Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SUFP Challenge, Applying Lessons Learned

What's the point, besides fame, glory, and winning, of Nathan's Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge if you don't learn anything? And what better than your own work to apply those lessons learned?

Ladies and gentlemen, what you are witnessing is real. Your eyes do not deceive you. Below is my actual, definite, very real submission to the SUFP Challenge. Comment #458 in fact. Strangely enough, I did not win. My genius must have been overlooked. Let us examine the entry and see if we can improve upon perfection.

“Molly Anne McCoy!”

That was my name. It had a nice ring to it, I thought, as I rolled over on my side and wriggled under the covers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the earthy scent of soot and coal that was ingrained into my blanket.

My little two-year-old sister, sleeping right next to me in the narrow bed, kept kneeing me in the ribs. I inched a little to the right to give her some room, coming dangerously close to falling out onto the floor.

A moment later, the entire house rattled as a train lumbered by. Being no more than thirty feet away from the tracks, our house did that a lot. I drifted easily back to sleep, the comforting rumble of the locomotive like a lullaby to my ears.

There it is. Ta-da! Were your socks knocked off? Were you blinded by the sheer literary brilliance of my writing? No? OK, let's work on that.

When looking over the contest entries, I noticed certain things that didn't work. I'm going to list them below, but feel free to list anything you, the readers, can think of in the comments.
  1. Awkward metaphors.
  2. Awkward language usage.
  3. Use of cliches.
  4. Too much information given to the reader all at once.
  5. A surprise twist that fell flat due to insufficient characterization/information overload.
First question, did my opening suffer from any of these problems? Maybe a bit of #1 and #2, with most of the issues being in that third paragraph. This is one of those times where I wish I could apply a red marker to the computer screen, but that would probably damage my monitor, plus it'd look silly, so let me re-post the opening and highlight what I think the problem areas are:

“Molly Anne McCoy!”

That was my name. It had a nice ring to it, I thought, as I rolled over on my side and wriggled under the covers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the earthy scent of soot and coal that was ingrained into my blanket. (Let me try taking out "earthy." I think it's unnecessary. Otherwise I like this paragraph.)

My little two-year-old sister (If she's two-years-old, she's probably going to be little, let me strike that too.), sleeping right next to me in the narrow bed, kept kneeing kneed me in the ribs. I inched a little to the right to give her some room, coming dangerously close to falling out onto the floor. (I don't think this paragraph is bad either, but I tossed out a couple of words I felt were redundant and tightened the language.)

A moment laterAs I shut my eyes, the entire house rattled as a train lumbered bytraveled past. Being no more than thirty feet away from the tracks, our house did that a lot. I drifted easily back to sleep, the comforting rumble of the locomotive like a lullaby to my ears. (THIS is the problem paragraph. I don't like the "a moment later" transition. I'm not sure if "lumbered" really works to describe the train as it goes by and "like a lullaby to my ears" may not work as a metaphor. I like it, but I know at least one of my readers who doesn't.)
All right, it's not perfect, but here is my re-worked opening. I'm going to take a look at it tomorrow and make some more changes once I can look at things with fresh eyes.

“Molly Anne McCoy!”

That was my name. It had a nice ring to it, I thought, as I rolled over on my side and wriggled under the covers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of soot and coal that was ingrained into my blanket.

My two-year-old sister, sleeping next to me in the narrow bed, kneed me in the ribs. I inched a little to the right to give her some room, coming dangerously close to falling out onto the floor.

As I shut my eyes, the entire house rattled as a train traveled past. Being no more than thirty feet away from the tracks, our house did that a lot. I drifted easily back to sleep, the comforting rumble of the locomotive like a lullaby to my ears.
Hrm, still not right, but I'll work on it further in the afternoon...


Once more, with feeling! Changes are in red.

“Molly Anne McCoy!”

That was my name. It had a nice ring to it, I thought, as I rolled over on my side and wriggled under the covers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of soot and coal that was ingrained into my blanket.

My two-year-old sister, sleeping next to me in the narrow bed, kneed me in the back. I inched a little to the right to give her some room, coming dangerously close to falling out onto the floor.

As I balanced on the edge of the bed, the entire house rattled and shook. Being no more than thirty feet away from the railroad tracks, our house did that a lot. I drifted easily back to sleep, the comforting rumble of the locomotive like a lullaby to my ears.

There. Better!... I think.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Going On That Quest, One More Time

Writing a book is like going on a quest. At least that's the way it seems to me. It's a long, arduous trip fraught with all manner of obstacles and temptations, with a great reward at the end. When I finished writing Surviving Matewan, I promised myself I'd take a nice long break before starting on yet another journey.

Well, that lasted about a week.

I have a new idea percolating in my head and I'm really excited about it. It's Urban Fantasy and high concept, which is unusual for me. My ideas are never high concept. So here I am, eager to go on another quest, even when I'm still smarting from the last one.

The first step is to check and see what else is out there. Has my story been told already? I'd feel terribly silly if I wanted to write about this boy wizard whose parents were killed by a villain named Moldevort.

Or to give another example, when I was preparing to write a historical fiction story for kids, my first choice of topic was the 1925 Alaska Serum Run. It's a harrowing tale, and I wanted to do a grittier, non-Disneyfied take on it. But as it turns out, there were two juvenile fiction books already coming out that year that took the exact same approach, so I looked elsewhere for my source material.

After spending several hours on Amazon, I'm happy to report that nobody seems to have the exact same idea I do. This being a high concept story, there are quite a few books on the subject, some of them famous, but my take seems to be fairly unique, so I'm going to go ahead and start work.

Writers really are gluttons for punishment, aren't we?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

“Lucille’s back,” Frankie declared from outside, “And she’s got antlers!”

I was sitting on my nice new floor, making herbal pouches of pine needles, sassafras, and cherry tree bark as Christmas presents for all my friends and neighbors. The combination had worked so well with Gracie, maybe it’d work for them too.

I glanced up, “Did she grow them?” I called out.

“Nah,” my brothers brought in a thoroughly mortified Lucille, “Someone stuck them to her head.” - Excerpt from Surviving Matewan

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Tis the Season Not to Query

I was preparing for another round of querying when I realized that, oh yeah, it's almost Christmas! And it's Festivus! And Hannukah! And Yule was only a couple of days ago. And Kwanzaa and Muharram are just around the corner!

Seeing how most agents come back to work on January 5, and I want to give them a few days to catch up, the plan is to start querying again on Thursday, January 8. That way they have a chance to wade through all the queries that piled up like Midwest snow over the holidays, and get through the queries from those writers who were thoughtful enough to wait until the agents got back to work.

I've also noticed I tend to get rejections on Fridays (and Wednesdays, for some reason), so I'll query that Thursday evening and have the shiny, sparkly, so amazing-they-can't-say-no query waiting for them when they get into work on Friday.

That's the plan, at least. Agents, you've been warned.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

SUFP Challenge Honorable Mentions and Special Awards

I've decided to be ruthless. There is no other way to decide on the honorable mentions. There's just too many good ones to go through.

A couple of things of note before I continue. There's a heavy tilt towards YA and MG, because that's what I like to read myself. I tried to eliminate the bias, but I fear it's still there. Second, there were many more first paragraphs that were contenders, and that if I was an agent, I'd keep on reading past the first few lines. These paragraphs were well-written, they just didn't stand out as much on their own.

Now without further ado...

Honorable Mentions

Chloe opened her notebook, drew eighteen balloons across the top of the page, and lettered each one: "Happy birthday to you." Although there had been no Ferrari with a red bow waiting for her that morning, she did receive the best present she could ask for – an e-mail from her brother, Donnie, in Iraq. - Jill Wheeler

Last night, my parents destroyed my life—on purpose. It’s worse than the time my mother wore pigtails to the spelling bee. It’s worse than the time she ran over Megan Nelson’s cat, when I was six. It’s definitely the worst thing that has ever happened in my nine years on the planet. And now, I can’t even eat tuna salad anymore—especially if my mom is around to smell it. - Colorado Writer

I had to be dreaming. I didn't know whether I wanted to believe I was seeing Carlson or not. He looked up from under those cute blond eyebrows with the stray hairs that stuck straight out from his forehead. His dark red, long-sleeved T-shirt wrinkled where he leaned against the wall's blue tiles. He didn't speak, but he kept staring at me. Whether I was dreaming or not, I had to say something. "You're in the women's bathroom," I told him. And then wanted to smack myself. There were a lot of things I'd wanted to say to my dead boyfriend over the past year, but that wasn't one of them. - Sasha

