Dave: Welcome to Eight Questions. Today we’re talking to New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons who writes Thrillers with Heart, a great friend of the podcast and glad to have you on. Thank you, CJ.
(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the 8 Questions Podcast)
CJ: Thank you guys for having me.
Dave: First question. What’s your daily creative routine like? Do you listen to music? What are the things you do to get inspired before you write?
CJ: First of all, I have no routine. Every day is very different and I like it that way.
I think it harkens back to the days of being an ER doctor. I suffer from a mild case of ADD so I can’t stand a real rigid structure or schedule or anything like that.
I don’t keep track of my word count or my page count or anything that other people will tell you you must do.
But there are a couple of things I almost always have going on when I’m actually creating and writing.
First of all music.
I am one of those people who need some kick-ass, rock and roll, head banging, God Smack, Metallica, Seether, what have you.
I need that especially when I’m writing the thriller action scenes, to get me into that kind of rhythm of short statictic sentences and rapid fire type of descriptions. Not letting the pace lag at all.
Other than that I really don’t have any routines. Anything goes.
I don’t even write in order. I have literally written books from the final scene backwards, from the middle, upside down, inside out, you name it.
I’m the wrong person to ask for any kind of discipline or routine.
Dave: Do you have set times that you write or a certain amount of hours that you definitely want to be in the chair?
CJ: I don’t do it by a certain number of hours. As long as I have a deadline, my internal clock keeps me moving.
I have yet, knock on wood, to miss a deadline. In fact, I’m usually a week or two early on them.
But I have noticed, just on my own, that first thing in the morning is usually my most creative time.
So, if I have a challenging scene where I go to bed at night and I’m clueless about what’s going to happen in this scene, I try to tackle that scene first thing in the morning when I’m fresh, when I have my energy.
Usually afternoon, especially right after lunch when you know you get that kind of lazy I want to go take a nap feeling, that’s when I’ll try to do business things or editing.
Not revision type editing where you have to rewrite new creative stuff and actually figure out what’s gone wrong and how to make it not clichéd and take it to the next level. Just your basic kind of I have to polish this before I send it to my copy editor type of editing.
Dave: What are some of the most important tools for your writing?
CJ: Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener!
CJ: I’m a Scrivener fan. I actually was one of the very first people in the creative writing world that bought it. I just stumbled across it and then I started telling everyone about it.
But Scrivener actually tripled my production.
I could keep my research there. I could do split screens. I can have character photos and settings and landscapes.
My medical thrillers have a lot of science in them so I can have the research papers right there and make certain I’m quoting exactly what’s really going on.
For my ones that revolve more around crimes, I often do use real life crimes, but I want to make certain I get the details different enough. I never want to use a real life person in any of my books.
So, again, having that research right there so I can double check things, legal statutes, things like that.
Plus, since I don’t write in order, I write in scenes, and the very final thing I do in a manuscript is cut it up into chapters, because some of those chapter breaks will fall in the middle of the scene, to leave a little cliffhanger or to get that climatic feeling of emotion going on in the reader.
So, since I write in scenes and I don’t write in order, the way Scrivener’s set up, I can do that easily with just a single click of the button. I can rearrange scenes. I can color flag them for point of view or any other thing I want to track in it.
I probably only use about 2% of what Scrivener can do.
I have friends who do everything with Scrivener. I have screenwriter friends who use it for their total screenwriting outlines and white boards and stuff.
Since I don’t outline ahead of time, I don’t really use those functions.
I have other friends who actually use it to format. But because all my editors use Word, I still just kind of go Word first and just export it.
I would highly recommend Scrivener. It’s so reasonably priced and it really, really gets the job done.
And the only other piece of software or web site or anything that I really pretty much have to have going is my Pandora, because that way I can get the music queued up just what I want.
I have recently stumbled across a web site called Brain.FM. And what it is, is it’s subliminal alpha wave stimulating kind of white noise. I can put that on with some headphones, but at the same time still hear my music, but it gets me into a creative flow and lets me focus and not be distracted.
The only other thing I do pretty religiously, and I know a lot of people struggle with this, is I try very hard not to answer any emails when I’m trying to be at my most creative.
I usually try to get at least one or two scenes written first thing in the morning, before I’ll turn on Firefox and go hit the emails.
I don’t care about Facebook notifications or anything. I get to them when I get to them. But I know a lot of people find that very distracting. So turning that off has been a huge help for me.
Dave: What’s your daily creative diet made of? Books you read, TV shows, other media, movies?
CJ: I’m a voracious story addict. So if it’s a good story I am there. I read every genre pretty much. I’ve just finished some really excellent thrillers and young adult books.
Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s latest collection of short stories.
Dave: Me too.
CJ: Yes, it’s so fun because he has these little notes at the beginning of each story that tells its kind of personal history to him. I love that insight.
I’m always reading non-fiction as well, because of my research for the next book or two or three books down the road.
Right now I’m writing a medical thriller about fatal insomnia and prion diseases. At the same time I’m researching the next Lucy book which is going to be dealing with how do you actually make someone vanish and I’m not sure if it’s going to be this book or the one after it, is going to have a cult in it.
I’m reading all these things about apocalyptic cults, and private investigators, and CIA agents, and going dark, which is like deep, deep undercover.
I’m always doing stuff like that.
TV, I have to admit and I know they say it’s not good for you, but I tend to be a binge watcher. When my brain just goes poof and when I’m done for the day, I do tend to go turn on to the TV first and I’ll do a couple of shows back to back.
I recently re-watched Breaking Bad because I’m preparing for Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and that was the homework that you had to do for it. I’ve seen all the shows, but because I never binge watched it before, I actually watched it week-to-week like the rest of the world, I had never noticed how comprehensive that storytelling experience was.
There are things in the very first scene of the very first episode that resonate, not just in the final episode, because that would be easy. You’d say oh, I’m just going to book end it.
It’s like a thread through a tapestry, interwoven throughout every season. Not every episode because that would get monotonous, but it’s just that kind of level of creativity and how can we go there and how can we take things there.
So any kind of good storytelling like that, I am there.
I watch a lot of independent movies. I watch a lot of classic movies.
I’m a huge fan of some UK shows like Happy Valley, and Doctor Who, of course. David Tennent rocks Doctor Who. I’m a big, big content consumer.
Then before bed, because I notice that I have trouble falling asleep if I watch too much TV before bed. That’s when I crack the books and I bring the books out and I’ll be reading for an hour or two before bedtime.
That’s as close to a routine as I get.
Dave: Have you seen Fargo, the TV show?
CJ: Yes. Season 1 I really enjoyed. Season 2 I was a little leery about, but they ended up doing a good job.
Dave: Don’t spoil it. I just started Season 2 and I didn’t see Season 1. I started Season 2 and I was really enjoying it.
CJ: Season 2 I thought was interesting was the way that the world building is so different, because you’re back in time. You see some of these characters, which you’ve already seen in present day in Season 1, and now you get to see their back story.
I thought that was really fun the way they could do that world building, because sometimes with a prequel you feel like been there, done that, why am I bothering. But this really made the prequel feel like part of the overall story and that’s a challenge.
Dave: How does your former life as a pediatric ER doctor inform your novels?
CJ: The basic way that it informs just about every single one of my novels, whether I’m writing young adult or adult thrillers, rated PG or rate R, is because I was a victims’ advocate, my specialty in the ER often I had to do the sexual assault examinations and the child abuse cases, and the child homicide cases.
With that victims’ advocacy, I just really refuse to bow to the current trend of putting a lot of gratuitous violence, especially against women and children, detailed and almost loving, titillating details.
I don’t see that as entertainment.
Now that does mean that my books are not quite as escapism. They are grounded in reality. The medicine is based on real life medicine. The crimes are based on real life crimes. What the victims go through psychologically is based in reality.
I think that’s why Hardfall, the latest Lucy thriller won the International Thriller Writers Award, because it does have a different take on what a victim of severe abuse goes through and she puts her life back together.
And yet there’s absolutely no depiction of anything that was done to her on the page.
That means that readers fill it in for themselves, which means they’re more involved psychologically and emotionally with my stories.
But that also means that those stories don’t serve as well for pure escapism.
They’re not like Jack Reacher or Hannibal where you can say oh, that would never happen in real life. Instead you’re like oh, my God, I can picture this. I can fill in the details and I know this is happening in real life.
That almost makes it more scary, and it does turn off some readers.
So, but that’s the emotional heart.
That’s why I call them Thrillers with Heart. And all that comes out of my work as a pediatric ER doctor for seventeen years.
Dave: A lot of times people read horror for a cathartic sort of experience. Do you think because you’re shying away from some of those elements, do you think that makes your books less cathartic, or more so maybe?
CJ: I think it makes it more cathartic but in a very visceral way. It’s not more cathartic in that kind of sigh of relief. Oh, that was so much fun to go through that roller coaster ride, but I know there’s really no zombies, and I know that would never really happen.
Instead it’s like oh, gosh, I could really see myself being someone like Lucy, who’s just a normal Pittsburgh soccer mom juggling family and work, but her work as an FBI agent is chasing down the worst of the worst of the bad guys.
I think that’s where her universal appeal comes from. People can see themselves being heroic and understanding the choices that my characters make.
It has that form of catharsis where you’re like, oh, I’m glad this never happened in my family, but if it did, because I’ve read this story, I have some idea of what I might do and how I might respond.
But let’s face it, in this age of instant gratification, that’s not exactly the kind of entertainment that is the most popular out there.
People really want that quick hit of escapism and that quick rush of adrenaline and then turn around and go on to their daily business.
