first two pages of entries:
richfigel’s – The description is good, provides a glimpse into a potentially interesting story.
LizzieFriend – Great use of language. Humorous, but clearly shows the main character and her uncomfortable predicament.
Martin Rose – Powerful use of language, tightly written sentences.
Ted – Powerful use of language, tightly written sentences.
David Raffetto – Intriguing first-person point of view.
Ian Tuttle – Good visual and auditory description, suggests an interesting world in which the story takes place.
Ed Miracle – Fantastic use of language and images, hints at a potentially unique and interesting story.
Lynne Sears Williams – Nice use of language, reminds me of John Steinbeck’s writing style.
Jkinkade – Nice use of language, introduces an intriguing character and setting. I love this phrase: "on the water's edge of guilt and remorse".
Wow, everyone has really diverse tastes. A few of the entries on my shortlist of 15 (I read all the entries; my own didn't cut it XD) have been mentioned so far, but my favorite is Melody's ("Ivolet…").
I thought going through the entries would be a torturous (albeit educational) experience, but while I was right about educational, I found it not as painful as expected. I loved finding those paragraphs that made me laugh or captured my imagination. I bet that same thrill is why agents are willing to go through slush piles.
Elena's list of trends is awesome – spot-on and comprehensive. The ones that stuck out to me most while I was reading: waking up, dead people, blood/violence, self-introductions, and pregnancy tests.
Thanks for the great contest, Nathan!
Thanks for the contest Nathan, I read about 700 random entries and there were around 20 which I would have kept reading but I didn't make a list at the time.
The four main reasons I excluded possible reads are –
1. Technically correct but story had no soul type thing.
2. Author intrusion openings which always feel like a random stranger on the bus just started talking to me about something I've shown no interest in so I did the equivalent of swap seats to eavesdrop on more interesting looking people *grin
3. Para's lacking white space also put me off. I think four sentences or so should be enough to hook initial interest.
4. Those which didn't seem to have anything happening (no action about to take place at all.)
Just my personal take.
I read through all entries — for work, for me — even though it was taken out of my writing time. It is a great way to learn what pops off the page. And the comments on what others found worked for them or didn't (abc, Caroline, Alexandra LC, Deniselle and Carol RIggs) are great too. Thank you.
I did what Mike Koch and Phil spoke about and decided on first sentences whether to read on.
I liked Kitty who's character Tori wrestles with the Angle of Death; Mary Ann Fraser's where starting fresh was getting stale. Samuel D Grey made me laugh: I hate field trips. JJ's telephone poles were great. I liked Carolyn Arnold's direct directions; A Foster's description of how to tell a farmer's wife; Jan's first night after her husband left was funny; Robin Martin's open made me want to know more about Sam; Kim's voice in 'The day the king sold the world and his son in it' was wonderful' and I would read more of Jen McQuiston's character arriving in Africa. Kelly made me want to know what was up with the Congressman's daughter and Lucinda Gunnin's opening of planning for the apocalypse without birth control made me laugh. The two situations described by Lisa Smith and Bob Eisele had me wanting to read more as did Helene Dunbar's box of stolen souls.
It is a steep learning curve — figuring out how to begin a piece. Your contest makes it very clear how hard it is to make sure that what you write is what you want your reader to understand.
The word cloud tool is just so cool!
Back to work! I hope get it right next time!
Thanks for taking the time, Nathan! This contest has been fun. I loved how we could see everyone's entries, and (in a later blog) see what draws people into a story. This has been great!
Charli Mac says
I only got through the first 200, sorry 201-end…But in that 200 I found so many I really loved and wanted more of. So much talent out there and I was honored to have had the privilege to read these. They are in no particular order.
Loved the tone of loss:
Taryn Simpson said…
In a matter of seconds, I witnessed the deaths of my parents and oldest brother. It was then that I realized that my lonely childhood had come to a reverberating halt. This moment in time would forever be seared into my psyche, destined to become part of the psychological baggage that I would carry upon my shoulders for the rest of my life. My innocence was gone and there wasn’t time to mourn.
I need to read the rest of this now:
Deb Levy said…
I don’t have a number. Yet still they ask. The curious, the skeptical, the ones who know all they need to know. They eye my wrist, searching for that telltale proof. “Where’s your number?” But I never went to a concentration camp. I am a survivor without a number.
I snorted out loud on this one:
Travis Erwin said…
Grace McEwen was eight the first time she stood outside a closed door and listened to her mother squeal and sigh with pleasure. Thirty-one years later, she found the sounds just as awkward. Maybe more so, now that she fully understood the source of her mom’s vocal gratification.
Drop Dead Fred was my fave movie. Love this:
Doug Marshall said…
It's not fair. They can't punish me for bringing an imaginary friend to school. First of all, Billy is not imaginary. Second, I didn't bring him; he came by himself. And third, I didn't start the fire
Jackie Buxton says
I want to add to the respect and gratitude, Nathan – great competition and huge undertaking, thank you! I haven't managed to read many, I'm afraid, (and apologies to those at the end as I couldn't read past comment 600 because my pc was refusing to turn the page) but of those I read, I highlighted:
Cait with the intrigue of that wait on the platform; KT with 'Seven' and the intrigue in what, exactly, could be so terrible in a name and Helen with the intrigue of the 'gentleman' and his wonderings about the MC's request for death. So, yes, for me, it was all about intrigue because that's what makes me read on – even when the writing doesn't immediately stand out as my kind of thing (I mean that generally, not specifically to my selections here).
It's interesting seeing so many paragraphs altogether in one place. It does make you realise that different genres really are, well, different and shows why it's so crucial to do your research before submitting. An agent covering fantasy really is most unlikely to be interested in your lit fit, for example, if this is anything to go by.
Great comp, thank you! Slightly embarrassed to have entered now, though, wonder if I've failed my own criteria…!
Ted Cross says
Suzie F. and Marilyn Peake made my day with the mentions! My book doesn't begin with any huge emotional hook, so I didn't expect to be considered by anyone really. Now even though I won't get picked by Nathan I can still be happy! Thanks!
Carol, thanks for the mention. Now I can take, "Hang my head in first paragraph shame," completely off the to-do list 🙂
I want to give a shout out to Gina Mosley Lamm, JasonF, Kelli, Ria, Kathleen Basi, Helen S, Alli Sinclair, Aerin, Susan Bearman, Simon Hay Soul Healer, Andrea, Sam Koch, and Tommy. Your paragraphs rocked my socks! keep fighting the good fight!
They're all terrific, but I gotta go with Ben. That's some good stuff.