Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Plots Need Tension

I just finished writing my fourth novel. It was tough-going at first. I had the story laid out in my head but couldn't seem to get a handle on how to proceed. I Want to Go Home is about a middle-class family living in James City County, Virginia, a family that eventually ends up homeless. I knew I wanted Abby, the teenager of the Jordan family, to be the protagonist, but I couldn't decide whether to express the narrative from her teenage perspective or as a memoir, told by the adult Abby. As always, my critique group helped me decide the best approach, and soon the words began to flow. 

Something funny happened, too. The group members became so invested in my characters that they kept trying to rescue my family. I was trying to create tension by introducing hardships to make the Jordans homeless—that was the premise, after all. But my fellow writers were so empathetic that they kept suggesting resources and strategies to prevent homelessness. At every meeting there was another idea as to how I could save the Jordans from their plight.

After a few weeks of these rescue efforts, I had to put my foot down (metaphorically, of course). "Listen," I said. "I know you want to help this family. You can't bear to have them lose their house and most of their possessions. It's painful when the father dies, leaving insurmountable medical bills. It's sad when they're forced to live in a tiny, smelly motel room. It’s heart-breaking to follow the mother’s descent into alcoholism. It's even harder to let Abby make bad decisions that lead to her and her little brothers living in their car, and traveling to Washington, D.C. only to find no shelters available. I appreciate how much you care about them, but you need to let them fail so the journey can begin."

Once I promised my colleagues a happy ending, they relaxed and allowed the story to unfold. Yes, it's a journey of pain and struggle—an engaging plot needs tension—but it ends in triumph with a lot of discovery, love, and growth along the way. 

Cindy L. Freeman is the author of Diary in the AtticUnrevealed (recently re-written; second edition to be released soon) and The Dark Room (Don't let the title scare you; it has a happy ending).

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Cooperative Mentoring

I stopped blogging for a year or so to work on a new novel. The working title is I Want to Go Home. I hope it'll be finished in time for publication this year.

Now, my publisher, Jeanne Johansen of High Tide Publications, is encouraging (translation: compelling) her authors to write a weekly blog. Why? She says it connects us with our readers, allowing them to get to know us. Well, that's what I'm afraid of. Like many authors, I'm an introvert. We introverts prefer to "keep ourselves to ourselves" as the Brits say. The fear is that if you get to know me, you won't like what you see. It's called vulnerability and it's scary. But, I have been given an assignment and I must be a conscientious student.

So, here goes. Last year, I joined a critique group. Talk about scary! Talk about vulnerability! Imagine taking your precious baby, the fruit of your womb, into a room of eight-or-so other parents who have also brought their babies . . . for the purpose of finding every flaw and pointing it out to the others.

Already you're feeling insecure because you don't trust your parenting skills. You've only been parenting for a short time and you feel ill-prepared. If truth be told, you feel like an imposter. You're sure someone will notice (and point out) your baby's big ears or crooked smile. Someone else will draw attention to how your baby has gas because of the way you're holding her. Another might suggest that you should be breastfeeding instead of bottle-feeding and if you're bottle-feeding, you're using the wrong formula. Someone will try to change your style of parenting because you're telling, not showing your love or because your baby will surely not become a successful adult unless you develop her character.

Yes, we criticize each other's "babies," but it's not personal and it's not vicious--okay, sometimes it's a little vicious. Each of us brings to the group a unique perspective, arising from varying life experiences. We try to shed light on each other's writing, whether it be simple aspects like grammar, punctuation, or spelling, or more in-depth issues of character profile, plot development, or point of view.

Why are we willing to submit ourselves and our literary "babies" to this criticism? The purpose of our comments is to help each other improve our writing skills and succeed as authors. That's what Jeanne refers to as cross collateralization. See, Jeanne? I was listening. It's what I would call cooperative mentoring. It means that when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. I like that.

Cindy L. Freeman is the author of Diary in the Attic, Unrevealed (recently re-written; second edition to be released soon) and The Dark Room (Don't let the title scare you; it has a happy ending). Tune in next week for a sneak preview of I Want to Go Home.