Writing in the Age of Covid

When one is a writer, absolutely nothing in life or in your writing process, occurs in a vacuum. In my case, my medical work with the current Covid pandemic affects my thinking as I plot my next book in the series. The feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and relative helplessness that are present in general society are magnified in the medical field, at least in my experience. This is what it’s like writing in the age of Covid.

Facing ER Challenges

In the OR, we are used to facing patient care challenges. We arm ourselves with facts, know-how, and training. And then, we are typically prepared for successful, positive outcomes. Covid blew this out of the water. Everything about caring for patients had the potential to put everyone else in peril. Potentially, doctors and nurses could become patients. Making matters worse, no one had experience with the disease.

We All Have to Breathe

The moniker, “novel corona virus,” caused anxiety for OCD control freak perfectionists (ER and OR docs and nurses). A disease that defies conventional treatment, is unknown in scope, and has the potential to kill despite sophisticated medical therapy is despair inducing. The prospect of easy respiratory transmission is terrifying; we all have to breathe. 

I’ve seen a variety of pandemics in my medical career from HIV to H1N1 to Swine Flu, to Ebola (at a distance, thank goodness). To me, Covid has been the most personal. It has been sobering since every patient treated in the early days of the pandemic had the potential to carry the disease.

Face the Unknown

Emergency cases are just that — emergencies. You do them regardless of everything else. Yet, the OR is one step removed from the “face the unknown” atmosphere of the ER. I am in awe of the dedication, perseverance, and selfless service. In addition to witnessing the horror of what was happening, I read in many written accounts the struggle to come to grips with the biggest disaster in modern, medical history.

My Writing Path

I am not sure that my writing path for Taryn and company will lead me into the Covid epidemic specifically. However, I do think that my experience dealing with its issues and challenges will find its way into how I write about procedures I face as an anesthesiologist. It will surely give me an emotional framework for realistic writing where the threat of disease and disaster is present or looming. 

Conflict, tension, and uncertainty drive plots forward. The myriad of emotions needed to cope with Covid will undoubtedly spark the creativity of many artists. They will convey the threat and fear we now face in this strange new world. This is the reality of life in the time of Covid 19. To be continued….


Do What Brings You Joy

I find tremendous joy from writing and the decadent escapism I find during the process. Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn about the craft of writing. The process and journey of learning is equally wonderful. Put simply, I believe one should do what brings you joy.

I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills and squirreling away bits of arcane information. My nerd call sign should be “velcro brain”. In this article, you can find out habits of lifelong learners. After reading it, you can imagine how much I also enjoy the research that goes into writing a medical thriller. Once I acquire basic facts, I change gears and decide how to creatively alter those facts. The freedom to change fact to fiction allows me to develop a scene, create a setting, and imagine characters.

Infinite Possibilities

This brings me to what I hope readers will take away from my book. First, I want readers to be multi-dimensional in their assessment of my work. The possibilities of life are endless! Once you free yourself from focusing on the constraints of the current situation, you can imagine an infinite field of possibilities. This is true both for writing creatively and for life in general.

I also believe that having a healthy sense of skepticism when viewing “accepted” facts is a must. The tenet of “Question Authority” was a constant in my childhood home and has continued to be a driving force for me in medicine — a field that is fact and science-based. Regardless of this, I believe one needs to be employ critical thinking. The same is true with the topics that I write about.

Once I have a factual basis, I can have fun. Fantasy and day dreaming are invigorating and inspiring; even more so when writing fiction! I try to bring some of that daydreaming into my books as well as a touch of humor.

Dream a Little Dream

The second point is to never give up on your dreams. I listened to countless people give reason after reason why I couldn’t or shouldn’t be a writer. They cited that I had never written a book. As an anesthesiologist where would I find the time? But people didn’t understand why I wanted to try. Bottom line? Do what brings you joy!

