WomensMemoirs First Paragraph Contest: Silver Winners Revealed

by Pamela Jane on October 7, 2014

catnav-news-active-3Post #110 – Memoir Writing News – Matilda Butler

Memoir Contest Winner

Pamela Jane Bell Announces the Silver Winners in Women’s Memoirs First Paragraph Contest

Moving Right Along

We have more great First Paragraph contest winners for you. Last week, Pamela Jane Bell announced the second installment of the Bronze Winners.  If you didn’t see them, CLICK HERE. We hope you’ll take the time to congratulate all the winners we have announced so far, including today’s Silver Winners.

A Word About These Entries

Today we are announcing our First Paragraph Silver Winners, which are all outstanding pieces. You will notice a change in the way we handle our comments. Obviously, the higher up we go, the better the paragraph. But it is also true that the higher up we go with the winners, the more we want to use the entries to help all of our community grow as writers.

In a few of these entries, we left the first paragraph at its original length, even when they exceeded 150 words, because we wanted to illustrate how it would read if some of the material were deleted.

What does this mean? In addition to highlighting what we like about these paragraphs, we also indicate ways that they might shine even more. You’ll often notice that we suggest cutting material and moving it to a place later in the first chapter. Actually, we love the detail in the material, but too much detail too soon can cause the first paragraph to drag. Once a reader is engaged, then the same material helps to hold the reader’s attention and bring the reader into the scene.

And More Winners To Come, Stay Tuned

In future posts, we will be announcing the other winning entries, as follows:

October 14, 2014:  Announcement of Gold winners and publication of their first paragraphs along with a brief discussion of facets of these entries, facets that helped bring them to the Gold level.

October 21, 2014:  Announcement of Grand-Prize winners and publication of their first paragraphs accompanied with a discussions of what made these entries rise to the top.

A Reminder about Our Prizes

Each category of winners has its own set of prizes. Today’s Silver Winners receive:

a. Name and book title listed on our website.

b. First paragraph published and noteworthy sentences bolded and/or a comment by Pamela Jane.

c. Silver Award Certificate emailed to each Silver winner.

d. FREE Kindle version of one of the four ten-time award-winning anthologies in the SEASONS OF OUR LIVES (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) series

All right, Pamela. I’ll turn this over to you.

Pamela Jane Bell Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently seeking an agent for her memoir.

First Paragraph SILVER WINNERS

Commentary by Pamela Jane Bell

(Please note “m” is memoir, “f” is fiction)

Cara Achterberg f.

Pamela: Cara’s first three sentences grabbed me because of their universality.  Who has not felt that, looking back (by only a day or even an hour) life was good?  It reminds me of the Beatle’s song “Yesterday” (“all my troubles seemed so far away…”) or Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters: “I was happy, but I just didn’t realize I was.”  Cara’s paragraph seems to wander a bit after her strong opening; she might consider trimming or refocusing italicized sentences below to get back on track.

Cara Achterberg for “I’m Not Her”

I really didn’t see it coming. Just last week my life was my life. Maybe a bit narrowly lived, but still it was my life. I walk into the Shop N Save to grab the weekly donuts for the staff meeting. I’m not invited to the staff meeting, but that’s not the point. I’m only an assistant claims adjuster. […Truth be told, I don’t really adjust anything, except everyone else’s paperwork. I don’t eat donuts either, too much sugar, white flour, and fat.]

Carol D’Agostino m.

Pamela: Carol’s first sentence states a shocking event in a matter-of-fact tone, which is one of the reasons it delivers a real punch.  The “cooler” approach to highly dramatic situations works well because, by understating the horror of what happened, you trust your reader to supply the emotional reaction.  Carol injects her own point of view only in the last sentence after she has presented the facts and allowed the readers to respond on their own.

Carol D’Agostino for “The Angle Of Life”

One of my clients shot himself today.  David made sure his cat was fed and then closed his bedroom door.  Laid down in bed with pillows tucked tightly around his head.  Put a revolver in his mouth and blew his brains out.  He knew that to do the job right you have to angle the gun up towards the back of the head. Otherwise you risk failing in your attempt and spending the rest of your life in a brain-damaged, living hell.

