First Page Critique: No Such Thing as Enough

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Greetings and Salutations, happy readers!

It’s my pleasure to bring you a new First Page Critique. The chapter is the first from a novel called, No Such Thing as Enough.

Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die. The first bullet entered his chest and blew out his back, leaving blood spatter on the brick wall of the alley. A crooked blood trail marked the cement where he staggered between the Chinese take-out place and the hardware store. Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head. The skinny seventeen-year-old had put up a good fight, but he lost.

Jamie’s mother, Alice, rousted me out of bed with a phone call at about 3:00 AM. “Pastor Rathbone, my boy is dead.” Her voice came through flat, expressionless. “Please come down to North Main Street. Maybe you could tell me where God was when my boy was dying? Or maybe you could tell me why God didn’t care that my boy was murdered in the street?” She cried as she hung up, leaving me sitting in my underwear, staring at the receiver.

I tried to place her face, but nothing registered. She had to be a member of the congregation, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her. In a church the size of the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle, that was easy. How had my predecessor, Pastor Richmond, been able to keep track of so many people?

I wondered what Alice expected me to do or say. Where was God when we needed him? I had no idea. I had struggled with that question most of my life, and still I had no answers. Nevertheless, it was my job to bring comfort—not that anything I could say would really comfort her—so I threw on some clothes and headed out to downtown Dayton Crossing.

***************

While I do enjoy working with writers who have that new baby writer smell (Mmmmmm, those potent combinations: Fearlessness/fearfulness. Inventiveness. Enthusiasm/despair. Overconfidence/zero confidence.), it’s always a pleasure to work with a writer who has read a lot of fiction and can construct not just a pleasing sentence, but a well-thought-out paragraph. Hear, hear, brave author! You’re off the ground, but let’s work on your aim.

I was going to start off with a most obvious comment about presenting a logical sequence of events, which is something a lot of us struggle with. What comes first, second, third, etc.?

But I’m going to short circuit that comment with an observation that came to me on my fourth or fifth reading of this opening: It reads exactly like a novelized screenplay. While I’ve only written one produced screenplay, and a handful of live theater pieces, I have—if there were such a thing—an unofficial  doctorate in crime television viewing.

[Opening]

Setting: dark, urban alley

Seventeen-year-old boy walking downtown at night is ambushed, shot in the chest with a high-caliber bullet by a shadowy assailant who could be either a man or woman. He staggers, badly wounded, through an alley leaving a trail of blood. He’s thinking of home (perhaps he’s just been on his phone, calling Mum to say when he’ll be home), and is desperate to get back there, but we can tell by the music he won’t be saved. He collapses on North Main Street, and the assailant shoots him in the head.

[Main titles]

Scene

Slightly tatty, darkened bedroom

Rathbone, a middle-aged man, ruggedly handsome buy not cocky, fumbles for the ringing phone. A woman speaking in a rather monotone, expressionless voice is on the line. She launches into the tale of her son being murdered, while Rathbone frantically feels around for the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle membership directory. Who is this woman, and what is she saying? He sits up, wearing only his underwear. She hangs up, now weeping, and he’s left still puzzled as to who exactly she is. He stares at the receiver, still wondering if he’s supposed to remember who she is.

Rathbone puts on clothes, obviously pensive. He’s not sure what she expects from him, but he knows it has something to do with comforting her. He leaves the house in a God-existential crisis to meet her.

(I’m guessing that he shows up on the scene and finds himself more drawn to solving the crime than comforting the expressionless Alice? It’s a solid start to a story.)

***************

Most of the opening chapter is in Rathbone’s first person POV. But the very first paragraph—the establishing shot, if you will, is rather omniscient, with a bit of authorial editorializing thrown in for good measure. “The skinny seventeen-year old had put up a good fight, but he lost.” Something/someone with a personality is making this comment.

Who is saying this? I’m intrigued. The description of Jamie’s path is extremely specific. Are the mentioned places important?

First line: “Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die.” I like this sentence. It sets up the paragraph well, and I suppose it connects to the specificity of his path. But in the end I find it awkward. Maybe more detail to improve the rhythm.

