How did you start writing novels?
I have always had in my mind that I would write the great American novel. I suppose a lot of people entertain such an idea. I know many lawyers who have thought about writing and I was no exception. So, as my legal career changed from litigation to working as a neutral doing mediations and arbitrations, I found myself with more time. I used the time to finally write my novel.
Along the way, I took writing courses and read a great number of books about writing fiction. There are many authors who have generously shared their insights on writing and I have read just about all of them. I also find great help in Writer’s Digest, a monthly publication. All of this has helped me learn how to be a better writer.
Do you outline your book in advance or do you write by how you feel?
I usually start with some sort of an outline but then I write as the spirit moves. This means that I have to go back and change my outline when I determine that the story has to move in a different direction. The more I write the more I see the need for a good outline. Many well-known authors develop an extensive outline ahead of time and then stick to it. I am not there yet. Outlining can definitely save you in editing at the end of the process.
I used to be a strict “pantser,” that is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. That is actually a term of art in the writing industry and you can divide all fiction writers into two groups, i.e., outliners or pantsers. But I am changing. I now see myself as a little bit of each.
When and how often do you write during the day?
I don’t have a particular time of day to write. I know that some writers go at it first thing in the morning. I am more of a mid-day kind of person. I have to get some things out of way that have to do with my business of being a mediator and arbitrator. Then I can get back to my manuscript.
I try to write every day but it is difficult because I also work as a lawyer, as I said. So many days I just cannot write. The trouble with this type of schedule is that it is hard to get going sometimes. There are a lot of details that you have to keep in your mind as you write and sometimes I forget the details if I haven’t been writing on consecutive days. So, I have to go back to notes. But I have found that I have made inconsistency errors, on occasion. For example, I may say that it was a green car in the beginning of the book and later call it a blue car. It is pretty easy to find these errors in the editing process, but they prove to me the need to keep my facts straight.
There are some writers who write at night or at odd hours. They may go all night, once they are “on fire,” with an idea or plot line. I found these kinds of people in the law, lawyers who would write as long as they felt like it, regardless of the time of day. Then they would rest and start again. Same thing for novelists. Everyone is different.
My ideal situation is to find myself with a week or two of clear time so that I can really get into writing. Then the ideas seem to flow and the story develops in a natural way.
How hard is it to write a novel?
It is hard work. There are no two ways about it. Trying to balance a lengthy plot with the proper pace and development of characters is not easy. There are so many facts to remember and so many plot lines that you are trying to develop at the same time. I am finding that the more I write the easier that it is. My first novel, Contempt of Court, took five years. The last two took two years each. Many good writers produce one good novel each year or, in some cases, two or more novels in a year.
The whole writing process just takes time, from starting with an idea, developing an outline and a plan for the book and then the actual writing. A lot of editing follows before you have a finished product. I have heard it said that good authors spend 10 times the amount of time just thinking of the plot than they do in writing and I believe it. When I am writing a story the plot is something that you cannot escape. It is just there in your everyday consciousness. You are constantly wrestling with it, thinking of the next event, to move the story along. No matter how hard it is, I can say, for me, that it is all great fun.
Where do you get your ideas for your novels?
Sometimes I draw on real-life events and sometimes it is something I have read in the papers. I started my first novel, Contempt of Court, with my protagonist getting mugged while running on the American River Bike Trail. I read about a series of muggings on the trail in the paper and thought how ingenious the bad guy was to do the muggings. He found people at a very vulnerable moment. A runner would drive to the trail and lock his or her car and then take off running, with their keys in their pocket. The mugger would take the keys and then steal the car, possibly going to the person’s home in the process. All of this would happen before the runner could get in touch with the authorities. Thankfully, the Sheriff’s Department found the responsible guy and this came to an end. But I used the story and it set the scene just perfectly.
I find a lot of ideas in the morning newspaper or online from various news sources. It is true that that “truth is stranger than fiction.” You read stuff in the paper that you just can’t believe. But it can often make for a good story. Sometimes, an idea just comes to me when I am out walking or driving my car or talking to someone. I try to write the ideas down on paper right away, so that I won’t forget them.
Is your protagonist, Mike Zorich, patterned after some real person?
No, Mike Zorich is entirely fictional. He is a composite of some of the best trial lawyers that I have had the privilege of meeting. He is equally at home in a civil case and a criminal case. There are not too many trial lawyers who can say this.
But I have to say that Mike Zorich has a little bit of me in him. Woody Allen once said that all of his characters are about himself, to some degree, whether they are male or female, young or old, historical or contemporary etc. There is great truth in this statement. When you write about how someone feels about some event you are really writing about how you feel about it, even though you try to project how your character would respond. Still, it is your version of how your character responds and you cannot help but have something of your own feelings enter the picture.