My goal in writing Shell Game: A Medical Thriller was to focus on the behind-the scenes aspects of medicine that is rarely discussed, but has impact on real life.  Without generating panic and upheaval, there are critical and ongoing shortages of many types and classes of medications. The reasons for this are many; I have discussed some in Shell Game. I believe we all can look at our country’s love affair with ‘life by pill consumption’ and ask the critical question: Why? It’s every individual’s choice, but sometimes, it’s nice to look at the familiar and ask: What if… That’s actually how I started this wonderful journey of novel writing!

I hope you have gotten a copy of Shell Game and are enjoying it. I would love to hear your comments and questions. Happy Summer!


How to Switch On Your ‘Right’ Brain

After I solved the logistical and technical aspects of learning how to write fiction (it’s still very much a Work in Progress), it was time to figure out the when. The crazy hours associated with my medical practice make it challenging to carve out creative time for my writing. Although I frequently scribble notes that I hope to  expand upon after my time in the OR, time for plot development usually gets pushed to a new day. It can be hard to switch off the technical left brain. Even harder is learning how to switch on your creative ‘right’ brain.

Writing Means Rewriting

I had to accept that rather than the go-to-work and do-anesthesia routine, writing was a beast of its own schedule. Just because I had the time and the inclination, didn’t mean I could produce the type of material that I deemed to be quality. I learned quickly that the old adage of ‘killing my darlings’ was very true. As they say, the writing is in the rewriting.

Sometimes, I came up with a scene that popped. It was easy to write, the dialogue flowed, and everything just worked. That is, until I realized that my “perfect” scene contributed nothing towards the advancement of the plot. Many scenes that I loved writing and in truth, loved to read, ended up in the discard pile. As I self-edited and had professionals read and edit my material, suggestions were made and inevitably material was deleted.

Plot Pacing is Crucial

In order to keep a reader hooked, the advancement of the plot is crucial. The characters might decide to take over the plot and go on a detour. In some instances, it might work with the over pace of the plot. But then there are times when one finds they’ve written a tangent and headed down a meandering path. As a writer, one must look at their work with critical eyes and know when it’s important to get back on the main road.

When the Muses Speak…

The primary thing that I learn was that just because I planned on writing X number of pages in chapter Y,  I had to respect the creative muse that said, “Let’s write about this today instead.”  My writing schedule became much more fluid and productive as I became more responsive to the writing muse. Sensitivity to when I had the mechanics and structure of a scene just right was also a critical skill development. Those elements contributed toward effective creative writing.

From Expert to Rookie

I also had to learn how to accept constructive critiques and criticism. Just because I’m a subject expert in the field of anesthesia didn’t necessarily mean I could write about that subject in a fiction manner. From expert to rookie, I was learning a new skill — how to convey information effectively, but creatively.

With time it has gotten easier to enter into my creative mind about my highly technical field. Like medicine, the craft of writing is something I can easily foresee myself continuing to learn as I continue to write and publish. I never forget that to work in medicine is still called, ‘the practice of medicine.”  The art and craft of writing is no different. Artistry and creativity can truly be where you choose to see it.


What Music Inspires You?

Even writers have off days. Sometimes, the words don’t flow easily or the ideas are blocked. This can be true for me when I try to write on the same day that I’m in medical practice. To tap into my creativity, I have to put my technical mind to rest. To do so, I search for inspiration through music.What music inspires you?

For me, combining time outdoors with music gets a big thumbs. When I add a physical activity, then I’m on a roll. With earbuds in place, I set out. Walking my dog or plain just walking, hiking, or swimming, those are the ways I find creativity. In fact, I wrote this blogpost outside, under an umbrella. It didn’t matter that it was raining, I was inspired.

Mood Music

Of course, my earbuds were secure and the music was blasting. Once I get into my writing zone, I find myself seeking a song to fit the scene I’m writing. I can physically be anywhere — my home, a coffeeshop, by a pool — as long as I have my “writing music” on, I find what inspires me. Music helps me create my characters, and it’s a method used by other authors too.

