Ladies and gentlemen, it is with considerable pleasure and no small amount of awe that I bring you indie sensation and bestselling author CJ Lyons, author of countless acclaimed thrillers and a regular chart topper. Her latest, BLOODSTAINED, is scorching up the rankings. She routinely places among the very biggest selling indie authors in the world. And for some reason, she was willing to risk sullying her reputation by being pestered with questions by yours truly. Without further ado, pull up a seat and join me with an inspirational indie success story unlike any other.
RB: You’re a physician, as well as a wildly popular fiction author. What got you interested in being a writer, and when did you start? What was your journey?
CJ: I was a storyteller long before I even dreamed of being a doctor. Used to get me in tons of trouble as a kid—but all those hours in time out because I didn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy (or truth and lies according to my parents and teachers) just gave me more time to listen to the voices in my head.
For a small town girl from rural Pennsylvania who had to work her way through college and med school, becoming a doctor was a dream come true. But once I had a few book contracts and realized how much time and energy it would take to be a writer, I decided that if I wanted to be good at either job something had to give. I’d already had seventeen wonderful years of living the dream of being a doctor, why not try a second dream come true as a full time writer?
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RB: Let’s talk process. Do you outline, plot and structure, or do you just sit down and write? Have you done it both ways?
CJ: After seventeen years of being tied to a pager and trauma radio, I thrive on never knowing what time it is or even the day of the week. I have no set schedule, never keep track of word count or page count—some days I don’t even write! Heresy, I know!
All I need is a deadline. That keeps me on track. And on those days I don’t write, put words on the page? I’m still writing—the story is fermenting in my head so that when I do get back to it, it’s like scratching an itch, letting all that out onto the page.
I’m the same way about the books—each one is written differently. I don’t plot ahead of time, so if I’m surprised, I hope the reader will be as well. I write out of order, then string the scenes together in the second draft—one book, CRITICAL CONDITION, I actually wrote backwards! I knew who was alive at the end and scene by scene worked my way back to the beginning to see how they got there. It was the most fun writing a book I’ve had!
RB: Do you have monthly or annual word goals?
CJ: Nope. I just know when I need to finish a book by–juggling 3 to 4 books a year, I live and die by my deadlines.
RB: Longhand or computer? Any trick software you favor for writing?
CJ: MacBookAir–lighter than an iPad, power enough for anything I need to do, and my secret weapon is Scrivener–I tripled my productivity once I began using it.
RB: How do you come up with your characters? Based on real people, pure invention, or a combo?
CJ: Pure invention. All the medicine and most of the criminal cases are real, but none of the characters are. To protect the innocent as they say <g>
RB: Do you ever have issues with motivation? Writer’s block? If so, how do you move past it?
CJ: I don’t believe in true writer’s block. When I’m blocked, I see that as a good thing–it almost always means that I screwed up somewhere about 30-50 pages back (my momentum takes me that far) Once I figure out where I went wrong, it leads to a much, much better book in the end. So “writer’s block” is often my best friend.
RB: Describe your work environment. Quiet? Music? Window? What is it like?
CJ: Music (usually head-banging rock n roll) or the sound of the birds outside, doesn’t matter. Window–definitely. Couch, exercise bike with lap top stand, standing at the counter (it’s healthier), curled up on a chair–again, doesn’t matter. The one essential is that I’m alone. I’m a hermit by nature and can’t write around other people, it just saps my energy.
RB: How many hours does it typically take you for a first draft? When you rewrite, what’s your process for doing so? How many drafts or passes will you do before it’s ready for an editor?
CJ: Lately with my deadlines I have about four months from initial story idea to final draft, no idea how many hours that adds up to. I write my first drafts fairly fast as they are for me, me, me. The first draft is my chance to play, have fun discovering the story.
The second draft is a true re-vision. And work. I try to approach every scene and turning point from the point of view of the reader, asking myself: what will excite them? surprise them? delight them? If I’m asking a reader to invest their time/energy in my books then the final product has to be all about the reader, not about me navel gazing.
The final draft is a polish draft. I usually don’t tackle it until I’ve gotten feedback from my beta-readers and developmental editor (I use at least two professional editors on my indy-published books, often three).
RB: Have you ever been tempted to go back and rewrite or freshen once a book is released? Or once it’s done, it’s done?
CJ: Actually, that’s exactly what I’m doing with the re-release of BLIND FAITH by St. Martins Press. I loved the first version that I indy published–apparently readers did as well, since it sold 250,000 copies and debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list.
St. Martins bought the rights to it and my editor there fell in love with one of the secondary characters, so we re-wrote the last third to give him a chance at redemption.
It’s now a bit more traditional, a few less twists and turns, definitely more realistic, but by changing this character’s storyline we increased the emotional depth of the entire book. There’s now more at stake and also the characters have to work harder than ever, risk more than ever, in order to achieve any chance at a happily-ever-after.
It will be out July 31, 2012, so we’ll see what the rest of the world thinks!
RB: What do you think about the current state of trad pub vs. self-publishing? If someone came to you and asked which to do, what would you say?
CJ: I’d say know what you want. If you want to make a living at writing and don’t care if it’s via ebooks or print, go indy. But be prepared for hard work–it takes 4-6 books about 4-6 months before you start to build an audience on average.
If you want to see your books in bookstores, however briefly (the average traditionally published book has a shelf life of only a few weeks) then go traditional. But learn the business first and understand exactly what you’re getting into and what you’re giving up.
Neither is right or wrong on its own merits. It’s about what’s right for you and your audience.
