As Maya Angelou said, “They may forget what you said and did, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” If you can move the reader with your writing, they will remember you and become a fan. And that’s true with whatever you’re writing
In today’s show, I interview CJ Lyons about tips for writing emotion.
In the intro, I talk about authors feeling overwhelmed and wanting to give up and why returning to the reason why you write is so important.
Also, I mention Steven Pressfield’s book, Turning Pro, and the quote: “You are entitled to your labor, not the fruits of your labor.” The writing is its own reward. It heals us and nurtures us. Don’t forget that in the crazy buzz of publishing and marketing.
Plus, if you write non-fiction and want to turn your book into a course, check out the FREE online Book to Course Summit, featuring some amazing sessions all about launching your book, and turning it into a successful course.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
CJ Lyons is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of 30 novels, which she describes as Thrillers with Heart.
- On the importance of treating a writing career like a business and ‘taking the power back’.
- How CJ coined her tagline to explain to editors and agents where her books fit.
- The impact and catharsis of emotional writing for both author and reader.
- The steps CJ goes through to build a world and connect with readers’ emotions, including finding a universal theme.
- Avoiding cliches to hold readers’ interest and reward their investment of time in your book.
- Creating resonance with weather, atmosphere and environments.
- How book covers tie in to the readers’ emotional experience and why they matter.
- How to write scenes with emotional resonance even if the particular event you’re depicting hasn’t happened to you.
Transcript of Interview with CJ Lyons
Joanna: Hi everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from the creativepenn.com and today I’m back with CJ Lyons. Hi CJ.
CJ: Hey, it’s good to be back!
Joanna: Yeah, I know, it’s been too long. Just a little introduction before we get into the interview. CJ is the award winning and New York Times bestselling author of 30 novels which she describes as thrillers with heart.
And today we’re going to talk all about emotion and bringing heart to our stories.
First of all, it’s been crazy, a couple of years since you’ve been on the podcast CJ and so I wonder if you could, for anyone who doesn’t know you, tell us a bit more about you and also what you’ve been up to in the last couple of years?
CJ: I started out as a pediatric emergency medicine physician, and I was a doctor for 17 years before I took a leap of faith and left to become a full time career novelist.
And since that time, which we were just talking, my 10th year anniversary of leaving my day job to write full time is May 5th. So I’m really excited. It’s just around the corner, will be 10 years.
And in that time as of May 3rd, I’ll have published 30 books. This is number 30. I just got the hardcover early edition, ‘Last Light.’ You can get it now at a special preorder price just a little plug. And those 30 books include New York Times bestselling titles, USA Today best selling, several other best selling list including The Irish Times, so I guess I’m an international bestselling author.
I’ve published in, oh boy, I was just counting them the other day. It’s either 14 or 16 different languages around the world, and I still self-publish as well as I occasionally work with traditional publishers.
And I’ve won two thriller awards, Suspense Magazine, Best Book of the Year Award, RT Choice Awards, Daphne du Maurier award for excellence in history, suspense and Reader’s Choice awards, Reviewer’s Choice of awards, you name it.
So pretty exciting career so far, and what’s weird is I still feel like I’m only just starting.
Joanna: It’s interesting you say that. For people listening, you just said your 10 year anniversary of giving up your job. I think that gives a sense of how long it can take to build a successful career.
Winding the clock back 10 years, when you move for that first time, and you said you feel like you’re just beginning.
What is the difference now? For example, what’s the same? Do you still have the self-doubt and what is different?
CJ: I’m so glad you asked that because sometimes and I think we all fall prey to this, we either make it sound like, “Oh my gosh, it was just so easy to write 30 books and get them published.” Or we did the opposite of the artist in the garret suffering for our work.
The biggest, biggest difference was and I didn’t say this in the introduction. Other than my book contracts, which was with a major New York City publisher for a hardcover debut thriller that had cover quotes from a dozen New York Times bestselling authors, had a great print run scheduled, I thought I was living the dream of a debut author.
90 days before that debut book was supposed to come out, so after I left my job, moved a 1,000 miles away, started my new life, my publisher canceled it because of cover art issues. So something I had no control over. Just like that. They had all the power.
I realized at that point that I needed to treat this as a business. In other words I needed to take the power back. You and I have discussed this on other podcasts many times, but it’s so important to realize that each author, whether you’re traditionally self-published with your first book or your 30th book, you truly are CEO of what should become a global media publishing empire.
