A conservative female candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court has a deep, dark secret that could derail her nomination.
An attorney who helps a client die must fend off the mob and the FBI, both of which want to know the client’s final instructions.
Those are examples of premises–the pithy, central ideas behind great legal novels, says Lisa Scottoline. She ought to know. Scottoline, a fast-talking former practitioner from Philadelphia, is the author of 10 legal thrillers, including several New York Times best sellers.
“When people ask where I learned to write, I say law school,” she says. Writing a novel, says Scottoline, is like prepping for a trial: Discovery is the research, and from there the lawyer develops the story that she is going to tell the jury–or the reader.
That works for Hartford, Conn., lawyer Helen Kemp, who has the idea of the lawyer fending off the feds and the mob. Starting from a short premise helps her to articulate the seed of her story idea into a workable theme, she says.
“Now, I just have to make the time to finish” the novel, Kemp says.
At least she has taken the first step, joining around 200 other would-be John Grishams who ventured to Cape Cod in October to gain the confidence, skills–and contacts–to launch them toward the literary life. The conference, “Legal Fiction Writing for Lawyers,” was put on by SEAK Inc., owned by retired lawyer Steven Babitsky, a longtime publisher of medical and legal expert directories and promoter of medical and legal continuing education courses.
In the mid-1990s, the company started an annual conference on fiction writing for doctors. It drew such large audiences that two years ago, SEAK began offering a fiction writing conference for lawyers. It is taught by two of the genre’s brightest lights: Scottoline and Stephen Horn, a recent breakthrough author on the legal publishing scene, whose debut and second novels have found large audiences.
The surge in legal fiction began, of course, with the giants of the genre, Grisham and Scott Turow. But those two literary luminaries are far from the only lawyer-authors thrilling fiction fans these days. Besides Scottoline and Horn, Richard North Patterson, Sheldon Siegel and David Baldacci appear regularly on bestseller lists. And there are others, lots of others, who engender rabid loyalty from devoted readers.
And maybe soon–Kemp. The insurance and ERISA lawyer started writing short mysteries at age 12 (the first included a pony a natural for a 12-year-old girl) and has dabbled at fiction ever since. Still, she considers her dream of becoming a published author rather personal. Her husband knows, as do her mother and brother–but nobody at her office has had an inkling, she says. “It’s just my little private thing. Maybe it’s a fear of rejection. I still won’t let even my husband read anything I’ve written,” says Kemp.
So, she works away at her manuscript about the dead client whose last words are sought by both the FBI and the mob. She has given herself a year to get the manuscript in shape. Maybe then she’ll be ready to show it.“If I had something I felt was ready for an agent, I think I’d be confident enough to let my family read it,” she says.
While Kemp was taking notes on the idea of the fictional premise, so was Edward McIntyre.
“Really, if you can’t say what it’s about succinctly, you probably have a disorganized story, and you’ll lose the reader,” says McIntyre.
A big-firm lawyer from San Diego, McIntyre has been working on his novel off and on since 1989. It began as a 1,200-page opus during a year-long sabbatical in Switzerland. Since then, he has cut and revised and polished through the years until he now believes it’s almost ready.
His protagonist is a journalist entangled in legal intrigue. It’s a subject with which McIntyre is familiar; he has practiced media law in his long legal career, and once upon a time even dabbled in journalism.
McIntyre says he learned at the conference that his manuscript, at 150,000 words, is still a bit long. A finished manuscript should run 90,000 to 120,000 words, Scottoline and Horn say. McIntyre already has cut about 15,000 since the conference ended and says he plans to cut another 20,000. He says he intends to take Scottoline up on her offer to all of the conference participants to use her name when sending their manuscripts to her New York agent.
His dream is straightforward, though he knows the odds are long. “My Walter Mitty dream of dreams is that my manuscript would just knock some agent’s socks off and they’d take it straight to a top publishing house,” says McIntyre.
Gilbert M. Roman may already be toting a literary agent’s socks. A lawyer at a mid-sized Denver firm, Roman took top honors in a contest at the conference and earned a coveted prize: a private meeting with New York literary agent Regina Brooks, one of eight agents at the conference.
Roman got the chance to pitch his book, Beneath the Black Robe, the one about the Supreme Court nominee with a secret. Brooks took a copy of the manuscript back to New York to have one of her readers go through it. (Readers are assistants to literary agents who serve as their arbiters of taste.)
“Writing legal fiction is a passion. Lots of my friends spend time on the golf course. I spend time creating fictional characters,” says Roman.
According to all three of these lawyer-authors, one of the best things about the conference was the motivation they got from learning that Scottoline and Horn once harbored the same tortured ambitions and fears they now carry.
“The self-doubt I experience is something they went through. That’s comforting. They’re now successful and I can be, too,” says Kemp.
If the conference attendees need more inspiration, they might comfort themselves by considering the dramatically different paths to the bestsellers list taken by Horn and Scottoline. Scottoline started her law career at Philadelphia’s Dechert Price and Rhodes after graduating with honors from the University of Pennsylvania law school. When her first divorce became final in the mid-1980s, she left the firm to raise her infant daughter. “I got divorced 17 years ago. I had only the eau de parfum of child support and no alimony. I supported myself on credit. I had five credit cards with about $10,000 each available. I said to myself, ‘You have $50,000 to get published,’ ” Scottoline says. “I got to $38,500 in debt. I went back to being a law clerk for money and a week later my first novel [Everywhere That Mary Went] was sold. That was 10 years ago.”
Scottoline kept the clerk job until her second novel, Final Appeal, won the prestigious Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1995.
A confessed bleached-blond, Scottoline was dressed in tight jeans and cowboy boots. She talks rapidly, gesticulating in the style of her Italian ancestors, and jokes about needing to put herself on a “curse diet.” “When people ask me whether it’s harder to succeed at this as a woman, I say it’s not just men and women, it’s Latino voices and gay voices–there’s plenty of room for more lawyers in this genre.”
Horn, on the other hand, is tall, quiet and deliberate in his speech. Dressed in a sport coat, he leans an elbow on the podium as he speaks.
Horn’s fairy tale ride to the top of the legal thriller authors’ club began with an engineering degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey. Soon after, he went to Vietnam. Looking for a way to get home, Horn asked his girlfriend to find out how he could get into grad school. She sent him an application for Seton Hall law school because it was the nearest college to her home.
His first job out of law school was with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he investigated tips on Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, FBI break-ins to the homes of members of the Weathermen, and the Kent State shootings. In the late 1970s, Horn started his own law firm in Washington, D.C. At first, he took court-appointed criminal cases for $20 an hour. He spent a lot of time in the D.C. jails interviewing clients and witnesses–experience that would show up in his books.
“My writing was awful when I started. I worked at it,” Horn told the group. Through a friend, he got an agent to agree to read his first book. He sent a double-spaced manuscript in two large Fed Ex boxes. It sat on a shelf in the agent’s office for months until a curious assistant decided to find out what was in the huge boxes.
That manuscript became In Her Defense, published in 2000. A second book, Law of Gravity, followed in 2002. “There is no one path to get there. There is no right way. There is your way. Yes, there are rules, but it’s an artistic endeavor,” says Horn, who has kept his “day job” as general counsel of an international products company and counsel to a Washington, D.C., law firm.
“Don’t fall into the trap of following the ‘rules’ of writing. This is not building by filtering rules. This is about storytelling. You have already internalized the way to tell a story because you read a lot. All lawyers do. You read briefs, memos. You know a good one from a dull one.”
As proof, Horn gives the audience an impromptu assignment. He tells them to go home and find an old brief they’ve written and reduce its length by 25 percent. Rewrite the brief, using a conversational style as if describing the nuts and bolts of the case to a next-door neighbor, he says.
The 2003 conference also brought eight literary agents in to meet with lawyer-authors. Literary agent Brooks says she found the conference to be a valuable networking opportunity for lawyers and agents. She was particularly heartened that Scottoline and Horn spent time instructing attendees on how to approach an agent and what to expect. “There are a lot of good manuscripts out there. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer or a National Book Award winner, the competition is fierce. Know the rules, expect some rejection, and put your best face forward,” says Brooks.
For Roman, winning the manuscript contest and meeting with the agents gave him a tremendous confidence boost.
“I called my wife at lunch on the first day and I said, ‘Hon, this is already so worth it!’ ” he says.
Says Kemp: “When people were reading aloud from their work, I realized that I’m not the best writer, nor the worst writer there. I found that very comforting.” McIntyre says he found common ground in the fact that all of the attendees were lawyers, as were the presenters.
“There was this common font of experience and purpose. I came away feeling, ‘Yes, I can write. Yes, I can get published. This is doable and I will do it.’ ”
Doing It Write
How does a lawyer go about writing a novel? Here are tips from lawyer-novelists Lisa Scottoline and Stephen Horn.
Start with a central organizing idea. The premise is like the blurb on a New York Times Bestsellers List. It is short and concise, not meant to be all encompassing, but rather a pithy sentence of the biggest theme in the story, says Horn.
For example, he says, the premise of John Grisham’s The Firm might be: A law firm run by the mob kills any lawyer who wants to leave.
Where to find a premise? Scottoline says newspapers offer a wealth of ideas. Be aware of events that arise in everyday practice, Horn says. “Just see the cases as being about the people, not the academic law. Who is handling this case? Who is opposing counsel? What’s at stake for the players personally and professionally?”
In his novel Law of Gravity, Horn started with images–a woman falling from a rooftop in 1955, a man in a muddy raincoat sitting at his daughter’s grave. From there, he asked himself, “What’s the man doing here? Why today? Why in the rain? What does this have to do with a woman falling from a roof in Brooklyn some 45 years ago? What made that woman fall? Was she pushed? Did she jump?”
From there, says Horn, he set out to answer those questions and weave the man in the muddy raincoat and the falling woman together.
