Writing

Worthy of a Crown

Last week, I taught a writing workshop at The Hyde Collection where we took inspiration from the Francisco Goya exhibit (on view now through 4/26!).

After exploring animal symbolism in literature and Goya’s art, the final “assignment” was to write a 500-word story including an animal to represent any concept, person, or concern.

My husband urged me to do the assignment myself, beforehand. So, I wrote about a young buck that visited our yard last summer. It represented my oldest son, growing up too soon for this sentimental momma.

Halfway into writing it, I started crying. So hard, I had to step away from the computer. I finally got it down but then when I told my mom about it, water works all over again! I didn’t even read it aloud to my husband but sobbed to him over the phone at the mere mention of it. It’s not best writing in the world, but it’s raw and honest.

Writing is so good for the soul. It feeds you. It frees you. It rises above all the crap to elevate what’s important in the world. This is just one example.

Would you like to read my piece?

Worthy of a Crown
JD Spero

Deer often visit our yard. Beyond our property line at the base of the woods is a stream where they like to drink. Typically, we see them at dawn or dusk, nibbling at winter’s craggy brush, foraging for food. Always in twos or threes, sometimes with a fawn, they can be seen bounding away at the slightest sound, white tails raised like truce flags. We’re always delighted to see them, and believe their visits carry good luck.

Just last week, as my three boys left for the bus stop, two deer stilled at the sound of their voices before escaping gracefully and soundlessly into the thick woods.

It’s the first and only year all three of my boys take the same school bus. Next year, my oldest, AJ, will be in high school—a fact I have to keep repeating to believe. Despite the universal warnings, AJ has gone and left babyland and little-kid-hood behind without my permission. When did he start clipping his own toenails? At what point did he stop taking baths and start showering? Wasn’t it just yesterday all three played in the tub together? He does his own laundry, makes his own lunches and breakfasts. His face has a sculpted look to it suddenly, emphasized by his braces somehow. Not only is he an avid athlete, he lifts weights at the gym. His hugs don’t melt into me anymore but hold a strength that never fails to surprise me. How can he be changing so much right in front of my eyes, and I don’t see it?

 

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AJ on his 14th birthday

Last spring, we removed some low-hanging branches from a giant oak in our front yard. As if in protest, the tree shed boughs for weeks, blanketing the yard with acorns. One day, around noontime, a single deer stood there, sampling the fallen goods. Unusual, considering the time of day and its aloneness. I watched, fascinated, and noticed budding antlers on the creature—each a couple inches long. I gasped in awe—a young buck!

AJ still has some growing to do. One of the smallest kids in his class, it can be a sore topic in our house. As a mom, I’m secretly conflicted. Of course, I want him to grow and thrive and reach his physical potential. I would never want him to feel self-conscious about anything, especially something so temporary and superficial. Another part, perhaps shamefully, doesn’t want him to get any bigger. Part of me wants him to be a kid forever and live under my roof and eat my dinners and do his homework at our kitchen table—always. Doesn’t every mom want that?

Our tree stopped shedding after a few weeks. And the young buck stopped coming by. He’s probably fully grown by now, perhaps has found a mate. Or maybe some other young bachelors to help him find his way. I like to think about how he must look these days—regal against the snow, stately among the trees, with a big beautiful cradle of antlers.

I like to think about how AJ will look, fully grown, so much like his handsome father, staying true to his wise and generous spirit while navigating the maze of adulthood. It’s exciting to think about what he might do for a career and imagine all the amazing ways he’ll contribute to the world. Because he’s got so much to offer. Someday, I hope he’ll find a mate, fall in love and have a family of his own. Maybe they’ll all come and visit, on holidays and every day, sampling goods from Mom’s kitchen. He’ll always know we’ll be delighted for his visits, which will be a testament to our continued good luck.

My boy. When he’s a man, he’ll wear no antlers, no crown. But he will always be my prince.

