First Page Critique: Making Us
Care About A Guy Going Bad

By PJ Parrish

We’re off to the hoosegow, the clink, con college, the gray-bar hotel for today’s First Page submission. That much is certain. But I’m gonna need your help on figuring out some of the other things going on here. Please give your time to our writer and don’t be shy about weighing in with some pointers, praise and punditry.

Case Runner

The funny thing is, my folks wanted me to be a lawyer.

It’s a profession. You’ll always make a living. Like Uncle Mike.

That was before Uncle Mike, my father’s older step-brother, went to prison for skimming trusts. He died there, in pretty short order.

After sitting through more of Dad’s drunk disorderly and domestic abuse hearings than I could count, I wasn’t interested in law. I majored in computer science, with a minor in bookmaking, as a runner for Sweet Clete Sojack. I had a little credit card harvesting going on the side: go-go growth businesses practically invited me to grab their transaction data for resale, and in a pinch I could Netstumble my way into wide-open WiFi.

But I was better at getting the info than covering my tracks, so I also did a little time. Unlike Uncle Mike, I not only got out in 18 months, but emerged with a profession, funnily enough related to law, in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike.

You can learn a lot of things in prison. Some, a lot, we’ll leave unsaid. But you meet people who see things just a little differently, the spaces between the itch and the scratch where money can be made.

One of these people was Simon Vann, who had been a plaintiffs’ attorney until a case where much of his plaintiff class turned out to have already handed over powers of attorney to out-of-state relatives before signing with him. The houses, the cars, the boat, the sugar on the side, were all gone in a flash. He blamed himself for one thing and one thing only.

“I called the wrong case runner. Tried to save a few bucks.” He waved liver-spotted hands around the prison library. “Worked out great, huh?”

I asked him what a case runner was.

“See, there are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner.” Simon stared at the book in his hand, a history of power boats. “He hopes.”

______________________________

I’m back. First off, I really like this writer’s voice. It’s unique, punchy and gives me a pretty decent feel for the narrator’s character — or lack of same. But we need a bit more flesh on the bones, which I will get into in a moment.

This opening is essentially back story. Which is a no-no, yes? Well, not necessarily. What I call character-intro openings can be effective when done well. But the writing must be razor sharp for the reader to be patient and wait for something to happen ie action.

One of the best character openings, which I often cite in workshops, is in Steve Hamilton’s debut A Cold Day In Paradise. He is introducing his series character Alex Knight with this paragraph:

There is a bullet lodged in my chest, less than a centimeter from my heart. I don’t think about it much anymore. It’s just a part of me now. But every once in a while, on a certain kind of night, I remember that bullet. I feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though the bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this, when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, the bullet feels as cold as the night itself.

Yes, this is backstory, but the bullet next to heart image is compelling and deeply personal.  Here’s another slow backstory character opening that I like, from Tana French:

My father once told me that the most important thing every man should know is what he would die for. If you don’t know that, he said, what are you worth? Nothing. You’re not a man at all. I was thirteen and he was three quarters of the way into a bottle of Gordon’s finest, but hey, good talk. As far as I recall, he was willing to die a) for Ireland, b) for his mother, who had been dead for ten years, and c) to get that bitch Maggie Thatcher.

All the same, at any moment of my life since that day, I could have told you straight off the bat exactly what I would die for. At first it was easy: my family, my girl, my home. Later, for a while, things got more complicated. These days they hold steady, and I like that; it feels like something a man can be proud of. I would die for, in no particular order, my city, my job, and my kid.

Slow, measured, nothing happening here but the character trying to get into our heads. This goes to French’s style. And here is maybe my favorite character-doing-nothing-but thinking opening, from Mike Connelly’s The Poet.

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional relationship on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret to dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.

But my rule didn’t protect me. When the two detectives came for me and told me about Sean, a cold numbness quickly enveloped me. It was like I was on the other side of the aquarium window. I moved as if underwater — back and forth, back and forth — and looked out at the rest of the world through the glass. From the backseat of their car I could see my eyes in the rearview mirror, flashing each time we passed beneath a streetlight. I recognized the thousand-yard stare I had seen in the eyes of fresh widows I had interviewed over the years.

