Writing a novel and getting a book deal couldn’t possibly be harder than passing the bar and landing a dream job at a top-notch firm … or could it? An employment lawyer reveals lessons in perseverance and the pursuit of the perfect plotline.
Like many of my peers, I’ve often griped about the burdens of practicing law and how court deadlines, depositions and demanding clients at times leave little room for anything else. That all changed, however, when I stumbled upon my passion and somehow found time to pursue it while continuing to build my legal career.
It began several years ago when I was working as a midlevel associate at O’Melveny & Myers and decided that, despite my day job, I wanted to write a legal thriller. After all, I had gone to law school in my 30s, passed the California Bar exam in one shot and landed a job at a top-notch law firm. Writing a novel and getting a book deal couldn’t possibly be harder than that—could it? I would soon learn the importance of perseverance in accomplishing one’s dreams.
The Story Takes Off—And Then Takes Some Twists and Turns
Within days of conjuring up my protagonist—an African-American female attorney who, like me, defended corporations accused of discrimination—I knew that fiction writing was indeed my passion. Nothing short of that could explain my behavior. Despite the long hours at the firm, I eagerly climbed out of bed at 4 a.m. to write before work. I wrote every weekend. On business trips I wrote in the airport, on the airplane and in my hotel room late at night. I devoted my vacations not to relaxation but to writing.
Three long years later, I finally had a completed manuscript. I excitedly rushed off to Kinko’s, made a dozen copies and delivered them to a carefully selected test audience. Then I waited for my friends to assure me that Oprah’s Book Club would be calling any day.
Weeks passed with no word from my trusted friends. Anxious for my first glowing review, I cornered one of them at a party and asked, “So what did you think of my book?”
She refused to make eye contact, which should have been my first clue. “Your book? Oh, uh, it’s uh … I haven’t finished it yet. I’ll give you a call when I do.” That call never came.
Disappointed but not daunted, I contacted my other test readers. Most of them made similar excuses. Some simply ignored my calls or took a different route when they saw me walking toward them at the office.
I discussed my dilemma with my friend and O’Melveny partner Cheryl Mason. “I’ve written this great legal thriller,” I told her, “but I can’t get anybody to give me feedback.” She agreed to read it but warned, “I’m going to be honest.”
By the time I delivered the manuscript to her, I had finished about 50 pages of a second novel. I was confident that she would love the first one, so why not treat her to a snippet of my next masterpiece?
A couple of weeks later, Cheryl gently told me that my first novel was “okay,” but the second book I was working on was “a real page-turner.” That was the book she wanted to read. She urged me to shelve my first novel and finish the second one.
After sulking for a few days over the bland reception to a novel I had spent three years of my life creating, I decided to take my friend’s advice and poured all my energy into completing the second book. I also attended a few fiction-writing seminars, started studying the plotting and pacing of other books, and hired a writing coach. As I began to seriously study the writing craft, the problems with my first novel became very clear to me. The story line didn’t flow, the pacing was sluggish, and the writing lacked punch. I was determined not to repeat those mistakes.
By this time, I was working as an in-house employment attorney for Raytheon Company. My 9-80 work schedule gave me three-day weekends twice a month. Whenever I could, I hid away at my timeshare in Palm Desert and spent the entire three days writing. I continued to write before work, and often late into the night after work.
A year later, I timidly gave my newly completed manuscript to a handful of friends. To my relief, no one avoided me. Two of them described it as “a page-turner.” One asked if I had anything else she could read. Another told me I was definitely going to be a best-seller.
Armed with their praise, I set out to find an agent, beginning my search by reading the acknowledgement sections of novels similar to mine and jotting down the names of agents the authors thanked. I started at the top, sending a snappy query letter to several big-shot New York agents, touting my new novel as “John Grisham meets Terry McMillan.”
The rejection letters rolled in. I’d read that James Patterson received 26 rejection letters. John Grisham surpassed that with 45, prompting him to self-publish his first book. Well, so far I had collected less than 10. I stuck the letters in a drawer and queried more agents.
While I waited for my big break, I entered two writing competitions that gave me a gigantic boost of confidence just when I needed it most. An excerpt of my novel won first place in the Black Expressions Book Club’s Annual Fiction Writing Contest, and a few months later, the same excerpt received an honorable mention in the SEAK Legal Fiction Writing Competition. Those honors confirmed that it wasn’t just my friends who liked my story. But I’d been searching for an agent for five months and still didn’t have one.
Then one day I was meandering on the Web when I ran across a site that listed agents interested in multicultural fiction. I queried five of them. Within a couple of weeks or so, three of the agents asked to see sample chapters. Two offered me representation. One happened to be a lawyer. I chose her.
She suggested some minor changes and one very big one—she wanted me to change the way the murder case ended. We debated the issue and I won. About four months later, BET Books, which later became an imprint of Harlequin, offered me a two-book deal.
Like my agent, my acquisitions editor also suggested a few minor changes and one big one. She, too, thought the book should have a different ending. Again, I resisted. “Just try rewriting the ending,” urged my husband, who has always been my best sounding board. “Then see what you think.” Grudgingly, I did it. And when I reread the chapter, I realized that my agent and editor were absolutely right.
On the Shelves at Last
Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the entire process was learning that it typically takes one to two years from the signing of the contract before a book makes it to bookstores. I inked my book deal in the fall of 2004 and was given a release date of February 1, 2006. I had a very long wait. So I dusted off my first novel and went to work on a major rewrite.
I still have a vivid memory of making a nervous trek to the Barnes & Noble in my neighborhood on the day of my book’s scheduled release. My stepson Rickey and I searched the shelves. We couldn’t find it. I was about to leave, but I headed for the information desk instead. I told the clerk I was looking for a new book titled
Every Reasonable Doubt, never mentioning that I was the proud author. She hit a few keys on the computer, then led me to a nearby shelf. And there it was.
My stepson immediately took out his cell phone and snapped a picture of me standing next to my first published novel. When he saw me getting teary-eyed, he put away his phone and warned me not to embarrass him by crying in public.
When people ask me how I managed to write two novels while working full-time as an attorney, the answer is simple: passion plus a great deal of perseverance.