Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 2, 2022

November Agent of the Month – Ellen Goff – First Page Results



Ellen graduated from The University of Chicago with a BA in English, a minor in Cinema and Media Studies, and a focus in Creative Writing. Ellen has worked everywhere from The White House under the Obama administration to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At HG Literary, she assists partner and agent Carrie Hannigan on all children’s titles from picture books to middle grade to young adult. Ellen’s own list consists of YA writers and illustrators, as well as middle grade and picture book writers. She is also a member of HG Literary’s foreign rights team.

Fiction: Action/Adventure, Children’s, Commercial, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Historical, Horror, Literary, Middle Grade, New Adult, Picture Books, Romance, Science Fiction, Young Adult

For picture books: Ellen is looking for author-illustrators, and projects that highlight the sparse and simple.

For MG: Ellen is looking contemporary realistic MG, also MG with hints of magical realism. Humor is a must!

For YA: She is interested in all genres and formats of any kind of YA. She especially likes anything spooky, historical fiction, martial arts, graphic novels, and novels-in-verse.

Older YA: The stuff you’re not sure is YA but not sure it’s adult either (anything you might label “New Adult” like Red, White, & Royal Blue)

Non-Fiction: Ellen might be convinced on a nonfiction project if it involves food. Cookbooks, History, Humor, Illustrated, Travel.

She has a soft spot for Shakespeare as well as southern stories that remind her of her home state of Kentucky.

Favorite sub-genres: Gothic, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction YA, Southern Gothic, Speculative Fiction, horror


McKelway -THE KEY TO TIME, YA contemporary-speculative


Time gave up on this high school, which is what I like most. It’s beat up. Left behind. Scuffed up but still useful. The [EG1]: In these two lines, we’re saying the same thing here! Could these be condensed? I’m intrigued by the small town of Appleton, but we’re also starting two different thoughts here. Is this beginning about the high school or the town? teachers know everyone’s name and they know their grandparents’ names and their aunts’ and uncles’ names. In Appleton, Vermont everyone knows everyone. Not that anyone knows me, which is my other favorite thing. It’s easier to like people when you don’t know all that much about them.

I pull [EG2]: I don’t think we need this first line. Let’s start inside! the wooden doors of the school open and go inside. There’s a crowd and I recognize the configuration – the high school version of gladiator. Someone’s going to fight someone and everyone else is going to watch. In a few ticks of the clock, I won’t be anonymous and Appleton will prove it isn’t some haven of happy ever after, all colorful fall leaves and tree shaded streets.

I weasel myself to the front of the crowd and sure enough, some huge guy is glowering at a pale skinny boy who’s trying not to snivel though he’s got plenty to cry about. His hair is all chopped up shaggy on one side of his head and shaved clean on the other. It’s a statement, but it’s not working for him the way he’d hoped. He can’t help himself; he sniffles back a tear which is exactly what the bully wants. Rule number one. Never give a bully what he wants.

I step [EG3]:I love this part! Very intriguing. We get a good sense of who she is. And we’ve already got questions galore, which is important for page one: Why are people fighting, why does Mina step in, why is she leaving? Could we add some specifics here that will help color the world? What kind of hurt? Is Mina expecting a bloody nose or a broken arm? How often does she do this? into the center of the crowd and stick my hand out to the hulking guy. “I’m Mina,” I say by way of introduction because I haven’t met this particular bully.  Things could go any number of ways. I could get hurt. Skinny loser guy could get hurt. We could both get hurt. Or the big guy could get hurt. I’m probably going to be suspended for fighting, not that I care. I’m out of here in a few weeks, just like always.

McKelway -THE KEY TO TIME, YA contemporary-speculative


This first page is intriguing! The set-up has an obvious hook: A fight is about to break out at school in an otherwise scenic and peaceful small Vermont town. There’s clearly a less rosy underbelly and facades are hiding truths. What’s really going on in this town? Why does our narrator Mina step up to stop the fight? Why is she leaving this town before we’ve gotten to know it? This first page does a great job of introducing key questions that will take us into the next pages and chapters.