So yes, you can start by having your character thinking instead of doing. But it damn well better be so compelling that your reader is as well hooked as a fighting marlin. Does the opening to Case Runner succeed? Do you find this Unnamed Man narrator seductive? Does he force you to turn the page?

Well, almost. As I said, the voice has great tone to it. But it lacks the empathy bond that both Connelly and Hamilton forge. Other than the fact Unnamed Man is a bit of wise guy, I don’t get much sense of personality or feel much connection to him. I know that empathy for a character needs to be built over the course of an entire book, but we don’t know quite where we’re going with Unnamed Man here.

And here’s the rub. I think, though I am not sure because the writer isn’t specific enough, that Unnamed Man is going to go to the dark side and become a case runner. Which makes him at best an anti-hero. Will we want to root for him if he’s got the morals of a slug? Is the plot’s trajectory going to create a character arc that has him finding his way back into the light? We can hope.

Couple years ago, Steve Hamilton, on hiatus from his Alex Knight character, started a second series starring an anti-hero named Nick Mason.  Here’s the book’s teaser back copy:

Nick Mason is out of prison. After five years inside, he has just been given the one thing a man facing 25-to-life never gets, a second chance. But it comes at a terrible price.

Nick Mason is out of prison, but he’s not free. Whenever his cell phone rings, day or night, he must answer it and follow whatever order he is given. It’s the deal he made with Darius Cole, a criminal kingpin serving a double-life term who still runs an empire from his prison cell.

Forced to commit increasingly more dangerous crimes, hunted by the relentless detective who put him behind bars, and desperate to go straight and rebuild his life with his daughter and ex-wife, Nick will ultimately have to risk everything–his family, his sanity, and even his life–to finally break free.

See the point I am trying to make for our writer? If your guy starts out as a black hat, you need to make us care that he has a chance. He needs a journey, not just of plot but character. Redemption is a powerful theme in fiction. I hope this is where our writer is taking us.

Okay. But we have a basic structure problem beyond that. And it creates confusion. When and where is this scene taking place? After several paragraphs of backstory, in which we learn that Unnamed Man served 18 months in prison and got out, we get the first “action” scene — Unnamed Man talking to Simon Vann. They seem to be in a prison library, so that made me assume that Unnamed Man is also a prisoner. See the problem? The writer told us he was out, yet here we are behind bars. This is not a flashback; it is poor structure. Plus the writer tipped his plot hand too early by revealing in backstory narrative that he emerged from prison ironically with a new profession related to the law.

If the writer wants to stay with this backstory opening, he needs a way to gracefully transition to the PRESENT IN PRISON. Which is where the story really starts. It can be as simple as “I was thinking of my Dad (or Uncle Milt) or whatever, when I walked into the library and saw Simon Vann sitting at a table surrounded by a twelve volumes of The Supreme Court Reporter. 

Then have Unnamed Man go over and strike up the conversation. The way it is written is so bare bones we can’t easily figure out what is going on, where we are, and why this encounter is even happening. Give it dramatic context.  Has Simon been considering trying to drag Unnamed Man into his case runner scheme? Has Unnamed Man heard that Simon is recruiting? We need context. This is all happening in a plot vacuum.

Now let’s talk about the idea of case running itself. I’ve never heard of it, but then I am not steeped in law or legal thrillers. My sister Kelly knew immediately but she can quote every line of dialogue from Law & Order.  If, like me, you didn’t know what a case runner is, could you figure it out from Simon’s description? I’d guess no. Here is what Simon says:

“There are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner. He hopes.”

This sounds like something out of Wikipedia, not like a person would really talk. It needs to be filtered through Simon Vann’s particular personality prism. And again, it needs context. Why did this topic even come up? Why are they talking about it? It is just thrown out there with no reason, so why do we care? It needs to be a scene, with logic and dialogue between the two characters.

