Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Visit with D. P. Lyle, MD

Macavity Award winner D. P. Lyle not only writes crime thrillers and nonfiction forensics, he's a practicing cardiologist. He also serves as medical consultant for a number of television programs. His series protagonist, crime scene and evidence analyst Dub Walker, is a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Assessment Unit and a former homicide investigator.

Doug, you have a long list of unsolved murders on your medical and forensics blog site. Why do you find those particular cases most interesting?

I think everyone is interested when a bad guy gets away with his crime. Maybe they want to know what clever ruse he used to fool the police. Maybe they want to know how the system failed.

Regardless, I think we get uncomfortable when crimes go unsolved because we would like to think that the criminal justice system works. It makes us feel safer. So when someone like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer are never identified, we squirm a bit. But then part of us likes to believe that sooner or later the perpetrator will be brought to justice. Remember that both the Green River Killer and the BTK killer remained in the shadows for many decades before they were finally captured.

Were you fascinated at a young age with murder? And why do you think people are intrigued with the crime?

As a child I was too involved in sports such as football and baseball to be concerned with murders. I didn’t even pay much attention to the news then. It was only later as an adult that my interest in these grew. I think everyone is fascinated with criminal activity and I think it has always been that way. The fascination with the Lindbergh kidnapping, the original Crime of the Century. The continued fascination with Jack the Ripper. And more recently, the national frenzy that accompanied the O.J. Simpson trial and the trial of Scott Peterson. It’s like a soap opera only real.

What’s your background in medicine and forensics and why did you decide to offer medical advice to writers?

I’ve practiced cardiology for over 30 years in California and so medicine has been my life for most of my life. I started medical school 42 years ago. Wow, has it really been that long? Regardless, I’ve always been intrigued with medicine and science and becoming fascinated with forensic science seems a natural follow-up. When I started writing fiction, I realized that forensic science would be a large part of the stories I was writing. It was also a large part of the stories I was reading. I began attending writers conferences as part of the learning process and once writers discover that you are a physician they began asking questions about how poisons work and what gunshot wounds look like and what happens when someone’s head is hit with a crowbar and things like that. I began a column for MWA in which I answered questions for writers and then I set up my website to do the same. From that I published two books of the best questions I have received. They are Murder & Mayhem and Forensics & Fiction and I just signed the contract for a third book in the series.

My reason for doing it is that I enjoy it and it also helps writers get their stories right. I think that knowledge is only worth something if it’s passed on. Otherwise it’s just stagnant information. But if it is passed to someone who can use it to bring the story to life then the information itself takes on a certain life. At least that’s the way I feel about it.

How did you come to work with the script writers for Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and 1-800MISSING?

I met screenwriters such as Lee Goldberg, Matt Witten, Paul Guyot, and others and began working with them on the stories they were constructing. It’s no different than what I do for the novelists I help. Screenwriters and novelists have incredible imaginations and I’m always fascinated with how they construct stories and with the wild questions they ask. I’ve said many times that I learn as much from the questions as I hope they learn from my answers. I should also add one more show to the above list and I think it’s a show that’s going to do well. It’s called The Glades and is coming to A&E in July.

Which came first: nonfiction forensics books or novels? How did one genre evolve into the other?

I began writing novels first. I wrote my first a dozen or so years ago. It was 138,000 words of garbage and my agent told me so. I then wrote two more novels, my Samantha Cody series. After that came my four nonfiction books and then I went back to novel writing for the current Dub Walker series.

What are the most common questions you receive from writers?

The most common deal with poisons. Everyone is looking for a poison that can’t be traced. It doesn’t exist. If it’s looked for diligently enough it will be found. The key is to make the murder look like something other than what it was and hopefully keep the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist out of the picture. Other questions deal with various traumas such as gunshot wounds and injuries from blunt objects. And then of course in the last couple years there have received many questions about vampires, zombies, and werewolves.

Tell us about your Dub Walker series. How did that come about?

It was a long evolution. The novel I mentioned earlier, the hundred and 138,000 word one? Stress Fracture is basically that novel after 23 rewrites along with four changes in title, three changes in location, and one change in protagonist. The only thing that remained the same was the bad guy and the basic storyline. It was a story I couldn't let go of, and as I became better at the craft, it became a better story. It is now around 85,000 words and moves very fast. The second in the series is titled Hot Lights, Cold Steel and deals with robotic surgery and it will be out in 2011. Just last week I finished the first draft of the third in the series, which at this time is titled Run To Ground.

