I have to tell you about a rather inspired and very enlightening contest, which recently asked aspiring writers to share their novel’s “Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph.” Up for grabs was an impressive Grand Prize, the opportunity to have an agent consider your manuscript. Wow. Offered up by Nathan Bransford, a children’s author, one-time literary agent for Curtis Brown and blogger extraordinaire, the contest drew roughly 900 entries, which were posted for all to see. And that was the best part. Nine hundred beginnings. Nine hundred authors trying their damnedest to hook you with a handful of words. I heartily encourage you to give it a read through. You may discover what I did. (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2013/02/the-5th-sort-of-annual-stupendously.html)
It was eye opening, reading paragraph after first paragraph. What does it say to you? Where do those first words take the reader? Does the first paragraph describe the setting? Are you placed right in the action? Is the voice of the main character your introduction to the world? With so many different beginnings, many trends popped up. Pitfalls became quickly obvious and clichés were exposed to the sun. In between, there were some great stories, that had only just begun, by some talented new authors. I found it riveting reading and very, very sobering.
After reading the first two hundred, I suddenly gained a true appreciation for what agents and publishers go through. I found myself, after the first two sentences, deciding if the book was ‘for me’ or not. It was just that quick.
Crap-in-a-hat! If that could happen to me in such a short amount of time, imagine an agent, with years in the business, flipping through the slush pile. My god! That story better impress right out of the gate. Not that I didn’t intuitively know that already, but I can tell you it made a big impression on me and had me reexamine my own book’s beginning with new vigor.
Nathan said, “A first paragraph is a surprisingly important part of an entire novel, because it has to do so much. It eases the reader into the novel. But the reader literally has no idea where they are. The paragraph has to carefully guide the reader through the paragraph and into the world of the novel. Flow is important, crucial details are important, and voice is important.”
At no other time had that been so apparent to me. How did my first paragraph stack up? Had I done a good enough job on the first chapter overall? Well, my entry, which you will see around the #216 mark, was disqualified. Technically, my first paragraph had been two sentences, simply for dramatic effect. That didn’t stop me from completing the thought with the ‘rest’ of the paragraph after hitting the ‘return’ button. XXX BUZZ XXX Hey, that’s two paragraphs, mister. I lose.
But honestly, I won. I decided I could do better yet. After the contest ended, I completely rewrote the beginning of my story, taking every bit of insight I’d gleaned and put it to use. I am so much happier with the chapter as a result. Nathan’s fun little contest really forced me to work harder on perfecting my story’s beginning and will no doubt make me a bit more understanding when it comes to receiving rejections. And who knows, with all that extra effort, maybe it will just pay off in the end.
Now go read those Ultimate First Paragraphs. You won’t be sorry.