What grabs the reader's attention? What immediately draws you in and makes you want to read on?
We are lucky to be joined once again by Penny Holroyde from Holroyde Cartey. Penny has taken time out of her busy schedule to offer professional 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."
Title: Teacher Torture
Cell Block Zero - the remote, chilly boot camp for teachers who break the rules - is the most secure lock-up ever...until someone pulls the release lever.
The classroom was silent. You could have heard a pin drop. Flynn thought about dropping one, just to prove the point, but there was no chance of that - pins had been banned at St Elizabeth’s ever since the ‘Children’s Universally Safe, Tranquil and Rewarding Days’ act of 2025 (CUSTARD), along with staplers, metal scissors, compasses, and now even pencil sharpeners.
‘I don’t get it,’ Flynn whispered to Lexie, ‘If you were going to attack somebody, you wouldn’t run at them with a pencil sharpener.’
‘Yeah, I know, but some kid put their finger inside one last week and there was blood - the teaching assistant fainted and bashed her head on a table, so...’ Lexie shrugged and went back to filling in the Friday maths test.
These days, school really sucked - before CUSTARD, there’d been lots of PE lessons, junk modelling, school trips to wild places and running around the playground hitting each other at lunchtime, but now CCTV cameras looked down from every wall in case someone should get over-excited and break into a trot, or raise their voice above a mutter.
Feedback from Penny:
I think this is a potentially promising idea. I’d like to see a world where children know they’re being watched all the time and where health and safety rules have drummed all the fun out of just about everything, but I’m concerned about how to make this conceit interesting enough to sustain a whole novel and I also worry that a lot of the focus could be on the teachers, who are adult characters, which may be difficult for MG readers to maintain interest in. That said, there could be loads of fun to be had with a renegade teacher whose class, for example, ends up being an alibi for him/her? The author should attempt to convey in the elevator pitch what s/he is proposing – picture book/chapter book/MG novel, etc.
Opening lines: I wonder whether the opening might be to show the teachers busting out of Cell Block Zero? This would provide some action to the opening scenes, or to show a teacher actually being busted for breaking the rules? I’m not sure the CUSTARD conceit is working. It sounds a little patronising to the audience. It’s a great idea and there is a way of presenting this world with a dynamic scenario and dialogue but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. I think the author needs to present the quest more clearly and beware of a lot of expositional info in the early chapters.
Title: 'My Mum's An Alien But Yours Is On Another Planet'
Discovering your mum is an alien is one thing. Learning she plans on taking control of Earth is another. But when Ray finds out what his best friend's mum is up to - well that's a whole new universe of mean.
Do you ever look at your mum and get a kind of tingly-super-hero-something-is-wrong feeling? Like, you just know she's planning something? You might sometimes get it when she is about to make you eat something disgusting, like sprouts or stringy beans. Or you may feel it on the way home from school when she says she just has to pop to the shop and you know that will take AGES, spoiling your master plan to call for Freddie Jinx and blast some alien butt on Galactic Duty 4. But one thing is certain - you will definitely, definitely get it the moment your mum gives you cake for breakfast.
Feedback from Penny:
A promising concept – again the author should say what it is – chapter book/MG novel etc….As with the previous proposal the author should be careful not to focus on adult characters too much. Also, I wonder why the focus is on the MC’s best friend’s mum rather than his own mum?
Opening lines: This could be very personal to me but I get a bit tired of mums always being presented as bossy and stressed and only interested in getting their families to eat greens or going to the shops. The author gets it here in the last sentence when suggesting that mum might present cake for breakfast – a typically un-Mum thing to do. I find the tone here slightly patronising to the audience which I’d caution the author to look out for.
Title: No I Won’t Go To Bed Tonight
Picture Book for little ones (2-5) who don’t want to go to bed, but who just might offer to put their tired parents to bed.
It was bedtime again,
but John Roger said,
‘No, I won’t go to bed tonight.
I went to bed last night
and the night before that.
I won’t go to bed tonight.’
‘Ah,’ said Dad. ‘I hear what you say.
You won’t go to bed tonight.
So, hmmm, let me see,
Just you and me,
Shall we ride in a shuttle tonight?
You’ll sleep in a pod
And I’ll be at Control …’
‘We did shuttles last night,
And we’ve done them before.
I won’t go to bed tonight.
Feedback from Penny:
A good elevator pitch and a good idea for a picture book but picture books for bedtime should aim to be soporific whereas this one feels rather stimulating so it might not be the read favoured by parents at bedtime! Picture books where Dad is on story duty are a bit scarce in the market so the text has got a point of difference here.
Opening lines: I think the scansion needs some work here – the author should read the text aloud again and again to see how that could be improved.
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
Lou Minns is the (joint) Features Editor for Words & Pictures SCBWI BI and also the new Social Media Co-ordinator for SCBWI San Francisco North & East Bay.