What’s your writing schedule like? Are you still a practicing cardiologist?

Yes I still practice. I have no set writing schedule. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and sometimes late at night. It all depends on where my head is at. I always have a fiction and a nonfiction project going at the same time so that if I reach an impasse or get bored with one I can move to the other for a while. Right now I spend between 2 to 12 hours a day working on something related to writing. Either actually writing, editing, answering questions, working on various conferences, or creating posts for my blog. I also teach online courses at DeSales University in their Masters of Criminal Justice program. I’m starting a toxicology class in September.

Best advice you can give aspiring writers?

Write, write, write. And then write some more. And read. Read not only books in the genre that you write but also in other genres. You can learn from any good writer. I always advise people to outline their stories. Some writers do and others don’t so at the end of the day do what works for you but I find it helpful if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Lastly, write the story fast. Get the story down on paper from beginning to end and then go back and fix it. Writing is an art and a craft and I think too often we let the craft get in the way of the art. Tell the story the way you want to tell it, which is the art, and then go back and fix it, which is the craft.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think writers are an unusual and inquisitive lot. Never be afraid to ask questions about whatever you need to know to construct a believable story. Most people like to talk about what they know. If you need to know about stamp collecting, find someone who does that and ask them about it. Nine times out of 10 the person will bend over backwards to tell you what you need to know. You want to talk to someone at a police station or the FBI or someone in any field? Never underestimate the power of the word novelist. Some people tend to shy away from newspaper reporters but almost never from a fiction writer. They want to help you. They want to be a part of a world that they see as glamorous (If they only knew how unglamorous writing really is). And they want to share what they know with you. Just ask.

Thanks for taking part in the series.

Dr. Lyle's website is The Writers’ Medical and Forensics Lab

His blog is The Writer's Forensics Blog

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Visit with Chris Grabenstein

A prolific novelist, Chris Grabenstein began his career in a comedy troupe with Bruce Willis. He also wrote for Jim Henson and the Muffets as well as television and radio commercials, his mentor James Patterson. He now concentrates on thrillers, children's ghostly novels and screenwriting.

Chris, what was it like to perform in the same comedy troupe with Bruce Willis during the early 1980s?

A lot of fun! Improv, like they did on the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" is a terrific way to force your imagination to come up with something wonderful right away. I still use improv techniques every day when I write. Back in the early 80s, Bruce Willis was just, well, a young actor named Bruce who had moved to New York City, like everybody else in the troupe, looking for his "big break." Agents and casting people would come to our shows, hoping to discover talent--like that scene in "The Goodbye Girl" where Richard Dreyfus is in that horrible production of Richard III down in a Greenwich Village basement. That was us. Bruce, as I recall, was tending bar. I was a temp secretary. Others were waiters. We all did our day jobs to make money and then came alive at night when we went to rehearsals or did our shows.

How did James Patterson discover your writing talent?

In 1984, tired of making ten dollars a show doing comedy while spending forty hours a week to make money to support my "habit," I decided to look for a job where I could be creative during the workday, too. Mr. Patterson at the time was the creative director of J. Walter Thompson Advertising in New York and ran a full page ad in The New York Times, headlined "Write If You Want Work." Two thousand people took the test. I was the first person hired. Jim took me under his wing and taught me how to write copy...techniques, which translated, later, into how to write books people can't put down.

Tell us about your writing background in advertising and screenwriting.

I spent seventeen years writing (mostly) television and radio commercials, ending my career as an executive vice president and group creative director at Young & Rubicam. In my early years of writing advertising, before it became an 80 hour a week kind of career, I also found time (following Mr. Patterson's example) to work on screenplays, etc. "The Christmas Gift," a made for TV movie I wrote with a college buddy, is still on the air every year. Starring John Denver, it premiered on CBS in 1986 but still earns residuals every year. In 2009, my partner and I split $26. We're talking big time. I also wrote for Jim Henson and The Muppets and took a lot of screenwriting courses. A lot of what I learned in all those writing experiences helps me in my day to day novel crafting.

Six of your mysteries have been published since 2006 when you won the Anthony Award for your first novel, Tilt a Whirl. Are you a rapid writer or did you have unpublished manuscripts in reserve when the first was published?