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My 3 little princes. From left to right: Adam, Chaz, AJ

Look for Blue Sky

Back in November, too early for holiday gifts, a package arrived containing a book: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. No note included. I thought my mom — a Kingsolver fan — may have ordered it, but no. Was it sent by mistake? Nope. My husband uncovered the mystery. “My colleague sent it. He read Boy on Hold and it reminded him of this book by Kingsolver.”

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Stop. the. press. Caught in a moment of greatness, I was speechless. One of my very favorite authors, Kingsolver is a genius at tackling big world issues in an articulate and moving way. Back as a student teacher, I taught Poisonwood Bible — allowing me to study the imperialism of Republic of Congo, while dissecting each conflict and character down to the nub, leaving me scraped raw and vulnerable and brimming with emotions I didn’t realize I had. That book remains one of my favorite books of all time.

To be considered alongside Barbara Kingsolver in any capacity is a huge honor. I mean, *my book* reminded him of one by the great and brilliant BARBARA KINGSOLVER?!?

How it got into the hands of my husband’s colleague is a compliment in itself. Turns out, BOH was recommended to said colleague’s daughter — a psychology student at NYU — by her professor. (Let me say that again.) An NYU psychology professor recommended Boy on Hold to one of his/her students. *pinch me* So, BOH made its rounds in the family, which led to the Kingsolver gift…

Such an overwhelming compliment, it was a bit intimidating to read Unsheltered. But of course, I did. And it certainly held up.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

The book’s logline sets the tone and could very well apply to Marcella Trout in BOH: How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? 

Alternating time periods between current day and post-Civil War era, Kingsolver layers climate change and environmental issues of today with the evolution controversy of Charles Darwin. Kingsolver’s smart prose certainly made me think. I’m grateful for the introduction to Mary Treat, the 19C biologist “whose work deserves to be better known.” Kingsolver deftly wove in strange but true events such as Treat’s feeding her own fingertip to her Venus flytrap as an experiment. As the story turns more serious, though, it made me appreciate those who take a stand on a large or small scale — even if it comes at great cost with no reward. It also made me rethink the value of “stuff” in general, as also eloquently put in this article my friend pointed out to me today.

All in all, the message rings clear: Rather than fight change and for a life we think we deserve, find creative ways to adapt and be open to happiness that waits for you there.

An Unsheltered excerpt that’s stayed with me:

…when God slams the door on you…you’re going to end up in rubble…you won’t find your way out of the mess if you keep picking up bricks and stuffing them in your pockets. What you have to do is look for blue sky.

A message Marcella Trout should absolutely consider as her world turns upside down and she finds herself “in the rubble” at the end of BOH.

I want to hear from you:
Have you ever had to adapt to a new normal? How did you find blue sky? 

First born, first book

When I started writing Catcher’s Keeper, my oldest was five. He was so little, it never occurred to me that he would ever read it someday. But recently, at age 14, he did. And he loved it.

Reading Catcher's Keeper

Inspired by The Catcher in the Rye, I originally wrote CK for adults — though it’s often paired with Rye in high schools as a YA book (fun fact: Salinger originally wrote Rye for adults too). I may have cleaned CK up a bit if I’d known kids (especially my kids) were going to read it.

I mean, its prose has a toilet mouth. Take the first line:

Not even a week since I moved in with my brother and he’s testing my pacifist nature, butting in on my shit.

And that’s just the first line. (The word ass appears another paragraph down…)

It’s an odd feeling. My son peeled back a layer and saw another side of his mom. One that writes in male voices and curses like a truck driver. Yikes. To say I was relieved that he liked it is an understatement.

Though it was published in 2014, the book has gotten a boost recently. Still a favorite for book clubs, it also resides in several classrooms as a Rye companion. There’s been a slight uptick in sales, which is nice. In November, it was featured on this cool website, Snowflakes in a Blizzard, which highlights and brings awareness to some awesome, lesser-known books.

And hey, the ebook is a bargain at only $2.99!

