Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Winner Is...... (and more on choosing the finalists)


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.

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.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

congrats, Natalie... grrr i've been gone for almost a month in Saudi Arabia and i've missed out on some great blogs.

Ulysses said...

Good luck with the recovery, and thanks for the perspective.

I always write my opening sentences with a view toward starting the action, but there are so many other things that ought to be done to make the good become great that I'm in awe of your finalists.

I'm going to need a lot of work.

Y'know, writing a good opening paragraph is HARD. I think I'll concentrate on something easier next time, like building a scale model of the Los Angeles freeway with dental floss.

Kat Harris said...

Congrats Natalie and all.

Thanks for the contest Nathan.

As always, it was fun.

Erica said...

Congratulations to Natalie, and thank you so much, Nathan, for the time spent reading and commenting.

Whirlochre said...

Hoorah for Natalie.

Kiersten said...

ROCK ON! Natalie's my girl ; ) Thanks for taking the time to do this, Nathan. What fun.

Also, I can vouch--the rest of Natalie's books? Just as good as that paragraph!

Professor Tarr said...

Congrats Natalie... and to all who entered. There is great stuff. It is really lovely to have a peer group that is so supportive and strong. It makes you really consider your craft in a positive new way. Too long, I feel I have been writing for myself. This is valuable... really valuable.

Jeanie W said...

Congratulations, Natalie.

Thanks again, Nathan, for hosting the contest. And thanks to everyone who entered. I really enjoyed reading the entries.

Serena C. said...

Way to go, Natalie! And thanks, Nathan, for the followup comments. I will try to apply your insights to my writing.

Can't wait till the next contest. Yeah, I know, it's easy for ME to say! :)

Erin Jade Lange said...

nathan, if the finalists don't mind you telling us - which prize did they choose? i'm just curious!

Lehcarjt said...

Congrats to Natalie and the other finalists. This was a wonderful opportunity for all of us.

My entry definitely falls into category number one - intentionally too, although until Nathan's comments I never realized that there were such exacting patterns to openings. The problem though, is how to recognize if it works or is just another cliche?

Lady Glamis said...

Thank you, Nathan, for the contest!

Congratulations, Natalie! You did a fine job, and definitely deserve to win the most votes. :)

I appreciate all the kind comments made about my paragraph, and I have to say, Nathan is right. There were many good, finely written gems to choose from from the 1300 submissions. And even harder, 6 hard ones to vote on! I liked them all, but voted for Alexa's. Alexa, who are you, and where can I read more of your story?

I would talk about my prize, maybe, but not sure if Nathan wants that discussed publicly?

--MA (Michelle Argyle), author of Monarch, the story of Nicholas Avery and the bloody butterfly wings

Anonymous said...

Great job Natalie!! Well deserved and I wish you the very best of luck.

Thank you Nathan.


Misssy M said...

They were all interesting in their own way- I found it hard to plump for just one. Congratulations to Natalie.

I hope you all get the deals you long for! (mainly because I want to see how they all end!)

Ann Victor said...

Especially well done to Natalie, and to all the finalists, and a special BRAVO to all who were brave enough to put their first paragraphs out there.

And thanks to Nathan for the competition. This was a great learning curve, even for those of us (like me!) who never entered. :)

Justus M. Bowman said...

Rather than post anonymously as a bitter man, I decided to not post at all. Some cartoon rabbit taught me that once.

Fortunately, I could see the writing skill in each paragraph, and I'm glad you didn't pick all the "A big explosion blew his head off, then he put it right back on." paragraphs. Interesting, sure...ha ha...but it's so overused!

A teacher made me read a story that started with something like, "A guy woke up as a beetle." I hated that stupid story! You can't assume a tale is great just because it starts with an "exciting" line.

I learned that one on my own.

CC said...


In today's front page of my local newspaper, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO) there is an article on a three day old baby having surgery to remove what they thought was a brain tumor, but turned out to be a FOOT of what was described as a "twin within a twin" situation similar to that in your opening paragraph. Truth stranger than fiction? Egads...

Thanks for the explanations of why you picked some and not others, Nathan, this is indeed helpful.

And a big Congrats to Natalie.