What comes first, plot or characters?
For me, it is plot. I think of an idea and go with that. The characters follow. For many authors it is the other way around. Either way, both plot and character require great thought and both must fit the narrative in a natural way. Plot seems to me to be important because of the need to keep the reader’s attention. Proper pacing and logical story lines are so important to any novel.
Characters are also very important, however. They require careful thought and attention to detail. I love to just think about my characters and imagine how they would respond in completely different situations. That gives me a clue into their core. I write a biographical sketch of my characters which I keep close at hand when I write.
For someone like Charles Dickens, it was all about his characters. The story was important, of course, but when you think of him you naturally think of his many well-drawn characters. For others, it is all about plot, such as a fast-paced action thriller or a long, evolving story of a hero conquering some obstacle on his journey. That’s the beauty of writing, there are so many variations.
What experiences in your life have influenced your writing?
I would start with my 12 years as a public defender in Sacramento. I learned so much about the human condition. I learned about people and mistakes they have made and how they are dealing with those mistakes. What is their future? What can the judicial system do?
During those years, I learned a lot about myself. How do I relate to other people, whether they are my clients or they are judges or juries or the opposing attorney, the district attorney? You learn how you must comport yourself in order to make your case, to prove your point.
As a public defender, I was blessed to have worked for some incredibly talented attorneys, who taught me how to be a good trial lawyer. I think of them all the time when I am writing about crimes and trials.
I have also spent quite a bit of time as a business litigator and now as a mediator and arbitrator, all of which have put me in contact with people with problems. Being a lawyer is the greatest profession. It is a place to help people who have problems. My legal career has definitely been a big influence in all of my writing.
Another big influence in my life has been my mother and father. Both were very bright people who gave me so many life lessons. My mother was forever quoting some popular adage, like “if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing correctly,” or “out of sight, out of mind,” etc. I think parents of that age were brought upon these sayings and they just passed them on to their children. I would repeat them to juries when I was arguing a case. There seems to be a saying for every occasion.
My father taught me honesty and dignity and doing it the right way. He taught me to root for the underdog and to always be grateful for what I have been given. He also taught me about hard work. I am blessed with a good work ethic and with the ability to pick myself up when things don’t always go my way. I often talk to my father, in my mind, when I need advice on some situation. I would love for him to still be here and to read my writings.
I have been married for quite a long time to a wonderful woman, Michele. She is the biggest influence. She always there and has been a great help in all of my novels. She has lots of ideas and she spends a lot of time with editing what I have written. She is also free to tell me how someone might act in a particular situation, which has been invaluable. I don’t know how I would have written my books without her.
Do you ever make changes to your story after you have completed it?
Absolutely. It is called editing and I put my manuscripts through several rounds of editing. I start with design or development editing to see if my overall structure holds up for the length of the novel. I always ask some trusted friends to read my manuscript and give me some feedback. I call these people “early readers.” They are invaluable to the entire process. After I have made changes, I will ask some professionals to review the manuscript and suggest further changes. These usually consist of looking for inconsistencies and for details that need amplification. Finally, I employ a professional editor to check spelling, syntax and grammar.
All authors that I know engage in significant editing of their writing. I would like to think that you can just sit down and write perfect prose the first time, but I don’t think such a person exists.
There is a wonderful book called Bird by Bird, written by Anne Lamott. It is considered by many to be the best book on the craft of writing. She describes the writing process and the need to just get your writing down on paper and then to depend on the editing process to make it into a good novel. She also talks at length about the need to get rid of some of your writing when you discover that it doesn’t really help the plot.
I will say that it is very hard to eliminate some good writing because it just doesn’t fit but that is what editing is all about. You have to trust the process and trust your own writing ability and accept that you will create something better after you eliminate some portion of your story.
Have you written all of your life?
I have but not fiction. As a lawyer you have to take the facts given to you and make them interesting to a judge or jury. If you simply recite the dry facts, you will often lose your audience. So you have to develop a theme and put the facts into some kind of order so that the judge or jury can follow the story and find for your client.
I have been practicing law for over 40 years and I have been exposed to a wide variety of situations that are just plain unbelievable. People get themselves into such weird messes, often without fault, that most people would not believe the stories to be true. But the point is that I have a wealth of material upon which to draw for future stories.
I have always enjoyed writing, mostly non-fiction legal writing. There is something very satisfying about writing a good legal argument in a brief and trying to convince a judge of the merits of a case.
Also, I love to read and reading is the base foundation for all writing. You have to constantly read and experience good writing first hand, in order to be a good writer. There are so many good books out there; it is hard not to just read all the time. But I always return to writing because I love it so much.
