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Thursday, January 27, 2011

I've been reading...(FINISHED)

The paragraph entries for Nathan Bransford's 4th Sort-Of Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge. As of now, there are 1,515 entries.

And I've read 'em all.

Out of 1,515, I chose 204 that I would read more of. That's a 13% appeal rate. The largest "issues" I noticed:

1) Opening with the weather. Start with a character and conflict. It's much more effective.

2) Giving away too much. Stick with action. Not backstory. Doesn't have to be bombs exploding, but it does have to be a character living, not telling.

3) No voice. Lack of unique sentences. Just words, not wordplay. A so-called "compelling read" is compelling because the writer uses words in ways that are new to a reader. We've read this a million times before:

His hands were like ice.

But this:

His hands felt cold as the dead goldfish Mom kept in our freezer.

This works because it asks questions. It's unique.

4) There were entries that started with action-heavy scenes, but the sentences lacked flavor. Action does not automatically equal excitement.

5) Spelling & grammar errors. Instant turn-off, especially for manuscripts that are supposedly query-ready.

6) Starting at a place that's typical, i.e. no conflict. If you do start with the "typical", you have about three sentences to introduce something unique/unexpected that'll keep a reader reading.

7) Some entries start with something disgusting, i.e. related to bodily functions or other ailments. Also a turn-off. Maybe that's just me.

8) Passive voice. As in "he/she was", or "he/she had". I'd say, as a rule, if you have "had" or "was" anywhere in your first paragraph (or even your first SENTENCE), take 'em out. And obviously, over-use of either throughout a manuscript is a no-no.

9) Saying the same thing twice in a different way. Never repeat information unless it's 20 pages or more later - but certainly not in the same paragraph. Trust me, we know. Readers are real-good smart. 

Also check for repeated words.

10) Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong sentences. Sometimes commas are your friends. And though most would vote against 'em, semi-colons can also be handy.

11) Starting with questions. Same rule applies to queries. It's annoying. Just get on with your story...otherwise I feel like I'm taking a test.

12) Passages that start with an exclamation such as "Ahhh!!!" or something similar. To me, it's like being yelled at for opening the book. Definitely a turn-off.

13) No adverbs. Like, ever. Thanks.

14) Characters whining. It's annoying. In general, starting with a character in a negative mood is less likely to win a reader over.

15) Exclamation Points. They stand out! And not necessarily in a good way! Cause everything with an exclamation point makes it sound like you're really excited! Your words should create enough impact without. Give it a try. See what happens.

16) You. As in, referring to the reader in your narrative. Asking their opinion. Involving them in a character's life that they know nothing about. It's a turn-off for me. Think of your opening like a museum exhibit. People are there to observe. They don't necessarily want to don a Pilgrim's outfit and take part in the display just yet.

Win 'em over with your words. They'll follow.

17) Some other random trends:

People waking up
People waking up tied to a chair or in other harrowing situations
"My father/mother/uncle always told me"
Leaving husbands/wives
Describing sunlight/wind (or rain, which I've mentioned)
Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts
People moving and arriving at their new house
First day back at school
People being called "crazy"
The main character has just murdered someone
Dreams (recurring or otherwise)
Pregnancy tests

18) Specificity works. So instead of saying "she read a magazine", try "She read Guns & Ammo". There's a huge difference. Adding in brand names when appropriate - especially if you make up your own products - shows that you have some imagination.

I recommend that everyone read these entries. It's a fascinating experience.

Happy day to you,



  1. Fascinating!!! I hadn't heard of this... yes, because I was born underneath a rock (just figured I'd cover all my bases). So I'll make this wrong right and at least now I know what's expected!!!

    Golly gee whiz I'm so glad I did my entry (which is the best...yes that was subliminal messaging).

  2. Grossing out the reader with body ailments seems to be the same as trying to grab with poorly written action - it rarely works. That said there are some really good entries! I somewhat regret entering mine now after looking at the competition.

  3. Beginnings are so difficult. That said, I've got mine up on my blog. (I don't have the guts to put it up on Nathan's site.) Take a look, if you're so inclined. :)

  4. It's always an education, isn't it, looking at submissions? You see what's really interesting and what's really cliched... and they're often not the things you'd expect.

  5. I always start my novels with someone passing gas. It totally works, attracts the reader's attention every time.

    'scuse me.

  6. Great points here and I agree with you especially with the long sentences, I get about halfway if they're really long and Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.....

