As part of the coverage and build up to this year’s SCBWI BI Conference in Winchester, we are super excited to have Sarah Davies from Greenhouse Literary on this month’s Opening Lines.
Sarah is one of the fantastic keynotes at the conference and has taken time out of her busy schedule to offer professional feedback on the opening lines and pitches submitted by our lucky SCBWIs.
Sarah was a children’s publisher in London for 25 years before moving to the USA in 2007 and launching Greenhouse Literary, a transatlantic agency specializing in books for children and young adults. As a publisher she worked with many of the “greats” of the children’s books world; as an agent she delights in discovering and nurturing new talent and has shepherded many debut authors into writing careers. Now back in the UK, Sarah is still very much a North American agent, but works closely with Polly Nolan (also a former publisher) who looks after the UK side of Greenhouse. Together, they offer a deep knowledge of children’s publishing across the English-speaking world and beyond.
Sarah and Polly are keen to find new authors writing everything from young fiction through middle grade (8-12 age group) to young adult. We are open to all genres, but a compelling story is key. Most of all we seek an arresting voice, a strong and unique concept, and a deep emotional pull – in short, stories with true child and teen appeal.
Greenhouse is where writers grow! You can find us online at www.greenhouseliterary.com. Sarah tweets at @SarahGreenhouse.
Title: Living Ghost (YA Contemporary)
Pitch: When 15 year-old Darren throws a rock into the face of an asylum seeker he doesn’t expect a new friendship that transforms both their lives. Darren has to overcome his family’s prejudice and fight for Mazombo to find a new home and a safe life.
Feedback from Sarah:
A very timely subject in which interest isn’t likely to diminish any time soon. I’m hooked by the theme, but would love to know a little more about where the story will go – this feels very linear (maybe somewhat predictable?). Are there any other key characters and arcs which you could pull in to make this a fuller and more layered representation of the story to come? What are the stakes for Darren himself? This is a strong logline, but a pitch should allow you to expand a little to show us where the wider hooks lie.
I’m not at the seaside; I’m looking across a dark graveyard at a body lying half shielded by a bramble-covered gravestone.
“Go on,” whispers Jason. “You get first shot.”
I rub my thumb across the face of the perfect skipping stone, feeling its roughness and hearing a faint sandpaper like rasp. My forefinger stretches along the stone’s edge and I imagine how great it would feel to be at the beach, in glorious sunshine, skipping stones over the waves.
I crouch low and pull back my arm. It’s like I’m by the sea playing an innocent game. My arm whips out and I flick my wrist to spin the stone. It would have been a perfect shot – bouncing across the water, leaping over waves and finally skipping in ever decreasing jumps so quick they’d be impossible to count.
“Got ‘im,” shouts Wayne.
Smack! Right in the face.
Jason whoops and punches me on the arm. “Great shot our Daz”.
I smile and punch the air. Jason doesn’t often say I’ve done well.
But I’m not gazing out to sea; I’m looking into the dazed face of a stranger as he wakes to find blood dribbling from his nose. I feel his eyes staring into me, wondering why I’ve so violently broken into his dreams.
The man nods as though he’s found what he’s looking for in my face and only then turns and runs.
Feedback from Sarah:
A strong start, which launches the reader straight into the head of the protagonist and into a key piece of action. The writing is compelling; I like the hints you give us that Daz is trying to please Jason (as he’s tried to do many times before) and that his head/heart are partly elsewhere. However, I’m puzzled by the references to the seaside, and I think you need to give us a line that explains this – that Daz is not where he is supposed to be. The first line is weakened by “I’m not at the seaside” since we’ve no idea what he means or WHY he’s not at the seaside. How about: “The graveyard is dark, and as I look at a body . . . etc . . . all I can think is – I shouldn’t even be here.” The seaside element gets a bit repetitive and I don’t think you need to repeat it again with “But I’m not gazing out to sea.” It feels unnecessary and stops the moment’s immediacy.
I’m presuming the refugee is this man? I would prefer it if he was a boy or girl of similar age to the protagonist – it would help in terms of teen appeal and relatability.
I do really like how you describe the stone-throwing, and generally I think this is a promising beginning.
Title: Seeing Red
Pitch: Seeing Red is a 50k-word MG contemporary story for 8-12 year old readers.
When Liam discovers a hidden starpoint three days before school ends, he’s sure he’s finally got enough to be star pupil. But before he can hand it in, a cheeky red squirrel steals it, and disappears into the Forgotten Orchard, home to the Electric Witch.
Liam tells his best friend Alex and his Grandma Lil he’s seen Red, but all they can see is his learning disability. While everyone else is making decisions for Liam, Liam decides he must get his starpoint back from Red before school ends and Liam leaves the Forgotten Orchard behind.
But nothing is what it seems in the Forgotten Orchard- and what Liam discovers there will change everything in his life forever.
Feedback from Sarah:
Well done for including details of the story you are giving us. It is very helpful to know word count and target market.