And we have to think like that. We have to educate ourselves.
After that huge disappointment, I did two things. First of all, I kept writing.
And in fact the book that I wrote during that time was Blind Faith, which went on to debut number two in the New York Times list, sold a quarter of a million copies in six weeks, won a boatload of awards including the International Thriller Writers thriller award.
The second thing I did was I educate myself. I started reading business books and Seth Godin and Copy Blogger, and Mark McGuinness Lateral Action. Mark’s was I think the first class I took. He has this wonderful creative pathfinder class. It’s free on his website “Lateral Actions,” go check it out. He’s brilliant.
I found you later on when you first started.
I just kept devouring the business side of things. Because I just felt like education was power in this business. And it really helped me moving forward so that I no longer took contracts where the publisher had complete control.
I knew what I was willing to give up and how much it would cost me. In other words how much they’d have to pay me for the rights and me giving that up. So it really changed my outlook.
Joanna: And yes, you are a great business woman and you do all kinds of different things in publishing. What we going to talk about today, is bringing that thriller with heart side of things, which is so important.
First of all, what do you mean by thrillers with heart, and why is that so important to you?
CJ: When I first began pitching my book to agents and editors, I didn’t quite know how to pitch them, because they weren’t readily pigeonholed into any one genre.
And that’s because although they are thrillers as far as the increasing stakes and the adrenaline rush and the immediate intensity of the plot, they really aren’t about the car chases and the explosions. They’re more intimate. They’re more about the internal struggles as we face violence and crime and the difficulty of relationships when you’re under that kind of pressure, and when you survive that kind of trauma.
So it’s really not about the thriller aspect so much as, instead of the black and white of good and evil which you can pretty much find in almost any thriller book, it’s more about that gray area between it.
And the good and evil in people and how good people can do bad things for the right reasons and bad people can do good things for the wrong reasons, and where do those overlap and where do they cross? That’s when it came up with ‘thrillers with heart,’ because after heart, they have that emotional honesty of real people learning how to become heroes.
And I think that’s the thing that in every single book that I accomplish or I look to accomplish is that it’s an ordinary person that learns how to stand up and make a difference and change the world.
And that’s based a lot on, that’s the same reason I went into medicine and why I chose pediatrics and why I chose pediatric emergency medicine. Which is dealing with a lot of child abuse and sexual assaults and things like that that otherwise people tend to turn away from and shy away from. And being able to incorporate that emotional honesty.
I don’t have a huge fan base, but the ones I have seem to be very dedicated and very loyal. They want that in their books. And my promise to them is that they will get that in every title.
I love talking about emotions and how we create them and all that fun stuff. So much better than talking about plots.
Joanna: I think that’s really important and we’re not going to talk about plots.
But in saying that you were a pediatric doctor and you have said before that you write to deal with your own emotionally challenging situations. And one of the problems I think sometimes can happen is people choose to write memoir, which can be very healing and is great, but other people like yourself put into fiction.
How does turning your own emotional experiences into fiction help you, and also how does it help the reader by coming at it in a funny angle?
CJ: Yes, well, I have no choice in that matter because ever since I was very very young, I’ve been a storyteller. Stories have always been my way of understanding the chaos around me. And the more trouble I got into as a child, the more time spent time out, the more I kept telling stories.
My poor parents and the nuns at school and stuff just gave up on me. So it’s always been my go to method of understanding the trauma and the chaos that we all face on a day to day. So memoir, I never even considered that option. It’s always been about stories.
I think as human beings we’re hardwired for stories. And when you can get that emotional honesty, you can give the reader a vicarious experience of becoming a hero, of suffering through that same trauma, facing those same challenges, but without actually being at risk. So it’s very cathartic.
Now, you find that same catharsis in plot-driven novels like Jack Reacher, or Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Those are different kind of catharsis, though, it’s more about the action and the adventure and the adrenaline and fun. Whereas when you can get that emotional heart, you really get that catharsis of “This strengthens me, this empowered me, this inspired me.”
And from the fan mail I get, that’s actually for me the greatest reward is that I get these letters that say, “Because I’ve read your book, I was able to seek help from an abusive relationship.” Or a cancer survivor saying, “I had chemo and I couldn’t sleep so I turned to your books at night, and the time passed so quickly and I felt so much stronger and empowered to face what I was going through.” And as a writer there is no greater praise. I would take that over any bestseller list or award.