“Jamie Frampton took a 147-grain, .9mm bullet to the chest, but it took him two minutes and seventy-five frantic, painful steps to die.” If you’re going for drama, go big!

Consider doing one of two things with this paragraph. You can make it a prologue or the first chapter by itself. Back off on the editorializing unless that voice is going to reappear many more times throughout the book. The other thing you could do is give us—or give Rathbone—this information when he’s hanging around the crime scene. Perhaps the guy is a garrulous detective or M.E. who sees Rathbone as non-threatening because of his profession.

It just doesn’t work where it now is.

Rathbone seems a pretty sensible guy. Very philosophical and a bit troubled. Let him have his way with his story, and don’t be afraid to take chances with him.

It’s a terrific start! Just remember that what works in a screenplay won’t translate directly into a novel.

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

22 thoughts on “First Page Critique: No Such Thing as Enough

  1. I love the opening sentence. Short, terse, a great lead-in. But it almost demands a first-person POV. This would make a great opening for a noir story.

    Here’s my take, adding a little more description and pacing it out a bit:

    He took seventy-five feet to die. The first bullet took him in the chest, leaving blood spatter behind him on the brick wall of the alley.

    He staggered toward the street, the toes of his sneakers dragging. Passed between the Chinese take-out place and the hardware store into the dim glow spilling from the streetlight. Finally collapsed face-down on the cold North Main Street sidewalk.

    As blood pooled around him, the shooter calmly approached. Put another bullet in the back of his head. Turned and walked away.

    When the shooter turned the corner, I crossed the street, stopped next to the guy’s left shoulder. He was staring at the street, but seeing nothing.

    It was Jamie Frampton.

    ***
    Of course, this leads in a whole other direction. And it would still need the sound of the shot added in, and some other sensory details. The air warm/cool, dry/damp/humid, maybe the lingering smell from the Chinese take-out place, other (maybe distant) sounds of the city, etc. Things to pull the reader more deeply into the scene.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for letting me play.

  2. Great revision/reimagining, Harvey. I agree the opening could be in first person, and it’s s good opening paragraph. Noir, for sure. But you’re right that it would be an entirely different story. The rest as it is disappears—unless you have two different first person narrators.

  3. Your observation, Laura, that this reads like a screenplay is spot-on. I thought the same thing. Which is probably why I liked it. It is tightly written, introduces the protag and the place well, and zips right along. I can’t decide if I like the opening mini-prologue or not. On one hand, it grabbed my attention immediately. On the other, it felt a tad truncated and almost artificially tacked on, like the writer sensed just starting off with Rathbone getting the phone call wasn’t juicy enough. (I don’t think it is. The protag getting awakened by the “someone is dead” call is over-done, imho.)

    The omniscient POV of the opening doesn’t really irk me that much. But I guess, like I said, it feels too short, or too anemic. Maybe I need to go get some coffee and come back and read it again.

    One sentence did need some cleaning up though: “Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head.”

    All those gerunds! “turning,” “taking,” “trying” and then “putting.” How about simplifying the action: He turned right on North Main, just two blocks from his home, and collapsed. The shooter walked a wide circle around the pooling blood and put another bullet in Jamie Frampton’s head.

    I think I want more of this opening scene. It’s good enough to merit a whole chapter by itself, I think. Maybe some of that chapter can be devoted to making us connect with the kid before he’s gunned down. Just needs some more meat.

    But I like this start! And I would read more. If nothing else, to see how this pastor fits into the crime solving.

    • I also want to know if this pastor is the crime solver. Good premise!

      Love your simplified version of that complicated sentence. That omniscient narrator is effective but it’s still driving me a little crazy not to know the why/how/who of the voice. Interesting idea to give that scene/ voice entire chapters, and alternate with the pastor.