That’s why social media is so successful, like Twitter and Facebook. Because just looking at your Facebook page and seeing who’s posted on your timeline actually gives you the same endorphins.
Dave: Yes, dopamine hits.
CJ: It can literally be addictive. I can understand why so many people are attracted to more of the escapism type fiction. Quite frankly, I enjoy reading that occasionally myself, and I enjoy it in TV.
It’s just not something I’ve ever been able to successfully craft. It’s not what I’m going to be able to do as well as other people can.
Dave: Before you were writing professionally you were writing sci-fi and fantasy, but then a co-worker of yours was murdered. How and why did that change your writing?
CJ: We were interns at Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh, and when you’re interns you all grow very, very close because you’re basically live a life separate from the rest of the world.
When he was murdered I did not know how to handle that degree of grief. Plus remember, at the time, I was twenty-five years old, taking care of babies when I’d pretty much been in school for twenty years out of those twenty-five years.
You don’t have the life experiences of how to deal with that kind of trauma.
So, usually my way of dealing with chaos and trauma and bad things in the world was to turn to my writing. The science fiction just wasn’t cutting it.
That’s when I wrote my first crime thriller, because I just needed that sense of justice, of good and evil, and good beating evil, heroes being born.
And yes, there’s a price to pay but it’s worth it in the end to see that justice come to fruition.
So, that’s when I started writing thrillers. What’s funny is now I’m working on my 30th or 31st book, I’m not quite sure. I lost count.
But I’ve actually gone back to my science fiction roots. I’m working on a YA science fiction that’s basically like the space operas that I used to love as a kid. It’s Star Wars meets The Wizard of Oz. It’s going to be rated PG, so suitable for pretty much all reading audiences.
And I’m having a blast.
I don’t know if it’ll ever get published, but I’m having fun doing it as a side project. And I’m starting to like my Fatal Insomnia series incorporate more of those – it’s a little bit of science fiction and a little bit of supernatural.
It’s kind of X-Files type of science fiction, conspiracy theory but also science taken beyond what we could do today, but what absolutely is on the drawing board for tomorrow. So, it’s kind of speculative fiction, but it’s not space ship type science fiction.
It’s like what if we took what we know today, what if we took the most recent cutting edge research and what if that could actually be happening today, instead of in five or ten years.
So, it’s kind of fun to play that kind of X-files kind of speculative fiction angle to what is otherwise pretty much a pure crime thriller.
Dave: What’s your biggest obstacle to writing and how do you overcome it?
CJ: My biggest obstacle is that I, as you can probably tell from our discussion, I get easily distracted by ideas.
I have so many story ideas and I want them all done now. I don’t want to have to sit in a chair and that’s really the biggest discipline I always have to overcome, is can’t get anything done unless you put your butt in the chair.
I call myself an ABC writer, Apply Butt to Chair, and you get the words on the page.
My biggest obstacle is I need more time in order to do this because since I am self-published as well as working with traditional publishers, I don’t have time.
I run out of time every day thinking oh, my gosh, I wish I had gotten another scene written, or I wish I could have dealt with – I don’t know, updating the web site or whatever business detail that I’ve been letting slag.
I think for me it’s a question of having too many ideas and not enough time to actually make things happen.
Dave: If you could go back in time to when you first started your writing career and give yourself one piece of creative advice, what would it be?
CJ: I know this is cliché, but honestly it’s what kind of kept me from even considering the idea of publishing professionally for so many years, because I’ve literally been writing since like kindergarten.
I started reading before I went to Kindergarten and telling stories and writing them down.
In fact my first story that was ever produced was produced as a radio play when I was in second grade.
I’ve always, always been writing but I never, ever, not until quite recently, considered it a viable career option. I think I would have given myself more – and I never took any English classes. I wasn’t an English major. I’ve never taken any formal writing education. I don’t have an MA or MFA or anything like that.
I think I would have told myself it’s okay, you don’t have to keep this to yourself. There’s people out there that are going to enjoy it. Your writing is not for everyone but you will find the people that it is for, and you just have to have that confidence.
Because basically when you’re a writer and you put a book out there, whether it’s submitting it to an editor or an agent, or putting it up for people to buy and read, you’re really exposing yourself and it’s hard, it’s very hard.
I think I would have maybe encouraged myself to have a little bit more confidence in the ability to do that.
Dave: What do you want your legacy to be?
CJ: I want my legacy to be thrillers that people read and they come away understanding and knowing that heroes are born every day and that they could be heroes.
I want people to feel empowered by my books, whether they’re reading them now or in the future.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy writing this kind of book. None of my books are ever going to go out of date just based on technology, because what the people are going through is universal and primal and it’s human nature, human condition, and that’s not going to change.
Dave: Okay. That’s it for today. I’d like to thank you for being on. What’s the best web site people can find you on?
CJ: cjlyons.net is the best site to find my work on. And thank you Dave, it’s been a lot of fun.
Dave: Thank you, CJ. Take care.