Shell Game Playlist

I comprised several playlists while writing Shell Game since I had a wide range of characters with distinct personalities and interests. For me, the right song can solve dialogue and behavior roadblocks. A prime example is the character of Blake Myers. I knew that I wanted my strong female protagonist to have an equally strong male protagonist that would lead towards something more than a business partnership. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to create a person to fit with my female lead, Taryn, without superseding her personality. I also wanted someone whose character and voice would evolve as he and Taryn got to know each other’s attributes and faults. Maintaining this dynamic tension would be integral to Shell Game and subsequent books in the series. Creating believable, multidimensional characters would only enhance the medical suspense and thriller tale I would weave.

Classical to Country

I am a musical polyglot. I enjoy listening to everything from classical to country, rap to rock, electronica to reggae, and yes, even grunge. Putting my music library on shuffle can end up with some interesting selections back to back. The shuffle play action is how I ended up with music that helped me write about and learn Blake Myers. The song “Real Good Man” by Tim McGraw sealed the deal. I heard that song on a day when I had written and discarded more pages than I care to admit. I was trying to figure out how Taryn and Blake met and instantly came into conflict. With that song, everything about Blake clicked and the writing flowed. Soon after, I made a Blake playlist to go with my Taryn playlist. 

Some of my ‘Taryn’ songs included:

  • “Good as it Gets” by Beth Hart.
  • “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna
  • “Freedom” by Beyonce

To find the right mindset to create intrigue, spying, and crazy characters came from:

  • “Furious Angels” by Rob Dougan
  • “Saladin” by Hybrid
  • “Mumbai Power” by Skrillex
  • “I’m on Everything” by Bad Meets Evil 

The right music can transport me and help me see my characters and plot with clarity. My personal writing soundtrack changed as I perfected my manuscript, and was as fun to curate as the book was to write.


A Radically Different Career Path

Although my writing is fiction, much of it is reality. I was involved in a worrying clinical experience and a rapid shuffling out the door after I saw too much. I was ready for a change. I launched into a year of non-clinical research that made full use of my training as an anesthesiologist. During that year, I took time to decide my next steps and launched into a radically different career path.

A New Direction

My new direction was based on an independent anesthesia medical practice I established.  My guiding principle was to use my knowledge, experience and compassion to help patients navigate their medical care journey while providing my best version of medical care. I have been fortunate to discover institutions and groups that allowed me to achieve my goals and make a living. I have met some truly amazing human beings in the process.

Write What You Know

I also wanted to tap into my creative nature with an additional, non-traditional career.  I sought something I enjoyed which also allowed me to mine my experiences in the medical field. Writing fiction allows me to create something unique and in keeping with my values. 

“Write what you know” is something writers hear, because it’s true. My career has provided fertile grounds to harvest both stories and characters. The virtues as well as vices that I have seen are universal. I want to share glimpses into my medical world by creating works of fiction based strongly in fact. To a degree, I want to demystify this world while I embark on a second career path as writer.

After all, we all need to grab a little corner, a piece of joy, and happiness in the midst of confusion and pain. If I can provide someone escapism through my writing along with entertainment and food for thought, I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.


Change is the Only Constant

Just like the concept of staying in one city for your entire life has changed, so has the idea of remaining with one job, company, or profession. People take jobs for diverse reasons, but all share the need for viable employment. The lucky ones, like me, have a knowledge base and experience to build upon. Stories abound about HR departments, particularly those in high tech, being adverse to retaining older workers. Yet, even in the medical field, older, experienced doctors are not assured of job security. As the saying goes, change is the only constant in life.

Medicine has Changed

The insidious control by massive, for-profit healthcare corporations is aimed at increasing profits and affects everyone.  Even the terminology of medical practitioners — physicians, physician assistants, and nurses — has changed. This diverse group of highly trained and responsible professionals now falls under the moniker of providers. It’s not a tag that I appreciate. I worked hard in medical school and became a doctor. To commoditize myself is to cheapen what I do and why I do it.

