This piece invokes a south west Ireland seascape. Does it do the job of immersing us in this coming of age story?
Title: The Silver Seal
Genre: Young adult
Language: Irish English
Synopsis: Everyone is searching for something. Jimi and Ger are looking for treasure. Paula is looking for friendship.
The Silver Seal is [a] story about growing up and how one teenage boy on the south-west coast of Ireland navigates the journey from childhood to early adulthood.
Above the coast road, as it turns to head west into the very last rays of the summer sun, the early night sky is streaked with purple and black and scattered with stars. On the left, looking south, a steep slope of gorse, grass and heather leads down to a skirt of jagged granite lapped by the sea. It is a spring tide, just turning and as low as it has ever been with the sands of Cush spit in the sound just a few feet under water. Black and calm in the dark, a path of moonlight forms to the east, fractures and reforms across the water towards Long Island. A digger looms still and prehistoric close to the shore where a holiday home owner is building a private pier. Something stirs on the ocean floor just out from the rocks. The sand whose ripples mirror the waves’ energy above begins to move and cloud the water that had, until a moment ago, been as still and clear as a window. Crabs scuttle for cover in the seaweed that frills where land meets water. Startled fish flick their tails and whizz away. Slowly a pottery urn is uncovered on the sandy bottom. It rises then falls again, thumping dully back upon the sand that had hidden it for hundreds of years, then rolling to one side of the bulging sea-floor. And if you were sitting on the shoreline rocks, perhaps enjoying the sunset and now beguiled by the moonlight, you would see something breaking the water not fifteen meters from where you were. A seal perhaps, you might think as you rise and turn to go home, or the rib-tips of a ship-wreck pointing to the sky, uncovered finally after three hundred years. The moon is resplendent now in the summer night sky that still has a tracery of blue at the horizon, daylight not fully disappeared, night time not wholly established. The sea creeps back up the rocks as the tide comes in, covering limpets and the liver-red anemones and the bare timbers that had momentarily touched the air once more. Somewhere a few fields back, a fox pauses as it crosses the field towards the chicken run. Something has changed, it senses. Something has shifted this night and the fox hurries onwards to its prey.
Jimi could smell the smoke. He heard shouting and a small child crying for its mother. All the sounds echoed as though he was in a vast, dark cave. A door opened in the blackness. There was no relief from the tumult though, no escape. Silhouetted in the light stood a figure huge and menacing. A curved sword gleamed, he yelled with fright and woke himself up.
Awoke from the same dream he had been having for the past few weeks. Always the figure in the doorway and a smell of burning, and shouts and screams mingling with the feeling that he had to protect someone. Swinging his legs out of bed he was sure that he could still feel the fear surrounding him and remembered the crackling of flames. The floorboards were cool to his feet, the bedroom warm. The ceiling was not plastered but covered in tongue and groove wooden slats and sloped at both ends. Da had told him once that the timber on the walls and ceiling were used to insulate these fishermen’s houses. And if you go up into the attic, you’ll see the best roofing beams in the county. Teak ribs salvaged from a ship-wreck years and years ago. When was the last time they had talked that way? Da lying beside him on the bed, only the light from the landing illuminating the room.
‘You’re up early,’ Ma said. ‘I’m cooking rashers for breakfast.’
The smell made his mouth water.
Jimi’s mother was as tall as his father but not as slight in build. A solid reassuring presence, her hands were always busy and her long dark hair was always tied back out of the way while she took orders and cooked and served and cleaned in the café she managed at the top of the village. So much so that it was a shock for her son to sometimes see it loose, flowing with curls and streaked with grey late at night if he happened upon her on the landing after going to bed.
‘Your Da missed breakfast, he’s been up and gone to get shopping for me and then he’s a job over in Whiddy, a dive to check the pier I think. They’re worried about the damage from the last storm. There’s nothing as good as bacon in the morning, with potato cakes and a fried egg. I must make that again for you. I always have it on the menu up above but I should be thinking of my men at home. Fr Tim has it every Saturday, my weekend treat he calls it and he’s like Buddha himself with all the parishioners stopping at his table for a chat. Blocking the routes of passage!’ Here she laughed and Jimi took advantage of the moment to speak.
‘Ma?’ Jimi paused, not sure what he was about to ask.
‘Go on, out with it!’’
The frying pan sizzled as she slapped two more rashers from the packet into the hot fat.
‘Do you ever dream the same dream?’ Jimi asked. ‘The exact same one.’
‘I don’t think so.’
She turned from the cooker to face her son.
‘Why do you ask? Are you having nightmares again?’
‘It’s just that sometimes I dream that I am trapped in our house. We’re being attacked and there’s nothing I can do.’ Jimi stopped himself.
He heard a whining tone in his voice and did not want to sound like a baby.
‘I know,’ she said quietly, laying a hand on his shoulder. ‘I know how helplessness feels. But if it’s just a dream,’ she added matter-of-factly, ‘it’ll go away. Try not to think about it.
People familiar with this site will recognise that this submission breaks two cardinal rules about the first few opening pages of a submission to agents or publishers (in as much as there are any “rules” about writing fiction): that of starting with a block of exposition in the form of a prologue, even though it’s not titled as such here, and of starting with a dream sequence. Neither are generally good ways to begin a story, and as such an agent or publisher, particularly in the context of the YA genre where the usual advice of starting quickly and immersively is especially relevant, would read any further. So, it’s a rejection from me, on those grounds. However, I’m not a real agent, and this site aims to help writers rather than give the flat “rejection slip” feedback that you will get from most agents or publishers. What else can be said about this submission?
The prologue-ey exposition at the beginning, describing a south west Ireland shoreline, is actually rather beautifully written and poetic. As I’m lucky enough to live in this particular corner of the world I can vouch for its accuracy, particularly the black granite rocks and the “liver red” anemones. I like the touch about the “prehistoric” digger looming over the shoreline. I was a bit confused by the wreck and the pottery urn. Are they actually surfacing, having been uncovered by the storm, or is it a more metaphorical description? Anyway, this section certianly deserves to be in the book, but just not the opening 500 words, I think. I wonder if you can blend some of this lyrical description into the later narrative?
As for the dream sequence, it’s not very long. The reader doesn’t get too taken in by the dream narrative and then have the “but it was all a dream” let down that this type of opening can engender. But why not have Jimi narrate his dream (very briefly) to his mother, instead of live it in real time, as it were? Then the reader isn’t deceived at all and you can flesh out the mother’s dismissal of the nightmare in a little more detail, rather than just have her saying it’ll go away. There are other things to like in this section: the way that Jimi’s perception of his mother changes when her hair is down; the mention of the fine roof timbers, salvaged from a wreck, up in the attic. These little details draw your readers in, making your world and characters believable and immersive.
I wouldn’t be too disheartened by this rejection. Unfortunately, out in the real world, you would probably only get a proforma rejection slip. Here I hope the additional feedback, that a real agent wouldn’t have the time to give, is a little more encouraging.
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