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.