Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, February 3, 2011

And The Winner Is........... (and more about my choices)

1500+ paragraphs..... 175,000+ words....

The most stupendously ultimate first paragraph is by....


Now then! As per usual the winners post is a place to talk about what worked and didn't work in the first paragraphs in the contest, as well as the finalists.

And I'll tell you one thing that worked: I really think this contest had the highest overall quality of all the first paragraph contests. There were a whole lot of really, really good paragraphs in this contest, and I wish I could have singled out all of them.

So what makes for a really good first paragraph? That's the perennial question, and one I've discussed at length in past contests. To me, it's always come down to this:

The first paragraph should establish the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.

And on that topic of flow, as inspired by Ira Glass' interview on storytelling: Good first paragraphs lead smoothly from one thing to the next.

It's hard to start a book, and it's so important to ease a reader into a new world. In order to do that, I think it's important for things to really flow well from one element to the next in order to give the reader a chance to establish their bearings.

And...... what didn't work?

Well, in general I'm wary of anything that feels forced: forced cleverness, forced wordiness, forced cheekiness, forced sagacity.... anything that doesn't feel natural and authentic. Great first paragraphs feel effortless, and of course they're anything but.

And on that forced cheekiness, there were a few common tropes that jumped out at me, both in the contest and hearkening back to my days reading queries. Among them (paraphrasing):

So and so didn't know how it all began. Well, maybe it was this very specific, pithy thing, or maybe it was this other, even pithier thing. Who could say, really?

It was one of those days. Or, rather, it seemed like it was one of those days only it wasn't one of those days.

No one would have expected this very big thing could have been started by something charmingly incongruous.

Be careful not to try too hard, or at least be careful to make sure your effort is very very well hidden.

There were also a record number of multi-paragraph entries in this contest. Don't know what the story is there.

Now! The finalists!!! Let us salute their awesomeness.

The Sasquatch!
The funny thing about tennis, my father used to tell me, was no matter how hard you worked, no matter how good you got, you’d never be as good as a wall. My father didn’t like most sports. Football players, he said, were just drunks in training. Golf was what rich people did when they didn’t want anyone to call them lazy. Hockey was exercise for the criminally insane. And soccer? Well, let’s just say that, all debates of free speech aside, some things are inappropriate for a team of ten year old girls, and the next time he sets foot in the Hamilton County Sports Metroplex, he’ll likely face a $2000 fine and six months in jail. Not that it would matter to him.
This paragraph is just plain hilarious, and you immediately get a sense of the dad's character. Every line is funny and over the top, and the paragraph flows very well.

Now, full disclosure, I didn't realize that the first line here about not being as good as a wall paraphrases a Mitch Hedberg joke, which was later brought to my attention. It's a bit of a gray area for me. On the one hand it's not an exact lift, but I wonder if there's a way to work credit for the originator in there somewhere (or maybe it's so ubiquitous everyone is supposed to know it's obviously a Mitch Hedberg joke).

Still, the paragraph is really good even apart from that first line, and I still would have included it as a finalist even without it. Well done.

From a bird’s eye view, the sight is beautiful, pristine. The symmetrical gridlines of Shelter’s streets rest on the jagged landscape of the Colorado Mountains, an obvious imperfection that only makes them more charming, like a scar on a beautiful woman. On Monday evening, the streets are vacant. It’s local custom to shell up in a living room and anesthetize your dread of the coming week with a massive dose of televised entertainment. It’s what people do, it’s normal. For the few who walk outside, the October wind is their only companion. Tonight, Charles Crawford is on the other side of the windowpanes and misses the meaningless comfort of being normal.
This is a textbook, textbook example of starting zoomed way out and steadily zeroing on an individual. Along the way are elegant descriptions, a deftly handled metaphor, some great atmosphere (I love "anesthetize your dread of the coming week"), good flow, and that last line about missing the meaningless comfort of being normal is a killer.

I'm a fan.