I’m proud of my first book. But even prouder when I read this from my first born:

I’ve read Catcher in the Rye and I thought it was great. The voice, the conflicts, the hidden messages. But, when I read Catcher’s Keeper, it shed a whole new light on everything. The characters were all so believable as adults, you’d think it was written by JD Salinger himself! That signature Holden Caulfield (now Alden) voice is ever-present, but you experience and feel everyone else in a whole new way. The struggles, the twists, that suspicious MD, and an unforgettable ending makes this book a must-read for anyone who’s read Cather in the Rye. 5 stars. 

Catcher's Keeper book review

Characters make the story

Effective characterization is invisible. In fact, the term “characterization” shouldn’t cross your readers’ minds at all.

Yet, readers will experience your story *through* your characters. Through voice, action, and dialogue. Readers cry for them and laugh with them. Hopefully, readers remember them.

Olive Kitteridge. Auggie Pullman. Miss Havisham. Major Pettigrew. Holden Caulfield. Eleanor Oliphant. Owen Meany. Katniss Everdeen.

What’s the secret to creating memorable characters?

Donald Maass of literary agency fame, has said of David Corbett “(he) is the grand master of character development, adroitly reconciling the complex interplay of forces in every character’s life so that writers can create true depth on the page.”

Before publishing anything, I attended a talk by David Corbett at the 2013 DFW Writer’s Conference in Dallas, Texas. He stressed the importance of secondary characters in overall plot development. (Something I hadn’t given much thought.)

A dynamic speaker, his mastery of the craft clearly evident, he had us all hooked. Bubble charts and diagrams appeared on a whiteboard that spanned the room. Unable to write fast enough, my jaw agape, I kept thinking, “Wow, I want his brain!”

What the heck had I been doing the past decade? Playing with words? Without applying his strategies, I wasn’t writing compelling fiction.

The realization stung.

He signed my copy of The Art of Character, writing out my full name despite the “JD” on my name tag. “For Johannah, whose name I finally got right!”

Needless to say the book is excellent. But be forewarned, it gets beneath the skin. The exploration exercises made me dig so deeply into my own past and my own psyche, I *cried.*

Writer friends, have you ever been brought to tears by reading a book on craft?

Yeah, it was a first for me.

David Corbett also happens to be extremely kind and generous. In my debut, he helped me distinguish the “villain” from the “flawed human being” — in a single-paragraphed email response.

Recently, he gave me the best gift: a blurb for my latest book.

Poignant, compelling, and beautifully written.

His shining endorsement means more to me than a promotional boost. It validates my cast of characters which I painstakingly built using his techniques.

Not only an acclaimed writing instructor, David also is an award-winning and bestselling author with over a dozen novels under his belt. My favorites are Mercy of the Night and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. But more exciting, for me, is his new release The Compass of Character — which will surely inform my next novel and all my future novels.

To learn more about David and his books, visit his website.

Here’s the full blurb from David for Boy on Hold. 🙂

“JD Spero’s Boy on Hold provides an especially poignant, compelling, and beautifully written update on the tale of the troubled child who witnesses a shocking event. Hen Trout and his off-kilter fascination with the world will steal your heart. Equally unforgettable are his stoic mother and all-too-teenaged brother, whose concern for Hen, even as they push through their own daily struggles, is equally moving. This family, under extreme duress, demonstrates how wisdom, kindness, and concern for one another can overcome even the greatest challenges. An utterly impressive debut that reveals incredible promise from this gifted writer. ” – David Corbett

Boy on Hold by JD Spero - mystery thriller

 

What’s your Cabbage Night story?

Not only is Halloween just days away, so is CABBAGE NIGHT!

What is Cabbage Night?

The night before Halloween, the traditional night of pranks. The night of the inciting, tragic event in BOY ON HOLD. Outside of upstate New York, it may go by a different name…or it may not exist at all.

In my hometown, Cabbage Night was more popular than Halloween. One neighborhood in particular got extra special “attention.” All innocent fun, no damage done…but we sure made a lot of noise.

