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Writing Prompts

Writing Contest Deadline Looms: Enter Now

by Matilda Butler on August 25, 2014

Writing Prompt LogoPost #193 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Matilda Butler

Writing Contest Ends Soon. Send Your Entry Now.

Contest Rules

writing contestWe’re looking for your best opening paragraph to your memoir, memoir vignette, or novel. You know what we mean — the opening to your story where you think you hit the bulls-eye, the one where no reasonable person could stop reading after just that one paragraph. And while we want your best for our competition, no discussion of openings would be complete without mentioning one of the most infamous openings to a novel:

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Yes, this phrase, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830 is probably quoted more often today than it was almost 200 years ago when it was the opening to Paul Clifford. Of course, it is cited in a way that the author didn’t intend for it is considered a classic example of Victorian purple prose. Charles Schultz had Snoopy, astride the roof of his doghouse, begin each of his novels with that phrase. It was even the inspiration for the annual whimsical contest run by San Jose State University’s English Department. The contest began in 1982 and continues today with rewards for the worst examples in what they call “dark and stormy night” writing.

Here are a few winners from SJSU’s contest.

2014: Overall Winner

When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA

2014 Winner in Western Category:

“I guess you ain’t from around these here parts, Mistuh”, drawled Sheriff Cole McCabe, suspiciously eying the mysterious one-armed, scar-faced stranger with no name who had just stepped off the Deadwood stage and was now standing at the bar of the Last Chance saloon dressed only in a tutu, high-heeled shoes, holding a pink parasol and reciting passages from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to Mad Dog Kincaid and the Coltrane boys outta the Lazy K Ranch just south o’ Tucson. — Ted Downes, Cardiff, U.K

2013 Runner-up in Adventure Category:

As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course. — Ron D Smith, Louisville, KY

2013 Runner-up in Crime Category:

Seeing Mrs. Kohler sink, Detective Moen flushed as he plugged the burglary as the unmistakable work of Cap Fawcet, the Mad Plumber, for not only had her pool of assets been drained, but her clogs were now missing, and the toilet had been removed, leaving them with absolutely nothing to go on. — Eric J. Hildeman, Greenfield, WI

2012 Runner-up in Crime Category

Five minutes before his scheduled execution, Kip found his thoughts turning to his childhood – all those years ago before he had become a contract killer whose secret weakness was a severe peanut allergy, even back before he lost half of a toe in a gardening accident while doing community service – but especially to Corinne, the pretty girl down the street whom he might have ended up marrying one day if she had only shown him a little more damn respect. — Andrew Baker, Highland Park, NJ

While “It was a dark and stormy night…” provides lots of humor, we don’t really want to distract you from your serious writing — especially the writing of your opening paragraph. Instead, let us share a few tips with you:

Thoughts on Writing Your Opening Paragraph

Faster than a speeding bullet.

In a New York minute.

Life in the fast lane.

Everywhere we turn, we are told to move quickly, get the job done, reach the next goal. Even Amazon urges us to “Order in the next 37 minutes to get this item by tomorrow.”

So it’s not surprising that when we begin a memoir or novel, we want to toss off a paragraph or two to get the story started. Then we can get on with the serious business of telling our story.


Slow down.

Give careful attention to the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page. The opening of your book is your first, best, and perhaps only opportunity to get your reader interested. The opening is much more than a hook to grab your reader, but the hook needs to be there. You might consider the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero: “It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.”

Use the seven items below to help with your reflection, force of character, and judgment when crafting your opening:

1. Hook your reader; compel him or her to want to know what comes next. Don’t think the reader will be patient with you until you can get around to the actual story.

2. Lean in. Share a sense of excitement as you build energy both in your story and in the reader’s anticipation.

3. Create the beginning of a relationship with the reader–a relationship that will deepen over the following pages.

4. Set the tone. If you begin with humor or horror then you have set the reader’s mind.

5. Establish the point of view.

6. Show tension — internal or external.

7. Foreshadow the larger issue/problem/story.

The opening can be written in as many ways as there are authors and stories. I’ve asked students to write two completely different openings to a memoir vignette and then explain what they like and dislike about each. Next the rest of the class shares their reactions. It is fascinating how one opening is almost universally considered better by the whole group. Usually it has to do with an emotional link to the story.

What’s the opening to your memoir or novel?

Pamela Jane Bell, author of fiction and nonfiction books, is a regular guest blogger at WomensMemoirs.com. She has announced a FIRST PARAGRAPH contest and we want to invite you to submit your first paragraph. Perhaps you will be one of our winners. Be sure to click on the link below right away and get all the details. Then remember to submit before the end of September 3, 2014. Winners will be announced in late September.

Contest Rules

Writing Prompt for Powerful Openings

1. Go to your bookshelves and pull out five novels. Open each to the first page and copy the opening sentence or paragraph onto the page or your computer. You could just read these but copying them helps you begin to analyze what you are reading.

2. Analyze each of the five paragraphs. Do any use dialogue to introduce the story or a character? Is there anything distinctive about the dialogue in tone or dialect? Is there any physical description of a character? What about the emotional tone? Do you already care about the story just on the basis of the opening paragraph? If so, why? If not, why not? And finally, indicate which one you like the most and decide why. This may give you insights into how you might begin your story.

3. Now, having looked at fiction, take five memoirs from your shelves. Repeat the exercise above.

4. Compare your notes about fiction and nonfiction openings. Could some of the techniques in fiction be applied to nonfiction? Could some of the nonfiction openings be used with fiction?

5. If you have already written the first paragraph to your memoir or memoir vignette, go back and read it again. Consider what you have been reading and see if any of the approaches might make your introduction stronger.

6. Give special attention to the first sentence. Sometimes your best sentence is buried in the paragraph and just moving it to first place (or deleting the “warm up” sentences before it) will strengthen your entire paragraph.

Enjoy this exercise. And when you are satisfied with your paragraph, be sure to send it to us. But to be considered, you must follow the rules of the contest. Go to:

Contest Rules


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