What grabs the reader's attention? What immediately draws you in and makes you want to read on?
Joanna Moult from Skylark Literary kindly joins us to offer feedback on the opening lines submitted by our brave SCBWIs ahead of the panel event ‘Hooking in New Readers’ at the Winchester Conference.
Joanna Moult is co-founder of Skylark Literary Limited, a specialist Children’s and YA literary agency. Previously she was Editorial Director for Children’s Fiction at Mulcahy Conway Associates, discovering and nurturing new talent. Joanna began her publishing career at Hodder Children’s Books, where she edited authors such as Cressida Cowell and Kes Gray. She then moved to become Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster, managing the children’s fiction list and editing Sophie McKenzie among many other talented authors.
Skylark Literary seeks out and supports the very best writers for young people. We specialise in nurturing talented authors, helping each to find their voice and develop their writing skills. The author/agent partnership is vital for every writer – thanks to our experience in major children’s publishing houses, we can help authors successfully navigate the complexities of the publishing world. Whether you have written a hilarious adventure for an emerging reader, a sweeping magic-carpet ride through a middle-grade fantasy or a sophisticated psychological thriller for teens, Skylark Literary can help your story soar!
Visit www.skylark-literary.com for more information, including submission guidelines. I’m afraid we aren’t currently representing picture books.
Outsider Evie is provoked into making a terrible wish that leaves her facing an impossible choice: find her loved ones or save the Sun Charm and the Kindred Kingdoms.
Intriguing! This one sentence is so tight and a super example of an elevator pitch. It offers a great sense of tension with Evie’s outsider status and lost loved ones, an indication of context with the Kindred Kingdoms, as well as an insight into the plot – she has to save the day! It leaves me asking questions such as how can someone be provoked into making a wish? Are the two tasks of saving loved ones and saving the Sun Charm mutually exclusive? Questions, questions! I’d like to see a little more about where the author sees this sitting in the market. Is it a YA thriller or an MG adventure? Ultimately this is a very strong one-sentence pitch. I want to read more!
Evie gripped the side of the bridge, trying to slow her breathing. She could hardly believe what she'd said. The looks on their faces! If the situation hadn't been so dire it would have been funny. A smile crept to her lips. Well, she'd finally stood up for herself. Serves them right! They should've kept their stupid mouths shut. It was a long time since she'd fought back, but today... today was different. Today she'd refused to take it any more. But as she gazed over the fast flowing river her smile soon faded; there would be consequences.
The opening lines draw the reader in with a strong tension from the outset. It’s clear that we are catching the end of a dramatic confrontation. Evie’s thoughts are very slightly repetitious but this is useful to a degree to reinforce Evie’s character and her situation. This reinforcement would be an ideal opportunity to add very slight contextual detail, either to the confrontation or the world she’s living in, to add richness and a stronger sense of where we are and what has been happening to Evie.
The Nowhere House: a novel for young adults. It’s a story about family relationships and in particular the difficult relationship between 15 year old twins Jess and Paul. It's about family secrets and individual identity: with a key character whose nature (is she real or spirit?) remains ambiguous: so that this might, or might not, be a ghost story. It’s up to the reader to decide…
This writer has given us a list of fascinating ingredients to a potentially wonderful story here! For me though, there’s not quite a strong enough of sense of the narrative arc. What is it about this story that will make the reader want to invest their time in reading this? Is it just to decide whether it is a ghost story or not? The potentially ghostly character is absolutely key here - with such an intriguing force at work the writer needs to be more confident, using more imperative language, to tell the reader exactly why we want to read her Jess and Paul’s story. All the elements are there for a fabulous hook, with a greater focus more on how a family’s life is affected by this mysterious person…
Thursday Jess It’s just an ordinary text.
