Saturday, June 16

Real Life Diagnostics: That's Life: Connecting to Readers With Your Memoir

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

This week’s questions:
Is the reader likely to be touched by the scene? If not, how can I improve the scene?
Am I showing, not telling?
Have I depicted the scene clearly?

Market/Genre: Memoir


Note: Fair to say I'm not a memoir writer, but the questions apply to any story, so I'm giving this one a whirl. Any memoirists out there please chime in.

Additional Note: There's also a revision of an older post for those curious. An update for the snippet with the young noble woman and the falcon, where the author was asking about pacing and hooking the reader. Pop on over to see how they tweaked it.


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
March 1944

As the bombs exploded, Mum held Rose to her breast and hid in the makeshift shelter within the house beneath the dining table, as they couldn’t join us in the trench until the danger of contagion had passed.

Mum crouched low, using her body as a shield for Rose, praying aloud, listening to the roar of the planes and the vibration of their engines. The bombs whistled down, the fever broke, the crisis passed and Rose cheated death.

During the raid, an incendiary bomb exploded and ignited in Rupert and Bertie’s room, just between their beds. Disregarding the bombs, Mum rushed outside to the air raid shelter, in the backyard, carrying Rose in her arms. ‘The house is on fire,’ she cried.

Tears streaked her dust- covered face like snail tracks.

We were hiding in the shelter. The dark and damp trench filled with dust and smoke. Regardless of the planes, the explosion of bombs all around and the pounding of anti-aircraft guns, we scrambled out. The full moon lit our way until we reached the house and raced up the stairs, drawn to a bright light. An odour, which I learned later, was cordite, assailed my nostrils.

Mum stopped me before I could enter the room where the fire was burning. ‘I’m going to help put out the fire,’ she whispered, handing my sister to me. ‘God will protect you and not let you catch small-pox from Rose. Look after her.’ She had tightly secured my sister’s arms, to prevent her from scratching. Rose lay nestled in my arms, looking angelic with her eyes shut, wrapped in a soft, white sheet like a shroud.

My Thoughts in Purple:

March 1944

As the bombs exploded, Mum held Rose to her breast and hid in the makeshift shelter within the house beneath the dining table, as they couldn’t join us in the trench until the danger of contagion had passed. So the narrator isn't with them?

Mum crouched low, using her body as a shield for Rose, praying aloud, listening to the roar of the planes and the vibration of their engines. The bombs whistled down, the fever broke, the crisis passed and Rose cheated death.

During the raid, an incendiary bomb exploded and ignited in Rupert and Bertie’s room, just between their beds. Disregarding the bombs, Mum rushed outside to the air raid shelter, in the backyard, carrying Rose in her arms. ‘The house is on fire,’ she cried. These first three paragraphs feel a little bullet-pointish. This happened, this happened, this happened. All interesting things, but I'm not feeling like I'm there

[Tears streaked her dust- covered face like snail tracks.] Nice

[We were hiding in the shelter.] I'm a little lost as to where everyone is in regards to each other. The dark and damp trench filled with dust and smoke. Regardless of the planes, the explosion of bombs all around and the pounding of anti-aircraft guns, we scrambled out. The full moon lit our way until we reached the house and raced up the stairs, drawn to a bright light. [An odour, which I learned later, was cordite, assailed my nostrils.] It could just be because this is a random snippet, but this is the first time I've felt the narrator.

Mum stopped me before I could enter the room where the fire was burning. ‘I’m going to help put out the fire,’ she whispered, handing my sister to me. [‘God will protect you and not let you catch small-pox from Rose.] She might have actually said it like this, but it feels like "As you know, Bob" dialog. Look after her.’ She had tightly secured my sister’s arms, to prevent her from scratching. [Rose lay nestled in my arms, looking angelic with her eyes shut, wrapped in a soft, white sheet like a shroud.] Sad yet sweet image

The questions:
Is the reader likely to be touched by the scene? If not, how can I improve the scene?

I think you have all the right pieces here to touch the reader, but it's not connecting with me quite yet because I don't feel the narrator. I don't feel "you." With such a personal and terrifying story, I want to know how it affected you and what was going through your mind during all this. I can get these same facts from almost any book or movie about the war, but what makes this unique is your experience and thoughts about it. Show that.

