What grabs the reader's attention? What immediately draws you in and makes you want to read on? This month in our fantastic new series, Penny Holroyde from Holroyde Cartey, offers feedback on the opening lines submitted by our brave SCBWIs.
Penny Holroyde and Claire Cartey founded Holroyde Cartey in April 2015. They have both had long careers in publishing, Penny as an agent and rights director and Claire as an art director and designer.
We represent an internationally award-winning and bestselling roster of authors and illustrators working in all areas of children’s books and we’re always on the lookout for quality writing and illustration. As an agency we work closely with our clients to get manuscripts and portfolios in the best possible shape before submitting to publishers and we’re also active in the world of television and merchandising. We’d love to find a funny middle-grade series and a sophisticated stand-alone novel for the tween reader, and we’re interested in hearing from non-fiction authors. We’d also like to find illustrators who appeal to an older reader and illustrators who are confident in non-fiction.
FLIPPY THE DUCKLING is a picture book story for children aged up to three about a duckling who does what she's been told not to do and wanders off on her own to look for her Mummy and Daddy.
Spread 1a (In a tiny village) Flippy was pacing around Auntie Hen’s home, wondering where her Mummy and Daddy were. They said they’d pick her up soon. But it was already tea-time and they still weren’t back.
Spread 1b “Where’s Mummy? Where’s Daddy” she asked Auntie Hen. “They’ll be here soon,” clucked Auntie Hen carried away by her cleaning.
Spread 2 So Flippy asked the roly-poly rabbits if they had seen them. But they just shook their heads.
Spread 3 She asked the pigs squish-squashing in the mud. "No, no-one’s gone past here", they snorted without stopping their squishing and squashing.
Spread 4 "Perhaps they've gone for a walk," suggested Moo-Moo. “They didn’t tell me,” said Flippy even more worried.
Feedback from Penny:
This may be subjective but I’d advise the writer to avoid putting a target age in the pitch this way. ‘Picture book’ says it all plus I think this is a theme that parents could want to discuss with a child of up to 6 perhaps. The pitch purports to do what it says on the tin, I can’t tell from not having had enough to read, but it’s definitely a storyline that I would like to see pulled off in the picture book arena because it might be promising a way to educate a child not to wander off, plus educate the parent in how to have that conversation with that child, yet a good time was had by all!! Very clever. Very universal. Potentially big sales worldwide.
Opening lines: I might like to have seen Flippy with a more active voice here. She feels a bit passive where she is really a quite determined character, so, perhaps dispensing with the prologue altogether and have the opening line be “Where’s Mummy? Where’s Daddy?” depicted by a chagrined Flippy demanding an answer from Aunty. With that I think the story opens with a bit of jeopardy which can be really powerful in engaging a short attention span. Picture book authors are often advised that the text should not rely too much on the illustrations but this is an example where words and pictures might marry perfectly to move the story along when the author only has 12 spreads in which to tell it. The squish-squashing device is reminiscent of We’re Going a Bear Hunt’ and I hope they have a place in this text but I’m not entirely convinced they do from the short bit I’ve read.
The Moebius Trip (100,000 words) is a YA/crossover thriller set 70-90 years into the future with a unique twist on time travel. I wanted to write a compelling novel about the power of love that is both emotionally and intellectually intoxicating.
"Look!" Mum exclaimed as our pod peeled off from a by-passing convoy to head into the city. "The Venice of England."
My first view of Cambridge was of a network of waterways crammed with houseboats and buzzing with people paddling around on catamarans. As we snaked through interweaving lanes and streets, our pod had to make way for swarms of bikes and trikes, some tugging trailers, piled high with goods and emblazoned with brightly coloured logos and adverts for their services.
We passed beneath a monorail system that circled the city like a wheel. "I'd love a ride in that!" I said. Like I expected, neither Mum or Dad responded. They were both far too pissed off with me. Finally, Mum came out with what'd obviously been brewing in her mind since we left Nottingham.
"Remember, whatever happens don't mention the gun."
"Do you think I'd really–"
"If they don't bring it up. And even if they do. Leave all the talking to us."
Dad picked it up. "She means, you never heard of the gun before."
Feedback from Penny
I’d advise the writer to not go into first person in the elevator pitch because this bit is about the story, not the writer. I think this pitch should also say more about what’s going to happen here because it sounds rather generic - YA/Crossover, thriller, unique twist on time travel, and the power of love. Huh? But what’s the story? This is perhaps a bit picky but 100,000 words can be off putting so be economical with the truth here in your submission. Also, I find myself wondering if I’m pronouncing the title correctly and for a self-conscious target market, unless it has to be called that for reasons that become clear later in the narrative, the reader needs to be attracted before then so consider something more phonetic, perhaps?
Opening lines: hang on just a minute? In contrast to the generic description suddenly we have a pod, a convoy, waterways, and I know exactly what ride I’m on and I like it! But I’d like the writer to apply the pod brakes just a bit - this is clearly a different world, but people just aren’t that different (no kidding), so fleshing out this bonkers world with a bit of seemingly prosaic and scene-setting dialogue, could make this a very compelling opener. I can see the writer recognises this because the opening is nicely peppered with dialogue but’s it’s quite intense as is the narrative description and together they feel a bit full on! I’d suggest keeping the dialogue at this intensity but just chilling a bit on the setting – it’ll come – especially if there are 100,000 words (but I sincerely suggest trying to edit that down). I know this sounds a bit contradictory in advice – taking more time and cutting the word count - but I feel if it’s this intense all the way though, it might be a bit knackering for the reader. That said, I’d love to see this Cambridge.
Cupboard Boy – MG Adventure, humour and slightly surreal story about friendship. Alice in wonderland type adventure - that takes place inside the boy's chest - at the end of the story the boy comes back changed, has grown and accepts who he is and is ready for the outside world.
People have always been born with chests. Those chests should sit in between the neck and the belly.
On a coldish winter morning, when the midwives and doctors helped little Max into this world, they were not long to spot that his chest was very much unique. Where his chest was meant to be, sat a neatly built-in chest of drawers. Or a tiny little cupboard, one of the junior doctors suggested, which seemed an enlightened observation to all as newborns cannot be expected to carry anything, let alone fancy woodwork. Max seemed as happy as a newborn can be and so it was deemed that rather than asking for surgery, his parents should feel grateful that their otherwise healthy boy had been born with such a useful feature. The parents simply nodded to everything, not having asked for a thing in the first place.
Feedback from Penny
This is a compelling title for the target audience who loves a personal journey quest as much as the next adult and an audience who is also very tolerant of the surreal and always the funny. The pitch is a little generic though - ‘has grown and accepts who is he’ is a common enough storyline but what is this particular character’s storyline and quest? We want to know!
Opening lines: I assumed from the pitch that it was a real chest, you know, a blanket box which was a metaphor for the character’s feelings and journey but it is a real wooden chest in a real bodily cavity! I fear this might be difficult to pull off in terms of verisimilitude and engaging the readers’ empathy with the main character but that said, this is a main character with a very unusual set of trials. I quite like the retro voice but the author should be wary not to over write in this voice.
Thank you Penny for your time and professional feedback!
This is a great exercise in open writing, for those who have received personal feedback through the article, and for all of us who want to learn what makes those killer lines.
If you'd like to contribute to 'Opening Lines', please email an 'elevator pitch' and opening lines to Lou at firstname.lastname@example.org
Louise Cliffe-Minns is the Events Editor and joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures.