Tuesday, March 11, 2008


"The theme, not the plot."

***John Lescroart

HANK: That's not John Lescroart with the stethoscope, its the wildly acclaimed CJ Lyons, whose new book Lifelines is flying off the shelves. But I just came from a John Lescroart signing and chat--and what he emphasized and what CJ and I were chatting about recently turned out to be the same thing. Theme. (He's so terrific, of course, and I'm sure you've read all his stuff. I certainly have. And he's one of the authors whose books I'll instantly buy without knowing a thing about it. His newest, Betrayal, is intimidatingly good. And his daughter was at the signing--and when he read a particularly lovely passage from his new book, she was in tears. Which brought tears to his eyes. And then the whole event was up for grabs. It was quite a moment.)

Anyway! Someone in the audience asked why he thought his books worked so well--was it plot or character? And he said his books were character-driven, that the plot evolved from the characters--but that in the final analysis, the books didn't work unless there was a bigger theme that brought it all together. (He said all this more beautifully than I did.) But I wrote down the above quote and will put it on my bulletin board.

Which makes today's Wednesday-special-guest blog from CJ Lyons all the more perfect.

CJ is a physician trained in Pediatric Emergency Medicine. She's assisted police and prosecutors with cases involving child abuse, rape, homicide and Munchausen by Proxy and has worked in numerous trauma centers, as a crisis counselor, victim advocate, as well as a flight physician for Life Flight.

Publisher's Weekly proclaimed her novel, LIFELINES "a spot-on debut….a breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" and Romantic Times made it a Top Pick.

Nice. We'll be together as part of the Mystery Chix and Private Dix at the Romantic Times convention next month. And here she is on Jungle Red!

Theme, It's Not a Four Letter Word

Thanks Hank and everyone here at Jungle Red for inviting me! Hank and I were talking about theme—now, don't run and hide, I promise, this will be fun!
You see, to me, theme is important no matter your genre. So important that I think every writer has a personal theme that defines their "brand" and voice.
It took me a loooooong time to figure all this out—and I'm still learning!

Here's my take on it all: a brand is a subliminal promise to your readers—that any book written under this author's name will promise this type of emotional experience.

For example, even though I love to cross genres from women's fiction to suspense to thrillers to romance, every book I write has a theme central to my life: they're all about making a difference, trying to change the world.
Once I realized this fact, my tagline came easily: No One is Immune to Danger

Note that tagline is an emotional concept, not a promise of specifics. I did this on purpose because I knew up front that I didn't want to get locked into writing only medical thrillers. It works with medical thrillers, woman's fiction, romantic suspense, mainstream thrillers, etc. And it reminds the reader that I’m a physician—which is part of my platform or unique selling proposition.
So, you can see how finding your unique personal theme can really help build your brand as an author.
I also love finding themes for each of my books. It's often connected to the main character's inner conflict/greatest need.

So, while the entire story they're focused on a goal, what they want, the audience is subliminally connecting to the character because they understand what this character really, really needs—even if the character doesn't know it.
For instance, in LIFELINES (out now from Berkley!), the main character just wants to figure out why her patient died. Did she fail? Was she responsible? What should she have done differently?
As she investigates, she places everything in jeopardy: her job, her reputation, her career, her life. And then, as an unintended consequence, the lives of her patients.

That's when she learns what she really needs. It's not answers. It's people, she needs to sacrifice her independence and accept others into her life.
She needs LIFELINES. How cool is that?

I can't take credit for it—my agent, editor and I went through 71 titles (count 'em!!!) before the chief copy editor at Berkley was glancing through an early draft in order to decide which copy editor to assign it to. She stopped glancing, started actually reading, and was hooked!!!

A huge compliment in its own right—do you have any ideas how many books cross her desk in a week? Anyway, she knew we were looking for a title and suggested LIFELINES.
Duh! Smack to the head—I'd been telling my editor all along that the theme of this series was: it's not medicine that saves lives, it's people. And that this book in particular was the lone stranger come to town who could either leave alone, still a stranger, or embrace her new "family" and find a home.

