OPENING LINES Results from Zoë Plant

In Opening Lines, Natalie Yates gets expert advice from top literary agents to help you tune up your concept, pitch, and opening lines to create the strongest ‘hook’.

Meet Zoë Plant, a literary agent with the Bent Agency. After studying Russian and Spanish at Cambridge University and living in Moscow for a year, Zoë started at the agency as an intern in 2014. She spent five years working as a literary scout and was named one of the '30 under 30' publishing professionals to watch at the 2018 London Book Fair Trailblazer Awards. Now, as an agent, she is delighted to have the opportunity to work with talented authors to bring their books into the world. 

She is on the look-out for commercial, exciting middle-grade and young adult fiction, full of pace and plot, but with something quirky or fresh about them. Perhaps a high-concept setting, an unusual twist or a voice that changes how she sees the world. Fantasy, science fiction, action, adventure and horror are her favourite genres.

So, the question is, did she find any of these features in the entries for May's Opening Lines? Below are the results.

Submission #1


Deirdre Saves the Empire


A steampunk middle-grade adventure mystery school story: think Nevermoor set in a Mortal Engines version of Hogwarts. 

Plucked from her factory job as a ‘sprocket jockey’, twelve-year-old Deidre must prove herself at the Brunel Academy of Science and Steamology and prevent another Great War by unravelling the sinister mystery surrounding the Prussian exchange students.


Deidre pushed her goggles into her hair and bolted down the stairs, taking care to miss the rickety step on the first-floor landing. She dived into the street and began to sprint down the cobbles.

‘Empire Express!’ A boy about Deidre’s age thrust a rolled-up newspaper in her face. ‘Exclusive report on the new Zeppelin threat from Prussia.’

Deidre dodged out of the way and ran on, weaving between the unlit gas lamps. The biggest spanner on her toolbelt thumped against her thigh but she didn’t slow down. The beating she’d get for abandoning her chores would be for nothing if she didn’t make it to the factory in time.

She didn’t slow her pace until she reached the bustle of Main Street. Forcing herself to walk so she wouldn’t attract attention, she edged into the shadows of the colonnaded walkway and loosened her corset a couple of notches, breathing deeply to refill her lungs. It smelled different here. Cleaner. It was brighter too. There was no sign of the murky smog that clung to every ramshackle building in the narrow streets around Mrs Morris’s unofficial orphanage.

There were, however, plenty of people. Men in silk top hats and shiny shoes. Women with enormous rustling skirts. People who might wonder what a girl like her was doing in this part of town.


This is a great pitch with clear, well-chosen comparison titles. The description of the plot succinctly brings in all of the different elements and sets up the mystery in a way that is intriguing and makes me itch to read more! I would recommend cutting down the number of adjectives used to describe the genre though, as ‘steampunk middle-grade adventure mystery school story’ is a bit of a mouthful. Pick a couple and let the pitch communicate the rest!
The first lines are really well done and give both an instant sense of the steampunk setting and of Deirdre’s character. I love how it gets straight into the action, with Deirdre’s rush to get to the factory giving us a really pacey start, and it also manages to pack in tiny details to create an impression of the world and of Deirdre herself. The goggles in her hair, the men in silk top hats and the notion that she is in the wrong part of town all add up to a strong picture of what is happening without feeling like too much intrusive description.

Submission #2


The Worry-Busters and the Case of the Blue Dragon


What can a not-very-brave boy do when he finds himself responsible for a starving baby dragon – and keeping a dragon is punishable by life imprisonment in the dungeons? 


On his tenth birthday Tash Clump went into Pumplepick Forest to buy charcoal and came home with a dragon.

This wasn’t quite how he’d expected the day to turn out. He’d known it would be different, of course, because in Pumplepick your tenth birthday is the day you leave school and start work. But he hadn’t expected the dragon. 

In the woodland it was all cool shade and tuneful birdsong, so different from the heat and smoke and hammering of his father’s forge, where he was going to work for the rest of his life. It was a real privilege to be here – it was King Poppycock’s private hunting ground and very few people had permission to enter the forest. Which was why Tash was surprised, as he headed home with a bag of charcoal under each arm, to turn a corner and bump into someone he knew.

There was no mistaking Awfelia Krool. While Tash and most other Pumplepickers had dark brown curls, mid-brown eyes and light-brown skin, Awfelia had golden curls, bright blue eyes and skin the colour of pearls. She told everyone that this was because she was really an angel, but she certainly didn’t behave like one.

Awfelia was only nine, but she’d left school already – twice. She’d been excluded temporarily when she was seven for pulling the legs off the class’s pet tarantula and permanently aged eight for shaving the fur off the head teacher’s cat. She was not someone you wanted to bump into at all, and certainly not in a dark, lonely forest. 


A lovely pitch that draws out the emotional core of the story (a ‘not-very-brave boy’) while introducing us to an intriguing world. The phrasing of it as a question makes it flow a little less easily, so I would suggest changing it to be a statement to make it easier to follow (‘When a not-very-brave boy finds a starving baby dragon’, etc).
I am really drawn in by the first line, as it conveys a nice humour and charm and hooks the reader straight away. After that, I would have liked to have seen more action and less description – all of this world-building is useful information and the world could be very compelling, but it would be great to see it drip-fed through action and conversation rather than given to us upfront. For example, all of the information about Awfelia’s terrible personality could be given to us through Tash’s encounter with her, so we could see her behaving badly ourselves rather than being told about all of the not-so-angelic things that she has done in the past!

Submission #3




In a young offenders' institute, two teens struggle to come to terms with the crimes they've committed. 


I picked up another can of cheap, supermarket-branded lager, snapped back the tab and gulped it down. This had become a sort of ritual - it was the only thing that helped me forget.

I didn't deserve to forget, I knew that, but I had to.

We were sitting in a clearing with the woods behind us and Westmoor Institute – a former psychiatric hospital – rising from the darkness ahead of us. The white moon hung low in the clear, night sky as if it were watching and illuminated us enough that I could see Georgia motion to the cans.

'Throw me one,' she demanded. I did as I was told and watched in satisfaction as it sprayed on opening. 

My gaze went back to Westmoor Institute. Even after living next to it for seven years, it still gave me the creeps. Especially at night, with the shadows and that faint burnt smell that hung in the air. 


I’d love to see some more detail in this pitch, as I don’t think it matches up to the promise of the great opening lines! What is it that makes this book about teens coming to terms with their actions stand out? Who are the personalities involved? It is nice and short, which is good, but I want to be instantly hooked in and made to care about the characters and what they are going through more specifically in order to read on.
The opening lines give us a much better sense of the voice and are immediately compelling. They effectively set up the mystery of what the main character wants to forget and convey a great sense of their personality, particularly the part where they take satisfaction in watching the shaken can spray Georgia! The description of Westmoor Institute is also well-done – it is evocative and adds to the pervading atmosphere of unease.

Look out for our next Opening Lines opportunity in August 2019!

Header image: courtesy of The Bent Agency


Natalie has been a SCBWI member since 2015 and is now Networks Coordinator for the North East. When she is not working as a Teaching Assistant for a local secondary school, she writes for YA and is a member of the GEA North contingent. You can find her very occasionally blogging and more often on Twitter.

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