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Write, let’s get started


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Cite as: (2008) 82(12) LIJ, p.30

The summer holidays are a perfect time for the budding author to swap legalese for fiction.

A complicated criminal trial cannot be won or a Bar exam passed without preparation and dedication.

Likewise, the many practitioners who dream of progressing from law school to publishing house must be ready to push the pencil for months on end for little financial gain and to endure constant disappointment.

The reward, of course, is the pocketfuls of personal satisfaction of being a published author.

But how does one resurrect that long-abandoned manuscript, or progress from simply talking about their literary gift to actually writing?

The “been there, done that” brigade say the golden rule for writing a novel is to sit down and write and not stop until “The end”.

And, while acknowledging the obviousness of the comment, published authors say budding writers can often overlook it.

Melbourne solicitor and author Kerry Greenwood advises fledgling writers that the important first step is to find some time that is uninterrupted and free of work concerns and that “the few weeks holiday over Christmas is a perfect time to start”.

She said it could be easier to “write what you know” but not to force it and always “write what you want to write”.

Other tips include avoiding traps like editing as you write or wasting great slabs of time refining the early chapters when they will often get a major rework during subsequent drafts.

Authors should try not to look back until passing the 30,000 word mark or stubbornly hang on to their original plans as ideas change, plots turn unexpectedly and minor characters take the place of major ones.

Being a dilettante and a serious writer do not correlate, “unless you are a great writer” and you must have the stamina for the sometimes years a work can take to whack into shape.

Importantly, you need a thick skin to withstand the often bruising experience of having material heavily scrutinised and not expect to win the Miles Franklin literary award with a first effort.

Ms Greenwood, bestselling author of the Phyrne Fisher mysteries and whose 47th novel was published last month, said the great motivator for writing must be a desire to write, “as almost no one makes money out of their first few books”.

“Writing your first couple of novels is a bit like juggling a bowling ball, a chainsaw and a couple of ferrets – if it works it is wonderful, but if not it can be very messy. So anyone who has a job should hang on to it,” she said.

A glance at Victorian lawyers turned authors underlines that while the step into publishing can be life-changing, most retain a foothold in the law.

Exceptions, such as Maria “MJ” Hyland, who practised in Victoria but now lectures in creative writing at a UK university and was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 2006 for Carry Me Down, are rare.

Rarer still are those who have abandoned their legal work to be a professional writer full-time. A recent example is Three Dollars author and former Melbourne barrister Elliot Perlman who now lives in New York.

Ms Greenwood, who still works as a duty solicitor at the Sunshine Magistrates’ Court in Melbourne’s west, said practising law was good training for fiction writing.

“Law is all about writing, interpreting and knowing words. It also teaches you to be patient and not expect instant results,” Ms Greenwood, whose work favours detective fiction, said.

Former High Court Justice Ian Callinan also warned that while writing and the law were related disciplines, the technical competency of legal training could at times stifle creativity.

“An aspect of legal training is precision and accuracy in expression and that can be quite opposite to being creative,” he said.

“However, lawyers are usually exposed to a lot of different scenarios and life situations, have to organise thoughts and write a lot, so they are halfway there.

“Having the determination and endurance to finish what you start is really wanting to write seriously. Most lawyers have a manuscript in the bottom drawer, but not too many are finished.”

Justice Callinan, whose sixth novel, The Russian Master, has been recently released, said he had the itch to write books for many years but, doubting he could finish one, began writing plays.

Buoyed that two made the stage, he took the disciplined approach to authoring his first novel by writing 1600 words a night, four times a week – while sitting on the High Court.

He said while the resulting novel has not been publicly sighted, he came to appreciate what was required.

“The important thing is that once you sit down and start writing you keep on writing. To finish the first one is the important thing.”

Justice Callinan said he has “never used anything directly” from his extensive legal history in one of his novels and simply starts with a random theme, situation or character, usually from his travels, and allows it “to take on a life of its own”.

Ms Greenwood’s fictional stories “sort of already exist” before she begins writing, but she said she needed to dip her bucket into a deep well to retrieve them.

However, Gold Coast solicitor Chris Nyst’s crime fiction is based in fact.

“I have always written what I know about and it is a rule people throw at you. All of my books are based on characters I have come across and factual scenarios that get the creative juices flowing,” he said.

When Mr Nyst, author of Cop This! and the screenplay Gettin’ Square, first started writing he would get dressed in a suit and go down to the back shed.

“I set an artificial rule not to move until I had 2500 words. It was slow to start, but by the time I got to 1500 I was galloping. You can spend a lot of time trying to work out what you want to write, but I learned that it is all about the mind taking over,” he said.

Once that first novel was complete, Mr Nyst admitted that it was very difficult to get anyone to read it but, bizarrely, his big break came after former client and convicted fraudster Peter Foster told a literary agent of its quality.

“My advice is to get an agent. Most publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts and may throw yours in a corner and forget about it. Harper Collins passed on mine before accepting it after the agent suggested they have another look,” he said.

Ms Greenwood, whose first novel was bounced around for four years before finding a home, also recommends hiring an agent and said the difference between a published and unpublished author can be that the latter gives up trying.

However, she warns that once the difficult hurdle of having a novel accepted was cleared, authors must prepare for the editing and “what can be the most dreadful part of the entire process”.

“It is heartbreaking to see your work jumped up and down on and covered with red pencil. It is like you are holding up your soul for judgment. Writing is a huge risk as you put a huge amount of yourself into it,” she said.

Practising barrister and novelist Colin Golvan began a literary agency 20 years ago, still writes “whatever anyone will publish” and says he would have remained a journalist had he not loved working in copyright and intellectual property law.

Given his large presence in the arts community, he is also “not infrequently” used as an example for young practitioners and university students who are pondering a move to full-time writing.

“Sometimes I am used as a case study on a blending of interests. I have found a way to marry my interests in publishing and writing with my legal work. I am employing writing skills generally but was always going to make a better living in the law,” Mr Golvan said.

Likewise, despite some major commercial success, Mr Nyst would not consider giving up his day job.

“Luckily, I am fascinated by what I do in the law, but if you are miserable in your work there is not much point in writing because you need the passion,” he said.

JASON GREGORY

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