Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Winner Is... (And Thoughts on First Paragraphs)

The..... winner...... is...... atthebottomofthispost.

But first, I promised to discuss more about what went into my decisions. And before we begin delving into the ins and outs of first paragraphs, I think I should probably state this up front for the record:

It's just a first paragraph.

Lots of really great books have very quiet and/or unremarkable first paragraphs. Your book is not going to succeed or fail based solely on its first paragraph. While I do think a good first paragraph can help grab a reader, I hope the takeaway from this contest isn't to elevate the first paragraph more than it deserves or convey that it's essential to cram the entire plot into the first paragraph or to make it overly clever or to treat it as anything but it what it is: your reader's first impression of the book.

I also want to emphasize, as I did in the last contest, that I think I read these first paragraphs differently as an agent than a lot of readers do. Lots of people look at the paragraphs and think, "Is this a book I want to read? Am I hooked? Would I buy this?" When I'm reading a paragraph (or a partial), I'm looking for execution more than I'm looking for whether there's a catchy plot introduced right off the bat. If the writing isn't there it doesn't matter how much I like the concept.

Also, have I mentioned how hard it was to choose the finalists? It was hard. In order to show you the kinds of decisions I was making as I was whittling the 2,500 down to the longlist and the longlist down to 10, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of the honorable mentions, both to give them credit where due for being awesome, and to show the kind of hairsplitting I had to engage in to reduce the list to just the ten finalists.

There were paragraphs, like John Askins', where I really loved the concept. What isn't there to like about a novel opening with a toilet-trained monkey in some bar in Guadalajara? But I felt that the transition between the second sentence and the third was a little choppy, and I didn't feel that "potty trained" needed to be repeated in two sentences in a row and instead thought those sentences could be combined. Like I said, splitting hairs.

There were paragraphs like Jenny W.'s, which opens up such an appealing world. I love the idea of a man casually shooing away a monster going to the bathroom in the front yard. But while at first blush it read so smoothly and has such a great voice, there was a contradiction in the paragraph that I couldn't quite get over - if it was the narrator's first time seeing the monster, why were they on a first name basis and seemed so familiar with each other? It seemed like the catchy first line contradicted the rest of the paragraph.

There were other paragraphs, such as L.T. Host's and Vanessa's, where there's a high concept hook right off the bat. These are classic "I want to know more" openers, and seriously, I really want to know more please e-mail me. But in a competition for best first paragraph, I had to leave out ones that had an interesting, straightforward concept but mainly left it at that. I really liked these paragraphs and don't want/need a paragraph that's overwrought or needlessly florid, but I couldn't help but feel that there could have been something just a little bit more to invite the reader a further into these worlds even if there's a high concept idea introduced right away.

Can you tell how subjective this gets when you're choosing between 20-25 of the best written paragraphs? It is.

Now. Circling back: do I have an overarching philosophy when it comes to first paragraphs?

Sort of.

I was pretty surprised at the specificity of many of the people who weighed in on the You Tell Me on what makes a good paragraph, not to mention how contradictory many of the opinions were. Some people only wanted in media res, some hate in media res. Some want description, some don't. Some like beginning with dialogue, some hate beginnings with dialogue. Some want to be grabbed by the throat, some want to be led in gently. Some want spare, some want florid. It definitely explains why there are such wildly divergent opinions about the paragraphs.

I don't have any set preferences when it comes to structure and approach. frohock left a great comment that sums up my feeling about first paragraphs almost entirely. Essentially, I think the first paragraph has three important functions: it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.

The concept of flow and rhythm is especially important. It's hard to begin reading a book. The reader is starting with a blank slate and doesn't have much context for understanding what is happening. It takes a lot of brain power to read the opening and begin to feel comfortable in the world of that book. So even if the novel starts with action, or especially if it begins with action, it's very important to draw in the reader methodically, with one thought leading to the next. The flow of the words and a steady building goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Quite a few paragraphs jumped around or felt scattered, and it made it difficult to stay engaged.

And on the trust issue: I shy away from anything that feels like a gimmick. A novel is simply too long for gimmicks. Not only do they get exhausting, anything that is clever merely for the sake of being clever comes at the expense of trust between author and reader. To put it another way: if a first paragraph is how an author makes their first impression, using a gimmick in the opener is kind of like going to shake the reader's hand while wearing a hand buzzer. There might be a quick thrill, but they're probably not going to trust you after that. There was a feeling of forced cleverness in many of the entries where I wasn't able to lose myself in the paragraph and forget the hand of the author who was writing it.

In any contest where someone is reading 2,500 paragraphs basically in one setting, originality is probably more important than it would be normally. While there were plenty of openings in this contest that were very good, there were stretches where things kind of blended together. The ones that were different tended to stand out in the contest, even though I fully recognize that you can write a perfectly competent but unremarkable first paragraph and still write a very good book.

Lastly, I would urge everyone to read as many of the entries as possible. There really is no substitute for reading them until your eyes bleed and see what begins to jump out at you once they've begun to blend together. Manning a slush pile is a tremendous learning opportunity for any writer, and reading a couple thousand of these is the closest approximation.

And speaking of blending together, here are some of the things I saw a lot of as I read through the entries. Bear in mind that I'm not saying you can't use any of these elements in your first paragraph. Anything can be done well. But these are common tropes that I picked up on:

- There were quite a lot openings with setting/rising suns and characters bathed in red colors, as well as moons and characters bathed in twilight.
- Girls looking in mirrors/brushing their hair/looking in mirrors while brushing their hair
- Holy cow, or should I say Holy Dead Bloody Cow were there a lot of corpses and blood in the first paragraphs. "Blood" was used 181 times, and that doesn't count the euphemisms. Not necessarily a bad thing (and one of the bloody ones made the finals), but wow.
- You wrote a lot of paragraphs in the second person.
- One common trope involves a person who is dying but feels all detached from the experience. Sort of like: "I am dying, but I feel nothing but a bemused disinterest about it. Isn't it curious that I'm dying? I suppose I should be scared right now. This is peculiar indeed."
- Waking up/waking up in a panic/waking up in a burning down house/waking up from a really good dream/waking up from a really bad nightmare/waking up and not wanting to wake up/waking up and realizing actually dead.
- Gripping the steering wheel tightly
- Contemplating the depth of an important moment, especially: "If only this one thing hadn't happened, then everything would have been different." "It was just like any other day, only then this one thing happened." "This was the precise moment when everything changed."
- The pull the chair out from under the reader several times paragraph, like this: "Statement. Well, it wasn't that per se, it was somewhat like this. Or should I say rather more like this. Still, it was indeed kind of like that original statement. Only kind of not really."
- Common phrases: "consumed with fear," "last thing I/he/she wanted/expected, "washed over me/him/her, "top of my/his/her lungs," "farthest thing from my/his/her mind," "(blank) - literally," "they/my mom/my grandmother say(s) that (aphorism)."

Like I said, any of these things can be done very well, and I'm not trying to say you shouldn't use any of them. It's just difficult to make something unique out of elements that are very common, and I think we're all generally drawn to something that feels different.

For instance, someone along the way pointed out that SATURDAY opens with the protagonist waking up. So it can be done, particularly if your novel takes place over the course of one day and particularly if your name is Ian McEwan. And if anything, the same trope in the beginning can result in wildly different results. "Dark and stormy night" can lead to WRINKLE IN TIME or it can lead to this paragraph from PAUL CLIFFORD, originally written by the long-dead Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the inspiration for the bad-writing contest of the same name, which I assume someone entered in an attempt to trick me.