Renee Collins said...

Alright Natalie!!! I am doing the happy dance for you!

And I second Kiersten's comment, Natalie can WRITE! This is a well deserved win. :)

Roland said...

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!

haha exactly the sentence I kept going back to when I finally voted for her.

Natalie said...

Okay, I refreshed the page a few times and it still says my name. Wow. With such great finalists, I really didn't expect this! Thanks so much to everyone for all the nice comments.

Anonymous said...


Actually there is a Tetragametic Chimera, it’s just very uncommon and around forty cases have been documented to exist. Most don’t get to the chimera stage because one twin becomes parasitic to the other.

Thank you for the link…research is everything.

Again, congrats to Natalie and another thank you to Nathan.


Marilyn Peake said...

Congratulations, Natalie!

Thank you for holding the contest, Nathan, and for explaining how you selected the Finalists.

Robena Grant said...

Congratulations, Natalie!

Also congrats. to all of the finalists.

Thanks so much for running the contest and for the explanations Nathan. Back to the drawing board.

lotusloq said...

A big huge CONGRATS to Natalie!! That is such a marketable subject these days too. My daughter would love it! So would I for that matter.

Thanks, Nathan, for explaining your reasoning behind your choices! I always learn so much in your explanations.

teennovelist said...

Congratulations, Natalie!

Thanks for running this contest, Nathan. It means a lot to have a chance to exhibit writing--and all those entries, wow! What a feat.

Juliette Dominguez said...

Congrats, Natalie -- your ninjas rock! And they were all great picks, Nathan. And a joy to read -- plus, as someone else noted, it's fascinating to see how other writers start their books...

Crimogenic said...

Congrats, Natalie! :), Great contest and really cool to see such great openers to novels! :)

uch said...

congrats to the finalists and thanks, nathan, for the specifics. here's a question for when you recover: how do you dust yourself off (the general, writerly you not you, nathan) and keep plugging away. i know rejection is part of the process and it's all a matter of taste (and good writing) but i can't help but doubt myself when the rejection hits. my book has much opening dialogue which i like but isn't very popular with your blog readers. i don't have sour grapes for losing, more wondering when i should return my grapes or stop eating grapes altogether!

Anonymous said...


You said that one of the things you're looking for in an opening paragraph is good grammar, and yet Natalie's now famous line has the error "say's." If this had been an actual submission to you, how much would something like that impact your analysis of the author's work? Would you overlook it it, as was done here, or would it cause you to reject it?

This is not intended to be a snarky comment about Natalie's writing, which other than this error was truly wonderful.

Juliana Stone said...

I had a blast reading so many freaking entries! Such diversity...I myself voted for MA....the visual was just stunning to me....BUT a huge congrats to Natalie and to others as well!

Scott (Thinking Man) said...

Thank you, again, Nathan for the contest.

Nathan, I wondered if you (or anyone in this community) might know of any good editors in the Detroit area that like working with fiction writing newbies?

I joined a writing group about six months ago and I've received some good feedback. I'm also reading a lot about the craft (currently: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne/King).

But I still feel like I'm flailing. I'm writing a novel and, when I finish the first draft, I'd like to work with someone that REALLY knows what they're doing (and is reasonably priced, of course).


Lady Glamis said...

Thanks for your vote, Juliana! --MA

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a good question. When I'm reading I try to distinguish between mistakes that are just typos (which is how I read Natalie's) vs. word choices that reflect a poor understanding of grammar (such as messing up they're/their/there more than once). Also, the typo was actually "he's says," rather than "say's," so it's very firmly in the typo realm.

I'm very very very forgiving about typos (I never care when people misspell my name, for instance), and I'll let the occasional brain freeze homonym problem go. But really glaring errors definitely give me pause.

JaneyV said...

Congrats Natalie! You rule!

Nathan thanks for another great contest and for explaining your choices. To all the finalists - great work!

Natalie said...

Anon—I can't tell you now embarrassed I was about that typo. I didn't enter thinking I was going to get picked, so I just typed into the comment box and totally didn't look over it. (See? DON'T do that.) I debated resubmitting, but thought that might be more annoying and draw attention to it. I'm really grateful it was "overlooked."

