By Ellen Byerrum
Ellen Byerrum is a reporter for a trade publisher in Washington, D.C., and a mystery writer. She can be contacted at
Despite the accoutrements of success, the pinstriped suit, leather briefcase, and iPhone, many lawyers dream of doing something else—of writing the great American legal thriller where the good guys win in the end. Other lawyers have different writing goals. I once met a divorce attorney who at night penned romance novels with happy endings as an antidote to dealing with angry spouses fighting over the spoils of their broken marriages. Romance won. She now writes romances for a living.
John Grisham, Linda Fairstein, and Scott Turow are just few of the more notable examples of lawyers who have risen to the top of the writing game. Their books have been described as crime novels, mysteries, and legal thrillers. They all called on their legal backgrounds to give their books the taste, touch, and feel of what it really means to be a lawyer. And they have one thing in common: they can tell a great story. Maybe you can too. Here are a few suggestions on how to start.
Write the book first. Keep in mind that in the publishing industry fiction is treated differently from nonfiction. While publishers may purchase a nonfiction book on the basis of an outline and a few chapters, this is not the case for a novel. To sell a book to a publisher, it must be as polished and perfect as you can make it. Publishers want to see how you’ve shaped the story, developed the plot, and wrapped it up.
If your novel reads like a brief, it won’t be published. Your great American legal thriller has to rely on great characters and plot to entice the reader, so ease up on the jargon. Legal terms should be used judiciously so the reader accepts that you are the legal expert behind the book, but they should not be used as a bludgeon to show off your clever vocabulary. You don’t have to use all your research. In fact, don’t.
Find a jury of your peers to critique your book. Even though your prose may impress judges and make juries (and your opponents) weep, you still need an objective opinion of your literary work, whether it is from a trusted friend or professional editor. If you’re looking for a critique group, try local writing classes, book stores, or libraries for leads. Remember, those who refuse to rewrite, do not get published.
Join a like-minded club. There are writing groups, such as Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, which have local chapters around the country. They can be invaluable resources, especially when you’re feeling adrift with your novel. They often offer events with speakers and a chance to network with other writers in your genre.
You can read a contract, but you still need an agent. When your major opus is rewritten, polished and proofed, and ready to be launched into the literary jungle, you need an agent. Trust me. An agent is not there just to vet the contract, but to sell your product. A good agent is up-to-date on what publishers and editors are interested in and what they are buying. Agents are interested in making the best deal for you and for themselves.
Find the authors who write your kind of novel and learn who represents them. See who your favorite writers thank in acknowledgment pages—they often include their agents and editors. Check the agents’ Web sites for information on how they receive queries and what kind of books interest them.
The process of writing and publishing a book isn’t easy; however, you’ve already got the basics. Every time you make a case for your client, you are framing a story—a narrative intended to persuade and convince. Take pleasure in the story you feel compelled to tell, learn how to sell it, and some day you may see your name on a cover at your local bookstore.
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