Shock and Awe

by | Jan 31, 2008 | Contests, Writing Advice | 105 comments

Holly and I are still very hard at work poring over the entries in the Surprisingly Essential First Page Challenge, so I don’t have an update on when we’ll have finalists. Instead, I know there are a lot of new visitors to the blog, and I want to encourage everyone to stick around! Consider this a pledge drive. If you enjoy your local Nathan Bransford programming, please, add the blog to your RSS reader or subscribe to the blog via e-mail. Every little bit counts. We depend on reader pledges for 100% of our operating budget of $0, so please show your support for programming like This Week in Publishing and You Tell Me and our many contests.

And seriously, you guys are some talented writers! Reading over the entries has been a pleasure, and can I thank everyone again for entering? I think I can.

Meanwhile, an interesting debate sparked in the comment section of last night’s time-calling post, and I thought I’d expand on it a bit here.

One of the things you always hear when you’re a writer is that you really have to grab an agent with your opening. And this is true — we read a whole lot of manuscripts, and if we’re not grabbed right away we’re going to move onto the next project.

BUT. This does not mean that you have to go out and try and grab the reader by the throat. Perhaps the most common shortcoming I’m seeing in some of the entries is that they try too hard to be surprising or shocking or pulling one over the reader. This is a common problem. Writers I talk to even sometimes tell me that they wanted to start with a more gradual opening, but their writing group said it was too quiet, so they went with the “bigger” opening instead. For instance, at least 7 openings in the SEFPC involve burnt and/or rotting flesh.

To be sure, this can be done well. But look at the openings of your favorite novels. Herman Melville did not begin MOBY DICK with Ishmael staring at the rotting carcass of a whale, Charles Dickens did not begin A TALE OF TWO CITIES by describing what guillotined heads look like. Even suspense novels that do begin with a shocking opener, like Jeff Abbott’s FEAR, which starts with the seriously awesome first line “I killed my best friend.”, double-back to gradually reveal details about the characters and world of the book.

This is because the purpose of an opening isn’t to grab a reader and start punching them in the face, but rather to draw them into the world of the book. A “shocking” event in the very beginning isn’t usually very shocking because it’s not earned — the reader doesn’t yet care enough about the characters or know enough about the world for it to resonate properly — so it feels more like a parlor trick. Even if it’s an action-packed beginning, it’s still necessary to orient the reader. So there are some definite dos and don’ts in the beginning, and I’d point you to Kami’s great comment from last night’s post for a breakdown.

The purpose of a first page is to begin to get to know a character, world, or plot in such a way that the reader wants to know more. It’s a taste. And great characters, a great plot, and/or great setting (and of course great writing) grab me a lot more than an opening that tries too hard to be surprising or shocking.


  1. Roxan

    Point taken and I shall consider making changes to my current WIP. And I was so looking forward to killing off characters in the first paragraph. Sigh.

  2. Stew

    I was hoping this would be discussed as I watched the comments conversation unfold. Thanks for taking time from the reading entries to impart that wisdom.

  3. Chris

    Thank you again Nathan for doing this contest. I felt terrible for suggesting it when I began to see the entry numbers rising so quickly. But, it just shows how much a contest like this was needed. And now you’ve given us more insight into the agent’s mind. You are a gem Nathan. I am still thoroughly enjoying the process of getting the first page right. I do love a challenge, but I also hope I really can get it right sometime soon.

    If anyone is interested, please read the revised first page of The Chaser and post comments. I have had the most difficulty with the beginning of my book because the idea came from a dream and them morphed into much more. I love the book and want to make the first chapter just as good as the rest. So, I’m also interested in finding fellow writers who would like to have some kind of critique exchange. Here’s the blog I set up.


  4. Linda

    Nathan, great post. I’ve been following the discussion on ‘grabbiness’ with great interest. I write lit fic, but many in my writing group are mystery/thriller writers, and we’ve been discussing this very thing – does the dead body need to show up on the first page? Lol. I’ve directed them here for more… oh, and your blog was one of the first listed on my blogroll – I learn so much from your posts. Thanks for caring so much about us wee writers. Peace…

  5. Adaora A.

    Thanks Nathan that is good to know.

    Many before us stuck around after we came so there must be something good about the blog!

    Who do I make my check of -2 million out to?

    Thanks for the contest opportunity!

    My favorite Dickens book is still David Copperfield.

  6. Sophie W.

    Thanks for clarifying this, Nathan. I’ve been following this conversation for a while and I appreciate your take on it. I’ve always been confused about “starting with a bang” because often there’s no reason to, and so many published books have quieter beginnings.