Joanna: It’s almost self help as a sort of undercurrent, but you’re not shoving it down people’s throats.
CJ: No, no, it’s not preachy at all. If you go preachy, if you strive to be inspirational instead of letting that become a more organic type of growth for the… Stephen King calls it a telepathy between the writer the reader.
And really the strongest emotion comes when the reader is filling it in for themselves. You’re not telling them what to feel, they’re feeling it very organically because you’ve created a world where they feel safe and secure and they’re okay with delving into those emotions and they understand that it’s not real life. That it’s happening to someone else, but they can experience it vicariously.
I really think that’s how we strive, and that’s also how we avoid the emotional clichés that are out there, because we’re doing it through world building. There are several levels of creating emotion, and so that’s to me the biggest but also the hardest one is creating that world. And I do it through a character point of view.
When you get deep character point of view, and they’re suffering through traumas and crises and having to make these decisions where damned if you do, damned if you don’t, there’s no right choice. You don’t have to tell the reader what they’re feeling, because they’re experiencing it right there with the character in the deep point of view.
Joanna: Let’s just get a little bit deeper on that, because the adage ‘show don’t tell,’ which everyone’s heard over and over again. A friend of mine gave me a manuscript and I was reading her first chapter and I was like, “Oh my goodness, you can see it in someone else’s writing, isn’t it?” It’s like she’s telling and not showing. She’s saying, “I was angry,” as opposed to showing.
How do you do that in your writing? How do you show this emotion without writing “I was sad.”
CJ: Well, that becomes the next level of creating emotion. So after the big universal world building, the next level down, and you can break this down into several steps, the first one for me is finding a universal theme, which is a primal emotion and I’m going to center everything around.
For instance, Blind Faith, every single chapter in that book, there’s a betrayal. Whether it’s a character betraying her own values or someone else betraying her or someone betraying someone else, there’s a betrayal in every chapter.
And the theme of that obviously was betrayal and exploring all the essences of it. And that keeps you focused emotionally. Because I think where people go astray is they say, “Oh show, not tell.” So they litter their pages with all these descriptions showing every single emotion.
And sometimes telling us what you want, you just want that quick hit to make certain that the reader’s on the same page as you are, emotionally speaking and literally speaking I guess. So it’s perfectly okay. Sometimes you just have to say, “Her voice was colored with fury.” Okay. So we have a description, but we also explain that description. So we show and tell.
But you don’t want to do that too often, because if you keep hitting the same emotional beat it’s like beating the reader over the head. You want to grow and expand and explore.
For me having that theme, an emotional theme to center it, helps me get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the heart of that particular story, with that particular theme. But that is the hardest part is a lot of times we overwrite and we have to go back and trim, and that can be very difficult.
That’s one of the things I’m always telling the editors I work with, “Please, I know that I have the craft that the sentences will look great, but if they’re hitting that same emotional chord, you have to help me decide which one has to go away. I’ll use it in a different book.” But you know, don’t let me just keep hitting the same chord emotionally because the sentences and the words are pretty.”
The other way to do that. So we have world-building character point of view, theme and then drilling down is your individual word choice.
Instead of using overused common words or nailing it right on the nose, this is what screenwriters call subtext, what you want to do is let the reader fill in the gap.
Last year I won the International Thriller Writers, Thriller Awards for Hardball, which was one of my Lucy Guardino FBI thrillers. And I have to tell you, that book was probably the most difficult book I have ever written. It deals with child abuse, and it’s from the point of view not just of Lucy and the investigators, but also a survivor who was just totally psychologically traumatized by long term abuse that started when she was an infant.
Now, here’s the thing. Unlike a lot of thriller writers, I refuse, and this is a pediatrician in me, to ever put gratuitous violence, especially against women and children, or sex on the page. It’s just not going to happen.
So here I have this book that is all about this just tremendous trauma of violence inflicted on this woman. How can I tell that without putting any of that on the page? And what I did was, I pulled it out and I have her talk about it, but she didn’t know it was violence against her, she was a child. So I have her talk about it like in a memoir style of remembering, and the reader fills in all the gaps. So they become very emotionally wedded to her experience.