I found a good lawyer’s site that explains it better than Simon did — which is saying alot considering how bad lawyers are at breaking things down in real English. Essentially, case running is a fancy name for ambulance chasing. Bear with this long explanation because it goes to a point I want to make, again, about character arc:

More often than not, “ambulance chasing” is carried out not by attorneys, but by others known as “runners”. Case runners are not licensed to practice law. Rather, they are hired by accident attorneys to do whatever is necessary to get accident victims to hire a personal injury lawyer. And it doesn’t stop there. After the runner gets the injured accident victim to hire the lawyer, the victim is then coerced into going to a doctor who also works with the runner.

In order for these predatory “runners” to find their prey, they listen to police scanners; offer significant cash bribes to accident victims; they confuse the injured accident victims with false information; and, before an ambulance arrives, offer them rides right from the accident scene to a medical office, where the runner will get paid a handsome “referral fee” by the doctors- thousands of dollars. Sometimes, the runners don’t get to the accident scene in time to lure accident victims away from proper medical care. But that doesn’t stop these runners from harassing accident victims. Hospital workers, ambulance drivers, even police officers will sell these runners your most personal information for hefty prices. Armed with this information, runners and ambulance chasers will visit houses, text, call, and write accident victims until they relent.

Make no mistake about it- hustling cases like this is illegal and unethical. But since there is more money to be made selling accident victims and their personal, private information to the highest bidder than there is selling drugs on the street; the “runners” aren’t running scared. Instead, they are running all the way to the bank.

Wow…really good fodder for a anti-hero plot, right? He’s a sleazy, Better Call Saul type of dude who preys on vulnerable people and sells your personal info on the street to the highest bidder! Now that’s a great start for any character, so kudos to the writer for recognizing this potential.

But…

If Unnamed Man remains a predator throughout the whole book and learns nothing, what happens? We won’t care about him. And that is death to any book.

So, to go back to structure again, this opening really needs a good scene of extended dialogue between Simon Vann and Unnamed Man explaining what a case runner is and it needs to set up the plot catalyst that Unnamed Man is going to the dark side.

Let me do some quick line editing to make a few other points.

The funny thing is, my folks wanted me to be a lawyer.  I assume the writer means that it’s ironic that his parents wanted him to be a lawyer but then he became a case running sleazo?

It’s a profession. You’ll always make a living. Like Uncle Mike.

That was before Uncle Mike, my father’s older step-brother, went to prison for skimming trusts. He died there, in pretty short order.

After sitting through more of Dad’s drunk disorderly and domestic abuse hearings than I could count, I wasn’t interested in law. Nice bit of sad backstory, but it could be a tad more personalized. After sitting in the back of too many courtrooms next to my crying mother, watching my dad….I majored in computer science, where? We need to know where this story is taking place and this would drop a hint. with a minor in bookmaking, as a runner for Sweet Clete Sojack. I had a little credit card harvesting going on the side: go-go growth businesses practically invited me to grab their transaction data for resale, and in a pinch I could Netstumble my way into wide-open WiFi. Again, this is nice voice but it’s a little thin. Can we have a hint as to why a guy who made it to college felt compelled to run numbers and steal credit card info? The problem is, you are really setting him up as unlikeable.

But I was better at getting the info than covering my tracks, so I also did a little time. Again, a little thin on telling details. What was he busted for? Can you make it more personal and involving for us? Unlike Uncle Mike, I not only got out in 18 months, but emerged with a profession, funnily enough related to law, in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike. On first read, this seems like cheeky good writing. But it is really confusing because in a couple graphs, we’re right back in prison. And, dear writer, you gave away your main plot point too easily. Him emerging from prison with a dark side job is a cool BAM! plot moment. Don’t bury it in a tossed-off narrative comment.

You can learn a lot of things in prison. Some, a lot, we’ll leave unsaid. But you meet people who see things just a little differently, the spaces between the itch and the scratch where money can be made. Syntax problem here. Do you mean they see things just a little clearly, like recognizing that space between the itch…

One of these people was Simon Vann, who had been a plaintiffs’ attorney until a case where much of his plaintiff class turned out to have already handed over powers of attorney to out-of-state relatives before signing with him. The houses, the cars, the boat, the sugar on the side, were all gone in a flash. He blamed himself for one thing and one thing only.  How does he know this? 

“I called the wrong case runner. Tried to save a few bucks.” He waved liver-spotted hands around the prison library. “Worked out great, huh?”