Libby J. Atwater m.

Pamela: Libby’s opening carries us into her story sentence by sentence. She begins by reminding us of the culture of the late 1940s and then reveals the attitudes and knowledge of young women at that time. The culture stands in sharp contrast in our minds with today’s attitudes. What’s important about this opening is that Libby resets the mind of the reader, taking her back into an earlier time. She leaves us wondering how this affected her, how she found out she was adopted, and the how and why she found her birth mother, and what life was like after she found out. If you can get your reader asking questions and wondering about your protagonist, then you are close to getting them hooked on your story.

Libby J. Atwater for “What Took You So Long?”

I entered the world one Sunday afternoon in mid-February 1948, the firstborn child of an unwed fifteen-year-old. Her Catholic parents were surprised by my arrival. So, says my mother, was she. It was the age of secrets, and my mother’s family kept many. As a result, my grandmother hadn’t bothered to tell my mother the facts of life. When she and my grandfather saw my mother’s stomach swelling, they assumed she had been eating too much pasta. Imagine how shocked they were when I appeared! As first-generation Italian immigrants, they were ashamed that their daughter had given birth out of wedlock. I’m told that when my mother asked to hold me, the nurse replied, “No, this baby’s going to be adopted.” And so I was. The family practice of omerta (Italian for keeping a secret until death) began that day and continued for nearly fifty-seven years.

Jeanette Bishop m.

Pamela: Jeanette pulled me in with the lush, idyllic description of her childhood, then pulled me up with her last sentence. I like the way she contrasts the past she would have liked to live with the (implied) reality of her early life, and I hope she maintains the tension of that contrast throughout her story.

Jeanette Bishop for “For the Life of Me” (working title)

Our Country House

It seems like a good idea to start the story of my life by describing the house where I first lived and grew up–the big porch surrounding the front and one side, the porch swing squeaking like a young bird’s chirp as we sat sipping lemonade, the wisteria climbing over the arbor, my room upstairs, and rowdy kids running all over.  The great expanse of green lawns surrounded by lush shrubbery where the siblings ran barefoot like wild animals at play, and where my dignified uncles and aunts came by on weekends to play croquet, followed by brisk and stimulating conversation, enriching my life. I was rarely alone. There was always somebody to ride with on the merry-go-round at the fair as we all scrambled to get on the horse we wanted.

But that would be fictitious. Here’s the way it really was…

Memoir Writing Award Certificate

Robin Botie m.

Pamela:  This is an extremely effective and original opening.  Robin’s first sentence pulls us right into her story in much the same way as the narrator’s dead daughter pulls her mother upstairs into her room.  The mother’s questions to herself as she enters her late daughter’s room feel genuine and real; these are the same questions we would or have asked ourselves when faced with a similar loss. It’s possible that Robin could cut some of the description of the room (see italics, below) and weave those into the story as the narrative moves ahead. 

Robin Botie for “In the Wake of Marika: A Memoir of Guarding Life”

My dead daughter drags me up the stairs and into her bedroom.

“Look,” she says. It is the night of the first day I returned home forever without her. I look around the four corners of her room as home is changed for the rest of my life and my role in the world is redefined. Am I still the mother of a daughter? Am I the mother of two children or only one now? Time is reset to the new time zone, After Marika. I sink into the four quilts that top her red-railed double bed and sniff, searching for her dwindling scent left buried in the linens.  […The room is a visual cacophony of red, sea blues and chartreuse, fabrics and furnishings in retro and floral designs.] Every inch and corner is crammed with stuffed animals, photos, books, and memorabilia. Nothing has been thrown out in years. The room is so full and I am completely empty.

Juliet Cutler m.

Pamela: Juliet has written a beautiful and compelling first paragraph.  Her sense of place is palpable and the rhythm of her prose is entrancing.  She writes with clarity and confidence, skillfully drawing the reader on and into her story.

