Author Profile: CJ Lyons, “Thrillers with Heart” and the wide world of publishing

CJ Lyons was #1 on this month’s Top 100 Indie Authors List. The passion, wit, and voracity with which CJ Lyons lives her life makes her one of our favorites. Her unique blend of traditional and self-publishing garnered her countless fans and her “Thrillers with Heart” philosophy kept them coming back for more. Find out more about this fascinating author below.

iReaderReview: What are the top five questions that you wish interviewers would ask, but they never seem to? What would be your answers?

CJ: Actually I’m constantly amazed at the variety of questions I get asked (everything from my background as a Pediatric ER doc to how I write my books to how I run the business side of things—sometimes even how much money I make, lol!) so I really don’t have any to add.

iRR: Your experiences often seem to influence your writing. Does your writing ever affect your personal life? How so?

CJ: I was a storyteller long before I became a doctor. One thing I realized early on in my medical career was how important it is for physicians to understand the story structure that has been ingrained into our DNA. I saved lives because I understood what to listen for in a patient’s narrative. Where other doctors wanted a checklist of symptoms, I was more interested in the patient’s perception of what was happening—which always emerged as a story.

This is why I am a firm believer that the six most powerful words in the English language are: Let me tell you a story.

iRR: Writing in such heart-pounding genres as medical thrillers with hints of romance must be an enormous feat. How do you achieve such consistent intensity?

CJ: Thank you! That’s actually the most difficult part for me–and the only part of writing that feels like “work.” I tend to write very fast first drafts that I selfishly hoard and no one else reads. I don’t plot ahead of time, so these first drafts are my “vomit into the keyboard” draft where nothing makes sense and things twist and wind around until I figure out what’s really going on.

After that comes the re-visioning draft. This is work. I focus on character, making them as real as possible (while still being entertaining) and pacing. Everything centers on the reader’s experience, rather like designing a roller coaster or amusement park ride. At every scene I question: What will the reader feel? Is it what I want them to feel? Do they need a break? Do they need a jolt? How can I make their reading experience better?

iRR: Character development seems to be the backbone to your “Thrillers with Heart” philosophy. How do you get to know your characters before writing them? Who do you feel the closest to?

CJ: All of my novels are character-driven. In fact, often the only thing I start with is a character and a vague idea of either the theme or the “what if?” Macgruffin element of the plot.

Getting to know my characters is both fun and painful. Fun because there are all these amazing people in my head (something only writers can admit to, lol!) who, by the time I get them down on paper, have emerged as “real” people.

Painful, because there’s a part of me in all my characters, both the heroes and the villains. If a villain is enjoying someone’s pain it’s because I’ve tapped into the dark places in my own soul where I wanted someone to feel as much pain as I’ve felt myself (we all have these dark places but as writers it’s part of our job to expose them to the world instead of keeping them locked inside ourselves…no wonder writers are neurotic!). When a hero must face their greatest fear (or even a minor fear like snakes or claustrophobia or fire) and overcome it, that’s me working to overcome my own fears….I often fail, but most of my characters (the good guys, at least) succeed.

iRR: You write to teach, heal, inspire, and change the world. What effects have you seen your writing have on others?

CJ: I get a large volume of fan mail, so much so that I now take about a hour a day to answer it (yes, if you get a note from me, I wrote it—so many fans seem surprised by that!). I’ve lost count of the number of readers who wrote to thank me not just for hours of entertainment but for helping them deal with their real lives.

I’ve heard from survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence thanking me for giving them a voice or empowering them to change their situation. Cancer patients thanking me for creating worlds so compelling they can forget their pain and escape while reading my books. Law enforcement officers and federal agents who write to thank me for “getting it right” with the way my characters think and act and are simply human rather than the cardboard stereotypes you see on TV or in the movies.

Honestly, hearing how my stories have inspired and empowered in addition to entertaining readers is a reward far greater than any paycheck. As a doctor I could impact one patient’s life at a time, but as a writer I’m reaching hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.

iRR: How do you feel about the Kindle Deal of the Day promotion that you had?

CJ: Awestruck! I’ve been lucky enough to be chosen before by the editors at Amazon who curate the Kindle Deals, and it’s always an honor to have that much attention focused on your books by such a great audience.

This latest Deal of the Day/Gold Box Deal was even more amazing than the last time one of my books was featured. I can’t take credit for it—all I did was write the books. It’s the readers who not only took a chance based on Amazon’s recommendation, but who also spread the word so that sales and stellar reviews have continued for weeks after the books returned to full price.

iRR: What has inspired you to be so immensely active in the reading and writing community? How has your involvement affected your career?