Natalie said...

And I just can't type! I totally reread my last comment and STILL...

Leis said...

Congratulations on the brilliant win and wonderful praise, Natalie, you must be pleased! :)

All the finalists came out with terrific work, well done. There were many other good entries and I think we all are grateful for this opportunity to both showcase and learn. Personally, I am both enlightened and humbled by the experience, and finally starting to understand... well, guess we'll see about that.

Thank you Nathan for the priceless insights. I look forward to the next contest (once you recover, of course).

Crystal D said...

Thanks for going into such detail about your choices Nathan. Do you think you could maybe post up some of the paragraphs that caught your eye but didn't make it into the finals?

Dara said...

Congrats Natalie!

I realized something...I fell into one of those patterns o_O Specifically pattern number 3.

I tend to have problems with beginning a scene--I seem to fall back on the whole weather scene entirely too much. :P

When I go back and edit, I'll make sure to give extra attention to my first paragraph.

Thanks Nathan for the contest and for the explanations too--especially the similar patterns. It helps me see how to fix mine or at least what may be wrong with it :P

RW said...

All those opening grafs were so sharp. They definitely made me go back and lock at mine with a different kind of critical eye. Thanks Nathan for a useful learning opportunity even for those who didn't submit anything.

Lupina said...

My best congrats to Natalie and her ninjas. Nathan, I also appreciated that you took the time to lay out your thought process for each -- most instructive!

Here is an idea for the next contest: back cover copy. Wouldn't that be closer to what would be included in a query than the first paragraph? Also, when I've taken time to read the first paragraphs of most books on the best-seller racks in, say, B&N, few of them impress me as much as the winners in this contest. My next step is always the back cover copy and that determines whether I'll look further.

I think this contest would be tougher for entrants but worth the work.

sylvia said...

Congrats Natalie, great stuff!

There were some great story starters here, I'm really looking forward to seeing these in a book one day. I'm sure I'll stare for ages why does that sound familiar?

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Natalie.

All the winners help all of us too.
And Morgan, wow... just read a related article:

what an intriguing topic to
write a fiction around!!!!

Hope this isn't too stupid of a question:
How important is introducing the character specifically in the first paragraph? Doesn't setting give hints (i.e., who would be in such a setting, etc.)?


Alexa said...

Congratulations Natalie! I loved your opening and am dying to read more.

Thank you everyone who voted for me and for all you comments, they were great to read :)

And thanks to Nathan for having the competition!

dylan said...

Mr. Bransford - Thanks for the contest.

Maybe the next contest would be somewhat more inclusive and generate less snarking among the disappointed also-rans if you included an intermediate "Semi-Finalist" stage with more opportunities to recognize other contenders who were good but not the best.

Or perhaps an "Honorable Mention" category.

Congratalie to Natalie. dylan

MzMannerz said...

Congratulations, Natalie!

I voted for Steve, but I liked her paragraph as well. Tough choices.

Interesting comments, Nathan, thank you for sharing them.

Back to Natalie: will we find out which prize she chose?

Lisa Melts Her Penn said...

Thank you for a very fun contest, Nathan. I appreciated your run-down today. It's good to be reminded of what grabs a reader right off the bat. Now I'm curious to look into the future and see if any of the six winners will land a book contract! Good luck to all of you and all of the rest of us.

Cat Moleski said...

Congrats to Natalie! And thanks, Nathan, for the contest and the follow up on your thought process. will have me re-reading my entry.

Amber Lynn Argyle said...

Congrats to you all!

Mira said...

Natalie, congratulations!I hope this is just the first step toward a really rewarding writing career.

And congrats again to all the finalists! Nice work!

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Congrats to Natalie and all the other great writers!

Nathan, I hope your eggnog supply held out through all that reading.

Sarah said...

Nathan-- I TOTALLY agree with you about the anonymous naysayers. It's okay to THINK that you don't care for the selections, but to write it, sour-grapes-wise, on a blog? How very Kindergarten.

It is doubtful that any of those snotty comment-leavers are successfully published writers.

Negative energy is bad for your publishing karma, folks.