Juliet Cutler for “Sacred Tears”

The Great Rift Valley is an unforgiving place. During the dry season, it is a dusty, radiating cauldron of cracked earth. In the wet season, it is a verdant miracle rising from the very brink of despair. In the middle of this remote place is the heart of Maasailand. She was born here in April of 1984, during the long rains. Her mother, Naini, labored inside the round mud walls of her boma, while the rains that would bring life to Maasailand poured down upon the Great Rift Valley. When the labor was over, the midwife uttered the ancient and traditional Maa words often spoken to a newborn as the umbilical cord that tethers child to mother is cut, “You are now responsible for your life, as I am for mine,”—a tenacious pronouncement of Maasai self-determination even at birth.

Danielle A. Dahl  m.

Pamela: Danielle’s opening paragraph artfully weaves a sense of place with the narrator’s feelings for her lost homeland. I didn’t want to lose the final, powerful second paragraph of her submission. Since it was a single sentence, I have included that as well. Possibly some of the descriptive material that preceded that sentence could be cut and woven in later, so the narrator gets more quickly to the essence of the story. Of course, it’s possible that since the story seems to focus on place this amount of early description is appropriate. We’d need to know more about the rest of the content to make that decision.

Danielle A. Dahl  for “Mistral”

From High Above

Across the Strait of Gibraltar, beyond the slow-moving freighters, the nearby coast of Morocco stood in a blue haze. My glance crept eastward in search of the Algerian shore. The land our family fled forty years before.  I believed I saw it, far on the horizon. Or was it a string of clouds? I reached across the sea and let the tips of my fingers brush the land of my birth. A keen sense of loss forced a whimper past my lips. Yet, I could not turn away. For an instant, I relived the searing sun, the heady song of cicadas, the inebriating smells of eucalypti and cooking fires. I yearned for the purple mountains and vibrant sunsets foretelling of Sirocco, the desert wind that scrubs clean both land and men’s passions. I wanted to erase the decades and the loss.

I wanted to go home.

Patricia Florio m.

Pamela: Patricia’s opening is appealingly conversational and intimate, as though she’s talking to her best friend. Although the paragraph is rich with visual detail, the descriptions don’t distract the reader but provide a surprising contrast to the fact that, in spite of all the beauty and pomp, this bride doesn’t feel like she’s in her own skin.  The opening could be made stronger by deleting the italicized section below; the ending will be even more startling if everything preceding it appears perfect.

Patricia Florio for “Searching for the Man in the Gray Fedora”

I felt numb walking down the aisle of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church with my right arm hooked into the crook of my father’s as bridesmaids started down the aisle in front of me. They all wore red velvet evening dresses that illuminated the flames in the candle-light ceremony. They had their hands tucked inside white furry muffs held hip high that looked like a scene created right out of Dr. Zhivago. My feet traveled slowly up the steps of the church and into the corridor, taking care with every step not to catch my heel in the lace of my flowing veil. […Self conscious about the size of my double D breasts, Aunt Dolly sewed for me a floor length lightly beaded tunic to wear over the bridal gown to hide the top weight of my hundred and twenty pound body.] The organist began playing, “Here comes the bride.”  As I walked down the aisle, my eyes focused straight ahead, not glancing towards family or friends sitting in pews. The lyrics of the song sounded like: dum, dum, dum, dum; you’re dumb, dumb, dumb . . .   the way I felt; this couldn’t really be happening to me but to someone else whose body I was housing for the day.

Karie Fugett m.

Pamela: Karie’s first sentence really grabs the reader’s attention.  And it made me wonder if an amputee or an amputation will play a part in the narrator’s future.  I took the liberty of publishing Karen’s full first paragraph because I think it’s a good example of a strong piece that could benefit from a little cutting.  By shortening or deleting the italicized section below, we get more quickly to narrator’s keen musings at the end of the paragraph.  The details in the italicized section are great and definitely belong in the story. The suggested cut material could be added later in the story once Karie has the reader’s full attention.

Karie Fugett for “American April:  A Memoir”

The first time I ever saw an amputee was in 2006 at Bethesda Naval Hospital when I was 20 years old. He was an attractive guy, probably around the age of 22, with overgrown brunette hair, the beginnings of a beard, and both legs missing just above the knees. Behind him, his wife, a blonde woman around the same age, struggled to push him up an obstacle course of small inclines that littered the hall leading to the hospital’s cafeteria. […The halls were a dull gray and windowless, reminiscent of most hospitals in my experience, except for a short section which opened up to floor-to-ceiling windows and double doors that allowed much needed sunshine to flood in and led to a small and surprisingly well kept garden and smoking area.] I stood alone in the garden next to the ashtray, my left arm across my torso, my right hand holding a Marlboro Light to my mouth. I stared through the window and watched the woman’s small frame push into the handlebars of her husband’s wheelchair, heaving his weight with determination as he casually ate what looked to be a meatball sub from Subway. Though pushing him looked uncomfortable, I could tell she had been doing it for a while; she didn’t seem fazed. As they rolled past, I looked down at the space where the man’s legs should have been and, as quickly as I wondered what or who took his legs from him, I thought, “I wonder how they have sex…”

Carmen Lee m.

Pamela: Carmen’s opening is colorful and well-written, and the conflict she’s experiencing is expressed dramatically through inner dialogue.  She leaves us in suspense so that we want to read on and find out what has brought the narrator to this point.

Carmen Lee  for “Nude In Times Square”

I clutched the steering wheel of my old yellow station wagon as it swerved around the dark, twisting country road.  My eyes jumped with the high beams from one side of the road to the other searching for deer, cows, anything. Sweat poured down my face joining the tears.  Beside me Sidka sat panting in the heat. His long pink tongue drooped over one side of his mouth.  I felt his hot breath on my cheek, hotter than the stifling air in the car.  Guilt joined my building anxieties. Why did I bring Sidka? Am I that miserable that I have to kill my dog, too? Kill? Who said anything about killing?

It’s the pills, I thought.

Devon McPherson f.First Paragraph Contest Winner

Pamela: Devon’s opening is funny, lively and entertaining.  Her writing has an infectious rhythm and a great voice for narrating a tall tale.  I especially liked the contrast between the rollicking opening and the last sentence with its appealing poignancy and simplicity.  This promises to be a great tale.

Devon McPherson forThe Idiocy and the Odyssey of Tarnation Sparks and Murfles McGee”

If you had told me two weeks ago that I’d be sitting in the hoosegow in Alaska for stealing a blue-eyed albino moose with my best friend Murfles, after being chased across Canada by a dwarf and a fortuneteller, I’d have told you that you were crazy. Those things don’t happen to two girls from the mountains of Montana. But here I sit in this cell. The warden slams the door shut in Murfles pink, freckled face and leaves us to contemplate how we ended up here when all I wanted was to meet my Daddy for the first time.

Hollis Milark m.

Pamela: Hollis successfully and succinctly paints an ominous scene in her first paragraph.  The contrast between the innocent almost comforting image of an old house settling for the night and the steps of some unseen menacing figure approaching the narrator is extremely effective.

Hollis Milark for “Mary, Jesus and the Easter Bunny”

When I was a child, we lived in an old house that was filled with many creaks and groans, ghosts and apparitions. Lying in bed at night I’d hear the floor boards creak step by step up the hallway. I was told by my mother that it was just the boards rising back to their original positions.  Little did I know then that these were real footsteps and what would happen to me when they did arrive.

Lilith Rogers f.

Pamela:  First of all – full disclosure! – Lilith’s paragraph reminds me of parts of my own memoir and mindset in the 1970s.  But beyond that, I think the casual tone and relaxed pace of this opening works well, and makes the reader want to follow these characters and share the colorful adventures and situations they will no doubt stumble into.


Lilith Rogers for “One Week Ahead of Time: Tales of the 70s”


When our crazy landlady in San Francisco doubled our rent to force us out–she said we took too many baths–we decided we’d hung on to that flat as long as we could. Another summer under the fog seemed too dreary a prospect to face anyway, and since there was a baby to play with and no jobs to hold us in the city, we thought we’d look for a place in the country to stay for a while.  We drove north about an hour on 101 and when we crossed the border into Sonoma County, we just started looking. Any place anywhere near the Russian River would do fine we thought. But realtors, small town classifieds and college bulletin boards didn’t turn up much. There were not many places for rent, and the few there were cost too much for the likes of us…

Ellen Schecter f.