All that is done on a more structural level in the novel with very conscious choices, and it drills down to the sentence level with very conscious word choices.
The old adage of avoiding adverbs is often very helpful here. I find that adverbs… although you can’t get rid of all of them, sometimes they’re very handy, but a lot of times if you’re finding that you’re having to describe things with a lot of adverbs, find a stronger verb instead. Look for those power verbs. Look for those hits of nonverbal communication where you can tell what’s going on without putting it in dialogue.
A lot of times, what I like to do is have the dialogue talking about something, and the actual characters, either because they know each other or because they know more about what’s going on than the other person they’re talking to, are reacting to it in a different way, and then the other character may be interpreting their actions, because it’s all that point of view.
That’s where you get these levels of subtext that can actually drive the characters to their next major decision, which twists the plot in a new direction. And it could be based on reality or could be based on a misperception, because we’re all human and we read each other differently depending on our own emotional states.
When you can pull emotion into it, down to the actual sentence level, when you’re setting up a scene, and this won’t happen all on the first draft, at least not for me. I have the misfortune of having several friends who are geniuses at this. Toni McGee Causey for instance, just released a new book called “Saints of the Lost and Found,” which is brilliant.
Joanna: Yeah, I got that one.
CJ: Oh I love it, and I had the privilege… because we’re friends, I’ve been reading the drafts of that book since she first started it about seven years ago. And unfortunately her writing is brilliant from rough draft to finished material, but that actually made it for her harder to revise, because every word is brilliant. Which ones do you want to cut out?
For me, I maybe have a little bit easier in that I’m more of a plumber. I’m just a crass person. I get the story out in my first draft, I get that emotional heart to my first draft, and then my revisions are really where I polish and dissect and try to drill down to this very, very sentence level of word choice. And looking at, almost like a screenplay or as a theatrical stage in my head. Where are the characters and what are they doing and how to make what they’re doing impact the emotion I want the reader to experience?
That becomes, in a way, your ultimate showing is when you can get the telling totally off the page. But sometimes, especially an action scene, you just need it, because you need the scene to keep moving, you can’t drag it down. You have to learn how to judge that.
Joanna: And just in case people don’t really understand. You mention things like their non-verbal communication, subtext, and also I think the inherent emotions.
An example I normally give is, when say your partner or mother or a child or husband or wife whatever, one of you says, “Are you all right?” and the other one says, “Fine.” Now, obviously the dialogue there could be written the same way, but we all know as people in relationships with other people, that the word fine can be accented by… some say the subtext there is generally you’re not fine, and the body language, as in the shoulders hunched or turning away or slamming the cup down whatever.
That would be a way to take the dialogue and put emotion in. But also playing on the inherent emotion of the reader’s intelligence, which knows that in that example whenever someone says ‘fine’ in a western culture, it probably doesn’t mean fine.
CJ: That’s a great way of turning what otherwise what would be cliché dialogue around, because you’re actually using it to represent that non-verbal communication.
And when you think about it in reality, 90% of what we communicate to each other as humans is body language, it is nonverbal, it’s our actions speak louder than our words, literally.
So figuratively we have to get that on the page, but the cool thing about doing it that way is the audience then becomes complicit in filling in the blanks. And when you do that you draw them into your world, and they become engaged with your words on the page and what your character is doing.
And if you’re using deep point of view, they also become very intimately paired with that character. They almost become that character in their head.
I love messing up my audience a little bit and getting them really into the heads of bad guys whenever I can. Sometimes bad guys are just bad guys, but when I have a bad guy that I can get the audience to really root for them and feel connected and wedded to them, I feel like I’ve really accomplished something. Because it’s so alien to our daily existence, but it reflects that empathy.
The other thing that you brought up, as far as non-verbal communication, is again, avoid the clichés of non-verbal communication. Try to look for new and different ways that your characters can use their bodies. This would be what actors do with method acting.
There’s this great anecdote, not anecdote actually, I think it’s a scene from an old movie with Dustin Hoffman called Tootsie, where he’s an out of work actor, he’s willing to audition for any role, so he’s auditioning for the role of a tomato in a tomato sauce commercial.
