I have been run a fortnightly critique group for the past five years as well as critiquing other authors’ writing which I really enjoy, so I started creating podcast episodes doing this. Because this was not only time-consuming but also restrictive being audio-only, I decided to switch from audio to text. The earlier episodes have already been blogged (and are listed on the https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/red-pen-critique page).
I have set up four new critique online writing groups for short stories, poetry and novel / script extracts (see https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/online-writing-groups so will be stopping this red pen critique section of this blog). The good news is that I can post more than one item a week (I have been doing one a day when I’ve had the submissions in) so more opportunity, and more actively welcoming critique. :)
Back to this post, please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!
Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them.
The 2,200-word story in this post was kindly emailed to me by non-fiction and short story author Kerry Dwyer.
If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is email@example.com.
And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.
So without further ado, the story / synopsis and extract, then my feedback…
We don’t make house calls. We talk to people on the phone. There’s a new drop-in centre where some of the other Samaritans speak to people face to face. But I’ve always preferred the traditional ear on the telephone support, see. I like being a Samaritan. It was a bit odd at first. The training was tough. You wouldn’t think there was so much to listening, but there is. The police checked me out too. Made sure that I hadn’t ever done anything I shouldn’t’ve, well they have to don’t they?
I get on all right now with my team. We look out for each other and make sure no one is getting too involved. We only speak to someone once usually. The night shift get it worse. It’s at night when people get maudlin and suicidal. I mainly do mornings. Sometimes I get idiots wanting me to pay their leccy bills. And once I had this woman screaming at me ‘cause she needed someone to look after her kids so she could go to work. When I asked if she was feeling suicidal, we always do, see, she said she felt more like murdering someone. Sometimes someone’ll latch on to you and it’s hard to get them to move on. Once they know when it’s your shift they just call at that time, see. We can always get the shift leader to sort it, if it gets too much.
I’ve been talking to Margaret for about six months now. She got me the first time she rang the hotline number. It’s in the morning just after her husband, Jim, goes to work that she feels the need. She’s agoraphobic. She hasn’t set foot outside her house for years. She tried therapy, years ago now. Didn’t do her any good, poor cow. They tried what’s called exposure therapy. So, they take her to a park, don’t they? It wasn’t too bad she said until Jim needed a wee. Well he goes into the public loos and she’s left outside with this therapist who she doesn’t know from a bar of soap and she starts shaking and sweating. By the time Jim comes out she can’t breathe. So she clings onto him, her husband not the therapist chap, and she demands to be taken home. Which he does, even though the therapist’s harping on about how she should face it and get over the fear. Wanted her to stay for an hour he did but her Jim took her home. She never wanted to try it after that. She refused point blank to see the chap again.
She can’t remember when it started, the agoraphobia. Funny how we say ‘agra’ isn’t it, when it’s written AGORA? Or you hear some folks saying ‘agrophobia’ like you’re afraid of aggro, which I suppose you are. Anyway, she told me about one Christmas time, when she was nearly due with her last. She was enormous and she had to go shopping, see. So she had the two little ones and this great big belly and she was in the queue for the cash desk when the woman at the till gave her a sympathetic look and that was it. She burst into tears. They had to get her a chair and a glass of water and call Jim to come and take her home. She told me she felt ashamed and the kids were upset too. It put her off going into supermarkets again. She had to force herself to go out when the kids were small. She had to take them to school and clubs and what not. Then as they got bigger she had to go out less and less. By the time they left home she was hardly going out at all. When Jim offered to pick up the groceries on his way home she jumped at the chance. She just stopped going out altogether.
She likes talking to me. She says it’s great that I don’t tell her what to do. I just listen which is what she wants sometimes. Her family, she says, always tell her what to do. Her kids are the worst. They tell her she should pull herself together and get on with it. Well I read up on this agoraphobia, see. She can’t just get on with it otherwise she would, wouldn’t she? Her kids just don’t get it. For all their fancy jobs and posh houses in somewhere under Lyme they can’t work it out. Margaret’s brothers and sisters don’t visit much. When they do they get at her. Jim protects her though. He tells her they don’t understand. He tells the kids to leave her to it.
Her husband sounds like a love. She was bored indoors so he got her a job that she can do at home. She gets these boxes of parts delivered. They come in a van every Monday. The guy drops them off in her front porch and picks up the boxes she’s left at the same time. They are different parts that make up lampshades. She has to put them in packets and stick the labels on. It’s not much of a job. It keeps her busy. They are different every week but the principle is the same. She has to make sure that each pack has a frame, top and bottom, instructions and the shade. Flat pack lampshades! I ask you? He does all the shopping as well. Wish I had a bloke who would do all the shopping. She writes him a list and he picks it up on the way home from work. She doesn’t use the internet. She never wanted to learn. I told her about shopping on line and having it delivered but she wasn’t interested. Said she would have to get used to another delivery and one a week was enough.
