May 1, 2019 carries the burdens and celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the 442nd Regiment heading off to fight in World War II. The 442nd was made up of the Japanese American men taken out of internment camps all over the west coast; they fought valiantly at home and in Europe to prove their loyalty to the US. By no coincidence, award-winning author and retinal surgeon Andrew Lam releases Repentance (Tiny Fox Press) on that commemorative day. I’m delighted to welcome Andrew to the blog.
A Surgeon’s Advice . . . on How to Write Books by Andrew Lam
I’ll never forget the first time I had to tell a stranger their loved one had died under my care. I did it over the phone, in the middle of the night. The woman’s voice rasped; I’d woken her up. I didn’t tell her that I’d only met her father in the emergency room two hours before. I didn’t mention I was exhausted and only a few months out of medical school. I tried to conceal the truth—that I wasn’t sure what to say because I’d never done this before.
For a long time—years, in fact—writing my first book felt like that. I had no idea how to begin. I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. I worried I’d embarrass myself. I wanted to write a fabulous book, just like I wanted to be an excellent doctor, but in both medicine and writing, good intentions do not mean you’ll be any good at either.
No one starts out being a skilled surgeon or best-selling author. It takes years of practice, and lots of failure. I didn’t think about this back in college, when I chose to go to medical school simply because I wanted to help people. But now that I look back at all the ups and downs of my arduous training, and also have a few books under my belt, I’ve singled out five lessons that helped me succeed at both careers, and can be applied to almost any challenging endeavor.
Just do it. You never know how far you can go until you take the first step. It may come to nothing. It may mean taking a risk. But you only get one life and if you feel passionate about your idea for a book, screenplay, or other creative project, turn off the TV, carve out some time from your family, take a break from Facebook, and just start doing it.
Find fulfillment in the journey, not the end point. It is very difficult to excel at something you are not passionate about. Any goal worth achieving entails some degree of unpleasantness. Hard work. Long hours. Rejection and failure. The only way you will outlast these trials is to believe you are doing something truly worthwhile. There is no way I could have become a highly specialized retinal surgeon without enjoying what I learned in my psychiatry and pediatrics clerkships. I spent years learning things that have little to do with the surgical discipline I now practice; but they were necessary to hurdle in order to achieve my ultimate goal. As a writer, you may write an entire book and then scrap it before starting a new one that finds success. If you do not find joy in the process—if writing starts to feel too much like “work”—you should find another hobby or seek a different topic that inspires you.
Help others—they will help you. No author can do it alone. We all need teachers and friends to read and critique our work. There is simply no other way to improve. We need friends and connections to help us find agents and editors and more friends who are willing to attend events and leave book reviews. I am indebted to scores of surgeons who taught me how to save sight, and scores of others who helped my books succeed. And whenever I can help someone else, I try to do so if I can.
Gain trust by paying attention to detail. The most humbling part of my day occurs when patients who need an operation give me their trust within minutes of meeting me for the first time. That is an incredible honor and privilege. When I operate on a patient going blind from a retinal detachment, that person is trusting that I will be as meticulous with her as I would be with my own mother. In a similar way, authors consider it an honor whenever a fan takes the time to read their book. We are also asking readers to trust us. Nonfiction readers trust that the writer is an expert on the subject. With fiction, authors must write convincingly about characters, time, and place, because readers quickly see through anything less than genuine. So we should write about what we know, and convey details that make our prose authentic. I know about history, medicine, being a husband and father, and being Asian American. These are the themes I write about the most.
Find something that matters. When I chose a medical field, my most basic desire was to find one that mattered. I chose to be an eye surgeon because of how precious sight is to all of us. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I have to tell a patient they’ve gone blind and I am powerless to help. But I am always completely engaged because the stakes are so high. Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.
That night on the phone in the hospital, I stumbled through an explanation of how my patient had died—his initial presentation, our attempts to resuscitate him. The daughter was grief-stricken. It occurred to me that this conversation would be one of the most important of her life, a thought that gave me energy when I’d had none. We talked for a while, and I learned more about her family, and the way they’d loved the man I’d only known for the last two difficult hours. That was many years ago. Today I project the confidence of a surgeon who’s performed thousands of successful cases. The years between then and now were long and arduous, but it was entirely worth it and I’d do it again.
Writing books is just like that. Successful authors work hard, delay gratification, and learn from their mistakes. They take risks, never stop learning, and remain authentic. They enjoy the journey and know it is impossible to excel at something one does not find fulfilling. These qualities can be applied to any profession or goal. And those who adopt them may ultimately discover that their greatest satisfaction comes, not from the success they attain, but from the work and dedication that took them there.
What great life lessons, Andrew. Many thanks for sharing your journeys as surgeon and writer. Best wishes for Repentance. I’ve already put it on my TBR list.
Repentance by Andrew Lam ~~ France, October 1944. A Japanese American war hero has a secret. A secret so awful he’d rather die than tell anyone–one so entwined with the brave act that made him a hero that he’s determined never to speak of the war. Ever.
Decades later his son, Daniel Tokunaga, a world-famous cardiac surgeon, is perplexed when the U.S. government comes calling, wanting to know about his father’s service with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Something terrible happened while his father was fighting the Germans in France, and the Department of Defense won’t stop its investigation until it’s determined exactly who did what.
Wanting answers of his own, Daniel upends his life to find out what his father did on a small, obscure hilltop half a world away. As his quest for the truth unravels his family’s catastrophic past, the only thing for certain is that nothing–his life, career, and family–can ever be the same again.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.