No matter what kind of writing you do, “write what you know” is a well-worn adage every writer finds at some point in their studies.
For content creators of any discipline, being the “likable expert” in the niche or genre you specialize in is a necessity. For fictionists, finding an authentic voice is also a vital stylistic element to establishing believability.
For pediatric ER doctor turned New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons, not only has she sold millions of books writing what she knows, she has forged a truly remarkable trail for author-entrepreneurs.
With 17 years experience as an ER doctor, crisis counselor, victims advocate, and MedEvac flight physician, CJ has been called on by police and prosecutors many times over the years for help solving life or death cases.
Her incredibly varied experiences have inspired a prolific writing career in a genre she’s dubbed Thrillers with Heart, and her surety as a storyteller has been hailed by critics as breath-taking and unequivocally genuine.
I realized two things. One, that stories have power. As much power as medicine. The power to teach, the power to heal, the power to inspire. And two, that the reason I became a pediatric ER doc was the same reason I write: I want to change the world.
In addition to CJ’s self-professed “addiction” to storytelling, she’s a noted educator, blogger, and speaker who shares everything she’s learned about becoming a bestselling author.
A firm believer in building an audience first, Ms. Lyons has become a savvy hybrid author who suggests that writers need to consider themselves the “CEO of their own global publishing empire,” from day one.
CJ took time out of her demanding schedule to drop by The Writer Files and share with us her pre-game writing ritual, indispensable software, the power of deadlines, and her frustration with Facebook as an author platform.
Let’s take a spin through the file of a truly inspiring writer …
About the writer …
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m CJ Lyons, pediatric ER doc turned New York Times bestselling thriller author of 23 novels. I also share everything I know about building a global media empire on my blog, NoRulesJustWRITE.com.
What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?
Because my stories didn’t fit in any traditional niches, I created my own subgenre: Thrillers with Heart. They explore the grey areas between the black and white of good and evil.
Where can we find your writing?
The writer’s productivity …
How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?
Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
Putting my butt in the chair — any chair!
That photo of my writing “desk” (below) isn’t a desk, it’s a dining room table in Paris during a research trip. My desk is my MacBook Air — it goes anywhere, whether I’m sitting on the floor, standing at the kitchen counter, riding my exercise bike (it has a small desk attachment), lying on the couch, or curled up in my favorite rocking chair.
Do you prefer any particular music (or silence) while you write?
I have eclectic musical tastes, anything from ceili to zydeco to heavy metal, but it’s usually kick-ass rock ‘n roll: Godsmack, Zeppelin, Dead Sara, Tool, Seether …
How many hours a day do you spend writing (excluding email, social media, etc.)? What is your most productive time of day?
I’m most productive first thing in the morning but when I’m on deadline, I’ll write any time of day or night (including the dreaded 3 a.m. brainstorm-gotta-finish-that-scene wakeup call)! I may spend about 6-8 hours a day writing when I’m deep into a story. And yes, if you add that to my research/reading time, it makes for 10-14 hour days — longer hours than when I was an ER doc, but a lot less stressful!
Do you write every day or adhere to any particular system?
Nope. I’m totally undisciplined. I don’t keep track of word count or pages or even write in order.
All I need is a deadline and that’s motivation enough, somehow my brain calibrates what needs to be done and I’ll beat that deadline every time.
Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
No. I do believe in “writer’s stumble” — I don’t see it as something to avoid, but rather something to embrace. Anytime I feel like I’m stuck or headed in the wrong direction, it’s a good thing. I usually find the problem 25-30 pages back, since my momentum will take me that far.
Embrace the stumble, it forces you to imagine greater and explore more possibilities.
The writer’s creativity …
Living in possibility and abundance rather than limitation and scarcity.
Who are your favorite authors, online or off?
For fiction, I’ve been most influenced by Ray Bradbury — his work captivated me as a child. I adore Mark Helprin, the man writes like an angel. Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, John Hart, Laurie Halse Anderson, Ellen Hopkins, David Levithan, the list is too long …
For nonfiction, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, Justine Musk, plus everyone here at Copyblogger — your blog was the first business blog I subscribed to!