Lottie Griffin didn’t look like a goal post.
At least, she’d never thought she looked like a goal post, but a cute guy cradling a football was barreling toward her anyway. That was her last thought before they collided. He slammed into her and she landed in the grass with a heavy, unladylike grunt. When she opened her eyes, she was staring into a pair of the most beautiful baby blues she’d ever seen.
“Touchdown?” she asked weakly. - AC

I didn’t exactly hate Wednesdays but I sure didn’t love them, either. Even when no fights broke out in the dining room and the toilet in the women’s restroom didn’t overflow, I couldn’t look Mom in the eye and tell her Wednesday was my favorite day of the week. How could it be? Wednesdays were dirty dishes and puddles of spilled coffee, arguments over the last slice of pecan pie, little kids crying and drunk guys mumbling to themselves. Stacking chairs, wiping down tablecloths, and sweeping the floors. Wednesdays meant hard work and not enough thank yous. - Tracy

“Come back here with my Louis Vuitton, you bastard.” I stood on the top step of the winding staircase, clutching a pair of golf shoes. His golf shoes. I’d snatched them from his closet in a vain attempt to slow him down. - Writer Chick

"You can put down the cat," said a voice from the dark. "Or you can die. Your choice." - Winterman

Everyone has something to be ashamed of; you see them every day on reality TV, crying and confessing, while their cast mates sit slack jawed while the cameras roll. Me? I sold my soul for money. My knack for making anything sound good landed me a job as company spokesperson for the premiere financial institution on the West Coast. Spinning the worst financial crises bought me a Mercedes and a house behind a gate. Give me the worst corporate event you can think of and I’ll make it sound like afternoon tea. Lose some money? It’s an investment opportunity. CEO commits fraud? A misunderstanding of tax laws. My love for money has led me to do a lot of questionable things to get ahead in life and I’m about to do one more. - Amy K.

Three days before Christmas I drove my grandmother down to the methadone clinic. Something came up, so Mom called at 8:15 the morning of, pleading with me to take her. Mom knew that would leave me just enough time to call and beg my boss, Mr. Warner, for one more morning off to handle what he called “an unfortunate situation.” Mr. Warner was not unfamiliar with my grandmother. After all, he was the one who posted bail when she was caught waiting for the number three bus in nothing but what the Lord gave her and a pair of blue terrycloth slippers. After that, every time the commercial for Warner Brothers’ Law Firm interrupted her television program she retold the story about how the man on the TV had kept her from the midnight sale at Walmart. - Angela

Carl is dead. There’s no god to comfort me, to welcome Carl’s soul to paradise, to pray to for salvation. If ever there were a day I wanted that to be different, today is it. I lie in bed, sure that the last few hours have been a cruel dream. After all, young, successful attorneys aren’t supposed to die of undiagnosed heart defects. They aren’t supposed to die two months before their wedding. Three months after buying a house with their fiancĂ©e. If they’re going to die in the middle of the court room, it’s supposed to be sensational: the result of a crazed defendant or a disgruntled victim taking justice into their own hands. Especially Carl, who always had to do the best and be the best, who had to make a name for himself everywhere he went. He’s probably looking down on the whole thing now, pissed that he hadn’t been able to deliver his brilliant closing arguments before fate ripped a hole in his heart and sent him falling to the floor of Judge Aberman’s court room. He probably wouldn’t even have thought of me on the way down—of how he was making a widow of me even before I became a wife—only how he’d never get to make partner now. - J. Lea Lopez

He found a room just off the square, a bare cell with two beds and a sink in it and two windows overlooking the street. The man who'd led him silently up the stairs and unlocked the door didn't stay long enough for Victor to thank him, but turned and disappeared without a word, leaving the key in the lock. Victor pulled it out and shut and bolted the door. He set his backpack and tripod on one of the beds. There were no screens on the windows but he was on the third floor and it was a sheer drop to the street below. He thought that was safe enough. He stood looking out. Almost dark. An opulent blue consuming the desert sky and a scattering of stars winking in the dwindling light above the desert town. - Mray