Here is why I ended up choosing these ten finalists:

Josin L. McQuein pulls you in with the geometry-teacher-as-devil idea, and then keeps it going with a great punch line. I really love "I want to strangle myself with a hypotenuse," not only because it's funny, but it's geometrically accurate! Great voice.

Alanna. Confession: I am not generally a fan of the second person. But I thought the writing and the concept here are quite spectacular and I didn't hesitate to include this paragraph as a finalist. I thought it was moving to have the action going in reverse, the prose was top notch (love: "The dust falls out of the beam of light from your window and settles back on the scarred wooden floor"), and I found the interplay between the writing and subject very evocative. I might have liked it even better if it were third person, but this is some serious raw writing talent on display.

K and A. What I love about this paragraph is how fully-realized this world is and how effortlessly the details are melded into the paragraph. I was drawn in by the list of people and how they aren't what they say they are, but what really drove this paragraph home for me was that the new arrival shows up with a protest sign that says "Peace not plasma." K and A didn't stop with the plot concept, there are small details throughout that creates a very convincing and interesting world. This is a great example of how a world can come alive with small details.

M has an instantly memorable setup: a protag with a changed name on the run from some murders. But it's more than just an interesting concept, there's a great voice too. I love that the character is looking out for the reader. Now. Is Mara the culprit or a witness? I guess we'll have to read on to find out.

Jackie Brown. I really liked the interplay between inside and outside in this paragraph. At first it seemed like the child was perhaps dangerous (she's wearing a mask and we see her staring in the door and is compared to a ghost), but then the action subtly shifts and we're seeing things from the perspective of a very human-like child staring inside at a mysterious veiled figure. I found the experience of reading it very unsettling in a good way, almost like, "Hey, wait, my brain was just in that house what in the heck is in there?"

miridunn. I thought this paragraph had very strong writing, great rhythm, and it's about a very wrenching subject. Quite a few people who read the first couple hundred paragraphs mentioned this one as a standout, and I think it's a reflection of how gripping it is right away.

Travis Erwin. The humor and sense of place just shine right through. The joke about the titles of other coming of age stories is hilarious and instantly memorable. Very clever and very funny.

Simon C. Larter. This is another paragraph that combines great rhythm with great details, which suck the reader into the story. I thought the writing was smooth and the tension palpable.

Lisa Marie gave an immediate, gripping sense of grief, and I thought the contrast between the precision with which the protagonist moved on and the mystery of the note was interesting and moving. A very nice progression throughout the paragraph.

Maya. There were a whole lot of paragraphs that began with a character outside in nature and contemplating where they are in life and thinking about what's next. I chose Maya's to represent this group because I thought the different elements came together very nicely - the pomegranate juice, the sound of the orchard, and the bark in her back all meshed with what she is thinking about her past. I found it to be an elegant and nicely balanced paragraph that appealed to all of the senses and evoked a place.

Congratulations to all of the finalists!

And now...

I have tallied the votes.

The four runners-up are....

Josin L. McQuein

Congratulations! Please e-mail me about your query critique and signed THE SECRET YEAR bookmark.

And now, the author of the stupendously ultimate winning paragraph and the winner of a prize of his choosing and a galley and our undying admiration is....


Congratulations to Travis, and thanks so much to everyone who participated!


mythicagirl said...


YEAH!!! I voted for you! Stellar first paragraph, just stellar!

Thanks for the contest Nathan, and may I just add (extending my fifteen minutes of fame) I'll have the first chapter of my man versus woman, kick az post apocalyptic saga on my blog.

I'll also have the sketches of the graphic novel of said novel up later today.

One more thing, People please check out for some of the best on line FREE comics. There's artists looking for writers over there..hint...hint. Please vote for this month's winning comic.
My favorites that already won are BAYOU, High Moon (werewolves in the old west-oh my)and Blood Hunter

TRAVISSS!!! You are the man! Loved all the finalists!

ann foxlee said...

Congrats again to all, and well done Travis!

Thanks for the contest (and the 20 bottles of visine you probably used to get through it) Nathan!

L.J. Boldyrev said...

Congrats to all! Travis, way to go!
Nathan, thank you for taking the time to let us all in on what went through your head when picking these paragraphs. I've already used your blog for so many things, but I think I have to add this post to my favorties for future reference.

Cass said...


The finalists were all so good. They should all take pride in the fact the placed where the did.

Congrats to Travis!

Thanks for giving us the why's and how's your choices came to be.

Fun contest!

dcamardo said...

Great contest, Nathan!

I just have to say that even before your comments in this post, just reading a great number of 1st paragraphs and hearing others talk about what makes great 1st paragraphs makes one take a sober look at his/her own paragraph. I had already made changes to my paragraph before you announced the finalists.

Although your comments here definitely helped, I feel I could grasp a sense of what works just by reading the paragraphs. And it was actually pretty refreshing to see what first paragraphs were "publishable".

Thanks again, and congrats to all the finalists and honorable mentions.

Wayne K said...

Congratulations Travis. Good job.

Jo said...

Wonderful contest and great work from everyone. I voted for Alanna but it was a very difficult decision and Travis's was absolutely a stand-out.

Gina said...

Congrats, Travis! Well deserved!

And thanks for this mind-boggler, Nathan. Things can truly be learned by reading so many different openings in a short time.

My biggest personal epiphany was how irritating the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs really is. You think you know it in theory, but that´s nothing compared to experiencing it on such a large scale. Duly noted.

Anna said...

Congrats to Travis and yeah for miridunn making the runners-up!

Fadz said...

Well done and congratulations, everyone. Especially Travis.

Kudos, Nathan, for going through over 2500 entries in a few short days. You the man!

Deb@RGRamblings said...

Congrats Travis!

Sharon Kirk Clifton said...

Hold on. I'm getting down to the winning intros. But for a moment I have to ponder how in the world you can peruse 2,500 paragraphs at one sitting, especially when most of them are not remarkable (I'm guessing)and you don't have the rest of the story to reward you for the effort. Okay, now I can move on to the winners.

inthewritemind said...

Congrats Travis! And a big thanks to Nathan for doing this contest :)

Maya / מיה said...

Congratulations to Travis and the runners-up! I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who voted for my paragraph... having complete strangers say that enjoyed my writing felt incredible. I originally didn't think my paragraph had a chance because nothing really happens in it... it's such an internal moment that my character's eyes are closed. (For the record, action starts in the second paragraph.)

In fact, entering this contest at first made me question myself. I saw how much great writing is out there and felt I couldn't stand out... I even commented on a post (Finding the Will) about this feeling. So getting selected as a finalist was an incredible confidence boost and a great reminder that self-doubt isn't always accurate!

Anyway, thanks for this experience, and congrats again to Travis. Nathan, brace yourself for a query when my WIP (women's historical fiction) is finished! :)

DebraLSchubert said...

Nathan, Thank you so much for this. Travis is one of my favorite blogging buds (you keep picking them, hmm...) so I can't wait to congratulate him.

My sincere congratulations to the winners and all who posted. I imagine many were seriously considered by Nathan for the top positions.

Sara said...

Thanks for explaining why you picked those specific paragraphs. Some of them I was a bit confused on, but your explanation probably helped me understand more than anything else.

Congratulations to the winner and the runner ups. Very exciting!

Jodi said...

Congrats to Travis, and runners up miridunn, M, Josin L. McQuein and Alanna!

And thank you so much, Nathan, for giving us such an in-depth analysis to ponder. Loved it!

Jenny W. said...

Thanks for the honorable mention and follow up comments about my paragraph.