How did you find a publisher?
Is being an author profitable?
Do you make public appearances to talk about your books?
I do. I appear at some local book clubs in Sacramento and plan on making some author appearances at book signing events in the future. I have done book signings in the past and find them so rewarding. I love to talk to people about writing and about my novels. I would love to make more personal appearances but the opportunities are limited.
I have also participated in some virtual book tours where book bloggers take my book and review it or write some comments on their blog. Depending on the size of the readership of the particular blog, this has been a great way to reach some readers in other parts of the county who might otherwise never hear about me. It is amazing how many book blogs there are. I guess it only proves that a lot of people love to read and to share their feelings about a book with others. Fortunately, I have been able to take advantage of these blogs and to share my books. So far, I have received some very nice compliments on my books.
Who are your favorite authors?
I love John Lescroart, who lives in Davis and writes legal mysteries that take place in San Francisco. He has two returning characters, Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitzky, who are best of friends and they solve crimes together, even though Hardy is a criminal defense lawyer and Glitzky is the homicide chief in the San Francisco Police Department.
Of course, John Grisham is a master storyteller and Scott Turow is a fantastic legal writer. Those two are the main writers in the legal genre and almost everything they write is a sure-fire hit. I also love Michael Connelly who writes about Los Angeles and features some memorable characters. I love Daniel Silva’s books featuring Gabriel Allon, the Israeli spymaster. Jason Matthews and his Red Sparrow series is another great author.
After that I love historical fiction of almost all types. I am in such awe of historical fiction authors, because it is so difficult to write in this genre. You have your basic story but you have to get all of the historical details correct and sometimes you find out that you made a mistake. Readers are notorious for pointing out some error made by their favorite author.
Have any of your books won awards or good reviews?
Yes. As for awards, my first novel, Contempt of Court, was a First Place Category winner in the legal genre of the Mystery and Mayhem Chanticleer Book Reviews Competition in 2014. My second novel, Fatal Reunion, was a finalist in the Thriller and Suspense category in the Chanticleer Competition in 2016. Fatal Reunion was also favorably reviewed in the Writer’s Digest cook competition in 2016.
I have received some wonderful reviews for which I am eternally grateful. Reviews from legitimate third parties who have no vested interest in your novels are something that I greatly prize. They are kind of a validation that I am on the right track. I have taken most of the reviews that I have received and posted them on Amazon so that the reader can gain the benefit of the insights of others.
And my readers have been very generous in leaving reviews on Amazon. Sometimes I know the reviewer but most times I do not and, again, I am so appreciative.
What advice do you have for young authors?
Just start writing. Take every opportunity to write, whether it is your school paper or a writing contest or something else along these lines. Keep a journal where you can just jot down your thoughts. Use your imagination. As a kid, I was always making up stories and acting them out with my brother and sister. We had a large pile of wood that was located on two huge sawhorses in the back yard. This became variously a fort where cowboys and Indians fought or a ship at sea or a hidden room. But it was a basis for so many make-believe adventures.
I spent a lot of time as a kid by myself just imaging various stories. The human mind is a wonderful thing. Only you know what is going on.
The other thing I would advise young people is to read as much as you can.Read all the time. Read everything that you find interesting. And try to evaluate what you have read. Does it make sense? Is it good writing? How would you have done it differently?
Finally, be persistent. Don’t give up. This is a tough business. Many authors were not successful at first but they kept at it.
What about older people who might think of writing?
That’s me. I took up fiction writing later in life. It has been very rewarding. You cannot get hung up on whether you are financially successful or not. You have to keep the focus on the craft of writing and trying to get better each day. But, just like how it would be or anyone else, the key is to sit down and start writing. Don’t judge your work, just write and depend on the editing process to make it better.
There are so many seniors who are going back to school these days, whether to obtain a formal degree or to participate in some retirement education program. A lot of seniors are learning how to write their memoirs. That is a great place to start. How knows? It might turn into something wonderful. Many authors have found success writing well into their senior years. No time like the present, as my mother would always remind me.
You can also join a writing group or sign up with someone who sends out writing “prompts,” each day. These are ways to get you going on a different topic. You will be surprised how your past experiences come to life when you think about them for a while and then write about them. You start to remember events in your life that you had forgotten, once you start to put thought to paper.
What are some things you do when not writing?
Travel is one. I really love to take trips, whether local or overseas, with my wife. We are great travel partners. I love learning about new places, especially ones with a strong historical connection.
Also, I love to walk. There is something about the outdoors that fosters my imagination. Another pleasure is eating out at exciting restaurants. We are blessed in Sacramento as there are so many great places to eat. It seems as if there is new one every week.