Daniel Wheatley!
Wolfgang Benjamin Zuttliburg Mullenbottom IV was the most imaginative boy to ever live. When he was born, he floated right out of the doctor’s hands and nearly out of the nursery. (He would have made it too, if the doctor hadn’t once been a poisonous snake wrangler with Animal Control and still had his lightning reflexes.) “This will not do,” his father, the stoutest in a long line of stout German fathers, said as his son bobbled in the nursery like a helium balloon. So when it came time to make out the birth certificate, he chose the heaviest name possible so his son would keep his feet on the ground.
I love the jaunty spirit and immediate imagination this paragraph inspires. In the context of this paragraph it feels perfectly natural that a boy would fly around like a helium balloon, and it's a great example of not overselling something out of the ordinary. Sometimes it's great to take something completely bizarre and treat it seriously, which results in an unforced and wondrous tone. Well done.

Kate Tyler Wall!
It was Ricky Dick of the Turds who said that Del and I would end up together in the Punk Rock Old Folks Home someday. We were all sitting around the fire on one of the last nights at camp, but Del and I weren’t singing along to “Beat on the Brat” with the others because as usual we were knee to knee, talking about some book or maybe the latest song we were writing or how I would have to find another day job next week. Ricky couldn’t jeer at us to “just go in the woods and screw already” like he would to anybody else because people were finally figuring out by then that we weren’t about that. Jimmy Spittle from Cybyl probably came closest to putting his finger on the nature of the relationship. He once said Del and I were each other’s “muses,” a word Ricky Dick had probably never heard of. Jimmy was a pretty deep guy, as punks go. Anyway, everybody laughed, and Del told Ricky where to go, and then Steve from Head Lice started playing “I Fought the Law” on his guitar and another sing-along began. Just another August night at Camp Punksatawny; one that everyone might remember fondly at middle age if they didn’t OD or die of cirrhosis first.
This paragraph wanders around through its world and is the longest paragraph, but everything came together for me and it all worked together. It just has a great spirit, really good detail (everything from the songs they were singing to "knee to knee" to the end where they're already thinking about how there's a good chance they'll OD or die of cirrhosis like any good punks). I enjoyed this world a lot.

Jesus Arturo Alvarez was born on the thirteenth of September in the year of the Lord, after Whom he was named, nineteen hundred and ninety. It was a Friday, and also market day in the village of Guadalupe, Arizona, which lay just east of Ahwahtukee and southeast of Phoenix proper. During her most severe labor pains his mother screamed at the nurses for a drink and his father pinched her hard on that soft skin just above the elbow and told her to shut up. She didn't feel the pinch but she told him to go to hell anyway and then bit him on his left hand between the thumb and forefinger. Forever after Jesus' father had a crescent-shaped, dotted-line scar that he would rub absentmindedly with his right thumb during conversation.
Although I was thrown a bit by the second sentence, I love how this paragraph begins and ends. I like the very formal opening and how that eases into the story of Jesus' birth, the incredible moment where his mom asks for a drink, his dad pinches her and she bites his thumb in such a way that leaves a scar. It's hilariously told and memorable, and I love that last image of Jesus' father rubbing the scar and thinking back.

And last but not least, a paragraph that just does so much with such few words, that has us all wondering what in the world comes next, THE WINNER..........
I was born during an electrical storm. They told me when Matilda saw me for the first time the lights flickered, and in that moment of blackness, my sister leaned over and whispered, “I missed you.” Like I had just returned from a trip.

Congratulations to anonymous!!! I wish I knew your name so I could give you proper credit. My publishing friends are already asking about you.

Anon and other finalists, please e-mail me using the Contact Me link on the left side of the page in order to arrange for your prize.

Thanks so much to everyone for entering, and congrats to the finalists and our incredible winner!!


Ben said...

I want to congratulate Anonymous (whoever you are) for the win. I also want to thank Nathan for the opportunity and everybody who voted for me. Your comments were a source of inspiration. Thank you all.

I'd like also to invite the readers to check out my blog Dead End Follies ( where I chronicle my daily struggle with writing and with the difficulties of being intellectual in a world of fast food solutions.

I'm also on Twitter @BenoitLelievre

Thanks again Nathan!

Jenny said...

Hooray for Anonymous! Wish we had your name too--so we could watch for the book. =)

Laura Campbell said...