For those who may be curious, the apparent contradiction is intentional. Jerry the neighbor, is a bit of an inept mad scientist type. Though this the first time he's appeared as a monster the sentence is meant to allude to his penchant for appearing in other forms.

Thanks again and congrats to the finalists and all others.

P. Grier said...

I am glad. Travis' was my second favorite-- thanks for the learning opp, Nathan!

Sheila said...

Congratulations, Travis, and to all of the finalists!

And thanks, Nathan, for sharing your insight. I've learned a lot.

Travis Erwin said...

Wow ...

I'm stunned, elated and yes even teary eyed.

Nathan, you, this contest, and all of the people who took the time to vote, stop by my blog and email their support, as well as those offering their congratulations have truly made my year.

Those who know me realize this has been the year from hell for me. Between the tribulations of life and the struggles of trying to publish fiction I have spent much of the year doubting my abilities so to be selected from so many talented entries means more to me and my psyche than any of you will ever know.

That paragraph comes from my memoir which I am only about halfway through a first draft of but being selected will no doubt provide me the kick in the pants I need to sit my butt in the chair and write the rest.

I tip my hat to Nathan for his continued devotion tot he education of writers all over the blogosphere and to all my fellow writers for having the courage to enter and have their work judged. It is an honor to have been chosen among such stiff competition.

Okay I've rambled on long enough. I'll stop writing this comment but I refuse to get rid of the big smile on my face.

L. T. Host said...

Congratulations to Travis, and great job all!

It was a truly daunting thing even to decide between those ten.

Nathan, thanks for the mention again. I just finished my first draft of this one and I am definitely sending you a query when it's ready!

Maya / מיה said...

Gordon, when Nathan runs a "whole manuscript" contest with 2500 entries, are you volunteering to judge?

Amanda said...

Congratulations Travis!

This was great fun, and I loved the opportunity to read so many fabulous starts to novels!

Stephanie said...

Great contest Nathan. Thanks for your thoughts on first paragraphs. I did one of the "overdone" paragraphs, and now I have something to think about. Oddly enough, that change to the paragraph was based upon a critique that I received, which just goes to show that you are correct about subjectivity. However, if you see one thing over and over again, I understand that it must be done amazingly well in order to work. Much in the way that editors keeps saying they don't like rhyming picture books (which I don't do), but many of the picture books on the shelf are rhyming. They don't mind wonderful rhyme. They don't want bad rhyme. You've given us all a lot to think about.

Congratulations to Travis and the runners up! Nicely played.

Santa said...

Congrats to Travis!
Thank you Nathan for hosting the contest. I rarely put my stuff out there, so I your contest was my first time out there.

Natalie Whipple said...

Yay Travis! Congratulations! What a great contest:)

Nathan Bransford said...


Since your first tack in criticizing the contest was that I'm not a writer so who cares what I think, I don't think I'm going to be much swayed by your views. If I've damaged any potential Steinbecks out there with this contest I can only hope they become Faulkners instead - he's better than Steinbeck anyway.

Deniselle said...

Congratulations to Travis! :) And thank you to Nathan for a great post. The contest was a lot of fun and that list of tropes jumped at me too, reading (admittedly only a small portion of) the entries. One thing I'd add is "character running/being chased". But maybe it wasn't quite as common as it felt to me.

Gordon, can I just say as one of the people who didn't place: this contest taught me a lot about writing, and it gave me a newfound inspiration for my own unfinished novel. I've even considered, for the first time, joining an online writing community where I'd get some feedback on my work.

I didn't really expect to place, because I haven't worked all that hard on that first paragraph. Of course a part of me did hope I'd be picked, but it wasn't a huge shock and disappointment that I wasn't. All the winners were well written and well thought out, and I think they deserved their wins and mentions more than I did.

A writer, however artistic, has to face many rejections in his or her career. If you can't handle losing in a contest like this, how on earth are you going to handle getting rejected by an agent?

Melanie Avila said...

Congratulations Travis and the four runners-up!

Nathan, thank you so much for breaking down your decisions. As one of the zillion writers guilty of one of your "trope" openings, this is very very helpful.

Michelle Moran said...

Congratulations, Travis! And great contest, Nathan!

Stephanie said...

I just saw that I had a typo in my post, so ho well. More importantly, Gordon, it is not necessary to be so judgmental. The point of the contest is to help writers to see what A particular agent sees as a great first paragraph (and maybe for said great agent to get a chance to read a lot of chaff to get to the kernel that might lead him to a good client). If you don't want to play, don't play.

I think Nathan's point is that a first paragraph IS important -- it sets the tone and hopefully leads the reader on. With as many manuscripts as editors and agents see, every writer should want to do everything possible to keep in the "possibility" stack, rather than getting tossed to the "no" stack. A great first paragraph is one of the tools that a writer has to avoid the toss. It will not be enough if ONLY the first paragraph is good.

Look at it this way, if you have hert disease, you want to improve as many of the risk factors as you can, in order to avoid the bad outcome. If you are a writer you want to improve as many of the elements/risk factors as you can, to bring your writing to the best possible level. Any time that you can get feedback from others, especially others who work in the business and make the decisions, it is an advantage. It is an opportunity to learn.

That's what we all must do, be open to learning and improving. To take a position that you know best and don't need to hear about ways to improve is a writing death sentence, like a heart patient who says, "That doctor doesn't know what he's talking about. I don't want to exercise or take medications or stop eating greasy cheeseburgers for lunch every day." It's a choice that can be made, but the outcome won't likely be the desired one.

Rhonda said...

Having picked the winner almost makes me feel like a winner. Congratulations to Travis.

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

Yeah, Travis! I knew it!

Melissa Marsh said...

Woo hoo! Way to go, Travis!!!!!!!!!

Jackie Brown said...

Congratulations to the finalists, to the runners-up, and to our winner, Travis. You should be proud of your exceptional paragraphs.

Nathan, thank you for hosting this contest and for selecting my entry as a finalist. I'm a fledgling novelist, and your nod to my early work is a win in itself.

Responding to that acknowledgment, I evicted "self-doubt" from my apartment this weekend, pulled in the welcome mat behind me, and slammed the door.

Finally, thanks to all of you who voted for my paragraph.


Welshcake said...

Well done Travis and all the finalists.

Cheers for running this competition Nathan. Hope you'll recover from the eyestrain in a couple of weeks.

Paul Neuhardt said...

Gosh, I would have sworn that Nathan was a writer, what with the writing he does and with actually having a novel in the process of being published. I wonder where I went wrong with that?

Be that as it may, I found the exercise as valuable as any other writing exercise, and better than some. Here is what I learned:

1. I have come to realize that my first paragraph didn't suck. It wasn't that good, but it didn't suck. When I got to Nathan's list of "common" traits in many of the entries that caused so many to fade in to the background, guess what I found? My paragraph. Well, not word for word, but it was described in a general way. I don't know that I'll change the focus of the first few pages of my story, but I'm seriously considering it.

2. As an extension of #1, I have to really look at my entire first chapter. How did I do with the entire first chapter, not just the paragraph? When I'm being honest I'm afraid that the entire first chapter is not special enough to capture the reader. Oh, I'm confident in my story, but not in how I'm presenting it. This contest was a great lesson for me, even though my involvement was very, very minor.

3. As for Gordon, I believe my daughter's hip, young and grammatically incorrect answer would be, "Pretentious much?" Seriously dude, lighten up. It was food for thought and some fun. Nothing more.