Her family—the people she comes in contact with through the book—become her lifeline.
Why was knowing my theme important? Because it helped me to focus each scene, each character arc, each subplot around that theme. Now that I knew the book was about the general theme of "family" I went back and looked.
Thank goodness my reptile brain is smarter than the rest of me! I'd already woven through the book images of families—intact families, families that worked, families that didn't, families who weren't related, families who were created through the traumas they survived. It was all there.
All I needed to do was a little fine-tuning. Imagery, word choice, highlighting some conflicts, dampening others. All those little decisions we make every time our fingers hit the keyboard.
Know yourself, know your theme. Know your characters, know your book's theme.
Use them both to power up your writing and to grab your audience!
And most of all, have fun with it!
Thanks for reading,

Contact her at http://www.cjlyons.net


  1. Interesting concept, I never realized that my work had a theme, but I now realize that they all show that a person can make a difference.

    Thanks for causing me to think.


  2. Hey CJ and Hank, just stopped in to say hi and take a look at your 'Jungle'.

    Interest concept about themes. I'm going to have to think now too.

  3. Hi Vivian--nice to see ou here!

    Yes, CJ's so right--the theme thing (although annoying when your fifth grade English teacher tried to get you to find it in Ethan Frome) is so fascinating.

    Because looking at your writing through that filter, you begin to see your manuscript in a completely different way.

    The theme of Prime Time absolutely occured to me one night just as I was falling asleep. It was all I could do to prevent myself from running downstairs to the computer and revising the whole book, I was so galvanized. And it even made Prime Time a more compelling title. (How does that happen?)

    John Lescroart (to continue with my hero) said he doesn't always know his theme from moment one..but as he goes through and revises, it emerges and becomes clear. And then the rest of the work falls into place.

  4. Hi guys! Thanks everyone for stopping by--I was at my very first LIVE!!! TV interview!

    It was waaaay cool and so much fun!

    Anyway, thanks Hank for keeping the conversation going, lol.

    Vivian, I think we all have a "theme" inside us--if we figure it out, then we use that to build our brand. And oh yeah, that makes life so much easier!

    Hi Lois! Thanks for stopping by--can't wait to hear what your theme is!

    And Hank, I agree with John (gee, great minds think a like, lol!) I don't always know my theme at the start, but once I find it, wow, that's when the writing really takes off!

  5. I just love the cover, CJ. Great discussion going about theme.

    Lori Avocato

  6. Thanks, Lori! I love the cover--Berkley really came through!!!

  7. Sorry I didn't get to chat with CJ at Left Coast Crime..she was swamped by fans!

  8. Thanks so much for your insight Dr. Lyons, and Hank, great questions--as expected!

    To me, the most fascinating writers are doctors; I buy all of their books. I think it's because they are privvy to the most intimate of human conditions and writing is about exploring who and what we are. Thanks, Hank, for introducing us to Dr. Lyons.

    Amy MacKinnon

  9. Rosemary, Hi there! I know, there were so many folks at LCC that I missed, it was a whirlwind of a convention!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Amy, I think you're right--I've learned so much from my patients and their families. And the bottom line is that medicine really is about the people, not the science.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  11. CJ--

    Thinking about authenticity, and how medicine is truly that combination of people and science, as well as a vast education mixed with sometimes instant decision-making--

    Does it drive you crazy when non-doctors write about hospitals and medicine--and get it wrong?

    Do you see that?

    Can a non-doctor write a believable medical story?

  12. Great question, Hank! Actually, if it's just the facts they get wrong, I can forgive them (although I might consider them a bit lazy if it's something a simple google search would turn up).

    What I hate is when writers get the psychology wrong. Writing surgeons who act like psychiatrists or the like.

    But the psychology of doctors and their choice of specialties is probably the subject of a whole other blog!

  13. Hmmm... While writing, I've never thought in terms of a theme before. I'm not really sure how to figure it out. I will have to give it some thought. Thanks.