Anyway, the first time Margaret called me, Jim had just been diagnosed with the cancer. Well you can’t help feeling sorry for them can you? She was in a right state. He’s the only person she has any trust in, see. She was so upset she didn’t make sense at first. He’s not very sick yet, still working, but he’s got this lump in his head and they can’t operate on it. He gets right bad headaches which is why he had the examination. She’s calmed down a lot since that first call. She still calls me nearly every week to tell me about it. She feels a bit pathetic not being able to go with him when he goes to the clinic for his treatment and the like but what can she do? Always gets a bit distressed when her kids have been for a visit. It never goes the way she wants it to. She was hoping that one of them would offer to come home again once their dad died. They’ve made it clear that she will have to pull her socks up and get on with it. They don’t want to see their dad more than they used to either. You’d think they would wouldn’t you? Now that he’s dying and all.
Once she gets talking it all comes out. Margaret wants to be strong for Jim. She doesn’t tell him about her worries. It’s right, she says, that they should all think about him. It is Jim that matters the most after all. Jim has maybe a year to live if he’s lucky. What they don’t talk about is her. Not that she wants them to but what is she going to do? She will have to go out and she’s frightened. She knows she can get some help. She’s got some telephone numbers and leaflets from a society Jim contacted. She’s still terrified. Without Jim, she says, there will be no one to understand her. Without Jim there will be no one who will let her stay at home where it’s safe. Without Jim there’ll be no one to protect her. She says she feels ashamed of herself, thinking like that. The poor chap’s on his last legs, she says, and she’s worried about who’s going to put the bins out when he’s gone.
Like I said, we don’t do house calls. We don’t get involved. But when Margaret called me this morning she sounded so upset. I felt that she just needed a shoulder to cry on. Tea and sympathy. Someone to be there. On her own all day with Jim at work, poor sod. She told me where she lived and I know I shouldn’t’ve, I know it’s against the rules but I said I’d be round in half an hour. It’s not far from mine to Margaret’s. Just over the flyover and round the back of the leisure centre. She said she’d get the kettle on. Better at hers than at the drop in centre. The tea there comes out of a machine and has the taste of coffee and soup.
It wasn’t hard to find my way and I was soon at the front gate. Nice little road this with all the houses the same in the terrace. I’m not fond of these pre-war terraces. There aren’t too many of them left and what there are have been done up with stick on bricks and pebble-dash. No one seems to care that in the middle of a terrace there is one that’s different to the rest. This Terrace though they are all still brick with wooden doors and windows. Margaret’s house looks neat from the outside. The paint work is clean and you can see the curtains drawn back. Jim does the garden and Margaret watches him. From the gate I could see all the flower pots and garden rubbish pushed up against the front of the house. It wasn’t a big pile of stuff but it did make me smile. Of course she wouldn’t be able to see that from inside the house. What you can’t see won’t hurt you.
So, I ring on the door bell and she shouts to open the door and come in. The hall is neat with coats on coat hooks and shoes on a low rack. There are two pairs of men’s shoes and one pair of women’s that look dated but almost new. Margaret comes out of her kitchen with a tea tray in her hand. She’s put biscuits on a plate with a doily on it. She’s calm but her eyes and nose are red from crying. We go into the living room and sit by the window. I was right about the garden rubbish; you can’t see it from the living room.
Margaret tells me that I am not what she expected although she doesn’t know quite what she expected. She says she thought I would be older and have longer hair and maybe be wearing a dress with a housecoat on top if I was going to clean offices. I tell her that I nearly always wear jeans and trainers and she nods. I get ready to listen and put my listening face on. Concerned and interested without looking like you’re constipated. The cat wanders in and Margaret tells me that it’s her daughter’s. She tells me how all her kids had pets. She tells me that when they left they left their animals too. Didn’t take them with them, did they? The old cat is the last one left. Margaret says her kids nagged at her to get them each a pet and then abandoned them when they left home. Margaret says she feels a bit abandoned too now.
So then Margret asks me if I want any more tea. I tell her no thanks. I tell her I can’t stay too long. And that’s when she asks me to call the police. And that’s when she tells me she’s killed her Jim. And that’s when she tells me why she called me. She wanted someone she knew to be with her when they came for her. So I say nothing for a minute. I don’t know what to say. And then she tells me how she did it. She tells me that she put lots of his cancer medicine in his breakfast tea. She tells me he died quietly. She tells me it was like he just went to sleep. And I still say nothing. I can’t believe I’m hearing this. They didn’t train us for this at the Samaritans. I feel like I should scream or run away but I don’t I just sit there with my biscuit and cup of tea. She doesn’t look batty. She looks quite normal. Then she tells me how everything’s going to be alright now. She tells me Jim won’t suffer a long and painful death now. She tells me she’ll be alright because she’ll go to prison and won’t have to go out ever again.
My comments (written as I read through the story for the first time, and I hope you’re sitting comfortably because I wrote it all while walking my dog and ended up with 14 shorthand notepad pages!)
- Great title – it’s the fear of open spaces, isn’t it.
- Short opening hook sentences work well, especially negatives.
- In the first paragraph the scene is set (and a Samaritans call centre is a great location).
- ‘face to face’ should be hyphenated
- The ‘see’ provides a chatty tone (and is very English), and that’s the great thing about first person, especially monologues.
- The ‘now’ in ‘I get on all right now with my team’ implies that he or she didn’t which is intriguing.
- In only a few sentences we’re getting a great insight into how the Samaritans works. Even if the author doesn’t know how it operates, it feels authentic.
- Regular readers of this slot will know I’m a stickler for repetition and there are two instances of ‘night’, but the second is used to emphasise the first, so it’s fine.
- Our character’s interaction with the woman who needed a child minder was amusing, and show how great black humour can be – another strength of the monologue form.
- There are two full stops (periods) instead of one after ‘move on’.
- I initially liked the colloquial ‘see’, but having two close together jarred on me. I’d say remove the latter (after ‘call at that time’).
- Stories should start with action and it’s not until the third paragraph that the story gets going, but I really enjoyed the introduction, and it does set the scene and introduce us to the main character (and let us warm to him / her), although knowing her gender fairly early on would have been useful.
- Although the protagonist is explaining events, I wouldn’t have said we needed ‘she’s agoraphobic’ because (a) it’s a tell; (b) we have it in the title; and (c) it’s ‘shown’ by her not leaving her home.
- There’s then a repetition of ‘years’ and this time it’s better to leave out the second. We don’t need to know how long it’s been because we know she’s suffered for so long, but just that it didn’t work (big tick for ‘poor cow’!) – so just ‘She tried therapy’ will do.
- ‘didn’t know from a bar of a soap’ was a great alternative to a cliché (Adam).
- When you have more than one character of the same se, and you mention them both together, if you then said ‘him’ or ‘her’ it would refer to the last one mentioned. Although Kerry refers to Jim last so we’d know the ‘him’ referred to Jim, it’s a nice touch of humour that our protagonist clarifies.
- Technically ‘wanted her’ is still part of the previous sentence, but you can get away with more in speech.
- The ‘Anyway’ made me laugh as it’s a word I say when I know I’m rambling, or when one of my writing group members (mentioning no names… hello Alan!) is. And our character is right about people’s references to agoraphobia. Readers should be able to relate to what they’re reading and this is very relatable.
- Seven of the sentences in the ‘She can’t remember’ paragraph start with ‘She’, and although it’s less than half, it feels like a lot. If there’s a way to avoid starting a sentence (especially a paragraph opening) with a pronoun (I, he, she, the), it’s advisable. Here even having ‘So she…’ is better.
- It’s a very rich scene of how Margaret first realised there was something wrong with her, and I like the fact that she enjoys chatting to our protagonist, and why.
- ‘Somewhere-under-Lyme’ tells us a lot. Firstly that our protagonist (it’s a shame I can’t say a name or at least he or she) doesn’t care enough about Margaret’s children to pay attention to where they live. Secondly, that it could be a real place in the UK (Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire – fairly central in England – is the most Googlable: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newcastle-under-Lyme). One of my favourite holiday destinations is Lyme Regis in Dorset (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyme_Regis), on the south-west coast.
- I really like Jim as he’s only one, other than the therapist (who was as useful as soap in the Sahara), to really care about Margaret. Whilst getting her a job may have seemed a little mercenary, I know he was doing it with the best of intentions and it clearly did her good.
- ‘I ask you?’ shouldn’t have a question mark as it’s a statement.
- My mum’s the same as Margaret about computers. She’s never wanted one, although she knows how useful they are (I email things to my uncle from time-to-time) but also how much time they eat (my brother and I are laptop-to-laptop every Boxing Day.
- ‘on line’ I always thought was one word, but it could be a country difference.
- I’d not long past the reference to Margaret’s home-working, when walking my dog, when what should I spot by the side of a lamppost (of all places)… an abandoned lampshade – I kid you not!
- It’s a real shame that Jim’s condition hasn’t helped hers, but this being a short story, something will by the end (Morgen writes this with her fingers crossed).
- ‘once their dad died’ should be present tense ‘dies’ because at that moment he’d not died yet. And what horrible children. When my father was in hospital (70 miles away from my home, for the last seven weeks of his life), I took my mother (the 20 miles from her house) five days a week (my brother the other two). They’re your parents, it’s what you do… but then that just shows the power of this short story – it got me riled because I believed the characters were real!
