Free writing critique: ‘Watching Bees’ by MD Commerford 6

Many thanks to MD Commerford who has sent us an excerpt from his story, ‘Watching Bees’. We’ll leave this post live for a week, during which time we’ll welcome any constructive comments. At the end of the week, the author will receive a free critique from one of our writing tutors. (If you’d like to share your work for critique, please see here for all the necessary information.)

MD commerfordMD Commerford is a mature student who has spent the last six years studying for an English Literature degree with the Open University. Having caught the creative writing bug, he’s just started an MA in English with a focus on creative writing at the University of Hull. He has written several short stories under the name MD Wilder, contributed to various blogs, and entered several poetry and fiction competitions. He enjoys the craft of writing and is constantly looking for feedback that can help him improve. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wilderwrites and he tweets at @thewilderwrites

Watching Bees is a 3000-word piece of fictionalised life writing aimed at adults. Here’s an extract – feedback welcome!

Watching Bees

I am over my mother’s knee. So close I can smell her Opium even though my nose is clogged with snot. Tears are blurring the floral print of her summer dress. I am wailing my unintelligible apologies over and over into fabric. She is using a hard soled Scholl shoe. It is her favourite instrument to beat me with. Each clap exploding on each word as she repeated that: Children. Should. Honour. Their. Father. And. Mother

But I wasn’t sorry… Not really.

The day before; a summer day in 1982 and I was eight years old. My family and I lived in a red bricked bungalow at the top of a hill surrounded by the calm and rural commuter belt village of North Ferriby. The house was set back from the road down a long private drive bordered by sunshine coloured laburnum trees and forbidden bushes that longed to be played around. This was the day I had planned to run away. It wasn’t a whim, eight year olds always have reasons for doing the things that they do.

The windows were open in my room I could hear the happy hum of a bee in the clematis nearby. The grey and red curtains swayed and knocked over the lone Star Wars figure on the windowsill, Boba Fett. I used to play with him there sometimes, imagining the windows were the side of a huge space cruiser. I didn’t bother to set him upright I just watched him lie there for a second with my arms by my sides. Then, under the bed I dove for my hidden holiday rucksack that already contained some essential escape items. A torch and an Enid Blyton, in case I needed to read at night time. My scribbling pad and my Thundercats pencil case to chronicle the adventures I would no doubt be getting into. I just needed some money or I couldn’t put phase two of the operation into effect. I could hear television voices from Pebble Mill at One, so I knew my Mother would be watching it in the living room, feet up, cup of tea. My older Sister, Jo, popular and pretty, was no doubt off out in the village somewhere with her friends, keeping firmly away from her younger brother. If watching The A-Team and Knight Rider every Saturday tea-time had taught me anything it was that if I was going to do some Robin Hood stealing, this was my opportunity. I slowly opened the bedroom door, and paused for a second, ears and eyes straining. I knew where my parents kept some spare cash in their bedroom, but I was going to have to be seriously nifty about it. I slunk down the corridor and crept like a cartoon character in a haunted house through to my parents’ bedroom. There was a strange mix of my Father’s Aramis and my Mother’s floral day scent even though the windows had been left open and fancy laced curtains fanned the room. It was impossibly neat in here, if anything was moved, if there was any trace of my being there I would be questioned. At 54 Woodgates Lane, little boys had always been presumed liars until proven otherwise. There was a white sheepskin rug by the side of the bed and I sprung from the doorway onto it avoiding the carpet, which was so deep it would betray me. I planned on disappearing, I wasn’t even leaving a note, I wasn’t about to leave footprints, not even on the carpet. I pulled open a bedside drawer; it contained gold jewellery, a dog eared black leather address book and a fold of cash notes secured by a silver clip. I liberated a ten pound note, it was an awful lot of money and I didn’t want to be a thief, but my wavering fingers took it nevertheless and I fled the scene.

Delaying my departure after such a heinous crime was certainly not what any of the crooks I’d seen on television do, so a few minutes later, rucksack on back, I was kneeling by Scooby Dog’s basket by the kitchen door administering my sand coloured mongrel my silent goodbyes. These days you hear a lot about how dogs give unconditional love (from dog owners), but I’m not sure it’s true. At that moment all I knew was that little dog was a friend, by my side, making me laugh since she was just a pup and I was leaving her behind. ‘Bye Scoobs. Don’t tell anyone.’ A scratch behind her ear and I disappeared out the back door, my heart in my trainers I was stamping on it with every step away from her.

The avenues of Ferriby were elm lined, well-kept, and empty of actual people; Victorian gothic monstrosities were back from the road, the universally scorned new builds further forward. My destination was the train station at the lower end of the village, I wasn’t planning to go hide out in the woods like Stig in his dump, no, I was off to the city, where things happen. There I would no doubt to be duly discovered at the station by some kindly soul as easy as one might pick up carnelians on the beach, I’d be rolling in puppies by teatime.

The station was old fashioned even then; all white washed and pointed wooden plank fences. I did a quick scan of the area making sure I didn’t recognise any of the faces of the few people around. I did not, and I relayed this information via a whisper into my digital watch lifted to the side of my face. The ticket office doubled as a waiting room, it was stuffy and smelt of wet paper. A fly was buzzing itself into the glass, the door was wide open but flies are so stupid sometimes. An old lady in a violent green woollen suit stopped talking to the man behind the ticket window as I came in and looked sternly in my direction, as though she had been interrupted whilst saying something very important. She stepped away from the booth and allowed me to approach the grizzly looking man behind the scratched plastic sheet that was the ticket office window. She never took her eyes away; they burned into the back of my neck.

