All-Star Panel of Best-Selling Authors Shares Secrets to Success
A distinguished panel of best-selling lawyer-authors gathered to discuss their writing careers in “The Law as a Platform for Writing” Aug. 4 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago. Dallas-based author and litigator Talmage Boston moderated the panel, which featured Jeffrey Toobin, CNN analyst, writer at The New Yorker and author of six nonfiction books; Scott Turow, a lawyer in private practice and author of nine novels and two nonfiction books; and Stephen Carter, a Yale Law School professor and author of eight nonfiction works and five novels.
The panel first tackled the question of why so many lawyers write fiction. Turow said the greatest break of his literary career came by going to law school. It required thinking about questions such as “How do we divide good and evil? How do we make the rules? This is all good literary material,” he said.
Carter said that lawyers make good authors because they are “trained to think constantly about contingencies. What if this? … What if that? Fiction is about what if this. The author is trying to outguess the reader. The author comes up with a twist and a turn.
“[Lawyers] also have training in narrative, what facts matters and what facts don’t matter,” he continued. In this way, “law school trains people to write fiction.”
Toobin, who grew up with two journalist parents, said he wanted to become a writer because he wanted to be “part of changing society, not writing about it. I always wrote, on the high school newspaper, the college paper and freelance work.”
The panelists explained how legal research ties in to making sure the facts in their books are accurate. “My legal background helps me make sure it’s plausible,” Turow said, adding that he has sometimes hired researchers to help ensure accuracy. “Accuracy is important to me. Knowing the facts tends to feed my imagination.”
Carter, author of the newly released novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, said he can find the experience of writing novels nerve-wracking, partly because of the pressure to get all the details right. “Writing novels really drains me emotionally,” he said. “One of the reasons is the intensity in which I feel my characters.” Also, with Lincoln, the book required more research than others to ensure an authenticity to the era in terms of “what it looked like, what it smelled like. I felt pressure to get the facts as close to right as I possibly could.”
The reporting process, Toobin added, is “the most important thing I do. The writing process is secondary. The challenge is to tell readers stories they are familiar with in a way that’s new.”
Boston, the panel’s moderator, asked the authors to share how they balance writing and their other obligations. Turow said he practices law part time. “Remaining active in law nurtures my imagination,” he said. Toobin, however, is a full-time journalist, and doesn’t practice law. He disciplines himself to write 1,250 words a day, which works out to 100 pages a month, in order to meet deadlines of six to eight months to complete a book.
Carter, with a laugh, said he is from a “long line of disorganized people.”
“How do I balance? I have no idea,” he said. “You have to love writing. If you love writing, you find a way to get it done.”