L. A. Starks said...

Thanks to the entrants, the judges, to Nathan for posting the winners, and especially for the discussion of (repetitive) patterns.

:)Ash said...

Congratulations, Natalie!!

Nathan, thanks again for doing this. Your comments are always instructive, and reading all the first paragraphs has been a very interesting experience.

gypsyscarlett said...

Much congrats to Natalie.

And kudos to everyone who participated. :)

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hi Scott(Thinking Man),

Re: "Nathan, I wondered if you (or anyone in this community) might know of any good editors in the Detroit area that like working with fiction writing newbies?"

Well - if you want to pay me to give you feedback, I'm more than happy to! (in Detroit area)

Have you checked out the State of Michigan website -

There is a section for writers and also links to websites, that might help you find a local editor.


But consider, maybe with a first draft you're supposed to feel like you're flailing...and if you're still not finished, it might be a while before you can even get any benefit out of a (paid) editor...but hey, I'm reasonably priced in the Detroit area!

Oh well...I just went to the Detroit Institute of Arts a very Detroit-y your novel set in SE Michigan? When I went down Woodward and saw all the "For Lease" signs...who can take it? I can't take it. I always think it would be cool to have a "Writer's Institute" in one of those unused office buildings...but who can afford the rent??? The sheer waste...not what I would expect to feel going down Woodward...NORTH of Eight vocabulary entry: Suburban blight...

Oh well...good luck Scott(Thinking Man)

Wanda B.

Elissa M said...

Just want to add my congrats. And to thank Nathan for the contest even though I didn't enter. Simply reading the entries was more informative than many "how to" books I've read. Having Nathan's explanations for his choices is just icing.

Ryan Field said...

"Steve Axelrod (not the agent, btw)"

I was curious about that. But it didn't matter. I liked the paragraph before the name registered.

Good for Natalie.

DCS said...

Congrats to Natalie. My personal runnerup, but all the entries were winners. Thanks to Nathan for volunteering to host. I'm glad you don't mind typos, but don't encourage me to skip proofreading, please!

Marianne Sullivan said...

congrats to the finalists and winner!

I read a good majority of the submissions and
this contest inspired me to go thru the books I have sitting around here and specifically read first paragraphs. It is very interesting exercise and I highly recommend it!

Leo said...

Congrats to everyone! May you be published. Amen. :)

Jude Hardin said...

Congrats, Natalie!

Scott (Thinking Man) said...

Thanks for the feedback, Wanda B. Yes, the book is set in the Detroit area. I may take you up on your editing offer, but I'd like to know a bit more about your writing/editing background.

Feel free to e-mail me at


Elyssa Papa said...

Congratulations, Natalie! And another congrats to all the other finalists!

And, I loved the breakdown of what drew you to each paragraph and what you noticed. I so can see what I'm doing wrong.

burgy61 said...

Congrats to Natalie on the winning paragraph.

Thanks Nathan for going through this insanity for us readers. And thank you for giving your reasoning behind your choices.

Bea said...

Great fun! Congratulations to Natalie and the other finalists! Re the patterns to watch for: in number three are you referring to anything that starts with a mention of the weather, or just “toughing-out-the-blizzard/hurricane/scorching heat” scenes?

Gerri said...

I didn't vote, mostly because none of the pieces appealed to me. But one thing I've noticed over time, Nathan, is that your preferences lean towards the literary style. That's not a good or a bad thing; it merely is, of course. However, it tells me something about what you're looking for in a sample. It's an interesting thing to consider.

Kasie West said...

Congrats, Nat, you deserve it.

Thanks for the contest, Nathan, it was fun!

writtenwyrdd said...

Congrats to Natalie and the finalists! And thanks Nathan for giving us your thoughts on why these were the final paragraphs.

Robert A Meacham said...

Congrats to Natalie and thank you Nathan for the contest. :)

Dawn said...

Congratulations, Natalie!
Thank you for hosting the contest, Nathan and for the followup comments.

Scott said...

Well done, Natalie, and thanks for the breakdowns, Nathan.

I tend to write the openings of my novels like I would a song: tickle them with something light and then roll into something more rich and dense. Perhaps openers deserve more attention than I've been giving them.

