Career Shifts Happen: CJ Lyons Goes From Pediatrician To Best Selling Author

7 years ago
11th March 1966:  A Royal typewriter.  (Photo by Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)

Two weeks before her first novel was scheduled to be published, CJ Lyons received some devastating news -- the publisher pulled her book from publication because of cover art issues. The timing couldn't have been worse. CJ had quit her job as a pediatrician, moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, and had no other book contracts on the horizon.

Now, just four years later, CJ Lyon's first hardcover book will be published by Vanguard Press -- it's the first installment of a new suspense series that Vanguard Press asked her to co-write with Erin Brockovich.

Yes, that Erin Brockovich.

Being asked to co-write a book with Erin Brockovich could be a game-changer for CJ The Erin Brockovich brand will automatically garner media attention, the kind of attention CJ doesn't receive as a relatively new novelist. She knows if the book is well-received, it will mean thousands of potential new readers to her own books.

Prior to 2006, when CJ (a nom de plume) quit her job to focus on writing full time, she had spent 17 years working as a pediatrican. Trained in pediatric emergency medicine, CJ first worked in a big city emergency room and later in a private practice.

In the four years since CJ shifted careers, she has had three medical suspense novels published by Berkley/Jove -- a fourth and final book in the Angels of Mercy series will be released in the fall. In addition, she has self-published four more suspense novels on Amazon and Smashbooks.

To hear CJ explain it, leaving medicine was a very organic decision:

I have been a writer and storyteller my entire life. I sent a lot of time in timeouts as a child because it was difficult for me to tell the difference between the truth and fiction. Writing legitimized the voices in my head.

In college, C.J. started out as a theater major. CJ says her writing approach is influenced by her theater experience. She does not write from an outline and doesn't write in order. Instead, she writes in scenes and says she intuitively knows where the scene should go in the book.

Then, while in college, her biology professor announced that the medical examiner was going to do an autopsy on a homeless man and had invited interested students to observe. CJ jumped at the chance, and by the time the medical examiner completed the autopsy, CJ was thinking about switching majors.

Still, she continued to write. In college, she wrote a young adult fantasy story, and in medical school she wrote her first full length novel -- it was science fiction.

" I never thought of selling work or being a published author," CJ explained. " It always seemed like my way of dealing with the world."

That all changed during her first year as an intern, when one of the 12 people she was interning with was murdered. "The murder was widely publicized, and my way of trying to heal was to write." The result was Borrowed Time -- one of the books CJ has self-published.

It's the story of Kate O'Hern, a police detective who was left for dead by a serial cop killer. When a physician miraculously brings her back to life,  Kate awakes with a very strange side effect: She can foresee other people's murders. CJ says,"Writing the book was my way of processing the grief."

After working in the emergency room in Toledo, Ohio, CJ moved back to her hometown in Pennsylvania. It was during that time that she became friends with some women who were published authors. After reading CJ's manuscripts, her friends told her she was ready send them to publishing houses.

Since she was working as a pediatrician at the time, she decided to write under a pen name. She took Lyons because Lions are the mascot of the college in her home town, and the nurses picked CJ because it was asexual. " I needed a pen name because I didn't want my patients (young kids) thinking it was okay to read my books."

Within six months, CJ had a contract.

With that encouragement, CJ says she was willing to imagine her life as a writer, and so she  did a couple of things to prepare for a radically different lifestyle than being a physician who wore a beeper and made house calls.

First, she started working part-time. In her medical practice, that meant working 40 hours a week instead of the 65-80 hours that her colleagues worked. She also started saving money. She decided if she would try to write full-time, she wanted to have two years of living expense in the bank. The third thing she did was buy a home in South Carolina. "I realized that a writer really couldn't get a mortgage because the income is variable, sporadic and unpredicatable. So I bought the house while I was still employed as a peditrician."

For the next 18 months, CJ saved enough money for two years of living expenses. Then, with one book scheduled to be published and a second under contract, CJ left her practice and made the move to South Carolina. It was, CJ says, " a leap of faith."

Turns out, CJ was going to need to rely on her faith, because just two weeks before her first novel, Nerves Of Steel was scheduled to be published, it was pulled from publication. CJ's way of dealing with this professional setback was to do two things: buy back the rights to her two books and continue writing.

Two weeks later, the phone rang. It was Berkeley Press. They had recently read an early copy of Nerves of Steel and asked if she would be interested in writing a women’s fiction/medical thriller. The publisher said there was nothing like it in the marketplace. That was the beginning of the Angels of Mercy Series.

Set in the fictional  Angels of Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh, PA., two of those books,Warning Signs and Urgent Care, are finalists in this year’s Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. The first book in the Angels of Mercy series was a finalist last year.

Despite this success, CJ currently does not have any book contracts. Berkeley, which is publishing the final book in the Angel of Mercy series, has not asked for another book. While the book with Erin Brockovich is now with the publisher, there is no contract for a second book.

To date, CJ says she has not had to dip into her savings. In addition to writing books, she also teaches writing workshops and earns some income as a paid speaker. Her bookshelves are now filled with business and marketing books. One of her biggest surprises after winning her first contract was that the publisher expected her to have a marketing plan for her book.

CJ had no idea that, as an author, she would also be expected to create and implement a PR and marketing plan."It’s strange,  in my medical career I really focused on career planning. What I've learned about being an author  is that there really isn't any way to plan your career. You have no control if a book sells, how many copies it will sell, and if the readers will like it," says CJ. "I'm no longer tied to an actual career path. In writing, all you have is, can I finish the next book, and will I get paid for it?"

CJ says that's one of the reasons why she electronically self- published Nerves of Steel, the book she sold but then bought back the rights after the publisher decided not to publish it. It was a way to get some income.

There is a follow-up book to Nerves of Steel, but CJ hasn't decided whether to publish it. Her concern: Could bad reviews prevent all those potential new readers from the Erin Brockovich book from trying her solo books?

"A couple of reviewers  on Amazon dinged Nerves of Steel, and I'm concerned if I publish the other book, and people don't like that one, it will harm future sales."

Even with this career uncertainty, CJ is happy that she made the career shift. Unlike many writers, who follow strict guidelines for their writing -- either committing to writing a certain amount of words every day or writing at the same time for a certain amount of time every day, CJ describes her workday as unpredictable.

"I write what I want, when I want, where I want, dressed in whatever I want to wear."

She is often asked if she misses being a pediatrician. Some people have accused her of being selfish for giving up medicine to write books.  She doesn't miss dealing with HMOs or insurance companies. She does miss her patients but adds, "Knowing there are thousands of people who are enjoying your book is almost as good as getting a hug from a kid in the ER."

BlogHer Contributing Editor: Business & Career

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