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 as it was 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 now be stopping this red pen critique section of this blog). I know, I’m sorry. It’s a popular slot but it’s so time-consuming for me.
The good news is that I can post more than one item a week on the new blog: http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com so more opportunity, I print off the stories and red pen them, as I have been doing with these but I include links to the scanned images, I don’t make or type up notes, and the site more actively welcomes critique from others, because it’s an online writing group. 🙂
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 2,414-word story in this post was kindly emailed to me by Charlie Kane, author of short story collections including ‘Whisper’ (pictured right). 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.
So without further ado, the story then my feedback… and I’ve been really picky this week, with almost as long a critique as the story is, sorry Charlie!
The sun shone brightly through the curtains waking Steve. Sitting up he stretched out his arms and yawned slightly. He looked over at the sleeping figure beside him and smiled contently. Helen looked so cute when she was sleeping. Her hair was curled around her shoulders and her left cheek was red from where she had rested it on her arm during the night. Steve pulled the covers over his girlfriend carefully, but not before he had taken a look at her exposed body. He kissed her softly on the cheek, wrapped a sheet around her waist and made his way to the bathroom. He and Helen had been together for just under a year, since the start of their freshman year at college. They had met at an induction meeting when they were both scared eighteen year olds unsure of what to expect from college. A group of new starters had been brought together to help them get acquainted with the college and to make friends.
That had been ten months ago. It was now the middle of June and they were on summer break. They had decided to stay at home with their families and find a job so they were able to fund their second year. So far they had not had any luck finding any vacancies; everyone had seemed to have the same idea.
“Babe?” Helen moaned groggily. Steve turned around and saw Helen sitting up, allowing the sheet to slip from her body. Steve couldn’t help but smile. Even though Helen was skinny she looked really good topless, actually she looked really good unclothed in general. “Hey you” he replied climbing back onto the bed and wrapping his arms around Helen.
“You Okay?” Helen asked grinning and placing her hands upon her boyfriend’s waist.
“I am now you’re awake” Steve replied placing a soft kiss upon her. Helen couldn’t stop the urges so she kissed back, running her tongue across Steve’s bottom lip begging for entrance. Steve allowed her entry and he ran his hands across Helen’s chest. This caused her to let out a soft yet intense moan of delight.
“Oh God Steve” Helen moaned loudly, as Steve placed her hand into his boxer shorts. Excitement built as she started to play with Steve’s now hardened member.
Steve rolled off Helen, his breath heavy, his body sweaty.. He looked at Helen and smiled. “That was great” Helen returned the smile cuddling herself into him, her arm thrown over his chest.
“Yeah it was” Steve leaned over to kiss Helen again but he was interrupted by a knock on the door. Steve groaned and wrapped the sheet around their bodies quickly “Who is it?” the door opened and a small blonde walked in. Louise, Helen’s best friend since freshman year of high school. Louise and Steve got on, with much delight from Helen. Louise had been a lost 14 year old wandering the halls when she had bumped into Helen causing them both to drop the books they had been carrying. Helen had offered to show Louise around and found that they had a lot in common and had been inseparable since.
“Hey guys. Your mom told me you were up here, I hope it’s ok” she blushed as she noticed the state of undress that they were in. She couldn’t help but stare at Steve though as the sheet gently slipped from around his shoulders.
“Er sure. Could you wait downstairs whilst we get dressed please?” Helen asked, holding the sheet around her body tighter. Louise nodded and left the room rather quickly, her eyes focused on the floor as she made her way out.
Helen giggled as the door closed shut. “I bet she wasn’t expecting that” she softly kissed Steve and got up to collect her clothes. “Hmm” Steve replied. He had never told anyone but he had a crush on Louise. He had done since he met her but by then he had fallen in love with Helen so he tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the feelings that he was developing for her.
Months past quickly and after spending a great deal of time together his feelings and hormones were growing increasingly for Louise. Yes, he loved Helen, how could he not but he also couldn’t help the way he was feeling towards her best friend. He wondered what it would be like if he was with her instead of Helen. But then he wouldn’t have known Louise if it hadn’t been for Helen. Louise attended her local community college so she wasn’t at the same university.