- I mentioned repetition earlier and how subsequent instances should emphasise former. Here we have two ‘without Jim there will be no-one’ and they work well, especially after a previous ‘without Jim’ so we have a set of three, a plus in most cases.
- I do wonder if Margaret would say, ‘The poor chap on his last legs’. Something our narrator might say, but not Margaret… after only 1,350 words I do feel like I know her. Kerry’s strength is her characters.
- Presumably the Samaritans, despite being a national (UK) organisation, has regional centres for regional calls otherwise Margaret living so near could perhaps be too much of a coincidence, so maybe this could be slipped in earlier – or perhaps made a fictional local helpline. Also, getting round there in half-an-hour, presumably it’s the end of our protagonist’s shift. Again this could be mentioned earlier.
- ‘I was soon at the front gate. Nice little road this’ switches from past to present tense, so probably best to start from present tense.
- ‘stick on’ should be hyphenated.
- ‘This Terrace though’ should have a small ‘t’ for terrace, unless calling it by a name.
- ‘paint work’ is usually one word.
- I thought when reading ‘Jim does the garden and Margaret watches him’ that it was happening right then so should be something Margaret has told our protagonist.
- I mentioned in last week’s red pen (https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/red-pen-session-013-critique-of-murder-in-the-pit-a-novel-extract-by-erica-miner) that readers enjoy knowing something the characters don’t, and here we have our main character hiding something from Margaret which has a similar (cheeky) feel.
- I initially thought we should lose the second ‘coat’ from ‘The hall is neat with coats on coat hooks and shoes on a low rack’ but it’s got a rhythm to it.
- Doilies are very English and fit in with the old-fashioned shoes.
- ‘red from crying’ is a useful statement for this red pen session – if someone’s been shouting, running, crying, they’re cold etc. and we’ve been shown that, we wouldn’t then need a ‘red from crying / shouting…’ statement. Although we know Margaret’s situation, we’ve not been told since our protagonist arrived that Margaret had been crying so in this instance we do need it.
- Because we have two people together it would have been nice to have the dialogue. I can understand that Kerry wanted to keep this as a monologue but it’s present tense and therefore actually happening so it doesn’t work so well.
- It’s great when we get a character’s description from another character, especially when we know nothing about her (we now know our protagonist is female), and negatives are invariably a strength in fiction – it’s like drawing the negative of an item or scene, i.e. the space around it, leaving the item itself the same colour as the paper or canvas (I had to do that once at college, an interesting exercises).
- ‘housecoat on top if I was going to clean offices’ I’d say should have ‘as if’.
- The description of ‘put my listening face on’ was brilliant, although it’s a split infinitive so should be ‘put on my listening face’.
- ‘didn’t take them with them’ and ‘left their animals’ are the same thing, although we get one in Margaret’s point of view (albeit via our protagonist) and directly from our protagonist.
- “Margaret says she feels a bit abandoned too now” – superb!
- We have more repetitions, this time of ‘And that’s when she tells’ but they work, especially because they start the sentences (the start and end of sentences are usually the most memorable).
- The ending is a ‘wow’, and definitely a surprise. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Margaret, although the outcome has resolved both her and Jim’s situations… and she’d get the counselling she’d need for when she did come out (I’m sure it wouldn’t have been seen as murder).
- Commas should be used where the reader would breathe, and especially before a ‘but’ (my editor picked me up on that) and before closing speech marks in dialogue. So I’d recommend reading your work out loud before / as you do any editing as it will then be more obvious where they’re needed.
- It’s very easy when writing fiction to overdo the accents, and although I said too many ‘see’s grated a little, it was very well done in this piece. We had an insight into the protagonist’s way of speaking and any more than the occasional regional phrase would have been wearing.
- There are several ‘aah’ moments in this story and ‘one delivery a week is enough’ is one. We should have empathy with our characters and I certainly do with Kerry’s. It’s a delightful, despite the sad undertones, story… a delight to read.
Kerry Dwyer was born in the North of England and educated in the South. She worked in finance for more than two decades in the UK, USA and various countries in mainland Europe. She now lives with her husband and daughter in the South West of France. Following the birth of her daughter she gave up finance and retrained as an English teacher (TEFL). She currently teaches English as a foreign language to adults by telephone and internet. Ramblings in Ireland is her first novel.
If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story, script or novel extracts (with a brief synopsis please) – 5,000-words maximum – or <50-line poem for the short stories, poetry and novel / script extracts (see https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/online-writing-groups, then feel free.
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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words (and post stories of up to 3,000 words), or posted for others to critique (up to 5,000 words) on the new Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry and Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group.
Four new online writing groups:
- Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group (http://novelwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/508696639153189)
- Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group (http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/388850977875934)
- Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group (http://scriptwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/319941328108017)
- Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group (http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/544072635605445)