First Pages Critique: Getting a Handle on Pace | Jane Friedman

First Pages Critique: Getting a Handle on Pace | Jane Friedman

Photo by Nicolas Henderson (CC BY 2.0)

Ask the Editor is a column for your questions about the editing process and editors themselves. It also features first-page critiques. Want to be considered? Submit your question or submit your pages.

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Author Accelerator. Is book coaching your dream job? Take the One-Page Book Coaching Business Plan Challenge to find out what kinds of writers you would coach, how (exactly!) you will help them, and how much money you can make doing it. Sign up for our $99 mini-course that launches in May.

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A summary of the work being critiqued

The B*tch and the Boy: A True Saga of Fame, Greed, Betrayal, and Murder is about a brilliant man, John Markle, and his narcissistic mother, Academy Award–winning actress Mercedes McCambridge. The two have a love-hate relationship that drives him to kill his wife, children and himself. Because he blames his mother for his failures, the story expands the murder narrative to tell their intertwining life stories. It is a tale of family and relationships immersed in a sixty-year arc through the golden years of radio and World War II, to the glamour of Hollywood and elite schools, to an enviable career and a life built on fraud.

First page of The B*tch and the Boy

Novembers in the quiet capital of Little Rock are cool and serene with leafy hardwoods coloring the roadsides and shallow valleys. The city spreads out along the southern bank of the Arkansas River as it flows southeast toward the end of its journey to the Mississippi at the lost town of Napoleon. Located in the center of the state, the terrain eases the foothills of the Ozarks into the flat lands of the Delta. The year was 1987 and the city was in transition with its early eastern downtown blocks forming its commerce even as its retail was following the population and moving further west.

A few blocks south of downtown, Dr. John Markle and his wife, Christine, did not follow the crowd west but chose to live in the heart of the city’s historic residential area. John worked long hours and wanted the location’s proximity to his office. He was a motorcyclist and liked speeding up Main Street toward the river, arriving at his office within five minutes. Located one house from the governor’s mansion, theirs is a tall, three story 1880 Queen Anne. Sited on a treeless corner hilltop, well above surrounding properties, to those driving along Main Street the structure jumps out as peculiarly stark: a lonely fortress ready to offer both protection and seclusion.     

At 45, John had been a star for much of his life. In Little Rock he was serving as the economist and a vice president with Stephens Inc., the most influential Arkansas company and largest investment house off Wall Street. Eight years earlier he was brought in as the guru of futures trading from prestigious Salomon Brothers investment firm where he had once been a vice-president in New York City and seemed to know many of the luminaries on Wall Street.                  

After arriving at Stephens he quickly assumed a leadership role and established himself as an articulate and engaging speaker who offered insight into the turbulent economic landscape of the early 1980s. He also served as a leader and trainer to other traders and headed his own department. The billionaire brothers and owners of the firm, Witt and Jack Stephens, were pleased with his contributions and considered him “”the great team player.” They regularly called him up to the executive floor to speak to clients and attend many of their private luncheons, formally served by white jacketed waiters.       

Continue reading the first pages.                                                                                                                              

Dear Peg,

There are a lot of compelling, even flashy, elements to this story, right off the bat: an Academy Award–winning actress (even if not the very most famous actress), a “guru of futures trading,” elite schools, Hollywood, fraud!

and, most important, a crime. (Several, actually.)

There are many ways a writer can approach telling any story, but in the case of true crime stories, it’s conventional to jump in pretty close to the crime. This is especially true in the case of a story like yours, where the primary driving question isn’t so much What happened? as What really happened? or How do we make sense of what happened?

As far as I can tell from the material you sent, the broad facts of the story aren’t in question; this is not a “whodunnit” murder mystery kind of story. You know what happened, and readers who enjoy true crime will also want to know the gory details: Where were the bodies found, and in what state? What were they wearing? Who was killed first? What do you know about the weapon? Who found them?

Granted, this all seems a little bit gruesome, and maybe it’s true that this kind of morbid curiosity isn’t something to be proud of … but it’s also a very human impulse. If you’re going to tell a true crime story, you might as well lean into it. You want to hook readers, emotionally, to get them invested enough in the story to keep reading. You’re also making a promise up front that by the end, they’ll have more insight into this heinous crime, and an answer (perhaps more than one) to the question you pose in your supporting materials: “Why? Why does a respected investment banker brutally murder his wife and children?”

In fact, I should admit that as I was trying to get the shape of this story, I kept returning to the additional material (your author’s note) more than to your opening pages, which are on the slow/quiet side.

Let’s take a look.

“Novembers in the quiet capital of Little Rock are cool and serene…”

Starting with the physical setting of the story isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it might be helpful to narrow the lens. Rather than taking the very wide view of Little Rock, generally, what if you started with the house, the “lonely fortress” where the deaths occurred. Did people generally think of it as a fortress or unapproachable, even before what happened? Did one of the first responders observe anything unusual, walking up to it on the night of the deaths? Is it vacant, even now, years later?

You can always go back at a quiet moment and paint a picture of fall in Arkansas, or Little Rock’s general topography, or insights into the local population’s migration to the western suburbs. If that seems especially relevant at some point.

Your author’s note, provided with the pages, start with the following:

“Telephones started ringing early on Monday morning…”

The telephones (though I want to know more: whose telephones? and how early?) are something happening. Not a scene, per se, but they lead to scenes, maybe: people making calls, people answering calls, lights going on in houses all over the city, cars driving through the night, lights flashing, people walking into that fortress up on the hill and seeing unspeakable horrors—except not really unspeakable, because you’re going to paint the picture.

Currently, in these first pages, there’s also a lot of back story, about John in particular. These paragraphs span a lot of time in a small space. In fact, there are almost several different time structures happening all at once, in a way that might be disorienting for many readers: We start with John at 45 (his age when he died, in November 1987). Then it’s eight years earlier, and then we take a quick jump back to his childhood for a paragraph, then another leap forward to “early October [1987],” when six years of fraud were discovered. There are a few more leaps: back to childhood, then after he married, and then the day he picks up the phone to ask Mercedes for help, she refuses him, and then he calls daily for five weeks. Finally, “two weeks into his suspension,” John starts writing a letter, and at some point after that, on November 13, he is fired. (The murders happen on the following Monday.)

All to say, it feels like you’re trying to cover a lot of ground in these opening pages. and while it’s hard to know exactly what path the book follows as a whole, it seems like a lot of this ground—John’s childhood and relationship with his mother, the fraud, the letter—will be important to cover in more detail and at a slower pace. 

My advice for the beginning of the story, then, is paradoxically both to speed up and to slow down. Speed up, meaning get to some action—whether that’s the murders themselves, or the immediate aftermath. and slow down, meaning get a head of narrative steam going, stretch out a little into the storytelling and trust that if you keep doling out details, readers will stick with you for the bigger story you want to tell and the questions you want to explore.

Good luck with it!

—Hattie Fletcher

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Author Accelerator. Is book coaching your dream job? Take the One-Page Book Coaching Business Plan Challenge to find out what kinds of writers you would coach, how (exactly!) you will help them, and how much money you can make doing it. Sign up for our $99 mini-course that launches in May.

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Hattie Fletcher is the former managing editor of creative Nonfiction and True Story magazine. Essays she has edited have been reprinted in The Best American Essays, The Best American Travel Writing, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing series and have been awarded the Pushcart Prize. She has also worked on books covering such topics as end-of-life care, personalized medicine, education, mental health, and parenting.

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