Just like a novel, I'd suggest adding more internalization. Let readers inside and understand how terrible that night must have been like. Bombs, fires, small pox--I don't know how old you were here, but even an adult would have been affected by this situation. What are the things that stick out strongest for you? What memories? What weird details?

Am I showing, not telling?
I'd imagine there's a certain amount of telling in any memoir since you are telling the story of something in your life so you do know all the details. But nothing here stood out as "told" to me. A little detached at times (the internalization will fix that), but overall it feels like a memoir.

Have I depicted the scene clearly?
I was a little confused about where everyone was at first. It sounds like Mum and Rose are trapped in the house, and you're in a trench? But then later you mention a shelter, and I wasn't sure how that fit in. Was the trench the shelter?

Since you and your family were separated for a bit, this could be a good spot to add internalization and help ground the reader to where everyone was. I'd imagine you were worried about them, where they were, what they were doing. You know now, but then there must have been all kinds of things going through your mind. Sharing those things will add in that personal connection, and make it clear where everyone is and what's going on.

Overall, I'd say it's a matter of just fleshing out the emotional and personal layer now that you have the facts down. Recently, Meghan Ward over at Writerland did a great post on memoir writing you might check out. She has several tips that I think would help here, such as adding in the older author perspective to the events of the past (That's likely where the internalization aspect would come in that I suggested.) Meghan has more tips and posts on memoirs as well as she's published one of her own. Her blog might be a good resource for you to explore.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. I love reading about WWII. I agree with Janice's thoughts. Perhaps if the scene opened with the narrator and his healthy siblings (I'm guessing) out in the trench/shelter, worried about Mum and Rose. Some internalization there about fear/worry and how houses could turn into death traps if the bomb hit just right. How did you/narrator feel as the bomb whistled through the night, growing louder and then, hitting YOUR house, with Mum and Rose still inside. When they run outside, how did you feel? The smell (cordite) the heat from the fire, adrenaline could all be explored as you rush forward to help save your home. Then Mum tells you go on out with your sister because SHE will put out the fire. I imagine that was difficult to see her in harms way just after she escaped from danger.

    And the image of your sister was sweet. But I wondered: Was she heavy in your arms? I'm sure the info is in another part of the story, but I wasn't sure what her age was compared with yours. So, I wasn't sure if I should imagine an 8yo holding his 5yo sister (heavy) or a 15yo holding his 2yo sister (light).

    Anyway, well done! I am helping an elderly friend write her personal history and it has its own set of challenges. Best of luck!

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  2. I also agree with Janice. You have the bare bones of a touching scene, but it felt very impersonal.

    One thing you might do is read a bunch of memoirs and take notes. Lots of notes. Each chapter make a note of what the person talked about, if they did a flashback or "older person looking back" like Janice suggested, or if they kept everything grounded.

    I've read a few memoirs, and by far the best was "Let's Pretend This Never Happened" by Jenny Lawson. I really enjoyed how she structured her memoir around type of events instead of just a strict chronological order.

    I would also suggest "Thanks But This Isn't for Us" by Jessica Page Morrell. It's not just for memoirs but she does talk about them a good bit.

    You're very brave for writing this. Memoirs are super duper hard to write, so excellent job!

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  3. Was this your opening scene? I agree with the others that you needed the narrator to be the heart of the scene. This would save you from telling rather than just showing.

    I thought you had a wonderful scene to work with, but it didn't impact me. I felt your sentences were too long for such a dramatic scene. Shorter sentences make for more intense pacing. On the other hand, there wasn't enough information for me to really appreciate what was going on. Small-pox versus bombs, that's a huge conflict for a parent, but I didn't understand until the end of the scene. I didn't know if it was night or day (that makes a big difference) until you mention the moon. I didn't really feel like I was there. As someone else said, more personal emotion would have helped. More use of different senses. And set the scene more clearly. Everything is there, you just have to draw it out more intensely :-)

    I guess the way you are writing this memoir is as a story, so apply the usual storytelling advice and you should do well. WWII is such a fascinating topic full of inherent drama and pathos. Good luck to you! :-)

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