A surgeon’s advice…on how to write books

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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

From CEO to Rookie Historical Novelist with John Bell

John Richard Bell was born in Chigwell, UK and now resides in Vancouver, Canada. Before becoming an author of historical fiction, he was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a global strategy consultant. I’m delighted to have John on the blog sharing his story of becoming a novelist. Welcome, John and over to you.

From CEO to Rookie Historical Novelist by John R. Bell

“If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever,” my daughter said.

I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. That was 17 years ago. Grandad was 80 at the time. He’s now 97. The family had heard his war stories over and over again. Fascinating tales of trials and tribulations. As a young Yugoslav air force pilot, he was coerced onto the wrong side of WWII with the German invasion of 1941. They dispatched him to the Russian front – from there to surveillance over the Adriatic Sea where he would parachute into the frigid waters with 3 bullets lodged in his body – after that, unsanitary Italian hospitals, North African detention centers, and finally POW camps in Illinois and Louisiana where he would spend the rest of the war. Yet his troubles were far from over. Upon repatriation, he became an enemy of the state in Tito’s newly-created communist regime.

After hours of historical research and interviews with Grandad, I self-published his biography and printed enough copies for the family and a few generations to come. I thought I was done as an author. That was not the case. My career as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company had come to an end with the sale of the company. On my back as I bailed from the corner office was another type of parachute, a golden one. Though financially secure, I was too young to retire, so I decided to reinvent myself as a corporate strategy consultant. That career shift resulted in plenty of travel and lonely nights in hotel rooms.

How would I use all of that down time? I began blogging about leadership, strategy, and branding on my website CEOafterlife.com – pumping out a blog every week. A hundred blogs later, I thought back to Grandad’s story. Could I fictionalize that tale into a thrilling novel? I thought I could. But after penning a few chapters of what would become The Circumstantial Enemy, I was struck by my naivety. I knew nothing about writing fiction. Eager to learn, I didn’t write a word for a year because I threw myself into books about how to write fiction and historical fiction. My next mistake was penning a manuscript of 225k words. When everyone and their brother said it was too long, I cut it back to 180k. Then another 40k went into the fireplace before literary agent Eric Nelson agreed to offer advice.

Though he loved the story, Eric said I needed better structure and focus. He also said he was shifting his own focus to the lucrative business book market. I said that I could write a business book for him. Nine months later, Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World was released by Palgrave Macmillan USA.

Do Less Better was an easy transition from blogging. Writing fiction was another story. It became the biggest challenge of my CEO afterlife. Eight years ago as a retiree I began The Circumstantial Enemy. I had the first draft complete in 2 years. I needed another 3 years for rewriting and editing as well as checking the historical facts and all those little details of the 1940s that had to be correct – a 100% correct. And then there was another 3 years of trying to persuade bona-fide publishers to take on the project. In the end, my persistence paid off.

More than 20 years have passed since I left the corner office. It seems like half that long. Much has changed, including me. Somehow I reinvented myself. Transformation is never easy. Reinvention never happens without passion, determination and hard work. At 71, I am a rookie historical novelist. More importantly, I’m just another example of an everyday guy getting out of life what he’s putting into it.

The Circumstantial Enemy by John R. Bell – When Croatia becomes a Nazi puppet state in 1941, carefree young pilot Tony Babic finds himself forcibly aligned with Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to Tony, his sweetheart Katarina and best friend Goran have taken the side of the opposing communist partisans. The threesome are soon to discover that love and friendship will not circumvent this war’s ideals.

Based on a true story, The Circumstantial Enemy is an energetic journey to freedom through minefields of hatred, betrayal, lust and revenge. Rich in incident with interludes of rollicking humour, it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit, and the power of friendship, love and forgiveness.