    So, I really appreciate the clarification. I will make a note in my binder of writing stuffs.

  7. hannah

    Thanks so much for this post, Nathan. I’ve been worrying that my opening was too quiet…now I take comfort in knowing that, among all the reasons I’m sure I won’t make the finals, that isn’t one of them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Oh, and I’ve been casually lurking on your blog for awhile…but I’m definitely sticking around now.

  8. aerialscribe

    Thanks for the contest, Nathan. I discovered your blog via an announcement on my friend’s list on LJ. Glad to have discovered your blog and really enjoyed the opportunity to submit to the contest. I’ve added a feed and plan to stick around, thanks!

  9. cce

    I’m content to sit back and let the story unfold. I don’t like the plot to be too obvious in the first bit of a novel or the whole thing’s a bore from the beginning. Thanks for the lesson on fictional openings. We can all use a reminder every now and again.

  10. althrasher

    Thanks for the link to Kami’s comment! That’s a really informative collection there, and really good advice.

    I was a little worried…no rotting flesh! No one will read my book! Glad to know I’m not alone.

  11. lk

    This is an intriguing topic. Starting in the middle of a violent fight scene generally isn’t going to draw the reader in. Better to spend a few minutes building up the expectation of a fight, because that makes better reading than the fight itself.

    There is a tempation to try and explain all the background information right in the beginning, this breaks the fourth wall, it lacks realism. And generally results in a parade of characters without any action.

    Then there is the question of where to start the story.

  12. Melanie Avila

    Nathan, I’m glad you’ve made this point. I’ve seen many writers debate this point, both here and on other sites. I agree with your point that it’s too obvious when the opening line is merely there to pull you in.

    If you’re relying on stunts rather than good writing, I don’t think you’ll get very far. What happens when all the action dies on the second or third page? If it fits the story, great. If not, a gradual unfolding is fine by me.

  13. Precie

    Your LIFPC (first paragraph) contest was a great example of how openings don’t need to rely on shock and awe. None of the LIFPC finalists involved a murder. Admittedly, the actual winner did mention death, but it wasn’t at all about shock value. Those openings were compelling because they made readers want to know more about that situation, that person, that world.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  14. r.c.

    Thank you, Nathan, I’ve learned a great deal from this exercise, from the entries, and from the discussions.

    Almost 700 entries! I thought it would be less than 500 for sure, since that’s how many you got last time, when we were allowed three entries.

    Good luck to you and Holly!

  15. cyn

    thank you for this, nathan.
    you rock.

  16. Loren

    Speaking of Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities, I would appreciate seeing your thoughts on how the electronic age, internet, TV, movies, have changed writing. Could we have these kinds of stories in today’s world? Could we have another Tolkein with his lengthy, sweeping descriptions of the landscape? Would “Rebecca” have been a hit today with the entire first chapter devoted to her dream of an overgrown, sinister, burned out mansion? Literary styles have changed before, often for the better. Is this one for the better, or is it “literature lite”?

  17. Vivi Anna

    I love books that start with flash, and danger, and yes I have to say it gore. That grabs me instantly. What is that saying about me? Hmm, maybe nothing, maybe everything. Who knows.

    I suppose it comes from my mainstay reading diet of horror and urban fantasy.

    Thanks Nathan for holding this contest. You are a brave man and a generous one as well.

  18. Nathan Bransford


    I actually think the electronic age has been great for writing — I’m sure Dickens and Melville would have KILLED to have been able to easily revise their work on a computer.

    I guess I just don’t really buy that the great literature written today isn’t as good as the literature of the past. Just look at Ian McEwan.

    Tastes have changed, but I don’t think the historians of the future are going to have any trouble finding great works of literature in today’s era. In 2300 they’ll wondering if ATONEMENT would have ever been published in their contemporary world etc. etc.

  19. Sumit


    Just wanted to know if the entries will remain here for sometime. I am reading all of them, one-by-one…

  20. Bernita

    I’m very glad I didn’t enter this contest. Thhough it was wonderfully instructive to read the many excellent first pages and I am supremely grateful to Nathan for holding it – Nathan, you would have dismissed my opening a cheap “parlour trick.”

  21. Anonymous

    It’s funny that you mentioned novels like MOBY DICK and A TALE OF TWO CITIES because books like that would NOT be published today. Too many big words, too much digression (Melville has a whole extra CHAPTER in the middle on the biology of the whale!), too slow to start, too digressive, too unpolitically correct, and on and on..

  22. Nathan Bransford


    You sure about that? Have you read THE CORRECTIONS?

  23. Laurel Amberdine

    Ha, now I’m certain my entry is both too slow and too shocking!

