Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Want to Know What an Agent's Inbox Looks Like? Read Contest Entries!

If you haven't already entered the 4th Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge, please do so in the official contest thread! Win partial consideration by Catherine Drayton and a signed ARC of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW!

I've blogged before about how helpful it is to read slush to get a sense of what works and what doesn't work, and to gain an appreciation for the difficulty of making snap judgments on a huge number of different works at once.

But short of getting a job at a literary agency, what's the next best thing? Reading contest entries! The quality is similar, the experience of jumping from one world to the next is similar, and while after your first fifty the paragraphs may blur together, you'll notice the good ones really standing out.

So I'd encourage people to go through the contest entries, see which ones are your favorite, and then think about why they're your favorite.

There's a lot to learn from having to decide which ones you think are the best.


Claudie A. said...

Oh, that's a great idea, Nathan! I can still get something out of that contest despite not participating. ^^

(MS isn't finished, 1st paragraph is in a terrible state and I feel someone else will benefit from the price a lot more)

Thanks for the tip!

Watcher55 said...

The last time I looked at the entries last night there were 310. We teachers think we have a hard way to go when we have to grade a hundred papers a couple of times a week.

I can't imagine having to wade through hundreds (plural) of queries and sample pages to find a few good ones.

L.A. Colvin said...

That's exactly what I'm doing. This has actually turned into a valuable learning experience for me. The ones I really like are the ones you can hear the author's voice come through.

Mr. D said...

Another reason to read them is because it's actually fun.

Jayme Stryker said...

Hmmm...this isn't all that different from finding "A material" in a stack of essay, but it's more interesting. Fiction is definitely more fun than than the five-paragraph format.

Good luck to all!

Meg said...

I read some of them while on my lunch break yesterday. It really is amazing how fast the really good ones catch your attention with just a few sentences.

I'm looking forward to reading through some more today!

Josin L. McQuein said...

Every time you've had a contest like this (or the Agent for a Day one), it's amazed me just how quickly samples can be categorized into the equivalent of "yes, no, maybe".

I know there are hundreds (thousands?) of complaints out there about how there's no way someone can get a feel or an accurate impression in a matter of seconds, but after scanning a pool this large (627 and counting at this posting)I can definitely believe it's possible.

Kristi Helvig said...

I posted about this contest today, because there clearly aren't enough entries for you to read. I wouldn't want you to get bored. ;)
Thanks for doing this.

stephen matlock said...


I'm not discouraged. Really, I'm not...

Someone said somewhere on your blog that the disappearance of the printed book in favor of the e-book means that writers' works will become the equivalent of YouTube, where there is a lot of content but it is so darn hard to find anything good, and the stuff you do find tends to be larded with ads or popups or clever asides.

The benefit of a printed book is that, outside of the bookstore (which is admittedly full of ads and popouts and endcaps and posters and stuff hanging from the ceiling and ...) you can immerse yourself in the book and not see all the distractions.

I fear that the e-book experience will become the equivalent of myspace or aol, where the content of the book will be surrounded by yards and yards of crap.

[dave] said...

I wish they were numbered so we could call out our favorites here easier.

I'll try anyway. I really enjoyed these in the first 200 before I needed a break:



JM Selkirk:

Heidi B:


Deb Levy:


Erik Smetana:

The Red Angel said...

Looking forward to reading the contest entries! This is a great event, Nathan, thanks for hosting it. :)


vnrieker said...

Wow. I'm only a hundred paragraphs in, and I already feel bad for agents. I could never be one! My little head would explode.

Rebecca said...

Wow, Dave, thank you!

I read some great ones last night, but I haven't had time to look in detail yet. But I can tell the competition's gonna be fierce!

Martin Rose said...

What's most amazing about all these entries are:
1 - the majority appear to be written in 1st person
2 - everyone has a different definition of the term, "paragraph."

Sommer Leigh said...

I've really enjoyed going through them so far. I have only gotten through about 100 but I think I am going to start tonight at the bottom of the list and read backward. I suspect everyone is going to read the first 100 and the rest will get lost.

I feel for agents having to do this every day. I am surprised though how quickly I can make a determination of what I think is a yes, no, maybe with more reading. There is something, some x-factor, that the really good ones have that the others just don't.

