Contest with Courtney Sheinmel and NWP!

This week, Figment is partnering with the National Writing Project, an institution dedicated to developing the craft of writing, to bring you a contest about crafting story beginnings!

To judge this contest, we’ve brought in Courtney Sheinmel (author of My So-Called Family and All the Things You Are), who believes that the beginnings of stories aren’t just about hooking the reader, but are about establishing voice, setting plot foundations, and opening up the field of possibilities. We asked Courtney to share her thoughts on beginnings:

Q: Besides hooking us, what purpose does an opening line serve?

It’s our first clue as to how the narrator sees the world.  Is she naïve or jaded, is there something she’s eagerly anticipating or something she’s dreading?  (Or whether HE is any of those things – but I always write about girls.)  Also, that opening line is what gets me excited about the possibilities to come, and anxious to write more so I can find out what happens.

Q: Do you constantly revisit the beginning of a story while writing?

The beginning of a book – the first chapter, really – is a revelation to me.  I can’t outline anything else, or even really think about what comes next in the story, until that first part is there on the page.  And I go back to the beginning, again and again.  I know all the rereading just extends the writing process, but I can’t help myself:  It helps me stay grounded, and to clarify the story I want to tell.

Q: Tell us how you establish voice in the beginning of a story.

This is going to sound hokey, and I wish I had real advice to impart, but the truth is the voice just sort of comes to me:  I hear that first line in my head, in a voice that is not quite my own, and I write from there. The trick is to be consistent as I get further into the story.

Q: Tell us about how you structured the beginning of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE.

The narrator, Carly, has a pretty cool life at the beginning of the story, so I wanted to capture that, and still drop a couple hints that not everything is as it seems – and not even Carly knows about everything under the surface of her nearly perfect life.

Q: ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE is centered around the revelation of a secret about the main character Carly’s mom. Why is this kind of revelation a compelling idea to build a novel around?

A few years back, when I was working as a lawyer, a potential client came into my office and confessed a big secret:  She had been embezzling funds from her job to pay for things for her kids.  The authorities were onto her, and the fallout was going to change so many things about her life and her children’s lives.  Her kids didn’t even know about it, and I could only imagine how scared, angry and betrayed they’d feel when they found out not only what their mom had done but also that she was headed to prison.  It struck me how one bad decision could call into question all the things about a person, and I wasn’t sure that was right:  After all, wasn’t this woman still a nice person, still a devoted mom?  With this book, I wanted to show what changes when a big secret is revealed, and what stays the same—particularly when that revelation is between a parent and a child.  To me, that was a compelling plotline.

Inspired by Courtney’s story and the importance of first lines, we’re giving you this challenge: write a short story in fewer than 750 words (I know, it’s hard!) with this as the first line:

“I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten.  But now I knew, and we could never go back.”

How to Enter:
1. Sign up for an account on Figment
2. Create something new
3. Tag it “NWPstarter”
4. Press “Publish Now”
5. Wait the 2 or so hours it sometimes takes for your story to appear BELOW.

The deadline is Sunday, July 17 at 9PM EST. Then you have the power to determine the top entries by hearting your favorites; the top 10 hearted entries at 9pm EST on July 21st will go to Courtney Sheinmel, who will judge the winner. The winner will receive a prize pack with signed copy of Courtney’s latest book, a Moleskine notebook, some funky pens, and a Figment tote. And, of course, the right to brag to everyone you know that Courtney Sheinmel loved your story. Good luck, everyone!

1. One entry per person, please.
2. The promotion of your contest entry is not allowed on Figment. This includes self-promotion and the promotion of other users’ contest entries in the Figment forums, the comments and reviews of stories, and the Figment Facebook page. Independent promotion on sites unrelated to Figment, like personal Facebook or Twitter accounts, is fine.
3. Works must be submitted according to the instructions above between the announcement of the contest and the closure of the contest. Entries posted on Figment before the start date or after the end date will not be included in the pages of contest entries and will be ineligible to win. This means a new book must be created for the contest; adapting an old Figment piece published before the start of the contest will make the entry ineligible to win.
4. The rules of the contest are both strict and open to interpretation by a moderator.
5. The creation of multiple accounts to heart or otherwise vote for your contest entry on Figment is prohibited, and may result in the disqualification of that entry, the deletion of your Figment account, and/or the blocking of your IP address permanently from the site, at the moderator’s discretion.


44 thoughts on “Contest with Courtney Sheinmel and NWP!

  1. Oh, I wish I could enter! I have several ideas running through my head, though I don’t know how many are that unique from the prompt. I’m going on vacation for a month and the first part is camping, so no internet… Hmm… maybe I could write it tonight though…
    Anyways, very cool prompt. I wonder how unique the different entries will be!

  2. I’m pretty sure there’s a typo: “I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten. But now I knew, and we could never go back.” Shouldn’t it be “But now I know..”?