    This is great fun. Thanks for hosting such a neat contest.

  24. benwah

    Re: would Melville or Dickens be published today.

    Look at books like David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” A novel with more footnotes than most textbooks. Not everything is mystery thriller.

    Technology has made reading and writing more accessible. Granted, the printed word has to compete with TV, etc, but look at what we’re doing here: would all of us be writing without the laptops, the ease of editing, the ease of finding an online writing community? It’s certainly more enjoyable not to toil on alone.

  25. Natalie

    Thanks for the advice. Very helpful.

  26. Ryan Field

    Thanks for the last paragraph of this post…it’s a great explanation. So many times writers are given the wrong impression of a first page.

  27. Anonymous

    Nathan, anon here.

    Yes, I love Franzen — in fact I mentioned him in a question I posed to you a while back here. and here.

    My gripe is exactly that — how many agents would even want to look at a novel that was like The Corrections, based on the first few pages and a query that tells you it’s 200k words? Also, writing has to be PC nowadays. Only big shots like Tom Wolfe can get away with being un-PC, and when they do even they get beat up for it.

  28. Richard

    Nathan, I agree with you that there’s some GREAT writing published today (and also a GREAT DEAL of junk), I’d have to also agree with Loren that a LOT of great writing does not seem to have a home today. Today everything has to be either minimalist, or clever/funny and postmodern (Dave Eggers) or trendy/shallow (chick lit). Lyric writing, ornate and effusive prose with big words is considered a no-no. Everything is short, punchy, and plot-driven. It’s like this “The First Five Pages” madness. How many of the classics would bore most readers in the first five pages? But if they’re told that it’s a classic, it’s okay.

    Yes, McEwan, but think of a Jack Kerouac (the actual books he wrote, not the false stereotype of the wild partying beatnik): like Maggie Cassady, The Town and the City, Visions of Cody, even On The Road, those books would have ZERO chance of being published today. It’s too out of the ordinary.

    There would be ZERO patience for a Thomas Mann style writer, a William Saroyan or a John Dos Passos, and so on. There’s just no way. Whole styles of writing are “verboten” now. Someone mentions David Foster Wallace – that’s a good example, because he’s fairly recent but INFINITE JEST was what, 12 years ago? When was the last time we heard about a 900-page opus full of footnotes and the kind of weirdness he goes on about? Have an F. Scott Fitzgerald kind of short story about romantic love? Forget it, no magazine would publish it. An Edgar Allan Poe treatise on the metaphysical? Ditto. An O. Henry “New Yorker” style story, written just like the very best of them? Don’t bother to bother Deborah Triesman with it.

    If agents say it’s “out of style” or not “with-it” enough, so they would never take it on.

    Just like in poetry, there is no room today for anything traditional, no formalism is allowed, it’s just one way, free verse and the like. Almost all poetry in the journals is about an individual’s moments of confessional “introspection” while in poetry there are so many other possibilities.

  29. Nathan Bransford


    But Jonathan Franzen had to go through the publishing process just like everyone else. And then his agent (in part because she’s Jonathan Franzen’s agent) got a query from Marisha Pessl for SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS.

    And I can tell you that I would KILL to get a query from writers like them working on projects like those, and so would many other agents.

    Not sure what you mean about writing having to be PC. Everything under the sun is being published these days, being un-PC doesn’t seem to be an impediment (and I’m not sure I even agree that Tom Wolfe is un-PC).

  30. Anonymous

    So you’d look at a 200k or 250k novel if you thought the writing in the query was good?

  31. Luc2

    This whole contest is really educational. I feel a winner already! Kami’s post is great.

    And I decided to follow the example of others and post my first page on my blog. Comments are very welcome.

  32. Nathan Bransford


    I would suggest that you’re just not looking hard enough. 1000 page epics? Vikram Seth and Vikrma Chandra. Meandering travel novels a la Kerouac? What about Dave Eggars and YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY? Why does he get discounted just because it’s witty?

    To a certain extent you’re right — something TOO old-fashioned or derivative might not work. But the same thing was true in Dickens’ time, Poe’s time, Fitzgerald’s time, Kerouac’s time and today’s time. There’s absolutely noting wrong with the present, and every writer who has ever lived had to write for the tastes of their own times.

  33. Anonymous

    About PC-ness: there are times when Tom Wolfe makes fun of certain protected groups in his writings, or takes unpopular views on certain “loaded” topics like feminism and race. He gets slammed for it sometimes, but he can do it.

  34. Nathan Bransford


    Yeah, if there was a good reason for 200k words I’d read it. I’m not a word count stickler.

  35. Colorado Writer

    Thanks for caring enough to explain further…again.

  36. Kylie

    Ahem…I would like to pledge money to any programming with the monkeys.

    Thanks again, Nathan, and rest assumed, we shall be sticking around. Who wouldn’t? Another nice blog on openings/first pages is called Flogging the Quill. (I can’t remember the exact address, but there is a link through GalleyCat’s link page)

  37. Adaora A.

    Nathan I’ve got to ask:

    Are you a John Grisham Fan?

    Re: A Time to Kill = <3 To me

  38. trina

    i’m not so sure that kerouac was writing for the tastes of his times. as truman capote said, he was just a typist not a writer. most people hated his stuff. (still do, i think)

  39. Anonymous

    Anon here (and signing out for good) but I want to say thanks, Nathan.

  40. Sam Hranac

    What great insight! And may I just add that Holly’s blog is every bit as awesome as you suggest [smooch, kiss, grovel].


    All kidding aside, it isn’t just the humor and contests that keep me coming back, but the helpful, clear-cut advice. Thanks.

  41. Heather Wardell

    Nathan, when you do have the finalists narrowed down, I for one would love to know approximately how much time you spent getting to that point. Five hours? Ten? Just interesting to get additional glimpses into how long an agent takes to assess a page versus how long, say, I take.

    And I hope the bourbon supply’s holding up!


  42. Nathan Bransford


    I think John Grisham is an extremely talented writer — in fact, Powell’s just has a review of his latest book that discusses how he’s underappreciated because his books sell so many copies.


    ON THE ROAD got a huge amount of attention when it was published and is still considered a classic, so at least some people liked it! It still sells 100,000 copies a year.

  43. sex scenes at starbucks

    You know, I just posted on the “shallow opening” over at my house. I’ve found they’re much in vogue lately, but they lead to shallow characters, plots, and settings. If a novel takes some pages for set-up, I’ve found it tends to be more intriguing overall. Of course it’s always a balancing act, but what in life is not?

    And yes, you do rock!

  44. Adaora A.

    He is underappreciated! Words can’t describe how in awe I am of his talent. He is a MASTER storyteller but it’s like when you get popular people talk smack ( a word popular here you’re free to use it)about them. Not sure whether it is to bring them down or whatever vindictive reasoning they harbour. I love his books. I’m checking out what Powell has to say because clearly he’s thinking the same way I am.


  45. Eliza

    Not to be totally unrelated, but I thought you might find this amusing / useful as you’re going through the entries. — especially page 4. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    May be more of a Miss Snark thing, though.

  46. LindaBudz

    Thanks, Nathan and Kami. Great advice.

  47. readwriteandedit

    Always great to hear what other writers have to say about techniques and the ins and outs of writing. Thanks for the contest, Nathan.

  48. Lyz

    I just want to weigh on the publishing comments. I really thing there is a lot of exciting and experimental literature out there. So many writers of our generation are influence by writers like Morrison and Kundera and are pushing the limits. Look at Tatyana Tolstoya, Jonathan Safran Foer, or Katherine Min–what is happening is lovely and exciting.

    Also, Grisham is underrated. I think THE PAINTED HOUSE, was one where he really proved his chops as a writer, not that he had to. I really don’t appreciate that tendancy to assume that popularity excludes real talent. It is similar to avoiding Oprah’s book club because she is too commercial or mainstream. Dickens was UBER popular in his time. I bet homeboy would have gone on Ophs, anyday.

  49. Anonymous

    I would think that it takes a lot of support for a writer to show up with his or her unique voice in any period.
    I, for one, treasure finding written works that are that unique.

    I am also enjoying hearing from Nathan and others here about opening pages and learning so much.
    I was starting to feel some confusion by all the preference for action and these discussions have added clarity and perspective.

    When I went back and read the first pages of the books I have read in the last two month months, I noticed that the back covers really helped me buy those books more than the first pages. Many of those books developed the story over numerous pages or even chapters. Having an idea about the story motivated me to keep reading. I enjoy seeing a story or characters build.

    And only two of those books seemed to show the writers “voice” in the first page as a stand alone.

    One book was (purposefully to the story) wired tight from the get-go, but it was exhausting.I had to work to stay with it until it settled down into the story.

    Also buying a book and having it in my hand as an object seals my commitment to reading it. (I still have a dozen e-books that I have never gotten to, while I actually read books I buy in bookstores.)

    I am very impressed with the contest and thank you all for letting me see into your pages of this contest.

    Thank you Nathan and Holly too for this contest!
    And thanks Nathan, so much, for pointing out things that help me to be a better reader too.

  50. Tammie

    I didn’t submit anything for this contest but I love reading the work.

    Nathan your post today is exactly why I return to this blog.

  51. sylvia

    The contests draw in writers like bears to the honeypot but the comments keep them here. Your readers comments and questions continue to be interesting and your responses are quite enlightening.

    I have certainly learned that I do not have the tolerance / patience to ever be an agent. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Now I’m off to find Franzen.

  52. cc

    Thanks for the contest, Nathan. I love reading all the pages. I learn a bunch each time!

  53. Adaora A.

    Hey lyz I agree of course. But you know, A TIME TO KILL will always have a special place in my heart. It touched on issues which really…well aren’t 100% cleared up today. I’m such a huge fan of his. I better stop before I start gushing. He’s like a rock star who actually knows how to sing.


  54. julcree

    I’ll let ya’ll in on a little secret: I was SURPRISED to be told that most people read a few pages before buying a book. I never did. I would read the back copy and that was usually enough. Once I heard readers were doing this, I tried it, but rarely find the first page to be the reason I read on. The back cover copy still counts the most.

    And I always think of Harper Lee when a discussion of ‘grabbing’ the reader in the first page comes up. I hated “To Kill a Mocking Bird” until page 10 or so, but it’s one of my favorite books.

    So, I think we can all agree on this: a grabbing first page does not always a good novel make nor a slow beginning a bad one.

  55. Mary Paddock

    Many thanks for your contests Nathan.

    I do read the first pages. Always. I am one of those people who sits down by the book shelf in the grocery store or book store or library and reads it before she chooses it. I want to know if the writer can write and I want to be (depending on the genre) grabbed, charmed or moved. Back covers can be deceiving. If I bought books based on the back covers I’d have a lot of barely-read books on my shelves. I also think the kind of opening a book offers will hinge, to some degree, upon the genre.

    Personally I prefer a first chapter that establishes the tone of the book immediately and I don’t mind being shocked if it’s justified fairly quickly afterwards. The only time this gets on my nerves is if the writer fails to establish a connection between the shocking events in the first chapter (like opening with a murder) and the established characters that appear later on.

  56. Kami

    Thanks for the mention, Nathan (blush!)

    For the record, especially for those of you who are glad you didn’t submit something or feel bad because you had burning flesh in your opening–mine has burning flesh. First sentence, in fact.

    It’s all in how you do it. After seeing something like this contest it’s really easy to lose faith in your writing, especially if you think you’ve made a classic error (I know you’re all finishing that sentence with a Princess Bride quote!) But here’s a question: Did you do it because someone told you to, or because you felt a driving need to write it that way?

    I suggest that you look at why you’re drawn to your opening. Does your character really shine in a fight? Then open with a fight scene, but make sure you reveal what you want to reveal in that scene. It’s probably not martial skill. It’s probably compassion, or emotional pain, or desperation, or loyalty– things that make a great character. Or maybe you did open in the wrong spot–but don’t just chuck it. You might have gold inside those steaming guts.

  57. Kami

    Oh, and books that in theory wouldn’t be published because they’re not ‘fast-paced,’ etc. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell (I hope I spelled that right.) I loved it. I’ll be reading it again when I get the chance. I think it did really well, too. Did it become a best seller? Anyway, Victorian-ish English still lives on. I’d even argue that editing capabilities (like Nathan said, they’d have killed for a computer!) and the ability to get feedback in places like this has improved that gorgeous, plush style of writing over the years. I know, I know, toast in heck for suggesting that Dickens can be improved upon.

  58. Laurel Amberdine

    Same here, julcree.

    It never occurred to me to read first pages while in a bookstore. I don’t know why. Maybe my addict-like relationship with novels? When I start reading something I plan to finish reading it, ignoring and/or neglecting all interruptions as much as possible.

    Best to get home safely first!

  59. Heidi the Hick

    Man, I love Blogiversity.

    I have learned soooo much here…

  60. Adaora A.

    @jul- I read the last page. Don’t yell at me I know I’m shameless!
    I just can’t help it! A good last line (whether the ending is + or – ) sucks me everytime!

    Am I alone?

  61. liquidambar

    “the purpose of an opening isn’t to grab a reader and start punching them in the face”

    A hilarious way to express good advice!

    Mostly what draws me into a book is a compelling voice. See, e.g., THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, CATCH-22, for distinctive and magnetic voices.

    As for Kerouac: I could only get through ON THE ROAD once, but I have read THE DHARMA BUMS to pieces. I think Dharma Bums is his best, and urge people not to give up on Kerouac without trying that one. VISIONS OF CODY and DESOLATION ANGELS are for people who like more experimental stuff; BIG SUR is for those who like a taste of the nightmarish.

