Up Close: J. D. Barker

Navigating Multiple Paths to Publication

By April Snellings

There are as many paths to publication as there are writers to chart them—a point that isn’t lost on J. D. Barker, who spent more than 20 years as a successful book doctor before his independently published debut horror novel, Forsaken, was shortlisted for a 2014 Bram Stoker Award. That auspicious beginning led to a co-authoring gig with Dacre Stoker, great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker, on 2018’s Dracula prequel Dracul, which landed at Putnam after a five-way auction.

Barker enjoyed similar success with his first foray into the thriller world: 2017’s trilogy launch The Fourth Monkey, which attracted the attention of traditional publishers around the world. After a series of preempts and heated auctions, rights went to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US and HarperCollins in the UK—a far cry from Barker’s roots as an indie author.

Barker is poised for yet another breakout hit with SHE HAS A BROKEN THING WHERE HER HEART SHOULD BE, which stands to introduce him to a new demographic: young adult readers. While the book is technically aimed at adults, it’s not hard to see why it’s also testing positively with younger audiences.

The story follows its two main characters, orphan Jack Thatch and his enigmatic love interest, Stella, throughout their childhood and much of their adult lives as they try to solve the mystery of their own tortured pasts. The two meet every year on the same calendar day when Jack visits his parents’ graves on the anniversary of their deaths. That date clearly has significance for Stella too; year after year, she’s there at the cemetery on Jack’s day of remembrance, accompanied by armed, white-coated adults who could either be her guardians or her captors.

In a story that often reads like a Stephen King reimagining of Great Expectations—a book that is frequently invoked by Barker’s young characters—Jack is inexorably drawn to Stella, even when it becomes clear that people around her have a habit of dying in horrifying, unexplainable ways. The two are forever bound, and the book follows their journey over the course of several decades as they alternately pursue one another, play detective, and run for their lives from terrifying forces that neither truly understands.

As he gears up to send his latest release out into a world that feels increasingly like something from one of his novels, Barker tapped into his experiences as both a successful book doctor and a bestselling author to offer some practical tips and insights for beginning and seasoned authors alike.

Let’s start with every writer’s favorite question: what sparked the idea for this book?

Geez, that’s always a tough one to answer. I had the opening paragraph in my notes for years:

Her name was Stella and I loved her from the first moment I saw her. Even after watching her kill a man who looked a lot like me, I couldn’t help but love her. I didn’t know she had killed him, not at that time, I couldn’t possibly know, I only watched them kiss, but that moment spelled his end as surely as water runs downhill. We would hide the body together, amid her apologies for what she had done. Then she would be gone, disappearing into the night. And I could do nothing else but follow, my heart filled with ache, her scent pulling me so.

—Jack Thatch | 22 Years Old

It was one of those things I scribbled down at three in the morning, probably the remnant of some dream, but I don’t recall what actually sparked it. When I finished up the 4MK series I knew I wanted to write something a little lighter to help clear some of the nastiness left in those hard-to-reach places in my brain, and the above paragraph jumped out at me. I had the title as well but nothing else. I just sat down and let the story flow. Luckily, Jack was willing to share and this one came together easily.

J. D. Barker

I’d love to hear about the Great Expectations connection, and the influence of Dickens in general. “Jack Thatch” even feels like a decidedly Dickensian name…

I’m a fan of most of the classics but Dickens in particular has always been a favorite, with Great Expectations topping that list. I first read it as a kid and immediately fell in love with Estella. Miss Havisham did a number on me right along with Pip. I’ve read that book countless times. I think part of me wanted to pay tribute to that novel and maybe introduce it to a new generation. Another part of me wondered what would happen if a little girl were to read it and model her own life after it. What would happen to the boy who fell in love with her? Her Pip? What if? What if? What if? For me, when I start a novel my mind is cluttered with questions and (hopefully) I answer them along the way.

I understand that you’re a pantser and that outlines don’t really work for you. Did that hold true for a book that clocks in at nearly 800 pages?

In On Writing Stephen King mentioned if he doesn’t know where a story is going, the reader won’t figure it out either. I’m a firm believer in that as well. I absolutely love discovering the story as I go. At the end of a writing session, I never get up unless I know what my next sentence will be. Sometimes I’ll stop mid-sentence. I find as long as I do that, my brain continues to work the story long after I leave my desk—washing dishes, going for a run, watching television, sleeping…my subconscious is always thinking about what comes next. When I sit down again, I hit the ground running. I usually have an ending in mind and maybe one or two scenes somewhere in the middle, but beyond that, I don’t hold myself to any particular framework. I’ll occasionally go off into the weeds but for the most part, this works. The story in my mind is always a few beats ahead of what I have on paper.

Are there any other organizational tools that you find helpful, without sacrificing that sense of spontaneity and discovery?

I’m a big fan of Scrivener. The creators managed to take every necessary writing tool and cram it into this one program. Not only can you write your book in it, but you can create detailed character sketches, store photos, notes… I think my favorite part though is the ability to rearrange scenes. You can view your book on a virtual corkboard and drag and drop your scenes around. I’ve written several books that have multiple storylines weaved together. This was a cinch to pull off in Scrivener.

Autocrit.com is another favorite. I mentor a lot of aspiring authors and tend to see some of the same problems. Passive voice. Adverbs. Tense errors. Autocrit will analyze your text and point these errors out. Eventually, it can help an author train these problems out of their writing.

You have a collaboration with James Patterson, a devoted outliner, slated for release this fall. How did you work out the differences in your preferred writing styles?

I’m not quite sure how I pulled it off, but after much arm-twisting I convinced him to go without an outline. In the end, I think he enjoyed the change, maybe even found it refreshing to try something new, but he also beat me up for it. A lot of words ended up on the cutting room floor. I suppose that’s the nature of pantsing, at least for me. I’ll give you an example—there was a dinner scene about two pages long, some important dialogue was exchanged, but when he read it back, he asked, “Is there any reason we can’t just say ‘they had dinner?’” I realized he was right. I needed to write out the full scene in order to understand what happened for the characters, but most of it was unimportant. He replaced 500 words with three, we moved the dialogue, and the story was better for it.

We had some fun, too. I’d write a scene, try and paint the character into some impossible corner, then hand it off to Jim. Somehow, he’d not only get the character out of that jam, but he’d put them into an even more difficult scenario and hand it back to me. Chapter by chapter we continually tried to “one-up” each other and ended up with an incredibly twisted story. For me, this was a masterclass with one of the best professors on the planet.

Who knows, if we try this again maybe we’ll go with an outline and see how that plays out. I’m game.

J. D. Barker

I love the structure of SHE HAS A BROKEN THING WHERE HER HEART SHOULD BE —that we essentially pick up these characters on one calendar day per year throughout much of their lives. What inspired that format, and what creative challenges or opportunities did it present?

Most of my books tend to take place over a short period of time—days, hours—I have a yet-to-be-published novella that takes place over a single minute. When I started this book, knowing it would span nearly 40 years, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off. I’d never read a story that picks up on the same calendar day year after year and I think the challenge of it is what roped me in. This also meant a drastic change in my usual character development. The reader first meets Jack Thatch, Stella, and the others at age eight. Each year as they grew older, I needed to be sure their dialogue, mannerisms, and actions remained in line with their age and stayed true to the uniqueness of the character. That wasn’t easy. A trick I learned early on in my career is to create a separate document for each character that contains nothing but their dialogue, and refer to that document every time you write new dialogue, make sure it remains consistent. I did that here but I also time-stamped everything to ensure it was age-appropriate.

Your debut novel, Forsaken, got a boost from Stephen King that any writer would envy. How did you make that happen, and what did that experience teach you?

The moral of that story is you don’t go to Steve’s house without an invite. When I wrote Forsaken I had to explain where the wife in the story buys a journal. Just to get the novel done, I wrote that she walked into Needful Things and bought it there, from King’s character, Leland Gaunt. I fully expected to have to change that, then my wife suggested trying to get his permission to use the reference. Knowing he only lived a few miles down the street from my parents’ house in Florida, we printed up the manuscript, hopped in the car, and headed on over. We didn’t actually get there. We chickened out about a mile away and went to get lunch instead. While eating, I called a mutual friend, an author named Jack Ketchum, and told him what we were up to. He said, “Oh, don’t stalk Steve. He hates that. Here’s his email address, just send it to him. If he likes it, he’ll get back to you. If it’s shit, you probably won’t hear from him.” I did send it and I did hear back, luckily with his blessing to keep the reference.

Jack (Dallas Mayr) passed away in 2018 and I miss him. Like many seasoned authors, he was always willing to reach out and help someone. I try to keep his “pay it forward” attitude alive every chance I get. That said, no, you can’t have King’s email address. That’s usually everyone’s next question.

I’d love to hear about your time as a book doctor, when you lent your expertise to a number of books that ended up on the NYT bestseller list. How did those years set you up for success as an author?

Back in college, I wrote for a number of newspapers and magazines and when you work in that world, you quickly realize everyone’s got a half-finished novel tucked away in a desk drawer. They’d been working on it for 10 years, it’s 600k words, they’re finally starting to “feel it,” it’s almost done… At first, all I did was copyedit—shuffle commas around, then I started digging in a little deeper—“You know, you could combine these characters. Your protagonist doesn’t seem real, give her a cat, a sick grandmother, make her human. Move this chapter to here, cut this part. This is too linear, have you considered shuffling the story into two timelines that meet in the book’s climax?” …that sort of thing. Some of those books got published. More importantly, it put me on the radar of a number of agents and editors (because they were selling and buying those books). I started getting calls from them—“I’ve got a publisher on the hook with a debut author’s book but they want him to cut 40k words and he’s too close to get it done. Can you give it a look?” When you’re successful at that sort of thing, word spreads.

I’ve got a form of autism called Asperger’s and one of the unique skills that gives me (something I stumbled into) is the ability to mimic an author’s voice, vocabulary, cadence, and sentence structure. When I wrote Dracul for Bram Stoker’s family, I read everything Bram wrote and listened to the audiobook on a constant repeat. Dacre Stoker [Bram’s great-grandnephew] would feed me sentences he found in Bram’s notes and journals and I’d expand them into paragraphs and chapters. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell what Bram wrote and what I did. In the book doctor days, that came in handy because I could seamlessly rewrite someone else’s work. Editors would reach out and hire me to work closely with their authors on books they acquired. I started getting calls from published authors who were behind on a deadline and needed a little help. I’ve also written my share of books for the families and estates of recently deceased authors based on notes left behind. I’m that guy.

This all went on for about 23 years and I ended up with six different books on the NYT bestseller list, all with other people’s names on the cover. That gets old. When the sixth one hit, my wife pulled me aside and came up with this crazy plan—sell everything we own, buy a duplex, live in one side, rent out the other, quit the day job and live off savings…try to make it as a writer. I remember the day she showed me the bank statement, did the math, and said, “Looks like you have about 18 months—go.”

During those book doctor years, I saw patterns in what agents were selling, editors were buying, and readers were reading. This is probably another Aspie trait but I dissected the industry and learned exactly what worked and what didn’t. Found cyclical patterns. I made a conscious effort to incorporate all of it into my own work. That’s when I wrote Forsaken. That book was just taking off when my second book (The Fourth Monkey) sold in a crazy series of pre-empts and auctions, film and TV rights…things got really nutty after that and we haven’t looked back.

Now that you’ve published in both the thriller and horror genres, which do you prefer?

Dean Koontz was kind enough to provide me with advice on this topic early on. He told me he got tagged as a “horror” author when his writing first took off and he spent 20-plus years trying to shake that term. He didn’t feel it accurately reflected his work. Dean said he was a “suspense” author who sometimes incorporated elements from other genres. This wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this and I took it to heart.

The moment your writing lands on an agent’s desk, they will immediately try and put you in a genre box. It’s a necessary evil. They’ll use it to pitch you to an editor. The editor will use it with their marketing team. That marketing team will use that information to get your book into stores.

I knew from the get-go I wanted to bounce around, not only because that keeps things interesting for me, but because I’ve found that when I do, like a literary Pied-Piper, I pick up readers from multiple genres. Thriller fans find me because of my 4MK series, horror fans find me because of Forsaken and Dracul, all of them seem to discover my other titles and read cross-genre. The bulk of my readers are 45 and over but SHE HAS A BROKEN THING WHERE HER HEART SHOULD BE is testing very strong with young adult, an audience I have yet to crack, so we’re purposely targeting ads at that group. While writing is an art, I’ve never forgotten that selling books is a business. We’re moving a product.

Are genres important? Absolutely. But don’t let them define you. They’re tools.

I’m actually teaching a class on writing/selling cross-genre at CraftFest (ThrillerFest) this year. If you’re just starting out and would like to work in multiple genres or if you’re a seasoned author stuck in one particular box, stop by.

Finally, how are you riding out the current crisis, and what words of advice can you offer new authors who are entering the query trenches or staring down a book release at such an uncertain time?

Just keep writing. I know it’s tough but turn off the news, try not to think about what’s happening out there, and just keep writing. Agents are home reading, probably reading more than they ever have in the past. Same with editors. They’re still acquiring novels. The publishing wheel is still turning, it’s just moving a little slower these days. At some point, this will all be behind us and things will ramp back up. We’re all being forced to stay home; use that time to be productive.

If you have a pending release, channel your energy and resources. Try something new. Many of my traditionally published friends came up in a world where book tours were the focus. Those have all been canceled. Traditional print and television are focusing on the virus, not much room for us these days. Bloggers, though, they’re still looking for content. Podcasters still want to interview you. People are home staring at social media—are you in front of them?

Don’t sit on your hands—explore an avenue you may not have considered in the past. What can it hurt? If anything, you may discover a new tool for your next release.

Most importantly, though, stay safe.

 

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