Opening Lines #2: with Lindsey Fraser
What grabs the reader’s attention? What draws you in and makes you want to read on?Once again we’re delighted to welcome Lindsey Fraser to Opening Lines. In a blossom-like flurry of busy-ness, Lindsey generously commented on all the entries readers submitted in March. Come back every Saturday until early June to read more. Thanks a million, Lindsey, for your insight and encouragement!
Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross established the literary agency Fraser Ross Associates in 2002, largely specialising in books for young people. The agency represents writers and illustrators from all over the UK.
Title: The Circus of Stars
An MG fantasy adventure - The Circus of Stars is the Greatest Show in the Universe, filled with mythological creatures inspired by the zodiac. 14 year old Eliza Jenkins thinks joining it might be the answer to her prayers, but there’s a darkness in the Big Top that threatens not only her but the whole town she’s trying to escape.
Eliza Jenkins slipped into a seat on the 9.37 train to London and looked out of the window at Wychwick Station. No sign of her grandmother. Thank the Goddess. Probably too busy with the Maiden’s Pageant to notice Eliza’s escape. Good.
With a sigh the doors closed. Eliza let out the breath she had been holding as the train moved off. Finally, she was getting out: escaping Wychwick forever. She would find her parents and they would all start a new life together, somewhere different, somewhere normal.
Just as she was settling into her seat she heard shouting on the platform and the train jolted to a stop. Eliza’s heart sank. Someone at the station must have ratted on her.
“Open the doors.” A familiar cold, crisp voice demanded. It was the voice of someone who was used to getting their own way.
The doors hissed open and high heeled shoes click-clacked down the train carriage, stopping only a few feet behind Eliza. Oh, Goddess. Her bike.
Eliza’s grandmother was sure to recognise it. Eliza slunk lower in her seat as a figure loomed over her.
My imagination was immediately drawn to what those mythological creatures would look like, and what it would be like to go and watch such a circus, and then to work there. So the pitch works well for me.
The opening section is well written, nice variety in sentence lengths to support the building and maintenance of tension, and with some subtle undercover-swearing which always adds a bit of energy to MG fiction. I got a jolt on reading this sentence - ‘She would find her parents and they would all start a new life together, somewhere different, somewhere normal’ - which sounded to me like something out of another book. You give away a lot, and I would have liked a bit more mystery for a bit longer. It’s a classic ‘show, don’t tell’ moment - and you told us everything.
Of course I imagine that the story will be far more than simply a race to find parents, but I was sorry you didn’t take longer setting up that escape attempt before giving us this information. Timing isn’t all, but it’s a large part of successful writing.
Title: Doodle and the Stolen Jewels
When Doodle visits the Grand Palace, he witnesses the jewels being stolen. With his quick thinking and eye for detail, will he be able to catch the burglar? Doodle is a disabled character, in a wheelchair. He becomes the hero through his own skills. Being in a wheelchair has a part to play in the success in the story, but this is not the focus. This is a picture book for 3 to 7 year olds.
Doodle was an excellent artist. He loved to go out on exciting adventures and draw everything that he saw.
One day, Doodle was visiting the Grand Palace. He whipped out his sketchpad and began to doodle away.
Suddenly, alarms began to sound…
Guards raced out of the palace shouting, “Burglar! The jewels have been stolen! Did anyone see anything?”
Doodle had seen everything…
… and he had drawn all he had seen.
This sounds more like a report of a story than a story in itself. And you’ve given away a great deal in that opening section - perhaps too much, too soon? I’d like more drama, more pace, more of a sense of being witness to something we don’t yet understand. Instead we have a description of things happening - and that level of disclosure isn’t going to make the story page-turning.
In the pitch you sound a little defensive about Doodle’s disability - make it a virtue of the book, not something you play down. We all know that books with characters who have disabilities tend to be difficult for some publishers and booksellers to sell, but with such a spotlight on inclusion and diversity in books for children this could be just the moment for exactly this story. Times are changing. So take the opportunity, by all means say that the central protagonist is in a wheelchair, but make that a virtue of the book, not something you have to justify.
Title: The Madness of Misery Spinks
Middle Grade magical realism with a historical twist. When an old map of Maisy Spinks’s school is found, the archaeologists uncover an old air raid shelter beneath the playground. Inside, Maisy finds an old book poking out from some sand bags and she stashes it inside her uniform. As the binding rubs against her skin it slowly poisons Maisy, but Maisy is too transfixed by the pictures and the magical visions she’s experiencing to realise. As Maisy’s behaviour changes her classmates think she’s gone mad and nickname her Misery. Guided through her visions by a black cat, Maisy explores her own past, kept hidden from her by her young single mum. While she tries to trace the history of the mysterious book to prove her sanity with the help of her wise Librarian friend.
Dear Diary - They Say I’m Mad
My name is Maisy Spinks. Actually most people call me Misery Spinks, if I am being honest and Dr. Pope says I have to be honest with myself if I want to get better. You see they say I am mad, not good mad, like crazy and wild, but the sick mad, ill. Not so much fun.
But don’t worry I am not. I just keep having these visions. I thought it was something to with sugar, making me go all spacey at first, which would have been OK because it would have made me an illness twin with my best friend Jess who has diabetes and she’s allowed to eat sweets in class anytime she needs too. Although her injections make me gag. But they tested my blood and well I know that my visions are too magical for that and I think it’s a gift. But they can’t see them so they don’t understand. They are missing out because some visions are the best. I’ve seen all sorts. There have been a few creepy ones, but mostly they are brilliant. I tried to tell Mum but she looked at me strangely like I’d grown and extra ear and so I kept quiet after that.
The pitch for The Madness of Misery Spinks - which is a splendid title - is full of darkness and dislocation, great ingenuity and invention. I was intrigued, and I wanted to read the book.
The opening section didn’t match my expectation - the first person voice doesn’t have the depths I’d have looked for in a book of this kind. I wanted something more mysterious - instead of the chatty reporting style. So for me, the delivery didn’t quite match the ambition and invention of the ideas.
Thanks again Lindsey for your time and professional feedback!
Opening Lines is a great exercise for those receiving personal feedback above – and for all of us who want to learn how to write those killer lines.
Read Opening Lines#1: with Lindsey Fraser here.
Hooked by the feedback? Catch more of Lindsey Fraser at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer.
Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures.
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy