Donald Maass

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


Yogi Writer

Two of my passions in life are writing and yoga. I never considered a connection between the two until I attended a workshop with literary agent Donald Maass at the DFW writers’ conference last May. Mr. Maass began the four-hour workshop with…


The conference room held a hundred of us writers, all of whom hoped to gain some knowledge from this giant of the agency world. But then we were asked to put our pens down, close our eyes, and breathe. Slightly stunned, we all obliged him, trusting in his expertise. Trusting in his methods. He kept the room silent for a minute or so (which seemed like a lifetime) and then said in a gentle voice: “Nothing happens without breath. In yoga, it’s called Prana.”

If I weren’t a huge fan of Donald Maass before, I certainly became one then.

I believe I can speak for all of us in the room when I say we were more receptive and relaxed when Mr. Maass began the actual workshop, which was based on his highly-acclaimed book Writing the Breakout Novel. I got busy with my pen and took pages of notes for the remaining hours, but held on to that Zen feeling for the rest of the weekend.

And it got me thinking: there must be a connection between these two passions of mine.

In The Lego Movie, there is a scene in which we gain access into the mind of Emmett, who has stumbled into a hero’s role called the Special. But what they all find in his mind—nothing—casts some doubt. How can he save the Lego world if there is nothing in his mind?

Ah, but then we hear the final word from Morgan Freeman’s authoritative voice (as Vitruvius) and we are all convinced Emmett is in fact special if not the Special. It went something like this: “Most of us have to work hard to clear our minds. Some of us never are able to. But Emmett, you have something so rare—a complete blank slate. A totally empty mind.”

Vitruvius goes on to tell Emmett that he just needs to try; it’s his belief in himself that makes him the Special.

It’s true that sometimes I’m unable to carry on a simple conversation because my mind is playing out the next scene in my latest work-in-progress. There are times in the day when I feel like if I fit in another data-byte, my internal hard drive will crash.

It’s also true that I’m not able to write unless I have some of Emmett-brain. Sometimes I’m most productive when insomnia hits and my mind is cloudy from lack of sleep. Somehow, my characters come to life and my story unfolds as if it’s a movie playing in my mind.

Sometimes, my most productive writing sessions happen after a good hour of yoga practice.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

When I first started practicing yoga, in my twenties, I never appreciated meditative benefit. Since becoming certified—and turning 40—I’m embracing the Zen of yoga. At first, it was hard for me. I’d never been a good student of meditation. I used to shrug off the final Shavasana, skeptical of its benefit. I inherited my parents’ productivity gene and feel whole when I’m busy and getting things done. But now that I’m an instructor and will face a diverse class from varying student-journey pitstops, I know I will need to provide an environment that allows for spiritual healing as well as strengthening and physical healing.

One of my all-time favorite yoga classes was in Hawaii, in a small, mirror-less room facing a wall of palm trees through a floor-to-ceiling window. The pot-bellied, dread-locked instructor sat behind us in bright white tube socks, doling out instructions — in a voice like melted butter — on how to manipulate our bodies as if he were explaining to kindergarteners how to tie a shoe.


Yoga on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, ON

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I don’t do yoga in front of a mirror anymore.

There are some poses I still cannot “do.” There are some poses I will never be able to “do.”

I focus on relaxing the muscles in my face as much as my breathing.

I begin class with the hope of finding or achieving something; but I end class by recalling a specific blessing in my life.

I now understand why the final Shavasana is the most important pose of the class.

It’s one of the only ways I can achieve an Emmett-brain. And then I can get some serious writing done.



At one of my fave writing spots, Coffee Planet in downtown Glens Falls