Helen came back from the bathroom dressed and threw open the curtains. She noticed that Steve was still in the same place, still undressed. “Come on lazy get dressed. I’ll meet you downstairs” she patted the bed and went downstairs. Steve sighed and slowly made the effort to get dressed. He was confused, very confused. He didn’t want to have the feelings he did for Louise but he also wanted to be with her very much. He couldn’t hurt Helen, but he couldn’t stay away from Louise. The two had been emailing back and forth and Helen was happy that the two had been getting on but if she had known the truth she would have stopped them corresponding months ago. He didn’t even know if Louise felt the same towards him. He hoped that she didn’t because then it would make things easier, but if she did…he sighed again. He went downstairs and hoped that his confusion, and lust, wasn’t written on his face.
“Steve” Louise moaned, feeling Steve’s hardened member press against her thigh. Steve pulled down Louise’s knickers and rammed himself inside her. She moaned with pain the first couple of times but then those moans of pain soon turned into moans of pleasure the more that Steve thrust himself inside her.
His hands roamed her body and he trailed kisses over her neck and shoulders. He wrapped her legs around his waist more and pushed himself deeper inside her. He let out a grunt. God he needed this. All these months of frustration, tension and the confusion about his feelings for Louise were finally gone.
He hadn’t meant for this to happen. It had been a week since the incident involving Louise catching them post coitus had occurred, and although she had been around a couple of times to see Helen she had tried to avoid him. Helen had gone grocery shopping with her mother so Steve had gone back home to catch up with his friends from college and wait until Helen got back. He planned to take her out for a meal and then maybe a walk along the canal.
When a knock came at the door he wasn’t expecting it to be Louise so he was shocked to find her standing there. “Hey. What are you doing here?” he didn’t mean to sound accusing but it was a surprise, she usually only came over when she knew that Helen was going to be there.
“I hope it’s ok to come by?” she stood in the doorway looking embarrassed to be there. He couldn’t help but notice that the jeans and the top she was wearing was clinging to all the right parts of her body.
Steve stepped aside and Louise walked past him, her hair brushing against his bare arms “Sure, it is. You know Helen’s not here right?” He shut the door behind her and the two walked into the living room.
“I know. It’s you I wanted to see. It’s about last week”
“What about it?” he sat down and motioned for Louise to take a seat. He didn’t think there was anything to discuss about what had happened last week.
“When I walked in” she folded her arms on her lap and looked around the room. The walls were covered in photographs of Steve – of him through the ages, playing sports, at graduation. His family were proud of him, and they had reason to.
“We discussed that. It’s ok”
“No I mean, I was happy that I interrupted. I hated seeing you two together” she was rushing, her words becoming a jumble and she blushed profusely. “God I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t even know why I am saying it. I should go” she stood up and started hurrying out of the door.
“Louise wait” he got up after her and placed his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn.
“What?” she snapped. She could feel the tears starting to build. She didn’t know why she had come here. She didn’t know why she just admitted what she had. She had ruined everything. If Steve told Helen what she had told him their friendship would be over and that was something she couldn’t deal with. Helen meant everything to her and she couldn’t bear to lose her. Yes, she was in love with Steve but she also respected Helen more. She hadn’t meant to fall for him but she couldn’t stop listening to what her heart was telling her.
She became weak whilst she was around him, felt herself blushing when he looked at her and she sometimes struggled to find the correct thing to say around him. She got excited when she saw his name appear in her mail box and no matter what she was doing would always find the time to reply to him. Worst of all, she hated seeing Helen and Steve together, couldn’t stand the way they held onto each other and finished each other sentences. She wanted to be the person who curled up into his arms, who laughed at the faces he made, the person he would kiss every morning and every night and say that he loves her.
