Grounding the Reader – First Page Critique

 Today’s first page critique is for a piece entitled Eyes in the Ashes. By now, you all know the drill, and my comments follow:
    Layla blinked, unable to see.  She strained trying to see something, anything in the pitch-black darkness.  She groaned. Her head hurt, much worse than a hangover ever had and the pain throbbed in time with her heartbeat.  She ran her fingers over her face, her eyes.  Her eyelashes fluttered against her fingertips.  They were open, nothing covered her face, but something sticky was all over it.  She tried to think. The last thing she remembered – walking out of the back room of the art studio. She’d heard someone in the outer room and when she walked out caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, someone grabbed her and then…. Nothing. 
She couldn’t remember. She must have blacked out.  She waved her hand in front of her face.  Why can’t I see?  I can’t be blind. She tried to sit up but something tangled around her body, some sort of soft, smooth material. A sheet?   She struggled to loosen it and sat up.  The movement sent her head  spinning. She groaned, pulled her legs up and dropped her head to her knees.  “Oh God” she whimpered and the sound echoed all around her.  
“h h h hello”  she whispered.
    Her voice echoed back to her.  Something rustled behind her and from nearby came a high pitched squeak.  She drew in a startled breath and shuddered. A horrible stench stung her nose and throat. She grabbed the cloth and covered her mouth, trying not to gag. Noises all around her now, squeaking, fluttering , scratching.  She struggled to her feet, swayed when they sank into the mushy ground. Something cold and wet crept between her toes.   
    She grimaced and stumbled forward, one foot at time, dragging the sheet with her like a security blanket.  She held one hand out in front of her, groping, searching, hoping to find something solid to touch.   Her throat stung and she took shallow breaths as she shuffled forward.           
    “Don’t pass out, don’t pass out”.

My comments:

I liked the visceral sense of foreboding that this first page evoked, and the author has created a situation that is both compelling and scary. I must confess, however, to finding myself a little ‘ungrounded’ at times in the scene. 

First off, I found the phrase that her eyes “were open, nothing covered her face, but something sticky was all over it”, awkward. I started thinking about how her eyelashes could flutter if they were sticky which made me question whether her eyes had sticky stuff over them or not (which is making the reader work too hard!).  Then, having discovered this stuff all over her face, why didn’t she try and work out what it was? (I was imaging all sorts of horrible stuff…) But instead she immediately starts thinking back to what had happened at the art studio. As a reader, I confess I wanted to get a stronger sense of the horror and panic she must be feeling. 

Two paragraphs later, when the horrible stench ‘stung her nose and throat’,  I wondered how she hadn’t noticed this immediately (had there not been a stench before then?) When the cold and wet seeped between her toes, I realized I had no idea whether she was clothed or not and, given I assumed she was clothed when she was attacked, wondered how she could notice the softness of the sheet around her but not the state of her undress  (or at least the fact that she didn’t have any shoes and socks on)?  This is when I think the author needed to think through the sensory experiences depicted and make sure they were consistent and well-grounded so that, even though the reader is as unsure as the protagonist about what has happened, we feel like we have enough information to keep reading without getting confused. 

I would also have expected her to scream or yell rather than whisper ‘hello’ (I certainly would panic in this situation!) but I was willing to go along with this reaction until I learned more about her as a character. On a more pedantic note, the sentence at the end of the first paragraph: “She’d heard someone in the outer room and when she walked out caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, someone grabbed her and then…. Nothing.”  is awkwardly phrased (and grammatically incorrect – is something missing perhaps?).  I think the author needed to proof read this page a little more closely. (For another example, the word ‘stung’ is used twice which is repetitive for one page).

Otherwise, I was intrigued. I would probably keep reading but I would want to be a little more firmly grounded, in terms of her sensory experiences and location, to feel fully engaged in the story.

What do you think? 

9 thoughts on “Grounding the Reader – First Page Critique

  1. I do think, with tightening, this has potential. When I really got engaged was when something cold and wet creeped between her toes. Get there a bit quicker!

    Some tightening suggestions:

    Her head hurt, much worse than a hangover ever had and the pain throbbed in time with her heartbeat.

    That’s two descriptions of the same thing, in the same sentence. The first is more of a “tell” so I’d drop that and render it Her head throbbed in time with her heartbeat.

    I’d take out all her solo dialogue.

    Then look for ways to trim more fat off the sentences, and I think you’ll have us gripped. The nice thing is it’s a real disturbance, and a character in motion. Not just a character alone, only thinking and not doing anything of consequence.

  2. The story concept sounds good, but the writing was too repetitive for me. In this single page “she” appears 17 times and “her” 23 times. I’d suggest coming up with a different way to reference what is happening to her without repeating the same pronouns quite so much. For instance:

    Her throat stung and she took shallow breaths as she shuffled forward.

    could be

    Her throat stung as she shuffled forward, sucking shallow breaths.

    That removes one “her”.


    She couldn’t remember. She must have blacked out. She waved her hand in front of her face. Why can’t I see? I can’t be blind.

    could be

    Lack of memory indicated she must’ve blacked out. The space was pitch black.
    Am I blind?

    That removes two instances of “she” and condenses several sentences.

    I’d be interested to know what’s going on in the story. If the language was changed I’d read on.

  3. Delighted to see my piece be picked for feedback. I’d read it so many times became blind to the faults. Thank you Clare for pointing out the areas that left you ungrounded and confused.

    Appreciate Scott and Basil’s comments as well. Valuable exercise and given me a lot of think about.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. 🙂

  4. Robin- you are very welcome and I agree with both Jim and Basil that there is definite potential here!

  5. I’m not alone when I say I would’ve liked to see more fear in the character. Ordinary folks would be understandably more afraid and on edge if they were so disoriented by forgetfulness accompanied by such foreign surroundings.

    The sticky substance was notated with more a tone of scientific curiosity than the “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!” reaction that readers would expect under the circumstances.

    I would’ve been much more of a believer if more of a startled and scared feeling was invoked on that first page.

  6. Hey Robin,

    Great start, and bravo for the badge of courage to submit your stuff to TKZ.

    Such an honor to participate and read all these critiques this month. I learn something every time I tune in to this blog.

    You guys ROCK.


  7. A good job painting a terrifying situation. Swarming bats and bare feet treading guano in darkness gave my primal fears a good tug. Tentative vocalization did not bother me…perhaps too scared to yell.
    The ‘security blanket” clanged for me as discordant…Linus or a child’s blanket do not fit the horror you’ve crafted.
    I can relate to your ‘read so many times am blind to problems’ comment. How does that happen and how does one eliminate it?
    Good job of engaging interest. I’d read on.

  8. A freaking nightmare that scene! Holy smokes. If I woke up to that I’d die of a heart attack.

    The author’s ability to evoke strong emotion is fabulous. I agree with Clare, however, the sentence structure is awkward. the sticky over the eyes threw me. Polish this baby up a bit and you’ll have a riveting piece.

    My advice: don’t push the scene. It is happening very nicely. Less is more when it comes to the “what happened” to get her to this point.

    Now I ask, where the heck is she and GET HER OUT OF THERE!! LOL!!

    I’d read more. With some good editing this scene will rock!

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