Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 2

So now, step back in time to 2005 or thereabouts....

That's when I decided to write a book about how custody cases affect lawyers. I wanted it to be an insider's look on the process of what we do, why we do it, and how we live and breathe these cases. Except I couldn't -- the attorney-client privilege forbids revealing client confidences except under certain, very narrow circumstances (i.e., to prevent death or significant bodily injury).

That's when the notion of my writing a novel about a custody case took root.

There was a problem: Although I'd written a lot of professional articles, I hadn't written fiction since, oh, maybe high school... And writing fiction is light-years away from writing affidavits, briefs, and all other papers that I routinely crank out in the course of legal representation. (I wrote here, on this blog, about how different the two forms of writing are:

In a nutshell, the fiction writer SHOWS a character's feelings, both physical and personal; shows actions and scenes through dialogue, movement, description; paces the story to avoid glossing over nuances, and to ensure logical connections (i.e., someone has to actually get from point a to point b).

The legal writer recites factual information more objectively (albeit with the perspective and interests  of the client first and foremost), stating the facts and then weaving in the law to demonstrate how it applies to those facts.

It took me ten or fifteen years to master the art of legal writing. And then? I had to unlearn it -- completely -- in order to learn the craft of writing fiction. That process took me at least three years.

I started by taking a four-day writing conference designed to help lawyers learn how to write fiction. Every lawyer there wanted to be Grisham or Turow -- that was the essential concept behind the conference, anyway. The course was run by SEAK, and the featured lecturers were Stephen Horn and Lisa Scottoline. (Lisa is fabulous in person, by the way.)  Both are criminal lawyers who write  terrific thrillers, which is not my background nor was it my intended genre. That didn't matter at all for purposes of the conference -- these two excellent writers/instructors made me realize how much I needed to learn.

Over the next three years, I waffled about, then gradually drafted a shitty, cathartic manuscript (that looked nothing like Client Relations) in which I struggled to put my limited knowledge of fiction-writing, based on that one conference, to work.

I then went to another writer's conference, this time hosted by Backspace (an online writer's group), in May 2008, thinking I knew what I was doing. Wrong. At the conference, the opening pages of my draft were blasted into shards by breakout groups. The agents and attendees in my breakout groups were pretty merciless -- they'd use my (lousy) draft, and those of other aspiring writers, read the first paragraphs aloud, and then say how terrible they were. And they explained why. It was a disheartening, miserable experience. After I returned home, I cursed a lot and told myself to forget the whole damn thing.

It took months to get over that conference. Looking back, I believe that the conference itself was really really good. Being publicly drawn and quartered was quite a learning experience  - although I still wish it hadn't been so, well, PUBLIC.


By November of 2008, I braced myself for another attempt at the manuscript...


  1. Really interesting to draw the comparison between legal writing and writing fiction. It has been surprising to me to learn over the past six years (about how long I've been serious about writing) that being really, really smart and successful in a top field does not automatically qualify one to be smart and successful in writing fiction. In other words: that fiction is a craft, like anything else, and really must be studied and learned in order to master. That said, I can not but believe your years of discipline in the area of legal writing have helped you get to where you are now. My background is in technical publishing, where the meaning of single words can make an enormous difference; the presence or absence of an article or preposition can affect an entire procedure. I'm guessing this is even more true in legal writing. If there's one thing I've learned can help your fiction, it's attention to detail.

  2. Hi Andrew, thanks so much for reading, and for your comments! Legal writing is highly specialized, and as you correctly note, requires strict attention to detail. The technique however, is worlds apart from fiction writing- facts are told (not shown), with minor details either summarized or omitted. They are woven into the law after the law itself is laid out, point by point. The arguments are outlined, organized so the reader (I.e., the judge) is told what s/he should decide via the power and logic of the advocate. Obviously fiction has a different goal, and the reader isn't led along a path that lacks color and nuance... I must say, though, that your comment reminds me of how, as a lawyer, I am driven -- seriously driven -- to research EVERYTHING! And that is something that has stood me in good stead for writing fiction. If research isn't done, the scene, no matter how fantastic, will lack credibility. I think that's where my legal training really gave me an advantage in terms of wanting to be certain my scenes, and even dialog and inner thoughts, were correct. I wish you the absolute best in proceeding with your own work! I hope you find this blog helpful! All the best, Terri