Looking forward to the next one!

Folklore Fanatic said...

Congratualtions, Natalie, and to the other semi-finalists as well!

Also, Nathan, I'm glad you explained why you chose those entries -- and that you forgive minor typos (now I know it was the writing and not the missing "p" in that one word, even though I posted to correct it). We tend to become so paranoid about these things, and it's great that an agent has the patience to explain the thought process.

Deborah said...

Thank you so much for your generosity in holding the competition, going through the vetting process and giving us another window into (at least) one agent's process.

Congratulations, Natalie!

BarbS. said...

Congrats, Natalie!

And thanks, Nathan, for another mini-masterclass.

Here's a question: There were 1300-plus submissions, but way fewer than half of the writers had the grace to stop back and say something nice, let alone congratulate the finalists.

To me, the contest was like sitting around the campfire--or the coffee table--and letting everyone rip a tale. Half the fun is letting your brain relax and be entertained, and half the fun is in being surprised by what everybody else has to say.

As for my little self...well, I admit, I entered anonymously because The Beloved and a few other readers think I can do no wrong, LOL. (It was the one posted on Dec. 8 at 6:43 p.m., guys!--Ohdear, they're groaning... )

Maybe we can have a first-sentence contest?

Ohwait..."It was a dark and stormy night" is already out there? So is "Call me Ishamel"!? Darnit... :0

Lydia Sharp said...


Thank you Nathan for your undeserved sacrifices to make this happen. All of us who submitted entries are indebted to you for the simple fact that we received an insane amount of exposure for our work, even if it is still in progress, and only one paragraph.


Bloggadilly said...

Congrats, Natalie! Good luck with the rest of the book.

Polenth said...

Yay! You can't beat a few ninjas.

Jean said...

Congrats to Natalie and the finalists. I like your paragraphs even more now that I've seen them through 'insider eyes'. Thanks Nathan!

L to the Aura said...

Damn it! I missed the contest!
Ready for another, yet? :)

JLR said...

Sorry, came in too late to vote, but congrats too all the finalists and the winner and thanks again to Mr. Bransford for hosting this. Very revealing and helpful.


Sarah Laurenson said...

Congrats, Natalie! Can't wait to read about the ninjas.

And thanks, Nathan. Fun contest, wonderful entries, great finalists and very informative breakdown of why these were the ones you picked and what to watch out for.

jdi said...

As a matter of interest, Nathan, obviously this competition was all about the first paragraph, but when you are assessing a manuscript, how much weight do you give to the first paragraph in terms of your overall judgement?

rthomashansen said...

Congratulations! Great entries!

Thank you for this contest, Nathan.
You reject beautifully - I have never appreciated a slap back to reality so much.


BarbS. said...

Gaaaa...The Beloved just pointed out that the question I asked above actually ended up in the cut-and-paste black hole. So sorry for that! Here's what I meant to say:

Here's a question: There were 1300-plus submissions, but way fewer than half of the writers had the grace to stop back and say something nice, let alone congratulate the finalists. SO WHERE IS EVERYBODY? It's by far more fun to join the party than to hide in a corner, licking your wounds. (Yep, the cliches were deliberate, LOL!)

Ooooh, look at the word verification: "braties." There should be two "t's..."

gadie said...

Gratz Natalie!

Really interesting rationale for the decision, Nathan. Thanks for sharing.

Ink Wench said...

Congrats, Natalie!

Haste yee back ;-) said...

To BarbS...

I didn't vote... well, because they were all just so brilliant!

It'd be like picking a favorite puppy from a litter - couldn't do it!

Haste yee back ;-)

BarbS. said...

Haste yee,

Same here--originally! I finally succumbed to the allure of the heliophobes because I'm one of those people who become burnt offerings if they stay in the sun too long. :)

mkcbunny said...

Hi Nathan. Thanks so much for the contest. I have a question about "bad weather." Is the "dark and stormy night" generally considered a cliche/rote metaphor, or does that become less of a concern deeper into a novel?

Obviously, writers need to rain/snow/otherwise cast weather upon their imaginary worlds, but I'm wondering how much of a pitfall that setting is if it's not at the beginning of a novel? How about the beginning of a chapter deeper into the book?


mkcbunny said...

