1500+ paragraphs….. 175,000+ words….
The most stupendously ultimate first paragraph is by….
Now then! As per usual the winners post is a place to talk about what worked and didn’t work in the first paragraphs in the contest, as well as the finalists.
And I’ll tell you one thing that worked: I really think this contest had the highest overall quality of all the first paragraph contests. There were a whole lot of really, really good paragraphs in this contest, and I wish I could have singled out all of them.
So what makes for a really good first paragraph? That’s the perennial question, and one I’ve discussed at length in past contests. To me, it’s always come down to this:
The first paragraph should establish the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.
And on that topic of flow, as inspired by Ira Glass’ interview on storytelling: Good first paragraphs lead smoothly from one thing to the next.
It’s hard to start a book, and it’s so important to ease a reader into a new world. In order to do that, I think it’s important for things to really flow well from one element to the next in order to give the reader a chance to establish their bearings.
And…… what didn’t work?
Well, in general I’m wary of anything that feels forced: forced cleverness, forced wordiness, forced cheekiness, forced sagacity…. anything that doesn’t feel natural and authentic. Great first paragraphs feel effortless, and of course they’re anything but.
And on that forced cheekiness, there were a few common tropes that jumped out at me, both in the contest and hearkening back to my days reading queries. Among them (paraphrasing):
So and so didn’t know how it all began. Well, maybe it was this very specific, pithy thing, or maybe it was this other, even pithier thing. Who could say, really?
It was one of those days. Or, rather, it seemed like it was one of those days only it wasn’t one of those days.
No one would have expected this very big thing could have been started by something charmingly incongruous.
Be careful not to try too hard, or at least be careful to make sure your effort is very very well hidden.
There were also a record number of multi-paragraph entries in this contest. Don’t know what the story is there.
Now! The finalists!!! Let us salute their awesomeness.
The funny thing about tennis, my father used to tell me, was no matter how hard you worked, no matter how good you got, you’d never be as good as a wall. My father didn’t like most sports. Football players, he said, were just drunks in training. Golf was what rich people did when they didn’t want anyone to call them lazy. Hockey was exercise for the criminally insane. And soccer? Well, let’s just say that, all debates of free speech aside, some things are inappropriate for a team of ten year old girls, and the next time he sets foot in the Hamilton County Sports Metroplex, he’ll likely face a $2000 fine and six months in jail. Not that it would matter to him.
This paragraph is just plain hilarious, and you immediately get a sense of the dad’s character. Every line is funny and over the top, and the paragraph flows very well.
Now, full disclosure, I didn’t realize that the first line here about not being as good as a wall paraphrases a Mitch Hedberg joke, which was later brought to my attention. It’s a bit of a gray area for me. On the one hand it’s not an exact lift, but I wonder if there’s a way to work credit for the originator in there somewhere (or maybe it’s so ubiquitous everyone is supposed to know it’s obviously a Mitch Hedberg joke).
Still, the paragraph is really good even apart from that first line, and I still would have included it as a finalist even without it. Well done.
From a bird’s eye view, the sight is beautiful, pristine. The symmetrical gridlines of Shelter’s streets rest on the jagged landscape of the Colorado Mountains, an obvious imperfection that only makes them more charming, like a scar on a beautiful woman. On Monday evening, the streets are vacant. It’s local custom to shell up in a living room and anesthetize your dread of the coming week with a massive dose of televised entertainment. It’s what people do, it’s normal. For the few who walk outside, the October wind is their only companion. Tonight, Charles Crawford is on the other side of the windowpanes and misses the meaningless comfort of being normal.
This is a textbook, textbook example of starting zoomed way out and steadily zeroing on an individual. Along the way are elegant descriptions, a deftly handled metaphor, some great atmosphere (I love “anesthetize your dread of the coming week”), good flow, and that last line about missing the meaningless comfort of being normal is a killer.
I’m a fan.
Wolfgang Benjamin Zuttliburg Mullenbottom IV was the most imaginative boy to ever live. When he was born, he floated right out of the doctor’s hands and nearly out of the nursery. (He would have made it too, if the doctor hadn’t once been a poisonous snake wrangler with Animal Control and still had his lightning reflexes.) “This will not do,” his father, the stoutest in a long line of stout German fathers, said as his son bobbled in the nursery like a helium balloon. So when it came time to make out the birth certificate, he chose the heaviest name possible so his son would keep his feet on the ground.