“I feel the same for you” his voice was quiet. He turned her around gently so that they were facing each other “I’ve had feelings for you since I met you, I thought they would go because of the love I have for Helen but they wont go. I need you Louise. God I hate myself for saying that”
Louise took his hand and held it tightly “Helen’s my best friend Steve, I couldn’t do that to her, no matter how much I love you”. It pained her to say it but she wouldn’t allow anything to happen between them, not at the expense of losing her best friend.
He nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. We couldn’t do that to Helen” he realised that neither of them have moved. They were still pressed close to each other. Louise looked up at him, her fingers still intertwined with his. He swallowed hard and brushed his thumb over the top of her hand.
Leaning in closer she could feel could feel his hot breath against her. She pressed her lips against his gently. He kissed back and pushed her against the wall gently. She tugged at his hair and ran her fingers through it. She was glad he didn’t cut it, she liked it shaggy, it suited him.
Pulling apart, he held out his hand to her and took her to his room. Words were not exchanged as they pushed open the door and collapsed on the bed. A mess of arms and legs.
As Helen approached Steve’s room she could hear the moans that were coming from behind the closed door. They were sexual moans. ‘What is going on?” she thought to herself. There had to be some explanation as to why those noises were emanating from his room. Maybe he was accessing something he shouldn’t be on his computer because she had gone away. Of course that had to be it, it couldn’t be anything else. Could it?
She shook the thought away but it wouldn’t go. She had to find out what was going on. She pushed open the door and was greeted with the image of her boyfriend and her best friend entangled between the sheets, their arms and legs groping each other.
“OMG ” she stood in the doorway unsure of what to do. Steve pulled himself off Louise and wrapped the sheet around himself.
“How could you Steve? I thought that you loved me”. Tears stung as she fought them back. She looked over at her best friend who was scrambling to find her clothes and ran out of the room.
“I do Hel, this was just…
“I don’t want to hear it. And with HER? My best friend of all people. How dare you!”
She left the room, the tears blurring her vision as she ran down the stairs and past Louise who was doing up her t-shirt
“Helen, wait please”
Helen stopped and turned to Louise, the person she trusted most in the world and realised that it had all been a lie. She slapped her friend hard and ran out of the house. She couldn’t believe that Steve had cheated on her. And with Louise, of all people. Steve had promised that he would never cheat on her. He’d promised that he would always be there for her. He’d promised that he would never hurt her. But he had. He had broken all the promises he had made. ‘Maybe Steve doesn’t love me after all’ she thought to herself. If he could do that to her so easily, he can’t have loved her
She drove home, her eyes still blurred from the tears. She past her house and kept driving. She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t care where she was headed she just needed to get away from them. Away from the people who caused her hurt. She wouldn’t allow them to destroy her, they wouldn’t take her self respect. She could never forgive them, never forget what they done, never erase the image from her head.
Before she could take in what had happened she found the car spinning as she lost control. She span the wheel trying to gain control back, to slow it down but it wouldn’t. It veered off the road, heading down the embankment into the river. She tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t open, it had jammed on the way down. All she could do was watch as the car crashed into the river and felt her head hitting the dashboard.
Darkness overcome her as she collapsed into the seat as the car began to slowly fill with the ice water from the river.
My comments (written as I read the story for the first time):
- The opening felt a little like ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, which gets a lot more stick than I think it deserves. It is atmospheric but it’s a ‘tell’ – we’d rather see the street lights reflected in puddles, hear an empty drinks can rattle against a storm drain.
- Stephen King is famous for disliking adverbs (__ly) and I agree in the case of ‘yawned slightly’, can he just yawn?
- The ‘contently’ can definitely go because we know from her looking cute how he feels.
- Being really picky (as is my way), how does Steve know (unless he woke up in the night and saw her) why Helen’s cheek was red. Also if he can see it, it means her arm’s not resting on it anymore.
- Technically the ‘pull the covers over’ is a split infinitive (to pull over) but to use it in that instance would be wrong.
