Friday, August 20, 2010

So You Want To Write A Legal Thriller?

Reece is offering two copies of The Insider to two commenters today.

I'm pleased to have debut legal thriller author, Reece Hirsch, as my guest today.

Aside from the fact that his book is a must read, he has some practical pointers on pursuing the ambition to write and be published. Reece covers The Law of Literary Inertia (which cracked me up), Write What You Know – Then Make Stuff Up, Don’t Chase Trends, Embrace the Process, The All-Important First Page, and  Develop a Thick Skin. Sounds like he's been there and done that, doesn't it?

Reece calls it his six year struggle.

Scott Turow and John Grisham are a little like the Beatles and Stones of the legal thriller genre. Everything that has come after them tends to be categorized and measured in terms of those two highly successful lawyer-authors. When Turow’s Presumed Innocent was published in 1987, I was a first-year law student at U.S.C. When Grisham’s The Firm was published in 1991, I was a first-year associate at a Los Angeles law firm.

Like many other lawyers of my vintage, I read those two enormously successful (and very different) books and thought, “I’d like to try writing one of those someday.” But it took 12 or so years for me to find the time to make the effort. After all, the demands of practicing law and maintaining a personal life don’t leave a lot of spare time for creative endeavors.

Eventually, though, I did begin writing and in May 2010 my debut legal thriller The Insider was published by Berkley Books, a division of Penguin, as a mass-market paperback. I’d characterize The Insider as more of a “Grisham” than a “Turow” because it’s a fast-paced story of a young lawyer who becomes a pawn in a complex criminal scheme that involves, among other things, Russian mobsters, insider trading and a secret government domestic surveillance program.

While I am but a humble beginning writer, I think I learned a few things in my six-year struggle to complete a novel and get it published. For those of you with a partially completed manuscript in a drawer or a long-postponed goal of writing one, I hope these pointers will make your journey a little shorter and less arduous than mine was.

  • The Law of Literary Inertia. 
To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, a writer at rest tends to remain at rest, while a writer who is writing tends to continue writing. After I turned 40, I began to hear the literary equivalent of a biological clock ticking. I knew that if I was ever going to make a serious effort to write a legal thriller, I’d better get started. Then I hit the snooze button and commenced writing in earnest two years later.

In order to jump-start my literary efforts, I enrolled in a U.C. Berkeley Extension Novel Writing Workshop. The weekly assignments forced me to write regularly, and I enjoyed the process of getting and giving feedback.

At the end of the workshop, I had about fifty pages written and an encouraging evaluation from my teacher. It gave me just enough momentum to continue writing consistently on weekends, early weekday mornings and on the BART train to work. Later, I joined a weekly writers group, which provided the same kind of weekly deadlines and critiques that were so helpful to me early on.
  • Write What You Know – Then Make Stuff Up.
Despite the number of legal thrillers that line the bookstore shelves, I found that, as a practicing lawyer, there were still many facets of the legal profession and law firm life that were relatively new ground for the genre. For example, in The Insider, I touch upon the tussles over billing credit among partners that can sometimes define a career. In one scene, I try to show the drama that can be found in the gamesmanship of an M&A negotiation. I also drew upon my knowledge of privacy and security law in developing one of the novel’s key plot elements.

Of course, a little legal verisimilitude goes a long way with most readers. If I had stuck to the real-life experiences of a young, workaholic corporate attorney like my protagonist Will Connelly, my thriller would have been about as thrilling as a day spent in a due diligence room reading corporate minutes. To remedy that, my story also includes plenty of deception, betrayal – and a sizable body count.

  • Don’t Chase Trends.
As tempting as it might be to write a legal thriller about vampire lawyers following a series of clues that may reveal the lost secrets of the Freemasons, chasing publishing trends is futile. The lead-time involved in writing and publishing a book is so long that any fad will be hopelessly pass√© by the time your book reaches the market. However, it is helpful to read the genre that you’re writing in and think about how you can bring a fresh angle.
  • Embrace the Process.
Like most things, writing a novel is something that you learn by doing, and by making mistakes. Many of the debut authors that I’ve met recently have a first, unpublished manuscript in the drawer, their “learner book.” Instead of scrapping my first attempt and starting over on a second book, I chose, perhaps from sheer stubbornness, to laboriously rework and rework my first book until it was publishable. Whichever route you take, there seems to be no getting around the fact that, unless you are some sort of literary prodigy, writing a publishable novel often takes years of painstaking revision and refinement.
  • The All-Important First Page.
The first page, and the first chapter, of your manuscript are critical. The competition to grab the attention of literary agents and publishers is intense, and if they aren’t absolutely riveted by the first pages, they simply won’t read further. No matter how brilliant the climax of your book is, it probably won’t get published without a killer first chapter.
  • Develop a Thick Skin.
To write is to be rejected. Unless you are that literary prodigy that I mentioned earlier, you will amass a fat stack of rejection letters from agents and later, if you’re lucky, publishers. You will amass so many form rejection letters that a handwritten rejection will seem like a drink of cool water in the desert. Fortunately, lawyers are well known to be fairly impervious to abuse. And that may be the lawyer-author’s secret weapon.