And he comes on stage to do the reading and the director says, “Okay, go ahead. Do you have any questions?” And he says, “Well, wait. Yes I have a very important question,” and the directors is like, “Okay. What?” He says, “What kind of tomato I’m I? Am I a beefsteak tomato? Am I a Roma tomato? Am I a grape tomato? My performance is gonna depend on your answer!”
Because they would all act and speak and carry themselves differently. And we need to remember to try to do that with our characters.
When possible, avoid those clichés about movement. Like you were saying, the ‘fine’ slamming the cup down, that’s probably a little different than just describing their expression.
And of course it would depend on how intimately the characters know each other. Or you could have her expression be totally blank and then his reaction, he’s like trying to parse, “Well wait, is this a good blank or bad blank? Is this a “She’s busy and just not listening to me blank? Or is this a, “I’ve really done something wrong blank?”
You can play with that, and those fresh type of things that perks the reader’s attention. Because let’s face it, readers nowadays, they’ve seen it all, they’ve heard it all. Between TV, movie, the internet. When you give them a book to read, and it’s going to take them 8 to 10 hours to read it, so you’re really asking for a serious investment on behalf of the readers, which is why you need to respect your audience so much and give them the best experience you can.
But when you’re asking for that kind of investment, you owe it to them to spin things and freshen it up, and perk up their attention. And I find that that’s the hardest part. It’s hard, because it’s so easy to go to cliché.
Joanna: The way we’re talking at the moment we’re talking about humans and humans, because most emotion happens around humans, but obviously a lot of people have emotions about animals.
I think it’s Dean Koontz who always uses dogs in a very positive way. As in he’ll never kill a dog, right?
CJ: I have noticed this trend in mystery suspense where there’s more and more canine, there’s always been the cozy mysteries with the talking cats and things. But in thrillers…
Joanna: So the cat’s solving mystery?
CJ: Yes. The thrillers are going more and more with dogs. I’m blanking on his name, but several major thriller writers have introduced canine service animals or military service…
Joanna: James Rollins has a service dog now.
CJ: Yes, Jim has a new series and also, who is it? His second book in the series just came out in. Several major thriller writers are doing that and they’re finding that their readership is exploding because they’re reaching a whole new segment of the audience.
So yeah, don’t forget that it doesn’t have to be just human-human.
Joanna: I was going to ask about setting.
CJ: Yes, that’s part of your world building. And think of it this way, if you’re a police officer walking into a bar that you’ve never been into before, what are you going to be looking at? You’re going to be looking at that pub so much differently than the cocktail waitress who is late for her shift and is running in, or the patron that’s on their third glass of wine. You’re going to be soaking in that environment and reacting to it and relating to it in totally different fashion.
That’s where the deep point of view comes into play.
But also, we often have sentiments. We often have emotions regarding things, places. I don’t know about you, but I can tell from your book cases you’re like me. My main decorating motif is, how can I get my books up?
And every single one of those books I can pretty much tell you when I bought it or who I was with or what it means to me. So you can use that emotional interaction and tweak it so that you can create what’s called a motif. One type of item that is supposed to resonate with the readers to create the same emotion.
It’s like getting that emotional hit without repeating yourself, because it’s coming from the reader instead of you telling them to feel this way.
You’ll see like weather, that often happens with weather in books. I use whether a lot myself, mainly because I love thunderstorms and fall.
Joanna: Yeah, me too. There’s a lot of storms, and I listen to storms when I write, so there’s often storms in my books.
CJ: My July book, Devil Smoke is actually called that because it’s an old fashioned name for one of these really deep fogs where you can see, especially when you’re driving with the headlights, you can see what looks like human beings coming out of the fog and grasping for you and running at you. And it’s really just fog, but as humans we anthropomorphize everything.
I have the beginning of the book which this is part of the new Lucy Guardina spinoff series, Beacon Falls, so she’s dealing with cold cases. The cold case from the beginning of the book takes place in fog, and then the climax at the very end takes place in the fog.
So I don’t have to mention any emotional connotation going back to that initial crime which the reader experienced in the prologue, 350 pages ago, because of fog, they’ll get that. I don’t have to tell them. They’ll fill in the blanks.
Joanna: Have you read Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz?
CJ: Yes, yeah.
Joanna: Yeah, the fog there gets thicker and thicker and thicker and thicker and thicker until at the end you can barely see anything, because… well we can’t say what it is.