4. It was food for thought. It was educational. And it was fun. Mission accomplished.

5. To Travis: Please accept the congratulations of someone who has never heard of you before but who would now very much like to read your work. The praise I would give to your first paragraph is this: I wish I had written it.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Congrats to Travis and all the other awesome entrants!

And it's nice to hears your thoughts on opening paragraphs, Nathan. I didn't enter this contest precisely because my opener is a quiet lead-in. If you ever have a Shiniest Paragraph From The Middle of Your MS contest, though, I'll be on it like a seagull on a french fry!

Phyllis said...

Congrats to Travis and the runner-ups.

I read 1600 of the entries before the finalists were announced, and I had serious trouble with all the entries blending into each other. I kept skipping entries when I discovered something that had been done before. There were a lot entries that started out with something "my mother used to say". It got on my nerves and made me miss miridunn's wonderful paragraph.

Nathan, your explanations on how you read the paragraphs and what you based your decisions on were great. Level-headed and informative.

stacey said...

Congratulations, Travis! Wonderful job!

T. Anne said...

~*Big Congrats Travis!!!*~ Can't wait to read the book!!!

Thank you Nathan for your generosity! I feel like I just participated in a great workshop.

mythicagirl said...

Dearest Gordon,

If you choose to be a writer, I can only leave you with what my mother has advised me, "You better get you some backbone then."

Jeanie W said...

Congratulations, Travis!

Thank you, Nathan, for hosting another first paragraph contest. It's fun to see what the writers who follow your blog are working on. Thanks also for all the terrific writing advice. Today's warrants a bookmark.

Morgan Xavier said...

Wonderful contest! I truly enjoyed this :)

I also appreciate your thorough explanations of the paragraphs that made it to the final round.

I am mention an aversion to gimmicks or forced cleverness. What constitutes a gimmick? I ask because I'm afraid I may be guilty of such writing.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think gimmicks are elements that are clever on the surface but don't arise naturally from the world of the story, or are there for the sole purpose of tricking the reader.

I personally think readers like to be surprised, but not tricked. In other words, if the surprise arises out of the story, great. If the surprise arose just because the writer was being coy with the reader and pulling the rug from under them, not so much.

ryan field said...

Congrats to Travis and everyone else.

Merry Monteleone said...

Congratulations, Travis!!! Happy dances all around!!!


I thought it was a spectacular contest with a lot of unbelievably good entries. Thanks for the fun.

jongibbs said...

Great post!

Congrats to all the winners :)

Arabella said...

Very illuminating. Congratulations to the winners!

And now I'm off to rework my own first para. How, I don't know, but . . .

Aargh! It's so hard, like tacking a bobble onto an entire book.

Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

Congratualtions to Travis and the runners up!

I bookmarked your blog last week thinking I would enter and then utterly forgot.

I'll be back to read the slush pile. Hopefully it will inspire my writing.

My usual slush pile of tenth grade student writing (this week they have poems coming in) has the opposite effect on me. As in makes me want to go running or surfing and not sit at a computer on my time off.

Stephanie said...

So, after the comment with the "Pretentious, much?" remark, I realized that not only can I not type today, but my post was pretentious. I didn't intend it to be. I just wanted to emphasize that no opportunity to learn is wasted, and this was an opportunity to learn. I'll shut up now.

Matilda McCloud said...

Congrats, Travis! Can't wait to read the rest of your memoir.

Congrats to all finalists and honorable mentions,

and congrats to everyone else as well. I read a lot of great paragraphs!

Sarah Laurenson said...

Congrats, Travis! Awesome voice.

Congrats to the runners up, the finalists and the honorable mentions, too.

And thank you very much, Nathan. You are so generous with your help, your insight, your support, your failing eyesight. :-)

I do find it interesting that there were 3 times as many entries as votes in this contest. I know some people are busy and couldn't vote for various reasons, but seems like a large dropout rate.

Cat Woods said...

Thanks, Nathan, for a wonderful experience. Reading so many first paragraphs followed by a professional opinion regarding them in general was very enlightening.

Congrats to the winners--who are in essence, everyone who had the guts to submit.

Ryan Thomas Riddle said...

Congrats to Travis and all the finalist. Job well done!

Thradar said...

Congrats Travis!

I read many of the entries and the overlap of themes and ideas started to make my brain hurt. =) Nathan IS a machine.

Thanks for the great advice in this blog entry Nathan.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Congrats, Travis!

And Nathan, thanks for the terrific post. You should hold seminars with that kind of information. No, wait, that's a bad idea. I can't get to seminars, so keep putting it here where I can read it.


dcamardo said...

Nathan, I also wanted to say that if I were Jennifer Hubbard, I'd be giving you a great big care package (maybe with one of those cheese logs).

You're a marketing genius.

Callie James said...

Congratulations, Travis!!!

I voted for you and was thrilled to see your name as our winner! Hope your year gets better.

Helluva opener!

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks for the thought, but I'm the lucky one for representing Jennifer. She's an incredible writer!

jjdebenedictis said...

Squee! Congratulations, Travis! Well-done like a good steak, you unrepentant carnivore, you!

*flails pom-poms and does hand-springs despite being unaffiliated with a sports team*

Thank you, Nathan, for the gift of your time and expertise, both for the contest itself and your very precise and helpful explanations of all your decisions.

John said...

My favorite first paragraph is a drawing of a banana sword-fighting with a beef taco.

I only read picture books. All these words make my fingers itch.

thoughtful1 said...

Congratulations, Travis!

Congratulations, Nathan, for seeing this immense project through.

I really enjoyed all the reading and critiquing I did last week. What a rush! Does it stay so alive if you do it day in day out, or is it your day's work at the coal mine, Nathan?

Nathan Bransford said...


A little of both, honestly.

Lydia Sharp said...

Congrats to all the authors mentioned, and thanks to Nathan for being so thorough. Informative and fun.

Julia said...

Congrats again to all the winners!

Nathan, one question about the style that you have not mention. I bet you've brought that up before as many people seem to be aware of that... Or maybe it is something really well known in English literature and I am committing the worst blunder asking about it. I do have an excuse however, as I am not a native speaker :)
So, the question (please forgive me for asking!): what is wrong with using the simile?

jjdebenedictis said...

Gordon, your post consists of scolding Nathan for not stroking writers' egos.

They can get that from their mom. Nathan's telling them why their writing might not appeal to an agent, which is damned useful information, and I thank him for it.

But oh, some poor woobie might be crushed their paragraph didn't even place--how are they going to feel after their first dozen rejection letters? The woobie had better learn to deal with it.

PLJ said...

Congrats, Travis! Great paragraph and great contest!

Now the contest is over and your loyal followers have shared over 2500 first paragraphs...any chance we could convince you to share your first paragraph? It's only fair and would be a great way to end the contest!

Tara said...

Wow! What an experience. Thank you for doing this.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, PLJ. My first paragraph is actually in flux since I'm now working on my edits, so it's not quite ready to be shared. But I appreciate the interest!

Teri said...

Congrats, Travis!
Thank you, Nathan, for taking the time to read through all the entries.
This was a fun contest.

brian_ohio said...

Hey! I voted for Travis! For once I picked the winner! (Sorry, Travis, this does not bode well for you).

And, Nathan, I was taught long ago to put a horribly bad paragraph up front to set the reader's expectations low. Then 'Bam!', they hit that second paragraph.

Catenabi said...

Congrats Travis!!! Your paragraph was funny and charming and I hope you finish your manuscript ASAP! :)

A lot of people have mentioned this and I think it's *so* true: everyone who entered this contest is a winner.

Even though my paragraph wasn't selected, I'm more determined than ever to finish my WIP and (in the words of Barney Stinson--next year's judge, perhaps?) make it awesome!! ;)

Good luck to everyone out there!