  62. julcree

    @ laurel,
    exactly! plus I really hate not knowing what happens, so I’m likely to scan for story even if the writing ends up sucking.

    @ adaora,

    just kidding. I never do that one, but my dad does. So you’re definitely not alone (plus you got Harry from “When Harry Met Sally” who does it…wait, does it count when it’s a fictional character?)

  63. midnight oil

    Nathan and Holy, thank you so much. I have learned a great deal and now I am trying to fit it all together. Yesterdays comments were surprising, especially about the prologue. How do you know when you are grabbing too hard or not hard enough?

  64. Anonymous

    “How do you know when you’re grabbing too hard or not hard enough?”

    The answer is on the shelves of the chain stores…in the books people buy every day. Pick a few bestsellers that you admire within your genre, and study what makes them work.

  65. mlh


    I’m one of your newbies. I’ve been lurking for the past three weeks too afraid to post anything because everyone seemed so high-brow and out of my league. Sometimes I just felt like putting on a waitress outfit and serving virtual drinks to everyone.

    Would you like a vodka on the rocks, Mr. Bransford?

    Well, anyway, thanks for hosting such a contest. I’ll probably go back to lurking again. If only there was a cute bartender around.


  66. Nathan Bransford


    Thanks for de-lurking! I’ll take a bourbon neat.

  67. mlh

    Coming right up, sir!

    It’s on the house.

  68. Anonymous

    Regarding the right balance of “grabby” openings, I will speak for the thriller/suspense genre opening here, since that’s what I write and that’s what I like to read the most.

    What seems to work the best are the openings (first few pages) that immediately convey to the reader that SOMETHING IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN HERE…SOON! And by the end of Chapter 1–that something should have either happened or be in the process of happening.

    You want to drop them in to a scene late…and leave early.

    Some of the entries I’ve read here are too heavy on action without any story development, while some are just the opposite. It’s tough to get just the right blend–plotting the action while dribbling in the character info as necessary. But I will say this: I think the entry titled, “A Midsummernight’s Revenge” (or something like that) manages to do it. [and no, this is not my entry]. But I consider this to be a solid thriller opening. Whether or not the writer managed to follow through with the the rest of the ms….who knows, but the first page is a good start.

  69. Wanda B. Ontheshelves

    A reference to Thomas Mann brought me out of lurkdom

    I’ve been reading Mann’s Dr. Faustus (hmmm, somehow that doesn’t look like it’s spelled right) – as I dig through some of his convoluted (and translated into English) paragraphs, I joy and delight in coming across three or four paragraphs that perfectly describe, oh, say, the tail end of GWBJR’s tenure in the White House, or the hazards of globalization, or perhaps the impact of war on “high” culture…some of the descriptions of sexual relationships, and between the generations…gee, it’s just like that now!

    A friend also gave me a poem by Frances Villon, with the line “Where have the snows of yesteryear gone to?” (loose paraphrase). And then I was looking up a poem by Osip Mandelstam, and discovered that Mandelstam wrote something in response to Villon’s “snow poem.”

    I love digging around in the old stuff. I think doing so grounds your writing, even if you are writing “contemporary” fiction. I’m always justifying my “strange” reading habits with: “There’s a lot of power in old poetry.” Fiction too.

    Wanda B. on behalf of Thomas M.

  70. Carol Burge

    Great post. I can’t believe I missed the contest deadline – and I even blogged about it! I think I need a vacation. ๐Ÿ™‚

  71. Julie Weathers

    I really think it depends on the book. Thankfully, several fizzled attempts with Paladin are finally molding it into something almost viable. Getting feedback from various writers has helped me see the problems with the different incarnations.

    My suspense opens with a man pulling a piece of tongue out of a horse waterer.

    Another fantasy starts very slowly with mourning bells and a dead husband’s whisper.

    I obviously don’t have it figured out, but I am convinced each story should be viewed as an individual child. What works for one may not work for another.

  72. Anonymous

    Friend of mine has been telling me how great Moby Dick is, how beautifully it’s written, how he’s read it over and over throughout life…I’ve never read it but I have read the first page and I can tell you with certainty that had it started out with Ishmael staring at a bloated and rotting whale carcass instead of that lame, lame line “call me Ishmael” (who cares! tell me your name later!) then I MIGHT have read past the first page.

    (I don’t require that kind of thing in books, however–just Boring Dick. And don’t pretend you’re not all thinking this, too, just because it’s a classic.)

  73. Nathan Bransford


    Other people might think that, but it’s honestly my favorite classic book of all time.

