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.