Chris Eldin said...

YAY Travis!!!
Way to go!!!
Very happy for you!!

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca Knight said...

Congrats, Travis, and contrats to the finalists!! :) I loved reading your paragraphs and can't wait to read your published novels someday (soon, hopefully!)

Also, thank you, Nathan, for going over what stuck out to you and why you chose the ones you did. I found this whole contest both fascinating and eye-opening :).

Eric said...

Enjoy what will no doubt be an exceptional Monday, Travis. Well done!

Kudos to the the finalists and honorable mentions, as well.

And, of course, thank you, Nathan.

Mira said...

Let's try that last line again.

Travis, that's wonderful!! Congratulations to you. It was very moving to read your story and hear that this came at a good psychological moment for you. I love that the Universe is so clearly supporting your writing - right on, Travis. If you've had a hard year, I'm guessing you really have earned this. :)

Also, congrats to all the finalists. How fun to have Nathan talk about how much he liked your writing. :)

Nathan - this was so much work for you!! Not just the actual work, but dealing with the ins and outs and ups and downs of people's reactions. Very challenging. Love how you meet those challenges head on.

As for me, this was a hard contest for me. I'm not sure why. Now, I'm struggling with self-doubt and other's absurd to be bothered that my paragraph - that I just wrote this week - wasn't selected out of 2500, but nonetheless, I am.

Fortunately for all of you, especially Nathan, I plan to process all of that on the this site. Maybe. I'll see. But later. I have a paper due and a test, and I have to go now.

And if anyone tells me that I should be tough and should process rejection well, I'm going to (figuratively) bop you on the head. Writers are sensitive and fragile and that is a huge part of what makes them a writer. Trying to insist that writers are tough is just, well, not realistic.

Toby said...


I hear you, but Nathan owned up to the subjectivity of his selections, and I think his preferences are evident: young adult or woman's literature. His blog. No problem.

I thought the selections were well written, and he provided interesting insight and advice.

Thanks, Nathan.

Congrats to all of the finalists.

Actually, congratulations to everyone who had the courage to enter. Well done. I have and will continue to learn from all of your entries. Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks for your thoughts, but I don't think this reflects a preference I have for YA or women's fiction. While I don't know every genre of every work, the finalists include at least YA, memoir, literary fiction, science fiction, women's fiction, and historical fiction. I think my choices for finalists are more reflective of the entries than they are of my personal preferences.

The Rejectionist said...

FAULKNER is better than STEINBECK?!? OMG, we might have to throw down.

However, you clearly know a fine paragraph when you see one. Travis, you can feel free to query us too.

Terry said...

Thanks for the terrific contest, Nathan. Congratulations to the runners up, finalists, and Travis. Ride that confidence wave.

And a salute to all who entered. Brazen chutzpah, and/or trepidation overcome are necessary attitudes for publishing success.

-AKA Terry DeHart

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, it makes me a traitor to my beloved California, but Steinbeck's simpletons/characters (but wise! from the earth!) kind of drive me crazy.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Woo-hoo, Travis! I loved that opening.
Nathan, thank you for what you offer writers. It was fabulous to read these entries and then why the finalists made the list.

The Rejectionist said...


Diana Paz said...

Congratulations Travis and all the finalists!!

And thanks Nathan for the time you put into your blog and all your phenomenal insight. No one knows how you do it, but we're lucky you do :)

PurpleClover said...

Travis, I just knew yours would win. I really liked your Amazon contest book and this opening paragraph grabbed me as much as that one did!

I also voted for Travis! YAY ME! Uh...I mean YAY TRAVIS!

M said...

Huge congratulations to Travis, and infinite thanks to Nathan, for hosting such a valuable contest!

And to everyone who voted and/or commented on my paragraph, I have to echo Maya; it felt incredible to know that strangers were hooked by my writing. And then to learn that some of those people have published YA novels I love and are admins of blogs I adore? Wow.

So thanks again- it was an honor to be chosen as a finalist and to be voted as a runner up. I have learned so much.

Michael said...

I read some first paragrpahs of my favorite books this weekend and concluded that Nathan is right - many great books are born from not-so-great first paragraphs. Many of them wouldn't have had a chance in this contest. But, I did learn something about writing and every time that happens, I become a better writer. So, thank you Nathan for that!

And congrats to Travis (although I stubbornly still think that Maya's was the best).

Amber Hamilton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ink said...

Hey, lol, that was me prattling on about McEwan. Of course, any time some idiot prattles on about McEwan or McCarthy in your comments it's a pretty good bet it's me. I figure Vegas is giving it out at 3/2.

And, of course, congrats to Travis! A fun contest for everyone. Except Gordon.

A. said...

Congrats to Travis and the runners-up!

Thanks for doing this, Nathan! I didn't submit a paragraph this year, but it was an entertaining and educational experience, as always!

Amber Hamilton said...

Wowie Wow Wow! That was an incredibly helpful post! Thanks!

Can you go into more detail about "gimmick"s?

James said...

Congratulation, Travis.

Thank you, Nathan.

This was an interesting exercise. I learned quite a bit from it.

Mystery Robin said...

YAY! Congratulations, Travis!!!

Calli said...

Congratulations to Travis and the rest of the finalists!

I got a lot out of this contest, not least the experience of trying to read over 2500 posts! (I bailed around the 1600 mark.) As for that Bulwer-Lytton entry, I assumed it was a joke and nothing more. It made me chuckle, anyhow.

Ben Dutton said...

I thought there were some very good first paragraphs there, and I'm not surprised by Travis's win - it is a memorable conceit. Be interested to see where it is taken.

As one of the ones that used the word 'blood' I cannot help but wonder why the preponderance of that word. It, and things associated with it, are everywhere at the moment. Though I find the vampire genre moribund, it is popular, and I'm guessing many of those entries that used that word will be in that genre. Mine wasn't, but reading it without further contextulisation I can see that it might be mistaken for such. What this first paragraph contest has taught me is that even when you think you've got your piece crystal clear, it might not always be so. Thanks Nathan for inadvertantly getting me to think about my work in another light.

Rooty Too, mRoo, and other nom de plumes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

I am new to your blog and learned SO MUCH just with this one entry. THANK YOU.

I haven't read any of the entries, but would like to congratulate Travis just the same.

Hopefully I can join the next contest.

Terry said...

Congratulations Travis!!! Keep that smile on. I hope this makes your difficult year much better.

And thanks Nathan for a great contest and a bonus of expert advice.

Everyone else, lots of wonderful first graphs. Keep writing and learning.

Bradley Gavin said...

Congrats to Travis, it really is an excellent paragraph. Well done, man.

I have a quick request for Nathan.

I love all the advice and you're usually really clear and easy to understand while you dispense your wisdom. I was wondering if you could expand on this a little:

"And on the trust issue: I shy away from anything that feels like a gimmick. A novel is simply too long for gimmicks. Not only do they get exhausting, anything that is clever merely for the sake of being clever comes at the expense of trust between author and reader."

What would you consider "gimmicky" and what would you say is "clever for the sake of clever?"

I'm not sure I've got the right idea about what this means. For instance, if Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, would that be a gimmick? How about... well... anything by Chuck Palahniuk? I love all of his stuff as well as everything Vonnegut wrote, but they always include some little quirky thing ("Rant" actually did seem too gimmicky) that makes the story tick.

Thanks a lot.

And to Gordon - Dude, lighten up a little.

Chuck H. said...

Congratulations to Travis! Congratulations to everyone who participated. If you're like me, you've learned a lot these last few days. My deepest sympathy to Gordon. You missed the point, dude. Too bad.

Word Ver: geuts - scottish for intestinal fortitude?

Nathan Bransford said...

Re: gimmicks, I elaborated a bit up the thread. It's impossible to generalize too greatly about them, though, because every paragraph/story is different.

Dawn Maria said...

Hey- I voted for Travis- do I have the makings of an agent? : )

Congratulations to all. I will join Mira in expressing that this was a hard contest for me too. On one hand, it gave the week a level of excitement it wouldn't have had, but on the other, my paragraph didn't have any of the mentioned over-done elements. I could make myself crazy trying to figure out why it wasn't picked (but I won't). I admit I'm disappointed for myself, but I still enjoyed the contest- especially the pro-Faulkner part!

Sheila said...

Very well done, everyone!

Mira, if you are still around, don't be bummed! You are in good company. I saw many excellent writers submit paragraphs here.

It would be interesting to know if any of the finalists' entries were made up for this contest. I would imagine that the more compelling openings have a complete story behind them, but I may be wrong.

Alicia A said...

This was such a great learning experience. Thanks Nathan and everyone who participated. So much fun!

Kia said...

Travis, congrats! I hope this encourages you to finish the MSS.

Nathan, thank you for running the contest. I missed most of the first part but caught up pretty quickly and enjoyed it immensely!

M, Congrats on being shortlisted. I just wanted to point out something. Your paragraph reminded my of Jodi Picoult's 'Nineteen Minutes' which is about a teenager that kills his classmates and it mentions Death Cab for Cutie somewhere in the first chaper (maybe second). While I'm sure you haven't read it, it made me instantly think of it and almost made me think you were trying to emulate her writing. I wasn't going to mention it as I'm 100% sure that's not the case but if I were you and there was a chance other readers might think that way, I would hope that someone would point it out.

Kia x

Bradley Gavin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Other Lisa said...

Congratulations to Travis and to the runners-up! I really felt like there were a lot of great entries -- so many that I, er, was a weenie when it came to voting.

I really enjoy the discussion about what makes a great first graph and also how important that is to the balance of the book. What I take away from all this is, yes, the first graph needs to establish voice, trust and chops. But a novel is loooong. It's about sustaining a level of story and craft over many many pages. Every paragraph is important, but it's also just one of many.

Word verification: "piker." Which is what I'm in danger of becoming if I don't get to work.

owlandsparrow said...


How on earth did I only find out about your blog last week? Thank you so much for running the contest - talk about a crash course on how to write an opening! (A crash course with good timing, I should add - for me, anyway.)

Seriously. Thank you.


marilynpeake said...

Congratulations to Travis Erwin and all the runners-up!

(I just returned home from a 4-day whirlwind of a vacation in Southern California, so I missed most of the winner announcement excitement here on this blog. I had stopped in briefly to congratulate the winners, but haven't yet had time to read the entry paragraphs or comments. Looks like there’s a lot to read.)

Honolulu Writer said...

Nathan, I am amazed that you could put in so much time in helping out authors and even more time with contests such as this, and you get comments like "Gordon Jerome."

You know, we all love you, Nathan!

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I haven't read the 114 comments before mine, but I'm not sure I understand what you mean by 'a gimmick.' In your post you note that a novel is too long for gimmick and that an opening that is cute for the sake of being cute doesn't work.

I wish I understood this so that I don't do it! :)

atlastakesaim said...

Hooray Travis!
Also, just a reminder to miridunn and Jackie Brown to write those dang things so we can find out "what happens next". Promise?

Thank you too Nathan for being a cyborg. Your blood must also run with enough caffeine to wire a city.

ok, off to write (songs).

Nathan Bransford said...

Ctrl+F, guys. Ctrl+F.

Katie Alender said...

Hurray, Travis!

LindaBudz said...

Great notes, Nathan, very helpful. Ignore the haters.

Congrats, Travis. Fun entry, and well done!

Bradley Gavin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sylvia said...

Congratulations and well done, all!

Amy Lundebrek said...

Thanks for all your voluntary work in hosting the contest, Nathan! I didn't get my paragraph posted in time, but it was a great learning experience nonetheless. Congrats to the finalists and winner!

Ted said...

Travis - after reading your comment, I'm really glad you entered and won this contest. When I see your memoir in the window at Borders, I'll feel like my vote helped propel you to finish it.

Nathan - a belated and heartfelt thanks. I read about 80% of the entries, and doing that gave me a glimpse of what it must be like to be on the receiving end of countless queries.

Reading the finalists and long list helped me understand aspects of my own writing that need improvement. Lots of agents and editors tell writers what to do or avoid, but by running this contest you're showing us.

s.w. vaughn said...

wtg, Travis! Congrats!

*admires you undyingly*


DG said...

Congrats to Travis

Thanks again for all your effort. Your gifts of time and sage advice are not lost on all of us out here with stories to tell.

Did you really need a contest like this to learn that reading taste is subjective?
Most of us lost the contest too. Boo hoo.
Get over it man.

Joann said...

Just wanted to add my CONGRATS to Travis and my thanks to Nathan for running the contest.

And thank you for writing this sentence: "anything that is clever merely for the sake of being clever comes at the expense of trust between author and reader." You put into words everything I've been trying to identify as what's wrong with my own novel. I've skipped depth and that all-important third dimension for the sake of clever quips. I lost sight of the most important thing: tell the damn story. Thanks, Nathan!

Rick Daley said...

Congrats Travis, and to all who made the finals.


Did you read the thousands of entries on your kindle or your iPhone?

kathrynjankowski said...

Congratulations, Travis!
Thanks, Nathan, for the contest. It's great to see such a range of creativity among writers. :-)

Kristi said...

Congrats to Travis and all the finalists - this was a great contest. Oh yeah, and Nathan rocks because I learned about word clouds.

Cameron said...

Congrats, Travis!
Thanks for another great contest, Nathan. I'm grateful for your list of trends in first graphs as well as the reasons you chose your finalists -- sound advice for for the thousands of us who didn't win! Finally, no one should fret about not winning; it's always better to lose than not to try!

annerallen said...

Travis, you rock. Bask in well- deserved glory. Ditto all the finalists. And everybody who entered. Lots of really creative stuff here.

But non-finalists shouldn't take this as an excuse to wallow in a slough of despond. As Nathan said, sometimes positioning kept a piece buried with similar ones when it might have been a standout in another spot. Lots of reasons something excellent might be ignored in such a quick reading.

And blog-god that he is, Nathan is just one (albeit superpowered) person. Taste is subjective.

My entry came from a story that has already won two other contests. It didn't place here. Does that make me a loser? I don't think so.

It's just that this is Travis's moment. And he deserves it.

Vacuum Queen said...

I can't believe you were able to spot a previously published entry. Who ARE you?!!

What a fun contest. I found that it was easier for me to spot what didn't work (for me). But the amount of paragraphs that could certainly be made into books I'd like to read was overwhelming.

Also, I got goosebumps for the two people you asked, "seriously, email me." Cool for them.

Your blog is so fun.

Tabitha Maine: said...

Good Job, Travis.

Thanks, Nathan, for the contest.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

Congrats, Travis!

And, thanks Nathan for letting us all in on what draws you into a novel! I've really enjoyed this contest!

Amber Hamilton said...

K. Found the thread expansion on gimmicks. Still thinking on it. Hmmm...

If you run out of post topics, some specific examples of this might be helpful.

jenniferwilke said...