Hi, Jess. I’m going to be really late tonight. You’ll need to get your own supper, ok? Don’t wait up for me. Can you remind Paul to a) eat and b) sleep, please? Thanks love. Mum xxxx
An ordinary mum text, with capital letters and commas in all the right places. Jess answers prob stayin at ninas tonite. Her fingers leave smears of sweat on the screen: little ghosts of the day. The air is thick with diesel fumes and summer. Under her feet the tarmac is toffee-soft. A trickle of sweat slides down her spine.
Tucking her phone away, she turns off the High Street and trails up the slight slope towards home. The pavement is sun-baked, the parched gardens wilt and droop. Among all the street noises – distant traffic, a TV, a kid crying – she hears the piano. It gets louder as she nears the house. Opening the front door is like releasing a flood: a massive wave of sound that surges over her. She steps into the hall and hurls the door shut. The glass rattles in the frame. The music stops.
‘That you, Jess?’
‘No, it’s the noise pollution police.’
She drops her bag at the bottom of the stairs and looks into the living room. The curtains are drawn against the sun that’s moved away from this side of the house hours ago. The floor’s strewn with empty Coke cans, a crumby plate, banana skins, Kit-Kat wrappers. There’s a smell of rotting fruit and sweat. Paul’s swivelled round on the piano stool to look at her. In the shaded orangey half-light, his bony face looks full of shadows. He runs a hand through his messy hair.
The opening lines have set the scene with some gorgeous description – I can really feel the summer heat and the chaos of the house. Again, it’s important to give the reader a sense of what is going to be happening in the book, even in the first few opening lines. By giving some indication of Jess’s reaction to such ‘usual’ things as her mother’s text, the heat, the messy house, it would give the reader a sense of why this girl’s life is going to be interesting and why we should care about her. Is she frustrated? Bored? What might change or be disrupted to drive the story? With such lovely details and description I certainly found myself wanting to know more about Jess’s situation so it’s a great start!
KISS – a young teen fantasy novel. ‘Erikakaka is a Yumun Bean which is a cross, over many generations, between humans and broad beans. Ka is swallowed by a huge rock and spat out into different lands where she goes on multiple adventures and meets loads of fantasy creatures. She makes lots of friends... and unfriends during her many trips. Take nothing for granted and expect the unexpected!’
This is certainly an original concept! The ‘yumun bean’ element is a fun joke. This sort of construct, with different lands, allows huge scope for lots of very interesting adventures which is fabulous, particularly for younger readers who respond particularly well to series. The target age of ‘young teen’ is interesting as I would have imagined that this concept and humour of ‘Yumun Beans’ would have been aimed a younger audience so the writer has set themselves quite a challenge to take this to an older readership. That said, it sounds like there’s enormous opportunity for lots of lovely adventures!
“No! Please don’t!” screamed Erikakaka in her sleep.
Erikakaka’s dad went running into her room again… she was having another nightmare. “Shhh, shhh, it’s OK sweetie” Ka’s dad said, sitting on her bed and gently stroking her head to comfort her. “Was it the same nightmare again?”
A nightmare can be a useful device for creating tension from the outset. To make the most of it perhaps there could be more detail about the nightmare was about, either through what Erikakaka screams in her sleep or perhaps from something that her dad says? To keep momentum I’m not sure we need the sentence ‘she was having another nightmare’ as this is clear from Erikakaka’s sleep-shout and her dad’s reaction. I am intrigued to know more about what she could have been dreaming about, so it certainly drew me in!
Thank you Jo 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
Hooked by Jo’s feedback? Be sure to catch Joanna at this year’s conference. The Young Adult / Middle Grade / Young Fiction: Hooking in New Readers panel of industry insiders discuss just how to bait and hook new readers into the reading habit.
Can't get enough of Skylark Literary? You can also see Amber Caraveo in The Hook at this year’s conference. Up to 5 conference delegates will each have 10 minutes to pitch their work and themselves to a panel of five agents. For more information about the conference click here.
See you at the conference! If you haven't booked - get clicking!