More on the Finalists (and the naysayers)

by | Feb 5, 2008 | Contests | 109 comments

This just in: I am not a seer.

No, really.

Long story short, some anonymous hecklers and some apparently published authors submitted their first pages in the contest, and since they were not chosen as finalists, they feel that this means that either a) I’m an idiot, b) the publishing process is broken, and/or c) well, I’m sure there may have been a c but I deleted their comments because I loathe anonymous snark (as opposed to the anonymous Miss Snark, whom I love).

First of all, don’t you know that Spencer is the enemy? Why are you targeting me?

Second of all, welcome to publishing. Pull up a chair. I hope you’ll stay awhile. It’s an interesting place.

For the people who apparently believe agents should divine the publishing prospects of a work based solely on the first page of said work: uh, that’s not really how it works actually. Over 20 publishers passed on A WRINKLE IN TIME when they had the whole manuscript in their hands, let alone just the few words that came after “It was a dark and stormy night.” Publishers passed on [insert any bestseller and/or classic book here] a bunch of times. This is a subjective process in which many wonderful books are passed on. Publishing is all about matching up the right book with the right agent and the right editor at the right time. Even if an agent or editor passed up on the next huge book, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid — they might just not have been the right fit. Enthusiasm and fit are everything.

But wait, you might say: don’t agents try and divine the publishing prospects of queries all the time? Yes! We do — but this is why the (admittedly imperfect) query process is in place. A query should give a sense of the overall work, whereas judging a book based on the first page is like trying to determine how awesome the Statue of Liberty is just by looking at her toenail. This is why it’s necessary to write a good query and query widely. Subjectivity is the name of the game.

So for the people who are getting worked up about a for-fun contest on an agent blog: simmer down there, hot rod. This all goes with the territory. The purpose of this contest was to find some good first pages and have fun in the process. Aren’t we having fun?

And oh by the way — how about those six finalists? Aren’t they good?

Some people requested that I speak a bit more on how I chose my finalists, so here goes. There were many awesome first pages, but I found myself drawn to a particular group, and frankly I’m very happy with the choices.

A first page really can do (basically) four things: reveal the setting, reveal the characters, reveal the plot, and/or reveal the style. There were many first pages (just as there are many wonderful books) that started off with a wonderfully evocative setting, there were many that started off with wonderful characters, an intriguing plot and/or an interesting style. You could find all sorts of wonderful books that start with a combination of one, two, three, or four of these elements (ATONENMENT, for instance, begins with a fascinating character, Briony, organizing a play with McEwan’s intricate style).

For the purposes of this contest, perhaps because we’re judging the first page and ONLY the first page, I, personally, found myself drawn to works that revealed all four elements.

I also found myself drawn to works with a high degree of difficulty. As I mentioned in the comments of the voting thread, at first blush, some of these finalists might seem very straightforward, but it is VERY difficult to capture a pitch perfect voice and a historical setting like Heather!Anne! did (she even used the word reckon well, which is nearly impossible to do), it’s VERY difficult to ease the reader into a world while building some spine-tingling suspense like terryd, VERY difficult to simultaneously introduce a strange futuristic world while at the same time eliciting a response like “yup, I know this family” like luc, VERY difficult to master the impeccable flow of kari’s first page and then bring a smile to the reader’s face with that dialogue, VERY difficult to elicit a sense of place like Charlotte, and such an impeccable and precisely-constructed mood like Julianne.

While I can rule out some works objectively because they’re far away from publishable quality — ultimately it’s subjective. I picked four out of 675. There were many more that were good, more that I want to see more of, and apparently a few by some excitable authors taking this contest just a tad too seriously.

I went with the ones that really struck me and that I was most enthusiastic about. And at the end of the day, that’s the way the publishing process works.


  1. Allen B. Ogey


    Surely you have too firm a grasp of the realities of authors/agents/publishing to be bothered by the nitwits?*

    Thanks for the contest.


    * (another Miss Snark fan here)

  2. pamela hammonds

    Sorry to hear your generous contest became the target of those who made it into a personal battle of wits or witlessness, as the case may be. I was planning to enter but declined after seeing some of the snarky comments circulating on writing blogs as of late–yours and others. I know it takes a thick skin to put your work out there for all to read and critique, but for me, just not into it right now. The analogy of the Statue of Liberty and her toenail was perfect. What you offered up was a free pedicure. Not the whole body massage.

  3. Linnea

    Glad to hear you deleted the hecklers. They really need to learn to suck it up. As you said this is a very subjective business. I’ve had some scathing reviews and some embarrassingly enthusiastic reviews. Writers must learn to take it all in stride. I thought your choice of finalists was superb. There wasn’t one false note among them. They all read beautifully.

  4. pjd

    You know, I have to say I don’t feel that disappointed that I came in seventh out of 675. Tied for 7th, sure, but still 7th.

    Hey, are you going to do one of those Oprah/Ellen things and give everyone in the audience a free prize now? That’d be cool.

    Thank you for running this contest. And thanks also to the intrepid bloggers who offered critiques. Anyone who takes the time to read even a dozen of the first pages and then re-read his or her own first page is bound to learn something. If they’re paying attention to something other than their own ego.

  5. Laurel Amberdine

    What I noticed about the entries is that they’re a lot… denser and slower than I expected.

    I know you said that novels didn’t have to start with shock and awe, but still. These are very different than the openings I’ve seen picked in other contests.

    I don’t mean to put anyone’s writing down — it’s largely a matter of taste, after all — but these choices were refreshing after seeing so many cute/snarky/grabby openings always get all the attention.

    Thanks again. I hope the anonymous jerks don’t detract too much. There are a lot more appreciative people out here, even if they don’t put quite the energy into expressing their thanks.

    (Very cute, pjd.)

  6. Usman

    Nathan you are awesome for even having undergone the exercise.
    The finalists were great. And the whole process was instructional.

  7. amanda h


    I thought this was a great contest.

    As a writer, it was amazing to see the variety of the entries. Sort of like spending my day at the bookstore, picking up one book after another, trying to choose which book to buy.