“Can I have my knife back?” I’m sitting across from Principal Feinstadt in her office. My knife is on the desk between us, partially hidden from my view by an I heart my cat mug stuffed with pens. That knife cost me thirty bucks, so she better give it back. - Shari

I don’t come back to the old neighborhood very often, even though it’s just a short drive on the Eisenhower. There’s no one left who remembers me – who remembers us. I see the familiar street monikers from the expressway on my way downtown. I hear them in my head, in my old voice, the one I learned to hide long ago. It sneaks in, though, that guttural slang and dropping of consonants – when I’m angry or tired or thinking of home. And it unnerves people in my life today, to hear who I really am. They shake their heads as if they’ve imagined it and I revert to the polished grammar they’ve come to expect, and I hate them a little for the judgment but sometimes I hate myself more. - Merry Monteleone

Can I just say, death is so not what I expected? True, at seventeen I gave way more thought to football plays and girls, and even my English homework, than I ever gave to death. And that's saying a lot because me and English homework are not even on a first name basis. Ask my English teacher. Trust me--he will not have nice things to say about me. Actually, that's kinda funny because he always said that I was going to ruin my life with my inability to tell "there" from "their," but death ruined it way before my bad grammar had a chance to cause any long-term damage. - lit-gal

O-positive primer wasn’t quite the color I had in mind for the small office, but Lucas Sherwood hadn’t given the decor a second thought when he blew out the left side of his head with a .45. - Hope Clark

Once there was a stick. It was smooth, white, short, and plastic. Small and unassuming it could never have foreseen the amount of chaos it was going to cause. I passed it to a sophomore girl and slid her twenty into my back pocket. Carissa held the pregnancy test at arms length and gaped. I waited. Girls need to build themselves up to the big steps. "How do I do this?" she asked. - Nikki Riles

You are dead. I am alive. I’m supposed to be the lucky one in that equation. Life is grand, and all that. Yet I wake up every morning a little bit more jealous of you, knowing where you are. Knowing what I know. The way you are not missing me in quite the same way I am missing you. To you, I have whirled away for a quick turn during a dance. You can see me, spinning across the floor, just slightly out of reach. You aren’t alarmed. You know I’ll spin right back into your arms. You’ll blink, and I’ll be back. - MzMannerz

When you die, you wake up in a huge Winn Dixie feeling as confused as you always felt under those blinding florescent lights. I’d been expecting a different kind of light, and angels playing harps -- not muzak, and The Carpenters singing Rainy Days and Mondays. Wandering the aisles in a daze, (I’m not the only one), I linger in the produce section, studying myself in the mirror above the dewy heads of iceberg lettuce. - emilymurdoch

Frances Abbott saw God in the oddest places. She didn’t expect to catch sight of Him that spring morning as she strolled along the Carolina beach with her niece, Isobel. And admittedly it wasn’t a full sighting, more of a glimpse, like a trail of bread crumbs that would lead her down the path she was to go. A minister by trade, she expected her life to progress in some foreordained, predictable way, but it never did. So she learned to keep an eye out for breadcrumbs. - Helen T.

When your entire family is made up of private investigators, you learn a thing or two about observing the world around you. And that’s how I know, as soon as I push open my front door and catch the unmistakable scent of cookies baking, that something isn’t right. - Shoshana

Bread. Milk. Eggs. Ramen Noodles. The food stuffs in the cart were grossly outnumbered by the array of cleaning products wedged in beside them. Window spray and bleach. Air sanitizer and Murphy’s Oil Soap. Sponges, paper towels, toilet bowl cleaner. Total ticket: $103.74, eight dollars of it on food to keep the thin girl behind the cart from collapsing from malnutrition. - Erik Smetana

The day of my father’s funeral was the day my mother burned all his things. As soon as the last of my mother’s brothers and their wives had rattled off in their Model T’s, she came into the sitting room. My sister Anna and I were huddled together, forlorn piles of cheap black fabric sitting defiantly on the floor, though we’d been ordered not to get dirty. Mother was carrying a pile of father’s clothes. At first I thought she had brought them down to be a comfort to us; suddenly I wanted nothing more than to press my face to his favorite shirt, maybe still smelling of him, and feel a little of this horrible ache inside me go away. But she went straight to the fire and threw them in. She watched them burn, poking the fire to make sure every last scrap of cloth was ashes, then turned and left. Anna’s hand was gripping mine so tightly that I could not feel my fingers. - Amy

