Friday, February 25, 2011

Cassy's Corner- Welcoming CJ Lyons!!!

Folks, it is a true pleasure to have CJ Lyons with us today. Join us in not only welcoming her, but in also benefiting from her vast knowledge. It's normally Liz's turn to invite someone wonderful to be with us this Friday, but I confess to elbowing her aside so that we could enjoy time with CJ. Liz promises me that she is thrilled with CJ's generosity and won't hold it against me.

As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. In addition to being an award-winning medical suspense author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker.

Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by The Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller.

Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series (LIFELINES, WARNING SIGNS, URGENT CARE and CRITICAL CONDITION) is available now.

Her newest project is as co-author of a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich. You can learn more at and for free reads, "Like" her at

Cassy: You are a pediatrician. I know you aren't actively practicing right now, but once a doc--always a doc. As a "former" nurse I understand that. What took you from the excitement of the ER and your pediatric practice (not to mention all the other things you have done) to sitting before a computer screen creating the great drama you do?

CJ: Actually I was a writer long before I considered medicine--since I was a kid. Writing was my way of understanding the crazy world around me--still is, in fact! It wasn't until after 17 years of practicing medicine and having my first book contracts that I finally decided to take the leap of faith and leave medicine to write full time.

It was a tough decision to make. Becoming a doctor was a dream come true for a working class girl from rural PA--so now, being a full time novelist (still can't think of myself as a bestseller, lol!) is a second dream come true!

Cassy: How much of your stories are the retelling of what you have lived versus knowing what could have happened? You have a great balance of drama, characterization, action and intrigue.

CJ: All of the medical cases in my books are true--but none of the patients are. I take great care in fictionalizing all the patients.

So I might combine several case reports of, for instance, melamine poisoning, and then say, hey, what if this happened to such and such kind of person….how would they react, how hard would it be for my doctors/characters to diagnose, what complications could arise….

The characters always come first--then I'll find medical facts to fit what they need. Fortunately, strange medical cases abound, so that's usually the easy part!

Cassy: It's a huge transition from the potentially heart pounding moments in the ER and recreating that on paper. Was that difficult? I have a daughter who is a doctor and feeds off the high adrenaline situations. She never would want to tell stories rather than actually live them. How has that been for you?

CJ: I think it was easier for me since I was a storyteller long before I became a physician.

In my experience, understanding the story helped me to be a better doctor. Instead of cutting patients off or assuming I understood what they were talking about, I always put my patient's "stories" in a bigger context. Often this helped me to discover those tiny tidbits of information that are so easily overlooked because I instinctively knew when there was more to a story.

As far as the adrenalin rush--yes, I miss it, but it's almost as much fun creating chaos and raining trouble down on my characters!

Cassy: You have made a huge hit in the publishing market, a very rapid rise. First, congratulations! Second, how do you manage that? Your books have come out extremely quickly and each has been incredibly well received. Tell how that feels. I have heard from some that the pressure continues to increase, not decrease with the success.

CJ: Well, thank you—I'm blushing! The "pressure" has never been a problem for me--as an ER doc I'm used to time constraints (deadlines), multi-tasking (juggling marketing while writing the next book and revising the last one), and dealing with the other craziness that comes with publishing.

The main problem for me has been boredom. My answer has been to set new challenges for myself with each book. None of my books have fit into a "formula" (something my publisher isn't always happy about, lol!) or told the same kind of story twice.

For instance, LIFELINES is a pure, adrenalin-racing thriller. WARNING SIGNS, winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence in mystery/suspense is a classic "whodunit" mystery. URGENT CARE is dark, edgy psychological suspense.

And the finale of the Angels of Mercy series, CRITICAL CONDITION, is Die Hard in a hospital--the entire action of the story takes place in "real" time, about five hours. With four main characters/story lines to juggle and such split second timing needed to keep that real time pacing, I actually wrote CRITICAL CONDITION backwards!

My new series, co-written with Erin Brockovich, is a new and different type of challenge. It's the first time I've tried first person point of view and the books have no medicine, so I have the opportunity to research new topics, which is a lot of fun.
Cassy: Are you okay sharing with us your tale of "The Call" and how all that came together? Everyone loves a success story!

CJ: At the urging of several friends who were published authors, I entered a national writing contest, RWA's Golden Heart competition--this is also when I first joined RWA. To my surprise, I was a finalist.

