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Member Spotlight: Deborah M. Shlian

author Deborah Shlian and her book Lessons Learned

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? I am a physician as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction. For me, there is nothing more important than the ability to clearly communicate ideas – whether scientific data or fictional stories. Good writing can teach, persuade and inspire others. My latest book profiles women leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). With science and technology affecting virtually every aspect of life today, knowing how to write and communicate clearly for public consumption is as an essential a skill as knowing how to document academic research for publication in professional journals and books. Explaining complex topics for non-professionals requires an ability to communicate without using technical jargon and this isn’t always easy. The many payoffs for learning this skill include generating support for future scientific research and education, helping forge public policy, and discouraging the spread of misinformation as we saw with the Covid pandemic. My concern is that writing in general today may be losing some of its effectiveness as many find visual media more readily available and less intellectually challenging.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? I have several methods. First, I like to take long walks or just listen to classical music to think about a particular story idea I am considering. If I know a novel is going to take place in a particular locale, I may travel there as I did for my China novel and then do additional research online and in the library. Visiting an area often adds authenticity and detail to my descriptions and plot points. Because I have collaborated on several novels with both my husband Joel and Linda Reid, another physician colleague, for those projects, I have had the luxury of bouncing off ideas with them. Verbalizing my thoughts helps to clarify not only story elements but also overall structure and pacing. However, when I am the sole author of a novel or nonfiction book or chapter, I have found that when I hit the wall for ideas, I just have to sit down and try to fill the blank page. Sometimes nothing happens, but sometimes, magically, a character, story concept, or approach to the work appears.

What is your favorite time to write? I actually don’t have a favorite time to write. When I am writing a nonfiction book, like my latest, I generally begin early and work through the day. For novels, I have to wait until the ideas flow. I may spend months thinking about plot and characters and developing an outline before I actually start writing. Once I feel ready – day or night – I sit down at the computer. I know some people have a daily goal of completing a specific amount of words or pages. I keep writing until I feel satisfied that I’ve completed enough scenes or just hit a dead end, requiring some rethinking before I begin again.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? Write what you are passionate about, not necessarily what is trending. After two published medical mysteries I told my agent I wanted to write an international thriller based in China where I had spent time. She told me that no one was interested in China and I should continue writing the same genre that was currently popular (a la Robin Cook and Michael Crichton, both of whom I admire). Because of that advice, I didn’t write my novel titled Rabbit in the Moon for a decade. It ended up winning the Florida Book Award Gold medal and a number of other literary awards.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? I am most excited by the fact that there are so many more ways to connect with readers today – via social media like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram as well as ZOOM and YouTube presentations and more formats for one’s work (print, eBook, and Audio). In the past, it seemed necessary to travel around the country doing book signings and talks in order to help market my books. While I love connecting with readers, the pandemic proved that an author can reach an even wider audience by doing ZOOM presentations to book clubs and other groups. I am also happy that when some of my novels have gone out of print, I have been able to obtain reversion of rights (with the help of the Authors Guild, by the way) and re-publish the books. This has given them a whole new life.

Lessons Learned: Stories from Women Leaders in STEM edited by Deborah M. Shlian is out now with the ‎ American Association for Physician Leadership.