David Corbett

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

 

Denied parole

It was all over the news and my Facebook yesterday. Mom even sent me a personal email. Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, was denied parole for the eighth time by New York authorities. Why this news is relevant to me is probably not a surprise, but the effect of seeing his recent mugshot on the BBC website had on me certainly was. The now-59-year-old man is looking at me. Directly at me. Challenging me. Or, perhaps, charming me.

*chills*

Mark David Chapman is called “MD” in Catcher’s Keeper. I chose to call him by his initials because, honestly, I didn’t want to humanize him. I didn’t think he deserved it. My biggest challenge in writing this book was, without a doubt, portraying a believable Chapman. Initially, I had been swayed by my own bias and created an already-guilty Chapman. But he wasn’t guilty of anything before pulling that trigger, except attempting his own suicide. In my book, he doesn’t pull the trigger until nearly the last chapter. When he comes on the scene, he had to appear somewhat ordinary, with the potential to do something awful. A mentally unstable individual who seemed pretty normal.

How was I going to do that?

I took the advice of character-building expert, David Corbett (The Art of Character), which forced me to do what I had been avoiding and, frankly, dreading: Get into Mark David Chapman’s head. Understand him. Know him. Get under his skin.

I read Jack Jones’s Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon in just 2 days. It was disturbing, to say the least. Haunting. I learned that Chapman was indeed charming, and was able to charm his way from mental patient to an employee at that same mental clinic—-where he was known to play therapist to other patients while mopping floors. His ability to manipulate was astounding. With almost a serial-killer quality, he could lure people into trusting him, such as the doorman at the Dakota the night of December 8, 1980. That night, he mingled with other fans—-people who also were charmed by him. People who were later completely shocked and taken aback that someone so nice and unassuming could do something so awful.

How does a writer believably convey a living person with such a complex outer persona? Not to mention his impossibly convoluted inner persona…

After painstakingly doing my research, I completely revamped the MD that appears in Catcher’s Keeper.

I wonder what Mark David Chapman would think of him.

Book Excerpt

This excerpt from Catcher’s Keeper introduces Mark David Chapman from the point of view of my Holden Caulfield (renamed Alden). They meet during the book tour for “Jerry’s book” (aka The Catcher in the Rye).


 

So I’m outside having a smoke when this dude comes up to me. I’d say he’s, like, mid-thirties, kind of on the heavy side, with mousy-brown hair and big brown-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a black trench coat and this fur hat like they wear in Russia.

“Did it start yet? Did I miss it?” he asks me, clutching a book—Jerry’s book—in his hands.

“Miss what? The reading?”

He nods like mad. Even though it’s cold, guy’s sweating. His glasses slide down his nose and he shoves them back. Maybe give the furry hat a break, I would say. But it suits his babyish moon-face.

“No,” I say. “I mean, it did start. But it just started.”

Here’s the funny thing: He touches me on the shoulder, like I just saved his goddam life, and thanks me up and down. I kinda laugh, and he laughs too. It’s the kind of moment that used to link us hippies back in the day—stronger than clothes or drugs or anything else. It was that kind of synchronized laugh.

He tips his furry Russian hat and says in a really bad British accent, “Thank ye! G’daye sir!”

What a goofball! At the same time, I’m grateful, since he totally cheered me up. Dude boogies inside. He has the book in his hand, waving it around like a cautionary flag. Cracks me up. The book just came out and he’s, like, all over it. It’s a miracle anyone’s even read the thing, much less liked it…

* * *

I’m on my way back from the pharmacy, weaving through throngs of shoppers, when some dude thumps his hand on my chest. Stops me dead in my tracks. I look up, kinda ticked. It’s the furry-hat dude! My laugh is automatic—offering that thing that connected us.

“You!” he says, like he just won the lottery. “You’re the brother!”

That stops me cold. “What?”

“The author said, during the reading, he owed it all to his brother, who was out having a smoke.” He points with his hand, which is wrapped in a wrist brace. He’s got a Southern drawl, which I hadn’t noticed before. And his smile—although as broad as the Sargasso Sea—ends with his mouth, like his eyes aren’t invited to the party.

He goes on: “He said it was your story he documented for you. It says in the acknowledgments that you were the inspiration for it all. But it’s more than that. It’s you! It’s you, isn’t it? It’s got to be. Wow. I can’t believe it. I met you before I even met him.”

