Opening Lines with Shelley Instone Literary Agency


What grabs the reader's attention? What immediately draws you in and makes you want to read on? 

Launching our fantastic new series, Shelley Instone Literary Agency offers feedback on the opening lines submitted by our brave SCBWIs. 

The Shelley Instone Literary Agency was launched in September 2014. Previous to this, Shelley had a successful career at The Eve White Agency before becoming a freelance editor in 2011. She has a solid track record of breaking through debut authors and has been acknowledged in many books for her editorial input. 

The aim of the agency is to grow a steady, eclectic client list of dedicated, hardworking authors who have original and compelling stories to tell. We are very keen to sign authors of junior fiction that is fast-paced original and quirky, alongside imaginative Middle Grade novels and compelling YA with authentic authorial voices. We want to develop our clients into world class, prize winning authors. 

We are actively open to submissions and would love to hear from all members of SCBWI. Please note 'we do not represent poetry, plays or picture books.'

Submission #1

Water under the bridge 

Water Under the Bridge is a contemporary historical YA novel which tackles whether it is possible to forgive the atrocities of apartheid through the eyes of a black teenage girl.

The twitter of a laughing dove outside her window greeted Lerato as she awoke. She opened her eyes and smiled. Today was her sixteenth birthday. Almost an official adult. She sat up on her knees and split her blinds with her fingers. There he was, sat on a branch of the tree. A mix of washed greys and blues warmed by a speckled orange scarf and hints of peach across his wings. It was her dad’s favourite bird. Maybe he’d sent it to wish her happy birthday. A rustle of leaves warned the dove of an encroaching vervet monkey and he shot off into the blue sky. Lerato pulled her window shut. No monkeys wanted today. 

Feedback from Shelley:

Considering the arresting premise of this novel, the writer poignantly opens it with a very powerful symbol of peace – the dove. Yet, I felt the next three sentences detracted from this, and overall, I would suggest that she reveals that it is Loreto’s birthday later on in her narrative. By doing this, she can momentarily stay with the wonderful symbolism and description of the dove and simultaneously create more dramatic tension. 

The writer's scene - setting is acutely observed and authentic. This is beautifully evoked through the fleeting presence of the vervet monkey. The writer's opening sentences are a delight to the senses, yet I couldn’t help conclude that the subject matter of apartheid, alongside Natalie’s target audience would be better served through a first person voice in order to make her narrative appear truly compelling. 

Submission #2

Loss of Face 

Reeling from the death of his father, and struggling to care for his vulnerable mother, sixteen-year-old Alex is devastated when his best friend Daniel goes missing. Is enigmatic runaway Chuck involved? A contemporary coming of age novel set in the Scottish Highlands, ‘Loss of Face’ follows Alex as he discovers that there’s more to being brave than schoolboy dares, and that some people will go to desperate lengths to protect the people they love. 
‘Broadchurch’ meets ‘Stand by Me’

Alex backed away from the spitting flames and watched as Chuck wrenched another rotting timber from the cottage doorframe. It would be a blaze they would never forget, Chuck had promised. Earlier that afternoon, they’d carted granite blocks from the derelict Keeper’s Cottage to mark out a circle on the sandy beach, then hurled on driftwood without fear of being overlooked. The only visitors to this part of the peninsula were the deer - until Chuck had set up camp that was. 

Feedback from Shelley:

The Writer gives immediate dramatic affect to her novel by capturing the frenetic activities of her characters. By depicting Alex and Chuck’s unexplained autonomy, the writer skilfully portrays how this very aspect of their existence somehow appears unsettling and ominous. Her last comment on Chuck is just subtle enough to intrigue a reader. The setting of the Highlands compounds the actions of Alex and Chuck, and serves to create a sense of eeriness and isolation. The writer's opening lines are full of suspense and tension – a great hook. 

Submission #3

The Girl Who Cried Owl

MG historical fantasy at 32,000 The Girl Who Cried Owl – Kusi, a ten-year-old Incan girl, is always in trouble for making up stories, so when she catches Spanish conquistadors stealing a magical golden owl necklace no-one believes her. Only by returning the necklace can she stop its power being used to destroy the Incas and prove to her adopted family that she is not a liar. 

PERU, 1532 

Kusi charged into the elder’s hut. “Help me, help me,” she cried. Perrito, her bush dog, circled her feet, round and round and round, squeaking with excitement. 

The Curaca sighed, “What is it this time, child?” he asked. The rest of the ayllu elders rolled their eyes upwards. 

The Incan girl scowled briefly, then jumped up and down, “Jaguar footprints, come see.” She pulled at each arm in turn, trying to get the clan to follow her. 

Perrito stood on his short back legs and bounced his front paws against her. She gently pushed him away and patted the soft red-brown fur on his head. “You are sure?” checked the Curaca; the eldest and wisest of the men. “You promised after the last time, no more stories, no more fibs…” 

“No more boasting,” added another. 

“And no more lies,” they finished. 

“I promise, I promise,” cried Kusi. “Quick, before it eats us all!” She swept her long, black hair from her face, and looked at the men, her big, turquoise eyes pleading to them. “Please.” 

Feedback from Shelley

The writer of The Girl Who Cried Owl, brings her endearing protagonist, Kusi, to the fore by instantaneously portraying her lively, engaging personality in contrast with her utter distress at not always being believed. The writer's adept portrayal of this moment is imbued with the type of energy and vigour that her target audience would very much enjoy – Kusi’s dog definitely adds to this! There is a real sense of urgency, excitement and expectation in these opening lines that will catapult a young reader through the opening pages and into the plot.

Thank you Shelley 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

Louise Cliffe-Minns is the Events Editor and joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures. 


Follow: @LMMinns


  1. Thank you to Shelley for her time and feedback and to Lou for coordinating this exciting opportunity. It was very encouraging to get this feedback and the comments will be useful going forward. Although, I don't relish the prospect of a rewrite in 1st person... ;)

  2. A brilliant new series - thank you, Lou - and many thanks too, to Shelley for your feedback.

  3. Thank you Lou for organising Opening Lines, I hope the series will prove popular, I've certainly enjoyed taking part. Thanks to Shelley for her feedback on my story and good luck to the other writers with their stories - I enjoyed reading them.

  4. Great article, well done. "We are actively open to submissions and would love to hear from all members of SCBWI." All members? Really? How fantastic! But oh dear, what's that on the agency website? "We do not represent poetry, plays or picture books." :(

    1. Hi 'Anonymous', unfortunately not all literary agencies represent all genres. We had very few PB writers submit to this writing feature, however, check in next month and there is a PB submission. We're extremely grateful to Shelley for her time and professional opinion.

    2. What an excellent idea though to run something similar expressly for illustrators!

    3. Yes, it was confusing as she said she's open to all members but her website says they're only interested in longer fiction, excluding picture books, poetry and so on. Glad you fixed that.

  5. Yes, sometimes people forget what the 'I' stands for in SCBWI! Sorry about that, it should have been clarified.

  6. We would LOVE to include more PBs - so please do submit to 'Opening Lines'!

  7. Correct punctuation - Does it really matter? In this article, we will show how does incorrect punctuation can change the whole meaning of your text. See more comma checker free


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