Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Medical Thriller Author Guest, D. P. Lyle, MD

D. P. Lyle's upcoming April release is Stress Fracture. In the book, Dub Walker, expert in evidence evaluation, crime scene analysis, and criminal psychology, has seen everything throughout his career—over a hundred cases of foul play and countless bloody remains of victims of rape, torture, and unthinkable mutilation. He’s sure he’s seen it all . . . until now. When Dub’s close friend Sheriff Mike Savage falls victim to a brutal serial killer terrorizing the county, he is dragged into the investigation. The killer—at times calm, cold, and calculating and at others maniacal and out of control—is like no other Dub has encountered. With widely divergent personalities, the killer taunts, threatens, and outmaneuvers Dub at every turn. While hunting this maniacal predator, Dub uncovers a deadly conspiracy—one driven by unrestrained greed and corruption. Will he be able to stop the conspirators—and the killer—in their bloody tracks?

Wow, this description sends shivers down my spine! And you know what I love about the cover? It has a hypodermic needle on it, just like my SF novella, The Epsilon Eridani Alternative. Now, here's my interview with D. P. Lyle, MD:

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

I grew up in the South where you have to be able to tell a story or they won’t feed you. My family ate dinner together every night and we would always tell stories about what happened during the day. They typically were not simple anecdotes but rather complete stories with character, plot, setting, and dialogue. That’s just the way it was.

I always wanted to write, always knew I had stories to tell, but never really had the time. My cardiology practice kept me busy 80 or more hours each week so there was little time to take up another project. I had always said that when I retired I would begin to write, but about 15 years ago I decided -- if not now when? So I took some night classes at the University of California Irvine and at a place called The Learning Tree. I then joined a couple of writing groups and just began writing.

My inspiration to tell stories, besides my upbringing, was all the wonderful writers that I have read over the years. People such as Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and more recently James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, and many others.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

This is a great question and one that I pose to writers when I teach classes all the time. Exactly how do you craft a story and when do you begin to rewrite? My feeling is that writing is both an art and a craft. The art is the storytelling and the craft is making the writing clean and publishable. The problem is that the craft can often subdue the art. Too often people worry about getting those first two chapters perfect before they go on with the story and consequently they never get finished. Too much grinding and not enough fun.

My feeling is that you write the story fast and get it on the page the way you want the story told and then go back and fix it. As many people have said, writing is rewriting. Never be afraid to write poorly so long as you are advancing the story and telling it in your own voice and in your own way. All that poor writing can be corrected later.

This is not only advice that I think will help write better stories but it is just common sense. Think about when you meet someone new. At first, you make small talk and just learn a few basics about each other. Maybe the next time that you get together you learn more and discuss more important issues. And still later the relationship deepens and each person begins to learn the other one better. This is how friendships are built. This is how marriages are built. This is how businesses are built. This is how stories are built.

So from a practical point of view why would you spend hours and hours polishing dialogue and character actions in the first few chapters when you haven’t lived with the characters long enough to really know them. By the time you get to chapter 40 you will. Then you’re probably going to go back and change or discard the first five chapters anyway because now the actions, thoughts, and dialogue that you thought were appropriate for your characters no longer seem so. Again, as with a good friendship spend time learning your characters and telling your story before you go about fixing it. Once you know your characters and have lived with them for many months then you can go back and fix their actions, thoughts, and dialogue. It’s like making good chili, it takes time, and if you rush it, it just won’t be the same.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I do outline and I think it’s very important if for no other reason than to make sure that your story idea has long enough legs to carry it through an entire novel. You don’t know that when you first confront the concept of your story. You need to flesh it out and see if you have enough of everything -- character, action, and indeed story -- before committing to writing 100,000 words.

I call my outline Plots Points. I simply make a one or two sentence list of each thing that is going to happen in the story. Each of these plot points could then become a chapter or a chapter section, depending upon how you ultimately constructor book. A better way to look at it is that each of the plot points is a scene. I might work on this for several months before I’m satisfied that this concept and this story will not only work but be fun to work on.