CJ: Yeah, and you know from the beginning with that character was having some medical issues. So the fog outside is also related to her mental fog.
And I’ve done things like that with my Fatal Insomnia series, because that a character who mentally her brain is literally being eaten alive by prion disease. So for her, though she’s an ER doctor, but she also plays a fiddle in a band. So for her, it’s music.
What kind of music that accompanies these fugue states she’s having as her brain and her mind deteriorate, and how she deals with it.
There’s a lot of different ways you can play off on these symbolisms. Look at the Jungian collective type of primal symbols.
You don’t want to hit anyone over the head with it. You never want a reader to say, “Oh, that fog was symbolizing blah blah blah” as they’re reading. You and I do it because we dissect everything we read, but a normal reader should not do that.
You do have to be subtle. It’s like having an emotional being. You don’t want to preach, you don’t want to hit people over the head. You want to insinuate yourself in the reader’s minds. So it is form of telepathy just like Stephen King says.
Joanna: Taking it up a level to book covers, because what we’re promising in the book cover is an emotional experience of some kind, and this is a lesson we learn over time with indies, because we don’t really have much of a clue at the beginning.
I got some of my covers wrong, because the books were darker than the covers, so then I had to rebrand them in new covers to give the emotional impression that it was a darker book.
What have you learned around what the cover should be and what the emotional resonance is?
CJ: To me the emotional promise comes from everything on the cover, including my name. Because that’s my brand. It’s an emotional promise to my reader, that you’re going to get a thriller of heart.
When I’m looking at how to create a book cover, I know what emotion I want those readers to have. And if you look at any of my book covers, you can pretty clearly see that even though they’re white like the Lucy Guardino FBI I series, those all have white backgrounds, which by the way the booksellers hate, because they get smudged up.
Even this one, which I had bookseller input in creating the cover, like they wanted the title on top and things like that, they kept saying, “Can you give me something other than white?” And I was like, “No, that’s part of Lucy’s brand is that she’s fashioned different than other thrillers.” Because when you go to the bookstore, you see all the thrillers, they’re all black, grey or dark red or dark blue or brown.
And so the Lucy covers pop, but you also see in her older FBI series, Snake Skin, has a snake lunging at the reader. And there are snakes in the book, but more importantly there’s that feeling facing your deepest darkest fears. And snakes, primal fear, that was a pretty easy cover to put together.
Some of the other Lucy covers have been a bit more challenging since I set up a template where it’s just one iconic element.
Joanna: You have one with a bloody hand print on it, in that space, it is quite obvious.
CJ: Yeah, Amazon did that cover. That’s for Aftershock, which I did through Amazon publishing, Thomas and Mercer. But the opening scene, the very first line that the reader reads in that book is Lucy digging her way out of the death trap in the snow leaving a bloody handprint. So it’s like the first line is reflected in the cover. So yeah, it’s obvious and on the nose, but it also fulfills the promise of what the reader can expect.
Joanna: It’s not a romance.
CJ: Yes. Well, and it’s actually not violent as far as what’s on the page, but the emotional darkness and feel, and trauma, that’s probably my most traumatic book. What Lucy goes through – it’s a novella, because you can’t sustain that level for too long – so what Lucy goes through in those 140 pages is the most intense crucible of emotion that any of her books, and she comes out the other side changed.
While that cover, I was kind of like, “Well, will that work or not?” But it fits to Lucy canon and the Lucy branding of the promise to the reader.
Whereas my medical thrillers, they have different covers that promise different types of emotional experience.
My Hart and Drake series has an ongoing relationship kind of like JD Robb’ Eve and Roarke that it starts from their first meeting in the first book, but then by the end of the fourth book they’re married.
You have the ups and downs of any relationship. So the cover art, the font choices, the color choices, they each only have one photograph on them. They reflect that this is not just a medical thriller, it also has romantic to elements in it.
You’re right though, the cover I think is the trickiest part, and both traditional publishers and self-publishers often get it wrong.
The great thing about self-publishing is I can go and change it any time I what.
Joanna: Exactly. And many of us do, because you often don’t understand your own book when you first put it out there, until readers tell you what it is.
Now, last question before we finish. One of my most emotional scenes about the death of a child in Desecration, that made me cry and people have written to me empathizing, sympathizing with the death of a child.
