UNDISCOVERED VOICES 2020 Judges' advice on hooking readers


Submissions for the next Undiscovered Voices anthology* open 1 June. 
Are you ready?

Your first pages — your opening paragraphs really — are your invitation to agents, editors and ultimately readers. I’ve often heard editors and agents say that they could tell from the opening paragraph whether the manuscript had promise. The wannabe writer inside me — the one who struggled seventeen years to get her first book deal — was sceptical. I agonise over and polish every single solitary word of my novel, crafting what I hope is a sparkly beginning, an engaging middle and a surprising yet satisfying ending. How can anyone judge an entire book from a paragraph?

Scott Rosenberg, screenwriter of films such as Con Air and High Fidelity, explained it best in a quote from Writing for Emotional Impact: 'You can tell from the first page if someone can write, by its assuredness and its confidence…this allows the reader to relax…'

I like that. Confidence on the page. 

This confidence can take many forms. A taste of a unique character. A compelling voice. An intriguing dilemma or situation. A mystery. An enticing hint of the journey to come.

We asked a few of our Undiscovered Voices judges to share exceptional opening lines and why they work.

Alice Sutherland-Hawes, agent (children's and YA) at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, picked A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

Alice said, 'As someone who has never quite got over a fear of the dark and the monsters that lurk there, this was one of the most intriguing and horrifying first lines when I first read it. It’s now one of my favourite opening lines. There are so many questions from the outset – why has the monster showed up? Is it something to fear? I immediately wanted to read on to find out, and I’m glad I did because this is now one of my favourite books!'

Helen Boyle, literary and illustration Agent at Pickled Ink, couldn’t pick just one.

'First lines, such an interesting one. I think great first lines are difficult to pinpoint as they can do many different things in the hands of different writers. Or some great books have distinctly unmemorable first lines and that’s ok too! And some readers totally gloss over first lines too, so don’t beat yourself up too much on a perfect first line.

First lines can set the tone for the book, like Sue Townsend’s Secret Diary of Adrian Mole,
My father got the dog drunk on cherry brandy at the party last night. If the RSPCA hear about it he could get done.
Or they can set the location of the story as a way to hook the reader in. As a child I definitely wanted to enrol at Jill Murphy’s school for The Worst Witch, when I read, 
Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by a pine forest.

Or they can introduce a character and encapsulate something about them in a single line, like Mole in The Wind in the Willows
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.
That line tells me so much about Mole’s character.

Or they can tease and intrigue or imply that something exciting is about to happen, 
All children, except one, grow up.
from Peter Pan,
Where’s Papa going with that axe?
from Charlotte’s Web.

Or they can just be so beautiful and encompassing that they wrap you up in a sumptuous blanket of words, and lead you into a story. Like Gerard Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals: 
July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.
or A Little Princess’s 
Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.
or the great Joan Aitken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which begins with a foreboding 
It was dusk, winter-dusk.

The first line needs to feel right for your story and your writing, but ultimately it’s the first paragraph, first chapter and then the rest of the book is more important.'

Stephanie King, Commissioning Fiction Editor at Usborne Publishing, loves the opening line of Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.
Stephanie explained: 'I love the disarming simplicity of this line, which describes an apparently normal, everyday event, and yet immediately invests it with huge significance. We meet our protagonist, Coraline, immediately and get all the important information we need about her situation. There is no need to show us the car driving up, no need to wait outside the front door, no boxes to unpack; we are told directly and without fuss that Coraline has moved house. And something ordinary — a door — suddenly becomes mysterious, intriguing, possibly even sinister, with the choice of one straightforward but irresistible word — "discovered".'

Annalie Grainger, senior commissioning editor at Walker Books, selected Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman.
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
Annalie said: 'I love this line because it is so immediately intriguing. It also manages to do so much in only a few words. It both sets up the idea that this is a fantasy world (mainly through the word “daemon”) and it also introduces some danger because Lyra is trying to stay hidden. First lines can be tricky, but you really want to grip your reader immediately and also to try to give some hint as to what sort of story you’re telling.'

Clare Wallace, literary agent at Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency, selected a very recently published book: Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan.
Our father died in flames when he was twenty-six and we were two.
Clare explained, 'This opening line hasn’t changed since I first received this manuscript from the author as a submission. It’s confident, punchy, intriguing, with an immediate voice and tone. It tells you something about the kind of book you’re about to read and the kind of character who’s going to tell you their story.'

Polly Nolan, literary agent at Greenhouse Literary Agency, offered this great insight into how to consider your Undiscovered Voices submission.

'Imagine you’ve got ten minutes before your train leaves and — horror! — you’ve forgotten to bring anything to read. Thankfully there’s a bookshop in the station. You dash in there, and then realise that you’ve only got a tenner on you. There are books as far as the eye can see. How are you going to choose which one to buy? You don’t have time to search the shelves for your favourite author or the book you’ve been intending to buy. Instead, you make a beeline for the fiction tables inside the front door. Immediately you’re scanning the covers and making subconscious decisions based on cover design and title. Three or four grab your interest. You flip them over and read the blurb. Now you’ve narrowed it down to two. But which to select? You don’t have enough money for both, and you can hear your train being called. You open both books and read the first page of each. NOW you know which one you’ll buy. You put the other book down, dash to the counter, pay and then sprint for the train. An enjoyable journey with an engrossing read lies ahead...

Agents and editors are choosing manuscripts with the same sort of pressure and speed, but without the benefit of a cover. Ensure that the first page is as riveting and original as you can make it. Agents and editors really want to like your book. They are keen for new clients and desperate for an engrossing read. Their approach is no different from yours.'

Think about how you choose the book you buy and apply the same principles to your submission.


Submissions are accepted electronically at www.undiscoveredvoices.com from 1 June to 15 July, 2019. The web site offers detailed criteria and tips for writers to read before they hit the ‘submit’ button.

We are excited to read your submissions. We want to be captivated and carried away. We all wish you the best of luck.


*Undiscovered Voices is an initiative by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles to help fresh, new voices in children's literature find agents, publishers and ultimately readers.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.