Boy on Hold by JD Spero

A little context from the book

Chapter 2, Marcella Trout to her son, Tyler: “The night before Halloween…I know that’s when you teenagers do all those pranks. I hope you weren’t egging people’s cars or toilet papering trees. What do you call it–the night before Halloween?”

“Cabbage Night.”

At this line, during my reading at the official launch party at Northshire Bookshop in Saratoga for BOY ON HOLD, the crowd erupted in applause.

launch party for BOY ON HOLD

BOY ON HOLD launch party at Northshire Bookshop

But what happens on Cabbage Night changes Tyler’s family forever.

Cabbage Night, 1991. The traditional night of pranks takes a disturbing turn when a violent crime rocks a small Adirondack town. Even more so when the only witness is a seven-year-old boy… 

What’s your Cabbage Night story?

I want to hear from you! It doesn’t have to be long, just a few lines or even a phrase. Like, “Knock, knock, ginger” (Unfamiliar? Google it.)

Dig into that memory bank. I’m sure we all have some repressed (or not so repressed) memories of Cabbage Night from our teen years. Not that Marcella’s description had anything to do with my experience. *mischievous smile*

My littlest loved Forte

His older brothers were at least 10 before they read it, but Chaz finished Forte on the eve of his 9th birthday…and then gave ME the best gift: a glowing review!

Middle grade fantasy FORTE series

My littlest reading Forte on vacation

As part of his review, he drew a picture of Sami using her piano magic to defeat Aquamarine.

Middle grade fantasy Forte series

Sami using her piano magic in Forte

His review:

What I liked about FORTE! 

Everything but the kissing parts!

Then I urged him to write just a bit more…

FORTE is about a girl who loves piano. She tries out for volleyball which she has never done before but when Coach Payne touches her she becomes amazing! She soon finds out that Coach transferred Aquamarine which is a drink that helps you in sports! But she learns she will die if she doesn’t stop drinking! 

By Chaz Spero

2019/July/23

Middle grade fantasy series Forte

Original draft 🙂

Next on his reading list: CONCERTO!

“I can’t wait to read it!”

COVER REVEAL!

I’m beyond thrilled to share the amazing cover design for my upcoming book, Boy on Hold, which releases August 13, 2019 by Immortal Works Press!

Boy on Hold by JD Spero

Here’s the teaser…

Cabbage Night, 1991. The traditional night of pranks takes a disturbing turn when a violent crime rocks a small Adirondack town. Even more so when the only witness is a seven-year-old boy. Hen Trout, who had hoped to catch a pet hedgehog that night, instead sees his beloved Miss Sally become a victim.

Single mom Marcella Trout is blindsided when Tyler, her seventeen-year-old, is arrested for the very crime Hen witnessed. Now Tyler’s eerie mood swings seem dark and frightening and rooted in a family history Marcella has desperately tried to bury. As the criminal investigation churns on, the tenuous fabric of the Trout family begins to unravel…and even Hen begins to question the truth.

 

Author’s Choice

Recently, I was invited into a classroom to speak about Author’s Choice. They’d been studying the different elements in a novel that require clear decisions by the author, such as setting, character names, structure, voice, etc. Though I’ve taught these things in my own classroom, analyzing classic novels and other texts in the curriculum, this was the first time I thought about my choices as an author. And it gave me pause. It made me think about all the choices I make as I write, consciously or subconsciously, to build a story that people will want to read. See, that last part is key. Your ultimate goal as a novelist, really, is for people to want to read your stuff. That said, the choices an author makes are informed by that goal.

Allegory about climate change

Reading from Concerto on the topic of climate change

Here were some talking points for my classroom visit:

Don’t kill Sophie. (naming characters)

Authors get asked a lot how they choose the names of their characters. I’ve been known to respond, “Whatever’s easy to type!” Truth told, I go with my gut. Some names come easily and some have fits and starts before being finalized. But here’s the Sophie story: A friend of mine wrote a book in which a secondary character (named Sophie) was killed off toward the end. It had to be done for the story, which is usually fine. However, since she wrote the book, she was haunted by her choice. She met several people with the same name—lovely people. New friends, new colleagues, children, pets, and the list goes on… It’s worth noting, though, that she was haunted not because she killed off a character, but because she named her Sophie.

Bitch voice. (voice/POV)

The third book in the Forte series is told by a minor character’s POV, and tells her story. As the first two books, this is also written in first person (which feels more YA to me than third person). But I was so concerned that the voice be different, I opted for an edgy tone I thought might be cool. Turns out, a hundred pages in, the edgy voice I was hoping for sounded downright bitchy. I thought, “No one is going to want to read anything this bitch has to say!” So, I threw out the 100 pages (and the next 100) until something clicked. What clicked? The backstory. I wrote a backstory for the character that no one will ever see but made me feel sympathy for her, which in turn will make readers feel sympathy for her. Here’s hoping!

I have a Nevus spilus. (genre)

As I embarked on writing a book that included magic, it needed to be relevant to me. Many authors don’t have this problem and can build make-believe worlds with nothing but their imaginations. I don’t have that kind of confidence. I feel like people wouldn’t buy it. For that reason, a lot of my magic stems from Greek mythology, which I taught for years and feel well-versed in. Also, my main character’s magic is triggered by her birthmark on her hand, a constellation of freckles in a condensed circular pattern. When I was little, people sometimes thought the Nevus spilus on my hand was dirt. Now that I’m older, some people think it’s a severe case of “age spots.” Ho-hum. I’d rather think it’s magical.

Dead whales. (author’s message/theme)

Have you seen the viral video of that washed up dead whale *full* of plastic? It had ingested so many plastic bags that were floating in the ocean, its stomach was literally full of them. And how ’bout them polar bears? With their habitat melting away, the problem seems insurmountable.

Climate change. Global warming. Beyond these buzz words in the political arena, when I think about the kind of environmental problems we are passing on to the next generation, my mama-tiger claws come out. But then, despair hits. What can I, a writer, possibly do?

Write a book that’s an allegory for battling climate change. The result? Concerto, book 2 of the Forte series.

English teachers want to torture us. (structure/word choice/literary devices)

This pretty much sums it all up, doesn’t it? When I taught high school English, one of my students interrupted our lesson on literary devices to say, “I don’t think authors mean to write that way, with all the metaphors and similes and stuff. I think it’s just the English teachers who find stuff in books so they can make us learn it.” Hmmm. I have to say, I didn’t like what she said. It rumpled my feathers, for sure. But now that I’m a published author, I know for a fact that word choice and  use of literary devices are absolutely intentional. Why? We need to find a creative way to say something without being cliché or simply listing what’s happening. Making the readers feel what the characters feel. Putting the reader inside the story. That’s what will make people want to read your book. And be touched by it. And recommend it to all their friends.

And that, at the end of the day, is what we writers really want. Isn’t it?

         

Spread love through books!

This year, my November was chock-full of book events. It was a reminder of how important it is for writers to step away from their computers and their writing to connect with the community on a personal level. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

First, there was the BOCES Artist & Presenter Vendor Fair on November 1. Educators and administrators came through to meet artists of all shapes and sizes. I met some colorful characters, including the guys from AudioBody who had recently performed at my son’s school. Looking to book a gig for your school? Check out the arts & enrichment BOCES vendor listing.

Next, the annual Chronicle Book Fair in my hometown. It’s one of my favorite events in the community. I enjoy meeting other authors and connecting with readers. “This is your fan base!” one of my biggest supporters told me that day. The best part? My extra special visitors!

On the 7th, I attended the Lake George Jr/Sr High Volleyball banquet, an event that was bittersweet. Despite an undefeated record, the varsity team was disqualified from playoffs because they played one more game than was allowed in their regular season. The community was up in arms about this unjust and irrevocable decision that came from the NY state school athletic association. This hit home for me as an alum. As a gesture of support, I presented each player and coach an inscribed copy of Forte — which features a young girl who magically becomes a volleyball superstar in her small upstate town. Rather than a typical teenager response, these girls were genuinely grateful and appreciative. Their strength and spirit in the face of huge disappointment is truly an inspiration.

  

The last week of November, I had the honor of meeting with a local Girl Scout troop as part of a special visitor series on professional writers. We talked about story creation and fictional story telling. “A story isn’t a list of things that happen. A story has a shape.” They totally got it, and told me about their “story mountains” they are working on in ELA. One girl in the group was especially excited to meet me after winning my book basket at a school fundraiser (Brayden’s Family Fun Night).

  

November is typically the national month for writing, a la NaNoWriMo, the annual national writing challenge to complete a 50K-word novel in the month of November. How about NaNoPROMO?

You may have read my post about why I don’t do NaNoWriMo. It doesn’t mean I don’t write or edit or revise or work on my latest book(s) most every day. I do. But, for me, this month was about the other side of being an author — getting out there and spreading love through books.

But these events aren’t just about book promotion. They are my creative fuel. Giving my readers faces and voices and smiles . . . inspires me to keep writing.

Thank you to everyone who helped make it all happen.

The Sex Talk

My 5th grader came home the other day asking what “sexual assault” was. He’d heard about the Kavanaugh thing on a kid-friendly news station at school. It was sadly reminiscent of when his older brother came home asking a similar question back when he was in fifth grade. But then it was Trump’s “grab her pussy” comment that prompted the question.

What did we do? We sat them down and had the sex talk. It wasn’t the talk we’d imagined having. We had to address their questions, front and center. We had to address the ugliness in the world. We had to talk about why they’re hearing phrases like “sexual assault” and “grab her pussy” in the news. We had to back in to the topic from the most uncomfortable angle.

There’s something heartbreaking about telling your innocent, prepubescent boys that sex could be anything but a beautiful thing between two people who love each other. I know how that sounds. I’m not naive. I know these are things we need to talk about. But we’d barely broached the topic of puberty, no less sex, before we had to apologize for the reality of sexual assault.

And then Trump made that ironic comment: “It’s a scary time for young men.” And Lynzy Lab‘s catchy and clever response keeps replaying in my mind.

And it hit me. Maybe it’s a sign of our times. Maybe the sex talk is supposed to come from that uncomfortable angle.

In my latest book I’m working on in the Forte series, there is sexual assault.

The book is clean — geared for pre-teens. It’s not graphic. There’s no gratuitous violence. The scene doesn’t get to the point where the young girl is raped or beaten or even undressed. But she is clearly violated. There are harsh words. She is pushed and pinned down. The aggressor is someone she knows well — her boyfriend.

A girl doesn’t have to be naked to be assaulted. It doesn’t have to escalate to rape, either. There can be no trace of evidence on her body and it can still be a terrifying, transformative experience. It is still assault.

The scene is sadly realistic, and all too common. And it leads to another harsh truth: the ugly aftermath, with no clear path for girls to make things right.

I try to make it right for my young female character. In a fictional world where magic exists, she is empowered to miraculously reclaim her life. But it’s impossible to erase all the scars, even in a magical world.

It hurts to write about this stuff. I cry when I read scenes of my own creation. Because it’s so hard to write about a young girl battling against sexual assault, I know it’s meaningful. I was so riled up after my writing session recently, I had to write THIS!

My husband and I have a responsibility to raise our three boys well. These three boys will become young men. They will be physically stronger than their female peers. They will have subtle (and not so subtle) advantages over them, too.

Our boys’ understanding of sex has to be more than what’s covered in a science class. Beyond love or reproduction. Forget the birds and the bees. They need to hear from the female perspective. Not only hear it, they need to have the female perspective ingrained so it is top of mind when they become intimate with a girl. It should be the first thing they think about.

As they change and grow into young men, we need to keep talking. The #metoo conversation is far from over in the news and in the world. Who knows what they’ll hear next? And this is a good thing. It’s opening a doorway for communication, which is so important — even if it’s at an uncomfortable angle.