Thank you, Nathan. Fascinating lessons. And now I know what "trope" means too.

Clarity said...

First of all, Travis, well done! and I'm glad you are happy.

Alanna, I love "backwards" writing and your paragraph filled me with appreciation.

Nathan, I have learnt a lot from you today and regret posting a hurridly typed first paragraph after shying away from revealing my actual manuscript.

I shall now serve myself up a slice of humble pie, with sauce.

Kate said...

Congrats, Travis! Excellent, indeed. And thanks to Nathan for all the great first paragraph writing tips. Most helpful.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

The opening made me smile - I did want to know more.
Jackie - your paragraph sent chill down my spine - I would love to read the rest too. It is haunting.

Thanks Nathan, a great learning experience, as usual.

Obviously, you have, again, decimated my writerly self-esteem and confidence. :)

WORD VERIFICATION: jackf? Is this you replying already? lol

Simon C. Larter said...

Congratulations, Travis. Well done, sir. And all in the space of six sentences, too!

Congrats to all the other finalists as well. Each of the paragraphs was arresting in its own way, and the variety was amazing!

For may part, like I said last week, I'm a finalist, and that's enough. It's those little bits of validation that keep us going as writers, isn't it?

And Monsieur Bransford, many thanks for the opportunity, and for the encouragement you've given me. That'll keep me going for a good long while!

Yamile said...

Oh wow TRavis! Congratulations! Even though I wasn't even close to being chosen, this contest gave me an incredible incentive to go back and re-examine my WIP. THANK YOU NATHAN! My husband is getting tired of hearing me talk about you and your blog everyday, but I just can't help myself.
Travis, I'm not having a great day today, but reading your comment, so full of rightful pride and happiness in having your paragraph selected, gave me a smile.
This is the best blog ever!

Lynne said...

Yay for Travis and Fabulous for Josie and others. Okay, I voted for Josie but it was a great contest. I am so happy my paragraph did not have any common glitches. Fun for all. Thanks, Nathan!

Francy said...

I vote for Simon/Thank-god I can get more e-mails now. I learned that the the drama I accused everyone else of having is my problem/My grandson is Nathan Isaac Stoller/when I sent you Natie my synopsis disguised as a query it spit out funny/w lil' #'s all over the place/ I'll send it again from the micro-space. I want the male stripper sheriff to give me a massage next year/and for my phone to ring/ "Hello is Francy there/I want to critique your manuscript." At sixty-two yrs. old I should be able to know that I'm a first rate poet and that fiction/non-fiction is just as difficult as poetry. Thank-you all/ Alanna/Maya/ Myra/Justin/Anon.1/11/and 111, I'm going to get busy now and create a novel that when I close my eyes I can see every word perfect.

Alexa said...

Congratulations Travis and all the finalists. Such great entries.

Thanks for running the contest again Nathan, it's really interesting and a great learning experience.

Jen C said...

This contest has been very,very, very, mega-helpful in my own writing. Thanks Nathan!

Jen C said...

Also re: Gordon, if a genius writer is going to be completely discouraged from ever writing again because they didn't place in a first paragraph competition on a blog, I doubt they would last long in the publishing industry anyway.

lora96 said...

Yeah! Congrats to all the runners up and especially to Travis. Your paragraph was a stand-out and very fun read.


John said...

I'd be very curious to know: How many of the finalists and honorable mentionees have finished their respective works and how many are still works in progress?

Would you guys be willing to tell us?

Richard Lewis said...

Congratulations, Sir Travis!

I look forward to buying your novel.

AM said...


Juliana Stone said...

Well done Travis, I totally loved your opener...they were all great, but yours rocked a little bit more!

Teresa said...

Congratulations Travis and to all of the finalists.

Thank you Nathan for having this contest. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Susan Quinn said...

Congrats to Travis and all the finalists!

Nathan - once again you educated with style and humor. Nicely done (and thanks!).

I was wondering if you saw any qualitative differences in the entries this year, compared to para-contest numero uno? More vampire entries? Different genre weightings? More similes?

Since I know you're really a computer, your mechanical brain should be able to spit that right out.


Thanks again for a great contest!

Nate said...

Faulkner achieved his immortality in the same fashion as Gertrude Stein: by generating "literary fog" (in Ralph Keyes' words) that people were too intimidated by to call the nonsense that it was.

Steinbeck rules all; Faulkner's mother was a fish. And that's the game!



Interesting result.

I liked Travis' voice, but I couldn't get over the literary allusion to David Copperfield in the first passage of a 'coming-of-age' story. Being such a well-established characteristic of The Catcher in the Rye, I'm certain I would've compared every aspect of the remainder of the story with Salinger's.

On the flip side, it was presented in a slightly different context and the writing was capable. Perhaps the story goes on to sufficiently stand alone.

Regardless, congratulations to him and everyone who submitted. You put yourself out there and win or lose, you should be proud of yourself.

Barbara Martin said...

The remainder of Travis' non-fiction account is just as stellar as the first paragraph.

Congratulations to the runner-up finalists, too.

Thank you, Nathan, for hosting an exciting time for striving writers.

kalincasey said...

Congratulations to Travis and the finalists, and to everyone else for entering. Nathan, you amaze me. Thanks for the contest.

Paige said...

I feel like I'm repeating many others, but the insight and tips were very helpful and I really enjoyed being a part of this contest. I look forward to trying again next time.

Reading as many of the entries as possible and re-reading my own entry afterward, was kind of like speaking a thought out loud that had been running around and around in my brain getting blown out of all proportion: It put it into perspective and helped me look at it more objectively.

Congratulations to Travis, the runners up and honorable mentions!I'm incredibly impressed with the overall level of talent and skill presented here.

miridunn said...

My heartfelt thanks to Nathan; nice to meet you. People's comments are precious to me! I am suitably astounded to be a finalist and runner up. Congratulations to Travis -- who I was rooting for. This wonderful exercise, which allowed me to hear so many voices of support, has added more coal to my little engine! I THINK I CAN!!!!!Please find me on twitter @miridunn or visit by writing place at . Now excuse me while I go google "query letter" :-)

Josin L. McQuein said...

John @4:32

FWIW - mine is still "in progress", and the remainder of chapter one has very little to do with Geometry class. That's me dropping the reader something familiar before the world goes pear shaped.

Mira said...

Well, I'm back. Thanks for what you said, Dawn Marie and Sheila.

Gordon, I read what you wrote. I agree with some parts. However, I think you missed the boat on Nathan's motivation. He really was just trying to do something fun on his blog - as well as give folks both a chance to shine and learn about writing. There's nothing machevellian here. Not even if you spell machievellian correctly, which I can not.

For me - like I said, this contest stirred up alot. I'm still processing it.

However, I'm also - still - very happy for the winner and runners-up and wish them every literary success!

Peter Cooper said...

Congratulations, Travis! Well deserved indeed.

Thanks for your hard work, Nathan. I learned a lot from this, and it was great fun, too!

Fouad Khan said...

Jeez... I didn't break a single one of those rules! and you couldn't fit my paragraph in ANY of those cliched boxes... did u even read mine. L. T. Host's? Seriously? Have you read the Human Stain?

Travis's was funny... sure... but it kinda fell into your favored formula, which I've now decoded. It goes something like this.

[This and this genre] does [this and this] [this way], but I am going to do it [this way].

I mean really, do we have to explicitly tell you how our story is different from all others in the genre right in the first paragraph? That just spells cheap gimmickry to me.

Bane of Anubis said...

Congratulations, Travis and everyone else who made the finals (and everyone else who remained honorable).