I cringe inside, wishing a wall of steel between me and that goddam book. I feel my face fall, so I turn away. But he keeps right up with me. I mean, he seems cool. You’d think he would run the other way knowing I was the true narrator of that book. But it’s like it’s a good thing, in his mind. Never thought that would happen.

“And I thought I was late!” he says. “Thank goodness I was late. I may never have met you!”

“Yo, we actually haven’t met,” I say, pausing on the sidewalk to extend my hand.

Furry-hat dude slaps his own forehead. “I’m so sorry!” But he doesn’t look sorry. “I’m MD.” He takes my hand, the Velcro on his wrist-brace scratching my fingertips.

“MD?” I ask.

“No, I’m not a doctor.” He laughs, sounding like a little girl this time, making me giggle too. As if we’re both high as a kite.

“I didn’t think you were a doctor,” I say, still laughing.

“I’m an acronym! Just like your brother. He uses his initials for the book, so I’m using mine. But my wife calls me Mark.”

“Hi, Acronym. Or should I call you Mark?”

We both have a giggle fit again.

“Call me MD. But what’s your name? Do you go by Holden?”

My laughter drops fast as a hiccup. “No, no. It’s Alden.”

A year in the life of a book-to-be

The road to publication is never easy, although I do hope by documenting the bumps in mine, I can smooth the ride for future authors. Here is my story:

March 2013

While on vacation at my parent’s house in Florida, I got word that Catcher’s Keeper had made it into the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. I knew right then that this was a major turning point for my writing career. Only 5% of the 10,000 submitted entries make it into the quarter-finals, which was enough validation for me to commit to publishing my book—no matter how much further I made it in the contest. I was neither surprised nor discouraged that my journey in the contest ended there. Rather, I immediately got to work on publishing it myself.

April

I hired a very talented editor, Cassandra Dunn, for a manuscript critique on what I thought was my completed manuscript. What did I learn from this critique? My book was far from being done. My early readers will agree that although my initial drafts had a pretty solid plotline, my characters were a little thin…and passive. No wonder I didn’t make it further in the contest!

May

At the DFW Writer’s Conference, I attended a brilliant talk by David Corbett about character development and immediately bought his book The Art of Character. But it wasn’t until I reached out to Mr. Corbett personally via email about how to convey a “sociopath” (Mark David Chapman) in a believable way—that I took his words to heart. His response was transforming. Here’s a piece of it:

First off, try not to label your characters with pseudo-psychiatric terms. “Sociopath” won’t help you justify and defend this character—and as his creator, that’s your obligation. Whatever he’s doing, there’s a reason, and you need to understand it and see its logic, even if you disagree with it. Otherwise you’re creating a plot puppet, not a character.

His advice forced me to do what I had been avoiding and, frankly, dreading: get into Mark David Chapman’s head. Understand him. Know him. I realized I had been swayed by my own bias and created an already-guilty Chapman. Something I definitely had to fix.

I read Jack Jones’s Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon in just 2 days. It was disturbing, to say the least. Haunting. From here, I completely revamped the MD that appears in Catcher’s Keeper.

This took a while. (Like, all summer).

August/September

I hired Cassandra Dunn for a second critique to make sure the problems she’d pointed out were resolved. I was relieved to receive only a few minor recommendations from her at this point. After another quick revision, I emailed Cassandra to ask if she thought it was ready to publish, if she would give her “blessing” so to speak. Because I was self-publishing, I felt I needed an objective opinion on this. Cassandra was encouraging and complimentary; she basically told me to go for it.

Deep breath.

October

With major revisions complete, it was time for copy-editing. I sent it to a very talented copy-editor who is also my close personal friend, Sandra Hume. Sandra began the copy-editing process, but after a few chapters, called to suggest she start over with line edits to tighten things up. Although this would push out my launch date, I agreed it was the right thing to do.

What she did to my manuscript I describe as “sprinkling magic fairy dust.” Sandra has a unique talent to streamline for effect, and she did not disappoint. I say to this day, this book would not be the same without her.

While Sandra worked on line edits, I hired my cover designer. I found Joleene Naylor’s name through Mark’s List (as in Mark Coker of Smashwords). I’d read 3 of Coker’s free ebooks, and considered myself a quasi-expert in e-publishing by now (ha, ha…more on that later). I sent Joleene (Jo) a PowerPoint with my concept for the cover, and it only took one or two go-arounds before Jo got it perfect. And thanks to my friend Tember Fasulo at Amazon, I procured a high res image of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award seal to use in the design, which makes all the difference. I’ve gotten so many compliments on my cover. Coker and every other ebook marketer will say a good cover sells a book more than anything. I was ecstatic; my dream was becoming real…and I was showing everyone the JPEG on my phone. Jo charged me just $45.

At this point, I wasn’t thinking of my paperback cover, just ebook. (Mistake!)

Back to the “interior.” After reconciling all line edits and time-period inconsistencies, Sandra took it back (again!) to copy edit the final version. (This would be about the 4th time Sandra read my book.)

November

While Sandra copy-edited, my family relocated from Texas to upstate New York. Just to keep things interesting. Then holiday season geared up, which slowed things down a bit.

December

Around Christmas, Sandra sent me the final, copyedited manuscript. After reviewing and making the changes, it was ready. This is the last stage of the process, folks. I knew it was ready to go.

Gulp.

I panicked.

What do I do now, I thought? Do I just upload it to Amazon—easy as that? But everyone’s drinking eggnog! Who launches a book in the middle of Fa-La-La and Ho-ho-ho?

January 2014

Keeping things interesting again: On January 10, we closed on vacation/investment oceanfront property (aka beach house).

I set up a call with children’s book author and PR expert, Anika Denise (who also happens to be a very good friend), to help me brainstorm ideas for a launch kit / press kit. We decided on a launch date of March 1st, which would allow me to submit to the IPPY awards before their March 15th deadline. At this point, I had no author platform at all. We discussed the basics: setting up a website, creating discussion questions, getting author quotes to use for marketing purposes. We also discussed setting up a blog tour, putting together a book video, maximizing social media, and other strategies to take advantage of our ever-evolving digital age. Anika connected me with a few author friends of hers who’ve had e-publishing success, one of whom was Sebastian Cole, author of Sand Dollar.

Sebastian was a sea of information. He practically wrote another book in his emails to me, which were chock full of publishing and marketing strategies that worked for him. (I will be going back to these emails for months to come.)

It was Sebastian who convinced me to enroll in KDP Select program (e-book exclusivity through Amazon/Kindle).

This was a hard decision for me. I had read Mark Coker’s books and was a huge fan of his. I believe in Smashwords’s mission. And, frankly, I thought (think) KDP Select is trying to create a monopoly by bullying authors into an exclusivity contract, which disregards any reader that isn’t Kindle (Nook, Sony, Kobo, etc). But when a writing instructor said that after ten years, he’s only sold 3 or 4 books through Smashwords whereas he’s sold hundreds through KDP, I could not ignore the numbers.

Sigh.

Here’s a bit of Sebastian’s convincing argument to go KDP Select:

Self-published authors sell their books primarily online, not in bookstores. And people won’t know to look for you online if they’ve never heard of you before. So marketing is the biggest challenge for indie authors. It’s good to start local, but that doesn’t sell many books. The best way to gain exposure is to temporarily give your eBook away for free in conjunction with getting your eBook listed with a promotional eBook website such as BookBub, Pixel of Ink, eReader News Today, and FK Books and Tips. With the exception of BookBub, these promotional websites are only geared for Amazon’s Kindle, not the Nook, iPad, etc. When I first started getting reviews, I had gotten about 40 reviews on Amazon, while I only had about 4 reviews at Barnes & Noble, and none at iTunes. For some reason Amazon is where it’s at. Amazon also allows you to set up an author page there, and Barnes & Noble does not. For whatever reason, Amazon’s Kindle is running away with market share for eBooks, in my opinion.

Here’s the thing. I’m not looking to get rich here. In fact, it’s not about making money at all. I just want my book to be read. But not just by friends and family, and that requires people to know that the book exists. What I decided to do is: KDP Select for the required 3-month timeframe, and then switch to regular KDP and also publish through Smashwords. So, I’ll get there, Mr. Coker. Promise.

As I was working on my launch kit (anyone need a quickie tutorial on WordPress, I’m your girl), I contacted Ms. Joleene Naylor about doing my wrap cover for my paperback version.

