James Sheehan is an author, trial attorney and teacher, and is currently the Director of the Tampa Law
Institute at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Florida.
When I first started writing fiction many years ago the stuff I
was writing was awful. It wasn’t that I didn’t have good ideas, I just didn’t
know how to write fiction. I had plenty of experience writing because, as a
lawyer, I had written hundreds of legal briefs. The process of taking an
abstract or complex idea or series of ideas and putting them on paper in a
logical, orderly fashion was something I was very good at. Naturally, I assumed
that because I had experience getting ideas from my head onto paper that
fiction would be a breeze. Boy, was I wrong.
Now, I have to confess that I had no formal training in creative
writing. I just thought--I have a good
story, I’ve been writing for years--case closed. Not so fast. The first
time I sat down to write my story, my book, I was finished in ten pages. My
legal briefs were around twenty-five pages, why did my “book” end in ten? I
described the characters very well, I thought, and I used nice descriptive words since I had a
fairly extensive vocabulary. But I was done in ten pages! And frankly, it was
boring, terribly boring. So I did something that I don’t ordinarily do--I asked
Lucky for me, and I mean very lucky for me, my sister was a
literary editor working for a major publishing company at the time. I sent her
my ten page story and asked her if she could give me some advice. I can tell
you, I was not prepared for her very frank and honest assessment. This story stinks! She told me. It reads like an essay or one of your legal
briefs. This isn’t the way you write a story. You don’t “tell” a story, you
invite the reader “into” a story.
At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I learned
though, and it didn’t come overnight. It was a trial and error process and it
took a lot of patience, more on my sister’s part than on mine. Eventually, the
worm started to turn, and I started to learn how to write.
What did I learn to do differently under my sister’s patient
tutelage? The first thing I learned was to stop thinking about the words and start
thinking about the picture or, even better, the pictures. What pictures? The
pictures I had in my head of a scene and the characters in that scene. I had to
get those pictures onto the paper. You’re probably asking yourself as you read
this--What the hell is he talking about? You
are right where I was when my sister gave me my first lesson. Let me see if I
can give you a little taste of what I mean.
I remember a movie when I was a child where the star saw a
beautiful pastoral scene in a painting and then magically (because it was the
movies) he was able to step into the picture and become part of that scene.
That’s what happens with a good work of fiction! That’s what I have to do--have
you, the reader, step into the story and be part of it. If you are
concentrating on the nice descriptive
words and reading the essay and not ducking from the bullets or wringing your
hands, palms sweating, as you sit on the witness chair waiting for counsel’s
next question, then you are not into
the story and I have not done my job.
So how do I do that? How do I get you to step into the picture?
The short answer is that it takes time. I have to build each scene so you can
visualize it and I have to create characters and give them backgrounds so that
you will identify with them and care about them and see them. I also know that I have to bring you into the story
immediately. How many times have you heard people say about a book--”I just
couldn’t get into it.”? Or “If it doesn’t grab me in the first three pages I’m
done.” James Michener could get away with giving the reader a hundred pages of
history before getting started but most of us can’t pull that off. I might want
to start off with an action scene, or an emotional scene--something to get you
connected to the characters and want to find out more--but I don’t have to.
A lot of mystery writers start out with a murder--the old
whodunit. I did that in my first two books, The
Mayor of Lexington Avenue and The Law of Second Chances but since they
were not mysteries per se but legal
thrillers, you, the reader, knew from the outset who the murderer was or, at
least, you thought you did. Isn’t this fun? In my third book, The Lawyer’s Lawyer, I start out with
three old friends tending bar. Nothing happens although one friend, Ronnie,
says to Jack Tobin, my main character in all three books--you’ll be back here someday, Jack, either for a case or a woman or both.
And there it is, the hook. It’s only partially set, though. You have to connect
with the characters for that hook to be truly set. How do I get you to do that?
Well, dialogue helps. In the opening scene of The Lawyer’s Lawyer, the three friends, who have been tending bar
all night, sit down, exhausted, and start ribbing each other as old friends do.
This is a scene about three men, but all of us, men and women, have been at
that table in our own lives and, if the scene has been set up right, the
characters have been described well enough for you to see them, and the
dialogue is genuine--then you are there, enjoying the feeling of old friends
sparring with each other. You can feel their exhaustion. You can taste the
beer. And that will make you turn the next page to find out what Jack is coming
back for--a case, or a woman, or both.
That’s just a snippet of the process, but I hope that from this
brief discussion you, at least, have a sense of what it’s about and why, at the
outset, we all need a little help from our friends--and relatives!