Fouad Khan said...

oh god... i just became the whiny loser...

my bad.

congrates to all the winners seriously, despite shortcomings they were excellent contributions... and travis' was really funny.

Bobby D. Lux said...

Congratulations to Travis and to all the finalists!

Great contest, and amazing on Nathan's part to surf through so many entries.

Allison Brennan said...

Congratulations Travis! Though I picked M, it was a close call and I was going back and forth.

I picked four as the standouts, and they all made in to the five finalists. Woo hoo! If I fail as an author, maybe in my next career I'll be an agent . . .

(just kidding.)

Maya / מיה said...


My novel is only about 15,000 words done, but because it's historical fiction this comes after a lot of research and probably a novel's worth of note-taking. I'm certain there's more research in my future!


Word verification: copping, which I suppose is what I'm doing right now... copping to the fact that my novel isn't close to being done yet.

I would have loved a query critique, but it's probably only fair for that to go to people closer to being done!

Andrew said...

Did no one else notice that 9 out of 10 finalists had either an M in their name, a W (an upside down M) or a double nn (basically an M)?????

I'm changing my name to Mirium Waminni

Andrew said...

And I've just worked out why!'s subliminal messaging and I know for a fact Nathan's office looks out over a Mcdonald's placed on the shore of a small pond

Think about it!

Scott said...

Thanks again for the contest, Nathan, and an even bigger thanks for the detailed explanation behind your selections. Lots to learn from.

And huge congrats to Travis, who I voted for. Out of all of them (each reaching a level of accomplishment in their own right) I felt his was well-edited and did the job without overwriting. There was a genuine quality to his writing that made me feel as though it really was plucked from a book he was working on. I also got the sense that he wrote with the reader in mind.

Again, and I hope this doesn't come off harsh, most of the paragraphs were so densely crafted that "I wasn't able to lose myself in the paragraph and forget the hand of the author who was writing it." I was exhausted by a few, and felt an entire book of overly dense prose would wear me out before long.

But congrats to all the finalists, and well done, Travis.

Giles said...

Congrats, Travis!

After viewing the finalists, I can definitely see why my paragraph didn't win :) It's not that my paragraph is bad (at least I don't think so), and didn't use any of those common tropes Nathan mentioned, but the paragraph just didn't stand out...especially when compared to the FANTASTIC entries that made the final list and honorable mention list.

Congrats everyone!

mythicagirl said...


Thank you, but I'm afraid I'll have to pass, however I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.


My honorable mention is complete but not done, since I'm an edit fiend. It's also not my first novel. It was a tough choice between entering the urban fantasy intro or a contemporary about a teenage girl coping with prison life, but I went with the UF because of the "verily" use as I'd hoped the writing style plus the subject matter would make it stand out.

I'm going to utilize Rick Daley's really cool query site before I send a query out on the UF, though I've got a couple other manuscripts out on partial submission.

TRAVIS! Congrats again dude! Love the fish pic!

Ciara Blount said...

Thank you for taking the time to hold this contest! It's fascinating to see the thought processes behind your decisions. The finalists and winner put up some fantastic openings, and I'm glad I got to participate alongside them!

abc said...

This was heaps o' fun! Thanks for another great contest, Nathan!

Mira: I relate. Sigh, move on, sigh. Donuts.

Gordon: huh.

Travis: Good onya!

Robena Grant said...

Congratulations, Travis! Well done. I voted for Maya but had three "winners" in mind and one was you. It was a tough decision. : )
Congratulations to all of the finalists, and thanks to Nathan for doing this. As always, it was so much fun. Looking forward to the next one.

Katie said...

Oh yay! I feel so proud that I picked the winner!!!!! Way to go Travis!

Kathryn Magendie said...

YAYY TRAVIS! you go Guy! whoop whoop whoop!

What fun this was - thank you!

Angela said...

Congrats Travis!!! The voice of your character reached out to me way before Nathan named you the winner...

Gordon, my boy, if a writer left a piece of paper white because they couldn't handle a friendly, well-intended competition-I have a feeling that same writer (with or without Nathan's blog)would have left that page blank long before they wrote "The End"

I have learned so much from this stupendously, ultimate blog-and if, by God, I choose to leave my paper white-it's because of my own insecurities that have NOTHING to do with an agent's feedback of my work--I truly feel bad that you failed to learn from this contest---All writers need thick you best get used to it...

And Nathan...Luv u man!!Thanks for doing this, you're a stupendously, ultimate agent!!! I love this blog so much, I'd pay to read it!! But I hope you keep it free :)

T. Anne said...

My honorable mention is spit shined and ready to go. (as long as I don't look at it, then it's subject to change ;)

Chuck H. said...

@John 4:32

My honorable mention (Titled Frankenstein's Little Angel, by the way) is finished but I'm not finished with it. Firstly, it's too short at 27,000 words but I have hopes of being able to extend it to about 50,000 without it sounding like I did. Anyway, thanks for the interest and thanks again to Nathan and everyone for this contest/feedback.

Reesha said...


This blog always makes me smile. Thanks for the contest and wonderful resource of first paragraphs to learn from.
Also, thanks guys for the interesting discussions.


JenniferWriter said...

Congrats to Travis and all the finalists! And thank you, Nathan, for an informative and inspiring contest.

Laura Martone said...

Sorry I'm late to the party, Nathan - I'm in the process of moving this week - but I just wanted to say "Congratu-freakin'-lations, Travis!"

K and A said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K and A said...

Congratulations to Travis and the runners-up and all the others who made this contest not only a wonderful learning experience but an enjoyable literary escapade, as well! And huge thanks to Nathan for making it all possible and allowing us a glimpse into "the agent's mind"--so helpful as we move forward with our project.

In response to those asking about where we are in the writing process. This is our second novel we have written together (yes, we are a writing team of two) and it is in the beginning stages. All the comments have been so encouraging and inspiring that we are extra-jazzed to continue! It is especially great to have this support as we embark on our new venture since our first novel is still unpublished (napping in the shadows of rejections) and it's so exciting just to know people are reading *something* that we wrote, enjoying it and are eager for more. To those of you who wanted to know when you can read more of Adelaide's adventures, and whether that pirate ever gets his ship, feel welcome to click onto our work-in-progress blog for updates.

Cheers, all! And thank you again, Nathan!

Jackie Brown said...

atlastakeaim; john @4:32

You read the first paragraph from my work-in-progress; 21,000 words down, 89,000 to go.

Thanks for your interest in its future and, yes, I promise to finish this, my first novel. I ignored self doubt's e-mail this morning and blocked his addy. I knew he'd be back, but he ain't getting in.

S. Melville said...

this contest was fun to be in, and to follow! I always try to make my first paragraphs sound as little like a first paragraph as I can. Defnitely no waking up, no mirrors, no gimmicks. Just, you know, here we are. This is the novel, and this is it starting. Why should it be different from the rest?

Kate Johnston said...

Congratulations, Travis!

Nathan - thank you for the honourable mention. I've only recently discovered your blog and this is my first time participating - fantastic entries, thoughts and discussion from everyone. I'm so glad I entered, and that I took the time to read all the comments left (my boss, however, may disagree). Great stuff! The finalists were all outstanding, and I look forward to seeing what they produce in the future.

John @ 4:32: I'm halfway through my second draft. Right between 'maybe I'm a word magician!' and 'at least I can burn it for warmth'.

Anonymous said...

Please finish your story Alanna and find someone to publish it...Your writing is inspiring and haunting and I think you've got the talent....

Girl with One Eye said...

If I ever use "washed" again, i will be referring to my laundry.

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