Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this special Mystery Month installment of our Publishing U series, physician/author Kwei Quartey (Gold of Our Fathers, 2016) explains how he balances medicine with writing and offers advice on keeping your boss, your publisher, and your inner bard happy at the same time.
When I was a boy growing up in Ghana, West Africa, I wanted to be an author, but my life took a different path before I would return to my dream. By my early teens, my interests had shifted, and I was quite certain I would become a doctor instead. By the time I entered medical school, my studies had subjugated my creative writing.
In pre-med, the first serious medical case to confront me was, sadly, my father, who, over the course of six months, lost weight to become skin and bones, ultimately dying alone in a London hospital of pancreatic cancer. At the time, Ghana was entering a period of dangerous social and political instability, and my widowed mother, a black American, didn’t want to stay any longer. After a life in the first West African nation to gain independence from its colonial masters, we packed up and left, returning to the embrace of my grandmother in New York. She had never wanted her daughter to leave, in any case.
Now I faced the problem of how to continue my medical training. Eventually, I got into Howard University College of Medicine. During four years of medical school, life consisted of studying, going to class, eating bad food, and occasionally, sleeping. I never wrote any fiction during that time, but my love of writing was always there, sitting quietly in the background and waiting for its day in the sun. After medical school and my residency training, I found it oddly anticlimactic to be a physician.
There is a long line of physicians who have become writers.
One day, while I was working in the ICU, a nurse who knew me well noticed I was looking despondent and asked what was wrong. After I’d told her about my letdown, she asked what else I wanted to do. I told her I’d always wanted to be a writer. She suggested I take a six-week creative writing course at the UCLA extension program, so I did. After that, I joined a writers’ group, where I remained for several years and two completed novels, one of which, Kamila, is now an e-book.
Though busy with my medical practice, I was trying to get my fiction published. To be clear, I wasn’t always writing at full bore. Sometimes, months passed without writing at all, and once even a whole year went by because I was so disheartened by not being able to find an agent. At other times, I wanted to write, but I was so exhausted from my medical work that I found I wasn’t up to it. As was the case in medical school, I staggered to the well of creativity and found it bone dry.
There is a long line of physicians who have become writers: Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, and Khaled Hosseini are just a few. How or why this relationship came about isn’t clear, not even to me.
My breakthrough came when I wrote my first novel set in West Africa. I didn’t find an agent for another year or so, but when I did, the Inspector Darko Dawson series, set in Ghana, was born. Seven years later, authoring and practicing medicine compete fiercely for my time. As a practical matter over the years, my brain has learned to switch back and forth instantly between the two modes.
I know I’m not alone in this challenge of juggling two callings; it’s a fundamental problem for most writers. After dealing with this struggle for decades, I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
Structure your time. Time management is essential. Plan your day in advance, and even aim to have an idea how you will spend the whole week. Make a list, if that helps. If you write better in the morning (like I do), then know what time you’ll wake up to begin writing. I wake up at 5:00 AM on both weekdays and weekends and write before starting my day at my medical practice. Maximize your writing on days off. That’s when you’ll get the most bang for your buck.
Be nice to yourself. I don’t set a goal of a certain number words or pages I should write every day. I think that’s fine for full-time writers, but when you have a double career, your “other job” may steal time away from your writing. If, at the end of the day, you haven’t written a single word, don’t beat yourself up about it.
Play well with others. If possible, get your employer or administrator on your side so he or she will understand if and when you need to ask for some time off to write, or perhaps to do a book tour. If you’ve already had a book published, give it to him or her as a gift, or share a good review with him or her. I also recommend giving away your novels to colleagues who will cover for you while you’re away.
Mind your schedule. If you have a publisher, make it clear how much time you have for book events and how much travel you can undertake. It will depend on your schedule. Are weekends and evenings free? Try to get local events set up—book signings and fairs, for example—so you can minimize travel time.
Listen to your gut. A time may come when you have to make a difficult decision about whether—and how—to loosen or break ties with your job and give more time to writing, which is exactly where I find myself now. It can be scary, but when your instincts speak up, listen to them. You never want to look back with regret that you didn’t fully embrace your passion.
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Kwei Quartey is a crime fiction writer and physician living in Pasadena, California. His books include Wife of the Gods (2009), Children of the Street (2011), Murder at Cape Three Points (2014), and the fourth Darko Dawson novel, Gold of Our Fathers (2016). Death at the Voyager Hotel, a mystery e-novella not belonging to the series, was published July 2013. Dr. Quartey is also a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime, a fiction writers’ organization. You can learn more about him by visiting his website, or follow him on Twitter at @.