I love the jaunty spirit and immediate imagination this paragraph inspires. In the context of this paragraph it feels perfectly natural that a boy would fly around like a helium balloon, and it’s a great example of not overselling something out of the ordinary. Sometimes it’s great to take something completely bizarre and treat it seriously, which results in an unforced and wondrous tone. Well done.
Kate Tyler Wall!
It was Ricky Dick of the Turds who said that Del and I would end up together in the Punk Rock Old Folks Home someday. We were all sitting around the fire on one of the last nights at camp, but Del and I weren’t singing along to “Beat on the Brat” with the others because as usual we were knee to knee, talking about some book or maybe the latest song we were writing or how I would have to find another day job next week. Ricky couldn’t jeer at us to “just go in the woods and screw already” like he would to anybody else because people were finally figuring out by then that we weren’t about that. Jimmy Spittle from Cybyl probably came closest to putting his finger on the nature of the relationship. He once said Del and I were each other’s “muses,” a word Ricky Dick had probably never heard of. Jimmy was a pretty deep guy, as punks go. Anyway, everybody laughed, and Del told Ricky where to go, and then Steve from Head Lice started playing “I Fought the Law” on his guitar and another sing-along began. Just another August night at Camp Punksatawny; one that everyone might remember fondly at middle age if they didn’t OD or die of cirrhosis first.
This paragraph wanders around through its world and is the longest paragraph, but everything came together for me and it all worked together. It just has a great spirit, really good detail (everything from the songs they were singing to “knee to knee” to the end where they’re already thinking about how there’s a good chance they’ll OD or die of cirrhosis like any good punks). I enjoyed this world a lot.
Jesus Arturo Alvarez was born on the thirteenth of September in the year of the Lord, after Whom he was named, nineteen hundred and ninety. It was a Friday, and also market day in the village of Guadalupe, Arizona, which lay just east of Ahwahtukee and southeast of Phoenix proper. During her most severe labor pains his mother screamed at the nurses for a drink and his father pinched her hard on that soft skin just above the elbow and told her to shut up. She didn’t feel the pinch but she told him to go to hell anyway and then bit him on his left hand between the thumb and forefinger. Forever after Jesus’ father had a crescent-shaped, dotted-line scar that he would rub absentmindedly with his right thumb during conversation.
Although I was thrown a bit by the second sentence, I love how this paragraph begins and ends. I like the very formal opening and how that eases into the story of Jesus’ birth, the incredible moment where his mom asks for a drink, his dad pinches her and she bites his thumb in such a way that leaves a scar. It’s hilariously told and memorable, and I love that last image of Jesus’ father rubbing the scar and thinking back.
And last but not least, a paragraph that just does so much with such few words, that has us all wondering what in the world comes next, THE WINNER……….
I was born during an electrical storm. They told me when Matilda saw me for the first time the lights flickered, and in that moment of blackness, my sister leaned over and whispered, “I missed you.” Like I had just returned from a trip.
Congratulations to anonymous!!! I wish I knew your name so I could give you proper credit. My publishing friends are already asking about you.
Anon and other finalists, please e-mail me using the Contact Me link on the left side of the page in order to arrange for your prize.
Thanks so much to everyone for entering, and congrats to the finalists and our incredible winner!!
Holly LeCraw says
I'm here to congratulate everyone and also to confirm that Tamar is truly the real Anonymous. I met her Tuesday night at Caroline Leavitt's reading at the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA. A bunch of us went out after and during our conversation you came up, Nathan, and your awesome blog, and Tamar told me about this contest and how she had submitted a graf but had done it as Anon totally by accident…anyway, hopefully this will confirm to the world that this wonderfully talented woman is NOT MAKING IT UP! Congrats Tamar!
Awesome!! Bring it on Anons… 😉
I also think there should be something clever in the first paragraph that mentions the entire theme of the book, along with setting up voice and getting the reader into the flow.