I wasn't quite sure what that meant since I was so new to RWA, but the other finalists quickly convinced me to start submitting. I sent the first chapter of my novel around with a query letter….and then I got a call from a NYC editor.

Holy crap, batman! I was suddenly an author with real money on the table for my stories!!!

If this was a story, that would be the happy ever after…but it’s not a story. Besides, in any of my stories the good guys always have to pay their dues before they earn any hope of a happy ending!

Here’s what happened in real life: A few weeks before my first book, my dream debut, was to be published, it was pulled for reasons beyond my control—my first taste of the capricious nature of publishing!

(if you’re interested, I published it to Kindle and other e-platforms once I got my rights back, it’s now titled NERVES OF STEEL)

But I kept writing and a few months later I got a call from another NYC publisher and they asked if I'd be willing to write a new kind of medical thriller--one targeted at women. Of course I said yes and created the Angels of Mercy series, so all's well that ends well.

(if you want the full story of how I came to write crime fiction, you can find it here.)

Cassy: Continuing the conversation about promotion and connection, of all the activities you do, what do you consider to be the most productive both in terms of your craft and in terms of increasing book sales?

CJ: If I had to make a list, number 1, 2, and 3 would all be: Writing the next book.

I honestly don't market much. Until recently, I didn't even have my own blog--only did guest blogs. And the blog I began,
*Marketing with Heart* isn't your traditional blog--it's not about me, it's about sharing the resources I've discovered while learning to run my own business as a writer. More of a way to give something back to all those writers who mentored me as I floundered my way through this crazy business.

I seldom Tweet or post to Facebook, rarely do a book signing unless it's part of an event/conference, and the only promo items I usually buy are bookmarks.

What I do do, is try to play to my strengths. I'm good at public speaking and teaching so I do a lot of keynote speeches, talks to bookclubs and writing organizations, and teach a lot of workshops.

I also enjoy connecting with readers so I answer all my email and do a monthly newsletter that tries to always provide extra value to my readers in appreciation for everything they've done for me.

One new initiative that I've begun and that has already overwhelmed me with the response readers have had, is to begin a CJ's Street Team

How it works is that I offer a free e-book to any reader who is interested in reviewing it. They send me a link to the review and they can pick another e-book for themselves. A win/win for everyone.

I'm not even sure if it qualifies as "marketing" since I began it as a way to give something back to my readers, but I'm having a ton of fun with it and I think my readers are as well.

Cassy: One of the things our readers love to hear about is how you balance time. You always seem to have a new book in the works, you are promoting, you attend conferences, you teach on line, I see your name all over the place (including posting questions on crimescenewriter and other spots). The list goes on. Okay, tell us how you pull it off! What is your day like?

CJ: I'm a terribly undisciplined writer--I don't have a set schedule, no set word count or page count (I don't even keep track of pages—as a seat of the pants writer, I write in scenes and I don't write in order). But I think all of those years of practicing medicine ingrained an inner countdown so as long as I have a deadline, my productivity steps up and I'm always turning my work in early.

Like I said, I don't do much in the way of promoting, am rarely spending time on social media, so most of my Internet use is research (including asking and answering questions on loops like crimescene writer), teaching, or answering fanmail/email.

The hardest thing for me to juggle is when I have to revise one book while working on a new one. It's tough sometimes to divorce the two creative processes (they're quite different for me), especially when the new book is a different character's voice--I have to guard against letting their voice seep into the revisions or vice-versa.

Usually I'll write new material in the morning and edit/revise in the afternoon. Not sure why, it's just the pattern I've gotten into.

But all of this is subject to change. My only "rule" about writing is: No rules! Just write!

Cassy: How do you balance your characters book to book. Each has a critical role but takes center stage in different books. Do you plan that ahead with major arcs both for characters and plot? Or, does that happen as you move forward with the next one?

CJ: I don't plot ahead at all. Drives my editors crazy, as all I'll be able to tell them about the next book is something along the lines of "this character deals with ABC situation and somehow it all works out so she ends up at XYZ."

And all my stories are character driven. I start with a character and know what that character needs on an emotional level to complete their arc, so then I just have to figure out how to force them into that change--because no one likes to change, right?

For the Angels series it was tricky because I had four main characters with four complete story-lines in EACH book….but their character arcs overlapped from book to book. The only way it worked was that I knew those characters so very well that I was able to layer their emotional growth onto the needs of the plot--but the character always comes first.