Many thanks for telling you story, John. As someone who spent thirty year in technology and consulting, I can identify with the learning process you’ve gone through and the notion of reinvention. Have you gotten used to calling yourself an author yet?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Interview with JoAnn Smith Ainsworth

JoAnn Smith Ainsworth experienced food ration books, Victory Gardens, and black-out sirens as a child in WWII. These memories create vivid descriptions of time and place and have enabled JoAnn to write a WWII suspense series that combine fast-paced mystery and paranormal realms as U.S. psychics hunt down Nazi spies. Sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

Why do you write historical fiction? 

To write a contemporary novel would take entirely too much research for me. I am 78 years old. I grew up with grandparents born in the 1880’s, and I have lived a lot of the experiences in my novels. Historical settings are an easy fit for me.

What do you think attracts readers to your books?

Readers tell me they are attracted by my skill in crafting a novel which invokes nail biting suspense.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

I am a plotter, not a pantzer. A story does not flow out of me. I craft it bit by bit, starting with the story question set in an historical time and place. This decides the kinds of characters I will create and the problem/crises these characters will face.

How do you select new stories to tell?

I’m writing a series set in WWII wherein the U.S. govt. recruits psychics to find Nazi spies. Expect Trouble, Book 1 of the series, needed a lot of thinking to create a storyline and characters that would logically change and transform over time. Once that work was done, the new stories evolve out of the ones told.

For example, in Book 2 of the series, Expect Deception, the psychics are beginning to work as a team. The Nazi spy is a magician skilled in the black arts so they do need all their skills combined to fight this villain on a paranormal realm. In Expect Betrayal, which I’m writing now, the action moves to war torn England and a British psychic joins the spy search.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time or creating a series like you have done?  Any disadvantages?

The advantage of concentrating on WWII is that I was six years old and starting first grade at that time. I remember the feel of the fear when air raid sirens sounded. We turned out all electric lights, covered the windows in the dining room with blankets, sat around the dining room table with a dimmed kerosene lantern for light, and listened to the radio to learn what was going on and when the sirens would sound the all clear.

I remember the food rationing and how the town was drained of young and middle-aged men. Three of my uncles went to war and one didn’t return. All these experiences give historical accuracy of time and place that reviewers notice in my novels.

On the paranormal side, I attended the Berkeley Psychic Institute from 1974-1978. This experience gave me a foundation for creating a variety of characters with psychic talents.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I wake each morning without aches and pains, thank God. I exercise over an hour, which includes breathing and meditation exercises, as well as various physical exercises. I then start to write. Because of how focused and intense writing is, I can only write for 3-4 hours. The rest of the day is for admin, marketing, and chores.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand?

I branded myself before I ever submitted a manuscript to a publisher – by colors, fonts, photo, and tag lines (http://www.joannsmithainsworth.com). Although I experimented with genres/sub-genres, my author Voice – how I choose my words, the novel’s pacing and tension – remains the same over all six published novels and that is also my brand. 

What do you do to connect to readers?

For a personal meet-and-greet with readers, I try to get out a couple of times each month to be at book fairs, or do panels and booksignings, or give talks to reader groups and community organizations. I also tweet daily. These tweets feed into Facebook, my website, and a number of social media pages. I put a blog post up on Goodreads each month and do a Goodreads giveaway each quarter.

What do you know about your readers?

My readers enjoy nail-biting suspense wrapped in other worldly experiences at the pace of a thriller, but with the feel of a cozy.

Many thanks for visiting A Writer of History, JoAnn. And best wishes for your WWII series. JoAnn will return with a guest post on combining historical fiction with paranormal elements.

EXPECT DECEPTION – Just when U.S. WAVE Live Delacourt things she and her team of psychic Nazi hunters are ready for whatever the Reich can throw at them, Hitler adds to the mix a spy who also happens to be a wizard. Now, dark magic is being used to attach U.S. facilities and Livvy must match wits with an evil wizard, whose objective is to destroy operation Delphi and all her team. If she fails to ramp up her psychic powers, she may perish–and perhaps cause the U.S. to lose the war with Germany while she’s at it.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.