Surrender Power

Therefore, to surrender power and meekly accept the designation of provider, rather than physician, simply emphasize loss of control and professionalism. I believe this category designation represents an administrative and financial power play. It implies removal of free will, autonomy, and relegates health care professionals to be interchangeable cogs. I find it an undermining of professional authority and disempowering. It’s also a clear reason why I write under a pen name.

Doing My Part

As a realist, I also realized that as one voice, in independent medical practice, I had zero chance to redirect the focus of the American medical system. Those in power value silent conformity over expressions of independence or dissent by physicians. Sadly, current medical practice can feel like one is wearing a straight-jacket rather than a garment one would voluntarily don.

While I can’t single-handedly change a changing industry, I can write about its darker side. I write medical thrillers. Perhaps, my pen name is fantasy. Like a Marvel superhero, it’s time for me to morph into a different creature and take on the dark side of medicine. 


D.J. Lee on D.J. Lee

A pen name, also called a nom de plume (French: [nɔ̃ də plym]) or a literary double, is a pseudonym (or, in some cases, a variant form of a real name) adopted by an author and printed on the title page or by-line of their works in place of their real name. Wikipedia

While the main facts of my bio (practicing anesthesiologist, Pacific Northwest resident) are true, D.J. Lee is indeed a pen name. So why the subterfuge? It would be easy for me to simply answer, “Why not?” but like a poorly written novel, that would leave you unsatisfied. In the spirit of full disclosure, I use a pen name because I also work as an anesthesiologist. Let me provide more information about myself here, or as I like to say, D.J. Lee on D.J. Lee.

When a Doctor Writes Thrillers

When I began to plot my medical thriller, I wanted my writing to be realistic. I gathered my ideas from my real life work situations. As you can imagine, people might get nervous if they discovered that their doctor writes about creepy medical situations. They would naturally wonder if these events occurred at the hospital they were about to go to for a procedure. They might be concerned that as their doctor I would be administering medicines to make them go to sleep. In short, how close does my anesthesia reality come to the imaginative one that I write?

Privacy over Fame

A pen name also gives me a bit of personal privacy in a profession that, despite the antics of Grey’s Anatomy and House, is very traditional, hierarchical, and even staid in nature. I’ve been an anesthesiologist for years, and I like doing my job. I wouldn’t want someone that I work with wondering if they were going to become my next fictitious villain. I usually wait a few years before the caricatures and parodies of people I work with end up in print (wink, wink). Also, nothing about the life of famous people makes me want to find myself in the news, easily recognized, or infamous.

The Best of Both Worlds

‘D.J. Lee’ gives me the freedom to explore another persona as a writer while continuing my regular career. I also enjoy having a different voice and viewpoint with D.J. than I express in real life. As I toyed with the idea of using my actual name, and all of the people who told me about the ego boost I’d get seeing my name in the proverbial bright lights, I realized that I would be happier behind the scenes. I value my privacy and my ‘day’ job. I want to serve me patients and my readers. Will I ever reveal? For now, like a good thriller or mystery, the ending is unknown.


When an Anesthesiologist Asks What If

Creating the plot behind “Shell Game” is a topic that practically chose itself. As an anesthesiologist, I regularly experience commonplace issues within the medical practice that are ripe for story telling. When an anesthesiologist asks What If the story and plot possibilities come to life.

A Day in the Life of an Anesthesiologist

  • Grappling with what I need in terms of supplies, medications, and techniques versus what is available.
  • Experiencing discord between hospital management and  surgeon preferences.
  • Disjointed time factors for when a complex procedure is available versus how badly a patient needs it.

Life Imitating Art

During the time that I decided to pen “Shell Game,” we were experiencing a drug shortage. Fortunately, it wasn’t life threatening or dangerous. It was just a temporary shortage of a drug that is usually available. My creative mind asked, “What would happen if we had a shortage of a mission critical medication?”