I love the idea of a magical Forgotten Orchard! I’m intrigued to know what happens there, and why the witch is Electric. It’s also good to see a protagonist with a learning difficulty who is nevertheless going to come through as hero of this story. I like how you give clues to Liam’s personal arc (beginning to make decisions for himself) amid the more adventurous aspects of the story. A great story will always have both exterior and interior conflict.
However, the pitch is a little confusing. What is a starpoint and why will it turn Liam into a star pupil (the phrase “star pupil” feels confusingly ambiguous in this context)? Does he already know Red? Are there other magical animals in this world? Your pitch is intriguing, but I’m a little at sea and would love to have more clues to this world so I can orient myself.
Everything fell out of Liam Dogwood’s backpack as he ran across the sun soaked playground. He could feel things dropping out one by one, sometimes two by two, like the animals in the ark. But he kept running, chasing. He had to. This one could be the one.
He knew he was supposed to wait for Alex by the doors near Mrs Hornbeam’s office. He knew he was supposed to hand starpoints in, straight after school. He only wanted to look at it until Alex got there, just to show it to Alex- then it was gone. Now he had a big problem.
Feedback from Sarah:
It’s good to start with a moment of action, but here I find Liam running and losing items much less interesting than the starpoint itself. Plus, I’m already into the story without knowing what a starpoint is – and that feels like a key thing needed to understand the stakes here. By “stakes” I mean what Liam is set to win or lose. I wonder if it might work to start with Liam finding the starpoint or looking at it with wonder?
Somehow it feels like the wrong details are emphasized in this opening, and that feels muddly. We don’t really need to know whether items fell out of his bag in ones or twos, and what exactly is he chasing? Why doesn’t he stop and pick up the things he’s dropped if the starpoint is so important? He seems to deduce he has a “big problem” before he’s even checked his bag.
I am intrigued by this world, but I think you need a simpler, clearer opening that will hook and emotionally engage your reader and pull them along with you, rather than leaving them feeling a bit confused. I feel that the key to this is the starpoint itself.
Title: A Dragon Names Thelma
Pitch: A Dragon Named Thelma is a funny younger middle grade urban fantasy set in a reimagined Vancouver. Thelma’s latest obsession is singing, even though she’s quite terrible and doesn’t realize it. Her human best friend Sashi is afraid to risk their friendship by telling her the truth. When Thelma wants to audition for a festival, Sashi is torn between trying to help her succeed and fearing what will happen when she fails.
Feedback from Sarah:
I love this title! I want to know an adorable dragon called Thelma! Well done for realizing the power of a title to hook in your reader before they’ve read even a word. A good title can be your best friend. Additionally, your opening sentence is spot on in giving an agent the info needed to assess this story (thought word count would be useful too).
The story sounds super-cute and you show us the stakes involved in success or failure, truth or lie; the fear of losing friendship. However, this feels like it should be the opening story in a young chapter-book series, which means I’d love a touch more sense of the set-up here. If Thelma’s latest obsession is singing, does this mean she’s had many obsessions before? What is the backstory of the friendship, and what sort of world is this? Are there other dragons?
As an agent reading this, I would pitch it to publishers as a young character-led mini-series – it could be tough to sell as a single young story. If it were a series, I’d need the first book to do something more foundational – how they meet, what makes them friends, their two families etc. This feels as if I’m reading a pitch for Book 2 or 3.
Thelma flapped her leathery yellow wings and glided around the library’s cavernous four-story glass hall. The library was designed in the shape of the Roman Coliseum but was full of books instead of gladiators.
Her human best friend, Sashi, stood at an internal second-floor window near the music stacks. He gave Thelma a thumbs-up as she flew past. Sashi watched as café customers on the ground floor scurried to the exits. An old man near him said “There ought to be a law!” as he hurried to the escalator.
Singing was Thelma’s latest passion, but devoted as Sashi was to his friend, he still carefully slipped in his ear plugs when she wasn’t looking.
Feedback from Sarah:
I like the idea of Thelma causing havoc in the library! But as I said re the pitch, I’d love to see you giving us more of the set-up of this world. As it stands, I’m not sure why the library would be so immense and in the shape of the Coliseum; it feels a touch confusing to mention Roman gladiators in the first paragraph (especially since bookshelves presumably bear no resemblance to humans). Do the library crowd regularly see dragons or is she the only one? Does Thelma read? I’m beginning to feel just a little at sea because I don’t know any “ground rules” of the world you are creating.
Turning to Thelma’s singing in Para 3 is an abrupt change. Why would Sashi be thinking about this when they’re in the library? We know nothing about Thelma yet or how/why they are friends, but suddenly we’re into something quite specific and detailed about her, which doesn’t seem connected to the opening you’ve given us.
I would love to see a simpler set-up, where you make us love Thelma and root for her right from the opening lines. I think the character of Thelma is key to this story, and you can be revealing her to us right from Line 1.
Thank you Sarah for your time and professional feedback!If you haven't booked your place at the conference to see Sarah Davies, David Almond, Leigh Hodgkinson and many more, click here! And get booking.
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