- ‘Looked at her exposed body’ – whole body? ‘then kissed her on her cheek’ – her face, presumably. 🙂
- ‘Wrapped a sheet around her waist’ – hers or his? Would he have gone to the bathroom naked? I wasn’t sure because he’s already pulled the covers over her. A new sheet or one already on the bed? This also confused me a little as we have duvets in the UK, with a sheet usually only on top of the mattress, under the pillows / people, so could be different elsewhere.
- It’s handy knowing their ages, so it’s young love. Ahh…
- ‘eighteen year olds’ (and ‘fourteen year old’ later) should be hyphenated.
- After a descriptive start, we’re being told a bit too much about how they met, so it feels a little like an ‘info dump’ which is best avoided there, later or spread out more would be better.
- ‘everyone had seemed to have the same idea’ is a bit clunky. Perhaps ‘everyone, it seemed, had the same idea’ or ‘everyone seemed to have the same idea’.
- If they’d stayed at home with their families (plural) they wouldn’t be together. An idea of whose house there would be useful. And where is everyone else?
- When Helen starts speaking, I thought Steve was in the bathroom so there needs to be an indication of him not having gone, or having come back. If she started speaking earlier (so the information about them meeting came later, and ideally more spread out, then she’d catch him before he left.
- Again we can lose the adverb (groggily) as her moaning, although yawned might be better as moaning implies she’s complaining.
- Whenever there are two characters speaking, or the narrator switches point of view, the text should appear on a new line so there should be a break after ‘Helen moaned groggily’ (or whatever she ends up doing there).
- As it stands, there are four Helens and two Steves in that short paragraph. So far we have one male, one female so once the names have been established, ‘she / her’ or ‘he / him’ is fine.
- As far as I know, Okay is usually OK or okay, or at least Okay only at the beginning of a sentence.
- I quite like ‘begging for entrance’ but not ‘Steve allowed her entry’. I know it’s his response but we don’t need the repetition, albeit not exactly the same word.
- Although ‘This caused her’ is about Helen, it’s correct to have it remain on the same line because it’s his action so technically in his point of view. That said, it’s indirect speech, like ‘the ball was hit by the bat’ and best avoided… even just continuing the sentence as ‘causing her’ would help.
- I mentioned in last Sunday’s red pen (https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/red-pen-session-014-critique-of-agoraphobia-a-short-story-by-kerry-dwyer), about reasoning behind a show. Last week, we had the fact that Margaret’s face was red because she’d been crying. We’d not previously been told she’d been crying so ‘her eyes and nose are red from crying’, but here we know the situation so the ‘in delight’ can go. We only lose two words, but in a short story every word counts.
- I mentioned earlier about repetition and regular readers of my critique will know it’s a bug bear of mine. In erotica less is most definitely more and here we have three ‘moan / moaned’ close together (‘moaned groggily’ (which can be replaced), ‘intense moan of delight. / “Oh God Steve” Helen moaned loudly’. I’m told I’m the same with having characters sighing!
- I like the pun of ‘Excitement built’, but have never been a fan of the word ‘member’. We know where her hand is so maybe he could just ‘harden’.
- It was a good decision to end the scene there as, unless it’s written for an erotica outlet, we don’t need to know what happens next.
- There are two full stops (periods) after ‘sweaty’ – should be just one. I like the rhythm of ‘heavy / sweaty’.
- There should be a full stop after ‘That was great’ because the following is a new sentence.
- Was Helen’s arm literally thrown? Perhaps ‘draped’ would be better?
- Instead of ‘wrapped the sheet around their bodies quickly’, this would be a good place to have ‘thrown’ (then a full-stop before he speaks).
- ‘the door’ is a new sentence so should have a capital T.
- I’m English so don’t know the US school system, but do we need ‘of high school’? Do other schools have freshman years?
- ‘with much delight from Helen’ is another phrase that feels quite detached – ‘with much delight from Helen’. That said, we don’t need it because they’re the closest people Helen has so she would be pleased.
- Because we don’t know whose house they’re in, whose mother is being referred to? Louise addresses them both, and by saying “you” it doesn’t help, unless she’s mother to both of them!
