Last week Nathan Bransford held his annual first paragraph contest. On a whim I entered the first paragraph of one of my novels in progress. Today I learned that it . . . is not a finalist. Considering there were 1500 entries, that was to be expected. But it was a fun exercise, and it was interesting to see the paragraphs that were chosen. It was also a good opportunity to examine my own hook(s) and to admit they still need some work. Unfortunately, figuring out exactly what they need is proving difficult.
This is the one I entered.
From the moment we are born, we are dying. This my father taught me. We gasp and tiny lungs expand, inhaling that first breath of air—air we need to live but that ultimately ages us. The heart, already beating for several months, pounds away at a frenetic pace, pumping blood throughout the body. It’s rhythm feels dependable—invincible, even—but eventually it will grow old, tire, and cease to beat. With time bones become brittle, skin wrinkles, hair thins and grays; bodies grow infirm. Death is the inevitable end to life. All this my father taught me. I wish, for me, it were still true.
After posting this entry, I realized that without the text that immediately follows, this kind of sounds like the hook to a vampire novel, which it is NOT. Nothing against those who write about vampires, but not my thing. What is my thing (or one of them currently) are fairytale retellings. The above paragraph is from a sequel to the first of these sort of stories that I wrote. It is very much in the drafting stage (was my NanoWrimo project this past November), so I’m not too worried about getting it just right anytime soon.
The other fairytale is a different story (no pun intended). I’ve played with it for a couple of years now—yes, years. Some projects are slower than others, and this one I haven’t been in any hurry with. But for better or worse, it’s time to send out some queries. My last excuse—that all my free time was spent judging for the Whitney Awards—ended at midnight last night. I’ve done my homework and have a list of agents. I even have a query letter ready to go. And yet, still I drag my feet.
Why? I don’t think it’s because I’m worried about rejection. I’ve been down this road before and have quite a lovely collection of letters (set to music on a dvd, no less) to remind me of what a difficult task lies ahead. I don’t fear it like I used to, but rather see it as a part of the process. My story is a tiny piece in an enormous publishing puzzle. It may take a lot of tries to find where that piece will fit. It may be in another puzzle altogether at some distant date down the road. That’s the reality of this business, and I’m okay with that.
What I’m not okay with is sending out something that is not the absolute best I can make it. For all the work I’ve done with this story, for as much as I love it and feel like it is the best thing I’ve ever written, I also know there is still something that is not quite right. That something is the first paragraph.
Not a good sign when I’m hoping to get an agent’s attention.
But I do feel it isn’t very—hooky, as in interesting, intriguing, captivating and all that. In fact, I chose not to enter it in the contest because I didn’t think it was strong enough. As with the other (above) paragraph, I like it as a whole with the rest of the page that follows. Unfortunately, I may not get the luxury of an entire page to hook an agent. It is far more likely that, if the first paragraph does not immediately intrigue, the overworked, overtired, ever-behind agent will not look further and a rejection will be sent.
So I’m asking for your help. I need fresh eyes and ideas to get this hook in shape. I want to send my queries with confidence. Last week I gave a lot of unsolicited advice; now it’s your turn—and I’m asking! What might make this paragraph better? What is it missing? Did you fall asleep already?
Any and all honest feedback will be most appreciated. Thank you in advance for your collective, brilliant suggestions. As you may have noted with my post last week, I was merely passing on what I’ve learned from others. The LDS writing community is wonderful that way—we share, encourage, and help each other become better writers. I continue to be grateful to be a part of it.
Here are the first few paragraphs for your critique.
“There is no such thing as a princess.” Ogres are another manner entirely. One of those stood behind me in the form of my mother, watching me, breathing down my back as I bent over the sink, scrubbing the pot from our breakfast mush. “And since there are no princesses, I’ve no need to worry about meeting one.”
Mother sighed her disapproval. “You don’t know that, Adrielle. You’ve not been to Tallinyne. You’ve not seen the things your father and I have.”
“Nor am I likely to.” I bit back angry words and turned around, reaching for a dishtowel. I should very much have liked to visit the capital, or at the least a neighboring township, but such a thing was out of the question. Once upon a time our family had been able to indulge in such luxuries. We hadn’t been well-to-do exactly, but there had been enough to eat, clothing to wear that wasn’t in tatters, and, most importantly, time—for something other than work. “Not ever,” I grumbled.