  3. This sounds fun!! So, let me get this straight, though. This story for the NWP contest can be any style, any genre, and basically about anything as long as it starts with that opening line? Or is there something else i’m missing? Also, the word limit is going to kill me!!! Thanks for understanding, though. It might even help me to not be such of a ‘drag it out’-er, whatever that may mean to you.
    Rose, that’s terrible you can’t write it! I guess you could rush it, but I wouldn’t advise it. (Sorry if I sound like an old grandma) How long will you be camping? Maybe there’s time to do some tonight, and then some when you get back! Try, maybe!

    • Hi Calamity

      Yes, it can be any style, genre, and be about anything, as long as you use the opening line provided.

    • Camping for like five days… Right now I’m at a fancy inn for a night before we get to the national park. I could probably do it tonight but I don’t think I would be able to make the finalists because you really have to get it hearted in the first couple days and I couldn’t update, groom it, and plant it on my followers desks, or do some general swaps and prehaps get some reads.
      Very cool prompt though.

  4. I think that this is a really neat idea for a contest. Most of the contests have been really neat and I have enjoyed them. The only problem is that the winner isn’t always determined by best entry, but by popularity. I’m not denying that the winners didn’t deserve it, because they obviously did. But I do think that there are tons of amazing entries out there that don’t have a chance because no one has given it the time of day and they don’t have a lot of followers to come across it. Is there any way that the winners could be determined by judging every entry and not the most hearted ones? If so I think that would add a lot of improvement to this site! 🙂

  5. Hi! I like this idea! It seems awesome! But i have a question! Does the prompt count as part of the 750 words or not? It’s probably obvious but my brain had fallen asleep and i’d love to know! lol

    And are there any runner up prizes? (wishful thinking! maybe? )


    RJ 😀

    • Hi Rachel

      The only thing the prompt asks for is that two lines given begin the actual contest entry, so you would have the freedom to take it in any direction you like. Feel free to email me at if you have any other questions. Best of luck!

  6. I have a question, is the second line suppose to say knew or know? To me, “knew” doesn’t sound right.

    • Hi Tamara

      It was a stylistic choice to have the sentence worded that way, so please work with it as best you can without altering it. Please feel free to email me at if you have any other questions.

  7. Is it okay of you say “I wish spoken words were things that could be erased, forgotten. But now I KNOW, and we could never go back,” instead of “but now I knew”???

  8. Perhaps an obvious question, but are any of the sponsored contests restricted by age? I know you must be 13 to have a Figment account, but are these open to adults as well? Just checking. Thank you!

    • Hi Amanda

      The only age restriction we have is that users be exactly 13 years of age or older to join, as well as to participate. Other than that, members of any age are welcome! Feel free to email me at if you have any other questions.

  9. From what I’ve seen on the forum, we’re not allowed to promote our entries, right? Only other stories/poems that we’ve written.

    • Hi Tanu

      Yes, promotion of contest entries is now allowed anywhere on Figment. But, users are allowed to promote any other work they have (provided they are not contest entries). Feel free to email me at if you have any other questions.

  10. Pingback: Contests | LMWP Summer Institute 2011

  11. So does the prompt HAVE to be the very FIRST line? Or could it be in the third? Sorry this is a really stupid question.

    • Hi A

      Not a stupid question at all!! The prompt asks that the line given begin the story, so yes, it should be the first line. Feel free to email me at if you have any other questions.

  12. This is my first time entering and I’m a little curious. Above it says “The deadline is Sunday, July 17 at 9PM EST. Then you have the power to determine the top entries by hearting your favorites; the top 10 hearted entries at 9pm EST on July 21st will go to Courtney Sheinmel, who will judge the winner.”

    Does that mean the hearts don’t count til after the deadline or do the hearts count as soon as it is published below?

    • Hi Jocelyn

      Entries can begin collecting hearts as soon as they’re published, and all the hearts gained by the voting deadline will count towards the entry’s standing. So the top 10 entries with the most amount hearts by 9PM EST on July 21st will become finalists. I hope this helps, and please feel free to email me at if you have any other questions.

  13. Hi, My mom has tried several times to sign up for an account; however, she keeps getting an error message. She said it’s as though the site won’t recognize her e-mail address. Do others have this problem? Any suggestions?

  14. I really wish this entry wasn’t judged by the number of hearts. It really makes it into a popularity contest and gives lesser known authors a HUGE disadvantage.

  15. My story didn’t show up!!!! It’s called The unspoken wish! I looked for it and could not find it! What happen??? 🙁 Does this mean I’m not in the contest???

  16. Never mind!!! I found it!!! False alarm!!! 😛 It was on page 8 but I was looking at the last pages cuz I thought, since I had turned it in so late that it would be on a later page!!! Lets just say today is not my day!!! 🙂

    Sorry & Love,
    Jorden!!! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *