10th Anniversary Feature: John Michael Cummings

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of, I asked some first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author John Michael Cummings:

Clearly, for me the most important lesson learned from my first novel was to advance the plot with urgency.

My background is in literary short stories, where I’ve spun more than a few nicely phrased sentences without taking the story forward. This all changed with The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel, 2008).

Not only was my first novel with a mainstream publisher, which makes its money from good, clear, entertaining stories, but it was young adult! That made it doubly difficult—my prose had to march double-time.

“Advancing the plot” is a simple way to say it, but it’s really much more than that. It’s about having a powerful organic voice that reels the story forward, whether in action or state of being. A plot need not press forward by the measure of its hero’s footfalls. His mind can be the conflict’s fiercest battleground, doing much to make “what happens next” all the more inevitable and believable.

In The Night I Freed John Brown, young Josh Connors is a lion out of its cage as he searches for a father figure. But he also fights fiercely with himself on the inside.

In fact, for all his travels through his historic hometown—through a ghostly abandoned house, through leaky caves and up to a scenic overlook, then into museums and richly renovated houses—his biggest climb is up the endless staircase of his own heart. He rises through his feelings—why he hurts, why he is angry, why he is ashamed.

Probably the best word for the effectiveness of this mix of internal and external conflicts is execution. How a novel is executed speaks to the many varied techniques by which it develops. I was lucky to have an editor who, in the margins of my drafts, wrote notes like, “stage this,” “shine light on this,” and “hold this moment.”

She was—and don’t laugh—my Steven Spielberg. But for all our red pens and fancy talk, sometimes we threw up our hands and wondered where the organic voice comes from, then marveled at how it cannot be gypped of its richness or yanked out of its poetic groove by forcing it to a word count or chapter length.

For me it was also about making every word proof of what was yet to come. Call it seeding, or foreshadowing, but it came down to an honest, consistent design that created a sense of time and place in which every sentence, every paragraph, cast subtle reflections backwards and forwards, raising up a three-dimensional world fraught with consequences.

At times, it felt like I was arranging puzzle pieces of information just far enough apart so that only when you stepped back and looked at the novel as a whole could you see how they all fit together. Other times, it was nothing but rewards for the reader every few pages. I often thought—this is harder than ten short stories written at once!

It was journey waiting for me to make.