Sunday, November 08, 2009


Hi guys! Thanks to Vicki for inviting me to Type M!

For those of you who don't know me, I'm CJ Lyons, a pediatric ER doc turned medical suspense author. My first book, LIFELINES, was published by Berkley in March, 2008 followed by my second book, WARNING SIGNS, in January and my third, URGENT CARE was just released last week. For more info on me or my books feel free to visit my website

I'm lucky enough that not only have I found two careers that I love (medicine and writing) and can make a living at, but also that I get to teach others about. I used to teach parents, kids, EMS professionals, nurses, doctors, firefighters, and even law enforcement officers. Now people pay me to travel across the country and teach about writing, and the most common question I get is: What is a thriller?

Good question. I've had the privilege of judging ITW's Thriller Awards since their inception as well as judging their romantic counterparts the Ritas, Golden Heart, and Daphne awards. Up until this year, for the Thriller Awards alone that meant reading around 150 books, trying to determine not the best book, but the best thriller among them.

So what makes a thriller?

My first and favorite definition of a thriller comes from David Morrell: if a thriller doesn't thrill, it isn't a thriller.

I love this definition, it's very intuitivie and visceral. But most of my students want something more definitive. Now, anyone who knows me is laughing by now because both in medicine and writing, I'm known as a bit of a maverick. I don't play by the rules, tend to think out of the box, ignoring convention, protocol, and boundaries.

In fact, my books are shelved in General Fiction and Literature (usually near Moby Dick!) because they're medical suspense novels with thriller pacing, romantic elements, and told from the point of view of the women of Pittsburgh's Angels of Mercy's ER. how many genre boundaries do I cross? Medical drama, suspense, thriller, romance, women's fiction?

Yeah, definitions are sooooo not my forte! So instead, I came up with a spectrum to describe my work and others--and to answer my students when they ask that pesky question.

Here's my take on the whole mystery/suspense/thriller spectrum:

--mysteries: deal with "Who" as in "who did it", "who will solve the case", etc. Mainly focused on a past event that begins the action (usually a dead body )

--suspense fiction: why? Why did the criminal act that way, why did the victim become the victim, why does the crime solver care and become involved. Mainly focused on the present--the impact of the crime on the psychology of those involved.

--romantic suspense: again focuses on "why" but with an additional "why should these two people be together" added. The romance is so intertwined that you can not remove it from the rest of the plot.

--thrillers: focus on "how" as in How will we save the world? ("world" being anything from the entire universe or planet to a country, town or other "larger" entity) How will we stop this terrible thing from happening? How will the hero find the courage, strength, tools, allies, etc necessary to overcome overwhelming odds? How will it all end?

The emphasis is on the future which, in my opinion, is what gives thrillers that wonderful free-fall feeling, that head rush of adrenalin as the stakes keep building and building.

Yes, you can have lots of action in mysteries and suspense, but the larger stakes and that constant forward momentum are what make thrillers, well, thrilling

--"Thrillers with Heart" (a term I coined for my own work) have at their core an emotional relationship that adds another dimension to the action plot. Again, like romantic suspense, this essential relationship can not be dissected out.

So, where do my books fit into all this? Let's see.....LIFELINES was defiitely a thriller. The stakes escalate tremendously until most of the city of Pittsburgh is at risk. And, as for that adrenalin rush? Well, Publishers Weekly called it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller"

My second book, WARNING SIGNS was more of a mystery. You don't know it until the end of the book, but everything that has happened is driven by a crime that took place in the past. The book is an investigation, and while the pacing is thriller-like, the stakes don't escalate tremendously from start to end. It's definitely focused on solving the puzzle of a mysterious disease killing patients--before it kills the main character, a medical student.

The third book in the series, URGENT CARE, falls into the suspense category, although given the rising stakes and pacing, some might call it a thriller....I suspect this is where the term "psychological thriller" is used. But this book is definitely focused on the psychology and relationships rather than the investigation or stopping the killer.

It's about why these victims, why this kind of crime, why this badguy is the way he is, why we fall in love with one person and not another, why we get up in the morning and go to work and do the jobs we do, why we live the way we live.....It's dark, and edgier than the other two books, I think, because it dares to delve more deeply into the murky realms of the human heart and mind.

Here's my challenge to you all--and yes, there will be prizes! Take a look at your own work or those of your favorite MSW authors, past and present, and see where they fit in this spectrum.

Some will be easy to place, others not so much. What do you think about genre-blending in your mystery/suspense/thrillers? A good thing? Why or why not?

Thanks for reading!
PS: To celebrate the release of URGENT CARE, I'm hosting a contest. One lucky winner will have their query package critiqued by my agent, Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Agency. Check here for more details: http://cjlyons. net/2009/ 10/08/cjs- query-contest/
About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller." The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, on October 27, 2009. Contact her at


jinxygrrl said...

Ooooh, sounds great. And looks like I'll have to go and buy the previous books, especially the one based in Pittsburgh.

Pick me to win!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Jixygrrl! Thanks for stopping by on a Sunday morning!!!

Morgan Mandel said...

Thanks for offering your definitions. It does seem sometimes that a book could fall into more than one category and it's hard to sort it out.

Morgan Mandel

CJ Lyons said...

Absolutely, Morgan--as I mentioned, it's a spectrum, a continuum.

Personally I like how they shelve books in the UK--all of these are under "crime fiction" rather than confusing readers caught between gen fiction/literature (where my books are, just to the left of Moby Dick, lol!) and mystery/suspense.

Rick Blechta said...

I don't know, but in looking at the covers of your books, the designer is flashing "romance novel" all over the place. From what you're saying, this current book really isn't anything like that.

Mixed message? I think so. Covers give a very strong message as to a novel's content, and I don't think your publisher has done you any favors here.

That's not to say the book wouldn't sell well, but only within a particular demographic. The images used would certainly cut off another.

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