  • What some of the lessons you've learned along the way to publication?

The Insider Back Cover:
San Francisco corporate attorney Will Connelly's well-ordered life is shattered when he watches a colleague hurtle to his death outside his office window. Within days, Will is the prime suspect in a murder, the target of an S.E.C. insider trading investigation, and a pawn in a complex criminal scheme involving the Russian mafia and a ruthless terrorist plot. Now, Will must ensure that a deadly enemy doesn't gain access to the nation's most sensitive and confidential information—and the power to do incalculable, irrevocable harm.  
Hirsch's fast-paced, film-ready plot and tough, ambitious characters will keep fans of legal thrillers on the edge of their seats."
—Publishers Weekly
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Reece Hirsch Facebook
Reece Hirsch's debut legal thriller THE INSIDER was published by Berkley Books in May 2010. He is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, specializing in privacy, security and healthcare law. Reece is also a member of the Board of Directors of 826 National, a non-profit organization that conducts writing and literacy programs for young people.

Reece earned his law degree from the University of Southern California and a B.S. degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Prior to law school, Reece worked as a journalist in Atlanta for several years, including a stint as an assistant editor of a business magazine. For three years, he edited and published an arts and entertainment magazine in Atlanta.

In writing THE INSIDER, Reece drew upon his experiences working in law firms and his background in privacy and security law. THE INSIDER touches upon privacy concerns raised by government domestic surveillance in the wake of 9-11 and is based in part on the true story of the Clipper Chip, a National Security Agency encryption program from the mid-Nineties.

Reece lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Kathy and their dog Simon.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Reece welcome to Over Coffee. I have plenty of coffee on the coffee bar and homemade goodies to munch on. Even donuts, oh wait, wrong profession, lol!

I have received The Insider, yay. OMG it's great so far!

Tonya Kappes said...

Reece thank you for your advice. I really like what you said about not following the trend. That is very hard for an aspiring writer who wants to be published sooooo bad, as if her life depended on it (um...I'm not talking about swear!)
If I had, then my women's fiction (aka chick lit) wouldn't be coming out in the spring b/c everyone told me "that genre is dead."

Elle J Rossi said...


Great post. I've been stalled for about a month. While there is a multitude of reasons for this, I know deep down that they are only excuses. Excuses are like a noose around the neck and an anchor tied to your feet.

Getting back on that saddle may be a hard thing for me to do right now, but I must, so I will.

Judi Fennell said...

ONE first ms in a drawer? Try 3. Though I still have hopes for them, but I'm on my 2nd 3-book contract, so it's nice to know I have more published than unpublished.

Congrats on your debut - wishing you many more!

Reece said...

Tonya -- Congratulations on your upcoming book! As someone who just went through the first-book whirlwind, I hope you enjoy every minute of it. It goes by in a blur!

Elle -- I was definitely stalled at various points in the process of writing THE INSIDER. Often the best answer is to make sure that you spend at least a little time each day planted in front of your computer. And sometimes even those "stalled" periods can be useful. Once you get back in gear, you may find that you have a new perspective on some aspect of your manuscript.

Judi -- Thanks for the good wishes! Congratulations to you on your second 3-book contract! I think maybe you should be giving me advice ....

VA said...

I haven't read a thriller in years, this could be the twist my fiction reading needs.

Congratulations, Reece. I am practicing Literary Inertia presently, good one, though starting to feel guilty about it. I expect I'll open my wip file any day now.

May the book sales' god bless you.

VA said...

Pretty website.

Judi Fennell said...

Reece - my advice: write the best book you can. And then edit it. And edit it again.

Nothing new. That's the secret, as far as I can tell...

Helen Ginger said...

Reece, great points. I agree with every one. Now I just have to practice them all.

