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Hi.Thank you for sharing your chapter. I enjoyed reading it and wanted to share some thoughts with you.
Item Reviewed: "A Day at the Time" by jdennis
Reviewer: Max Griffin 🏳️🌈
As always, these are just one person's opinions. Always remember Only you know what is best for your story. I've read and commented on your work as I would try to read my own. I hope you find something here useful , and that you will discard the rest with good cheer.
What I liked best
The last three paragraphs provide a good sense of the story arc for this novel. I think the theme fits well with the plan to frame the story on how these ideas echo across multiple generations of the same family. This will be a story that's both timely and universal, and it's certainly one that needs told.
Style and Voice
My main suggestions for this chapter revolve around this narrative choice, which I found to present a number of challenges.
About thirty percent of all published fiction uses first person narration, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder uses third person limited. One reason for this is that first person narratives are technically much more difficult to write. That may seem counterintuitive, since we use first person all the time in our day-to-day lives. For example, when our family gathers for the evening meal, we often share our experiences by telling anecdotes about what happened during the day. Of course, we use first person when telling these stories. The problem is exactly that: we are telling the stories.
Effective fiction involves showing rather than telling. When you write in first person, there is an almost irresistible temptation to envision your reader, sitting across from you in an easy chair, while you tell your story. There are many places in this chapter where I have the feeling that exactly that is happening.
We learn many incidents about young Tommy's life, but they feel distant. Tommy is telling us these things, but he--and we, as readers--are standing outside the story, looking in. He even says "I remember" at several points, reminding us that we are not in the here-and-now of the story but in the here-and-now of the TELLING of the story.
Another issue is that at several points, the story stops while the narrator tells the reader stuff or narrates what happened. I've flagged several of these in the line-by-line remarks below to help you see what I mean. Certainly the information about Bitburg in 1952 is important to the story, but it needs to be revealed in the words and deeds of the characters, not through narrated background. As an example, readers don't want to read an essay on the social conditions of nineteenth century Paris. They want to read Les Miserables.
In the last century, many stories evolved in this way, but this approach has largely disappeared from modern fiction. Today, one of author's primary goals is to put the reader inside the story and thus inside the fictional world. Usually, that's by immersing the reader in the point-of-view of one character, in the here-and-now of ongoing events. The reader learns the details holistically, through the words and deeds of the characters and through the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of the POV character. Readers encounter the fictional world in a way similar to how they encounter the real world, except through a "fictional dream."
This is all prelude to my main advice. I think you should consider converting this to third person limited, using Tommy as your POV character. If you are not sure what I mean by third person limited, you might glance at this essay: "Just One Point of View"
It's not going to be particularly easy using a 2-year-old Tommy as your POV character. You'll have to use vocabulary appropriate to his age--that's part of being "in his head." He won't have the interpersonal skills to grasp the emotional responses of the adults around him. You'll have to show these through their words and deeds, staying in Tommy's head. But, done effectively, this could make everything that you reveal through narration in this chapter resonate more deeply with the readers. It will be more intimate and immediate because the reader will be enmeshed in your fictional world.
I have another problem with using a first person narrative for a two-year-old POV character. Children that young almost never form memories that last into adulthood--the brain structures, language, and social context just aren't developed enough to lay down memories in the same way an adult does. Your narrative more or less recognizes this when it uses devices like, "My mother told me later," or "I now realize." These are perspectives from the future that interupt the here-and-now of ongoing events.
This is especially true of the opening paragraphs. Literally no one has memories of being a newborn. A newborn won't know what a 'nose' is, let alone have a sense of self sufficient to distinguish between his nose and his mother's. Your opening should launch the here-and-now of your story, and that happens on the plane on the way to Germany. You could use a first person narrative at that point, but it would be extremely challenging to sustain which is why I recommend using third person limited to avoid all the issues of a child that young having memories. In any case, I strongly recommend deleting the opening paragraphs which were at first confusing and then seemed ill-considered.
As noted above, you provide the story arc in the final three paragraphs, and it's a very promising one.
Every chapter needs to end with a hook--a reason to force the reader to turn the page to find out what happens next. That means you're in the middle of the action, of the here-and-now, and the characters are in a situation that's unresolved.
The most compelling hooks are disaster, dilemma, and decision. Ending with a goal, conflict, or reaction is weaker but can be effective, depending on the situation.
Your ending, while informative about the story arc, is not a hook. Your chapter needs a hook.
Sufficient for staging, although I could use more.
Kurt Vonnegut said all characters should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. In addition wanting something--or having a goal--what they want should matter. Something bad should happen if they fail. These are the stakes. Finally, there needs to be an obstacle to achieving the goal. The goals and the obstacles give rise to conflict. The outcome of the conflict matters because of the stakes. This gives rise to tension, which is the engine that drives your novel and propels plot.
Eventually, you'll need to reveal the goals, stakes, and obstacles for Tommy. The sooner the better, in fact, although the two-year-old Tommy is unlikely to have meaningful goals and an inability to foresee consequences. While relating your story in linear time is generally better, flashbacks also have a role in a novel--just not in the first chapter. But you might consider starting your novel with an older Tommy, developing him as a character for a few chapters, and then using the events of this chapter, in a flashback, to inform why Tommy is Tommy.
Another possibility might be to write the material in this chapter using either Tommy's mother or his father as the POV character. In many ways, that might be stronger.
I don't read for grammar, but I usually find things to whine about. not here. Good job!
Just my personal opinion
One way to think of telling a story is that it is a guided dream in which the author leads the readers through the events. In doing this, the author needs to engage the readers as active participants in the story, so that they become the author's partner in imagining the story. Elements of craft that engage the readers and immerse them in the story enhance this fictive dream. On the other hand, authors should avoid things that interrupt the dream and pull readers out of the story.
The arc for this story has the potential to be powerful and timely. I certainly encourage you to keep writing. Your vision for this story is worth honing your prose to make it the most intimate and immediate narrative possible.
Your text is in BLUE.
My comments are in GREEN.
If I suggest a re-wording, it's in GRAPE.
My eyes opened into her eyes, staring into mine. My Comment: One of my pet peeves is when a pronoun has no reference. It’s not just me, either—I have it on good authority most editors feel the same way. So, the “her” has no antecedent—readers are clueless who “she” is. It’s also helpful to work out a way to name the narrator.
As I noted above, however, the problems with this opening go deeper than grammar. You can’t name the POV or the “she” in the sentence because your first person POV character is a newborn infant. He can’t know his name, doesn’t know what a mother is, doesn’t even know what eyes are. A newborn’s eyes don’t even track for several hours.
This might be an amusing choice for certain narratives, but it does not work at all as an opening to a novel, where your initial goal is to draw your readers into your fictional world.
My Dad joined the Air Force in 1948, at the ineligible age of seventeen. He intended to fight in World War II but found himself emerging from boot camp as the battle came to an end. My Comment: Unless this is a science fiction novel with an alternate reality, WWII ended in 1945, three years before his Dad joined the air force and not “as the battle came to an end.” If this IS an alternate reality, then kudos for the subtle hint. However, there is nothing in the later narrative to suggest that it’s an alternate reality, so it will look like an error to most readers.
The understanding of that fact didn't settle in until later in my life. When I remember that
image today, I reflect on the devastation the surviving families must have
felt.My Comment: First person narratives are more difficult to write than
third person limited. This is counter-intuitive, since we tell first stories every day when we gather with our
family around the dinner table. We relate an amusing, annoying, or otherwise enlightening story about
what happened, There in is the problem: we are TELLING the story.
Good craft in writing fiction involves showing rather than telling. That means, among other things, keeping
the readers in the here-and-now of ongoing events without narrative asides that explain what’s going on.
These kind of things take the readers out the fictional world and hence out of the story.
To be sure, you need to convey information to readers, but you need to do it through the words and
deeds of the characters, not through the narrator stopping the story to explain stuff. Editors hate this kind
of thing and call it an info-dump. Avoiding info-dumps can be one of the most difficult things to learn in
crafting effective fiction.
Notice this is another challenge of using a two-year-old for your POV character. A person that age
doesn’t have the perspective, vocabulary, or empathy necessary to understand the bigger picture. Even
if you have your OTHER characters say and do things, they will likely zip right over your POV character’s
head and remain unnoticed.
According to my mother, our maid traded those cigarettes for enough groceries and clothes to feed and clothe her family without any other income. My Comment: Here, you’ve told us what she said instead of putting the actual words in her mouth—narrating the action rather than showing it. .Note that you follow this with an info-dump that explains events.
Where a smile belonged, I found an almost level stretch of flesh, My Comment: My Comment: I can imagine that this is an event so traumatic that a two-year-old might remember remembering it (as opposed to remembering the actual event). Alternatively, if you had used a third person narrator, you could certainly relate this incident, of course using vocabulary appropriate to a two-year-old.
My mother took me on a walk through the ruin that was once Bitburg, Germany. We began our walk, which took us through a bombed-out neighborhood on our way to a general store situated near the center of town. What I remember most about our journey that morning was the muffled sounds of life emanating from beyond the wall of rubble we passed along our way to that store. My mother later told me she imagined those sounds to be ghosts blindly searching through the carnage for their families and homes, moaning with despair at their disappointment over what they found.My Comment: This is great incident, except that it’s told rather than shown. You remind us your telling the story by saying what you remember most. Then you tell us what your mother said, rather than putting the words in her mouth. It would be a great exercise to re-write this incident, including the visit to the grocery story and his father’s reaction, using Tommy’s point-of-view but writing in the third person. That could easily make this a scene filled with emotion as you show the parents’ empathy through their words and deeds and Tommy’s reaction to the them and the scenes. But having the older Tommy tell the story robs it of most of its potential.
I only review things I like, and I really liked this story. I'm a professor by day, and find awarding grades the least satisfying part of my job. Since I'm reviewing in part for my own edification, I decided long ago to give a rating of "4" to everything I review, thus avoiding the necessity of "grading" things on WDC. So please don't assign any weight to my "grade" -- but know that I selected this story for review because I liked it and thought I could learn from studying it.
Again, these are just one person's opinions. Only you know what is best for your story! The surest path to success is to keep writing and to be true to your muse!
Thanks again for sharing this item. Keep on writing!
Max Griffin 🏳️🌈