    PS Have you seen the new Heidi video for “Higher”? That might cheer you up. Everything I know about the Hills, I learned from you.

  8. joey


    I don’t want to get too mushy here, but thank you very much for this contest. I’m sure I’m not alone in my tiny and somewhat insignificant praise but having a chance like this, to put myself out there was liberating. After a few deep breaths and tightly squeezing my eyes shut before I hit the enter key, I did it. Sure, it got the heart pumping a bit, but I did it. And, I’m still here.

    Everything is new to me, and you are a great teacher. Thanks for putting yourself and your experience out there for me and anyone else who happens along.

    Oh, and your runners up are all very good. I’m having a hard time picking one.

  9. John G. Goetrich

    Nathan is a total tool. I thought with him being ostensibly a male, and not in NY, that he may be one to have broken out of the current chick-fluff domination of the publishing industry.

    Put away your scarf and penny loafers, put down that latte, and regrow some stones, do something involving sweat, and (re)read some Hemingway or something.

  10. Julie Weathers

    Nathan, I’m sorry you and Holly had to become targets. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to accept being passed over, but that’s no reason to be ungracious.

    Most authors were passed by numerous agents and publishers before hitting their stride. It doesn’t mean the writing is bad, sometimes things just don’t click. I am guessing that those same authors probably did some changing during the submission process.

    People need to keep this in mind.

    Am I disappointed Paladin wasn’t a finalist? Sure. Am I surprised? Not at all. It was a learning process. I’ve seen some really good first pages here and the ones who made the final cut earned their places.

  11. Nathan Bransford

    john g. goetrich-

    Normally I delete these sorts of things, but that one was just too funny.

    And for the record, you can say anything you’d like about me, but DON’T DIS THE PENNY LOAFERS. They’re stylish AND comfortable.

  12. Anonymous

    These selections were all very very well written, and I congratulate the writers. There is a market for each of them, assuming they can carry all the pages through.

    They are smart, smooth, poignant, and two are rather clever, but they all fall into the same “feel” which I’m not a good enough writer to explain other than to say they are all “Sex in the City” while I was hoping for at least one “Sopranos.”

    You know what I mean? Something compelling, something that makes me think, something that makes my breathing slow with tension.

    Its just a different taste and market.

  13. Sumit

    It is sad to know that some authors are taking it personally. It was fun, really, and more than that, it was a great learning experience for many of us. That said, I have not yet reached at the end of the third chapter of my first ever book so I don’t have the authority to judge anyone. My choice for the winner is based solely on my reader’s instinct. I read a lot more than I write, nearly 100 books a year.

    Thanks again to Nathan and everyone involved. Have fun 🙂

  14. jgg

    Thanks Nathan, That was a ballsy retort, I respect that, perhaps you are on the way to recovery.

    Now your next assignment is to go call up some badly dressed Giants fans (know any?), pick up a case of cheap beer, and imbibe until you run out of WWF DVDs.

  15. Other Lisa


    And, uh, wow.

    The beauty of these here intertubes is that some anonymous schmoe can say he/she has a six book, multi-gajillion dollar deal, and of course that means it’s absolutely true!


    There is a mantra I’ve found myself repeating quite a lot lately – not every book is for everybody. If this were not the case, we wouldn’t need nearly as many bookshelves in stores and libraries to keep all us readers happy.

  16. Diana

    A query should give a sense of the overall work, whereas judging a book based on the first page is like trying to determine how awesome the Statue of Liberty is just by looking at her toenail.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to start looking for reasons to quote this in conversation!

    What I enjoyed about this contest was that we had the opportunity to see snippets of so many different writing styles in such a small place. While I tend to lean towards “light” and “fun” (though not without intellectual stimulation) in my own reading at the end of a long day, it doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the beauty of some of the writing showcased in this contest. Even if they didn’t fit in to the types of books I generally go for.

    If you find yourself without enough to do, Nathan, I would love to know, contest aside, which first pages sparkled enough to make you want to read more (even if they didn’t exhibit all of the amazing qualities of the Fantastic Six).

    Thank you again for this contest, for judging, and putting up with the aftermath.

  17. Nadine


    Thank you for having this contest. It was great fun to enter and wonderful to see all of the first pages!

    Sorry a few humbugs had to dampen it (I won’t call them snarks because in no way will I put them in the same category as Miss Snark).

    Thanks for handling everything so well. You are definitely a class act!

  18. ChristineEldin

    I haven’t read those comments.
    Pity some people will spoil an otherwise fun and educational outing.

    Even though I don’t read your blog every day, I’ve read enough to know that you are drawn to works such as Moby Dick and Atonement. My particular style of writing is not to your taste. So I sat this one out because I would not have known if you passed on my page because of stylistic preference or because it was flawed.

    That said, I really like all of the pages you picked. I didn’t read through six hundred first pages to compare, but I felt those six deserved a special place.

    Ahhh…what’s that I hear?
    Stilettos coming up the steps.
    A tap on the door, and the brief sound of paper being pushed under the door.
    It’s a note, Nathan. It’s addressed to you. Are you going to read it?
    Maybe it’s Miss Snark’s first page.
    What’s that I hear? Laughter?


  19. midnight oil

    You know I lurk more than I write, but I must tell you that I learned so much from this endeavor. I learned a great deal and therefore I have already won. Thank you to you and Holy, and to the other writers who put it out there. Wow…what a great job to everyone. I’m not disappointed in you for not picking me, quite the contrary. Now I know what needs to be done with my own MS. (rewrite 486) but I have a better idea now why I need this. And I can’t agree more with who you picked for finalists. Ignore the dolts please, don’t let this sour you, any of you.

  20. JKB

    I’m sorry that you had to deal with this after being such an absolute great sport.

    Thank you so much for the contest.