I’m child free and I haven’t had the death of a child in my life. That’s something I’ve written about. I haven’t killed people like I’ve written murders, and this is the thing, people equate that emotion with something we’ve been through personally.
Clearly we’re writing about things we’re imagining. But how do you do it? Because obviously you’ve written your 30 novels and you’ve written a lot of emotional stuff about things you haven’t personally experienced. What are your tips for doing that?
CJ: I say dig deep. Usually by the time we’re 20 or 25, have experienced some grievous loss in our life, at that young age maybe not a parent, but a grandparent perhaps. And you want to channel. How did I feel?
Blind Faith is about a mother who thinks that her husband and son are dead. The opening scene, as she’s watching the execution of the serial killer who killed them, but refuses to tell her where they’re buried. He’s toying with her, even in his last seconds on this earth.
How she deals with that pain is very important and I’ve never had a child, I never lost a husband, but I have lost people close to me. And I remember going through that feeling of numbness which you captured very, very nicely in Desecration. That feeling claustrophobic almost because you can’t almost feel anything else, you can’t get past this moment, even months to years later.
And Kübler-Ross, that five-stage mourning, I use that in almost every book, because even in a lighthearted caper mystery, if your characters are changing and evolving They’re going through that, “Oh no, denial. I don’t want to get involved in this, you guys are crazy.” To anger, “Oh, now it’s personal, now i’m involved.” I mean you can see this in almost any film.
That sense of universal primal emotion, we’ve all experienced fear, we’ve all experienced fury and anger of various degrees. How can I channel that? We’ve all felt isolated or like we’re outcasts or misfits or alone in the world.
We’ve all felt loved and feeling like we’re connected to other people in a very intimate fashion. So you want to channel those.
To me that’s more of the show don’t tell. Don’t try to tell a reader this is what it feels to be in love. Show them from your own heart. That’s where that emotional honesty comes into play.
That would be my biggest recommendation is to dig deep when you’re going through the emotion, and try to avoid the cliches.
Try to avoid what you’ve read before, what you see on TV or in the films, try to use your own personal, very individual experience. And that’s a best way to avoid the cliché I think. Is to think about what has really happened to me and what have I really felt and how did i react? And then use that in your characters and in your stories.
You sent me a quote from Maya Angelou that I don’t think you knew this, that’s my favorite quote. I use that in every class I teach on writing and Maya Angelou said, “People will not remember what you say or do, but they will always remember how you make them feel.” And I think that’s should be a poster in every writer’s study. If you’re going to add emotion to your stories.
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s why it’s so important. Thank you for talking to us today.
Tell us about either your latest book or your next book and where people can find all of your books?
CJ: Okay great. My next book, May 3rd, is Last Light, oh, I’m going to show it to you one more time just because I love this cover. This is US version. In the UK and UK territories, Canelo came out with new covers for all the Lucy books including Last Light. So check that out if you’re outside of the US.
And it will be released on May 3 and it’s a first in the spin off series for the Lucy Guardino thrillers called the Beacon Falls series, where she is now in charge of a group of civilians investigating cold cases.
She’s left the FBI, with all its rules and regulations, but now she has a deal of life as a civilian, which of course is fraught with all sorts of different complications.
And then the second book in the Beacon Falls Series will be out July 25th, it’s called Devil Smoke, and then September 8th, I’m finishing up my Fatal Insomnia trilogy with The Sleepless Stars.
I know readers that have been reading that trilogy have been looking for that book for a while. So it’s coming out September 8th.
Joanna: Well, that’s a schedule. And I presume you’ve finished that book.
CJ: Yeah, actually today I turned in two books to my editors. So I met my deadline. I never miss a deadline. So I’m feeling so free and happy.
Joanna: And we should just point out to everyone that this is the life of someone who’s been doing it 10 years and has 30 books. You’re still writing and you’re still handing in stuff to your editor, right?
CJ: Oh yes, absolutely, absolutely.
Joanna: That is the life. Tell people your website or anywhere else they can find you.
CJ: Okay. The best way to find me is cjlyons.net. So C-J-L-Y-O-N-S-dot-N-E-T. And you can find everything you need there, including links to the books.
I used to have a writing website, but it got hacked a few months ago. So now I send everyone Joanna’s creativepenn.com site.
Joanna: Thanks so much for your time CJ. That was great.
CJ: Thanks for having me.