Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 27, 2022

May Agent of the Month: Julie Byers – First Page Results

MAY’S AGENT OF THE MONTH – FIRST PAGE CRITIQUES

JULIA BYERS AT THE SHELDON FOGELMAN AGENCY

Julia Byers joined the Sheldon Fogelman Agency in 2018 as a temp, after spending several years interning around the publishing industry, working at a bookshop, and running a nonprofit organization for young writers. She enjoyed working with SFA so much, she decided to stay on, and is now excited to take on a more hands-on role by working with clients and foreign rights. She received her B.A. in Honors Creative Writing & Literature with a minor in Global Media Studies from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, as well as certificates from the St Peter’s College, Oxford University Summer School and the Columbia Publishing Course UK. Julia is enthusiastic about working with authors of children’s fiction, spanning picture books through YA, and looks forward to taking on new clients.

Julia enjoys working with children’s books for all age groups.

Fiction: Children’s, Middle Grade, Picture Books, Young Adult Favorite sub-genres: Contemporary Young Adult, Fantasy YA, Fiction Picture Books, Funny MG, High-concept YA, Humor YA, LGBT YA, MG Action Adventure, MG Fantasy, YA Rom-Coms, YA Sci-fi, YA Thrillers, contemporary MG secret identities

Within YA, I’ll read pretty much anything, as long as it has a strong voice, tight plotting, and a great sense of humor. I like to see protagonists struggle with big questions and their place in the world, no matter the circumstances, and welcome darker stories about contending with trauma and grief (as long as there’s still some humor and hope woven in). That said, I’m always a sucker for:

  • time travel
  • globetrotting adventures
  • high school theatre
  • anything dealing with movies/TV
  • socially conscious protagonists
  • super fluffy rom-coms

Also, if you can comp your book to Taylor Swift’s music (especially folklore), PLEASE send it my way, I beg of you.

Middle grade-wise, I generally tend toward books with a lot of heart, especially humorous mystery and adventure stories. I can never get enough of kids going on quests, whether that be to save the world or just to beat a mean girl at the local scavenger hunt. I’m not the best fit for stories from animals’ POVs, but if your protagonist has a cute animal companion who goes everywhere with them, sign me up (as long as said animal companion does not die; the last time I read a book with an animal death, I accidentally threw it across the room).

In terms of picture books, I prefer fiction, but otherwise my tastes are very open. I love both laugh-out-loud humor and quieter, more lyrical writing. What I really look for is a strong character arc and sense of plot structure.

Across all age groups, a priority is working with underrepresented voices. I’m especially interested in stories with incidental diversity, rather than issue-driven books, and happy (or at least bittersweet!) endings.

*******

BELOW ARE THE FOUR FIRST PAGES AND JULIA’S CRITIQUES:

DEAD TO ME by Dedra Davis – YA contemporary romance with multiple POV

Chapter 1 – Mia

I died a year ago today.

Life can change in the blink of an eye. I went from being a teenager with teenagery problems like parents, grades, and my pants feeling tighter this month—to dead. Joe wanted to be alone with me, and while there was nothing weird about that, it was the way he was constantly looking at me, touching me, and needing my attention. Like he wanted to freeze the moment. It felt like he was trying to tell me something, or not tell me something, and instead of using his words, he used his eyes and touches. Like he was scared to say the words but wasn’t telling me. My birthday was in a month, and I hoped he was planning a surprise. I had never had a surprise party. But a different surprise came that night in the form of a wreck. And my death.

I hinted that I knew. “What are y’all planning over there? You two keep whispering when I walk off and then you get silent when I start walking back over. What’s going on?

Taylor’s version of Red was blaring, and we were all laughing and singing in the front seat. In the front seat, we were also speaking through our eyes. Joe kept staring at me as if he were painting a picture so he wouldn’t forget any tiny detail. I wanted to get home so that I could kiss my painter.

My left hand intertwined with his right. I loved Joe’s hands—big enough to palm a ball and gentle enough to make me feel loved. I was rubbing his hand with my finger. I knew what this did to him; there was purpose in the motion. He was looking at me with his wide blue eyes and that smile that I loved, and I whispered to him, “Hurry, Joe.”

Chapter 2

There was laughter, love, and loud music. And then white lights. And dead silence.

*******

DEAD TO ME: JULIA’S CRITIQUE

First off, I love this title. It instantly draws me in, as does the killer (if you won’t mind the pun) first sentence. This opening page is ripe with tension, thanks to the immediate reveal that the narrator will die at the end of the scene, and I really like seeing that tension juxtaposed against the softer descriptions, like the one of Joe’s hands. We get a great sense of voice from this.

I would love to see the writing tightened in order to really lean into that dichotomy between tension and softness. In particular, the second paragraph (“Life can change … And my death.”) feels like it could be streamlined in order to up the ante through pacing. Look for instances where an idea is repeated in order to make simple cuts, such as in this section: “Like he wanted to freeze the moment. It felt like he was trying to tell me something, or not tell me something, and instead of using his words, he used his eyes and touches. Like he was scared to say the words but wasn’t telling me.”

It would also be great to get a stronger sense of place throughout. The car on the way to the narrator’s demise is such an interesting setting, but because we spend the opening paragraphs entrenched in Mia’s head, it’s difficult to get our bearings once we move into the actual scene. Pulling out just a couple more details about the environment and placing those right at that transition into Mia’s dialogue could really ground us in that scene. Those details could be anything, from what kind of vehicle they’re driving or how clean or messy the inside of the car is, to what kind of setting they’re driving through. (Is it day? Night? Are they out in the woods? In a city? What’s the weather like?) There’s so much opportunity here to flesh out the scene, so the reader can feel as connected as possible to the protagonist’s predicament.

Overall, this is a great start and I think honing in on the pacing and setting will make it an enthralling first page. Thank you for sharing your words with me!

*******

Witchquest by Gayle Krause – MG – Fantasy

Witchquest

A howling, deep in the forest, grows louder and louder as it travels on the night wind, until it sounds like it’s in our garden.

I jump out of bed and peer through the loft window.

Misty fog swirls from the woods and envelops the cottage, except for a spot where moonlight shines on a white wolf.  His head is raised high, and he bays endlessly.

I gasp. It’s Mother’s familiar. His white fur is bloodied and singed. One eye is darkened with blood and yet he continues to howl.

Movement downstairs distracts me for a moment.

Eyes narrowed and thin lips stretched taut, Granamara leans on her walking stick.

I rush to the loft’s rail. “It’s Baldazar. He’s returned without Mother.”

“I know, Wren.” She hobbles to the front window and struggles to open it without making a sound. “He’s trying to tell us something and it’s not good.”

As soon as the window seal is broken, the fog twists itself into a long, thin arm that drifts toward the cottage and seeps through the crack forming a finger-like mist that slips across Granamara’s enchanted mirror as if scribing a letter.

I quickly descend the loft ladder, feet barely touching the rungs, and reach the mirror the same time as Granamara. We stare at the looking glass and then each other. It appears undisturbed, no indication of the fog’s scripted words.

We peek out the front window again as the misty cloud recedes into the forest and our garden sits bathed in moonlight, undisturbed.

I run outside, but Baldazar is nowhere to be seen. The night chirpers are the only sounds touching my ears. I turn to face Granamara standing in the doorway. “He’s gone.”

WITCHQUEST: JULIA’S CRITIQUE

Wow, what an exciting way to start a story! Beginning in media res, here, sucked me right in and I love the natural sense of tension that builds both from the circumstances and the little bits of world-building we get as we go. This page leaves me wanting to know more about the world, what all of this means, and where the story’s going. The imagery of the magical fog is also deliciously creepy.

While this page is already a great introduction to Wren, I think there’s space to give us an even more complex sense of who she is. What little quirks or idiosyncrasies make Wren unique and specific within her world? What about her past or her knowledge of her world causes her to react in the ways she does?