(By the way, I share everything I know about becoming a bestseller on my No Rules Just Write.com site.)
This is a Renaissance for writers. For the first time we can not only make a living wage while engaging our readers in ways traditional publishers can’t. I believe the future lies in publishers doing what they do best: creating keepsake print books and distributing them; agents selling subrights; authors writing their best books possible; and readers reaping the rewards.
RB: What counsel would you offer a newbie who was interested in pursuing the author’s path? Is there anything you feel you have done that is primarily responsible for your remarkable success?
CJ: The best piece of advice for either my writing or my business came from Jeffery Deaver. He told me: the reader is god.
In other words, think about the reader with every decision.
Unsure about a plot twist? Will your readers love it?
Should you spend your money giving away free books or free pens/notebooks/bobbleheads? What do readers want?
Should you spend your time tweeting or writing the next book? Write the next book, of course–that’s what your readers want.
Once you keep that vision in mind, your path becomes so much easier, profitable, and much more fun!
RB: What’s your biggest writing regret? The one thing you wish you could do over, or differently?
CJ: No regrets. I’m having a blast and hopefully my readers are as well!
RB: Whose work most influenced you, and why?
CJ: Ray Bradbury had the greatest influence on me as a child. He was the first author who taught me that the words themselves can be as beautiful as the picture they create. I also love the way he can evoke emotion on a very subliminal level.
My stories have been praised as “breathtakingly fast-paced” and I owe that to a childhood spent reading EE “Doc” Smith, Harry Harrison, Leslie Charteris, Dashiel Hammett, John D MacDonald, and CS Forester.
RB: If you could pick another genre to write it, what would it be, and why?
CJ: YA. I’ve dabbled with a YA medical thriller (not sure yet if it will be traditionally or indy-self-published) but I really want to tackle an idea I have for a trilogy involving alternative timelines and multiverse quantum theory. I’ve promised myself that next year once I turn in the books I’m under contract for and have promised my readers, then I’m taking time to indulge myself and have fun playing with it. We’ll see if anything comes from it.
RB: What’s your current project? Can you tell us anything about it?
CJ: I just released BLOOD STAINED, the second in the Lucy Guardino FBI Thrillers. It was the toughest book I’ve written to date because it dredged up so many memories and feelings from my own work with victims of violence during my seventeen years as a physician.
I hate when thrillers depict violence (especially violence against women) in a gratuitous, almost “titillating” manner, such as opening a novel with a rape or torture scene in the point of view of the victim to “grab” the reader. It does an injustice to the reader and to real life victims. Plus, as a writer, it’s clichéd, taking the easy way out.
If I was going to depict these dark, twisted crimes, it had to be about the impact on the characters. I wanted readers to read these scenes and feel as if they were living through the experience of a professional law enforcement officer who has to deal with this every day in an empathetic fashion while not allowing their emotions derail their work.
It was a very tough balancing act. I think I pulled it off, both by using an immature character’s point of view in Adam, and by using the victims’ own words describing their abuse during police interviews.
I hope by going the extra mile to not use the clichéd serial killer torturing his victim scene, that I served the victims I’ve worked with and honored my readers, allowing them to appreciate the pain in a way that propels the story forward but also makes them empathize with what real life victims have suffered as well as the challenges facing the professionals who work with them.
RB: Well, I guess I dodged that one with the only opening torture scene I’ve ever written in Fatal Exchange – wasn’t from the victim’s POV, and not a woman, no serial killer, and mercifully short. (shifts uncomfortably, scratches face, clears throat) Ahem. If you could sit down with one author and spend an afternoon picking their brain, who would it be? Living or dead, presuming they could respond if dead…
CJ: Actually, not the author, although he’s welcome to come along, I’d like to meet Dr. William Bell, the real life inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
RB: Adverbs. Satan’s minions, or useful tools?
CJ: There’s no such thing as “bad” words–only writers who use them badly (adverb pun intended).
RB: Reader e-mails. Respond to them all? Some? Never?
CJ: I respond to every single one. Even the book giveaways–I recently launched my new Thrillers with Heart e-zine (you can find it at www.ThrillerswithHeart.com) and gave away almost 300 books in one day, all via emails, with me answering each and every one. Same with my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/cj.lyons) I answer every post and comment and message.
With so many deadlines to juggle this year, I toyed with the idea of hiring an assistant, but decided if I did I would use them for jobs like formatting rather than answering my fan mail–getting letters from fans, especially the ones who have been empowered or inspired by my books, is the highlight of my day!
RB: Any thoughts on pricing for self-pubbed authors? Heuristics you use deciding yours?
CJ: Each author and each audience has a sweet spot for pricing. For my full-length thrillers it’s been $4.99. For my shorter novels it’s $2.99. If I see a book gaining momentum or want to draw attention to a new book in a series, I’ll lower prices for a limited time special offer but then I take them back to their original price point.
RB: You’ve been extremely gracious sharing your time and views. What advice would you leave budding authors with, if you only had thirty seconds to impart it?
CJ: Don’t get caught up in the promotion whirlwind, your best promotional tool is writing the next book. The more books out there the more your fans will do the promotional work for you.
As a pediatric ER doctor, New York Times and USA Today Bestseller CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge Thrillers with Heart.
CJ has been called a “master within the genre” (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as “breathtakingly fast-paced” and “riveting” (Publishers Weekly) with “characters with beating hearts and three dimensions” (Newsday).
Learn more about CJ’s Thrillers with Heart at www.cjlyons.net and everything she knows about being a bestseller at www.norulesjustwrite.com