This couldn’t be happening. Ryan sat in disbelief as the brakes of his car locked and the vehicle slid uncontrollably on the wet pavement. Filling his vision through the rain-streaked windshield was a large fuel truck, growing larger with each second as his car slid closer to it. - Ray

Looking back, my mid-life crisis began on a Tuesday in March at the local grocery store, right there on aisle twelve between the laxatives and the condoms. That’s the day I stood before an assortment of tampons, wondering whether my diminished egg production warranted the forty-eight count economy size. See, I worried about leftovers—about a future when the half-empty box still sat under the sink, mocking me every time I reached for a hair dryer. - Randy

I should not have asked how he got that scar, but it was the best one I’d ever seen. Star-shaped and the purpley-red of a newborn, it stretched along the inside of his forearm, an itchy smattering of scabs on the fringes. I placed the football he was there to retrieve into his open hand, and he answered the question I shouldn’t have asked. “What scar?” he said. - GLLancour

“Life is like a big trip you go on, but most people are carrying about 200 pounds of extra baggage, and I have to say, there’s no way they’re letting you on the plane with all that.” - jessNsam98

My brother Gabriel was a blistering boil on my butt from the minute we were born. Before even. The competitive jerk kicked me in the head as he swam out of the birth canal on his way to being first at the very first thing we did. Story is we’re identical twins, but Gabriel didn’t come out with a big red blotch on his face in the shape of a foot. He got the first baby tooth, walked a month before I did, and was “the one with personality.” By the time we were nine he ran faster, jumped higher, and had gotten twice the academic awards. The accident changed all that, though. Now the only thing Gabriel does better is drool. - Dawn

She told me I didn’t have a choice. You couldn’t have a cat in the house once a child was born. It would creep into the cradle and suck my poor babe’s breath away in the night. Everybody knew that. So I gave Kit, my little brown mouser, the last of the top-milk even though my man would give me a whipping when he found there was none for his morning pottage, and I cuddled her on my lap, stroking her and crooning to her in a hitching voice, my nose running with tears, until she purred herself to sleep. An hour later, under the accusing light of the moon, I smoothed her silky hair for the last time, my fingers still running blood from where she’d clawed me trying to escape. - Mike

Bang! Then another. I’d like to say this was the first time people had thrown canned hams at me, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. Ping! I didn’t mind their choice of ammo. I recognized one of the shiny cubes as it bounced off my windshield. The protesters had splurged this time and upgraded to the Consolidated Meat Company’s “Premium Label” hams. Hey, in my business, a sale is a sale, even if they don’t bother to eat it. - Walter

After the army, all the colors look wrong. The city is camouflaged in neon, corporate reds and whites and blues. Light bounces off the surfaces of buildings. Not like in the desert, where at night every light you shone would vanish into the darkness, eaten by quicksand. Back home the only thing dark is this black hole inside me. - scheherazade

The summer I accidentally lost my two front teeth I became the first girl ever to win the annual Watermelon Thump seed-spitting contest. I catapulted my seed through the wide-open gap in my mouth, sending it 19 feet 3 inches past the reigning champion, ten year-old Georgie Spunkmeyer. When Sheriff Humphrey presented me with a crown carved out of watermelon, Georgie smashed his slice into the ground and vowed to lose all his teeth for the next competition. - taralazar

“K-man! K-man! Wake up! We’ve gotta go!” Waking to those words from Master Sergeant Charles Detmering, Josh Kastens knew April 2, 2007, was about to get serious. - Bob McCarty

Mother made an absentminded habit of leaving her prosthetic breast on countertops around the house. A flesh-hued silicone pound of unrisen dough, is how I remember it now, but in those days the thing we stoutly dubbed Mom’s Fake Boob had some kind of personality about it. You’d find the fake boob any old afternoon right there on the swirled end of a banister, holding down a little stack of hand towels, and the way it slouched and creased along its base gave you the sneaking feeling you were being smiled at. By a rubber tit. I never spoke to Mom’s fake boob; we didn’t have anything to talk about. But wherever it turned up—on the t.v., in a lawn chair, under a table, in the dog’s mouth—the fake boob might as well have turned and whispered, "Sooner or later, I’m all that’ll be left." - Tom