CJ: As an ER doc, I’ve always been a team player. So when the opportunity came to join forces with other writers such as through organizations like RWA or ITW, I jumped at it. Volunteering to chair projects like ITW’s inaugural ThrillerFest or their Debut Author Program has led to so many wonderful opportunities and people who I’d never have met if I stayed in my hermit cave (which, as an extreme introvert, is definitely my comfort zone). The people who are now my best friends, greatest supporters, and mentors I met because of getting involved, so I encourage all writers to volunteer whenever they can.

I try to pay it back by teaching and giving keynote speeches, but since time constraints have forced me to cut back on that, I do try to share everything I learn on my blog—but, trust me, talking to people face to face and learning from their experiences is so much better!

iRR: Co-writing a novel with Erin Brokovich, being a best-seller on numerous lists: You have had numerous big achievements. What has been the most surreal moment so far? What was that moment like for you?

CJ: Debuting at #2 on the New York Times list with BLIND FAITH was by far the most surreal moment of my career. As an indy, there wasn’t the traditional bottle of champagne, flowers, etc from a publishing house (although my wonderful agent, the fabulous Barbara Poelle, made up for it with a huge bouquet of flowers and balloons). In fact, I was away at a conference on the Sunday the list came out in print.

One of the fellow attendees sent her husband out early that Sunday morning and he returned with an armful of New York Times, which they passed around and I signed for other folks there.

Of course, as soon as I was alone in my room, I opened my copy and had to take a picture of the page just so I could prove to myself that I wasn’t imagining it!

iRR: Your “No Rules” approach to writing and publishing has led you to impressive success. How do you maintain such a devil-may-care attitude in the high-pressure world of publishing?

CJ: I think it’s important to make a distinction about the No Rules, Just WRITE! philosophy. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I choose what I will care about. For me, that means making my readers my top priority.

Instead of giving the power to arbitrary rule-makers or nay-sayers, I take the power for myself and invest that time and energy back into my books and readers rather than angsting over “rules.”

Of course, the first step to empowering yourself is to learn those rules (or at least know what they are) so you can pick and choose any that would be useful to you. It’s also vital to learn and understand the business.

During the day, I read over two dozen blogs/news aggregates on publishing, marketing, digital media, creativity, finance, content production, web/app/graphic design, social media, and entrepreneurship.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s not since most come in bite-sized tidbits easily digested over lunch. All of these resources are free, so there’s no excuse for writers not to be educated.

You don’t have to follow as many as I do—since I was one of the early adopters of indy-publishing I had to learn tons more when I began and now that I have so much invested, I want to stay as cutting edge as possible. Plus, a lot of this stuff is damn interesting! Can’t tell you how many times I’ve used an article from the Harvard Business Review, the Creative Penn, or CopyBlogger to try something new with a character or plot line in my novels.

I share the best of the best on the blog and my twitter feed, so that’s an easy way out for someone just starting.

iRR: From traditional to self-published to anything in between, you’ve experienced every aspect of publishing. What has that been like for you?

CJ: Remember that roller coaster feeling of intensity I build into my books? That’s publishing—at least for me. I began with what anyone else would have called utter disaster: weeks before its planned publication, my first novel was cancelled for reasons out of my control.

I’d just quit my medical practice, moved a thousand miles away from home to become a full time writer, and suddenly for the first time since I was fifteen I found myself unemployed. No book, no future.

If you have the guts to stick with your dream after that kind of start, then you have what it takes to be a writer!

I chose to see that disaster as opportunity. I kept writing. Two weeks after I got my rights back to that first book, another NYC publisher called me and asked me to create a new series for them. And the book I wrote while I was struggling to re-start my doomed career? BLIND FAITH, which debuted at #2 on the NYT list. Talk about your highs and lows.

Hmmm….probably another reason why writers get labeled as neurotic! So much about traditional publishing is out of our control.

iRR: You are working with a new publisher, Minotaur. How do you feel about moving back into the traditional publishing world?

CJ: I actually never left it, lol! I began indy publishing late 2009 not because I was out of contract but because my readers were becoming increasingly upset with how slow my NYC publisher was releasing my books (one a year). I also have always been a firm believer in giving away books (what my agent calls the “crack dealer” theory of marketing—one taste and they’re hooked for life) and had invested a lot of time and money into giving away physical books personalized for my readers via the mail.

When I discovered KDP and realized it would solve both my problems: more books for readers, faster AND an easy and inexpensive way to give away books, I was hooked.

At the time I used my indy publishing to cement my name recognition and brand with readers and also to help promote my traditionally published books. Within a year I was earning more with my indy books than my traditional ones and began to use the traditionally published books to promote my indy ones!

I love working with a team, so traditional publishing has a lot to offer me. And my readers have made it very clear that they love seeing my books in a bookstore. So, for me, having the ability to do both has been a win/win for me and my readers.

iRR: Which type of publishing have you most enjoyed? Which has been the most work? And which would you recommend for other authors?