Why didn’t I start this earlier?

(I should’ve started this earlier.)

Jo needed some info for the wrap design: how many pages is the book, what trim size would I like.

Trim size?

Thank goodness Jo seemed amused rather than annoyed at my rookie ignorance (at least in the beginning). Jo explained trim size is simply the physical size of the book, and that most CreateSpace books are either 6×9 or 5×8. So, I did what any new-age author would do, I went old school. I took a ruler to my parents’ bookshelf until I found my ideal trim size: 5×8. I was feeling good about things. In control.

February

After securing a jacket quote from my writing instructor and agonizing over my own bio, I sent Jo the copy for my back cover. This was the first week of February. I’m not sure how it happened, but suddenly Jo and I were in a huge rush. She’s the one who told me I had to upload everything to CreateSpace in time to order a physical proof of the book in time to carefully review it before officially publishing. That takes time.

While Jo worked on the wrap design, I decided to take a look at CreateSpace’s formatting guidelines to make sure my manuscript was formatted appropriately.

I felt really confident about this. I had attended an e-publishing workshop at DFWcon. I had completed an online course on e-publishing through Ed2Go. My manuscript had been formatted appropriately for months.

But then I realized, I had been so concerned about ebook formatting (ereaders often don’t read symbols, misconstrue tabs and over-indent, etc) I had neglected to format my paperback version, which requires wider interior margins and mirrored page numbers…and indented paragraphs.

I was looking at hours of formatting for my print version…and I wasn’t even sure I knew how to do it.

Yikes!

I messaged my friend Kelly Van Hull, author of the Tent City series, whom I’ve never met in person but have exchanged a million emails after taking an online writing course together. She’s been a great resource regarding the technicalities of publishing.

Kelly connected me with her formatter, Karen Perkins at LionheART Publishing House. I sent Karen a frantic email and within just a *few hours*, I had the following versions perfectly formatted in my inbox: Kindle, Smashwords, CreateSpace. She charged me only $31.

Whew.

By the time we finalized the wrap design, it was 2 weeks before launch. Throw in school break and a family road trip and—oh yeah—planning an important fundraiser with my husband, who will run the Boston Marathon for a cause that is extremely close to our hearts…to say we were busy would be a huge understatement.

I’d uploaded the files the night before leaving for our beach house. En route, I received an email that my cover design was “rejected” by CreateSpace because it contained the word Amazon. My award seal. They said I couldn’t use it.

I got on the phone with CreateSpace.

“I’m sorry. It’s our policy.”

I asked to speak with a supervisor. Jeremy (a supervisor) had me on hold for the good part of an hour, checking with different departments and whoever else. I paced, meditating on the sound of the ocean waves crashing ashore, reminding myself to be kind to these people who held my fate in their hands (okay, I’m a sucker for drama, but you get me).  Finally, Jeremy came back with good news. He was astonished himself that they were approving the design contingent on getting written approval from Amazon that I could use the star image.

Clock is ticking. I called and emailed Tember at Amazon, but couldn’t reach her. I called her husband, who was my brother’s best friend growing up and therefore feels like my own brother, and spewed out my problem like an auctioneer on crack. He said he would track down Tember, but also warned me that she might not be able to help.

Two minutes later, I got the following email from Tember:

Hi Johannah – the Amazon image I sent for your book cover is the appropriate one to use. Please be sure to include it. Thanks, Tember

Happy dance!

Ducking into the back room of the restaurant where I was dining with my in-laws, I got back onto the phone with CreateSpace to ensure my email from Amazon would suffice and allow me to use the seal.

Good news: Design is approved!

Bad news: Files must go into review process, which takes 24-48 hours.

Ten days until launch.

I rush-ordered my proof when my files were finally approved, ignoring the canned message that something was wrong with my trim size. (I had Jo; nothing could be wrong with it, right?)

While I waited for my proof to come in, I decided to upload my files for my ebook early, in case Amazon had an issue with the seal.

Just upload the files, right? It can’t be that simple, can it?

Oh yes, it can!

I couldn’t believe how easy it was to publish my ebook on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program. Almost too easy. It was as simple as attaching a document to an email. Suddenly, my book was published. Before my deadline. I decided to leave it on Amazon and just not promote it until launch day.