Go Anonymous! Your first paragraph brought me in on your reflective tone and presented me with an enormous question: Why is her sister welcoming her back? I hope you get in touch with Nathan and get this book published. I would be the first in line to buy it.

Thank you, Nathan. The contest and today's post really put my first paragraph in perspective for me. I know what I can do better. So, I'm off to fix and write.

Corinne O'Flynn said...

Congratulations Anonymous!

Thank you Nathan for the contest.

Perri said...

Congratulations, Anonymous! What a lovely first paragraph!

Mr. D said...

It's tough to choose a winner, and I didn't because I liked them all. Good thing I'm not a beauty pageant judge. They'd be waiting forever for my decision.

Akila said...

Congratulations to Anonymous! And, Nathan, thank you for your advice on the first paragraph.

Michael G-G said...

Big congrats to Anonymous, whom I hope will not remain anonymous for long. And congratulations also to the rest of the finalists. Each one of you had a great spark in your opening. (There were actually quite a number of good entries that did not make it to the final round. I wish I had the space to list you all.)

With Nathan's blessing, I'd like to invite any of you who are interested to check out my blog ( I'm spending the month of February examining what makes a successful beginning, using Nancy Kress' Beginnings, Middles & Ends for guidance.

And finally, thanks to Nathan himself for putting on such a great contest.

Kristi Helvig said...

Congrats to the winner and all the finalists. I loved these paragraphs. Thanks, Nathan for taking the time to do such a cool contest--again!

Caroline said...

Congratulations to Anonymous!

Ann Best said...

My choice, too, though of course the other finalists were wonderful too! In view of such excellence, I feel privileged to have been one of the honorable mentions. Thanks, Nathan, for a contest that let me and others take a closer look at first paragraphs. I learned something from this, and that's important. And I also met some wonderful new writers!
Ann Best, Author

David said...

I like the winner. It seems to be a play on the popular urban myth about the little girl who leans over into her brother's crib and says, "Do you still remember God? I'm starting to forget." I've actually had two people recount this story to me as if it happened to someone they knew.

Hilary said...

Congratulations to the winner, who totally deserved it! And thanks to everyone, especially Nathan--this was a lovely experience.

I thought I'd post the second paragraph over at my blog today, if anyone is interested :) I would love to have feedback.

Chuck H. said...

Congratulations to A. Nonymous. I knew you had it inya. Thanks Mr. Bransford for this and previous contests. What now? More! More! More!

Krista V. said...

Ooh, I love the mystery of figuring out who Anonymous is! Matches the tone of his or her paragraph quite well.

WORD VERIFICATION: frain. Frankie Landau-Banks would say this is the first chorus in a song (all the others, of course, being REfrains).

Josin L. McQuein said...

Yay Anon!

But, how on earth are you going to prove you are who you are?

Remilda Graystone said...

Congratulations to the finalists and to the Anon!

Kevin said...

Awesome post. It was fascinating to read Nathan's comments on each finalist...kinda like getting behind-the-scenes tours at Universal Studios and you get a feel for WHY something feels so magical when you read it. Sometimes I can't put a finger on it...but breaking it down like this helps me see how those amazing special effects of supremely awesome first paragraphs actually come together.

Love this stuff.

T. Anne said...

Congrats to anon, the finalists, and the honorable as well. Thanks for the great fun Nathan!

Kathleen said...

Very well-deserved. I voted for Anon because every word (though there were few) came together perfectly. Seemed effortless, that's for sure!

Juliette said...

Congratulations to all the finalists!

I've been having a lot of arguments about split infinitives lately - everyone tells me I'm being old-fashioned and overly fussy, but I have to tell my students not to use them because I teach Classics and a lot of Latin-reading classicists absolutely hate them. Having been trained that way by my lecturers, I hate them too - so I was interested to see a finalist with a split infinitive in the first sentence, which I'm afraid immediately put me off. Is this sort of thing generally a problem when querying, or is this an issue for editors to argue over later?

ddelano said...

Congratulations to Anonymous and all the finalists!

