Thursday, February 3, 2011

I'll Have What Nathan Liked

Nathan Bransford used to be one of the most famous agents around. (He's still around, but he's no longer an agent. He gave that gig up at the end of last year.) As an agent, he married internet savvy with a winning personality to create one of those "must-read" blogs. He was approachable, humorous, and always ready to engage writers in conversation through his forums.
Nathan Bransford
(I've always thought he was shouldering a surfboard, but now I see it's just someone's shoulder.)

He also, for the past several years, ran the "Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge" to which I linked yesterday. Today he revealed the winner, along with his comments on what makes a first paragraph work.

Since I've got you all worked up over Nancy Kress's book, I thought I'd continue the conversation by quoting what Nathan Bransford had to say on his blog this morning:
So what makes for a really good first paragraph? That's the perennial question, and one I've discussed at length in past contests. To me, it's always come down to this:

The first paragraph should establish the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.

And on that topic of flow, as inspired by Ira Glass' interview on storytelling: Good first paragraphs lead smoothly from one thing to the next.

It's hard to start a book, and it's so important to ease a reader into a new world. In order to do that, I think it's important for things to really flow well from one element to the next in order to give the reader a chance to establish their bearings.

And...... what didn't work?

Well, in general I'm wary of anything that feels forced: forced cleverness, forced wordiness, forced cheekiness, forced sagacity.... anything that doesn't feel natural and authentic. Great first paragraphs feel effortless, and of course they're anything but.

And on that forced cheekiness, there were a few common tropes that jumped out at me, both in the contest and hearkening back to my days reading queries. Among them (paraphrasing):

So and so didn't know how it all began. Well, maybe it was this very specific, pithy thing, or maybe it was this other, even pithier thing. Who could say, really?
It was one of those days. Or, rather, it seemed like it was one of those days only it wasn't one of those days.

No one would have expected this very big thing could have been started by something charmingly incongruous.

Be careful not to try too hard, or at least be careful to make sure your effort is very very well hidden.

Thanks, Nathan. We're all looking forward to your debut middle grade novel, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow (coming in May, 2011)
Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow


  1. I'll have to take a look at this book. There isn't a lot of happy science fiction out there right now.

  2. Ah Nathan. He's truly brilliant, no?

  3. Looks like I've been missing out on a great resource. Thanks for sharing the insights.


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