It’s dangerous to start a book with a waking-up scene, even here, where it’s the neighbours’ screaming match that does the waking. In our (very modern and recent) obsession with starting in medias res, waking up is not, generally the beginning of the story. It’s the beginning of the day in which the story starts, perhaps, but that’s not immediate enough for modern readers. They don’t want to wait while you get up, get dressed, brush your teeth, fire up the gravity bike and ride off to hunt down wampusses, or whatever it is that you do. They want to join the story as you pull the trigger. Does this submission get away with it?
Title: These Bounds We Break
Wordcount: 47, 000
Language: British English
Synopsis: Zainab is failing at dealing with her crush on Sara, their neighbour. When Sara’s parents throw her out after learning she’s pregnant, Zainab’s parents extend a helping hand to the girl. The disparity of her religion and liking another girl is a box Zainab can’t seem to get out of.
It is the yelling that wakes me up and my eyes flutter, trying to blink the sleep away. Yawning, I stretch on my bed as blood begins to rush to the ear I had slept on with my earphone still stuck in it. Even though the other bud has slipped out, the music is loud enough with one earphone, but the yelling rises above it anyways. Sitting up, I rub at my eyes in an attempt to chase the remaining drowsiness before risking a look towards my window, through the open curtains at the house a few meters beyond the sill, where the irate shouts reverberate through the walls and find their way into my space.
The father is the one yelling. He stands over the daughter, mouth opening and closing in short, quick successions, hands flying around in expression of his irritation. He looks ready to strike her. The father’s berating must have hit a nerve because the daughter springs up from the bed she’s been sitting on, form no longer stooped in remorse, her shoulder nearly colliding with her father’s chest. Her anger mirrors his but her voice is a notch higher.
The words “I said I was sorry… why… let this go…” weave their way from the tension-filled house to my ears. The remaining earphone has fallen off and I am fully awake, blatantly watching the show but unable to turn away.
The mother is at the far end of the room, pacing. Her anxiousness evident from the way she pulls at her hair, gaze flitting from father to daughter and then back to father again. I hadn’t noticed her because my attention had been on the two most active members of the family. Her sudden movement of going back and forth round the room as father and daughter yell at each other is what catches my eye and I instinctively turn my attention in her direction.
That’s when she spots me.
At first, I’m frozen in place by shock but I quickly recover and jump off my bed, splaying myself on the ground and wishing it’ll somehow open up and swallow me. I stay like that for a while even when I hear something that sounds like the curtains being yanked close to prevent my prying eyes from being able to see in.
When the yelling abruptly stops, I take it as a cue to get up from my sprawled position. The mother has obviously called their attention to a certain eavesdropping individual.
However, I already know why the father is yelling and why the daughter had looked contrite and guilt-ridden at first. Because the words “sorry cannot fix this…” and “…pregnant…” had been the last things to reach me before the screaming match was abruptly ended.
The banging is what wakes me up this time. Drowning out the pitter-patter of the rain outside, it startles me out of my slumber and the abrupt wakefulness leaves me disoriented for a few seconds. I’m in my room and I had been attempting my Algebra assignment but had given up when the x and ys kept swirling around the pages of the textbook, the letters confusing me to create a jumbled up mess.
I decided to take a nap when the letter e had somehow found its way into my equation and I couldn’t figure out how it got there or where it came from. The textbook is squished and I try to straighten it out with one hand while absent-mindedly rubbing at the spot on my face where I had rested on the table with the other. The banging stops for a while and then continues with renewed vigour. I don’t need to look from my window to know it’s coming from the house next-door.
Curiosity gets the better of me and I peek, my eyes meeting floral curtains. I pause and try to listen. It sounds like it’s coming from their front door but no one seems to want to bother with answering it. The effort put into ignoring the noise is obvious. I know because I had seen the father return home from work and watched the mother pace round the room before throwing me a filthy look and closing the blinds again. She was probably going to complain again to my mother about my bad habit.
I close the textbook and start to make my way to the living room. It has a window that offers a side-view of their front door. When I get there, my dad is seated on the recliner, glasses perched on his nose, reading a newspaper. He looks up from the paper at my sudden intrusion and I greet him before moving to the window.
It’s the daughter that’s doing the banging. I can’t see all of her as their terrace blocks my view but I see her Nike shoes and ripped jeans, the same ones she had worn to school today.
“Let me in!” she screeches, her shout accompanied by another hit at the door. “Let me in, please! You can’t do this to me. I made a mistake, I accept that and I’m sorry!” Her voice rises above the white noise of the rain on hard objects as it falls heavily. “Please, just let me in.”
Her voice quivers with those last words, her facade of anger falling away to reveal desperation. Her banging on the door falters and finally draws to a stop, a certain kind of silence settling in the air, even with the rainfall in the background.
She walks away from the door and down the porch steps, finally coming into view and under the angry rain. At the foot of the stairs, three bags are stacked together. Greatly drenched, they look like someone had carelessly thrown them out without a second thought. She stares at them for a while, walks to the trashcan few inches away from her, and kicks it with everything she’s got. It topples, its contents spilling onto the sidewalk and even then, she keeps kicking at it.
Editorial comment: Yes, I think it does, to answer the question raised at the outset. This isn’t one of those interminable “I woke up, stretching luxuriously. It looked like a nice day. I wondered what was going to happen, and whether I should wear the grey hoodie that Nigel gave me, or the pink one.” There is a point to the “waking up” here. I don’t know, but this might be the incident that starts the whole ball rolling. There’s observed conflict between some minor characters, which is not quite as strong as conflict involving the main PoV character directly, but still good. The main character begins to get involved when the mother sees her observing, but is not really, as far as this excerpt goes, directly involved.
Is this ready to go to an agent? I’d have a few niggles. I think not naming the secondary characters (the family next door) is a bit of a slip. There’s “the father” and then “the daughter”, “the father” and “the daughter” again, then “the mother”. Unless they’ve just moved in, Zainab knows their names, doesn’t she? “Sara’s dad next door was yelling at her again”. If they have just moved in, I don’t think you can avoid it, but perhaps mix it up a little. A good writer would take pains to avoid the constant repetition of the definite article.
I didn’t quite get the stage management of the mother, how she was pacing back and forth and how Zainab’s attention was distracted by her – she actually turns to concentrate on her. How big is this window that she’s observing them through? A normal domestic window to a bedroom is quite a narrow field of vision with potentially far more depth than width. I don’t see how the mother can’t be in the picture from the outset. Perhaps she’s in the background? Could it be two windows, possibly, to the same room?
I’m also not too sure about having the coincidence of the waking up again. You got away with it the first time, but going through the same plot device again within a few paragraphs is pushing it. Why not just have her listening to music, and she hears shouting, or a door slamming or something and takes one ear bud out to listen, then finds out about the girl out on the front step?
You mentioned you’re writing in British English. Just make sure you’re consistent in spelling. You use “meter” instead of “metre”, and “anyways”, but consistently use “-our” endings (“colour”, “vigour”, “neighbour”) instead of “-or”, for example.
With a bit of a polish, I think this could go to an agent pretty much as is. I didn’t see any info-dumping, PoV is tight. It’s an interesting premise – you have cultural and burgeoning sexual identity clashes. I do think if you were going to self-publish, you’d need to get this properly copy-edited before hitting the publish button.
Thanks for posting.