In real life, creative thinking and loaning of supplies was required by all involved. The characterization of an omnipotent doctor is reserved for television. In reality, doctors have to work together for the benefit of the patient. We communicate and compromise.

Plotting the Novel

But when it came to writing a medical thriller, I imagined a suspenseful plot. I began to research. Was a drug shortage plausible? Could hospital management be pitted against doctors? Could I convey medical complexities for average readers?

I began to sort through situations that people could relate to. For the record, most people who work in hospitals don’t know the ins and outs of anesthesia. That can be a good thing when writing a thriller. It’s a naturally terrifying topic. That’s when I decided to make a pharmaceutical issue the center of my book. After all, who hasn’t taken a pill or been touched in some way by the pharmaceutical industry?

Without giving all away, that’s how I developed the story of “Shell Game.”  I had a career’s worth of insight coupled with unbelievable circumstances, and funny interactions to make it even more interesting. More to come…


From Passing Gas to Novelist

Becoming a Novelist

As anesthesiologist, I regularly come across situations that seem made for a novel. But how does someone who passes gas for a living start writing? During post-residency fellowship training, I frequently helped colleagues by tinkering with the articles they wanted to submit to medical journals. I always had a fairly easy time writing and found that I enjoyed the process. I started to toy with writing fictitious tales about anesthesia or “passing gas” as we like to joke in my profession. From passing gas to novelist became a natural progression.

Critical from Beginning to End

After I decided on writing about anesthesia tales, I then had to decide on a genre and plot. Like flying, anesthesia is a profession that is critical from beginning to end. From takeoff to landing, or in my case, the start and end of the anesthetic. There is a lot of time in the middle where it’s usually calm and free of turbulence. If one is lucky, trauma and heart surgery is more rare, akin to flying through a storm.

A Novel is Born

Those calm times in the middle leave time for musing and random thoughts, naturally while keeping close track of what’s going on with the patient and the surgery. It was after weeks of intra operative and workout musings that I finally sat down and wrote out the nucleus of the plot and characters for my first novel, “Shell Game.”

To create this fictional medical thriller, I combined the skills I had acquired in writing scientific and medical articles with how I wrote less technical papers in college. The result had me spinning a yarn of a tale, allowing my medical knowledge to weave into my creativity.

However, I discovered that there was a big difference between writing scientific articles and fiction. I had great ideas, but the manner in which I wrote for science didn’t communicate as well for fiction. What was appropriate for a scholarly article was often the wrong thing to write in a fiction thriller.

My initial enthusiasm was tempered by equal amounts of frustration, rewriting, correcting, and sometimes totally trashing my work. I started working on the creative process. I took workshops, classes, and seminars. I read about the craft of writing as if I were back in school. In short, I did what I needed to do to find the bones of the story. From passing gas to novelist wasn’t as smooth a process as I imagined it would be.

An Ongoing Education

Work on the craft of writing, like any art, is an ongoing education — an experiential journey. I’m still doing it now in a variety of areas totally disconnected with fiction writing, but all of which will improve the quality of my work. Critique groups, workshopping pages, friend reads, and even stranger reads all with the intention of getting valuable feedback are part of my process. I was intent to learn what worked and what didn’t.

I also found it invaluable to evaluate other books I loved, and figure out how other authors approach writing. I even asked myself what exactly I enjoyed about their writing. After months and years of hard work, seasoned by time off for contemplation (and frustration) I started making progress.

Becoming a Novelist

I transformed myself from thinking strictly about what I do as a scientist and physician and began to immerse myself in the boundless creativity that writing represents. I took time as well as pleasure in becoming a novelist.

Questions and comments are always welcome. I’m excited to meet you and thank you in advance for showing up to read. I plan to  release excerpts from “Shell Game” so stay tuned and watch this space for the release date. Coming soon!