I'm going to try to make a list of my favorite 15 or 20 and see if they match up with what is chosen by Nathan.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Plus, if you read them all your brain will melt and you can leave work early.

reader said...

So far I like Chris Kelly's. The wet nose of an Irish setter made me laugh out loud. Simple, concise, and fun.

(and no, I'm not Chris Kelly) :)

Kristin Laughtin said...

I remember doing this when you had the "evaluate 50 queries and pick 5!" challenge on your blog a while ago. There we got to pick 10% of what we saw for consideration, and making those decisions was TOUGH. This is definitely a good exercise for writers to do to understand agents better.

Sierra McConnell said...

I read some yesterday afternoon and I was already mentally filing 'too long\not a paragraph\total win\needs work...' because I love to sort things.

There are some bright and beautiful gems in there! There are some that are definitely not paragraphs, but...excitement! It gets us!

(And it's probably because of a chance at winning a copy of your book, not any of that other stuff. XD)

Matthew Rush said...

That actually sounds like it would be incredibly educational, and even something I would probably do if I had the time.

I wanted to comment yesterday, but I don't have a finished opening ready right now, and I didn't want to muck up an already heavily clogged comment thread with a "aww shucks, good luck everybody!"

So I'll say that now. Er, I guess I just did.

Barbara Kloss said...

I see now...and it makes me even more appreciative of this opportunity! Thanks!

Sarah said...

Dave - I can't tell you how excited I am by your shout out! I've been feeling down about the response to my manuscript and you've given me a burst of energy to keep trying! Thanks so much.

Good luck everyone!

Anonymous said...

"Someone said somewhere on your blog that the disappearance of the printed book in favor of the e-book means that writers' works will become the equivalent of YouTube, where there is a lot of content but it is so darn hard to find anything good, and the stuff you do find tends to be larded with ads or popups or clever asides."'s really not that complicated. And people who say these things don't understand much about e-books.

E-books are simply books in digital format. And that's about as complicated as it gets. You turn on the e-reader as you would open a book and start reading.

There's going to be a brand new publishing blog launched very soon, where industry professionals will gather together to guest blog and discuss the changes in publishing. There will be some very impressive names, from agents to editors, and it's being compared to a publishing version of The Huffington Post.

One of the goals with this blog is to help people understand e-books are just books, and to get rid of all the misconceptions people have about e-books.

Nathan Bransford said...


Keep me posted on that new blog -

Anonymous said...

Let me check to be sure it's public info now. A good friend sent me the press release attachment and I don't want to open my mouth too soon. If I can, I'll e-mail you the release.

D.G. Hudson said...

It's fun to read the contest entries just to see what everyone likes to write about. I've read the first initial ones yesterday, but I'll check more of them today.

Thanks to those participating and Good Luck! May the best writer win.

I'm looking for something that makes me want to read past the 'hook'.

Have fun Nathan, I don't envy you having to make the final choice.

Raquel Byrnes said...

Anon- reminded me of an interesting post at A Newbie's Guide to Publishing on eBooks and the idea that despite the tsunami of sub par books, the rating system will still allow great content to rise to the top.

The readers as the threshing floor as opposed to the traditional gatekeepers of agents an publishers.

Not sure which side I come down on just yet, but food for thought just the same.
Edge of Your Seat Romance

ddelano said...

I agree - I have found that reading through these really helps me get a sense of what works and what doesn't.
Thanks Nathan, as ever, for the opportunity and the education!

Anne R. Allen said...

700 and counting. Yikes. I understand now why we HAVE to identify the genre. Genre tags would help a lot in wading through all this.

After skimming a few hundred, I'm going to go check my ms. for adjectives and adverbs RIGHT NOW. And I see why they tell us not to open with dialogue. When you haven't met people, you don't care what they say.

Most important, I see certain themes and subjects over and over. That's something "outsiders" never get to see. We all think we're doing something so original.

Anonymous said...

Read enough openings. pitches, queries, excerpts, synopses, and published works and one will develop a sixth sense for publishable quality.

Sort of like the Name That Tune gameshow:

I can tell within fifty words whether it's a good story.

I can tell within ten words whether it's a good story

I can tell within five words whether it's a good story.