Additionally, the writing has a great sense of pace overall, but a couple sentences here and there drag at it. In particular, I got caught on this sentence: “As soon as the window seal is broken, the fog twists itself into a long, thin arm that drifts toward the cottage and seeps through the crack forming a finger-like mist that slips across Granamara’s enchanted mirror as if scribing a letter.” Breaking up longer sentences like this into shorter, snappier ones would help keep the pacing fast, as well as make sure the writing is easy for the reader to follow, so they can hurry to find out what happens next.

Another sentence that snagged me is this one: “Movement downstairs distracts me for a moment.” Considering Wren goes downstairs to join Granamara afterward, this feels less like a momentary distraction so much as a change in focus. Could the writing reflect that?

Finally, I’m so curious about the fog writing on the looking glass, but not visibly leaving anything behind. Is it normal for fog to write? Does it usually leave anything visibly behind, or is this strange? I’d love to get a sense of these things, so we can understand the world-building and the significance of what’s unfolding in the scene.

Overall, this is such a strong start and I think with just a little tweaking, it could be something really special. Thank you for sharing your words with me!

*******

IN THE SHELTER OF THE SKY by Susan Williams Beckhorn – YA Historical Fiction (prehistory)

It was on a day in early spring when they brought the strange boy to us. Antler and Wing were returning from their hunting trip on the steppe to the north of our b’ahut. They rode into the open space in the center of the cluster of pit houses leading the boy on the back of their packhorse. My cousin, Burr, had come galloping in ahead of them with the news. He looked at me, laughing as he jumped off his horse. Everything was funny to Burr! “They say he is a boy of the Night People—maybe they’ve brought you a sweetheart, Hekla!”

I punched his arm, making his mare shy. “Don’t call me that!”

“Hekla” means the female foal of a horse. I would never live down the fact that I had been nursed on mare’s milk as an infant—and Burr seemed to think it was his most important job on earth to remind me and everyone else.

“But think of it—the sister of the Wind Rider and a son of the people who think riding is the greatest dishonor you can do to a horse! It’s perfect!”

I glared at him. The Sister of the Wind Rider. Hekla. I had a name of my own—Spring. Why couldn’t people use it? “I don’t want any boy, especially not such an ugly one as that!” I said. Which was not entirely true. There was a boy I wanted—Swift.

Antler and Wing dismounted and were greeted by those who had come out to meet them. The Night boy sat like a rock on the packhorse, eyes straight ahead. He did look ugly, with his shorn hair and scowling face. Without meaning to, my own eyes cut from him to Swift, who had joined the rest of us—the sela. Sela means seekers, not adults, but not children anymore. What we were supposed to be seeking I could not have told the ghost of my old, blind grandmother.

Swift took his eyes off the strange visitor long enough to favor me with one of his lopsided smiles that always made my belly quiver. “You’ll have to be a good hunter if you plan to live without a man,” he said. Burr snickered.

IN THE SHELTER OF THE SKY: JULIA’S CRITIQUE

This is such an intriguing start. The details really give us a sense of the world and the protagonist’s relationships both with that world and the characters around her. Wonderful descriptions. Additionally, the voice is so distinctive, and I love how that voice and Spring’s actions combine to give us clear insights into her character right off the bat.

That said, there’s so much going on in this opening, especially in terms of world-building, my head was swimming trying to keep up with it all. In particular, this passage is jarring within the flow of the text: “…who had joined the rest of us—the sela. Sela means seekers, not adults, but not children anymore. What we were supposed to be seeking I could not have told the ghost of my old, blind grandmother.” These details are all great, but I would prefer to see them spaced out more. Could we get some of the world-building distributed more slowly throughout the first chapter as a whole? Or alternatively, starting the story earlier, before the inciting incident, would likewise allow more space for the world-building to breathe. This would also be a chance to give the reader more of a sense of what regular life is like, before everything changes with the arrival of the strange boy.

On a smaller level, what is Spring’s reason for not telling the truth about there being a boy she wants? Could we get that in the text? This is a great opportunity to give us a bit more character development and, in turn, help the reader feel as connected as possible to her as the story continues (especially since she interacts with Swift in the very next paragraph!).

Altogether, this opening shows a lot of potential, and I think with some work to smooth out the distribution of the world-building info, it will be gripping. Thank you for sharing your words with me!

*******

CLOVERLEAF by Carol Murray, Middle-grade Novel                         

             “We did it. We did it!” Angie trotted Lucky through the exit gate of the Sandhill Arena with a smile as wide as the Kansas sky. She gave him a couple of love pats on the neck and hurried toward Grandpa Pinkerton, who was red in the face and clapping like mad, his nose pressed against the top rung of the white board fence.

“Congratulations, cowgirl! Let’s see that High Point trophy.”

Angie raised the Sunflower State Show trophy high above her head and let her smile linger. “It gets a special spot on the tip-top shelf of the bookcase,” she said.

“I’m proud of both of you. What a dandy way to spend a birthday.”

“Thanks, Gramps,” Angie said, slipping her boots from the stirrups and jogging to the trailer on a loose rein. Then she unsaddled, filled a bucket full of water, and wrapped her arms around Lucky’s neck in a grateful hug. “See you later,” she called.

“C’mon. let’s hit the Midway,” Gramps said. “It’s celebration time!” They high-fived and hurried toward their favorite spot, a picnic table next to Sticky’s Snack Shack.

“Howdy, folks. That was some show, Angela,” said Sticky Gumm. “I believe you and that Lucky horse are beginning to be a legend around this place, especially the way you run the Cloverleaf. And now, what’ll you have?” he asked. “The treat’s on me.”

“Same as always,” Gramps said, “corn dogs, curly fries, two Honeycrisp apples and pink lemonade – heavy on the ice, right?”

“You’ve got it,” Angie said. “And it beats a birthday cake any day.”

“I wish your grandma were here to help us celebrate. She’d be tickled pink.”

“I’ll bet she’s looking down right now.”

“I can feel the swish of her silver wings,” Gramps said. “Man, do I miss her!”

CLOVERLEAF: JULIA’S CRITIQUE

This is such a sweet opening. I love the fun, easy dynamic between Angie and her grandfather, and the light tone and atmosphere overall. The writing is smooth and flows well, and based on Angie’s conversations with those around her, it’s easy to tell she enjoys competing. (Great job weaving that in there!) Also, gotta love a middle grade horse story!

It would be great to get a stronger sense of tension in this opening page. Why is this where the story starts? What drives the reader onto the next page? Personally, I’d be interested in seeing the story start sooner, perhaps while Angie is still competing. Putting Angie in a position of tension, rather than being at ease as she is in the current opening, would help the story grab the reader as much as possible, as well as drive the plot forward. I think we would also benefit from getting more information about the competition, such as what kind of competition it is, if this is something that comes easily to Angie or if it’s something she has to work hard at, how close the competition is, if she’s friends with her competitors, etc. Fleshing out these details would really give us a sense of who Angie is and why we should root for her.

Similarly, I think the writing would benefit from being slowed down a bit. The descriptive details we get are great (in particular, this line is such a specific, dynamic image: “…Grandpa Pinkerton, who was red in the face and clapping like mad, his nose pressed against the top rung of the white board fence.”). I would love to see that kind of visceral depiction expanded throughout. Is there an audience cheering at the beginning? Are there other horses and riders around? How crowded is the Midway and do they have to wait in line at Sticky’s? Adding these kinds of details would help ground the reader in the settings and the scene overall.

Finally, it’s never quite clear if it’s Angie’s or Gramps’s birthday. Could we get that clarified?

Overall, this is a lovely start, and with some revision to rework the pacing and strengthen the sense of place, I can just imagine young readers falling in love with this. Thank you for sharing your words with me!

*******

Julia, thank you for sharing your time and expertise with us. We really appreciated you reading the four first pages. We can all learn from your thoughts. Keep in touch. Thanks again!

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Thank you, Kathy, for this opportunity. And thank you, Julia, for your time, tips, and kindness!

    Like

  2. Thank you to both Julia and Kathy. Great opportunity for professional feedback. 🙂

    Like


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