And thanks Nathan,for the contest and for your insight into what works and what doesn't. I learned an immense amount just reading through the entries, and I have a new empathy for agents!

Also, in a funny way reading all those entries made me understand the importance of a good query to go along with the first paragraph... so, back to work I go.

shelldolb said...

Congratulations Anonymous, great job!

Joanna said...

Congratulations Anonymous!
That paragraph was the one that stuck with on my walk home from work - a true sign of fantastic writing

The Sasquatch said...

Congrats to Anonymous! Your paragraph was awesome. I'm a big fan of electricity and yours was full of it (electricity, that is, both literal and figurative).

Are you reticent to share personal information online or are you part of the 4chan organization that shows up to events dressed in Guy Fawkes masks, causing hilarity?

OOH! Maybe you're Thomas Pynchon!

Whatever the case, you did a great job, Anonymous. I look forward to reading your book, blog, twitter feed, facebook page, myspace profile, geocoties site (with broken image links) or even a random sky writing where you had to strap yourself to the wing of a twin engine prop plane and hold two industrial strength spray paint cans at arms length while the pilot spells out the first lines of paragraph 2. That's an expensive way to write, mind you, but we all have our proclivities.

What I'm saying here, Mr. or Mrs. Fawkes-Pynchon, is we want to read your stuff. So speak up and let us know who you are.

If you don't, I'll unleash my father on you (or your kids).

Congrats to everyone else, too. They were all really good. Sorry about the Mitch Hedberg thing. I honestly had no idea it was his before this contest, which I realize makes me sound like either an idiot or a liar. Or both (which is actually the case, just for different reasons).

And a big thanks to Nathan for picking my paragraph as a finalist. I haven't written anything for almost two years. Life gets in the way of the stuff you want to do, sometimes. Maybe I'll use this as an excuse to get started again.

I have two blogs, but there isn't much there at the moment (see the previous "not having written for two years" comment).

Go there and make fun of me. Leave something good and I promise to plagiarize it in a future story.

D.G. Hudson said...

Congrats, Anon.
(but why so secretive?)

It's going to be difficult to remain anon if you want to get known. (there's already too many anons in the world).

And thanks Nathan, for the illuminating comments on how you made your selection.

wry wryter said...

I think anon. is already famous.
How 'bout it anon.
Will the real anon. please stand up...oh wait...maybe he/she is behind door number three.

Robena Grant said...

I loved your paragraph, Anonymous. It gave me a delicious shiver, and raised questions that would cause me to read on.

Sommer Leigh said...

Congrats Anon! You were my pick! Though it was hard because there were a couple I liked. Thank you brave writers!

And Nathan, I think it bears repeating- you are too cool. You give and you give and you give to us, I hope we make your blogging life as special and awesome as you make ours.

L.G.Smith said...

Congrats Anon, whoever you may be. And everyone else too. Well done.

Nathan, I hope you are icing your paragraph muscle.

Jillian said...

So many wonderful things have been written by Anonymous over the years. Wonderful paragraph, whoever you are! Congrats!

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

(Awww - something felt off about that.)

Yay - this was a fun contest! Congratulations to all of the entrants and honorables and finalists. Enjoyed reading your paragraphs very much! :)

And good discussion, Nathan. I second Sommer's heartfelt thanks.

Special congratulations, Anonymous - very skilled and awesome piece!

terryd said...

Congrats to all contestants for clamping down on the diem.

So many great paragraphs this time! Hope to see books by the finalists for sale, soon.

The Sentence Sleuth said...

Though my paragraph didn't make it (sniff), I want to thank Nathan for making me spend hours redoing my first page so that I could perfect my first paragraph. I obviously still need to revise it, and my other 299 pages.
I did better on Janet Reid's contest: finalist!

L.A. Colvin said...

Congrats to Anon (who I voted for) for a fantastic first paragraph.

Also a heartfelt congrats to all of the brave new writers who put their work out there for possibly the first time EVER.

This was amazingly fun. Thanks Nathan.

Tamar Ossowski said...

Anon here! My real name is Tamar Ossowski and I wish I had some mysterious reason for masking my identity but sadly its mostly because i have limited technical abilities and hit "send" before figuring out how to include my name!

I want to thank Nathan and all that have contributed their comments to this site. I have been working on this manuscript for a long, long time and the encouragement, interest and curiosity contained within the comment section could not have come at a better time. I feel so honored to be included in a group of entries created by people so clearly committed to their craft. There are many, many simply stunning entries.

I am delighted I was able to pique interest in the lives of my characters. The book is about a woman who runs off with one daughter while abandoning the other. The question it asks is whether we can overcome obstacles, fate and even choice to ultimately become the people we are meant to be. Maybe, maybe one day it will be on the shelves?

Congratulations to all the finalists and again, thank you for all the encouragement and incredibly kind words.

Pen and Ink said...

I read every comment hoping to learn who anonymous was. maybe someday I'll come across it in a bookstore.

Marilyn Peake said...

Congratulations to all the finalists ... and to Anon, whoever you are!

Anonymous said...

Nathan - You said that you thought a lot of paragraphs were great this time around. Did you make a list of those paragraphs, and would you consider posting that list, maybe as a separate blog post? You would cheer up a lot of people that way. :)

Ashley said...

These contests are always helpful and congrats to Anonymous!

Marilyn Peake said...

Congratulations, Tamar! Your book sounds intriguing, and I hope it's a huge success!

abc said...

As usualsies, I quite enjoyed the contest (entering and reading) and am blown away by all the talent out there. I wish I could bake you all cookies. Well, I could bake you all cookies, but I wouldn't be able to get the cookies to you all so I'd have to eat them myself. Which I could do. Seriously, I could. I make a mean chocolate chip.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm afraid not - I didn't keep a list beyond the honorable mentions, but there were quite a few that just missed that list. But if I kept a list of those it would have taken that much longer to tally.

Anonymous said...

Awwwwww, too bad. Thanks for running the contest!

shelldolb said...

I believe at one point and time you said we could send the first chapter of our manuscripts to you and that you would take a look at them and give us some advice. Are you still doing this, and if so how do I go about sending it to you? I tried the contact me button once before when I tried to submit it to you but nothing popped up that would allow me to do so.

Rebecca T. said...

Yeah! So glad Anonymous won. I loved reading the paragraphs and seeing what worked and didn't. Thanks for the contest Nathan!

Nathan Bransford said...


Whoa, don't recall saying that. I'd love to be able to do that but I don't have that kind of time.

Anonymous said...

Congrats to ALL of the Winners!!!
I voted for Anon! But I loved all of the winners and have learned so much. Thank you Nathan and writers.

One thing that stands out for me is the amount of information given in the winning first paragraphs. It was more information than I expected could be given without trying too hard or over-packing it in. And, as Nathan has expanded on: effortlessly.

I have much, much to contemplate.

reader said...

Thanks again for explaining what you DON'T like in a paragraph. I know you do it every time, but every time it's a great reminder to calm down, and not force your voice down a reader's throat.

Congrats to Anon! I wish all the participants the best of luck -- including myself.

Nathan -- when is Jacob Wonderbar's release date? (I read YA and MG).

Anonymous said...

Anon here... interesting to read all these responses! Take it and run, folks. Best of luck with that small bit... remember, there's nothing like an original! ;p

Holly LeCraw said...

I'm here to congratulate everyone and also to confirm that Tamar is truly the real Anonymous. I met her Tuesday night at Caroline Leavitt's reading at the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA. A bunch of us went out after and during our conversation you came up, Nathan, and your awesome blog, and Tamar told me about this contest and how she had submitted a graf but had done it as Anon totally by accident...anyway, hopefully this will confirm to the world that this wonderfully talented woman is NOT MAKING IT UP! Congrats Tamar!

Anonymous said...

Awesome!! Bring it on Anons... ;-)

Anonymous said...

I also think there should be something clever in the first paragraph that mentions the entire theme of the book, along with setting up voice and getting the reader into the flow.

In other words, the first paragraph should also set up the theme/storyline like a roadmap giving directions, even if it's in an indirect way, so when you finish the book and go back to read the first paragraph again you have that "ah ha" moment.

Hilary said...