But it's good to read on up to several hundred words just in case there's a good story waiting after an ineffective opening sentence or paragraph or two.

Chris said...

This has been amazing, exhausting, and fun. I've really enjoyed getting to read everyone's paragraphs (though I admit I haven't read all of them... not yet).

I'm just glad I didn't select the "Email follow-up comments to" button below.

Though if I had, I bet I'd really feel like an agent.


J. T. Shea said...

'As you know, Bob, we're character's in J. T. Shea's entry in Nathan Bransford's Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge,' the first undifferentiated placeholder stick figure stereotypical non-character ejaculated adverbially. 'And, yes, maybe your name ISN'T Bob, and maybe you don't know that, but that particular J. T. Shea joke is perhaps getting a little thin, and if I stop talking long enough to let you reply that will end this paragraph, and J. T.'s entry. So our dialogue is really my monologue. IN FACT, you might not even exist, not that I do really myself, but, then again, how do any of us really know we really exist, really? It's also fairly obvious that J. T. is running out of ideas already, which can happen while writing a novel, though hopefully not in the first paragraph, however long. I mean, he hasn't even given me a name, and yours probably isn't Bob. But don't reply and end my paragraph! The real question is, what's J. T. going to do in the EXTREMELY unlikely event of his winning this contest? How long will Catherine Drayton have to wait while J. T. actually writes the rest of this novel? More to the point, how long will he take to come up with a title, not to mention a plot? As for a query, even I don't know who I am or what my dilemma and choices are! Well, Maybe-Bob, I could (and usually do) go on all night, but I don't want to break Blogger, so it was nice talking you.'

'Ultimate First' is a contradiction in terms.'

'I told you not to reply! That's two paragraphs! And this is three! J. T. will be disqualified! And “first” refers to the paragraph, while “ultimate” refers to the contest.'

'Nathan said not to take the contest overly seriously, which BTW is one adverb too many.'

'Only after he said to read the rules carefully. And don't use contractions, or criticize Nathan's use of adverbs.'

'J. T. should have skipped the blank line between our comments, making this all one paragraph.'

'That's cheating! You don't think that will fool Nathan, do you?'

'Other entrants are doing it. But, anyway, J. T. is 148 years old.'

J. T. Shea said...

'Not to mention that J. T. posted our paragraph(s?) in the wrong Nathan post, and doesn't know how to remove it! Which I won't mention.'

Rob Crompton said...

Or review novels for a journal aimed at the self publishing market. I've been doing that for about three years now and in that time I've seen one book which I thought deserved a contract to publish and two which I would like to have worked on as an author's mentor/editor. The rest? Well, I had to carry on reading cos I had to write reviews. Wanted to advise folk to talk up bee-keeping or rally driving or... so long as it didn't involve words.

Deb Levy said...

Dave, you made my day! Thank you! I have to say - before my eyes started crossing (is this why you are no longer an agent, NB?) I thought there were some absolute jewels. It's amazing what can be communicated in just a few sentences.

Nancy W said...

Something ain’t right about that man George thought as he stared at the homeless man standing across the street. George had been homeless for the past two years and after getting robbed and beaten a few times, it hadn’t taken him long to learn that his survival on the streets required that he become a diligent observer. He took another swig of bourbon from the bottle he held that was sheathed in a wrinkled brown paper bag. He savored the burning yet smooth taste and then the warmth spreading throughout his body and was grateful that he had collected enough money to buy a pint of Jack Daniels rather than the horrid tasting whiskey he usually bought. After all, today was his wedding anniversary and he felt like celebrating.

Cacy said...

Yeah...I definitely couldn't be an agent.

M Pax said...

Wow! I get so much more insight reading other people's work, and this was fantastic. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have so much trouble trying to see like an agent. For one, there are types of work and types of writing I am attracted to. That doesn't necessarily mean that what I gloss over is not also good. But I see what I am looking for more than what I am not interested in.

Secondly, if I don't know what the story is about (i.e. the query letter tells me and/or the back blurb on the book), the "first paragraph" may mean nothing anyway.
The context will see me through a lot of first paragraphs that, otherwise, I would not bother with.

