Congratulations, Natalie. Very very well-deserved, and I think we’re all wondering what’s going to happen to those plucky ninjas. Good work!!
Another hearty round of applause to the finalists, and most of all to everyone (all 1300+ of you) who put themselves out there by posting their work. It was very difficult to choose only six out of over 1300, and there were many worthy paragraphs.
Since I posted the finalists, people have been asking me to explain a bit more about what went into my choices.
First off, I think it’s important to remember that as an agent I probably read these differently than the average reader. Judging from some responses I’ve received, I think a lot of people read these paragraphs thinking, “Which book would I want to read?” and then gravitate to the ones that begin with intriguing plots, voices or situations that speak to them. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with that at all. But that’s not necessarily how I read these — I don’t need to know everything right away. When I’m reading a paragraph (or a partial), I’m looking mainly at the quality of the writing. Is it of publishable quality? Is it seamless, are the word choices strong, is the grammar proper, am I being enveloped in this world? If the writing isn’t publishable it really doesn’t matter how much I like the underlying idea.
Plots are subjective — people have different tastes and interests. Good writing is less subjective. It’s sometimes hard to describe, pinpoint, and define, but good writing is good writing. And these paragraphs are well-written.
So a word for the snarky anonymous commenters: Even if they are outside your genres of interest, even if they describe plots you wouldn’t gravitate toward, if you can’t see that these paragraphs demonstrate good writing… well, not only are you the type of person who might leave rude comments on a blog, I would (as kindly as possible) suggest that you take a long look in the mirror. The very first step of being a good writer is recognizing good writing.
Now! Before you start getting all depressed on me, I will readily and heartily admit that I had to pass on some gems, and if you were not chosen it does not mean that you are not talented and/or will never be published. Far from it — there were lots of very strong paragraphs, and there could only be six finalists. But I am confident in the choices, and feel that they are all, in their own way, very strong.
Here’s why I chose each paragraph.
Natalie has an immediately catchy high concept plot (ninja school!) combined with a very effective voice. In particular, I really respect the second sentence: “Of course, he’s says it all ninja-like, but that’s the gist.” A paragraph about ninja school itself might make a good opener, but this sentence builds a character: the narrator’s father adopts a ninja-like voice to say something as simple as “keep it simple stupid.” Hilarious! Natalie’s paragraph also shows a deft touch by conveying a unique voice without being too chatty. It has a breezy style, but note that other than the above-quoted sentence and the word “dude,” the rest of it is not chatty. Just enough to get to sense of the voice without being over the top. Very well done.
Morgan’s paragraph balances a couple of different elements in a way that I find very effective. This paragraph packs in quite a lot of plot, but that’s not all that it accomplishes. It also conveys a keen sense of style — there’s a breathlessness to the writing that lends a feeling of importance to the descriptions. Also, normally I don’t like it when a series of unknown words and concepts are thrown at me right away, but in this paragraph they are described and named in a way that I can get a taste of the meaning and deduce enough of the world to stay within the paragraph without worrying that I don’t understand everything. And the idea of a twin within a twin…. intriguing.
Steve Axelrod (not the agent, btw) steadily builds a memorable image: a girl walking onto a Cape Cod island without knowing the effect she’s going to have. The details are evocative and memorable, and the flow impeccable. Quite a few people have asked about the closing simile. Normally I don’t care for big bold similes, but this one really works for me. It didn’t take me out of the world because everyone knows what an avalanche is, and it also, in an effective way, contrasts directly with the sun-drenched imagery. It’s also evocative to think of setting an avalanche off with a sigh. It just works.
MA’s was the shortest of the bunch, just two sentences. It wasn’t just the image of blood in the shape of a butterfly that led me to choose this paragraph. Rather, it’s the combination of an evocative opening image along with the description of the blood sparkling on the kitchen floor (two pretty descriptions that contrast with the fact that it’s blood). Plus there’s a certain casualness and distance on the part of the observing character. It accomplishes a great deal in just a few words.
Alexa’s paragraph is a study in steadily building a memorable character. Having read so many paragraphs that began with the weather (particularly bad weather), I was sucked in by the feint that the narrator is describing how the weather would be in one of her mom’s novels. Combine that with a perfectly-described and memorable fashion choice at a funeral (“defiant yellow and movie star sunglasses” just flows), and you have a sense of a very unique individual. It’s all built through imagery rather than straightforward description.
Lastly, Chris’ paragraph snuck in precisely at the Thursday 4pm deadline. It’s an intriguing setup — a group of heliophobes meeting in a strange place with some interesting animosity toward the sun. It’s the combination of a big idea (heliophobes) with small details (the z-shaped ramp, the eggs in the belfry) that makes this come alive.
In the course of reading 1300 paragraphs, certain patterns began to emerge. Now, I’m not saying you CAN’T start a book this way, but there were three prevalent patterns that kept creeping up again and again. Here are some approximations:
1) Surprising sentence. Well, not the surprising sentence per se, but rather the surprising sentence is made more complicated by the fact that it is followed, in fits and starts, by conversational prose that, in its casualness, contrasts with the shocking statement and sets a breezy tone despite the shocking statement. That is, until the reversal.
2) Small, finely rendered observation. This is followed by the particular shape of the moon or the wisps of grass and the particular temperature that still night or perfect sunset that lulls us into a sense of place and setting. And then we linger in that scene still longer to see one more even more finely rendered detail, and still another, leading us to the very thing the author seeks. That is, until the shocking statement.
3) The tough protagonist shudders against whatever bad weather they are enduring. They check their timepiece, or weapon, and go back to the task at hand. Pithy comment. It’s not easy being the tough protagonist.
Again — anything can be done properly, even a conventional setup. But unless it’s deliberate or subverted in some way, it can come off as cliched. So if your paragraph follows one of these forms, be careful!
Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who entered! I hope everyone had a good time, and I’m looking forward to having the next contest. Once I’ve recovered.