  21. Anonymous

    Dear Nathan,
    I am just a little unknown author.
    My writing group thinks I am wonderful. (sigh, I think they are wonderful to say so.)
    But I am still in the closet and I may stay here. After all, it is comfy and safe. I am still scared to hear my own voice, let alone let too many others hear it. It may have nothing whatsoever to offer others either. I realize this. I mean, it might, but again, maybe not.
    So I entered as a “for-fun” thing.
    Unluckily, I got criticized and had my feelings hurt. Whoops, this wasn’t quite so safe. But you, Mr. nice, made it ok, dusted me off and reassured me and others that this was indeed a just for-fun intended experience. So I wore a hat, put on some sunglasses (to simulate I was living in California too, soo hip) and a wig, and I made it through and learned lots about everything! Thank you! What a FUN experience!
    I REALLY DID learn a lot!
    I think you and Holly are wonderful.
    Someday, if I ever do come out of the closet with anything that someone else might benefit from reading (besides my very nice writers group),
    I will always think fondly of you and this contest for showing me so much (including how to delete and rise above the big bad mean people) about writing.
    In the meantime, I have learned to appreciate much better writing AND
    I am hoping for some kind of skin graft breakthrough in the near future.
    I vote for nice over snark as a professional style, though, and YOU have my vote.

  22. Jenny

    Every so often I come across an article about some genius who sent in the first five pages of classic works to agents and editors and got them back rejected. And the genius is waving this around like it’s proof that the publishing industry is flawed.

    Being a “classic” or being already published doesn’t automatically mean everyone will like it. I’ve read a lot of books I didn’t like, but someone out there liked them enough to publish them.

  23. kissmequick

    “Every so often I come across an article about some genius who sent in the first five pages of classic works to agents and editors and got them back rejected. And the genius is waving this around like it’s proof that the publishing industry is flawed.”

    Makes me wonder – do they never stop to think the agent / publisher took one look and went ‘Oh great, another copy cat, into the bin with you!’

    Anyway, well done Nathan for the stiff upper lip. Bloody good show!

    Be thankful I didn’t win – I’d have taken the ten minute call and spent the entire thing saying ‘please be my agent, please be my agent, please’

    And thanks for the contest, it was a test of nerve if nothing else.( and I got a few useful crits too) Have a free snuggle.


  24. theartgirl

    Cheers to Nathan and Holly!
    This is my favorite blog — for learning and a bit humor.

    Thanks again,


  25. Amy Nathan

    I didn’t feel bad not winning out of so many entries. We losers are in good company.

    I also realized that the entries chosen had a lot in common (to me) and showed me the subjective nature of submitting material to an agent.

    It was great, no matter what.

  26. Aimless Writer

    Oh, I didn’t know this was a find the published page-test the agent contest! I would have entered something by Mark Twain.

    There were 675 entries for crying out loud! And you picked 6…more finalists then I thought there would be and I it was great that you gave these six the showcase. I did start to read them all in the beginning but after awhile my eyes started crossing and I was having trouble propping them open.
    Kudo’s to you and Holly for plowing through them as quickly as you did. For the complainers? Sounds like sour grapes.
    Not every agent will love every book. That’s life.
    Please know most of us appreciated all your hard work and enjoyed the contest.
    Now for the next contest???

  27. Conduit

    Just a couple of points to make…

    As our host points out, this was just a fun contest. I was a finalist in a previous one, and recently one a New York editor’s ‘cover copy’ contest. Did either of those get me any closer to a big fat publishing deal?

    Not one inch. At best, the first line contest might have meant Nathan knew who I was when I queried him, but I still got rejected (in the nicest possible way, of course).

    I remember Miss Snark admonishing entrants to her last Crap-O-Meter for taking it too seriously, as if some agent or editor would see the entered pitch and come running to the author’s door.

    I had an experiment recently where I pitched the four or five WIP ideas I had to various trusted blogging friends in hopes that they would steer me to the project with the best chance of succeeding. And the result? Each one liked a different pitch, and I was none the wiser.

    Nathan stresses the subjectivity of all this, and we’d do well to pay heed.

  28. original bran fan

    Did you know that the agent for A WRINKLE IN TIME (whose initals are TR) is 82 years old and still agenting? He also sold FORREST GUMP and DELIVERANCE and the book that became the movie DIE HARD.

    Quite a diverse group of books, and none of them an easy sell! All of them passed over numerous times. But somehow, he knew.

    Sometimes agents do know! They really do.

    (and I am quite the lucky duck because TR is my agent now!)

  29. Conduit

    Damn, you’d think I’d know the difference between ‘one’ and ‘won!’


  30. Jay Montville

    Hee! You said “simmer down”! I’m totally using that the next time someone gets all worked about something they shouldn’t be all worked up about. “Simmer down there, hot rod!”

    At any rate, it was very kind of you to hold this contest*, and people who make public their annoyance at not being chosen should reconsider their choice to be writers. If they get this het up about what’s supposed to be a fun contest, I can only imagine how they react when the actual rejection letters start pouring in.

    *Full disclosure – I didn’t enter, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I do appreciate you taking the time to do this, nevertheless.


  31. Bonnie

    Wait, you mean I was supposed to take this seriously?

    Oh dear. Too late now, I guess. I’ll have to settle for having fun, enjoying a lot of cool pages, and finally getting off my duff and starting to think about submitting something. I got some great feedback (thanks Kari!) and feel much better about my writing and the publishing world. Even if it does mean more rewriting in the near future.

    So thank you again for running the contest. I can’t believe how generous and gracious you manage to remain under considerable provocation.

  32. Anonymous

    Oh, crud. I’m published but I didn’t enter a published first page in the contest only a WIP, was I not supposed to enter having had a book published?

    If so, I’m sorry.

    I love Nathan’s contests because by reading others’ works it helps me define what I would’ve done differently, or could improve on. It’s fun.

  33. Steve

    I went with the ones that really struck me and that I was most enthusiastic about. And at the end of the day, that’s the way the publishing process works – Nathan

    Amen to that. Anyone who does not recognize the subjective element had best move on to another endeavor.

    Nathan, thanks so much for sponsoring, for your hard work and for sharing. Anyone paying attention learned a great deal. Keep up the good work.


