A YA opening about a girl with secrets arriving in a new school. Yes, it’s been done before – it’s been a YA trope since before Twilight – but is the execution of this opening likely to catch the attention of an agent?
Title: The Family Secrets
Language: British English
Synopsis: For most of Alicia’s life she has kept family matters private but when her father moves the family to the west of Ireland she starts to question everything.
She thought she was keeping the secret to protect her family, but what if they were keeping it to protect her?
If Jonathon Daigle had known what that short snooze would cost him, he would never have let his eyes fall closed. Since he didn’t, he relaxed into the sand as the beaming sun warmed his face and inhaled the salty sea air.
The high-pitched voices of his two youngest children rang out as they sculpted turrets and scooped moats out of sand. His older two bickered and joked against the constant batting of a ping-pong ball from one to the other. Humming, his wife watched over the kids. The rough waves of the Atlantic Ocean roared as they rushed against the shore.
As he drifted off, these noises faded.
The sides of his mouth curled upwards into a smile as he pictured the next two weeks. Playing with his children. Swimming in the sea. Spending time with his beautiful wife.
His hand crawled across the warm sand onto her towel seeking the pleasurable sensation of her skin. He stretched further and further until his arm was perpendicular to his body, but still, emptiness.
His eyes snapped open as he woke up.
The playful banter of his eldest two had become sharp, angst-filled shouts. The childish voices of his youngest two had moved far into the distance and turned into terrified screams.
Jonathon pushed himself to his feet and pounded across the beach to the shore, shooting looks over his shoulders and yelling his wife’s name. As he dove under a wave toward his children, he realised she had vanished.
Determined not to let the nineteen pairs of staring eyes intimidate her, Alicia stared back. Chin raised, shoulders straight, she crossed the strange, new classroom to an empty seat by the window and raised her eyebrows at the teacher.
His tired eyes rested on hers before he took a lethargic breath and cleared his throat. “Claire, read the poem again from the start.”
While a girl with strawberry blonde hair tied in a tidy ponytail read aloud, Alicia studied her new classmate. White school blouse buttoned all the way to the top, collar poking out over her blue V-Neck jumper, pleated skirt draped over her knees.
Alicia took note. When her uniform arrived, she’d leave the ugly, frumpy jumper at home. Shorten the skirt. And leave the first two buttons of her shirt open. No, three.
Bored, Alicia turned to the window. There was nothing below but grass and trees, and past the trees were more trees and more grass. Flecks of black and white animals – cows, she guessed – roamed the patchwork fields of distant hills.
She sighed. She couldn’t believe this was now home.
When Claire finished reading, a silence fell over the classroom. The teacher’s head lolled to the side as he twitched in his sleep.
Behind her, a guy, tall and with scruffy dark hair, tapped her shoulder.
“Hi,” he mouthed.
“Hi.” Guys at school – the only silver lining of this sudden exile from Dublin.
“Wanted to introduce myself since we’re neighbours. My house is just ten minutes down the road from yours.”
“How’d you know where I live?”
“Welcome to village life.” Robbie grinned. “You’ll never keep a secret again.”
Alicia hid a smirk. Her whole life felt like a secret sometimes. Nothing would change from moving here.
“Everyone was out watching the moving trucks,” Robbie said. “It was like a circus. How do you like the school?”
She wrinkled her nose as the teacher snored harder. “Great teachers.”
“He’s not the best, but the school’s not bad. There’s loads to do.”
Back home her friends were holding a fashion show for charity this weekend and visiting Rome next month. At best, this school was probably organising a combine harvester festival followed by a hooley.
“There’s loads of sports. Everyone follows our Gaelic team. They’re good. We might win the cup this year. There’s a choir too. Do you like music?”
“Yeah, I thought I was the only one.” Her voice was flat with sarcasm. “Don’t tell me you like music too?”
Robbie laughed. “I do. Don’t tell me you like films too?”
“I do. It’s creepy how much we have in common. Do you like food?”
“Yeah, I do. It’s like we’re the same person. Do you like having fun?”
Alicia made a face and giggled. Funny and cute, too. Her friends back home would be so jealous. “Actually, not so much.”
The sound of a book falling silenced the whole classroom instantly. The teacher awoke with a snorting snore and rubbed his eyes under his glasses.
“V-Very good, Claire. Jack, sit up straight. Matthew, stop kicking Jack’s chair. Oh, the new student. I forgot to introduce you.”
Alicia sighed as the teacher rifled through the pile of papers on his desk. Finally, he seemed to give up and looked at her. “Remind me of your name.”
“Any relation of Jonathon Daigle?”
All eyes were on her again. She glanced at the clock. Only seconds left before the bell would ring. She willed time to hurry up.
“His daughter? Class, we have the daughter of one of Ireland’s leading businessmen joining us. A writer too. Unarguably one of Ireland’s best writers of today. Now, it has been a while since he published. What is it, eight years?”
