Thursday, July 17, 2014

Buddhism for Novelists

by John Burley

Around the time when I was finishing my first novel and embarking on the arduous road to publication, my wife began taking an interest in Buddhism. “It says here there are Four Noble Truths,” she advised me, offering some tidbit of impractical wisdom.

To be honest, I wasn’t paying attention. I was distracted, agonizing over how long it was taking to secure an agent, to edit the novel down to a reasonable length. I was submerged in the agony of decimating some of my favorite chapters and leaving them twitching in the dust, all for the sake of a more marketable product. “The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering,” Lorie quoted, but I was in my own private hell and not listening.

Eventually, I was lucky enough to find an agent who was enthusiastic about my work. But the pain didn’t stop. “The manuscript is still too long,” he told me. “You’ve got to cut out another fifty thousand words.” Impossible, I thought. It’ll destroy everything I’ve worked so hard to create. But I wanted the book to see the light of day, and so I picked up a machete and went to work on it, lopping off appendages and major organs until I barely recognized the massacred thing in front of me.

 “The Second Noble Truth is that suffering arises from attachment to desires,” my wife read to me one evening. I barely heard her as I sat there mourning my novel, knowing how altered it was from what I’d originally intended.

And so it went. We cut the length of the story almost in half, signed with a publisher, and the first thing the editors said was, “The pacing lags in the middle. The whole middle third of the book needs to be re-written.” I fumed in silence, continued to circle the drain of my creative demise.

“The Third Noble Truth is that suffering ends only when you let go of your desire,” Lorie reminded me, but I was too far gone for platitudes.

I re-wrote the middle section of the novel, did what my editors asked—not because I thought they were right, but because I was in too deep now and there was no other way. It was a dark and difficult crossing. And what I discovered on the other side was this: The story was much better because of it. My agent and editors had helped me make the novel stronger, not weaker. Despite my resistance, they’d saved me from getting swept away in the current of my obstinacy and inexperience.

“The Fourth Noble Truth is that freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path,” Lorie quoted that night as I climbed into bed. “It’s about changing the way you see things, changing the way you think. It’s not sufficient to simply believe. You’ve got to have enough faith in the process to walk the path.”

“Right,” I said, turning out the light. And, at last, I was at peace.

THE ABSENCE OF MERCY (William Morrow, 2013)
When a teenager is discovered brutally murdered in the woods of a small Ohio town, medical examiner Dr. Ben Stevenson becomes entangled in an investigation that will force him to uncover the dark secrets of his seemingly quiet community and ultimately to confront a truth that will haunt him forever. With its nerve-fraying plot twists and eerie portrait of suburban life, The Absence of Mercy is psychological suspense at its best.

John Burley grew up in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. He attended medical school in Chicago and completed his emergency medicine residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center and Shock Trauma in Baltimore. He currently works as an emergency medicine physician at an urban trauma center in the San Francisco Bay area. His debut novel, The Absence of Mercy, was honored with the National Black Ribbon Award in recognition of an author who brings a fresh voice to suspense writing. You may visit John at


Jenny Milchman said...

Thanks for being a Guest at TTB, John! I've saved this post to read for my dose of Zen. Which may of course be the opposite of Zen ;)

John Burley said...

Thanks, Jenny. Hope it helps. This is a good one to review throughout the re-writes.

clpauwels said...

Gives me a new perspective on the Four Noble Truths - thanks, John!