Doctors as Authors: Five Tips for Physicians With a Creative Side

Professionals with intense schedules are frequently in need of a creative outlet. Doctors frequently turn to the arts, using their spare time to make music, paint, sculpt and write. Doctors are in a unique position to witness the drama of everyday life: courageous battles against illness, humorous stories, and human tragedy. These life experiences, combined with a desire for a break from reality, are a good formula for a fiction novel.

However, while, as a doctor, you are in a great position to be a good writer, there a few things you (and all first time authors) should keep in mind.  First and foremost, as a writer, your job is to entertain your reader. You want them turning the pages for more, not scratching their heads in confusion or putting it down in frustration. A happy reader will recommend your book to their friends and, if you write a sequel, will be the first to buy it. A dissatisfied reader won’t be interested in giving you another chance and might even give the book a bad review. Therefore, your primary focus should be on making your book reader friendly. With that goal in mind, here are a few suggestions:

1. Don’t Get Too Technical

Write what you know. It’s one of the best pieces of advice anyone can give to an author. As a physician, this means your characters may sometimes develop complex ailments that will add to the drama of the story. Don’t let your desire to get the description precise and technically accurate overcome the need to keep your reader with you. Depending on what you write, your reader may be young or old; educated or uneducated; or an avid reader or someone killing time at an airport. Whatever their level of sophistication, your job is to keep them turning the page for more. Too much medical terminology will confuse a lay reader and cause them to lose focus. (Lawyers are also guilty of this, by the way. A character preparing for a scene of intense courtroom drama will suddenly begin spouting complex legal theories in Latin). A good rule is to use enough medical terminology to add authenticity and no more. The bulk of your discussion about an ailment should be in simple, plain English.

2. Build Some Suspense

Character development is essential to a good book. This means you should think through and understand everything about your character before you write the first word. His education, experiences and upbringing will determine everything from what he wears to how he speaks and what he eats. However, your reader should not know everything up front. Although you need this information to determine how your character will act, your reader does not need this information to see what your character does or what he is thinking. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the reader needs to know going in why your character will do what he does. Use the story to tell the reader why. Give little bits of background information as and when it is needed throughout the story to explain whatever needs explaining. This builds suspense and creates surprises along the way. Dumping the entire character bio in one spot is a lot like making your reader review an encyclopedia entry. It is nothing more than a dry recitation of facts with no action, and it will not hold their attention. Considering that the first paragraph of your book is the most important—it is where you hook your reader—you can’t afford to waste it on dry facts.

3. Keep the Sentences Short

A very common problem among well-educated writers is the tendency to put numerous thoughts into one sentence. Detailed descriptions or related actions and thought processes are tied together with multiple conjunctions so that the reader will group them together. And, while we are all taught in college English that good essay writing requires us to avoid run-on sentences, for some reason, when people write manuscripts that rule goes out the window. The result is a manuscript plagued with sentences that continue for half a page. This makes for dense, difficult reading that will require a reader to review the sentence numerous times to get it. A fiction reader will have very little patience for difficult reading. Therefore, remember to keep your sentences short. If the sentence goes on for more than three typed lines or if it contains more than two to three thoughts, it’s too long. Obviously, there will be times that longer sentences are creatively necessary. But this should be the rare exception and not the rule. When in doubt, read the manuscript out loud. That’s a great way to see if it flows well. If you find yourself frequently taking breaths in order to finish sentences, your manuscript is probably too dense and your sentences need to be shortened.

4. Keep the Perspective Straight

There is always a temptation, especially with new writers, to let the readers see and feel the thoughts and emotions of every character involved in a scene. The theory is that it creates empathy for the characters, and it also conveys information. However, in reality, it creates confusion and makes the book hard to follow. In the industry, the practice of jumping from one character’s thoughts to another is called “head hopping.” As one writer puts it, “head hopping can give your readers whiplash.” Think of your book as a movie screen. Your reader arrives into the head of your main character and sees the actions and events of the book through the screen of your main character’s eyes. The reader experiences what your main character sees, feels and thinks from your main character’s perspective. The reader orients herself to that screen, seeing the action unfold from that vantage point.

Then, suddenly, someone else’s thoughts float in front of her. Where did that come from? How did the main character know that’s what the other guy was thinking, or is the reader supposed to be seeing the world from a different set of eyes now? The visual the reader has created pitches and rolls, and the reader is momentarily lost. She might flip back a sentence or two to see what she missed. And, just like that, you have pulled your reader out of the story. Instead of turning pages in anticipation, the reader has stopped reading and is trying to re-orient herself. To avoid this, when you write, always display to your reader only what the character from whose perspective the scene is being told would actually see or hear if he or she was a real person. The character can’t read minds, can’t know another character is bored, or cold, or thinking about what he did last night. She can analyze expressions or body movements and can draw conclusions, but she can’t know for sure. If the reader needs the information, have the other character say it out loud, let the perspective character draw a conclusion or, if it is absolutely essential that the reader know but the perspective character remain in the dark, close the scene, transition, and then begin a new scene from the perspective of the other character. When you change perspectives, closure and transitions are very important so that your reader stays with you. And once you have transitioned to another character, don’t bounce right back to the previous one. This makes the story disjointed and interrupts the flow of the action.

5. Don’t Rant

There are some things in life that just bother us. Some examples I’ve seen in manuscripts include people ignoring their dinner companions while they play on Facebook at a restaurant, people who check out at a convenience store while talking on a cell phone, young kids in baggy pants, and drug injury commercials. We all have something that gets under our skin so badly that the mere mention of it will set us off. It is fine to use things like this as background for your story. Opinions on issues that we are all affected by will breathe life into your characters and create a connection with your readers. However, be careful not to turn a mention of an opinion into a three page rant that has nothing to do with the plot or action of your story. While your readers may nod, smile or even applaud your opinion on the topic, after you have continued to go on about it for a page or two, they will lose patience and either skip through the pages, looking for a place where the action picks up again or, worse yet, put the book down. You want your readers anxious for more, not anxious to get it over with. So choose the mention of opinions carefully, and keep discussion on side issues to a minimum.

Writing a manuscript is a complex and time consuming task, and there are a lot of things to consider when you are planning yours. Filling all of those blank pages with words is a serious effort. Once you’re finished, you will have accomplished something that you can be proud of and share with others. As part of your planning, if you remember these guidelines you are well on your way to a book your readers are sure to enjoy. Good luck!

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