Well, actually, a few more than that have been published since September, 2005 (right before my 50th birthday). Six Ceepak mysteries (Tilt a Whirl, which won the Anthony Award for best first mystery, Mad Mouse, Whack a Mole, Hell Hole, Mind Scrambler, and this month, Rolling Thunder), two Christopher Miller Holiday Thrillers (Slay Ride, Hell for the Holidays), and three middle grades ghost stories in my Haunted Mystery series: The Crossroads (winner of the Agatha and an Anthony), The Hanging Hill (winner of the Agatha), and, this August, The Smoky Corridor. So at the end of 2010, I will have had eleven books published.

I am, I think, a disciplined writer and, after all those years in advertising, used to sitting down and writing for a good long time every day. I also have a bunch of unpublished manuscripts as, it seems, I typically write 3-4 books, a short story, and a play per year.

How did your children’s ghostly novels come about? Did you plan in advance that your wife would do voice overs for the audio editions?

I wanted to write something that my nieces and nephews could read--since the adult mysteries and thrillers were all a little too adult. And, even though the stepmother, Judy Magruder, in the books, is based on my wife J.J. Myers, it wasn't our plan that she do the narration for the audio books. When, however, Random House asked me for suggestions, I gave them two: If they wanted a male, go with Jeff Woodman who does a brilliant job on the Ceepak books for Audible, or J.J. Myers, who knows the material inside out, because she is my first editor. They picked J.J. and she won a Headphones award for her work on The Crossroads. She is really, really good. Created not just voices but characters for all 42 people in that book.

You have quite a family of pets. Have they helped with your storylines?

Definitely. Fred, the dog, helps me on a daily basis because I use his dog walks to day dream about story lines. He is also the inspiration for much of what Zipper does in the YA books. My first dog, Buster, was the inspiration for Ceepak's dog Barkley. The cats help, too. Parker, the gray guy, became the crazycat Jinx, the back-from-the-dead feline in The Hanging Hill, and Tiger Lilly, who is always getting into everything around our apartment, was the inspiration for Curiosity Cat, the character Judy Magruder writes children's books about and who we brought to life this year in a play I wrote for the Children's Theatre of Knoxville, called, "Curiosity Cat", of course. That play, which had its world premiere last month and was a big hit with the kids in the cast as well as the audiences, will be available for production everywhere soon via The Samuel French Company.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you aim for a certain amount of words or hours at the keyboard each day? And do you write every day, including while you travel?

I try to write 2,000 new words every day, no matter how long it takes. Some days, I'm done in 3-4 hours. Others, 8 or 10! I try to write Monday--Friday and have found that trains and airplanes make great writing rooms, if I have my headphones and a good iTunes playlist. I take a week off between projects to recharge my brain and usually spend the time doing something that allows me to daydream--like washing windows or working on our roof garden.

What are the main ingredients in a bestselling novel?

Gosh, if I knew, maybe I'd be a best seller! I try to write the kinds of books I loved to read when I was working in advertising and flying around the country on shoots or to visit clients: Page burners. Compelling characters and stories that you can't put down. Conflict and tension on every page. Lots of reversals and twists. The longer I am in publishing, however, the more I realize becoming a true best seller requires the major support of your publisher to position you to become a best seller. Without it, you can write the best book in the world and very few people may ever know.

What’s the best way to attract an agent?

Write a story they can't put down. Something they haven't seen. Something with your own unique voice. When I was a group creative director, I always hired copy writers who had something in their portfolio that made me say, "Man, I wish I had written that ad!" With manuscripts, you need, now more than ever, to elicit a similar response. The best place to "meet" an agent, I think, is at a conference or seminar. I've heard agents say the same thing.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep writing every day. And--this was the hardest advice I was ever given--decide whether you want to be a writer or to write the one book you have written and keep rewriting because you know it will be a best seller just as soon as people stop rejecting it. To be a writer means becoming someone who is constantly writing something new, not constantly reworking the same idea until someone buys it. Eventually, you need to put that first book away and move on to the second or third. Tilt a Whirl, my "first" book, was my fourth manuscript.

Also, learn from others. Find a book you love and tear it apart. Strip it down and analyze its structure. Look for the ghost in the machine. What makes it tick? Learn the craft from a master craftsperson you admire.

Thanks, Chris, for taking part in the series.

Chris's website: