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.