In other words, the first paragraph should also set up the theme/storyline like a roadmap giving directions, even if it's in an indirect way, so when you finish the book and go back to read the first paragraph again you have that "ah ha" moment.
@Anon 12:47 That's an enormous task for a first paragraph, although not for a first chapter. I like to put characters first and let the theme be reflected in them.
Josin L. McQuein says
Are you maybe thinking of the first page critiques that used to happen each week?
It was never an "everyone gets critiqued" scenario, but the first one to post(at first). There's a thread in the forums to add your first page to those that get drawn from now whenever there's a first page critique post.
Thanks Nathan I wasn't sure, I think Josin is right though. I think I might have been thinking of the first page critiques. Thanks for the information Josin I appericate it.
I submited a synopsis today and was hoping to have someone critique it before I emailed it. Oh well, I went ahead and took that first brave step and emailed it anyway.
Elaine AM Smith says
Congratulations to Tamar – a simple, but intriguing, opening.
Well done to everyone else who made it to the final few.
Sorry Anon, but this second sentence did not work for me; I thought it clumsy.
"They told me when Matilda saw me for the first time the lights flickered . . ."
Anyone else think that?
Sheryl Gwyther says
Congratulations, Anonymous Tamar! Yours was my first choice too – I couldn't get it out of my mind.
Interesting comp, Nathan. 🙂
Congratulations guys, your all winners really.
Tamar, dude, get a friend or someone to help you put a blog together. I think everyone would love to read more of your thoughts.
Loved the contest Nathan. Hope to see more, if possible.
Congrats Tamar! Hope to see that book in print! I also hope to read more about the helium balloon baby. Loved that one! Great job finalists!
Carol Riggs says
Yay! The one I chose (anonymous) won! Woohoo! Congrats to him/her, and to all who placed as finalists.
Kristin Laughtin says
Congrats, Anon/Tamar! Glad you came forward. Looking forward to your eventual book. 😉 Your first paragraph gave me chills.
The Red Angel says
Congratulations to Anonymous. 🙂 Though you really deserved it, I loved all the paragraphs.
Thanks to Nathan for hosting such a fantastic contest and for giving all the writers here a chance at this opportunity. 😀
maine character says
Congratulations, Tamar! I love the Bradbury feel of that opening line (Something Wicked This Way Comes has a superb lightning storm intro).
To me, your paragraph would read even better without the last line.
Thank you for all your hard work Nathan. I love these contests and appreciate everything you do and share to make them happen.
Congratulations to all the worthy finalists. I was especially intrigued by the winning para. Wow – so simply worded and yet so atmospheric and….intriguing.
Amy Kinzer says
Congrats Tamar – awesome first paragraph. Good luck with your book.
And congrats to all the other finalists too.
Thanks Nathan for the contest and for taking time to read the entries. Can't way to pick up your book when it comes out.
Juliana Brandt says
Congratulations Tamar! I absolutely would read the book that follows that first paragraph!
Thanks again, Nathan, for hosting the contest. I certainly have learned a lot.
Bryce Daniels says
Congrats Tamar!!!! Here's to seeing you on the shelves!
And thank you once again, Nathan, for sponsoring the contest and working so hard on this. Your insight was fantastic, coming from one of those "no one could have expected anything so big……." guys…..helped me see that I need to put away the sledgehammer…always thought I had that "grabber" for my thriller….what you say makes perfect sense…Thanks Again!
Congrats to all of the finalists.
I loved all of the paragraphs.
Congratulations, Tamar! With an opening like that, you deserve the encouragement. Hope you get the MS finished and published. Looks like you've already got a leg up by attracting the notice of Nathan's publishing friends. 😀
Congratulations to all the other finalists, and my fellow honorable mentions.
And thanks once again, Nathan, for being insanely awesome and running this contest, even though you've left the agenting game. Methinks your former clients must sincerely miss you.
Congrats to anon. That is a great paragraph, first or no.
I don't know, though, about the first paragraph having to follow some rule. Some of this is subjective and more based on marketing than effective writing (no, they're not the same).
If we need our readers to be "hooked" by the first paragraph, why would we expect them to have the patience to endure an entire book?
All Adither says
These are so, so inspiring. Thank you for doing this.