Pamela:  Ellen’s first paragraph is poetic and highly visual, yet riveting.  There is a startling, stark contrast between the beauty of the language and the sense of violence or danger that permeates the scene.  These kinds of contrasts and “clashes” give a story texture, tension (the good kind) and electricity.

Ellen Schecter for “Crazy Things I Did For Love”

I wake on the far side of midnight, wind and rain streaming in on my face, yellow-orange-red urgency lights swirling, tinting the rain, a racket of sirens shrieking near and nearer. I’m lying on my right side across the back seat of the car. The window above my head is open, maybe gone, and every gust of wind scatters sparkling, sharp, pale-green glass over my head and shoulders along with sparkling, soft drops of rain. The spikey green glass stays where it lands; the cool water seeps into my hair and clothes…

Sister Rosemarie Stevens m.colors

Sister Rosemarie Stevens for “The Goddess Whisperer“

Pamela: Sister Rosemarie’s opening locates the reader in what seems to be an easy to imagine world of a young woman deciding to become a Sister. She does this through a single sentence of dialogue that makes this an intimate yet shared moment. Then in her second sentence, she sweeps us away to the world of Africa and the changes in her thoughts about God, Christ, and even Christianity. In doing this, she has changed our heads about her life and encouraged us to wonder what happened in her journey into “African colors.”

“Join the cloister and see the world,” my sister remarked.  One walks through a Monastery door longing to be hidden forever in the Heart of God and His Immense Silence – only to be called forth to Africa to discover God is more “Mother” than “Father,” Christ is Black, and Christianity must be re-thought and expressed in African colors…

Heather Temple m.

Pamela: Heather’s memoir promises to be colorful and humorous; she has a strong voice and I’m ready to get in beside her in one of those rigs and take the ride!

Memoir Contest Winner

Heather Temple for “Rubies In My Mirror”


It was the same old question that only varied by the region, ethnicity and age of the person doing the asking.  “What’s a purty little thang like you doin’ drivin’ that big-rig?” says the big, burly driver at the fuel desk of the truck stop. “My goodness!  Did I just see you get out of the drivers seat of that truck!  How on earth did you learn to do that?” says the little old lady in the restaurant parking lot in Vermont. The answers I wanted to give depended on my mood and how tired I was.  Like, “Because I guess they ran out of big, fat, ugly guys at all the truck driving schools”.  Or, “Screw those pin curls into that blue hair a little tighter ma’am, and welcome to the 20th century where women actually can do the same job as a man!” But, it’s a fair question and one for which I don’t have a definitive answer.  At the time I made the decision to go to truck driving school I was about to lose my job, was having marital troubles and possibly going through a mid-life crisis…”

Linda Thomas m.

Pamela:  This is a well-written and gripping first paragraph.  Verbs such as “dipping,” “jerked,” “snapped,” and “punched” bring the action to life.  And, as someone who is also inventive at imagining potential dangers, I related to the narrator’s shock and surprise.

Linda Thomas for “Oh God Don’t Make Me Go Don’t Make Me Go: Scruffy and Winded and Brimming with Tales” (working title)

I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Roland, a seasoned jungle aviator, as he piloted the custom twin-engine toward a small South American airfield. I’d flown in our three planes a number of times, but this was a first: watching the landing from the copilot’s seat. Dipping low, touchdown was three or four seconds away when the wing on my side of the plane catapulted into the air—slammed by a horizontal wind shear. Red lights flashed in the cockpit. A buzzer bawled somewhere. Roland jerked levers and slapped switches and punched buttons. The lopsided plane shuddered. “Oh, God!” I prayed, but I couldn’t say more—I couldn’t even breathe. Of all the potential dangers I’d braced myself for on this trip—kidnapping, murder, and guerrilla activity aimed toward U.S. citizens—I’d never thought of a plane crash.

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe  m.