I hated this part. The bell had rung exactly four minutes and 48 seconds ago. Which meant I had exactly 12 seconds to get through the next door. But I was still a hundred yards away, the hall was too crowded for me to run like a normal person, and with honors calculus, I had little hope there'd be someone later than me to slip in behind. There went my perfect attendance record. I reached the door. Closed of course. Mrs. Harper always closed the door. Like she was worried someone wanted to spy on her lesson. Hardly likely. Except, well, for me. - Melinda

Best in Show - Vampire/Werewolf Category

"This is hard for me to talk about. Secrets get comfortable in your soul, and don’t want you poking at them. It might be easier if there was some sort of Lycanthropy support group where I could stand up and say, ‘My name is Nathan, and I’m a werewolf.’ However, since there’s no such place; I’ll have to muddle through on my own. You asked to hear my story, and I promised to tell it to you. Grab your tea and get comfortable. This could take a while." - Terri

Best in Show - Brand New WIP Category

I am in love with a poet, long dead, and with his words, still vibrantly alive. Daily, he woos me; follows me through apple orchards, over pasture fences, and down winding sea swept paths. His words form tiny webs in the corners of mind, ensnaring my thoughts at odd moments throughout my day. He is my inspiration, my masculine muse -- pure poetry, raw reality, sweet simplicity. I want to be a feminine him. “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down,” he says; and I look at all my walls, and start tearing. - havah

Best in Show - Working in a Bruce Lee Reference Without It Being Awkward Category

Shit. The female Goliath was coming at her – all six foot four and two hundred pounds. At five foot eight, Jamela could probably dribble circles around the golden haired Amazon. Like Bruce Lee against Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in Game of Death, Jamela didn’t have size, but she did have speed. Coach had told them to go for the two and force overtime. Had barked don’t nobody try an’ be no goddamn hero and take a three. Take it into overtime and momentum would be on their side. But Jamela could see white shirts collapsing in on her like a blizzard of snow. And all around her the crowd chanting “six…five…four…” There were so many white faces in the crowd, she wondered if the opposing team had every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, cousin-twice-removed to cheer them on. There were a few dark faces above the bench of the Kennedy High Eagles, mostly parents. But not hers. Never hers. Stepping behind the three point line, she launched a prayer at the basket. - Em Brown

Best in Show - Ed Hazard Commemorative Edition (Ed Hazard is a character in my book who spends her time reading Jane Eyre up in trees)

It may have looked like Regina Robinson was precariously perched on the limb of an elm tree, about to tumble to the ground at any moment, but she wasn’t. She was actually quite comfortably situated in a well-worn, perfectly Regina-sized nook, shaded by overhanging leaves. She had spent countless hours in her tree and had never once fallen. In fact, Regina had never fallen from any tree. - Ash

Friday, December 19, 2008

Refining Your Literary Palate...

Or what I learned during the 2nd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge.

**Warning: Extended Food Metaphor Up Ahead Due to Repeated Viewings of "Top Chef"**

Somewhere around entry #600, I realized that there was sometimes a difference between entries that I liked and entries that were well-written. Entries that fell into genres I enjoyed reading (YA, Fantasy), entries that were amusing, or touched upon a subject that I was personally interested in, were winding up in my finalists pile that probably didn't belong there. At the same time, I was overlooking some good writing because of my biases.

I think that's what the difference is between reading for enjoyment and reading like a literary agent. The literary agent approaches writing like a food critic would approach food.

Take Ho-Hos for example. They're god awful, and yet, I like to eat them. Bland chocolate cake and overly sweet cream filling contained in a cheap chocolate product shell. Yum! Then there's ceviche. I despise ceviche, but I know a good one when I taste it and can appreciate the quality ingredients and craftsmanship that's gone into making it.

As I winnowed down the finalists, I started searching for that ceviche, trying to really examine the quality of the writing. In other words, I was trying to refine my literary palate, something a good agent already has developed.