  34. A Writers Mom

    You are a saint! I say to those of you who are puting all this time into negative energy, it is a waste of time – try possitive throughts for a change! It will take you a whole lot farther in life.
    AND, why haven’t all of you who entered this contest voted?!? Come on, Nathan has given you an amazing amount of free advise and info and spent alot of his time on this. It is your turn!
    AND,I’m with pjd – congratulations to all of the 7th place runner ups -keep writing, I need more books to read!!!

  35. Cher Gorman

    Hey, I’m not complaining. At all. I heard about the contest through the on-line newsletter from a friend, Cindi Myers just a few hours before the contest was supposed to end. I didn’t even know your blog existed until a couple of days ago.

    I thought it might be fun to enter and it was. So I posted the first page of my first pubbed novel simply because I have all the rights back and it’s not available anymore. I didn’t final but I didn’t expect to. I posted it on a lark, just for fun.

    I’ve been around long enough and received at least 100 or more rejections through the years so I know how “subjective” this business is. I’ve grown teflon skin so rejections just bounce off me now.

    Thank you for having the contest and I hope you’ll do one again soon.


  36. Ulysses

    Funny. I’ve always read that, in order to become a published writer, you must develop a thick skin. “Sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not that your baby’s ugly. It’s just that she ain’t as pretty as all these other ‘uns.”

    How can anyone have become published without hearing that at least once? How can anyone have become published without having heard that and learned to think, “Oh well, there’s always the County Fair.” (read: next market/agent/contest).

    You win some. You lose a lot. Get used to it. Don’t shoot the judges because those particular people don’t find braided ear-hair attractive on an infant. Suck up the disappointment and call the Guinness Book people. They love that stuff.

  37. Maya Reynolds

    Nathan: I reacted to BobAgain’s emails yesterday, offering a comment that responding unprofessionally and emotionally is one of the reasons that agents don’t offer personalized feedback with their rejections.

    Shortly afterward, I got an email, telling me I had received a postcard from “a friend” and giving me a link where I could read the postcard.

    Because I’m a naturally suspicious soul and because the email looked incredibly amateurish, I took appropriate precautions. That email was a nasty piece of work.

    Keep up the good work and ignore the sick and bitter people out there.

  38. Michael Reynolds

    Second of all, welcome to publishing. Pull up a chair. I hope you’ll stay awhile. It’s an interesting place.

    Thanks. I will.

    I was not trying to start trouble. I was trying to start a conversation on a topic of importance to all of us in the business. I apologize for hijacking the thread. (I posted anonymously precisely because I didn’t want to look like I was trying to poach your readership.)

    I don’t apologize for suggesting that there may be something rather inefficient about the current system, or for suggesting a way to fix the system. With all due respect, Mr. Branford, I have some standing for offering criticism.

  39. heather! anne!

    I wonder how different the presidential campaigning leading up to Super Tuesday would have been if the candidates would have united under the banner declaring Spencer the enemy. Number One Threat To National Security: Spencer Pratt.

  40. Heidi the Hick

    Nathan, this is an excellent post. I really appreciate your fairness!

    This has been an excellent opportunity for learning. I can totally see what attracted you to your selections, but it still helped to have it spelled out.

    Thank you, and Holly, for putting this together!

    (I mean it, thank you so much, because I really can’t afford to go to university for this and I’m learning SO MUCH!)

  41. Heidi the Hick

    One more thing- thanks for silencing the anonymous hecklers.

    I say this despite refusing to divulge my surname and hiding my face behind my hand…

  42. Anonymous


    Another “lurker” here with a quick question: I’ve recently sent you a query, but I seem to be having problems with receiving email. I would hate to miss out on a partial request or helpful rejection letter just because my email went on the blink. I have an alternate address, but hesitate to resend my query. Any suggestions on how I can find out without “spamming” my query to you?

    I also just wanted to say “congrats” on running a great contest and for your blog in general – learned a lot.

    To those that give you flack because of the finalists – pfft! I’ve given several chapter reviews to different authors and it all comes down to one thing: either they want to learn or they want to be told that their work is perfect.

    “Sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not that your baby’s ugly. It’s just that she ain’t as pretty as all these other ‘uns.” – lol Definitely agree with that entire post of yours. Right on, and write on!

    Oooo – as soon as I push the button, I’ll be a published commenter! Yay!

  43. Nathan Bransford

    Michael Reynolds-

    Thanks for posting non-anymously. But which anon were you? There were so many.

    And if you’re the published writer (or even if you weren’t) — even with all that I said in the OP, you really should know that you were on both Holly’s and my short list and were one of the last two or three left off.

  44. rogue gardener

    Still Life With Flowers—-
    For such a short bit to be so intense, really draws the reader in!!! It feels like you in the room with them!Loved it!

  45. Anonymous

    Nathan –
    Thank you for your quick response to my query question.

    As for your “vacation”, I’ve seen how you’ve relaxed the past couple of days. You’ve been busier than a one-legged man in butt-kickin’ contest! What was it, some 675 entries? The story beginnings would all be one big blur to me!

  46. mlh


    Sorry you’re getting lambasted for having a contest that was supposed to be fun. I know I got quite a frank comment about my first page on another site and was able to take it calmly –I only went through one box of tissues, yay me.

    I hope this won’t sour you in having another contest, all in the name of fun.

    As for the hecklers, Nathan, just don’t taze anyone, Bro.

  47. Adaora A.

    Aww Nathan I’m sorry to hear about the immaturity and disgusting nature of people.

    People just need to develop a thicker skin Nathan. Everyone has their own tastes and you said it yourself it would be a hard choice to make. The chances were slim for everyone with that many entries. People should be grateful you – a real agent- actually got a look at their first page and for a second considered it. At least, I know I was, and am. Thanks for the chance by the way. It was a major feat, and I appreciate it, you, and Holly.

    I was on the blueboards and someone said they’d gotten an e-jection from you. All I could think was. you’re running this contest, AND still replying faster then agents without these sorts of contest? What are you made of? What are you drinking? Can I have some since I work, and go to school, write, and am damn tired at the end of everyday?

    I am however happy to see your humour still intact. Oh yes, I am aware that Spencer is the enemy I mean, who decorates a flat without the imput of girlfriend/fiancee?

