John Burley On Why Doctor-Authors Write Thrillers and Mysteries + Social Media Marketing

john burleyName: John Burley
Author’s Website, Facebook, Twitter
Home town: Pasadena, Maryland
Education: Doctor of Medicine, Rosalind Franklin University (Chicago Medical School)
Master of Science (medical pathology), University of Maryland, Baltimore
Bachelor of Science (biology/psychology), University of Maryland, College Park
Briefly: Author of The Absence of Mercy (November 19, 2013); winner of National Black Ribbon Award (for The Absence of Mercy).
Favorite read: THE STAND (by Stephen King)
Pet peeves: English Bulldogs who bark to be let out at 6 A.M. (I have one.)
If you weren’t a writer, you’d be…an E.R. physician (Oh, wait. I am one already.)
Author crush: Stephen King
Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book You’d Recommend: 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published And 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh.
Up next: I’m currently completing my second novel, a stand-alone psychological suspense thriller, which should be available next winter.

Can you think back to the first book-related memory you have? What is it?

When I was a child, I was a huge fan of The Hardy Boys mystery series. They were my first experience with the crime/mystery/suspense genres, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

What makes a great psychological thriller, in your humble opinion?

In my humble opinion, it’s all about building suspense and tension throughout the story. In a psychological thriller, many of the battles the characters face are fought on the inside. It’s important for the reader to feel the intensity of those struggles, to be emotionally invested in both the characters and the story’s outcome, and to be propelled through the pages with a mounting sense of breathless anticipation as they surge toward the final climax.

What led you to write The Absence of Mercy?

The idea for the story was born shortly after the birth of my daughter. As almost any parent can attest, there is a fundamental change that occurs within an individual with the birth of his or her child—a sense of new-found responsibility and purpose, yes, but also something more basic, more primitive. From the moment the child enters the world, we are struck with the realization that here is another human being for whom we would sacrifice everything to protect—including our very lives, if necessary. The nature of such love and dedication fascinated me. I wondered about what sort of circumstances might push that dedication to the limit, about how far it could be stretched, and about what might happen when it reached the snapping point.

Had you written The Absence of Mercy five years ago, do you think it would have come out as a totally different book?

In a way, it was. I started writing the novel in 2007. The first version of the manuscript was 140,000 words—almost twice the length of the final product. It had to be pared down significantly, and my editors at HarperCollins asked me to re-write the entire middle section of the book. As a result, one of the main characters was eliminated almost completely from the final version. What emerged was a tighter, faster-paced novel—a more gripping story than the one I’d originally started with. Still, it’s difficult to remove chapters and characters that you worked so hard to create. It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend you know isn’t right for you. In the end, you realize that you’re better off parting ways, but the separation still hurts. The loss is something you mourn.

Did you get creative blocks while crafting the thriller?

Creative blocks, no. What was difficult as a first-time author was incorporating changes that my editors requested—changes that seemed to alter the entire terrain of the story’s landscape. It was like trying to walk on land after a long time spent at sea. I could do it, but it didn’t feel right. I had to find my balance, to learn to trust myself—and them. In retrospect, it was an interesting experience. But at the time, it was gut-wrenching. For the second book, I tell myself, the process will be easier—and I’ve gotten to the point that I almost believe it.

Where did you do most of your writing?

When we purchased our home six years ago, there was a small yurt sitting on a hillside behind the house. I converted it to an office, and have done pretty much all of my writing there. It’s very quiet, and overlooks a tree-lined gulley. There’s a tiny porch connected to the structure, and I’ve had deer walk right up onto it and stand in front of my window while I’m writing. It feels like a magical place.

Tell us about your writing process. Are you a big fan of outlines?

I write on days when I’m not working in the Emergency Department. I drop my daughter off at school, come home, head up to the yurt, and spend the morning and afternoon writing. I don’t use an outline. I let the story flow through me, allowing the characters tell their own tales without too much interference from me. Along the way, I do try to guide the plot in the direction I’d like it to go, but I guide it gently, knowing that it won’t work if I attempt to force it. This style of writing keeps things fresh and exciting for me as the writer. I remain interested in the story because I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

You’re a doctor! Now, why is it that when doctors choose to write, they almost always write thrillers or mysteries?

That’s an excellent question, and I wish I knew the answer. Maybe it’s because the training we receive teaches us to be analytical, to study the details and to come up with the most likely explanation for a conglomeration of symptoms and physical exam findings, to carefully consider all facets of a case before acting. These are also the personality traits of a good detective, so mysteries seem like an appropriate genre for physicians to pursue. As for thrillers, maybe we’re rebelling against all of that carefully controlled thought and action. We want to feel our heart pounding, our actions spurred by the urgency of the moment. We want to feel the rush, the intensity of living on the edge.

Do you think your next book is going to be in this genre?

Yes. The first draft of my second novel is already complete. It’s a stand-alone novel, another psychological suspense thriller, and this one shot out of me like a bolt of white lightening. It’s still sizzling there on my computer’s hard drive—something dangerous and unpredictable. I must admit that I’m a little afraid of it. But then again, what fun would it be if I wasn’t?

What role will social media play in your overall marketing for The Absence of Mercy.

I think it will play an important role. Social media is one of the great technological frontiers. We know its reach and impact are vast, that it’s here to stay, and that it can be extremely helpful in connecting with readers. Its potential is limited only by our own imaginations, and writers who do not climb on board are doing themselves—and their readers—a huge disservice.

How can aspiring authors get better at writing?

There are two ways to get better at writing. The first is to write. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. Pick out something fun that you enjoy, or go with a subject that’s important to you for some other reason. The process of writing will make you a better writer. Like playing an instrument, the more you do it, the better you will become.

The second way to get better at writing is to read. Once again, it doesn’t matter what you’re reading—only that you read. If it’s great writing, you will learn from that. If it’s horrible writing, you will naturally pick out what is bad about it and you will learn from that, too. It may also be helpful to take a writing course, to study the technical aspects of grammar—but if you want to be a better writer you’ve got to both write and read as much as possible. Remember, you will never learn to play the saxophone if the instrument remains in its case.

Writers are born procrastinators. Are you among those who procrastinate?

At times, yes. But it helps to have a deadline. If I have a limited amount of time to get something done, procrastination only hurts the ultimate quality of my work. There is nothing a writer can ever write that would not benefit from proofreading and re-writes. Procrastination limits the amount of time you have for those things, and so your work will be weaker because of it. When you think of it that way, if you really care about your craft, then nothing good comes from waiting until the last minute to get something done.

What’s the best way to fight and win the war against procrastination?

I’m particularly fond of the late Robert Heinlein’s first two rules on writing. Rule #1: You must write.
Rule #2: Finish what you start.

Every day there are countless reasons why it’s not a good day to write. Ignore those reasons and write anyway. Inspiration seldom visits a quiet keyboard.

What are some of the things you hope to accomplish over the course of your writing career?

I hope to connect with as many people as possible. I want people to write me letters, or to send me emails, telling me that a story I’ve written moved them and why. I want to hear how different readers felt about the characters and the choices they made. I hope my stories spur discussions, and that readers will think about certain passages long after the last pages have been read. I hope to be moved myself by the characters and their plights, to have my life enriched by the process of spending time with them.

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