@Anon 12:47 That's an enormous task for a first paragraph, although not for a first chapter. I like to put characters first and let the theme be reflected in them.

Josin L. McQuein said...


Are you maybe thinking of the first page critiques that used to happen each week?

It was never an "everyone gets critiqued" scenario, but the first one to post(at first). There's a thread in the forums to add your first page to those that get drawn from now whenever there's a first page critique post.

shelldolb said...

Thanks Nathan I wasn't sure, I think Josin is right though. I think I might have been thinking of the first page critiques. Thanks for the information Josin I appericate it.

I submited a synopsis today and was hoping to have someone critique it before I emailed it. Oh well, I went ahead and took that first brave step and emailed it anyway.

Elaine AM Smith said...

Congratulations to Tamar - a simple, but intriguing, opening.
Well done to everyone else who made it to the final few.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Anon, but this second sentence did not work for me; I thought it clumsy.

"They told me when Matilda saw me for the first time the lights flickered . . ."

Anyone else think that?

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Congratulations, Anonymous Tamar! Yours was my first choice too - I couldn't get it out of my mind.
Interesting comp, Nathan. :)

Orlando said...

Congratulations guys, your all winners really.

Tamar, dude, get a friend or someone to help you put a blog together. I think everyone would love to read more of your thoughts.

Loved the contest Nathan. Hope to see more, if possible.

Stephanie@thecrackedslipper said...

Congrats Tamar! Hope to see that book in print! I also hope to read more about the helium balloon baby. Loved that one! Great job finalists!

Carol Riggs said...

Yay! The one I chose (anonymous) won! Woohoo! Congrats to him/her, and to all who placed as finalists.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Congrats, Anon/Tamar! Glad you came forward. Looking forward to your eventual book. ;-) Your first paragraph gave me chills.

The Red Angel said...

Congratulations to Anonymous. :) Though you really deserved it, I loved all the paragraphs.

Thanks to Nathan for hosting such a fantastic contest and for giving all the writers here a chance at this opportunity. :D


maine character said...

Congratulations, Tamar! I love the Bradbury feel of that opening line (Something Wicked This Way Comes has a superb lightning storm intro).

To me, your paragraph would read even better without the last line.

wendy said...

Thank you for all your hard work Nathan. I love these contests and appreciate everything you do and share to make them happen.

Congratulations to all the worthy finalists. I was especially intrigued by the winning para. Wow - so simply worded and yet so atmospheric and....intriguing.

Amy Kinzer said...

Congrats Tamar - awesome first paragraph. Good luck with your book.

And congrats to all the other finalists too.

Thanks Nathan for the contest and for taking time to read the entries. Can't way to pick up your book when it comes out.

Juliana Brandt said...

Congratulations Tamar! I absolutely would read the book that follows that first paragraph!

Thanks again, Nathan, for hosting the contest. I certainly have learned a lot.

Bryce Daniels said...

Congrats Tamar!!!! Here's to seeing you on the shelves!

And thank you once again, Nathan, for sponsoring the contest and working so hard on this. Your insight was fantastic, coming from one of those "no one could have expected anything so big......." guys.....helped me see that I need to put away the sledgehammer...always thought I had that "grabber" for my thriller....what you say makes perfect sense...Thanks Again!

Misha said...

Congrats to all of the finalists.

I loved all of the paragraphs.


Leah said...

Congratulations, Tamar! With an opening like that, you deserve the encouragement. Hope you get the MS finished and published. Looks like you've already got a leg up by attracting the notice of Nathan's publishing friends. :D

Congratulations to all the other finalists, and my fellow honorable mentions.

And thanks once again, Nathan, for being insanely awesome and running this contest, even though you've left the agenting game. Methinks your former clients must sincerely miss you.

Jay said...

Congrats to anon. That is a great paragraph, first or no.

I don't know, though, about the first paragraph having to follow some rule. Some of this is subjective and more based on marketing than effective writing (no, they're not the same).

If we need our readers to be "hooked" by the first paragraph, why would we expect them to have the patience to endure an entire book?

All Adither said...

These are so, so inspiring. Thank you for doing this.

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