For example: If I am interested in and expecting to read a paranormal romance, I will see the mood and the possibility in the set up scenery differently than if I was interested in and expecting a who-done-it. Likewise, I would have different "expend until I get there" if I were interested in and expecting lit fic. But totally out of context, it's kind of like getting off a plane and you don't know if you're in China or Germany. Okay, Chinese people, tall blonds. No problem. But what about not knowing if you're in Toledo or Cincinnati?

I will, therefore be very interested in seeing which unknown airport...ummm, paragraph...grabs you up out of context and why.

Always illuminating.

PS Thanks for doing this.

February Grace said...

Holy eyestrain, Bransman! (sorry, one cannot live by Jedi references alone...okay, so most of the time they can.) There were 100 then I came back and there were 500..700!!! They're multiplying faster than Tribbles on oysters!

This is definitely very entertaining, and enlightening. It's so cool to find something in among the rest that you read and think "Wow, now that got my attention!"

Happy Tuesday, and may your eyes forgive you for all the reading you're having to do for this...I cannot imagine trying to wade through what your inbox must have looked like back in the day (last year.)


Laurie said...

This is great research. How do agents do it? I think I've read enough adjectives to last me all of 2011. I'm not having any trouble picking out the paragraphs I like; it's just not much fun wading through everything else to get there.

Marilyn Peake said...

There are definitely a lot of talented writers out there. This year, as NPR launched its Three-Minute Fiction contest, someone from NPR said in an interview that he's blown away by the quality of writing they receive for their Three-Minute Fiction contests from amateur writers, much of it comparable to work published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

T. Anne said...

It's true, the ones I really like seem to jump out at me. It's the same feeling I get when I looking through book at the store or library. I just know which one is a fit for me.

Nick said...

I didn't even get through very many - less than 50 is all I'll say - and already I could tell from quick on what I was going to say Yes or No to. There were a few maybes which threw up, and then I had to sit and think "Would I chance a yes or chance a pass on this?" But man, I did not expect it to hit that fast. I thought it would be like the first few for a while, where I would have to read the whole thing and then consider.

Chuck H. said...

Skimmed 'em all, read a few all the way through. My head hurts and I'm now going to go lay down and thank whoever is in charge of the universe that I'm not now, never have been and, likely never will be an agent.

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

Deleted previous - don't feel like getting political.

Important stuff:

Nathan, this contest is so cool! You outdid yourself from outdoing yourself the last time you outdid yourself from outdoing yourself! It's outdoing yourself double goodness!

I'm sad, though, because I'm accepting the fact that I won't be able to enter. I just don't have anything ready, and no time to write something. But I've been skimming the entries when I have time - they're terrific!

I love contests - they're so much fun! Yay, contests!

Good luck to all the entrants! Can't wait to see the finalists. :)

Anonymous said...

I noticed someone was asking if a single line of dialogue counts as a paragraph for the contest (actually with their contest entry), and I was wondering the same thing. If the first paragraph is one line of dialogue, should the submitter at least be able to submit the reply one liner of dialogue? I think that would be acceptable, but it's hard to tell. I know on one of the postings I saw that the poor person couldn't say much of anything with one line. What do you all think? Should a single line of dialogue count as a paragraph, or should two lines of dialogue? Hmmmm. The answer to this question may impact my decision to enter the contest. Also, thanks again Nathan for the contest! :-)


Stephanie@thecrackedslipper said...

I agree with's difficult for me to feel a strong connection to the entries without some point of reference for what I'm looking at. In most entries you get a feel for the genre, but I need a clear sense of the story (something blurby or query-ish) to make me REALLY excited to read on.

Unlike lots of readers, I tend to choose books based on premise over first page. That being said, the great prose/voice shines in many of these paragraphs! I pity Nathan having to choose, and the rest of us having to vote.

One other observation-- there is a lot of death (in various stages, pre- and post-!) going on paragraph one with this crew! Kill Kill Kill people LOL!

Anonymous said...

Question about the contest:

I was wondering if we needed to have a completed manuscript to enter the contest.

I'd like to be able to enter because (1)Your contests are so much fun and (2) Because I'd love the chance to win a copy of your book however...

My WIP is light years away from being ready for submission. Could I enter anyway or should I just wait for the next one.