  4. I agree with PJ about the one long, awkward sentence, but other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing. This sets up the crime quickly, and just as quickly gets me to the real protagonist, the person I’m expected to make an emotional connection with. And I do, in a heartbeat. If you make me wait longer to meet the pastor by extending the crime description or separating it into a prologue or chapter, I’m just that much farther from the emotional attachment, that much more jaded, and that much closer to putting the book down. Bravo to this writer for what I would consider excellent pacing and a great character intro.

    Kathy

    • Thanks, Kathy! If the author would make the voice somehow consistent, everything in the piece could flow much more easily. I agree the pacing—particularly in the opening—is good.

  5. The first paragraph presents a strong opening image. You might consider having the pastor talking to an officer at the crime scene with the officer giving him the gory details. Then flashback to the call. I like the title.

  6. Love the title. I liked the opening scene but it seemed a bit sterile. I think some reaction from Jamie might help. Even one word like Why?
    The skinny….put up a good fight. Actually, he didn’t. All we know is that he took a bullet.
    I agree with other comments that the switch to Rathbone was unexpected and needs more explanation. Why would the mother call him? They don’t seem to have a relationship that would support her actions.
    Like others have suggested, I would start the story with Rathbone at Dayton Crossing. The information in the opening can be explained in dialogue.
    Here is one alternate opening sentence to show how that might work.
    When the ME techs rolled the body over, Reverend Rathbone recognized the boy and knew he’d be accused of the murder.
    Keep writing. It is a long insane journey to be a writer. The good part is that you get to write stories.

  7. I love this piece. I didn’t find the shift to Rathbone to be startling in the least. But since others were, consider inserting the phrase, “I first heard of his murder when” at the beginning of the second paragraph.

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. It’s great to hear from Laura, who was planning her daughter’s wedding, I think, not too long ago. Hope that went well. Anyway, here are a few comments to throw into the mix:

    Title

    When I saw the title, it reminded me of Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough. While it’s a nice title, it sounds more like a “romance” type title to me. Just a thought.

    Opening Line

    The opening line got my attention.

    First Paragraph

    I agree with Laura about the first paragraph. It sounds like a prologue, even though you’re not calling it a prologue. I suggest that you start your story at the scene of the crime after the body has been dropped. Josip Novokovich writes a chapter of The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing on page 230:

    “A strong swimmer jumps far into the pool rather than swim from the very edge of it; the better you write, the further into the story you’ll be able to jump.”

    I don’t think that your prologue paragraph, as written, adds anything to the story that couldn’t be woven in later. If you keep the first paragraph, at least put some asterisks between the first and second paragraph to signal that the POV changes. Then really play it up as a complete scene. See the opening of Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream. Readers don’t pick up books because they want to think; they pick up books because they want to feel something. If you read Jordan’s first chapter, you’ll get an idea of how she makes the reader feel something about the character. If you don’t make the readers care about the character, at least make them feel fear or some emotion. I hear about murders every night on the six o’clock news, but to get me to continue reading about one in a book, I need a reason to want to delve further.

    Setting

    The setting of the first scene of a novel is a place where the author really has a chance to shine and show his/her writing chops. So why pick a place like a nondescript bedroom where someone gets a phone call in the middle of the night (cliché) to begin the story?

    Suggested Reading:

    Setting: How to create and sustain a sharp sense of time and place in your fiction by Jack M. Bickham

    Dialogue

    “Pastor Rathbone, my boy is dead.” Her voice came through flat, expressionless. “Please come down to North Main Street. Maybe you could tell me where God was when my boy was dying? Or maybe you could tell me why God didn’t care that my boy was murdered in the street?”

    In fiction, keep dialogue short and snappy. Avoid repeating phrases like “my boy” which appears three times in this snippet. I’d classify this snippet as overwriting. If you do keep this snippet, I’d replace the first occurrence of “my boy” with the boy’s name.

    Interior Monologue

    The last two paragraphs are nothing but interior monologue, which isn’t what you want on the first page of your novel, according to Paula Munier (and I concur). See her article on Jane Friedman’s blog (https://www.janefriedman.com/your-first-scene/).

    POV

    “How had my predecessor, Pastor Richmond, been able to keep track of so many people?”