Cassy: You have a new book coming out with Erin Brockovich. Can you tell us about that project? How did you meet Erin? How did the collaboration process work? How are you sharing the promotion? Okay, that's not one question, but you know the essence of what I'm asking.

CJ: Erin and I still have never met in person, lol! But that partnership came about when her publisher at Vanguard called me up and said, "How'd you like to create a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich?"

Well, duh, who could say no to that! Erin has always been a hero of mine--and it turns out, she really likes my strong women protagonists, especially the fact that they are flawed and human, not "superwomen."

We talked on the phone and discovered that we both share the same philosophy: that there's a hero inside us all.

From there it was easy--but thank goodness for email and cell phones, because with Erin's crazy travel schedule that's the only way we could connect. She's amazing! People say I have a lot of energy and think I multi-task well and get a lot of stuff done? Compared to Erin, I'm a sluggard!

And yes, she's just like in the movie, lol!

Cassy: What comes next?

CJ: ROCK BOTTOM, the first book co-written with Erin Brockovich comes out March 1st. You can find more info on it (or pre-order it, hint, hint) at my website.

I'm also releasing a new book, SNAKE SKIN, which is a mainstream thriller featuring a FBI agent/soccer mom who works crimes against children. It was published previously in Europe, but this is the first time SNAKE SKIN is available in the US. You can learn more about it here.

: CJ, I can't thank you enough for taking not only the time to be with us today, but also sharing so honestly how you tackle what you do. Truly, thank you.

CJ: My pleasure.

Cassy here: I want to add that USA Today has just published a piece on CJ's book with Erin. Here is the link Check it out. How fun is this???

Thanks for joining us today. We hope you stop by again and again.


Cassy Pickard said...

CJ: Again I welcome you to Mysteries and Margaritas. It is great to have you spend time with us!

Donna Cummigns said...

Wow, now *I* feel like a sluggard! LOL Great interview, ladies. And CJ, I'm glad to hear you don't have a set schedule, because I've been trying to make myself stick to one, and it's just not ME. :) Your "No rules! Just write!" is my motto too.

Congrats on all your success!

Kari Lee Townsend said...

So glad to have you, CJ. Great interview. Love the just write motto, too. Only I live for my schedules. Huge congrats on all your success.

Anita Clenney said...

Amazing interview, Cassy and CJ. I am glad to hear that you are undisiplined, CJ. I'm that way myself. I just don't function on a schedule. I'm actually trying to become a little more structured, because I have deadlines, but so far I haven't make much headway. I write like mad when I feel inspired to write like mad. Congratulations on all you have happening. I'm very impressed.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Cassy! So nice to be here with you guys!!!

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Donna! I'm a firm believer in knowing yourself well enough to discover your strengths and use those instead of forcing yourself into a mold.

I tend to thrive in chaos so forcing myself to have structure--or even to write at a desk (don't have one!) just makes me waste energy thru resistance that I could be using in my writing.

Enjoy your "No rules!" writing life!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Kari Lee! Thanks for your kind words!

Again--it's knowing yourself and playing to your strengths. I swear that's more than half the battle!

(the other half--for me at least, is learning how to say "no"--still working on that!)

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Anita! Having a deadline is a huge motivator (for me, at least) but I meet mine by still being the same blitz writer I was before I quit my day job.

When I was working full time it was 60-70 hours a week and part time was 40 hours a week (yeah, so be nice to your friendly neighborhood pediatrician next time you see them, lol!)....but I learned to let a story "ferment" inside my brain during the work week and would "blitz" write pages and pages and pages as soon as I had free time.

I still pretty much do that, although having a deadline makes me try to get those blitzes down sooner rather than later

Cassy Pickard said...

CJ: Could you talk a little about how you plot out your books? You have been a producing machine! We have in our group folks who refuse to plot, those of us (I!) and others who need to get the details down but still write off the cuff once we know where we're going, and the hard and tough folks who know who says what when. And you? I know you blitz through, but the ideas still need to be in place.

So this is a plotting question, not a butt in the chair question.

CJ Lyons said...

Cassy--wow, you ask the tough questions!!!

I don't plot ahead at all--when I start a book usually all I know is the character and the most basic premise (sometimes the theme as well).