On Tuesday, February 25, at 9 p.m., my proof came in.

Let me try to explain how exciting this was. The butterflies in my stomach nearly rivaled the moment when the man I desperately loved told me he wanted to marry me. My smile hurt my ears. I kept opening the book to random pages, seeing a sentence I created, and squealing. I hopped around the house as if I’d just won a part on Broadway.

Of course, there had to be a problem though. Of course.

The back of my beautiful wrap design was bleeding into the spine of the book, making the back cover text bend when the book opened. Not good.

I took pics with my phone and sent them to Jo. Thankfully for me, Jo works the evening shift. She was able to troubleshoot the problem that very night. But then she asked me an important question.

Did your page count go up after formatting?

Gulp.

I had told Jo my page count was 226. After LionheART formatted it, the page count went up to 268! Of course the spine was too narrow. Jo had the wrong page count, thanks to me. (I doubt Jo will ever take on a rookie client again). Armed with the correct page count, Jo quickly fixed the wrap design. But then it had to go through the review process with CreateSpace again. I worried the ABNA seal issue would resurface.

Meanwhile, one of my good friends found my book on Amazon and posted it to Facebook. Wait! I haven’t “launched” yet! I decided to go with it, and followed up with “ebook early release” posts on my website and all social media. Word got out. It started selling. I even got a bookclub gig before my launch date.

It took about 24 hours for CreateSpace to approve all my files. Even after finalizing my wrap design and my interior, I was still receiving error messages from CreateSpace—which I ignored. Everything looked good via their Digital Proofer. It was February 28.

March

I couldn’t believe it, but on Saturday, March 1, I was able to digitally approve my paperback and publish on CreateSpace. Minutes later, it was available on Amazon. I had made my official launch date.

But the drama did not end there.

Dad downloaded my book, started reading, and sent me an email that he’d found a few typos. What? How is that possible? Reviewing the errors he found, I recognized some of them as errors I had already fixed with Sandra.

Oh no. Did I send the wrong version to the formatter?

I couldn’t worry about that. With each change, I had to change all 3 formatted versions (Kindle, Smashwords, CreateSpace), without disrupting the formatting or page count. Uploading a new ebook file was easy, but CreateSpace required the files to go through a 24-hour review period, during which time buyers would get an “out of print” message if they tried to purchase a paperback. I waited until Dad was finished reading with his eagle eye for typos. Meanwhile, 50 paperbacks were purchased.

Twitch.

Five days after my official launch, I uploaded a new file to CreateSpace at 11 p.m., hoping few would try to buy in the middle of the night. By 1 p.m. the next day, my files were approved. After a quick check with the digital proofer, I published, right before jumping in the car to drive to Massachusetts for our big fundraiser. I’m sitting now at our beach house watching the waves crash ashore, allowing myself to enjoy the moment.

Epilogue

When I uploaded my “interior” to CreateSpace, they signaled an error that the fonts were not embedded properly. I had no idea what this meant. When I forwarded the message to LionheART, Karen must’ve worked another few hours trying to troubleshoot any potential problem, and sent me a new version with this message:

This is the first time I’ve had a problem with a pdf, and it’s important to me to help to solve it; not only so I can make sure it doesn’t happen again, but also because it’s honestly a privilege to be asked to help bring a new book into the world, and I won’t leave you in the lurch. My pleasure…

How beautiful is this sentiment? This is what’s behind the epublishing revolution. My road to publication depended on the help of other authors, and I have never felt any competition or ego. Not only that, but they are willing to help at bargain prices! When Jo is asked why her designs are so cheap, her reply is “because I enjoy it.” The epublishing revolution is a grassroots effort of talented artists that want to help each other. Not to stick it to the big guys, but to bring books to readers that would otherwise wallow in slushpiles. This community that I found mostly online is extraordinary. I’m still amazed I was able to publish a book (out of vapor!) from my dining room—-but I could not have done it without the help of others. I can’t wait to pay it forward.

Last night my mother-in-law came over with her husband, Sam. We chatted over wine and pizza, while my book lay casually on the table between us. I kept staring at it, trying to suppress the urge to caress the cover, fan the pages with my fingertips, or even read it cover to cover right then and there.

I won’t apologize for my obsession with this book. It took a lot to get it out there. And I’m pretty proud of it.