  48. Michael Eckert

    Nathan said: 675 beautiful first pages stand before me.

    675 first pages who were fierce and who made it work and who cried whenever I asked them tough questions, because that is the best way of advancing in America’s Next Top Model I mean Surprisingly Essential First Page. But only six can continue on in the hopes of becoming America’s Next Top Surprisingly Essential First Page.


    I don’t remember seeing Nathan say “A lot of these suck.”

    Nathan is an agent. Agents choose what they like and what they believe they can sell to a publisher. This is, after all, their job. Another agent would have picked differently. It is speculation on each individual agent’s perspective.

    This is why you query different agents, to find an agent that fits your particular style and voice.

    Oh, and Nathan? I had lunch with John Grisham yesterday. He was so distraught that you didn’t choose his entry he went directly home to roll around in his vault to reassure himself. 😉

  49. Erik

    People, I’m as disappointed as anyone else, and I’d rather not go into the details. That just doesn’t seem important here.

    I come here to learn about the industry, and my big issue here is that I don’t understand enough to be able to learn.

    Would I like to be a published author someday? Sure, it seems like a great way to earn an income, nice work if ya can get it. But I’m also working on a “Plan B” to pursue that route while I wade through what happens here and try to gain insite into the publishing world. I certainly don’t plan to pay my mortgage off of it in the near future, however

    While I don’t understand what’s happened well enough to have that insite in hand, I’m still thankful that we had the contest and I really do appreciate the hard work that went into it. I guess I didn’t say it directly before, since it sounded too toady, but now that I’m out I should:

    Thanks, Nathan, I do appreciate it. I just can’t understand it yet.

  50. Anonymous


    Gawd! Have we heard enough effusive gushing yet? A relatively few people post detracting comments, that’s life, get over it.

    It’s this board that needs to develop some thicker skin – I thought writers were supposed to revel is contrariety.

  51. Scott

    A lot of good came out of this contest:

    * We got a glimpse into an egent’s slush pile and what it’s like t slog through so many submissions, including quite a few that are really good, and try to pick just a few.

    * Nathan’s explanation of how the finalists were chosen gave us even deeper insights into his decision process and into what makes a good opening.

    * We were reminded that, if given a choice between acting professional and, well, not so professional, it’s clear which is more likely to work in our favor.

    * I looked closer at my story as a result of digging out the first page, and might finally have found the answer to my missing cool-factor. Unfortunately, I was mid-total-rewrite when I shelved the project to work on something else, so now I have to start a new rewrite, which will distract from the something else.

    All because Nathan was generous enough to let us to have a little fun at his expense…

  52. Sam Hranac

    Great contest. Well run. Thank you. Screw the rest.

  53. David

    But . . . but you can’t see the Statue of Liberty’s toenail, can you? My vague memory is that the robes cover her feet.

    Not that this is relevant to anything, but now this is going to bother me all day. Otherwise, it’s a great analogy.

  54. Vinnie Sorce

    It was a great contest and I guess it does work both ways. You critique people and they can’t handle it and then they critique you back however you can obviously handle it.

    I’m very interested now not being a finalist because I queried you after the contest ended with that first page as part of my work. It will be ironic to get asked for a partial or full manuscript and not be a finalist… 😉

  55. Ryan Field

    I entered my first page from a short story that was published by Alyson Publications two years ago; just for fun…because this contest was just for fun. And I liked all of the finalists, too.

    Actually, I liked some of them better than my published page. Now, Dude, that’s subjective 🙂

  56. Dave F.

    About three years before I retired from work, I was Lead Auditor for a certification effort (an ISO 9000 or 14000 type certification.) AFter one week of audits by 25 people and myself, we had 400 audits – 12 pages each.

    That’s a pile of paper about two foot high.

    Now how did I summarize them?
    a) sort the audits as passed or failed
    b) record all wrong answers by question number
    c) copy out all comments.

    You start at the top and when you are done with one audit, you go to the next. And you sit there and do that. I finished the pile and prepared the draft report in two days. That was, 400 times 12 = 4,800 pages, thirty questions and 50 deficiencies to be fixed.

    Reading 675 first pages and sorting what they feel are the best is not that hard.

    And Nathan’s criteria A first page really can do (basically) four things: reveal the setting, reveal the characters, reveal the plot, and/or reveal the style.
    makes that job easier.

    It’s a technique you can learn and trust to work. And it won’t take a week to finish.

  57. cyn

    boo on a few bad apples who always want to ruin fun! truly, thank you for doing what you did, nathan. the rest of us learned and GOT something out of it.

    the others who didn’t — *points at tiny x at right hand corner of browser* — click on that. yo. it’s the beauty of www. you don’t have to be here.

    i just met an editor at a conference that said he passed on the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. oops.

    think of all the agents that said no to harry potter. double oops times a million.

  58. David

    Well, son of a gun!

    Clearly, with toenails like that, it must be a great statue!

    I’ve seen the statue from a boat doing a harbor tour, so I couldn’t see her feet.

    (Pictures here, for anyone who cares.)

  59. Roxan

    I, personally, can’t wait for the next contest. I find myself learning something new each contest. I don’t enter them thinking of winning anything. I don’t see that happening, but it lets me compare others writing to mine.
    I would like to see a contest where you force every one out of their comfort zone.

  60. mkcbunny


    It delights me to see your always good-humored responses to potentially stressful situations and negativity. Seems to me a great asset to have in an agent. That sounds like ass-kissing, but I do mean it. Carry on!

    Thanks for the contest, and thanks to Holly.

  61. Anonymous

    Any one who can use hot rod in a sentence is okay by me! You crack me up.

    Would I have picked the same six pages you did. . .probably not but isn’t diversity of perspective a wonderful thing.

  62. Words In, Words Out

    And looking at those toes, I can predict there’s something absolutely amazing above them. Great analogy Nathan!