I asked him what a case runner was. Again, this conversation must have the structure and context of a dramatic scene. Why are they talking about this? You have to slow down and choreograph your scene with more detail and clarity. 

“See, there are laws against an attorney cooking up a cause of action and then finding warm bodies for plaintiffs. They call it ‘champertry’. So there’s a service, kind of a grey area, people who generate leads, finding and referring people whose issues jibe with the theory of the case. For a small fee per head, the attorney gets parties already qualified by the case runner.” Simon stared at the book in his hand, a history of power boats. “He hopes.” As I said, the definition of case runner is essential to your book. You have to break down in layman terms, even if it’s coming from the mouth of a lawyer. Remember, Unnammed Man is NOT a lawyer, so he can ask “dumb” questions for the reader. First, figure out a reason for this conversation to be happening, then give us DIALOGUE ie action. Example:

I had heard around the exercise yard that Vann was looking to hire someone to work on the outside. It was big money for little work, rumor was. I was getting out in eight weeks and with my record had no chance of scoring something big in the computer biz.

Simon looked up at me as I approached his table. “I hear you’re looking for work,” he said.

How he had figured that out I’d never know. But I took it for a cue to slide into the chair across from him.

Then start the dialogue about what a case runner is. And your plot and character is off and running.

One last nit. You notice how annoying it was for me to keep using the phrase Unnamed Man? You need to find a way to gracefully tell us your guy’s name and quickly.

So, I hope you find this useful and not too discouraging. As I said, you’ve got some writer chops. You just need to figure out the structure issues and more important, how you want to make us want to root for your guy. Thanks for submitting!

 

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Making Us
Care About A Guy Going Bad

  1. I agree with the evaluation of this opener. I too, love the writer’s voice and it’s engaging. I would read another page to see if I want to continue. The two things I noted are that

    1) I got lost in the conversation about the case runner because I didn’t truly grasp what it was, based on what was written and
    2) the larger thing for me was that by the time I finished the first page, I had unconciously come to the conclusion that ‘this guy’s not going to learn anything from past mistakes’ — i.e. going to be a bad guy throughout, so why bother with him?

    But timing has an impact on the read too–we’re living at a time when we’re seeing people blatantly commit crimes and get away with it, which makes it harder to read a book that, at least at first page glance, sounds like an anti-hero. I know there’s only so much a writer can fit into a first page, but I guess I want to know this character is worth rooting for.

    • BK, that’s an interesting observation you make about how the times we’re living in can affect our willingness to accept a character with deep flaws. Maybe that was in my subconscious when I read this as well. I don’t think that means we need only upbeat fiction or character who are 100% white hats (Boring!). But it is something worth considering. Thanks.

  2. Great critique…I agree with the comments.

    The way I’d put that “wanting to care” thing we all have is, we say to the MC, “Go back! No, don’t go through that door…please, please, please, go back!” If I’m shouting that at the guy, you can bet I care about him.

    I like BA’s voice, too. And there’s a couple of lines that made me re-read them because they were good, really good, IMHO.

    the spaces between the itch and the scratch…I love that. I might have to tweak it and use it myself.

    in about the same way as I was related to Uncle Mike…referring back to the fact Uncle Mike is a step-uncle, not the real deal. Like case running is related to the law…ha!

    All in all, could be a good story, one I’d read…if BA can make me care about…who again? Oh yeah, don’t forget to give the guy a name on your first page. Great advice…I learned it here on TKZ. 🙂

  3. Voice can only take you and the reader so far, and the leisurely voice intro is a hard sell these days with reader limited attention span. This opening is an info dump of character backstory and information about case runners which doesn’t offer any reason to care about the character or the story, whatever that may be. I’d toss it entirely and figure out the moment when this piece-of-immoral-poop character finds a case that touches what’s left of his heart and gives him and, more importantly, the reader a reason to care what happens.

    Here’s a brief tutorial on how to make the victim matter. http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2019/02/making-victim-matter.html

    • Yup, I agree that voice can take you only so far…like I said, to carry this kind of opening off you have to really be sharp. It’s juggling with torches. Few of us should try it. I tried it once and my editor wisely told me to start over.