  7. Great observations. You could add paragraph length to it, there are some that run a whole page. :)


  8. Oh, I'll have to find some time to go take a looksie, but I liked hearing your input. It's cool to see what works and what doesn't. :)

  9. I can't believe you've read that many! I saw a few good ones but it's funny how I can find what's wrong with my own by reading other's excerpts.

  10. It's amazing what we learn from critiquing others, isn't it?

    I'm impressed over how many you've read too.

  11. That was such a great contest, wasn't it? I learned so much! I'm with you on the gross being a turn the goldfish sentence though. Made me wonder if Mom had some "issues" keeping dead pets in the freezer. 0_o
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  12. Ah...I picked out 1 thing I do in my first paragraph! (she did's...) Nards! This is great stuff though! Keep it coming!!

  13. Reading other's work is a great way to learn.

  14. I've never heard of this, but wow, you've read a lot of them!

  15. Good observations. I'm definitely with you on all accounts there. Most of those are turn-offs when I read them. Especially in the first paragraph!

  16. Woah. All that from the contest, a very good compilation of tips, I've gotta say. Opening paragraphs have never really been my strong suit, so this is really helpful, thanks!

  17. very interesting play by play! I'll have to agree w/ every one of your comments. Sometimes I think it can't be too hard to be an agent. How many good queries are you going to get? Would be kind of fun.

  18. Yep. My first para I entered = Reject. I use "was" in the first sentence and at least three other times in the paragraph :/ Oh well. Live and learn.

  19. I think I fail on the looooooong sentence front. My first sentence is 22 words long. WtH was I thinking? If it reduces my penalty, I did use commas. No one will ever read mine, though. It's just shy of 1400 on the list.

  20. I've not heard of this but your summary is a great reminder of what NOT to do in opening paragraphs. Very helpful post.

  21. Wow, you've done a lot of reading! Great observations. I agree with all of them. That first paragraph is so important.

  22. I'm pretty sure I've broken all those rules and then some. *ducking my head in shame*

    Good pointers, though. I'm still new at this and every little piece of advice helps.

  23. This is a great list. Just one quibble:

    Re: Update #2, using "was" or "had" is bland, but it is not always passive voice. People often confuse this rule. Passive voice is when you take the person / thing doing the action out of the sentence:

    The mushrooms were picked.

    Who picked the mushrooms? WHO???? You can't answer the question: passive voice allows you to hide who did the action.

    Worse yet:

    The mushrooms were picked by me.

    Now we know who did it, but the sentence isn't dynamic. "I picked the mushrooms" is much more economical.


    The mushrooms were hot.
    The mushrooms were spicy.
    The mushrooms were hallucinogenic.
    The mushrooms were deadly.

    None of these sentences is passive voice. Mushrooms are the object of the sentence, and the "were"s are a bridge to the adjective.

    Just to clarify.


  24. Love this. Am going to look over my own first paragraph now. And then all the others. And then maybe submit? Maybe edit some more :)

  25. Holy cow, this is fascinating. I can't believe you read them all! I'm going to look over my own first paragraph, and I'll look forward to hearing your further analysis! Are you going to nominate your favourites?

  26. Wow,this is excellent! Thanks so much for reading 1,200 entries, I take my hat off. ;)

    I recall at a writers group where an agent quoted a couple of opening paragraphs which they immediately switched off at: 1) Waking up drunk or hungover, and 2) Waking up after a dream.

    Interesting to note the trends in the paragraphs thus far. And thank you so much for sharing with us Elena!

  27. Great advice on an opening paragraph. I completely agree, except I'm with Elizabeth Twist on the passive voice thing. Though "was' and "had" are weak, they're not necessarily passive. I really liked the way Elizabeth explained the difference too.

  28. I bow to you for reading every paragraph. I've been through 400 now. I had a 23% positive rate when I was being lenient. When I really got picky, the survivor rate dropped to 9%. Not sure my paragraph would have survived my own scrutiny. ;)

  29. Wow, I'm impressed you read them all! What a great idea to get some thoughts on repeating problems. Such a useful list!



  30. It's impressive you read them all. I tried, but . . . nope. Great tips. =D

  31. Hi Elena! I've seen your site before (linky clicks from elsewhere I guess) and thought I was following already. Well, I've remedied THAT. Thanks for following me! Nice to meetcha.