  74. Adaora A.

    carol – aww sorry love. Next time put it in your phone. My phone vibrated while in uni lecture. I use a laptop and so I submitted my buisness and went back to listening to the prof!

    @lyn- Hahaha Hardy har har. I’m cool like that. I avert my eyes during the scary part of movies but my body doesn’t budge. So I look tough being the only one who did not buge. Shhhhhh don’t tell any date I have in the future.

    @mlh – Can I get a cosmopolitan?

    Ah I think I’ll go listen to some Boys II Men now.

  75. Anonymous

    Well, everyone who likes it as you do including my zealous friend can’t be all wrong. I might try it, after all, to illustrate your original point in your blog, not every book starts out with a bang.

    Still. “Call me a slavering fool who eats rotting whale carcasses raw in his spare time. Some years ago–never mind how long…”

  76. kissmequick

    Dang it, I had the smell of burnig flesh ๐Ÿ™

    I shall console myself with the fact I didn’t actually show him murdering all those people, I just showed what happened after. Maybe I should start with the next bit instead.

    Thanks Nathan, I’ve subscribed to your blog now – it’s very informative. I shall probably use it a great deal in my procrastinations, when I should be writing.

  77. Anonymous

    Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

    That is what has been advised.

    I too would like to thank Mr. Bransford for the opportunity. There are some awsome writers out there. Everyone is in with a chance. Good luck to all.

  78. Michelle Pendergrass

    mlh—Speaking of a waitress outfit, did you see that movie Waitress?

    I’ve watched it twice now and I’m still amazed at the characterizations and how superb it is.

    I don’t watch many movies, this one caught me and yanked me in. Adrienne Shelly wrote, directed, and played Dawn–I’m telling you this is a movie to study. She was murdered, a tragic loss, as she was brilliant.

    Anyway, sorry to blab on if you’ve already watched it. If you haven’t-go get it right away!

  79. Julie Weathers

    I guess, I should clarify a bit.

    I still think action is what most people want in an opening. I’ve noticed this over the past few months of watching blogs, contests, critique fests on a variety of sites.

    However, I think a writer is the only one who knows their book. Some books need to start out more slowly. I have a friend, who could describe a dress hem and make you want to hurry up and read more. Unfortunately, not many of us can write as beautifully as Beth does.

    As for length, Diana Gabaldon seems to do quite well with her lengthy novels.

  80. lk

    My mom reads at least a few chapters if not half the book before deciding whether to buy it. She’s a pretty fast reader.

  81. Kimberly Kaye Terry

    I took a gander at this contest because a friend is participating. This was all kind of ways cool to read!

    Quite a few of the openings had me mumbling under my breath, “Oh yeah…hmmmm. Just like that, keep it right there,” and then…”oh, hell to the naw! No you didn’t leave me hangin’! What happened next??!!”

    I agree, an opening needs to grab my attention, but don’t put me in a choke hold, grappling for breath. Just like lovemaking, bring it hot and furious, but you need to woo me, give mama some sweet kisses, nibbling caresses, sip my herbal essence and then when it’s time…oh snap, sorry, I got lost in the moment. Where was I?

    It’s a balancing act. Hard and fast, then ease up and bring it sweet and slow. Hmmmm…

    Cool blog~


  82. Anonymous

    When choosing a book I do read the blurb on the back cover but I don’t rely only on that. I’ll read at minimum three pages in, then riffle through the middle and skim a page or two to see if the writing’s still holding up by that point. (Sometimes it isn’t.)

    I don’t need a splashy opening on the first page, but I do need readability, smooth flow, and a reason to read on. A quietly-sketched character on the first page will hold my attention just as well and often better than a slam-bang beginning.

    “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”
    That first line from du Maurier’s “Rebecca” is a very quiet line. But it’s packed with possibility.

  83. kat

    Nathan, just curious if you and Holly will expand on what drew your attention to some of the finalists’ works after they are announced?
    I’m not asking for a critique of each one, but I’m curious to know what drew your attention the ones you picked.

  84. mlh

    @Adaora a.

    Sorry, I missed your order. I’m blogging from the east coast, so there is a time difference. But I’ll email you one right away.

    @Michelle P.

    No, I haven’t seen the movie. But it sounds terrific. Thanks for the heads up.

    Hey! Wait! I’m supposed to be lurking in my dark corner now. Why are you people forcing me to respond?

    Tee, hee.

  85. ink wench

    Some of us aren’t new visitors, we’re just delurking for a bit. I read at work so if I’m posting, I’m not working. Oops!

    Just wanted to say this was such a helpful post and so is the whole contest. Many thanks to you and Holly!