For books in first person POV, it’s important to watch those “I” statements. We have several of them here and they often lead into sentences that aren’t quite necessary and steal from word count. “I pull the wooden doors of the school open and go inside.” This sentence doesn’t actually give us a ton of information and is taking up page real estate. We can just start inside the school! Or better yet, watching Mina enter the fight. The sooner we can get into the main scene of chapter one, the better. The first paragraph also tries to introduce two different ideas: Mina’s thoughts about the town and her thoughts about the school. They can be connected, but right now on a first page and as the first paragraph, it comes across as if the author is not quite sure where to start. Given the following scene is in school, the author might want to have Mina’s thoughts on the school FIRST and then move on to Mina’s opinions of the wider town in the next chapter when perhaps Mina is out and about in town. We have no context for the town yet, but we do have some for the school since that’s where we are right now. We can probably learn some of these points about Appleton and the high school via dialogue in the following scene, too. With contemporary stories, you can jump into the story more quickly and save description or exposition for later, or weave it in.


DINGER by S. K. Van Zandt – Middle Grade Contemporary

The Bixby Baseball Museum didn’t look haunted. [EG1]: Great first line! Matter of fact, if you happened to walk by the place, you’d think it was just an old, run-down house, sitting on the edge of our town’s only park and baseball field. An old, {EG2]: Different word choice? We repeat the world Old a lot here. two-story house with peeling paint and broken windows and a roof mostly buried in moldy leaves.

But I knew it was haunted. So did all the other kids in town. Ever since the owner had died there two years ago, weird things went on inside that house at night. Loud thumping noises. Lights that floated from room to room. A strange face in the window.

The truth is, if it wasn’t for my neighbor, Mr. Yarbi, I wouldn’t be standing here right now, in front of the museum, about to do what I was going to do.

“You ready to go in, T. W.?” Bo asked. Bo was my best friend, and even though he didn’t think this was a great idea, he showed up, and we stood together outside the museum.

I held up the old baseball. It glowed in the moonlight.

I’d stolen the ball a few weeks earlier. Now I was returning it to its rightful place in the museum.

“Ready,” I said, flicking on my flashlight.

The clock in the town square began to strike midnight. I walked to the sagging front door and pushed it open. What I saw next was not what I wanted to see.

It was exactly the last thing I wanted to see.

But before I tell you what happened, I need to tell you how it all began.

I made a wish. [EG3]: Oooh love the voice! A great end to a first page, this will definitely keep us flipping

And it came true.

K. Van Zandt/DINGER Middle Grade Contemporary


This is a great example of a first page, especially for Middle Grade.

In MG, voice is so crucial and important, and this page has it! We’re quickly drawn into what is a clear setting of the stage: Two rebellious kids confident in their belief that this house is haunted are taking action to prove something, and they meet a surprise on the very first page. This page is doing a ton of legwork overall: We have a sense of our protagonist’s scared-but-still-brave personality (he’ll do what it takes to seek out the truth); there’s a maybe-haunted building in town that is the topic of much speculation; we’re diving in to a climactic scene just long enough to get interested before the protagonist sits down to tell us his story; we know the friendship dynamics; we know there’s a unique interest in baseball that will play a role. Also, we’ve got hook of a first line that pulls us IN, and we’ve also got a great ending line that asks so many questions and will have the reader flipping to the next page. First and last lines should feel like invitations, no matter if we’re reading MG or Adult. The first line should invite the reader in to this 300-some page journey. And to carry the reader into the next scene and encourage them to keep flipping pages, ending a chapter with a question or an unresolved point (or even a few minutes before you think the chapter ends) will go a long way toward keeping readers invested.


Fate: Are You Kidding Me?  by Suzanne Morrone – Contemporary YA with speculative elements.