- ‘noticed the state of undress that they were in’ sounds a little old-fashioned – ‘noticed they looked naked’ would be simpler.
- Because the narrator’s just mentioned Steve when we get “Er sure…” I thought it was him speaking, so having Helen do something before she speaks would clarify that.
- I’d say “Could you wait downstairs whilst we get dressed please?” would be more the way to speak to a parent, rather than best friend. Had Louise not knocked then Helen could say it as an annoyance, but they’re best friends so they’ve probably seen each other ‘in a state of undress’ before (she says as a sweeping generalisation!).
- Because Louise is embarrassed, we don’t need ‘rather quickly’. We know she wouldn’t dawdle leaving the room, and it avoids another adverb… and we have three ‘quickly’s close together. 🙂
- ‘“Hmm” Steve replied’ should be on a new line as it switches point of view. Uh oh, Louise and Steve are in love. Poor Helen.
- ‘softly’ is another verb that could go.
- ‘Months passed’ implied that time’s gone that quickly in the story, so ‘months had passed’ would be better.
- ‘Louise attended’ made me think that it’s how they met, so ‘Louise now attended’ would clarify this.
- ‘He had never told anyone but he had a crush on Louise’ should have a comma before ‘but’ otherwise it could be read that he’s never told anyone but himself.
- I’d be inclined to lose the ‘He was confused, very confused’ because it’s a ‘tell’ and we’re then ‘shown’ he’s confused.
- I thought it was a little odd that if Steve and Louise had been corresponding so much, that Helen wouldn’t have wondered if there was more going on.
- ‘He sighed again’ is a new sentence and there should always be a space after ellipses (…). Good to see you only have two sighs and one emphasises the other.
- Another ‘hardened member’… and three ‘himself’s. 😦
- Because we have moans of pain, we don’t need moans of pleasure. I can understand why Steve’s feeling guilty but wouldn’t he be more ruthless with Helen because it’s Louise he really wants than with Louise?
- ‘It had been a week since the incident involving Louise catching them post coitus had occurred’ could be shortened to ‘It had been a week since Louise had caught them’ because we’ve already had the description of that.
- ‘he didn’t mean’ is a new sentence.
- Having said to replace many of the names to ‘she’, Helen’s just been mentioned when we have Louise standing in the doorway so we do need Louise’s name there.
- We’re told twice that Louise’s arrival was unexpected so I’d finish the sentence at ‘sound accusing’.
- The ‘clinging’ is referring to the jeans and top so should be ‘are’ clinging.
- ‘parts of her body’ – perhaps better as ‘places’ as we know its her body.
- Because the previous location was the bedroom, I assume the second location was so them walking into the living room was a surprise. Having Louise knocking at the front door would clarify that. Also some mention of the other members (there’s that word again!) of the family would be good.
- ‘he sat down’ needs a capital H, and the sentence would be neater if it ended at ‘to discuss’.
- The photographs of Steve told me that we were (presumably) in his family’s house.
- ‘profusely’ is another adverb that could go.
- ‘to what her heart was telling her’ could be ‘to her heart’ because we know what it’s telling her.
- ‘mail box’ is usually one word but this could be a UK English vs US English variation.
- ‘She wanted to be the person who curled up into his arms, who laughed at the faces he made, the person he would kiss every morning and every night and say that he loves her.’ kiss her? And loves should be loved as there’s laughed and curled.
- ‘I thought they would go because of the love I have for Helen but they wont go’ – no need for the second ‘go’.
- Rogue space in “OMG “.
- ‘Louise took his hand and held it tightly’ should have a full stop, and ‘clasped his hand’ would be neater.
- The lack of comma after ‘best friend’ in “Helen’s my best friend Steve” implies that Helen is actually a man called Steve!
- ‘neither of them have moved’ is present tense so should be ‘had’ moved. We then don’t need ‘they were still’ because we know they’ve not moved.
- I’ve mentioned repetition and avoiding adverbs so both ‘gently’s could go.
