Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Horror

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Train Children by Mark Early

One of the qualities I enjoy most in this story is the flow.  One sentence leaves me interested in learning more about something, and the next sentence tells me more about that something.  Transitions are provided where necessary, and words are ordered so that sentences often end with a mention of the very things that will be the focus of the next sentence.  That means one sentence leads to the next, pulling me along.  I very rarely get to the start of a new sentence and feel disoriented, puzzled, or jarred.  Flow is a critically important element of stories and one that is often lacking.

The flow of the opening paragraphs draws me into this story, which then allows the content of those paragraphs to gain my interest.  That content is well chosen.  The first paragraph establishes that Pastor Hemmings is new to this church, which makes me wonder how the congregation will feel about him.  The second paragraph establishes a mystery about the congregation:  there are no children.  The third paragraph adds a second mystery:  the church has a “hard time keeping pastors.”  By that point, I’m very interested and eager to keep reading and learn more.

The story within the story, about the children being killed years ago at the train crossing, is haunting and disturbing.  Once I hear that, my questions from the opening paragraphs are answered, but now, to keep me reading, I have a new question:  Will Pastor Hemmings survive?  The story seems to be promising me a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable (qualities every climax should have) answer to this question.

All of that works well.  One area of the story that I think could be improved is the plot.  The current plot moves in too straightforward, expected a manner to the end.  About halfway through, Pastor Hemmings hears the children playing, and we suspect where the story will go.  Unfortunately, it goes right to that expected end without any twists along the way.  This not only lacks suspense and surprise, it also doesn’t allow the protagonist, Pastor Hemmings, to have any power to affect the outcome.  He’s simply a victim.  In my mind, the promise that the story made me in its third paragraph–to provide a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable answer to the question “Will Pastor Hemmings survive?”–has not been fulfilled.

One way to strengthen the plot would be to cut the last paragraph of the story within the story, the paragraph beginning “Those young ‘uns are looking for something . . .”  Most of this paragraph feels repetitive, and as I read I realize that it tells me the ending:  that the children want someone to take them “wherever it is they’re bound to go.”  At that point, I know Pastor Hemmings is going to end up driving the children, which is indeed what happens.

Cutting that paragraph will leave more mystery.  It’s always hard to know how much information the reader needs to understand the story and feel its impact.  Readers can often provide important feedback on this.  In this case, I feel I know all I need to know before reaching this paragraph.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to build up to the climax.  Right now, we go from the opening with the story within the story (which is exposition, background information) to the climax with only two paragraphs of transition between them.  Instead of going from opening to climax, the story could build suspense and increase our attachment to the pastor as we see him struggling to cope with this situation.  For example, he could hear the faint sound of children’s laughter from his office in the church and close the window.  He could look up an old news article about the accident.  He could talk to the parent of one of the children (Della?), expressing his condolences and trying to gather more information.  He could talk to the friend who assigned him to this church and ask what happened to the previous pastors.  He could visit the children’s graves in the cemetery and pray for them, and something weird and threatening could happen.  This would make the pastor more active in trying to deal with this situation.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to use what you’ve previously established.  The character of Cyrus, a survivor of the train accident that killed the children, is prominent at the beginning and then disappears in the second half.  The second half involves only the ghosts of the children and the pastor.  The children want to relive their accident, and the pastor has no power, so this makes for a predictable situation.  If we bring in Cyrus, suddenly the situation is less predictable.

In the first half, Cyrus seems to be keeping an eye on the pastor.  So when the children finally show up, I’m wondering why Cyrus isn’t showing up to help the pastor.  My suggestion is to have Cyrus die of natural causes before the climax.  Before he dies, we can see him clearly watching/protecting the pastor.  His death could help explain why the children, who haven’t appeared before this point, now appear.  Yet the pastor realizes Cyrus–in his child form–is among them.  They have taken him back and want him to be one of them.  Cyrus may want to help the pastor escape.

In addition, though, the pastor needs some ability to have an impact on events.  He can’t just be a powerless victim.  Perhaps he succeeds at freeing himself from Della and has the opportunity to jump out of the car and leave the children to be hit by the train.  Now he’s faced with an internal conflict and a difficult decision:  he can jump out and save himself, or he can stay with the children and try to help them find peace.  Giving the protagonist a difficult decision to make at the climax can raise excitement, suspense, and emotion.  Perhaps the pastor tosses Cyrus from the car and turns the car onto the tracks right in front of the train, so the train pushes them ahead without crashing into them and destroying them, and they are headed now to some new place, the pattern broken.  The pastor might see Cyrus get up beside the tracks, now facing a new life as a child.  That could be an ending that could feel both surprising and inevitable.  The events in the middle of the story would need to show that the pastor is someone who cares about the congregation and about these children, but also has plans for his retirement and looks forward to finally having time for himself.  This will allow us to feel the pastor’s internal conflict at the climax and to understand the price he is paying (giving up his dreams of retirement) by staying in the car to help the children.

One other area I want to briefly mention is point of view.  The third person limited omniscient POV remains fairly distant from the pastor throughout.  Calling him “Pastor Hemmings” creates distance, since he certainly doesn’t think of himself that way.  Instead, he might think of himself by his first name.  Also, sometimes his feelings are described not as he would experience them but as an external narrator would describe them; for example, “an unfamiliar feeling of trepidation growing in his normally serene spirit.”  I think making us feel closer to the pastor could make the story more involving and emotional.

I enjoy many of the elements in the story.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

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