Congrats Natalie, and thanks to everyone who submitted.

Eric said...

Well done, Natalie. Tops in the biggest contest to date, I do believe.

Congrats to all the other finalist as well.

Also, Steve, here's wishing you all the best with your WIP. I really enjoy your style and would love to see more someday.

Thank you, Nathan.

Leo said...

"The dark and stormy night" has become such a well known cliche that it's probably not used anymore. Talk about irony. :)

CapitolClio said...

Congratulations Natalie! I can't wait to read more about the ninjas.

Nathan, thanks for running the contest. I hope your liver is still intact.

T-Anne said...

Congrats Nat!!!!!! What a holiday thrill!

OT, for future use, how do you delete a comment once you've published it? For a accidental double poster like me this is valuable info. Thanks to anyone kind enough to answer!

RS Garcia said...

Thanks for running the contest. it possible that out of over a thousand entries, next time, we could get maybe an Honourable mentions list? I mean, it would help to see the also rans, because 6 out of 1300 is just so narrow a pool.

I don't want to make more work for you, but it would be nice to have the spotlight shine on those who almost made it too.

I did wonder though, how many of the entries did you actually get through? I mean, it sounded as if your guest picked the finalists. I just wondered if it's even possible for one person to go through 100 of those without getting fatigued, far less 1300.

I also wondered how much my decision to post a paragraph in a dialect hurt my chances. I know, I know, there are over 1300 also rans, but I do wonder ::grin::

Catherine J Gardner said...

Congratulations, Natalie.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Natalie, and to all the finalists. I couldn't pick a winner because they were all good, but maybe this is the time to talk about the lost art of being happy for someone else.
It's easy to be cheerful when you win, we see enough of it (at least I do) at sporting events (the dancing in the end zone, high fives, etc)but the sour grapes unable to be contained coupled with the drama of wanting the world to know how pissed off you are (a few celebrities, political reporters and athletes come to my mind) have almost made the public expect this. What is that attitude showing to the young ones? You don't like the answer no, so you try to tear down the one who got told yes? I can just imagine the comments Nathan had to delete. It's his blog, his choice. and he was even nice enough to explain the process, which doesn't happen often in the business of literature. On a lighter note, I guess it could have been worse. It didn't reach, oh say American Idol,the Clay versus Ruben height of animosity. I can't see Nathan being all Simon Cowellish "Your opening line stunk, you have no talent, you're wasting your time and mine"
Thank you Nathan, for just being

slcard said...

Congratulations, Natalie. As one who witnesses up close the youth interest in Japanese martial arts, I suspect you'd be a popular read. Good luck with publication.

Nathan Bransford said...

RS -

I read every single one, very carefully. Don Draper just helped me announce the finalists. Also he is a fictional character on a television show.

I will think about doing an honorable mention list. It's tough though, because I take a really long time to choose the finalists, and I wouldn't want the honorable mention list to be sloppy, so that would take more time. I'll consider it though.

Ink said...

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...

Thanks again,
Bryan Russell

Madison said...

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. :D

Nathan Bransford said...


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.

Ink said...

Thanks, Nathan, it's much appreciated.

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

Dutch said...

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.

-- Dutch

Caregan said...

Congratulations Natalie - Ninja power is obviously a force to be reckoned with!

Sophie said...

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 said...

CONGRATS NATALIE!! You're intro really was pretty awesome :)

And thanks nathan for your insight; very helpful!

CapitolClio said...

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.

Sasha said...

Congratulations, Natalie! I would buy your book in a heartbeat if it was on the shelf, just based on the opening paragraph. :)

Lady Glamis said...

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 said...

Thanks so much for hosting these contests! It's great to see how creative everyone can be and it's EVEN BETTER (tm) 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 said...

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.

kai said...

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 said...

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.

JD Spikes

Leis said...

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.

Mira said...

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 said...


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.

Mira said...

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 said...

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 said...

Congratulations Natalie well deserved.

Thank you Nathan for running the contest.

Hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.


Jacquie Kubin, editor said...

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

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.


Jacquie Kubin
Donne Tempo Magazine

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