“Seven.” Seven years since her father’s last book. Seven years since—She swallowed and suppressed that thought. Her first day in this stupid new school was hard enough without delving into that nightmare. The bell rang to end the class, so she zipped her bag closed to signal the end of the conversation.
A crashing sound from the other side of the room made the teacher jump. “Matthew, Jack, I told you to stop messing. Fine, class dismissed.”
All at once, the classroom erupted with the sounds of chairs scraping the floor as they pushed back, and students chattering.
“Hey.” Robbie leaned over his desk. “How about a tour?”
“Sure.” She stood up, but found herself face to face with Claire. Behind her stood the two guys who’d been messing in class.
Robbie looked disappointed at the interruption. ” Alicia, these are my friends, Claire, Jack, and Matthew.”
“Do you ride?” Claire asked in her loud and clear voice.
Claire sighed. “Do you ride?”
“Horses,” Claire said with a huff.
“Gross.” Alicia wrinkled her nose. “No.”
“Typical,” Claire muttered. “You’re from Dublin, aren’t you?”
“Don’t worry.” Jack grinned and thumped her shoulder. “We won’t hold it against you.”
“Huh?” Why would they hold it against her? Surely these farmers wished they were from Dublin.
“How come you moved here?” Robbie asked.
Alicia’s stomach churned. What could she say? That since she destroyed her family, things had gotten worse and worse until they couldn’t stay in Dublin anymore? “Oh, the usual. My father’s just trying to ruin my life, that’s all.” Alicia turned to look at the clock. “Anyway, I’m bored. Time for that tour, Robbie?”
He grinned. “Let’s go.”
Editorial comment: Depending on what you want to do with it, this could be ready to go.
If you were thinking of submitting to agents, I think it’s pretty good as it is. It’s YA, the wordcount of 70,000 for the full manuscript is right on the mark, the opening few pages are written in (extremely believable) teenage banter with a strong voice. There are enough details in the synopsis and the internal monologue of Alicia to hint at a multi-layered story of some complexity. I think any YA Agent would ask to see the rest of this manuscript in a heartbeat.
However, if you intend self-publishing, it needs a quick copy-edit. There are small details that could do with tweaking before you publish:
I’m not sure about the one page of italics. It’s a prologue in anything but name. The positives. You have kept it short. It’s not extravagantly written. As far as I can tell it fulfils all the justifications for a prologue; it’s written in a different PoV to that of the main character, at a different time from the main story, about events which, if we are to understand what follows fully, we probably need to know, and it’s about a specific incident—it has a narrow focus. The negatives? Well, it is still a prologue in effect, and they’re so often mis-used that they’ve become a bit of a bête noire for agents. By including the italicised text you do run the risk of some reactionary agent in a bad mood not reading any further. I think you might just get away with it in this particular case.
In this italicised section there’s no sense of time passing between when he closes his eyes and he reaches for his wife. She’s humming beside him, watching their children play, and then she’s vanished.
I didn’t understand why Jonathon shoots “looks over his shoulders” while he’s running towards the sea.
“The shore” is a synonym for “beach”, I would have thought, so I think you need to specify “water’s edge”.
“Dove” is an Americanism. In British English we still use “dived”.
In the rest of the extract; “his tired eyes rested on hers” – I know what you mean here, but the literal transcription looks odd. Generally, body parts seeming to move of their own volition should be avoided.
Why is Alicia waiting for her school uniform to arrive? In most small schools in western Ireland (and there aren’t many big ones) the uniform is only stocked by a few small local retailers. You have to go there and buy it—it’s not like it’s on Amazon.
I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say she has to “guess” that the black and white animals in the distant fields are cows. I mean, she is Irish, even if she’s a Dub!
The teacher snores “harder”, even though we weren’t aware that he was snoring at all.
You might consider “riffled” rather than “rifled”. In US English they tend not to use “riffled” at all. In British English there’s still a distinction drawn, in some quarters, between “rifled”, which means searching, usually quite destructively (he rifled through her desk, looking for the password), and “riffled” which means manipulating leaves of a book or sheets of paper. It’s the more correct verb to use here, I think, but these are fine details.
I don’t think the farmers “wished they were from Dublin”. If they did they’d be as out of their element as she feels. Perhaps the farmers wish they were in Dublin, which is closer to her sentiment.
Jonathon Daigle is one of Ireland’s leading businessmen and one of Ireland’s best writers?
However, all of the above are relatively minor copy-editing points. Would the manuscript be better if you addressed these suggestions? Definitely. Would these issues (some of them quite subjective) be terminal if you submitted to agents as is? I don’t think so. In the sense that this is a test for submitting to agents, well done.
Thanks for posting.
I just read the review and am delighted to see that it passed your test. In terms of your suggestions, it always surprises me how a fresh pair of eyes can discover new problems that were invisible to others. I will absolutely be implementing your suggested improvements when I submit to agents. Your feedback has given me the confidence to take the next step of querying agents.
Thank you so much,