- ‘A mess of arms and legs’ (great description!) is technically still part of the same sentence but it has more impact on its own.
- ‘that were coming’ in ‘she could hear the moans that were coming from behind the closed door’ would make that sentence tighter.
- The first paragraph in Helen’s point of view is a little long. Given the situation, she’d want to leave asap.
- ‘gone away’ implies a holiday, perhaps ‘gone out’ would be better.
- ‘She shook the thought away but it wouldn’t go’ conflicts so her trying to shake the thought away would be more accurate.
- Do legs grope?
- I know OMG is a term used by someone of her age but given the circumstances, would she actually say it? If she does, it would at least warrant an exclamation mark.
- Two more ‘himselfs’ in ‘Steve pulled himself off Louise and wrapped the sheet around himself’ so perhaps better to be more specific, around his waist / body or he could pull away from Louise.
- ‘who was scrambling to find her clothes and ran out of the room’ – was scrambling is ongoing so she’d need to have found the clothes before she ran out the room. Wouldn’t she want to stay?
- “I do Hel, this was just… – needs closing speechmarks.
- Are t-shirts done up? Aren’t they normally put on and shirts done up?
- Because we know how Helen is feeling, I’d delete ‘She couldn’t believe that Steve had cheated on her. And with Louise, of all people.’
- Thoughts are usually written in italics.
- ‘He had broken all the promises he had made’ – is again rather repetitive.
- The impact of the repeated ‘away’ would be made stronger with ‘from them’ as we know who she’s leaving.
- ‘self respect’ should be hyphenated.
- A great set of three ‘never’s.
- The past tense of spin is spun (rather than a bird’s wing span).
- ‘trying to gain control’ is fine, no need for ‘back’.
- ‘it veered off the road’ – we know ‘it’ means the car, but we’ve just been reading about the wheel so ‘it’ would be better clarified as ‘the car’.
- It’s a great ending but I would have liked more desperation. Despite what she’s just discovered, I’m sure she’d put up more of a fight before giving in.
- ‘She tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t open, it had jammed on the way down’ – using a word like ‘thumped’ to open the door would be more powerful and we don’t need ‘on the way down’.
- I’ll probably find no-one agrees with what I’m going to say now but stories should start with action so could we have the ending at the beginning then flashback?
- There should be commas where a reader would pause for breath. Read the story out loud would help pick out where they’re needed.
- When using dialogue there should always be a comma if the sentence continues (e.g. he said) or a full stop (period) if it finishes, and the punctuation should come inside the speech marks – outside only with references, titles, quotations etc, and then they would use inverted commas if speech marks are used for speech (I use them that way round because they’re called speech marks for a reason!).
- ‘that’ is a word that 🙂 can easily be left out in many situations. If you remove it and the sentence still makes sense then it can go.
- There are quite a few sentences of similar lengths. Having a mixture of short and long would push the story along quicker.
A story with great potential. It’s a very relatable theme, so a reader would sympathise easily with the characters. Despite everything I’ve pointed out, it’s mainly cosmetic – just a little tightening and extra punctuation and it’s cooked. Thank you, Charlie for subjecting your story, and yourself, to such scrutiny.
Charlotte L R Kane is a new author whose first book, Whisper – a collection of short stories was published to Kindle on September 15th 2012. Her second book, Tea Time Tales – a collection for 250 words and poetry, was published onto Kindle on December 16th 2012. She is currently working on two more books she is hoping to have published in 2013. Charlotte has been writing for many years until the opportunity arose for her to become published. Her favourite genres are short stories, crime / thriller and supernatural.
She currently resides in Swansea, South Wales, and by day works as an Admin Officer in her Local Authority. She enjoys writing but doesn’t get to work on her books as much as she would like. She is an avid reader who enjoys authors such as Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling, Kathy Reichs, LJ Smith, SJ Wardell, Maggie Steifvater and Rachel Caine.
For more information and updates about the work that Charlotte is currently working on please visit http://charlottekane.wordpress.com.
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.
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