Q & A: How can lawyers become novelists?


I used to practice law. Now I write thrillers. Because of this, other lawyers write to ask me how to switch careers. And I recently taught a seminar on this topic at an American Bar Association conference. So I thought I’d share some of the most common questions I’m asked, and the answers I’ve given.

“How do you get published?”

Write the best book you can.

This is first, last, everything. Honest to God. Before you do anything else, write the book. Rewrite it. Edit it. Get feedback. Set it aside for a few weeks. Reread it. Polish it. And while you’re doing this, read, read, read. Read every novel in the genre you’re writing, to learn as much as possible about how great books are put together.

“What was going through your mind when you sensed you the need to switch careers? Did doubts arise? When did you write (time of the day)? At what point did you know it was time to jettison the law job for good?”

I always loved writing, and when I was practicing law, I found ways to write… short stories, freelance essays for small magazines, and of course a journal. After a few years as a commercial litigator I knew I was ready for a switch. I segued into teaching, and eventually wrote a publishable novel. This was after years of false starts and half-baked attempts that ended up in the filing cabinet.

I never doubted that I wanted to write fiction. I frequently doubted that I would get anything on the bookshelves. I had to be willing to carve out the time—in the evening, on weekends, after office hours—to write. I never gave up a job to write full time. I only got the opportunity to do that once my first book was bought by a publisher.

Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance!

I know many lawyers are / become writers, but it appears that you have done it successfully. At this point, since my books are ideas, notes, and outlines, and my law practice is very busy and profitable, it is hard to know what to do. Should I look for an agent or go the self-publishing route? What did you do and what would you recommend?

Going from practicing law to writing for a living was a long transition. Basically, I went from practicing commercial litigation to having three kids to teaching Legal Writing in the Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara, where I concurrently wrote short stories and magazine pieces, to making my first attempts at a novel. It was when all my kids were finally in school that I found the time to finish that first attempt at a novel… which wasn’t very good. And then to start again from scratch with something new, to finish that and finally, several years after I first dreamed of writing a book, to get that novel published. And then to write a sequel, and turn it into a series, and write a second series, and several stand alone novels—it’s a long road!

If you’re interested in writing, my only advice is to WRITE. If you want to write fiction, you’ll need to have a completed, polished manuscript before you start querying agents or consider self publishing. If you’re writing non fiction, and you want to go with a commercial publisher, you’ll need to work up a book proposal outlining the story, your qualifications to write it, and what kind of readership it would find.

My novels are published by Penguin Random House, and I’m happy about that. If you want to self publish, you need to be prepared to become a publisher and to do everything that goes with it: editing, cover design, marketing, publicity, and distribution. It should be a well-considered decision. And of course, once you become a writer, you’re self-employed, running your own business in an industry that’s in the throes of change. It can be a wild and bumpy ride. It’s a ride I’m glad I took—if you have a passion to write, work on getting the manuscript or proposal ready to go, then take it from there.

I hope this helps. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it—only passion and hard work.

One response to “Q & A: How can lawyers become novelists?

  1. Two things cross my mind while reading this. How much of your advice translates to any writer, and you have a filing cabinet. Can you hear the big sigh of envy? When you mentioned your failed attempts ending up in a filing cabinet I had to look guiltily over my shoulder at boxes and stacks ‘filed’ under the book shelves. Seriously though, great advice for all.

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