James gave a fabulous run down yesterday on the principle of the ‘big grab’ needed on the first page of any novel. Today, I am going to focus on the issue of ‘grounding’ – a necessary aspect of ensuring a reader gets a strong sense of time, place, as well as character. Even if you are going to throw the main character’s life in total upheaval, a reader still needs to know (and care) about what that life was life to begin with. This doesn’t mean we need heaps of details – what we need is just enough for the reader to believe the world the reader has created and have some sensory point of reference that resonates as well as intrigues.
Today we’re critiquing the first page of a novel called SINK and I think it illustrates the difficulty of grounding a reader. Here’s the first page – my comments follow as bullet points.
Gold wire wrapped around a ruby. Almost like a star. The wire hides the center of a heart-shaped stone. Ayu wonders vaguely why gold always has a slight warmth. As if it retains the memory of being melted. The bottom of the pendant comes to a point so sharp she imagines a heart cutting flesh as it jumps out of the owner. Naoki’s heart. Ayu starts shaking, her throat bubbles and laughter explodes from her instead of tears.
The windowless interrogation room looks like the ones she’s seen on TV, except much smaller. Everything in Tokyo is. The damp air makes Ayu sneeze and Ms. Shimizu, her homeroom teacher, shifts her chair closer. Ayu didn’t tell her aunt and uncle that the police wanted to see her; she called Shimizu instead.
“We found that on the body. Are you sure you haven’t seen it before?” Across the table, Assistant Inspector Kameda presses her thin lips together. Her dull gray suit matches the streaks in her hair. This coloring and her small eyes give her a pigeon look.
Ayu takes a sharp breath. “No.” She weighs the jewel in her hand. It’s dense. Like the flat gold chain around her neck, the one that belonged to her mother.
“Why were you laughing?”
“I have no idea.” Ayu presses a fist against her mouth. She’d meant to take back yesterday’s words at homeroom. Except he hadn’t shown and she’d blamed him for that, too. “Maybe it’s not Naoki.”
“His father made a positive ID.”
It must be someone who looks like Naoki. Wears the same Diesel jeans and jacket. “Can I see the body?”
Starting off with the description of a pendant is an unusual choice and one I’d be fine with, if it didn’t leave the reader feeling totally ungrounded. Initially, I was intrigued but then ultimately I was just bemused as the first paragraph ended. I couldn’t visualize ‘a heart cutting flesh as it jumps out of the owner’. I also immediately didn’t like the protagonist – why laugh instead of cry? I needed to know more to feel both grounded in the story – at this stage I’m not even sure where Ayu is or the significance of the pendant. The memory of it being melted didn’t have any relevance to me- the memory of it piercing flesh, now that would have been at least sinister.
In the second paragraph we get some more details that ‘grounds’ the reader – we know we’re in an interrogation room in Tokyo. The observation, however,that ‘everything in Tokyo seems smaller’ seems incongruous – would a local really notice or think that? Then the reference to the homeroom teacher leaves me thinking that Ayu is a young teenager – but how young? Again, I have nothing with which to ground me as a reader. It doesn’t need to be much, but it does need to be there – even if it is something like. “At sixteen Ayu didn’t tell her uncle and aunt she phoned Shimizu instead.” It needs to clear whether this is a YA book or not – so the age of the protagonist may be important (depending on the rest of the book. I don’t know if this is YA or not).
“She’d meant to take back yesterday’s words at homeroom. Except he hadn’t shown and she’d blamed him for that, too.” This could be interesting but as a reader I was just mystified – we need more to care about these characters and the past fight they may have had.
“Can I see the body?” – By this point I was really confused about the main protagonist – she laughs at the thought of Naoki’s death, she obsessively notes details about a pendant (the relevance of which is unclear) and then she is in denial that the body could be Naoki’s (even though up to this point the reader suspects she was there – the first paragraph reference to Naoki’s heart jumping out certainly makes suggests it) – and now she asks to see the body? I’m at sea as to who Ayu really is as a character.
In short, although this first page offers some intriguing information I’m too ‘ungrounded’ to understand or care about either Ayu or Naoki. How do you all feel? For me it’s a grounding issue but others might feel quite differently.