I will often get about 50 or so plot points into the outline and then get bored with it. I already know where the story will end and have a fairly good idea of where it will start so the plot point outline is to fill in everything between point A and point B. Once I am certain that I have enough to make a good story then I will begin writing.

I sometimes will not go back to my outline until I’ve written 150 pages or so. Then I will go back and check and see how closely I followed. Often I have strayed a bit but that’s not a bad thing. I will then correct my plot point outline to match the story and will keep them in lockstep the rest of the way. That is, if I add, delete, or move a plot point I will add, delete, or move it within the story. If I add or move a scene I will correct that in my plot point outline. Again this is practical. How many times have you been writing a story and stop and think -- What happened the last time these two characters interacted? How did I describe this particular character? These are the kinds of things that can drive you crazy and you can waste a lot of time searching back through your manuscript. But if you have an updated plot outline then you can simply scroll through it you find the chapter where that particular action took place or where that particular character appeared. This can save you time and aggravation.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

Character by far. The plot is simply a bunch of stuff that happens and if no one cares who happens to or why it happens then the plot will be uninspiring and flat. For me that’s not really a story. It might be a movie but it’s not a novel. Think about the writers that you read and the stories that you enjoy the most. Rarely is it the clever plot that makes you recommend a book but rather it’s a clever or endearing character. I mentioned James Lee Burke, perhaps the greatest living American writer, if not the greatest American writer of all time. His books are well written, his craft impeccable, his storytelling far above most, but the thing that really separates him from everyone else is Dave Robicheaux -- a classic American character. It is Dave as much as Mr. Burke himself that drags me to his books every time one hits the stands.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

I think the biggest challenge for any writer is time. You can’t write a novel in a weekend, you can’t write one in a month. It takes time. The great Bryce Courtenay always says that writing requires one thing -- bum glue. Glue your bum to the chair and write. Any writer knows that to produce a novel they are going to spend hundreds of hours wrestling with it. That takes away from many other things, including family and friends. For me that’s the hard part. But on the other side of the coin, I’m happiest when I’m sitting at my computer and writing a scene. There’s something so magical about it, particularly on those days when it is going well. It becomes addictive.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

That’s a hard question to answer since, like most writers, I’m writing all the time. We went to the movies last night and while I was sitting there watching, I was also thinking about a scene that I am going to work on today. That’s how it works.

But the actual time spent sitting and writing varies from day to day. I don’t like to have a set schedule so some days I will write in the morning, others in the afternoon, and still other times at night. But each day I do something on some story that I am working on. It may be only an hour or it may be eight hours and anywhere in between.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

The best advice I can give is that if you don’t truly love it, do something else. And I don’t mean that you love being a writer, love calling yourself one, but actually love the process. The process is long and hard and if you don’t love it, you won’t commit to it. It’s like medical school, if you don’t really love being there you won’t last. I remember in my medical class 10% of the students washed out during the first year. There were many reasons that this happened, but the biggest was they just didn’t want it badly enough. Or maybe they didn’t need it badly enough. Ask any successful writer and they will tell you that they need to write. That they have to do it. Otherwise even the most successful writers would do something else.

The second most important thing that a writer can do is write. If you want to run a marathon, you have to run every day. If you want to write a novel, you have to write every day. It’s really that simple. Of course reading books on writing, taking classes, and going to conferences are all very important, but at the end of the day it is the time spent alone in your own head, creating your own story and your own characters that is important. The more you do this the better writer you will be.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

Several things come to mind. I love cats. We have two now -- a gray female Somali, The Princess, and a nocturnal and noisy male Bengal, The Bean. And then of course there’s my Mom’s pecan pie--- some things are worth dying for.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I have a new book coming out on April 1, which is the beginning of a new thriller series. The series stars Dub Walker, a forensic and criminal behavior expert who gets involved in difficult and complex cases. This first in the series, Stress Fracture, deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and medical research and, as is the entire series, set in my hometown Huntsville, Alabama. The second in the series, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, deals with robotic surgery. It is completed and sold and will be out in 2011. I am now nearing completion of the first draft of the the third in the series, tentatively titled Run To Ground. I also have the next two in the series outlined.