    If you’re going to write interior thoughts, you wouldn’t use words like “my predecessor,” which is clearly for the reader’s benefit. Be careful.

    Another example:

    “Where was God when we needed him? I had no idea. I had struggled with that question most of my life, and still I had no answers.”

    Be careful not to “explain” to the reader when using interior monologue. “Where was God when we needed him?” is sufficient here, I think. Don’t overwrite.

    Awkward Sentence

    “Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head.”

    This sentence is clunky. See Mastering Suspense Structure & Plot, Chapter 13. by Jane Cleland. Here she explains how long sentences are used to make a reader “settle in” to a story and how shorter sentences are used to convey urgency. She advises shortening sentences and using language that allows readers to feel what the narrator is seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking in real time.

    Overall Impression

    I was just listening to a radio interview of Ethan Hawke about the film First Reformed, in which he plays the role of a minister having a crisis of faith. I find stories about ministers appealing. (I have a friend who is an ex-minister turned college philosophy professor turned private investigator – what an interesting guy!) Anyway, I really want to be drawn in by your story, and I think I would be if you dramatized it more. Kudos for attempting to write in first person (after the intro), which isn’t easy to do well. Best of luck, and definitely carry on!

    • The wedding was wonderful, Joanne. They are crazy-happy. I’m still in recovery, lol.

      I’m loving your critique and all the well-supported examples.

      Interior dialogue is so tricky, yet brilliantly effective when it’s done well. It can make or break our trust in the character.

      Thank you for adding so much to the discussion!

      • I thought there were lots of great comments (not all as long-winded as mine…lol) from everyone for our brave writer, who now has the fun job of deciding how to proceed.

        I can understand your exhaustion from the wedding. Hope the kids stay crazy-happy!

  9. I love the opening the line, but the omniscient POV drove me crazy. As a reader, I NEED to know whose head I’m in at all times. It’s one of my pet-peeves. Anon, follow Laura’s and Kris’ advice and I would turn the page in a heartbeat. You’ve piqued my interest. Great job!

  10. Seeing someone shot without knowing who they are or why I should care is a turnoff for me. As written, I would close the book.

    When the person is an innocent victim and something bad happens to them, I say “Oh no!” and want to see justice done. I suggest letting us see Jamie as a person long enough (and it doesn’t have to be long) to at least feel something for him. As it is, he could be a victim or a drug dealer getting karma. We can’t tell.

    The phone call with the mom is too long. It would be better played with just the request for the pastor to come to the station. Once he gets there, then have her look him in the eye and ask where God was.

    I would definitely read this – if you make me care.

    • Seeing someone shot without knowing who they are or why I should care is a turnoff for me. As written, I would close the book.

      When the person is an innocent victim and something bad happens to them, I say “Oh no!” and want to see justice done. I suggest letting us see Jamie as a person long enough (and it doesn’t have to be long) to at least feel something for him. As it is, he could be a victim or a drug dealer getting karma. We can’t tell.

      The phone call with the mom is too long. It would be better played with just the request for the pastor to come to the station. Once he gets there, then have her look him in the eye and ask where God was.

      I would definitely read this – if you make me care.

    • Even if Jamie isn’t a saint, he still has a mother who cares about him. So another option would be to set up the relationship to the pastor by having the mother confide in him. Readers might relate to the grieving mother more if they meet her first. Maybe she doesn’t like some of her son’s friends and goes to discuss it with the pastor. Honestly, how many people would call a pastor at 3 AM out of the blue without some sort of close relationship? I found it odd when I read this line:

      “She had to be a member of the congregation, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her.”

      For some reason, Cynthia, I am seeing your post twice.

  11. I like this piece a lot. I love the opening paragraph (especially the opening sentence), pulling the reader directly into a brutal murder committed on the street. The switch to the pastor getting the phone call is a very logical next step. It brings the pastor and the victim’s mother straight into the story in a very dramatic way. I think the piece is terse, to the point, and forcing me to want to read a whole lot more.

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