    Whoa, woman! You read ALL the entries for Nathan's contest?? Incredible. I read or skim-read up to where I posted, which was about 200. Very eye-opening. I agree--even action wasn't necessarily "grabbing." Hmm, I don't THINK I made any of those obvious mistakes you will be really interesting to see which ones Nathan picks! Did you enter one??

    I wanted to read them all too, but just didn't have the time. ;o)

  32. This blog and all the replies are one more link in the chain to learning the craft until I get it right.

    My entry landed almost in the middle, which means most that begin and skip to the end will never see it. (laugh) Most of my life, I have been stuck in the middle somewhere.

    Your comments about the entries to Nathan's contest echo many of my feelings, but I couldn’t have said it that well.

    And thanks for the additional help with understanding passive voice. MS Word has a setting that helps with the blatant and obvious occurrences of passive voice, but Elizabeth’s comments here helped bridge the gap between Janet Reid’s blog and MS Word. I butchered a manuscript once trying to hunt down every occurrence of “was, had, been, to be, etc” and now I remind myself that advice is only a guide, never an absolute.

    Thanks for another wonderful blog to follow.

  33. Great list! I read all the entries too - I think I kept around 80+ entries first time through and then narrowed those down to 15. Hm. I am no longer surprised at some agents' 1% request rate.

    I think my entry failed mainly on these three fronts: 1) adverb (I don't agree with the "no adverb ever" rule, but yeah, the one I used wasn't necessary); 2) using past perfect tense (not passive voice but probably part of what you meant to address in #8); and 3) long sentences (self-explanatory, parenthetical unnece- GAH I bet this is why my sentences are too long!).

    Love the trend list - I noticed many of them myself as I was skimming through the entries. After a while I would skip the entire paragraph if it looked like it was about waking up/being dead/blood/violence/pregnancy test.

    But yeah, great post! :)

  34. Great list! I'm always impressed by people who are able to keep a sharp eye while reading massive amounts of submissions. Well done!

    I think the worst pitfall is to try and explain to the reader what's happened up to this point, a quick, desperate attempt at telling them without showing.

  35. It's become clear to me that the reason women aren't contributing to Wikipedia is because they're all busy reading each other's blogs and writing for themselves. Break out ladies! You all have something great to say and I can't wait until you do. (Although this is a pretty compelling post -- thanks!)

  36. Great post. I read several dozen of the entries. That was enough for me, but I was intrigued by the experience. Shorter is definitely better.

  37. When I was reading them - and I did get from beginning to end - I kept fading out after a few words. Seeing that many openings, in the same place, is always a learning experience.

  38. Awesome, awesome post. I got through about half of them before they all started to blur together. I was absolutely surprised with how many sounded exactly like others around it. I've also decided that I really don't like dialogue beginnings. They don't work. I feel completely lost and not interested at all.

  39. Wow, like a true agent. I have to admit, I tried reading them all but lost my place after 300. Your tips are great. This really helps us grow as writers, to see where we need help, and why. I will continue to follow your blog.

  40. Elena - Do you have the 204 listed/marked for our access? I am highly interested in seeing which ones you labeled "would read more of."

    Thank you for the simple, pointed tips.


  41. Glad everyone is finding these helpful so far!

    @ M Kathy Brown - I do have the list of my picks, if you want it. I don't want to post the paragraphs here, since it's not my writing, and I would not feel comfortable posting someone else's here unless I had their permission. (Besides the fact that 204 could get lengthy!) If you give me your email, I can forward the list to you.

    reach me at esolodow at gmail dot com

  42. Great analysis and I, too, am in awe of your reading stamina. I got to about 250.

    But I also thank Elizabeth Twist above. Using the verb "to be" in any of its forms is often lazy writing, but it is NOT always the passive voice. And sometimes it is absolutely required--for instance, in expressing two simultaneous actions: "He was sitting when the guy punched him" doesn't mean the same thing as "he sat when the guy punched him."

  43. Thanks for the analysis! I very, very rarely put down a book before finishing the first five or ten pages, but I might if they began like some of the other 87%.

  44. Wow, what great tips! Thanks for sharing this, Elena, and I would love to see the 204 you liked best. I'll email you.

  45. I laughed aloud at the one about exclamation points. Ha!!

  46. Thanks Elena. Priceless information.

  47. Wow! Awesome you, reading all 1500 posts! Amazing...While I agree with almost everything you said (great tips!)...being the anal person I am I went back and compared the finalists to this list. I noticed a few interesting things: 1) Two of the finalists use "was" in the first sentence. #2: There were some seriously long sentences in all the finalist's paragraphs. Now I'm commas break up long sentences enough that they don't seem so long? Or does this prove you can use as many words as you see fit as long as you say them well? Just wondering how others feel about this....

    Of course, the finalists are all Nathan's choices in particular and obviously everyone has their own lists of likes and don't likes.

    I think I'm in the "I don't care how long the sentence is as long as it's a good one" camp.

    Once more, kudos to you for compiling! I am soooo in your camp on the blood angle! Save the gross-out until chapter two, please.

  48. Did you keep a list of the 204 that you wanted to read? Just curious.

  49. Wow - great overview. And yeah, Michelle Shocked once said you can learn more about performing by watching amateur acts at an open mike than by watching the best.

    Good clarification by Elizabeth Twist about passive verbs, but “was,” “were,” and “had” are still dull words in any sentence.

    “The mushrooms were hot” could be better as “The mushrooms burned my tongue,” and “The mushrooms were spicy” could be “The mushrooms made my eyes water.”

    Even "He was sitting when the guy punched him" could be better as “The guy punched him clean off his chair.”

    “Was” and “were” are very useful, and shouldn’t be exiled from one’s work, but they don’t add much to an opening paragraph.

  50. Great advice! I salute you for reading all those entries!

  51. That's a tired old list if ever I saw one. Why not add 'starting with a letter of the alphabet.'

  52. I'm disappointed in Anonymous 0518 just above. Not everyone already knows everything; some (like me) can still learn.

    Thanks Elena. I appreciate the advice and the follow-up is helpful to me also. I'll email for your list.

  53. I agree with tonyl. Anonymous seems to be someone who knows it all. So glad you have achieved that in life, but as for the rest of us, we would like to keep learning and improving ourselves.

  54. I'll give you an example.

    Conflict implies negativity. Conflict is the essence of negativity. If you are 'conflicted' you are negative about some person or situation.

    To suggest that first paras should open with conflict (6), yet say that 'negativity' in openings is a turn off (14), is contradictory in my view.

    Second, most of these "mistakes" can be seen in some of the best and most memorable works ever published. This is fun, but don't take it too seriously.

    Write a good novel.

  55. Anonyous, how you are ironic.

    You state that “If you are 'conflicted' you are negative about some person or situation.”

    To be conflicted actually means you’re ambivalent to or resisting a situation in some way, not sure which way to go. “Should I marry Bert or Ernie? I love them both so dearly.” She’s conflicted, but she’s not negative.

    Being negative, as Elena states above, is “Characters whining." And so advices against "starting with a character in a negative mood.” That’s what she’s talking about – mood. “Bert is obsessed with pigeons. I hate birds. I hate people who can’t talk about anything but stupid birds.”

    That gets old real quick. As Elena wrote, "It's annoying."

    And yet that’s exactly what you start off with, saying “That's a tired old list if ever I saw one.” There’s your "actual essence of negativity."

    As for the rest, though, you’re right – there’s always exceptions to such guidelines, as with Catcher in the Rye starting off with “You.”

    And you certainly did liven up these comments with conflict. But please have a bit more respect for someone who read 1,500 opening paragraphs and distilled what she learned into this post for the benefit of people she doesn’t even know.

  56. And another thing. "(13) No adverbs. Like, ever."

    What the . . .? Yes, I know Stephen King doesn't like adverbs, and neither does every dreary, production line MFA, but take a look at one of your old Harry Potter books some time: adverbs and dialogue tags galore.

    That's just a silly statement.

    Just write a good story.

  57. I'm about to rework the beginning of my manuscript, and this is really helpful. Thanks!

  58. Thanks so much for sharing those pointers. And WOW you read them all!

  59. Elena, this is awesome advice! I'm gonna link back to this cuz everyone needs to read it. I especially like how you broke it down with the word choice. It's what I go back for to revise. Replacing ordinary word choices with voice.

  60. These are fantastic!! PK sent me over and I'm thankful she did. I'm bookmarking this!
    My Blog

  61. These are an excellent list. Kudos to you for taking the time to do this and share.

  62. Another blogger (PK Hrezo) posted a link to this and boy am I glad she did! Thanks for the list of what worked and what didn't.


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