CJ: Nothing’s work if you’re having fun! But I am a control freak (ER doc, remember? Being a control freak is kind of a job requirement, lol!) So many of the things that frustrated me the most about traditional publishing I’ve been able to solve with my indy publishing.

As much as I enjoy working with my NYC team, I love that rush of instant gratification (well, almost instant) of being able to fix a mistake or change a cover that’s not working or gift a book to a reader. Not to mention the speed that I can get my books out there! I go through the same editorial process as with NYC (developmental editor, copy editor, two proofreaders) but can do it in a fraction of the time, so my readers don’t have to wait as long.

It’s a very personal decision to make. If you’re unpublished and unknown, having a traditional publisher push your books and build your brand is a great thing—but you sacrifice control. The money is also much less than indy publishing because with the way contracts are written now, you don’t get to reap the benefits of the long tail, your publisher does. But you do get paid up front with NYC publishing’s advances.

If you’re a control freak like me and don’t mind learning the business and building your own team, then you might want to consider indy publishing. Or pursuing a career doing both.

The key is that there is no right or wrong (no rules, remember?). It’s about what’s right for you, right now.

iRR: Where do you see yourself in five years? What about the publishing industry?

CJ: Five years is way too far out to make a prediction given how fast the industry changes. I wouldn’t trust any prognostication farther than 12 months out.

Based on that, I see myself in six months turning in my seventh manuscript for the year (yes, seven! Two books revised for NYC publishers, two written for NYC publishers, two written for indy publishing, and one co-written) and promptly collapsing! 2011 was a banner year for me, selling half a million books, but by mid-2012 I’d already passed that mark (and soon will be hitting a million sales on Amazon alone, woohoo!), so I expect by the end of 2012, given that I’ll have several new releases out, I should come close to doubling that again.

2013 will be my year of cutting back and learning to say no….really, I mean it! I’ll have three books out from NYC publishers, a bunch of foreign and audio releases, and have committed to only writing two books (so far). I promised myself that I’d take time to travel (first vacation in seven years!) and to work on a way-out-there YA science fiction project that I might never sell or publish but really, really want to write.

That’s my plan for the next year. As for the publishing industry, I foresee via my rose-colored glasses:

*NYC publishers acting more like small presses by learning who their readers are and embracing the fact that their authors are their most valuable asset when it comes to connecting with readers (not multi-million dollar web platforms or app builders or whatever the social media bright and shiny expensive toy of the day is)

*Additional global distribution channels leading to more indy publishing going worldwide with translations both into and out of English (which I am personally looking forward to as a few of my favorite authors are based in foreign countries and it’s hard to find their books)

*A huge shakeup in how contracts are negotiated, so they become true licensing agreements for limited, pre-defined time (as opposed to signing away your book for life) and limited territories.

*A recent BISG study said that around 40% of all trade titles were self-published last year. I predict that the number of self-published titles will seriously encroach on traditional published titles and will be more than 50%, probably at least 60-65%

iRR: Pick your five favorite novels that you’ve written.

CJ: In no particular order:

*Snake Skin: For me, this story was a leap in terms of plot complexity and character development. Plus, I just love Lucy’s character—so many FBI agents have written me saying they “know” Lucy and that I really nailed her with her constant tug-o-war between work and family.

*Lifelines: My “real” debut after my first debut was cancelled. I poured my heart and soul into this book and these characters, truly fell in love with them, and from the awards and reviews it received, readers did as well.

*Critical Condition: Die Hard in a hospital! I literally wrote this book backwards, scene by scene, because the entire story takes place in four hours and the time lines of the four main characters had to be woven seamlessly together. Most fun I ever had writing a book!

*Blind Faith: Both the original version and the new, revised one from St. Martins Minotaur. Inspired by tragic events in my own life and others, this book is the epitome of a Thriller with Heart.

*Lucidity: My least known book. It’s an exploration into metaphysics, free will, and the power of love; encompassing everything from the fall of Atlantis, a time traveling Jesuit priest, a mad scientist creating a new form of mind control, and an agoraphobic doctor visited by the ghost of her murdered husband. A true, bittersweet love story that I could not not write.

iRR: What genre do you identify most with? Are there any other details of note?

CJ: Thrillers. But with Heart. LOL. Seriously, I’ve always considered my books thrillers and myself a thriller writer, but I never enjoyed the ones that treated characters like they were just along for the ride. Like many authors I’m more interested in the gray spaces between the black and white of good and evil than I am the car chases and explosions, but that was difficult to explain to agents and editors, so I created the term “Thrillers with Heart” to describe my work.


A big thank you goes out to CJ and all the readers who make her unique writing and publishing style possible.

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