Pamela: Kuukua presents an intriguing premise, and her writing style is straight-forward, moving, and imaginative. (I like the light tone set when she compares the color of her skin to various kinds of popular chocolate candy.)  She also achieves the elusive intimate voice that is so appealing-–the feeling that the narrator is speaking directly to the reader as a close friend or confident. Look at her first sentence. It’s short. It’s simple. Through it Kuukua gets right to the heart of her story.

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe  for “The Darker Sister”

I am the dark one. My hands, elbows, knees and feet give me away the most. They tell the world I do not belong in my family of light-skinned Africans. Sometimes I look at the inside of my thighs and my belly and wonder why the rest of my body doesn’t match. If my whole body was this shade of brown then my family wouldn’t complain about me not taking any of the “White” blood that runs in the family. On the scale from Cadbury’s white chocolate to a Hershey’s bar, I am a Whoppers Maltese ball. I play a game with myself whenever mom and I go to town: I count how many people I meet who have a darker skin shade.  One might say that I am slightly obsessed with color. I think it’s because my family makes such a big deal about it. Once I was mistaken for the maid because she was light like everyone else in the family; people thought she belonged and I didn’t.

A Word About the Kindle eBooks Silver and Grand Winners will receive one of our four award-winning, best-selling Kindle ebooks: Seasons of Our Lives: Spring Seasons of Our Lives: Summer Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn Seasons of Our Lives: Winter

CONGRATULATIONS We congratulate each of these authors and we hope you’ll post your best wishes and thoughts to them in the comment section below.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK Be sure to return next week for the Gold winners, their first paragraphs, and Pamela’s highlights about what she likes most about each.

Please Note Future Prizes as follows:


a. Name and book title listed on our website.

b. First paragraph published and individual comments by Pamela Jane.

c. Gold Certificate will be emailed to each Gold winner.

d. Choice of free copy of either Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep — or — The [Essential] Women’s Mention Writing Workshop: 21 Online Video Lessons


a. Name and book title listed on our website.

b. First paragraph published and individual comments by Pamela Jane on the paragraph.

c. Grand Winner Certificate will be emailed to each Grand Winner.

d. Free Kindle version of one of the four anthologies in the SEASONS OF OUR LIVES (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) series.

e. Choice of free copy of either Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep — or — The [Essential] Women’s Mention Writing Workshop: 21 Online Video Lessons


Every First Paragraph entry was read and rated when we received it.  In addition, all first paragraphs were read and scored a second time, and cutoff scores were established for the Honorable Mentions, Bronzes, Silvers, Golds, and Grand Winners.

Every person who entered this contest is a winner because you had the courage and confidence to share your writing with others.  So whether you received an award or not, we thank you for participating and urge you to enter other contests we’ll be holding.   And most importantly–even to those who did not enter our contest this time–keep writing!

Womens Memoirs Logo, memoir writing

Pamela Jane is the author of thirty children’s books published by Houghton Mifflin, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, Penguin-Putnam, Harper, and others. Her newest book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic was featured in The Wall Street JournalThe Huffington Post, and BBC America, among other places. She recently finished her memoir Shout!  How I Lost Everything and Found My Voice: A Writer’s Journey.

Just in time for Halloween! Pamela’s recent Halloween picture book, Little Goblins Ten, illustrated by NY Times best-selling llustrator, Jane Manning, is based on the old country rhyme, “Over in the Meadow.” Here’s what’s being said about it:

“…trust the team of Jane and Manning to conjure up an impressive new vision in time for Halloween —Kirkus starred review

The classic counting rhyme ‘Over in the Meadow’ goes spooky in this Halloween riff, which should endure well past Oct. 31 —New York Times Book Review

Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…Manning’s quirky and expressive monster families are 10 kinds of cute.” —Publishers Weekly

[MATILDA SAYS:] Although Pamela and I have never met in person, we have come to know each other well across several years when she has written articles for our website. She has my highest respect as an author who writes and publishes within her genre but who also stretches herself with other writing.

I know her children’s books as well as her popular book for adults that is a spin on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And now, she has completed her memoir and is beginning to look for a publisher.

One of her books is appropriate for Halloween and belongs on your gift list for children, grandchildren, and if you are especially lucky, for great grandchildren. It’s Little Goblins Ten

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