  63. nerds

    Penny loafers

    For the art


  64. dimitry papkov

    To Michael Reynolds.
    No offence, dude, but your posts here and on your blog (yes, I read it) are full of inconsistencies and innacuracies. I will touch only one issue.
    First, I have to say that I liked your entry. More than some of the finalists (can’t say ‘more than most’ since I haven’t read most). That being said, ‘I liked’ is the key phrase here. Your assumption that simply because your first page is a part of a published work it is automatically better than the rest of the entries (some by published authors, by the way) is presumptuous and condescending. As a multi-published author you probably know that there always will be readers/critics/agents/editors (take your pick) who won’t like your work. Authors, even more successful than you (*cough* Dan Brown *cough*) can attest to this.
    So, congrats on your success. Good luck and take it easy,

  65. Morgan Dempsey

    Some people just have no sense of fun.

    Besides, they were already published. What the hell do they have to prove? Perhaps they should look at themselves and figure out why unpublished work got picked over their own?

    Some folk just need to lighten up. Good on you for having this contest 🙂

  66. Morgan Dempsey


    Spencer’s last name is Pratt?

    Good Lord, that answers everything.

  67. Jessica

    I agree with those who have said that maybe you should nudge folks out of their comfort zone for the next contest (whenever you’ve recovered from this one!). If everyone is writing from the same prompt, something original for the contest, then there should be no cause to complain that, ‘Well, everyone ELSE who has read it LOVED it!’

  68. Silver Spider


    You didn’t choose my entry.

    Therefore you are as hopeless as a chocolate ipod.

    Only joking!!!!

    The contest was fun and the winners are quality writers.

    Thanks to you and Holly for all the work you’ve put in. I’ve learned a lot from everyone.

    The whining minority should get over themselves.

    When you gonna do a first chapter contest??

  69. Emily

    To Nathan: thank you for such a fun contest. I think we all learned that being an agent involves a lot more work than anyone supposed. (Soo… much… reading…!)

    To Bad Losers & People taking this Seriously: no more whining. Stop biting the hand that could represent you someday.

  70. Ulysses

    Nathan, I have a few questions.

    How many queries do you normally receive in a week? According to your Jan 2 stats post (and some math), it’s around 6, with a partial requested roughly once a week. I don’t know whether that sample is representative. (In the 90’s, rejections from Asimov’s SF Magazine used to state they received 3000 fiction submissions a month. I think Isaac died of eyestrain).

    Out of that, how many do you pass over purely because the queries betray a basic lack of facility with the English language?

    Why do I ask? Figuring the odds keeps me amused and hopeful.

    And what’s wrong with a chocolate iPod? Of course, I wouldn’t pay full price…

  71. Nathan Bransford


    I don’t keep exact counts, but I usually receive several hundred queries a week. Of those I’ll probably request between zero and ten partials, depending on the week and the quality of the work. About half of those aren’t very close at all, a quarter are good but not quite good enough, and another quarter are very good. Out of those ones that are very good, I request the handful that strike me.

  72. Michael Reynolds

    This will be my last comment here because I sense that I am abusing Mr. Bransford’s hospitality.

    But let me answer you on this. An agent’s job is to make money for his agency. This is a business. Companies that don’t understand that end up being swallowed by companies that do. (There’s a reason the industry has consolidated.) And I assure you that Curtis Brown is very interested in making a profit and hope that Mr. Bransford will sign some bestselling talent.

    I don’t for a minute deny that a love of writing is a part of it. But it’s silly to accept the notion that Mr. Bransford — or any agent — is hired to express his own personal tastes.

    Let’s take an obvious example. Say JK Rowling had approached Mr. Bransford with her first book. Do you suppose the Curtis Brown company would have been happy if Mr. Bransford turned it down on grounds that it wasn’t to his personal taste? Bear in mind that whoever represents Ms. Rowling made not millions, but tens, maybe even hundreds of millions.

  73. P.G

    I am just happy I got someone to read a first page about an evil stuffed Mole toy 🙂
    Yes, I would have been totally jazzed if I made the top 6 but hey thats life. I wont cry over it, I will just work on it more.
    Why someone thought it a smart idea to send in first pages of already published works, just makes me wonder if they acutally wrote them or just copied it 🙂

    Hope you do run a few more of these zany contests!
    Cant wait for the next episode of Lost!

  74. sex scenes at starbucks

    This whole contest made me giggle because when I buy books I never look at the first page, but I open to a random spot in the middle. Next time let’s have a middle-of-the-book-page contest!!

    Oh, and Nathan, that was the nicest scolding I ever read.

  75. Ulysses

    Well, that answer certainly puts “I love good books” into perspective. You’d have to love them in order to comb through “several hundred queries a week” looking for one.

    Of course, the other possibility is that you’re insane. Luckily, it’s a functional insanity and you’ve integrated well into society. 8)

    Thanks for the information.

  76. Dimitry Papkov

    Michael, you are right. This is business. It all comes down to the agent thinking he can sell the ms. As another agent commented on AW (he was an editor before) — he prefers being agent because he can choose to represent books he likes, books he would have passed as an editor because of house style, policies etc. Eventually, this is still subjective (apart from the obvious garbage). If I am not mistaken there are several agents/editors biting their hands for not agreeing to take on ‘Da Vinchi Code’ and ‘Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone’.

  77. MJ

    People have said this already, but I don’t mind repeating it. Part the existence of this blog probably has to do with PR, but you didn’t need to sift through 675 first pages of variable quality in order to get that. So really, thank you for giving us all a chance to look at what grabbed you as a reader and as a literary agent; moreover, you also gave all of us a chance to see that there are 675 (and more!) different ways of writing a first page; and of course we all learned so much from it because we saw what works and doesn’t work.

    I am not really surprised that some people started bashing your taste and also the entire selection process. But that’s also because I am no longer surprised when people are rude idiots. I mean, anonymity itself indicates the person is afraid to take credit for their statement. But — thank you for bringing us all back down to earth with your post. And I hope that those vicious comments don’t dissuade you from doing another contest!

  78. mj

    I noticed some comments tended toward criticizing the selections that were chosen as being too “chick-litty” (I am wondering if these people just read the first selection and then ignored the rest??). The finals included (seemed like young adult) science fiction, mainstream fiction, juvenile fiction, etc. It seems to me like several people are hinting at the broader question of “literary” fiction as opposed to, well, any other fiction. I always like to tell people who think literary writing is the only kind of writing that deserves to be out there to try and sit down and write one of those “poorly-written” mainstream fiction. It’s hard work. Seriously.