The premise for Scottoline’s novel Courting Trouble came from a detective saying, “The trouble with murder victims is they can’t tell you who killed them.” So Scottoline invented a woman mistakenly identified as the victim of a homicide. The protagonist then has to solve her own “murder” and find out why someone wanted her dead.
One premise per book suffices, she says, though subplots are OK. In Scottoline’s work, a subplot in one book might become the main story in another. “I have one good idea a year,” she says.
“You have many different voices–you as a parent, at work, with friends, when speaking in public. If you’re married and you’re a lawyer, you learn very early on that you don’t talk to your spouse in your lawyer voice,” says Horn.
The author’s voice is that intangible quality that prompts immediate recognition. Hemingway’s voice, with its short, precise sentences, is so unmistakable that many would recognize it even in a story they haven’t read before, he says.
“Use everything you know and everything you think and pour it into the mix to develop your unique voice. Later you can take out everything that doesn’t move your plot forward,” says Scottoline.
Scottoline’s voice is recognizable in this opening passage from Courting Trouble: Anne Murphy barreled through the bustling lobby of the William Green Federal Courthouse, her long, auburn hair flying. She was about to do something crazy in court and couldn’t wait to get upstairs. If she won, she’d be a hero. If she lost, she’d go to jail. Anne didn’t think twice about the if-she-lost part. She was a redhead, which is a blonde with poor impulse control.
But, Scottoline adds: “Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t fall so in love with a nice passage or piece of writing that you shoehorn it in. Save it for another time.”
SET THE SCENE
Description and action must flow seamlessly together, says Horn. There should be a scene, then a segue, then another scene. Show movement, a journey. There must be escalating peril. Move forward, get knocked back, regroup, go forward again. Each scene should have a purpose. Ask how this scene advances the story. Use subplots to keep the pace in check so the story doesn’t careen out of control, he says. “The difference between telling what happened and drama is that drama means choice: What will the character do next?” says Horn.
Educate a little, entertain a lot–not the other way around, he adds. But Horn cautions not to infuse too much superfluous description into scene and setting. Every description should move the story forward. “Compress. Lawyers are verbose and they’re also prolix and they use words too much,” he says.
Characters are what they do, says Horn. Writers must know why the character is doing what she’s doing at every point in the story. The character’s personality must be established enough to make every behavior believable, without too much minutiae to bog down the action, he says.
“A person who is cheating can be lovable even if you don’t like cheating as a moral matter. Make the person real, and the audience has got to love them. Think about the John Travolta character in Pulp Fiction, says Horn. He offers an example from his novel In Her Defense:
In his salad days he was “Harry the Horse,” and as Walter could tell you, “a legend from one end of Fordham Road to the other.” Deservedly so. One of the toughest things a cop ever had to do was arrest a man surrounded by his friends in a barroom. The combination of alcohol, testosterone and peer pressure could turn an ordinary guy into King Kong and a crowd into a mob. More than one cop had been beaten senseless–or worse–in a “working man’s bar.” But Harry’s reputation preceded him. He’d saunter in, throw a pair of handcuffs on the bar and tell the collar he had two minutes to finish his drink and come out–wearing the cuffs. As he’d leave he would simply say, “I’ll be waitin’ in the car. Don’t make me come back in to get ya.”
PUT IT TOGETHER
First, get the story down. “[Author] Anne Lamont says, ‘You have permission to write a crappy first draft,’ ” Scottoline notes. Trying too hard to perfect each sentence as you go can wreck the flow and creative process, Scottoline says. Save the tinkering for the rewriting, which often takes as long or longer than the first draft.
“During revisions, read the manuscript aloud to hear the rhythm of the words and find rough spots. … All the hard work is worth it in those 2 a.m. moments when you write something and sit back and say, ‘Whew. I really like that!’ ” says Horn.
Fall out of love with your own words, says Scottoline. At the end of each sentence you’ve read aloud, say to that sentence, “Justify yourself.” Recognize that there’s a down side to leaving something unneeded in the story, even if it’s brilliantly written.
Scottoline says the story has to be the writer’s own vision; she doesn’t show her work to anyone during the writing process. Horn, on the other hand, often has his wife read over his shoulder as he works at his computer, critiquing as he goes.
Both writers stress solid research. Readers notice details, especially incorrect ones, says Horn. Use the Internet, talk to people, interview them like you’re talking with a witness, he says. Horn wrote about a character taking the safety off of a Glock pistol. Many readers wrote to tell him that Glock pistols don’t have safeties. That sort of error could destroy the writer’s credibility, says Horn.
–Margaret Graham Tebo
Correction"Novel Ideas," February (2007), Page 34, misidentified Stephen Horn's position. Horn is general counsel to a Boston-based corporation. His is no longer associated with a law firm. The Journal regrets the error.
Margaret Graham Tebo, a lawyer, is a senior writer for the ABA Journal.
Margaret Graham Tebo, a lawyer, is a senior writer for the ABA Journal.