Sarah Paxton attended two hundred ninety one Sunday sermons by the age of six, but never understood a single one. Nothing prepared her for the sense of obligation and purpose that came with sermon two hundred ninety two.
"Witchcraft!" Pastor Cameron grasped the altar, arms shaking with old age and voice edged with unusual intensity. It was the first time he had ever distracted Sarah from her usual Sunday sermon ritual of counting hairs on Widow Seymour’s neck.
"Here in Shepherd Mills,” Pastor Cameron continued, “we've been blessed with the absence of witchcraft. But the devil's hand moves ever closer. Towns nearer and nearer expose hidden evils. Last fortnight a stranger staying at the inn in Baldridge was said to have summoned spirits and caused a great fire, sending
Thanks for reading, everyone! Let me know of any first impressions or criticisms. I finished this short story (fantasy) for a writing class and it's time to write draft 2. It's just shy of 5,000 words at the moment and the first short story I've completed in quite some time If anyone is interested in helping me with the whole thing, or just wants to read a bit more, let me know!
Sarah Paxton’s head snapped up. She had been staring at the tender pink burn on the side of her hand when Pastor Cameron yelled. It scared Sarah since he never yelled, but Mother didn’t look worried. In fact, Mother looked excited about what Pastor Cameron was saying. It made Sarah want to listen to him for the first time in her life.
Except she couldn't understand him. He talked to the adults of the village, not to the six year olds. But when Sarah thought hard, some of the words made sense.
“The devil’s hand moves ever closer to Shepherd Mills… hidden evil… killed by a witch’s curse…” Pastor Cameron must have seen Sarah paying attention, because he was suddenly staring at her.
This is attempt 2. Thoughts?
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited March 18, 2009).]
[This message has been edited by akeenedesign (edited March 20, 2009).]
Please ignore anything that doesn't go with your idea for the piece. The very start hooked me in but then I found myself drifting a little towards the end.
The idea behind the first two sentences works well for me. But the "sense of obligation and purpose" is not as snappy as the rest. One word, "fear", "terror" or even plain "obligation" would be more engaging for me.
The problem with "obligation" is that it is a very long word for a six year old, and so stands out slightly as an adult POV. There were a couple of things that stood out to me like that.
One was the pastor's arms shaking with "old age" - it jarred from a six yr old POV. I'm not sure why. Would she know that?
"Towns nearer and nearer expose hidden evils." This sentence could be cut maybe, or you could name a specific town or two. It is a bit vague as it is.
A stranger "was said to" summon spirits but then the smoke could be seen from the Town Square. This struck me as odd. Did the Pastor see the smoke? I found the lack of specifics here a bit distracting too. How did summoning spirits cause a fire?
The pastor's speech is a bit too storytelly and I didn't really believe him. I think he needs to know exactly who and where and how it all happened, or to be a bit more clear on the specific threat to his village. Does this make sense?
Then the inkeeper has a six year old girl. Is this what makes Sarah sit up and pay attention? If not, maybe you should cut it as two many six year old girls can get confusing! If she goes "ooh, a girl like me," then I think it will work pretty well.
I like the title too BTW. As a Scot (nearly!) I found it intriguing.
Just from this tiny fragment (and therefore not too objective a response) I thought the tone didn't quite stay in such a young kid's POV. It gets more diffcult, the younger the MC, and you have set yourself a task indeed, telling it from her POV. Maybe I'm being too nitpicky about it, but, for example, I love the idea of her counting hairs on Widow Seymour's neck, but I doubt that Sarah would describe it as a "ritual" herself.
This next comment is a purely personal reaction and should be rightly ignored! I'm almost sure that the pastor end up being the "baddie." Or at least on the wrong side. I'm not a huge fan of organised religeon but I do get a bit bored of prejudiced, wrong headed Christians in stories. I apologise if the Pastor turns out to be a sympathetic character. As it is, he seems 2D, and so I was a bit turned off.
I liked the beginning. The depiction of the scene is very good. The hook is great.
My minor criticisms are:
I am wondering what kind of 'sense of obligation and purpose' a six year old girl accustomed to counting hairs on the back of Widow Seymour's neck would get? My experience with six year olds leads me to say: not much and not for long. Since you're finished with the story, you can answer that better than I.
'Towns nearer and nearer expose hidden evils.' I had a little problem with the construction of this. Maybe it's the tense.