Either way, thanks. This is a great learning experience.

rachelslessonslearned said...

Im struck by how many great first sentences there are, followed by a sequence of sentences that fail to keep my interest or dont shine like the first.

A hook does not, and should not, rest on the first sentence alone, right?

Doug Pardee said...

Nathan: I believe that this article is about the upcoming site that anon@9:56 was talking about:

New digital publishing blog/community launching soon: The Gatekeeper's Post

Carol Riggs said...

YES, I was doing that before I posted my entry yesterday. Like some paragraphs were okay, a lot were good, but THEN there were the ones that really stood out--and not just ones that started right off with rabid action, either. The voice itself was catchy, the words arranged in a poetic, clever, or unique way. I will intrigued to see your finalists, Nathan! (realizing it's somewhat subjective, but hey, good writing is good writing).

Anna said...

Ah ha! I KNEW there was a learning element to the contest! Very sneaky Bransford, very sneaky.

Michael G-G said...

Nathan, I do believe you're going to break the thousand comment barrier. It might take a while to judge, but I bet you're a fast reader.

I read the first 870 or so and picked approximately 60 (just shy of 7%) I'd consider reading further. There were a few others that were written well, but the subject/genre didn't interest me. Now I know why agents say "not for me."

A final thought: seems to be quite a bloodbath out there, folks. Hold onto your chainsaws.

Nathan Bransford said...

A completed manuscript is not necessary to enter the contest.

I will allow sommmmme flexibility with incorporating dialogue into the paragraph, but not endlessly so. At the end of the day a paragraph is a paragraph.

Clear as mud, I know.

Anonymous said...

Just seeing how head hurts.
Why is the world would you put yourself through this?

Yup...mine is the best !

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nathan! Happy reading.

(Anon @ 2:16)

Deniselle said...

Wow, 1000 entries! My Google Chrome keeps freezing, LOL! I must say it's always an education. Most of the entries just run together and then there are a few that really catch your eye. I entered, like last year, mostly to get my text out there. It's a feat of courage, since I haven't queried yet! But, like last year, I'm feeling humbled by all the talent I see there.

Nathan - and the other participants: would it be OK to repost some of my favorite paragraphs at my LJ? (It's at

With linkage here, of course. Or would it be better manners to just link to the relevant page of comments and say which names I liked the best?

abc said...

I must say I'm feeling a bit chagrined to add my paragraph after 1000 or so, but charge on, child! I've been reading quite a few of the entries and while there are definitely some that are easy nos, it is amazing how many great ones there are.

Nathan Bransford said...


Only with the author's permission, please.

Daniel Smith said...

Good advice. Thanks for the suggestion and opportunity.

Deniselle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deniselle said...

Nathan - yeah, I'd like to be asked if it were me. I was thinking, it gets a bit complicated. I think I'll just link to the relevant comment pages. Thanks. :)

Kevin said...

Man oh man. How the heck do you pick finalists out of 1,000+ entries, many of which are good? I'm in awe of what agents do. I'm very curious your methods of madness...i.e. how you approach the task of widdling that massive pile into a manageable number. I just don't see how you folks do that on a daily basis. I was beating my face with my computer monitor after about the 300th paragraph, haha. Not that they're all horrendous...just couldn't handle the dizzying feeling of switching genres and styles EVERY fifteen seconds. Unbelievable.

Doug Pardee said...

Nathan: The Gatekeepers Post seems to be live now.

Vanessa K. Eccles said...

I really enjoy your blog, by the way. I snatch up all kinds of good info on here.

I am also really excited about the First Paragraph Contest. I think it's brilliant. It is a lot of fun reading everyone's unique styles, but I can see how the sheer volume of them can be overwhelming. I can’t wait to see who makes the finals. Happy reading. ;)

linda said...

Hi Nathan! I've been reading your blog for a while but finally de-lurked to enter the contest. And then took your advice and read all 1500+ entries (being able to read fast is a really useful skill!). I managed to whittle them down to a shortlist of 15 entries, and it wasn't as painful as I expected. I understand so much more about agents now - the thrill of finding an amazing voice, how it doesn't take much to know if you like it or not, and why request rates are so low. It was fun, thanks so much for the opportunity!

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