If I had been an agent and not trying to judge a writing contest, I'd be looking for that wonderful combination of craftsmanship, quality, and enjoyment. Or to keep the food metaphor going a little longer, I'd be looking for a really well-made Kona crusted steak. Because as much as I love the occasional Ho-Ho, they're not very satisfying and no matter how much I might like the genre, plot, or clever joke in a first paragraph, if that first paragraph isn't written well, the rest of the book probably isn't going to hold up.

One final food-related observation, I know I overlooked some of Nathan's finalists because at first I was going for likeability versus craftsmanship. That said, a couple of the finalists just didn't work for me, because just as people, even people who are star chefs, have different palates, people have different tastes in writing. Agenting is subjective, who knew?

To sum up: I feel as if I now have a much better understanding of how literary agents approach their job. I've also succeeded in making myself very very hungry, so I'm off, but will post the list of Honorable Mentions tomorrow. Until then, take care!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Heads Up, Eyes Scroll Down

Please note, I've added my reasoning for the top ten in the original post below. More tomorrow!

And the winners of the 2nd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge, the Home Edition are....

One-thousand, three-hundred and sixty-four entries later, and only a week after Nathan Bransford somehow breezed through all these with super-human literary agent speed, I've come up with my own top ten.

This was an eye-opening experience, and once I'm sufficiently recovered, I'll explain how I chose my winners, discuss lessons learned, and will post a follow-up list of honorable mentions and special awards.

There will be no voting and I regret to say I don't really have any prizes to offer, except for the prize of knowing that someone out there thinks your writing's really good.

Now, without further ado, the top ten, in no particular order...

1. This first one will no doubt look familiar:

According to my father, the first rule of ninjutsu is KISS: keep it simple, stupid. Of course, he’s says it all ninja-like, but that’s the gist. If you can walk down the street in normal clothes, there’s no need for black garb and grappling hooks. If you can kill a dude in two moves, don’t waste your time with three. And that’s why we run a karate school for all those little kids who get beat up at school—two ninjas hiding in the most obvious place, and the last spot anyone looks. - Natalie

(Nathan's already gone into detail about why this is a great opening paragraph. It's well-writen, it's funny, it sets the scene, it reveals a good deal about the narrator, and ninjas! Ninjas! I'd like to add that having viewed countless Anime where the ninjas don't reveal their super secret power moves until they're on the verge of defeat, that it's a relief to finally see a ninja that knows what he/she's doing.)


A broadsword is a difficult thing to hide in a dress. Men wore their swords openly as a show of force, and the obvious threat of violence helped to keep the peace when tempers flared. For a woman to wear a sword, the effect was the opposite. More often than not, in the hands of a woman, the blade provoked confrontation – or so Gwendolyn had learned. Whenever she felt the need to carry her sword, she wore her cloak drawn tightly about her to conceal the weapon beneath its folds. A solitary stroll in the forest was certainly such an occasion. Not in the mood to invite death today, Gwendolyn pulled the edges of her cloak closely together as she paused to squint warily down the shaded path behind her. - Liz

(Similar to Natalie's, this entry is funny and well-written while at the same time presenting an intriguing character who most likely is about to find her way into some trouble. I particularly like the insight about the difference between men and women carrying swords.)


Sophie Collins swung into the spot labeled “Curbside Take-Out Only.” If removing her drunken mother from a restaurant didn’t qualify as Take-Out, what did? - PatR

(Witty yet poignant. There is a sense of action and of instant conflict between two characters.)


At 9:03, on a cold Tuesday morning, Alex would get his fifteen minutes of fame. In truth, his share would be closer to one minute; the orca would garner the other fourteen. - Megoblocks

(This made me laugh out loud. Any opening paragraph that can make me erupt into sudden fits of giggles for several days afterwards is a winner in my book.)


I have the perfect mom, at least by her standards. - Elizabeth

(Witty and the tension between the mother and main character is established in the very first line.)


The spring of 1920 blossomed as it always did, ushering in long nights on crowded porches. Children shook off the winter stillness with mason jars in hand to catch fireflies out in the thick air of Orleans Parish. To anyone who didn’t know better, the lengthening days and warm evenings appeared to be the harbinger of a southern summer, full of stolen kisses and secret letters. - Stephen

(This is just a beautiful use of language, in my opinion. The way spring "blossomed," "long nights on crowded porches," shaking off the "winter stillness," "stolen kisses and secret letters." There isn't a word or image that seems jarring or out of place in the scene. It's wonderfully harmonious. It flows.)


Lily Winters hated fire. Hated and feared it. So what was she doing climbing this old tree, trying to ignore the men shouting from the ground below, as she edged closer and closer to a burning building? It was the cat’s fault. - Jeannie

(You had me at the cat. Brave and sympathetic main character. Instant sense of danger. A kitty in peril.)


“Well, you know, your sister’s kidney isn’t very good.”

My father, a sturdy oak type, is known for dispensing important bits of information with this seemingly innocuous phrase.

For example, “Well, you know, your cousin was born with a vestigial tail.”

“Well, you know, we’re having the bedroom redone because the big oak tree fell through the house.”

“Well, you know, we won the lottery so we’re moving to Italy and leaving no forwarding address.” Alright, I’m exaggerating; my father much prefers the ‘shoes optional’ vibe of Key West. - Cristy at Living Donor 101

(This made me smile while establishing the conflict in the very first line. Also reveals the character of the father. Finally, it's one of the few examples I've seen of a story having a lot of dialogue in the first few paragraphs that really works.)


It is nighttime on the cliffs. Down below, too, but that seems like another world, a world of sunshine and people, of dreams and of worries. Here, there are only the stars, an absence of everything but moonlight on the rocks. A world in greyscale. - Raethe

(You had me at "a world in greyscale." Love the metaphor, it really finished setting the scene.)


Of all the hats worn by a preacher’s wife--I never imagined I’d have to add a fedora. I wasn’t even sure they made them large enough to fit over the unmanageable mound of frizz I call my hair. Not that I’m really a detective. That's almost funny. Wendy Gilmore: housewife, mother--private eye. But I certainly felt like one that morning. As soon as I spotted the name of the missing woman in the newspaper, I recognized it. And I was pretty sure I knew what had happened to her. - bflogal

(I was drawn to this entry because it's not a genre I read at all. I don't care for most mysteries and certainly not what I've heard some people refer to as "cozy mysteries." For example, I'll watch Prime Suspect but I hate Hettie Wainwright with a passion. And yet, through the character's self-deprecation and wit, I'm curious to read on, and the mystery is very quickly established.)

Again, thanks to everyone for being brave enough to enter Nathan's contest! Hopefully he doesn't mind my playing along.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ninjas, Dead Bodies, and Dystopian Futures, Oh My!

Otherwise known as the 2nd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge, the Home Edition!

In solidarity with Nathan, and in an attempt to see what agents experience on a regular basis cause myself as much pain as humanly possible, I vowed to read every post in the SUFP thread and to post my own list of favorites. All 1,364 posts in the thread.

Why did I agree to do this? Oh uncaring gods of the post-apocalyptic dystopian underworld, whyyyyyy?

I am almost to post #1,000. It's 2am, the beagle needs a walk, it's a dark and stormy night with the rain hurtling against my house like a horde of jackrabbits on amphetamines, but I should have a list of favorites by tomorrow. Thank you all for being so willing to share your opening paragraphs!

Monday, December 15, 2008


Welcome to my new blog!

Three crazy years ago, I decided I was going to write a book. Not just any book, but a good book. I thought it'd take me a few months. I was wrong about that. But after all manner of obstacles and thanks to my Ahab-like obsession with finishing my novel, it was done. And by 'done' I mean I'm not touching the manuscript until an agent/editor/reader suggests revisions because I've looked it over so many times my eyes have glazed over, my brain has liquified, and I can no longer see the flaws in my own work. Maybe after a few months, I'll look at it again and do further re-writes. But for now, it's done and I get a Coke Slurpee for all my hard work.

My book? A little Middle Grade historical fiction piece called "Surviving Matewan." The title of the blog being a play on the book title. It's set in 1920, Matewan, West Virginia and is about 12-year-old Molly Anne McCoy, a coal miner's daughter who must keep her family safe during an epic and bloody showdown between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the coal companies.

This isn't the first time I've written a book. I've written bad books before. Singing animals, forced rhymes, I apologize to all the agents I sent those books too. My latest book is much better, I swear. I'll be posting updates on my attempts to get published, more background on the book itself, and the exercise in insanity that is writing a novel.

Thanks for stopping by!