‘Uh, Hull. Please.’

‘When you coming back, son?’ He was leaning forward over the counter, inspecting his interruption.

‘Um.’

‘Well, are you coming back today? Are you coming back?’

‘Oh um, no.’ Were ticket masters required to uncover the secret plans of runaways? I had never seen that on TV.

‘Alright, here you go,’ he flicked a freshly printed ticket through the slit at the bottom of the window, so I posted through the ten pound note which he regarded rather unkindly and gave me my change, all in change, in my hurry to scoop it up, some was dropped and generally it was all rather a to do over getting it back into the front pocket of my rucksack. He and the old lady were sharing smirks as I left and it was a relief to know I’d never be seeing them again.

[Extract ends]

Here’s a synopsis of the full piece: Watching Bees is a short tale of a young runaway, who boards a train to the city to escape the bullying at home. There he finds neither help nor understanding, narrowly avoiding sexual abuse in a public toilet he must admit defeat and return home. Back with his family when questioned about the reasons for his leaving, he tells the truth and is punished. – This story is supposed to be a darkly amusing, nostalgic tale based on a childhood incident from the author’s life.

Now let us know what you think in the comments below – thanks! 🙂

——–

DD Johnston 2013Hi Matthew. Thanks so much for sharing ‘Watching Bees’ and thank you to everyone who has already commented. I agree with the consensus that this is a strong piece, and I’m certainly not surprised that your work is already in print.

I agree with Chloe about the sense of time and place and with Lucy about the importance of the details that you include. Indeed, these points are related because it’s details such as the Boba Fett and the scratched plastic ticket office window that give us that sense of time and place.

I also agree with Phil about the strength of the central conflict and, looking at the synopsis, it’s apparent this story has a great structure. It’s a classic 3 act voyage structure, in which the protagonist leaves the village (literally!) in act one, and experiences an adventure in act 2. This adventure reaches a perilous climax before he is returned to the village in act 3. All that is great.

The other thing Phil raised is the question of the narrator’s proximity to events. Generally, the piece suggests a reflective adult viewpoint. I think the narrator’s distance from the child he once was is key to the comedy, which often comes out of some dramatic irony – we and the narrator have an understanding of events that greatly exceeds that of the 8 year old hero. It’s hard for an eight-year-old child to hold our attention as a narrator (children don’t understand the nuances of the social world as it’s meaningful to adult readers), although of course it can be done – Roddy Doyle does a great job with ten year old Paddy Clarke. But in this case I think you’d lose a lot if you tried to write it without the filter of adult reflection.

The opening paragraph is closer to the direct experience of the child, but this isn’t necessarily a problem – it could be read as just a particularly vivid memory. Indeed, starting this way means you open in medias res, inviting us to wonder both how the kid got into this situation and what will happen next. You need to decide whether that is reason enough to disrupt the chronology.

Those are my reflections on voice and structure, two areas in which I think the story is a success. My critical feedback is mainly at a line by line level – the attached document includes annotations and fifty comments, all of which cover only minor things: word choice, comma splices, un-hyphenated compound adjectives, etc. Still, I hope something in my reflections is of use: Watching Bees feedback

Thanks again for sharing ‘Watching Bees’. I’d love to read the rest of the story, for pleasure rather than the purposes of critique, so if you have a spare moment, please send it along!

All best wishes,

D.D.

6 comments

  1. I didn’t want to go first again, especially because I’ve nothing useful to say! Ha ha. But nobody else has jumped in so I’ll just say that I really like this one! I think the sense of time and place is excellent and mainly I just wanted to read on. Sorry I’ve no more useful feedback!x

    Like

  2. Thanks for this, MD. As Chloe said, this is a tough one to critique because it feels relatively polished already! I have a few thoughts, though.

    1. There are lots of lovely concrete details throughout the extract that bring the story to life. The sheepskin rug, the Aramis, the laburnum trees. I think they all make for good images and ground the story in the place and time that it is set.

    2. The conflict is brilliant – a boy running away from home. I have a couple of ideas about how the story could be structured differently, though. I feel that if the bulk of the story is to be written in the past tense, from a nostalgic POV, then the story could start at “This was the day I had planned to run away. It wasn’t a whim, eight year olds always have reasons for doing the things that they do.” That grabs the reader and introduces the conflict, and tells a lot about your character in very few words.

    However, I do really like the current opening line, and I think that it should remain as “I am over my mother’s knee” if you were to rewrite the whole story in that active voice of the 8 year old boy. I think that could be an exercise worth trying, as there is a slight feeling of disconnect being told about the boy from (what I assume to be) an adult voice.

    3. A small detail you could add: when he steals the money, you could include details about what it would be used for, and what £10 could get him.

    I can’t think of too much else to suggest for this piece, which is a good sign! Thanks for sharing your writing with us, MD.

    Good luck with your writing.

    Phil

    Like

  3. Thank you for all the comments. I’m glad people like it. And I’ll certainly think about making the active voice that of an 8 year old, I think that’s a really good point and I do see the disconnect there which I hadn’t noticed before. So thank you for that.
    And hey, if anyone desperately wants to read the rest of it I’m happy to send it your way. Just drop me a line. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for all the comments, and many thanks to Matthew for sharing the extract. I’ve now updated the post with my feedback. I’d love to see how the story finishes, Matthew, so please send the rest along if you have a spare sec. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Free Writing Critique: Mountain of Souls by R.J. Champion « Online Writing Tips

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