So I was having some kicks, reading the entries for Nathan Bransford's Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest. No, I didn't read all of them. I read them when there were about 500 entered--and didn't get even close to finishing. I admire Bransford's fortitude, but the fifteen-hundred first-paragraph dash is not for me (but would make an incredible Olympic event).
Anyway. I was browsing, enjoying some and wishing I could peruse the whole book, confused by others, skipping after the first sentence of several that didn't interest me at all, and I kind of started to wonder. Are we (readers, publishing, everybody--not the inimitable Mr. Bransford only) judging a book by its first paragraph in the same erroneous ways we judge books by their covers?
I of course do not mean to imply that some quick assessment isn't warranted. After all, you can get a handle pretty quickly when something is definitely not your style--when you like romance novels and the book you just picked up starts right into a murder mystery (yep, that rose on the cover was a hint about the killer's identity, not an indicator of a romantic tale--proving again, cover-judging is not always accurate). And sometimes you know very soon that a writer's style or voice is not going to make the book an enjoyable read for you. Even more so with slush (and the paragraphs of the contest entries were remarkably, I suppose, like slush). With some pieces, it's apparent right from the first sentence that the writer needs to work on voice or grammar or basic syntax--it's just not there yet.
But beyond that--when nothing annoys the heck out of you or turns you off or bores you more than watching white paint on a blank white wall--can we judge the book by its first paragraph? Taking this from fun contest to mindsets in real life: Are we asking too much in a few sentences--and getting less than we deserve because we want instant satisfaction? When I think about the most important parts of a first paragraph, I do think about including hints at a compelling story, elements of vivid characters, and a healthy dose of voice and language. Yet, to me, the most important part of a first paragraph is the dozen or so paragraphs after that--it's the open door, and I want to know where it leads, not just stand in the doorframe.
Reading the entries, I started to wonder if that's where some of the writers were making a mistake--they put so much shebang and pizazz in those first paragraphs that it's as though they're expecting the reader to hang out in the doorway forever--there's no propulsion into the story, just a really nice doorjamb.
Granted, this is probably way too much to assume and think about based on a contest (which is, after all meant to be fun)--and I reminded myself that many of these entries may have been revised for, if not written for, the purpose of looking good as a standalone first paragraph for the contest. Still, as we're encouraged to write blazing first pages and immediately compelling hooks into our stories, I think it's worth thinking about whether we're shortchanging ourselves in the long run by putting too high a price on the beginning. There's something to be said for compelling openings with substance, not sparkle, and being sucked into a book by excellent writing, not an explosion front and center on page one, and having a slow build of tension rather than immediate angst.
Did I enter? Yeah, why not :) My first paragraph? Taken verbatim from a WIP, and, as I review some of the stellar entries, feels rather small and insignificant. And I'm ok with that--it's time to get back to writing and polishing all those paragraphs in the WIP, not just the first one!