    So please, let’s stop with the elitism and try to appreciate those first pages for what they are trying to do versus what we think they should be doing. Several people said they wanted to read, for example, luc’s book even though they weren’t even fans of the genre. This should really indicate to us that genres are just categories used to facilitate organization at a bookstore, not indicators of “good” versus “bad”.

  79. thegirlinthecarthatgotaway

    Well, darn.
    Mine was all about the fifth element!

    and here comes that loominous space ship boy, full speed ahead!

  80. Chro

    I think this whole debate is based off of one belief: agents aren’t human. They don’t have preferences or quirks, and for god’s sake, they don’t have an opinion! Subjectivity? Bah! Any agent worth his salt should have critiquing down to an exact science which meshes with every other RESPECTABLE agent on the market.

    Nathan, you should be ashamed of yourself. Clearly “It was the best of times” + “Call me Ishmael” = Profit.

    …either that, or it equals an answer on your machine that says: “Call me! It was the best of times! -Ishmael”

  81. thegirlinthecarthatgotaway


    Although the sound track really worked for the movie, The Fifth Element,

    it really bombed as a background music for our Thanksgiving dinner.

  82. Kathleen

    good on you, Nathan. where is that morale meter? cheers

  83. Neptoon

    Aloha Nathan,

    Perhaps some contestants reached disgruntlement because you made the prizes for winning too big…too important!

    Next time only offer to let the winner leave a message on your answering machine. Or, instead of accepting a partial, only offer to read the lucky winner’s second page. Decrease the monetary reward! Don’t give away one of your client’s books…let the winner read its first page.

    Lower the contest stakes and you’ll lose the ego flakes.

    Again mahalo for the great contest and the continuing education. Your bag of poi is in the mail.

  84. Cam

    Too funny! I do the same as “sex scenes at starbucks” and don’t read the first page when buying a book, but flip to the middle to guage the writing, feel, etc.

    I knew my entry wouldn’t win but participated for the fun of it. In all honesty, my entry wasn’t even from my current WIP but from a whimsical, last-minute idea I had and decided to write up as a creative writing exercise the week of the contest =). I enjoyed the contest; loved seeing what others are doing with their writing. Enjoyed some valuable lessons about marketing aspects of querying and writing a novel.

    Also, as we say in the newspaper biz, you know you’re writing (or doing) something worthwhile when readers pipe in to complain. Take the naysayers as a compliment!!

    Good going Nathan. Next one could be along the lines of what “ssas” suggested, only modified further — how about a “paragraph from the middle of the book” – 100 words maximum?


  85. Anonymous

    Oh No! I looked up the dictionary link to “Pratt!”

    Yikes and I have dislexia:

    Basically someone who’s on a major DIET, or is delusional and dumb. Acts against logic… and thinks their dumbass is too big….

    n. English term, primarily used in United Kingdom. The literal meaning is “bottom” or “rump”; aka backside, buttocks, sacrum, tail end.

    TOO BIG!! OH NO!!!

    Had to stop reading there.


    will the innocent please get out from under the table,

    dusting self off

    ok, I see what you mean about it being ALL Spencer now!

  86. Angela


    Here’s a big thank you for your knowledge, humor and contests!

    You rock!


  87. nerds

    I wrote mine right off the top of my head in 45 minutes when I heard about the contest, with zero expectations. I hit submit right away, I didn’t look at it nor redraft. I’m not a fiction writer, I work in non-fic.

    To me this was an exercise, fun, challenging. I enjoyed comparing the entries I read with the first pages of the fiction books I’ve favored over the years, and what I found is that the same things which held up 60 years ago still do today.

    I think we need to be able to care, early on. Whether it’s humor or pathos or irony or voice, something needs to make us care, regardless of genre.

    I don’t understand the naysayers, because agents are human beings. What arrests Nathan as he reads a query or first page may not arrest the agent in the next office and vice-versa.

    Are we not all readers? Isn’t this the common link? To me it’s not that hard to understand the subjectivity in publishing, nor anywhere else in the arts. Do you see deep things in Jackson Pollack? Do you only see splatters?

    Does Dan Brown drive you nuts, or is he a good escapist read?

    How creepy would it be if everyone had the same reaction to every single thing. Viva la difference.

  88. Adaora A.

    People need to develop a thicker skin. I must confess myself suprised that published authors – those considered ‘professional’
    and ‘calm’ in these matters- actually flipped out over it all.

    They can’t get into contact with Spencer so they are going after you. Remember your earlier posts Nathan? Why don’t you just yell “sweet, now get out of my car.” It’s not like you owe them anthing.

  89. Kate

    A baking contest is subject to the judges’ tastes too. I don’t think it’s fair to the six finalists to go on about how unjust the selection process was. Well done all of them. I’ll probably still be trying to pick just one when the voting closes, assuming it hasn’t already. And Nathan and Holly too, donating all of that time. After all, I didn’t see an entry fee anywhere.

    Of course I was too chicken to enter, so I suppose I don’t have that bruised ego to contend with.

  90. Kylie

    Hey Nathan!

    I’d just like to add that yes, publishing is a very subjective industry. After all, how many of us would have not wanted to read Harry Potter? (Personally a fan, but I know there are people who loathe it) There is definitely a difference in opinion, and that’s part of what makes writing and reading such emotional, stimulating activities.

  91. Dr K

    Thanks for a cool bit of fun.
    The whims and vagaries of publishing look like chaos theory to most of us — and we accept the pinball nature of it all — and work to strengthen our odds through superb queries and research, on top of the writing craft.
    But your obvious love of writers and encourgement — through contests such as this — are very much appreciated.
    Karmic spin at ya, bro!
    –Gregory Kennedy

  92. lynne

    John G. Goetrich said…

    …Put away your scarf and penny loafers, put down that latte, and regrow some stones, do something involving sweat, and (re)read some Hemingway or something.
    Nathan, you keep your penny loafers, and I’m sure a scarf would be quite fetching.