Congratulations on your first book. It sounds like a fast moving plot with an interesting lead character. I like both Turow and Grisham, but it's been a while since I read a legal thriller. Long ago in my college days, I used to want to be a lawyer. 'Course, there used to be a time when I wanted to be a ballerina.

I like the cover. It's intriguing.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Thanks so much for featuring this author, Sia. Reece, I appreciate your willingness to let us pick your brain. Though I'm published as a children's picture book author, I'm starting a YA novel and needed these bits of advice to push onward. Thanks!

Reece said...

Thanks, everyone! Even though I know that many of you don't write in the thriller/mystery genre, it does seem that the same advice applies to all of us. As Judi says, you just have to write the best book you can. The trick for a first-timer is that you sometimes think you've done your best, but you discover that there are still a few more lessons that you need to learn before your manuscript is publishable. I figured that out when I sent my manuscript out the first time and didn't succeed in landing an agent.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Even when you do land a an agent or a publisher, you still learn many lessons with edits and revisions. God the rewrites have to about kill you and then you're writing against deadlines. In my opinion, writers can always improve--we find tighter ways to present a scene, or an emotion.

Reece, I LOVE a good thriller, but I know it's not an area of expertise for me, or even desire, at this point.

Other Lisa said...

Howdy, Reece! Well, I write in the suspense/thriller genre (sort of). The only thing I can think to add to your very excellent advice is that it doesn't necessarily get any easier on Book #2.


Lisa Brackmann

Reece said...

Hey Lisa -- I've heard great things about your book and, now that we are virtually acquainted, I'm going to have to check it out. I'm also in the thick of Book 2 and agree that it doesn't get any easier. However, I like to think that the mistakes I'm making this time are different (and hopefully harder to spot) than the ones I made in earlier drafts of Book 1. Best, Reece

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm glad I don't have to follow trends. My first book definitely bucked the trend of high-tech science fiction.

Vincent Zandri said...

Rock on Reece, from one battered author to another. never follow the trends because once it's a trend it's already history!!!
Hi Sia!!!!!!

Sun Singer said...

I used to live in metro Atlanta before moving farther up I-85, so who knows, I might have read some of your articles in the AJC or Atlanta Business Chronicle.

I remember when SF (where my family lived) first started digging the gaping holes for BART. What a mess. I used to ride the J_Church street car out to my apartment on Dolores Street in the 1960s. Haven't been back since the mid-80s and never rode on BART. Always wondered how that holes in the ground turned out.

At any rate, congrats on the book and thanks for the good writing advice. I can see that I'm going to have to re-think my vampires vs. the freemasons book about a young symbologist attorney who lives in the mission district of SF and thinks something odd might be happening up the hill on Sanchez Street.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Alex, I love your book trailer and I'm looking forward to reading your book. Great to have you stop by.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Malcolm, I was in SF in the 80's and I'm afraid I never rode BART (but I loved the cable cars), I usually went in and out of the city by car. Which is funny, really, since I've been on other systems in other cities. Love DC's subway system. And BTW, cities do tend to cover up the giganntic holes they make. Something about liability, lol!

And you my fine Scot friend have a wicked sense of humor.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hey Vin. I meant to tell you, I like Moonlight Falls. Good to see you around.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Vivian, I think you'd like this one. It's got some intriguing twists and definitely keeps you on your toes and well entertained.

Reece said...

Hey Vin -- It's nice to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by!

Malcolm -- Back in my Atlanta days, I wrote for the now-defunct Business Atlanta magazine, which competed with the Atlanta Business Chronicle. I also wrote about movies for Atlanta magazine and then edited and published a free arts and entertainment magazine in Atlanta called Open City. Atlanta is a great city, and I do miss it sometimes. And I'm glad that I was able to steer you away from the whole vampires versus Freemasons thing ....

Sia -- Thanks for the good words about THE INSIDER. I'm glad to hear that you liked it!

Houston A.W. Knight said...


This was an awesome interview! I really enjoyed it.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Reece is a quite the writer and I have to say, I like his sense of humor too. Wasn't his writing points great?

Houston A.W. Knight said...


His point were rigth on! I'm like him...I'm a rewrite, rewrite and rewrite it again and again until I get it right.

I agree with the first page and chapter advice as well...I'd go as far as to say the very first line!

Great interview!

Kat Sheridan said...

I know I'm terribly late, but I wanted to say how much I LOVE suspense thrillers. I'm writing romantic suspense. And you totally had me with "high body count". My romance novel WIP has a body count of 10. It's in the virtual drawer. The one I'm working on now has 4 killers spread across 100 years. I do love my villains.