I’m also working on two nonfiction books. One is another question and answer book similar to my Murder & Mayhem and Forensics & Fiction. The other project deals with certain aspects of medical history. I am also teaching on-line classes in the Masters of Criminal Justice Program at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. And, of course, I answer questions for and story consult with writers and try to keep my blog moving along.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

Both my website and my blog are designed for writers. My website contains some articles of interest to crime writers and is also a way to keep up with where I’ll be lecturing and doing signings. On my blog I discuss current issues, interesting cases, and fascinating things that I see on the news, read in newspapers, or stumble across as I rummage around the net. I try to post things that would be interesting to writers or things that might stimulate them to come up with a story.

The last thing I would mention is that on April 3 I’m having a couple of events in Huntsville, Alabama. I will be doing a series of free writers workshops at the Huntsville Public Library that afternoon and that evening another talk and a fundraiser for the library. The details are on my website under Events. Any of you that are in the North Alabama area, drop by and say hello.

There you have it, readers! Now it's your turn to ask Doug some questions. What do you want to know about him that I didn't cover?


Gayle said...

Terrific interview! And, living in the South myself, I love the line: "I grew up in the South where you have to be able to tell a story or they won’t feed you." :)

JournoMich said...

I love the cover, too, Beth. And I love Lyle's reason for outlining: to see if it has long enough legs. That is a perfect description!

I am hooked by the plot description and the writer's style in responding to your questions. And I agree with Gayle, great statement about storytelling in the South!


Beth Groundwater said...

Did you notice how many food references Doug had in his interview answers? Were you hungry when you wrote them, Doug? :) I also noticed that your writing process is very, very similar to mine. As they say, great minds think alike.

Robin Cain said...

Loved this interview and hearing about your writing process! Your books are right up my alley. I will definitely check them out. Thanks for sharing!

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Beth-I wasn't hungry at the time but I had a very hungry and POed cat yelling at me for food as I was answering your questions. Not that he's spoiled or anything, but.....


Mario Acevedo said...

Great interview. Talking and eating, two Southern traditions.

Question: what way to kill someone would you want to use in a story?

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Mario---would love to use FEAR as the weapon but haven't figured a way to make it predictable and plausible. Killers like predictable weapons.


Donnell Ann Bell said...

Dr. Lyle and Beth, excellent interview. I have a couple of questions. When you were working those 80 hours as a cardiologist, did you ever envision writing, or were you always a storyteller?

Second, I love what you say -- you can't write in a weekend or a month, it takes time, so would you ever do Nanowrimo?

Thirdly and not a question, your book sounds riveting, love the character name, Dub, and I can't wait to read Stress Fracture. Well done!

Kaye George said...

Dr. Lyle, you've been a boon to me in the past when you've answered my medical/murder questions, and I'm so thrilled you have a mystery coming out. I always wondered why you didn't write one, but, all along, you were!

Hope you sell a bunch!

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Donnell--Yes I could always tell a story--or is it spin a yarn?--but writing one is an entirely different animal. It is a long an arduous journey but one I always wanted to take. So finally I did.

Don't have time for the nanowrimo stuff.


D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Kaye--I have two older thrillers but Stress Fracture is the beginning of an entirely different series. If you decide to pick it up and read it I hope you enjoy it.


T. L. Cooper said...

Love this interview. It's always great to hear DP "talk". As a southerner, I was also raised around storytelling. Everything was a story not a soundbite. The new series sounds great!
BTW, Beth, great questions!

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, T. L., for the compliment on my questions, but I think it's Doug's answers that make the interview so fascinating. :)

Keep those comments coming, folks!

Cricket McRae said...

Great interview! Looks like a fascinating read, and I'm adding to my list.

So where do we find this "bum glue?" Home Depot? Bum Glue R Us?

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Beth--Thanks for the interview and for letting me part of your fun blog. And to all, thanks for the comments and questions.

Driving up to LA for LCC tomorrow AM so if any of you are also going say hello.