I am having a bit of trouble with the POV at age 6, especially since it's supposed to be in 1690s. I know how kids think nowadays, but when I try to make the voice of the narration sound younger, it begins to sound more modern, which I don't want. Also, very shortly after the establishing scene at the beginning, it jumps to Sarah at age 12 which, since Sarah is a clever girl, is not a problem when it comes to words and descriptions.
I'm not an expert with narrative structure, but I think what I want to go for is third person omniscient. The narration can explain what is going on beyond Sarah's observation (aka, can describe things she doesn't fully understand) but can also dip into her POV to describe her thoughts when needed. It's a little different than third person limited... I think... haha
Also, I get what you're saying about the pastor's speech. Not too exciting. I think I might attempt an exposition of his speech instead. Something like "Pastor Cameron continued, describing witches and sorcerers found in towns nearer and nearer to Shepherd Mills. Sarah's attention was fully captured when the pastor met her unusually interested gaze and told of a six year old girl who died in a fire in the neighboring town. A witch, the pastor said, caused the fire." Maybe?
There is a sermon by Jonathan Edwards called, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" given in 1741 which is easily found by googling it, which may give you an idea of the tone of a Puritan sermon, if the preacher's words are important to the story, and may help you to get a good feel for the time and culture about which you write.(long sentence, I know, but I am so fond of long sentences.) Trust me, it's an exciting and rather horrific read. Real Hellfire and Brimstone stuff.
To me, the biggest break is the preacher's speech. I don't think that the big concepts jar with a six year old point of view too much. The culture you set your story in would likely familiarize a bright child with formal vocabulary earlier than our own, I think.
[This message has been edited by AmieeRock (edited March 18, 2009).]
Good idea about the pastor's speech there, akeenedesign. I think that goes well with a child's attention span.
I see what you mean about the 3rd person omniscient. I used it not too long ago and got slapped a bit for loose POV so I'm currently obsessed with being very strict! Since then, I have found it more effective to use to suddenly pull back at a climax moment to paint an overall image vividly and cleanly.
I think one thing about 3rd omniscient (how easily these things trip off the tongue) is that you then have to be very clear about the tone. What does this overviewer feel about the things that they describe? That affects the emotions of the reader. You can be perky and sarcastic or doom laden and portentious, while describing the action. And I think I felt the tone was... uncommitted?
Maybe you could think of yourself as Sarah's mum or something, as you write that first bit when she is six. Or someone who understands all her idiosyncracies and loves her still. Do you think that might clarify who is telling the story? Is any of this at all relevant? I'm pretty new to this.
her usual Sunday sermon ritual - since it's a ritual, it is probably also 'usual'; having just said 'unusual' in the previous sentence this sounds like needless repetition.
counting hairs sounds like a frustrating impossibility and is hard to imagine, thus distracting. Counting something else - moles or whatever - might be more feasible, set the scene better and be easier to read all at once.
The past tense of we've been blessed seems incongruous, since the witchcraft has not yet reached Shepherd Mills. It would seem they 'are' blessed - for the moment.
Towns nearer and nearer expose hidden evils seems somehow unnecessarily redundant ('nearer and nearer', and 'expose hidden'). It is possible it is part of the pastor's way of speaking but it is perhaps not borne out well enough in the rest of his dialogue to support it.
Last fortnight - If it's a weekly Sunday service, why last fortnight? Why not this last week? Did he forget to announce it last week? This seems a little strange on the re-read.
As stranger staying is an alliteration I assume you wish it to emphasize this point in the text? If not it should possibly be reworded.
the inn in Baldridge sounds clunky, when you say it aloud (which the dialogue is imitating); perhaps 'the Baldridge inn' would read better, I'm not sure.
was said to have - it seems unlikely that a fire & brimstone sermon is going to put anything quite so ambiguously. If the pastor believes it, surely he would not use this phrase, instead saying they did it - not that they were said to have done it.
[edited because I excel at BB code... not]
[This message has been edited by BenM (edited March 18, 2009).]
The objective narrator sets up in the first sentence a definitive sense of this reader's standing to the story. Objective narration is potentially distancing; however, it's countered by intimate access limited to Sarah's thoughts, which reinforces her standing as the protagonist. In all, I felt immediate resonance with Sarah that intensified when the predicament is partially revealed, possibly a foreshadowing of the imaginative premise, witchcraft's purposes and problems.
If I found anything disruptive, it's the phrase "Last fortnight[,] a stranger staying at the inn in Baldridge". "Last fortnight" had me thinking the congregation had previously gathered for a fortnight religious service (a fourteen-day-long service), a fortnightly duty in the literal Roman military sense. I then stumbled over the homonyms in "the inn in Baldridge". Simplified; //the Baldridge inn, or the Baldridge Inn//.
[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited March 18, 2009).]
I just read a bit of your character in the introductions section down below, and this has me intrigued. Send on the whole thing if you'd like, and how much detail you want in a crit, okay?
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Heya, I'm a bit late to this one, but I thought I'd give you my thoughts anyway. I very much like your title, by the way - instantly got my attention.
I think that you're trying to caricature the Pastor (the gripping of the altar with shaking, ancient hands, etc), so I was a little underwhelmed by the sermon. 'Witchcraft!' starts out promisingly, but then gets diluted with 'here in Shepherd Mills' and 'we've been blessed with an absence...' Surely a pastor in the midst of fervid sermonising wouldn't bother to mention the town or the peaceful history? 'The devil's hand moves ever closer' is a good line, for example. Now, obviously it's easy to take this too far in the other direction and make your pastor a laughing stock - I just think his speech could do with being a bit more dramatic.
little nit: 'Sarah Paxton attended two hundred ninety one Sunday sermons by the age of six' - HAD attended. Technically 'had prepared', too, but you can get away without it there.
I'll be honest, it's your title that is keeping me reading right now, though I think it's got potential. The pastor is losing me, though.
Hope this helped, Daniel.
[This message has been edited by bluephoenix (edited March 19, 2009).]
Thanks for your input, everyone! It's very helpful. If you have a chance, let me know of any new opinions about v2 - I tried to make the POV clearer, instead of hovering between Sarah's POV and an omniscient POV like I was before.
Do you think it's better from her point of view, or should I pull completely out and do an omniscient POV?
And thanks for the response on the title! We spent an hour workshopping titles in the writing class I took, and I'm glad to know it paid off!
My only nit with it was Sarah's misunderstandings. I would think, that by six years old she'd have a good grip of the language and references being used. Children at that time were considered to be more like little adults. Childhood as we embrace it in our more, 'modern,' society didn't exist...
The resonance potential that the first version has is lacking in the second version. The first sentence of the original establishes a pity response. A six-year-old child compelled to listen to interminable sermons she doesn't understand is a pity-worthy circumstance. The pastor then interjecting "Witchcraft" in the second paragraph creates an opposing resonance feature, creating a fear response that completes the protagonist's emotional cluster needed for creating sympathy with a reader. Immediate resonance, that is just what an opening needs.
Witchcraft discussed in a church service establishes a conflict between good and evil that suggests what the story will be about and promises a good story. However, I like how Sarah is in a relative state of uncertain grace but inclined toward good in the first version. I don't know where she stands grace-wise in the second.
Starting with the pastor's interjection in the second version puts him in an attitude of unshakeable grace and in the position of protagonist but doesn't expand sufficiently on his character to see that he's not before shifting onto Sarah. The pastor's interjection is a particle lacking timely context development.
In the first version, I'm inclined to wanting Sarah placed in jeapordy by tempting her with witchcraft because the sermon incites her curiosity. I don't know where the second version has Sarah going.
An omniscient narrator is one with psychic access to all thoughts of all characters, any when, any where, and any how. A limited narrator has access solely to one character's thoughts in any given dramatic unit.
Both versions have access to Sarah's thoughts only, but Sarah is also accessing her mother's thoughts in the second version. That confuses Sarah's development as the protagonist by putting her mother forward as the protagonist and placing Sarah as secondary to her mother.
The narrator in both versions is an objective one in attitude toward the topic, but Sarah's subjective attitude is clearer in the first version. She changes from a bored child to an interested child. Which I think is brilliant writing because it has dramatic movement. The second version doesn't have Sarah changing.
From the narrator's relating the pastor standing on the altar [pulpit] I know about when and where I am milieu-wise in the first version, but not in the second.
In other words, there's an intactness of dramatic unity in the first version that the second version doesn't possess.
[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited March 20, 2009).]