But I think it doesn't matter if you're a plotter or a pantzer as long as you understand the emotional arcs of the book:

~why you are writing the book (we're all selfish and wouldn't be spending so much time and energy on a story if we didn't think it had something important to say to the world)

~the emotional promise you're making to the reader: my book will have you laughing or leave you crying or break your heart or keep you up all night wanting to see what happens next...

~the emotional arc of the main characters: tough as nails cop learns to expose his heart, trust no one doctor learns to trust, wounded warrior lets down his guard and learns to feel something again....notice the key word there? "Learns" that's the crux of any positive character arc--we change because we learn a better way (of course this is after spending 3/4 of the book fighting for our old way of doing things and failing time and again!)

If you know and understand those three things, you can put a story together....whether you do it by outlining, writing it down in crayon, writing it backwards (like I did in CRITICAL CONDITION), or whatever--it doesn't matter.

The HOW you write is mechanics, there are tons of tools out there you can use and mix and's the WHAT you write that counts.

Hope that helps!

Liz Lipperman said...

First off, welcome to M & M, CJ. As I mentioned to Cassy--a long time ago, I saw your name or read your story or something, and I knew I wanted to read your book. Every time I went to the bookstore, I'd look for it. I now know that one is the one that didn't get published. I can't wait to download it aw Nerves Of Steel.

Congrats on the duet-writing with EB. And thanks so much for the frank interview. It is so refreshing to know I am not a putz because I have no discipline with writing at certain times.

CJ Lyons said...

No putzes here, Liz!!! As long as the work gets done, who cares how, right?

I think we waste too much time and energy comparing "our" way to "the right" way--our way IS right if it's helping us to tell our stories the way we want to tell them.

Remember: No Rules, Just Write!

Cassy Pickard said...

CJ: Thanks for your comments on plotting. Liz will agree with me that we both *need* to know the story before we go too far with it. Having said that, I think you are totally correct that understanding what the change, or as you say, the learning will be is critical. I write out a few talking points before I start to plot. One of them is just that- "What is my character going to do/ be doing/ learning/ to grow?" And, "What would be the most scary thing for my character to face that would enable that change?"

CJ Lyons said...

Exactly, Cassy! The character drives the plot!

BTW, shameless plug here, but if anyone wants to immerse themselves in an entire month of this, I'm teaching my Character Driven Plottin workshop in March for Writers Online.


But I think it's vital to understand three things about your character: Why they are the way they are (backstory=past), What they want (goal=future), and What they need (conflict=present and 90% of the story)

If you understand that (which is basically tying Deb Dixon's GMC to time/plot/character development) then you "know" your story--whether you sit down and plan the details or just jump in, it doesn't matter.

VR Barkowski said...

Wonderful interview Cassy and CJ!

CJ, as a fellow pantser, I understand your process perfectly. It seems that many of us who focus on character driven fiction are natural pantsers: we let our characters determine their path on the page rather than force them onto a one-way bullet train. You mention when you begin, all you have is an ABC situation that ends up in an XYZ denouement. Have you ever had a character stray so far off course that you were forced to change that ending? Do you enjoy being surprised by your characters?

Cassy Pickard said...

Great question. I would add to that and ask also if it might mean your bad guy would also have to change.

CJ Lyons said...

Hey VR! Another great question!

I always enjoy being surprised by my characters--and it happens all the time, one of the reasons why I'm still a pantzer, I live for those moments!

I've never had a main character totally veer away from their emotional arc (because once you know what they need you know where they're going, just not how they'll get there) but I have had a secondary character totally flabbergast me (and frustrate me!) until I let him run his own path.

That book was BLIND FAITH and lots of the mail I get from it is because people love this character even though the path he chose isn't the one *I* wanted him to take.

I think it did make the book better in the end as it added several new and different twists that I never saw coming--but it sure as heck didn't make it easier to write!

CJ Lyons said...

Cassy, when I write my badguys I always try to have them follow a hero's path--after all, we all think we're heroes of our own stories, don't we?

So I try to give them one final chance at redemption in the end--just as I often torment my good guys with a temptation to the "dark side" in the end as well.

I think redemption stories are extremely compelling although I've never written a book (not yet, at least) with a bad guy as the main character who then redeems him/herself....might be fun, though!

Cassy Pickard said...

CJ: This has been great. We all so appreciate your taking the time to be with us. And, now I have to get back to plotting the next book keeping in mind all you have offered. Please join us anytime you can.

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Cassy! I'm happy to come back anytime!