    No comment about the stones.

    Ok, just one comment: they’re made of titanium.

  93. Anonymous

    Nathan, I’m ready to be crucified for this. Hell, I’m even ready to be crucified for my use of the word crucified. But I think it was a little weak of you to delete the anonymous “hecklers.” I understand deleting people who are just trying to be abusive or disruptive, but deleting reasoned criticism does more harm than good and also shows a bit of insecurity in my opinion. (If these truly were just disruptive or abusive comments, I apologize for misunderstanding what happened).

    With that said, you did everyone who entered a favor (even if there were potential benefits to you) and I for one appreciate the favor. We all agreed to have you and Holly judge our paragraphs, and until it comes out that Luc was secretly taping the ghost of Stanislaw Lem during pre-game warm ups or that one of the contestants is really your transvestite half-uncle, I don’t know what the big deal is.

    I do think the publishing process is seriously flawed. (Because I watch the Wire, I also realize it’s nothing new for an institution.) I know I have a very hard time finding new books that connect with me and don’t have similar difficulties in other media. I’ve also been surprised at the lack of publishing (and a variety of media) to take advantage of the writer’s strike. All in all, there’s probably a lot of work to be done from every angle, including from the writers.

  94. Anonymous

    quoting other anomaly,um anonymous:

    yeah, baby, what’s the blog deal?

    (whoops, dis-lexia strikes!! again!)

    And about those penny loafers, do they come in colors and yes, admiring the nice fit too… Are they official NB??? Even nicer! Where can I buy a pair.

  95. Nathan Bransford


    I didn’t delete any responsible anonymous posts (just like I’m not deleting yours), just the ones that I felt were needlessly negative and/or unproductive, particularly the ones where people used their anonymity to take potshots.

    Managing threads these size is not easy — things can devolve quickly, and I’d rather just head things off before things get nasty. Anonymity shouldn’t be an excuse for people to be jerks.

    In any event, sorry to hear that you don’t think the publishing process is working. I really do think that with more books published than ever before in the history of mankind… things can’t be that bad. I know it’s sometimes hard to find the gems, but there are more alternative outlets (such as the Internet) than ever. Sure, it’s an imperfect process, but I’d say we’re doing better than the Baltimore Police Department.

  96. jjdebenedictis

    Michael Reynolds said:
    [I]t’s silly to accept the notion that Mr. Bransford — or any agent — is hired to express his own personal tastes.

    Chro said:
    [T]his whole debate is based off of one belief: agents aren’t human.

    I think Chro nailed it. A person who is capable of spotting really excellent literary fiction is not necessarily capable of spotting really great escapist-fluff–or vice versa. That’s why Curtis Brown, Ltd. employs more than one agent. No one person is sensitive to every type of saleable writing.

    Anon 8:19AM said:
    Gawd! Have we heard enough effusive gushing yet?

    Dude. I made this (fun, but misguided) offer to critique people’s pages, and as a result, I read over 1/6th of the entries. You would not believe how exhausting it is to read and seriously consider that much material. Nathan and Holly deserve all the effusive gushing they can stomach; this was extraordinarily generous of both of them.

  97. Anonymous

    In any event, sorry to hear that you don’t think the publishing process is working. I really do think that with more books published than ever before in the history of mankind… things can’t be that bad. I know it’s sometimes hard to find the gems, but there are more alternative outlets (such as the Internet) than ever. Sure, it’s an imperfect process, but I’d say we’re doing better than the Baltimore Police Department.

    Um… The Baltimore Police Department competes with the publishing industry? I didn’t even know they published books.

  98. Nathan Bransford


    I see you are not a fan of The Wire. That was a joke.

  99. Anonymous

    Yes, that’s what I figured and why I chose to be anonymous. It’s hard enough not being “in” on the joke, but to be openly outed and ridiculed for it… !!!

    Though I do like the idea of the Baltimore Police Department competing with the publishing industry. Or perhaps vice versa. I bet the publishing industry might be able to catch more crooks.

  100. Adaora A.

    Thanks for a great contest.

    I hope you voted during super Tuesday Nathan. I wish I could vote but living in Canada, it’s kind of impossible. Obama all the way!

    Geez it’s 2:19 am here.

  101. tcsherf

    Nathan–Keep your chin up! Most of us really appreciate the hours you poured into this contest and others. And those who don’t ought to have their comments’ word verification privileges revoked!

    Nitwits–Ain’t life grand? You have an opportunity to enter a contest FOR FREE, show a literary agent a piece of your work FOR FREE, and receive a timely rebuke about how to correct your nitwittedy FOR FREE!

    Finalists–Way to go!

  102. Jan


    I for one am REALLY glad to have participated in your wonderful contest. I submitted my current work in progress. And this contest really opened my eyes to some wonderful ideas…

    I have reworked my first page and it has really helped the flow of my novel!

    So you are a Saint for your willingness to read all 600+ entries and give us all the oppportunity to read others great works!

    Thanks again, YOU ROCK!

  103. Jan

    And those are BIG toes …

    I’ve never had the pleasure – but someday soon I hope to be in New York meeting with agents, editors, publishers…

    Now I must get back to my re-write and finish my 2nd & 3rd WIP

  104. scouse

    “Atonement” (the book and movie) contains a fatal flaw that no-one seems to want to acknowledge. No English jury of the time would have convicted the central character of rape based on the word of a starry-eyed teen. Any lawyer would have made mince-meat of her testimony. McEwan conveniently glosses over this by moving from the country-house setting to the war. As for the movie, the New York Times called it gorgeous but inert. Too kind. I’m originally from England and saw the movie with some American friends. They found the Dunkirk sequence puzzling. “What’s going on?” they asked me. Also, these cliched war scenes evoked very little empathy among us. So I’m puzzled by your totally uncritical embrace of the book and movie.

  105. Nathan Bransford


    I guess my response is: who cares about the realities of English jurisprudence in the 1940s? It’s a great story, wonderfully written, beautifully told.

    And for the record, I didn’t love the movie. I do love the book.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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