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Write Like a Lawyer: 5 Tips for Fiction Writers

I often tell people that being a lawyer isn’t so different from being a fiction writer. The comment always elicits some laughs, maybe a suspicious squint or two, but I couldn’t be more serious. As a junior and mid-level corporate litigator, much of my day was spent writing briefs, witness statements and other court documents. Over the years, I developed writing skills and strategies that helped me finish my debut novel, THE HOUSE GIRL (Feb. 2012) while also holding down a day job. Here are the top five.

I often tell people that being a lawyer isn’t so different from being a fiction writer. The comment always elicits some laughs, maybe a suspicious squint or two, but I couldn’t be more serious. As a junior and mid-level corporate litigator, much of my day was spent writing briefs, witness statements and other court documents. Over the years, I developed writing skills and strategies that helped me finish my debut novel, THE HOUSE GIRL (Feb. 2012) while also holding down a day job. Here are the top five...

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Guest column by Tara Conklin, author of the debut novel,
THE HOUSE GIRL (Feb. 2012, William Morrow), one of the
titles featured in Writer's Digest's "Breaking In" section in 2013.
Find Tara at her website or connect with her on Twitter.

1) Use a Timeline

Most legal disputes involve a complex array of characters, events and conflicts, much like a novel. When working on a client’s case, I always maintain a timeline to understand (and remember) what happened when. For my novel, I adopted the same approach. Rather than use a traditional outline to sketch out my novel, I used a simple timeline with two columns: In the left-side column, I wrote the pertinent date; in the right-side column, I jotted down the key event with any relevant details. I made my fictional events as specific as possible by grounding them in time and place: what day of the week? What time of year? What noteworthy real-life events were happening concurrently to the novel’s key events?

I also used the timeline to flesh out my characters’ lives beyond the time period covered in my novel. For example, I included birth dates, graduations, first jobs, first loves, in addition to the pertinent events covered in the novel itself. My timeline was a constantly evolving work in progress that reflected the development of my manuscript and helped me immeasurably to keep track of my story and better understand my characters.

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2) Time is money

Lawyers bill by the hour. In my law firm, we billed clients in six minute increments. I learned that, if you focus, it’s amazing what you can achieve in six minutes. I apply the same sense of time value when writing fiction. The world doesn’t always provide me (or any writer) with optimum writing conditions. Maybe you’re on your lunch break, your baby is napping, you’re commuting to work. There’s noise, and email, and children, and laundry. But those 6-minute increments, and the words you write during them, add up.

3) Interrogate your characters

In my law job, I often interviewed witnesses to establish the key facts about a case and to gauge whether they would be a persuasive witness before a judge or arbitrator. I asked tough questions and tried to feel out any weaknesses in their version of events. I applied the same techniques to my characters and “interviewed” my main characters on paper, answering my questions in the first-person. Even though I didn’t use much of the resulting answers in the novel itself, the exercise helped me greatly in getting inside my characters’ heads and developing their voices.

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4) Persuasive facts

All legal briefs rely on the strategic use of persuasive facts. As a representative for your client, a lawyer puts forth the facts in a way that best supports the client’s case. Generally, as a lawyer, your case is pretty straightforward: my client should win and here are the reasons why. In writing fiction, you have many cases – you are persuading the reader to believe that your protagonist is selfish, or she’s in love, or she wants to find meaning in her life. Each detail that you include in your narrative should persuade the reader to believe in at least one of your “cases”. For example, my protagonist’s mother died suddenly when she was very young, which made it difficult for her to form enduring relationships with other people. In trying to show this aspect of her character, I used persuasive facts: she has no close friends, she has no boyfriend, she speaks about her fear of “disappearing.” Keeping an eye on the function of my details – am I persuading my reader? – helped me greatly in the editing process. If a piece of information didn’t strengthen my “case” about a character, then I didn’t need it.

5) Meet your Deadline.

In the law, deadlines are very important. If you miss a filing date, you’re out of luck and, usually, out of a client. Deadlines for a first-time novelist are generally self-imposed, easy to overlook, impossible to enforce. I suggest that you set yourself short and long-term deadlines and work to meet them. Call in sick to work; do an all-nighter if you must. Pretend like your career is riding on your finished manuscript. Because maybe it is.

(Literary agents share helpful advice for new writers.)

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