OPENING LINES Results from Gillie Russell

In Opening Lines, Liz MacWhirter gets expert advice from top literary agents to help you tune up your concept, pitch, and opening lines to create the strongest ‘hook’. Today, Gillie Russell from Aitken Alexander Associates Ltd gives three SCBWI authors her honest feedback on their submissions. Gillie’s always on the look out for exciting new voices.

How we ‘hear’ feedback is really important. I know from working as an advertising copywriter that the hardest feedback teaches us the most. I know I’m a much better writer for it, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed running Opening Lines for the last couple of years. And this is, in fact, my last OL article, as I need to concentrate on writing my next YA book after Black Snow Falling. I’m passing the baton to Natalie Yates – good luck Natalie!

Gillie Russell – an introduction

Meet Gillie Russell from Aitken Alexander Associates. Her passion is discovering new voices with a gift for good storytelling for children aged 9+. Perfect for aspiring SCBWI members! Gillie started her career at Methuen Children’s Books and was Publishing Director for Children’s Fiction at HarperCollins, where she published authors Michael Morpugo, Louise Rennison, Garth Nix, Darren Shan, Helen Dunmore, Jenny Valentine, Diana Wynne Jones, Derek Landy and Judith Kerr. Today her clients include Moira Young, whose debut novel Blood Red Road sold in the UK, US, Canada and many foreign territories, and the film option has been sold to Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free. It won the Costa Children’s Book Award as well as being shortlisted for many other awards. Other published debut clients include Tom Hoyle, Debbie McCune, Jane Hardstaff and Kevin Wignall.

Submission #1

TITLE The Heir of Hawkenspit Castle


A humourous Middle-Grade time slip novel about a 12-year-old boy who gets stuck in the Victorian era with some other pupils on a school trip, and has to figure out how to get back to the present without leaving anyone behind or altering the future.


The school minibus lurched into the driveway, narrowly missing a gatepost. Zack came face to face with a stone hawk, then the bus jerked forward and continued up towards the house. A volley of rain rattled the windows.

'Hawkenspit Castle!' called Mrs Broadbeam, setting the brake with a crunch. She shifted her bulk out of the driver's seat and into the aisle.

Zack took a deep breath and clutched the small velvet-covered box in his jacket
pocket. He'd taken it from his mother's dresser that morning.

She won't notice. And I have to know.


I’m not entirely sure about this title. It doesn’t immediately convey the sense of adventure and fun that the pitch implies. As an adult, I can see the intended pun, with ‘hawk’ meaning to spit, but not sure a child will understand that reference.

I like a good time-slip novel, especially if it feels like a cracking good adventure, and doesn’t ‘slip’ into a historical novel, which would be a much harder sell at the moment. But I don’t think the narrative feels particularly engaging - I’ve seen lots of introductory paragraphs like this before.

I would swap the last paragraph and make that your introduction, then try and keep up that mysterious/light/humorous and intriguing feel to the narrative to engage your reader and make them want to read on, and without reverting to a more derivative tone.

Submission #2

TITLE The Misfit Creatures Fancy Dress Ball


Kitten is perfect, which is why she has been invited to a tea party for only the most adorable, perfect animals throughout the land. But on her way, she gets lost and winds up where they're setting up for that night's Misfit Creatures Fancy Dress Ball. As Kitten learns about the other animals as she searches for her tea party, she realizes that not only might she not be as great as she thinks she is, but that ultimately, being perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be.


Once upon a time, there was a perfect kitten. She was so perfect, in fact, that she had been invited to the Purrrfect Paws Tea Party, a special gathering for only the cutest, most perfect animals throughout the land. But when she arrived, she realized she was in the wrong place.


I don’t think this title is attractive. It feels as if it’s trying too hard to get a message across in one bight. (Also, shouldn’t it be ‘Creatures’ Fancy… the possessive?).

I can tell from the pitch that the essence of the story is about believing in yourself and not worrying about being different - not trying to attain other people’s ideas of perfection. But the pitch ends up being confusing - especially for the target age group who like kittens. So I really don’t know what to expect, other than the obvious cliche about accepting everyone whatever they look like. Laudable but needs to be presented in an original and enticing way.

I imagine that the author deliberately used the traditional opening of ‘Once Upon A Time’ hoping that, with a new twist it could work, but unfortunately, for me, that approach, combined with the anthropomorphism, didn’t intrigue me enough to want to read on.

It needs to have a light, fun voice in the narrative to pique your readers’ interest.

Submission #3

TITLE Darna’s Sky


Hidden in the depths of the exclusive Tembusu Tree Hotel in Singapore, only five people know that Darna exists. Skye, the ten-year-old daughter of world-famous actress Rose Winters, is about to become the sixth. How can the girls become friends and keep Darna a secret from the world and why do they have to?


I’m going to be ten in a few days. Mama asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told her I’d like to see the sky.

We talked like we always do, in hushed Filipino, the language of Mama's country. We have to whisper so nobody hears us. Mama says people think she’s mad because she talks to herself, but I know she’s not that way. It’s because she has to keep me a secret. If anyone sees me who we can’t trust, it would mean terrible things for Mama and me.

Mama looked sad when I asked to see the sky for my birthday. She has round cheeks, like tiny balloons and when she’s happy they are full, so full they look like you could pop them with a pin, but when she is sad they go flat and sag.


While the title is OK, it doesn’t feel special enough to intrigue me or to indicate the kind of book I’m about to read.

I find this pitch rather confusing. I had to read it a few times before I understood where the story might be going, and what it’s about.

I find the ‘voice’ unconvincing, I’m afraid. Is this a period piece? When we see the word ‘Mama’ it automatically feels that it is, though it may well be a vernacular used by Filipinos. But in any case, it does feel rather dated in its narrative style - and a rather ‘told to’ kind of approach, even though written in the first person, it didn’t really engage the reader. Perhaps the voice is too old?

I can’t see a contemporary child being intrigued by this style or the opening as it stands. It needs much more vitality and light in the voice to engage the reader and make them care about the characters and want to go on reading.

L.J. MacWhirter (Liz) is an award-winning copywriter, man-loving feminist and planet-hugging activist. Her YA debut Black Snow Falling has been nominated for the 2019 CILIP Carnegie Medal. ‘A wildly original Elizabethan fantasy’ – award-winning author Elizabeth Wein.
Published by Scotland Street Press. Agent Lindsey Fraser at Fraser Ross Associates. Twitter and Instagram: @LizMacWhirter Website: Facebook: @L.J. Macwhirter


  1. It's amazing to get such direct, honest and useful feedback. Thank you to Gillie, W&Ps and the wonderful SCBWI - BI for the chance to take part. Gillie's feedback is really helpful and underlines a secret idea I've been given by my friend Candy Gourlay to shake things up with this WIP. Thanks again and congrats to Liz x

    1. My mistake on congratulating Liz.... got confused and thought she had taken part when in fact she had written the article. Apologies!


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