  4. Sorry, I found the page boring. That is the best way to put it. There are bits and pieces that are interesting, The heart to heart with dad over the gin, but there isn’t enough there there to interest me.

    Then there are these: Running for a book maker is not bookmaking. Especially for a Comp Sci major. I guess dad was the drunk in the drunk and disorderly, not a lawyer for low lifes. Does Uncle Mike matter?

    In real life I am an IT guy. I needed to do a quick Google on Netstumbler. What do you know? Fifteen years ago you could get credit card information with it. Pretty hard now. Nitpicky for sure, but it is a pretty slow, low profit, high risk theft vector.

    • I also had to Google Netstumbler, but I gave it a pass because even not knowing, I figured it was inside baseball for a computer science guy. But maybe that’s the trouble here — if you write in “inside baseball” too much, the reader nods off. Or gets POed because you make them feel dumb.

  5. Hi, Brave Writer

    I agree with Kris’s comments. I liked the voice and the vibe of your opening page. However, it’s hard to pull off the internalized, expositional opening. Her examples show how it can be done. In general, I like to begin a novel dramatically in scene.

    Riffing off Kris’s example of a possible opening, you could get even more immediate and begin with him approaching Vann at his table. Get us right into that scene and his situation, dramatizing it from the get-go. Something I keep in mind with both internalization and exposition at the beginning of a novel is what science fiction author and writing teacher Nancy Kress calls “a pool kick,” where you begin dramatically, and then, once you’ve done that, you can glide a little and drop in some of that needed exposition because you’ve earned the right with the reader.

    I still struggle with beginning with character thinking and exposition. I’ve come to accept that I’ll fix this in revision, that’s the beauty of writing fiction–we get to edit and revise what we wrote 🙂

    Good luck with this! Thanks for sharing!

    • Love that pool kick metaphor, Dale. It’s a vivid variation on what Jim preaches here often — action first, explain later. So, as you suggest, starting with the actual action scene (in this case, the meet up in the library and a quicker set up for the protag) and then easing some of the colorful backstory in might be more compelling.

  6. I like the strong voice, too. One thing not mentioned above is that the scenario says he’s a kid trying to sound years older than he is, and whose ambition is to become a slightly more successful old lag, like the ones he met in prison. I figure there needs to be some foreshadowing that he’ll fall over his own feet (or, better, yet, his heart) sometime soon, in a way that sets up the eventual redemption arc. Otherwise, he just fades into the crowd of old lags he just mentioned and the story might as well be over.

    • Your comments, Robert, reinforce my problem with the scene — that we don’t know enough about the narrator. Age? Name? Where he is in the world? (I only assumed he was male because he was in prison with other males). This is what I meant when I said I was bothered by the characterization being too bare bones. We have a better feel for Simon Vann than the narrator. Details are important in building the bond between character and reader.

  7. I too love the voice and, as Deb said above, “a couple of lines that made me re-read them because they were good, really good.”

    Case runner is a different slant with lots of potential. If Simon explains it to the main character the way Kris suggests, that both educates the reader and introduces action.

    The writing chops are definitely there. If Brave Author takes some of the hints offered, esp. Kris’s insightful advice, I’ll read this in a heartbeat. .

  8. I’m conflicted with this one. I do like the voice, but there wasn’t enough to hold my interest. I think by fleshing it out a little more, as Kris suggested, you could have an intriguing opening. It’s just not there yet.

  9. A couple of suggestions:
    First, get to know your character and his environment better. What is the central conflict in this character’s life, now. A great deal of the backstory about the old lawyer while interesting doesn’t seem relevant at this point in the story. Neither does he whole prison thing. Like the Don Henly song, let’s get “Down to the Heart of the Matter.”
    Second. If you are interested in getting the right tone for a corrupt protagonist, read the work of George Pelecanos, especially the Nick Stefanos series. And watch The Wire (Pelecanos was writer on the series). He has a firm grasp on this type of character.
    This character is the lovable rogue. The story question this character always raises is which way will he go in the end? Will he find his moral compass and do the right thing no mater the cost, or will he give in to the dark side. Will he reach for his better instincts or will he destroy himself. Done right, it is very Shakespearian. It can be very poignant. Good luck.

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