After it was all over they asked me a bunch of questions. Well, of course the police did first. And then, well, everyone else. But there’s lots of stuff I had to leave out for obvious reasons. [EG1]: I like the voice in this first paragraph, although the character is beginning to repeat themself a bit. Is there a way to condense these 6 lines into 4 maybe? Recording it all is probably the best way to make sense of it, because I’m still a little confused. I’ll try [EG2]: I like this transition, it sounds like she’s making a confession after she’s been caught at the scene of a crime. Intriguing!not to leave anything out, not one little detail.  This was how it started:

Glory bumps my leg with her nose as if to say, Wake up! Let’s get moving. But I don’t move. We’ve been in this neighborhood for less than six months and suddenly the only boy I ever liked, the only real friend I’ve had, who of-course-just-my-luck vanished from my life when we were in the middle of 6th grade, is right there, not more than a hundred yards away. Playing basketball at the park. My park, the one Glory and I walk through nearly every day. [EG3]: There is a LOT of information in this one paragraph. Perhaps it can be spread around a bit? What’s the most important thing to know here, is it that she spots this boy? Or that she’s moved? Or her history with said boy?

Could it be fate that made us move to this neighborhood? Yeah, right. What made us move was Dad earning a shit-load of money and him wanting to buy a fancier house in a “good” neighborhood. Well. Better. Who cares if it was in a different school district. So here I am in the same town, but a new place and I haven’t made a single friend. Not that I want any. And as fabulous as Tomas looks, I mean Oh. My. Dog. But I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t need any friends. I don’t need anyone but Glory. That’s enough. [EG4]: This is a great YA set up (old friend/flame suddenly appears in new town with protagonist), but it’s happening a bit too quickly. We don’t need ALL of this info on page one. We need a little context first about her relationship with him in the past before we can understand why seeing him is significant in the present.

Speaking of dogs, [EG5]: Again, this is a new paragraph taking us down an entirely new topic path. We were on her family’s move, then Tomas, then Glory and now her motivation issues/pressure from school and parents. All of these layers can work together, but they don’t all need to be highlighted on page one. Maybe across 10 pages in chapter 1.she looks up at me, wondering what the heck’s going on. Why aren’t we walking? I lean over and kiss her black forehead right above her two dramatic brown

eyebrows. The thing I love to do most in the world is to walk Glory. But as everyone can’t wait to tell me, that’s not exactly a career path. And since Career Paths are the topic du jour for about-to-be seniors in high school, the message is I’m pretty much screwed. It’s like the whole world only focuses on the future for people my age. If Glory [EG6]: I love the humor here! had to decide on a career path it would

definitely involve chasing squirrels. And maybe even catching them. She knows what she wants, unequivocally. Me, not so much.

Fate: Are You Kidding Me?  Suzanne Morrone Contemporary YA with speculative elements.


I found the concept here on this first page to be such a great set up for a YA novel. The hook is clear and juicy: A girl moves into a new neighborhood and suddenly sees her old, estranged flame/friend from years past just hanging out in her park. Bombshell! It raises so many good questions from page one: What’s their history, why are they estranged, why did our protagonist move and why does she have so much tension with her dad and family…A big characteristic of kid lit is that these stories create scenarios that encourage readers to empathize and think about what they’d do in that situation. What would WE do if someone from our childhood was suddenly our neighbor?

My main note about this first page is that we have a LOT going on; the author is asking the reader to hold on to and juggle several different balls here: 1. We have the initial set-up, where we’re jumping ahead in time and the protagonist might be in trouble and recounting a confession. 2. We have our protagonist’s tension with her family and specifically father. 3. We have the classic “new town, new school, no friends” situation. 4. We have our protagonist’s relationship with Glory and how it contrasts with a lack of friends her own age. 5. We have this unresolved mystery of the boy Tomas and how our protagonist is still caught up in it. And lastly, we have the actual inciting incident, which is #6—Tomas is back. These layers are all important and clearly weave through each other—this layering is what makes a compelling story, after all—but since this is a YA novel, you’ve got room to introduce these points a bit more slowly as each one becomes relevant. Maybe we learn about all of this by the end of the first chapter, not the first page. As is, the different points here are all competing for attention. What’s the MOST important thing the reader needs to know first. Is it Tomas’ appearance? We need to know a little bit about Tomas first though before we understand why him appearing is significant. Perhaps Glory is the most important aspect of this chapter for the exposition? Or is it the family dynamics? WHEN does the reader need to know something is often more important than WHAT.