Can you share a best-loved quote?
Fear is useless. Faith is necessary. Love is everything.
How would you like to grow creatively as a writer?
I’d love to elevate the level of my prose to the lyrical, compelling beauty that the authors I most admire exhibit. They understand how to use words to reach into the heart and souls of their readers.
Who or what is your Muse at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?
My friend, Toni McGee Causey, who is not only a fantastically gifted writer, but also a talented artist and photographer — in fact, she created original artwork for the cover of my May release, FAREWELL TO DREAMS.
She never lets me take the easy way out with my writing. I think everyone needs someone like that who will kick you in your creative butt and push you beyond any fears or limits you set for yourself.
What makes a writer great?
Many writers can entertain or offer escapism. But true greatness comes when you can touch your readers’ lives and empower or inspire them to become better than they were before they read your work.
The writer’s workflow …
What hardware or typewriter model do you presently use?
My MacBook Air — it goes everywhere, is fairly indestructible, and I seldom leave home without it.
What software do you use most for writing and general workflow?
Scrivener — I love, love, love my Scrivener! It tripled my productivity.
Do you have any tricks for beating procrastination? Do you adhere to deadlines?
I live for deadlines! Give me a deadline and I’ll beat it every time. It’s both my carrot and the stick, so double motivation.
How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?
Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener.
How do you relax at the end of a hard day?
I love getting together with friends to watch and/or talk movies, books, TV. Good stories that we dissect to see what they did right and awful ones that show us pitfalls to avoid.
A few questions just for the fun of it …
Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?
Experience. As the dean of my medical school used to say, the tuition is mighty high, but there’s no better teacher.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
Receiving letters from readers saying that my work touched them in some way.
The first time was from a cancer patient suffering debilitating pain who could not sleep — but reading one of my books allowed him to make it through the night pain free. Letters like that are better than any awards or hitting any bestseller list.
What’s your biggest aggravation at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?
Facebook. Seriously. My fans want to hear from me and I want to hear from them, but their algorithms throttle things so that instead of communication we have drive-by chance encounters.
I hate it when I hear from folks disappointed that they missed some news I shared or a discussion another reader started. For a social media site it’s neither social nor facilitating media.
Thankfully, I have my email list to reach out to my other fans, but for some reason the two populations don’t overlap.
Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.
Ray Bradbury. As I mentioned above, he’s been my inspiration since I was a child. I still read Something Wicked This Way Comes every Halloween.
If you could take a vacation tomorrow to anywhere in the world, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?
New Zealand. It has it all from the tropics to mountains to tons of great culture and heritage to explore.
Can you offer any advice to fellow writers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”
The best advice I ever received came from Jeffery Deaver. Early in my career, he told me to never forget that the “reader is god.” I use that as my touchstone for every decision, whether it’s about the next plot twist or a business choice about a new contract.
As authors we are all CEOs of our own Global Media Empire. Things can be overwhelming and distract us. But if I keep my readers happy, they keep my bottom line happy.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
If you don’t mind mentioning it, my next novel will be released May 19th, FAREWELL TO DREAMS. It’s a return to my medical thriller roots and was inspired by one of the most horrendous diseases I’ve ever stumbled across: Fatal Familial Insomnia.
Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.
- Twitter: @cjlyonswriter
- Website: CJLyons.net
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/cj.lyons
- Blog for writers: NoRulesJustWRITE.com
And finally, the writer’s desk …
Life is a journey, not a destination. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I cross paths with tireless author-entrepreneurs like CJ Lyons, I can taste the sweat and tears they have put into their journeys.
An author’s desk is truly wherever the author is putting pen to paper. No cushy designer chair can make those words appear.
Many thanks go to Ms. Lyons, for taking time out of her busy schedule to find the words!
A sincere thank you for sharing The Writer Files …
More Q&As are ahead from writers we admire. If you’d like to read more wisdom of the scribes, be sure to check out our archives.
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Here’s How Bestselling Author CJ Lyons Writes