  86. Jessica

    Here’s another delurker chiming in. Long time fan of the blog, but first time contest participant. Who knows, maybe after this I’ll come out of hiding more often.

  87. sylvia

    “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”
    That first line from du Maurier’s “Rebecca” is a very quiet line. But it’s packed with possibility.

    That’s a perfect example! It grabs you immediately because you want to know what happened there – but there’s no question of action or gore nor promise of a thriller.

  88. Diana

    I had forgotten how much I loved that book when I first read it in high school. I’m going to have to whip out my copy of Rebecca this weekend.

  89. Taylor

    On the whole “why you read a book” and “strong opening” theme I must make an embarrassing admission. I OFTEN judge a book by its cover. I know it’s shallow. It’s not the only reason I read a book. Sometimes I read a book because I hear a lot of good things about it, but 90% of the time the cover is what draws me to the book. The way I see it is that a publisher will give a good book a good cover and a bad book a bad cover. Surprisingly, this logic has rarely failed me.

    As far as the opening goes, it’s what keeps me reading. Usually if I’m bored by chapter 3 I give up. Usually I stay around a while longer because of interesting characters. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, my favorite book of all time, is an excellent example of this. Edmund Dantes fascinated me from the beginning. If I love a character easily then I usually stick around. This isn’t the safest method, however, because sometimes I hate a book because of how things ended up for the character I loved.

    Now that I think about it I could go into great detail about why I read an entire book, but I feel I’ve talked enough.

    Great discussion.

  90. E.A. West

    After reading this discussion, I no longer feel so bad about writing less than explosive beginnings. A lot of what I write starts out slowly, because that’s what fits the story. When I write a beginning that grabs the reader (I hope), it’s because the story calls for it.

    Obviously, it all goes back to the story. I’ve read books with exciting beginnings that fell flat after the first chapter, and I’ve read books with slow beginnings that I couldn’t put down. So, to echo many others, I say write the beginning that fits the story whether it grabs readers by the throat or gently eases them into the story.

  91. Adaora A.

    @mlh- My cosmo has arrived. It’s just the way I like it. Even Vod, and even cran. Thanks hun!

  92. Anonymous

    Aaaaahh — Rebecca. Love the opening and the way it establishes tone, draws readers in to Manderley with the same sense of mystery and anticipation that the narrator has when she first sees it.

    I also love that the protagonist has no first name. She defines herself by the way others refer to her: as “the second Mrs. De Winter.” The technique makes her predicament even more compelling.

  93. Nathan Bransford

    And of course I have to brag that REBECCA is a Curtis Brown book.

  94. Diana

    Nathan, you’re making that up. Is it, really?

    Taylor, there was an entire discussion on the BookEnds blog about what makes someone pick up a book.

    As I mentioned there, I work in a library, and I can tell you that the best way to kill the circulation of a novel is to get rid of the paper cover.

  95. superwench83

    Obviously, it all goes back to the story….I say write the beginning that fits the story whether it grabs readers by the throat or gently eases them into the story.

    Perfect! That’s exactly it!

  96. Nathan Bransford


    Sure is. We’ve been around since 1914 and have represented some amazing books over the years. In the New York office you can see the original ledger that has the royalty records and everything. Pretty amazing.

  97. lk

    You guys need to read “My Cousin Rachel” and “Scapegoat”. I think they were even better than “Rebecca”. Scapegoat starts a little slow and perhaps implausible, but more than makes up for it later.

  98. Diana

    Nathan, that is really cool.

  99. cs

    Hi Nathan,
    Thanks for throwing such a knowledgeable contest! I enjoyed reading everyones first pages, and your insightful comments later.
    I love your blog and I’ve linked to it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of writing with us, especially your take on the critical first page.

  100. Anonymous


    Yes, Scapegoat is brilliant. As is My Cousin Rachel. Daphne du Maurier rarely misstepped – a star in the sky of words.

  101. Lynne

    This reminds me of some comments I got at the critiquing portion of a hero’s journey workshop. After reading the first pages, some attendees said, “But we don’t know where this is going– the hero hasn’t answered the call to action yet!”

    I was thinking, “Well, the little dude is 10 years old. Can we give him a moment before he sells himself into slavery?”

  102. northwest lurker

    Nathan, Thank you for the contest! I’m trying to read all the first pages (only a quarter of the way through) but there are a lot of great openings. I wouldn’t mind reading the majority of the books.

    I hope this means that your readers are more skilled than the average slush pile submitter and not that my standards are easy to meet.


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Hi, Iโ€™m Nathan.ย Iโ€™m the author ofย How to Write a Novelย and theย Jacob Wonderbarย series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and Iโ€™m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams.ย Let me help you with your book!

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