Marilyn Ostermiller     CRASH!         Middle Grade Historical   

I hate liars. I hate banks that lose people’s money. I especially hate Zelle. Even now, six weeks later, she won’t talk to me because she says I betrayed her.

I don’t see it that way. I did what I had to do. But now, without Zelle in my life it felt like I lost a part of me. My name is Dorsey [EG1] I wonder if this page might be stronger if we start with Dorsey’s name? Instead of Zelle’s? There is a fair amount happening here and it might be nice to be grounded with Dorsey first as our narrator. Gould. I’m [EG2] Watch out for “I” statements! They pop up a lot in first person POV, which is natural, but varying the sentence structure can make the text flow better for the reader.twelve years old. I live near Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota and I love words. When I learn how to spell a word, I own it. No one can take words away from me, like how the bank took my family’s money.  More on that, [EG3]I like the personality that comes through here! This is a funny aside. But it pops up again in “That’s a subject for another day.” I would hesitate to try to use that device twice so close together. later. I’ve always wanted to be the best speller in my town. Okay, the world. Some kids think I’m loony about spelling, maybe even stuck on myself. That’s a subject for another day. My problem with Zelle and the thing with my family losing our life savings. That’s all I can think about right now.  

Zelle [EG4] Do we need this short paragraph? We know they’ve been fighting, and you’re maintaining the mystery already. It’s pretty implied they got into a bad fight and there isn’t a lot of talking happening between them.and I had been best friends since forever. Then, one Saturday afternoon we got in a terrible fight. Now, she won’t speak to me and I refuse to apologize because I did the right thing.

When it came to looks, I was kinda skinny, with freckles. and hazel eyes. I had Mama to thank for my auburn hair, the prettiest thing about me. Zelle, [EG5] Since we haven’t yet met Zelle in person, we can save her physical description for the first moment she appears on the page herself. Right now, too much description won’t resonate with the reader quite yet since we don’t have a character to attach it to. All we have is the narrator’s voice. on the other hand, reminded me of a tall, icy glass of lemonade on a summer day: silky blonde hair in a chin length bob, creamy complexion and posture so straight she could be a statue, if she ever stood still, that is.

Last May, 1932, lots of banks ran out of money and my little family — Mama, Lily and me — lost our all our savings. That was also about the time Zelle and I were invited to compete for the chance to go to the National Spelling Championship, in Washington, DC. There could only be one first place winner. It had to be me. I had to do whatever it took to bring home that bag of gold worth one thousand dollars. We were desperate [EG6}Is this novel going to go back in time to show us the events, or is this novel about the fall out after the spelling bee doesn’t go as planned? for cash so we could survive the Great Depression together as a family, Mama, Lily and me.

Marilyn Ostermiller  CRASH!         Middle Grade Historical      


I’m always a fan of historical fiction, although first pages are always a bit tricky as you must introduce characters and plot AND then also the worldbuilding of an unfamiliar setting in the past. It’s demanding a lot of a first page, but I think this one manages to pull it off well. The voice here is engaging and makes me want to lean in like I’m waiting for a whispered confession, so bravo! This voice is crucial for MG.

However, there is a good deal of recounting happening here as our protagonist catches us up to speed. At first, I thought maybe what happened will be left a secret and revealed to us only is suspenseful snippets. But then our protagonist goes on to tell us that she and her friend had a falling out over an argument about a spelling bee, which our protagonist needed to win to win the prize money. So, a fair amount of our plot comes through on this first page. This left me as the reader wondering if this novel is going to jump back in time and tell us the story as it leads up to the spelling bee? Or is this novel going to be aftermath of the spelling bee disaster and the damage it caused to relationships? I would love to see these events unfold in real time – the stakes of needing to win the bee are so clear and defined and poignant. Usually, stakes are a tough part to lock down in a novel, but we’ve got them here, if the author does choose to tell the story of the spelling bee. As it’s written now, though, it feels like we’re going to be reading a story about the aftermath.


Ellen, thank you for sharing your time and expertise with us. I am sure many writer’s will use your comments to improve their own writing. We enjoyed getting to know you this month.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great comments–Ellen. and congratulations to Cathy M. for fine writing!


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