Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Largely Indispensable Nathan Bransford

Nathan Bransford may be the bravest, the most impulsive, or the most generous agent alive.

Back on September 10, he announced a contest to find "The Stupendously Ultimate First Line" here. He had over 450 entries.

The winning first line was: "That summer, the arsonist struck every home on the block but ours."

Just a month later, our Nathan announced "The Largely Indispensable First Paragraph Challenge" here.

This time, the man got more than 600 entries.

Nathan and his assistant judge, May Vanderbilt, selected six finalists here.

Two of the six finalists were also finalists in the first line contest.

Here are the winning paragraphs:

1) Oh no, it's some kind of infestation, Rosemary thought, prodding the ground with her boot. Next to the barn were several fist-sized holes, just big enough for rats, or worse, imps. She hated imps. They were always getting into the larder and causing a fuss.

2) There’s this girl I’ve never met that I know everything in the world about. Well, most everything. Not the big stuff, I guess. Like what she prayed about when she would cry at her bedside or whether she really believed those prayers might get answered. And I never knew all of the reasons for the crazy shit she did, but hey, who really does? I did know other stuff though. The real freaky-deaky shit. Like how she would crack open her father’s disposable razors with a pair of pliers she kept stashed behind her dresser and how she’d slice herself up. Sometimes I think she left her window blinds open that way just so somebody, anybody, me--a guy she never met--would know. Not that she was some kind of attention whore. Just about everybody is some kind of attention whore. Not Scissors, though. And I could testify in court to that, since, I’m like, some kind of authority on the girl.

3) Brooklyn didn't know very much about me. Actually, the girl knew surprisingly little, which was exactly what I needed in a friend. She didn't ask intrusive questions and I didn't have to lie or have my heart pound while I searched for acceptable answers. She wasn't into meaningful conversation and heartfelt talks. She was light, snappy, and never depressed. And most importantly, she wasn't my responsibility.

4) Life inside a piano isn’t all knitting cobweb sweaters and napping. It’s dangerous. Every time a clumsy student flings himself at the bench and bangs on the ivories, just to see his fingers walk across the black and whites, I face death. The action’s unpredictable. If I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could lose my head.

5) He was short and skinny, shorter than the others, and never wore a shirt when he ran. His thin arms flailed as he kept ahead of us and we all wondered how. He was so fast. But mostly we watched the bouncing scars on his back and thought about how he got them. We called him the Wizard. It was because of his hair, wild black mass with a white shock hanging in the front. That’s how I thought of him. The Wizard. I wish I knew what names they had given him but I never asked. Between us, there was an unspoken rule: everything would remain unspoken.

6) The great flaw in the system was that some of the Children remembered what it felt like when they were taken. It was impossible to tell who would remember--temperament, age, gender, none of them seemed to matter. The flaw persisted despite all of the technicians' attempts to eradicate it. In rare cases a Child, newly imprinted, would awaken at odd hours of the night, crying for reasons she couldn't explain or shaking with a nameless dread and a desperate feeling that something wasn't right.

Let's take a look at the six paragraphs Nathan and May chose and see what we can learn.

First, these choices reflect two judges who enjoy fantasy/sci-fi. Half of the winners are either fantasy (two) or sci-fi (1). Keep in mind that not all agents represent these genres. Always check the agent's website for the kind of books s/he represents.

Second, they've selected four first person POV (66%) and two third person POV (33%).

I think of first person as being more immediate and intimate. Along with that immediacy, notice that all of these paragraphs begin right away; there are no long lead-ups with lots of explanation. The writers just jump right into the story and expect (Nathan says "trust") the reader to catch up.

One of the biggest newbie errors is a tendency to start with a long narrative to provide the setting or establish the world they've built. Resist that tendency. Just start with your action. You can drop in clues along the way as to what's going on. For instance, #1's mention of a "barn" and "boot" suggest that the setting is a farm or a ranch while #4's use of the word "student" implies that the piano the narrator inhabits is in a school.

Most importantly, all of these entries made you want to read further. Why were the children taken? Where did the Wizard's scars come from? What lives inside that piano?

This was a terrific exercise in what one agent is looking for in new material.

Thanks, Nathan. Your blog is wonderful.


Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks so much! I really appreciate the kind words. It was really difficult to choose finalists from so many great entries.

Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan: It was a great exercise. As I said, you were very generous in taking it on.