Debbi Mack 20 Questions Blog Tour
Question 17: Has your background as a lawyer influenced your writing or publishing career?
Thanks, Stephanie, for asking that question and hosting me here at Curling Up by the Fire. Having a background in law has significantly influenced my writing and publishing career.
First, there's the obvious way it's influenced my writing. My protagonist is a lawyer. I didn't make her a lawyer because of the old maxim "write what you know." I made her a lawyer because I wanted to distinguish her from other hardboiled female protagonists. Most of them were private investigators. I made my character Sam McRae a lawyer to make her different from the others.
Doing that didn't necessarily make the storytelling part easier. If anything, it made it a bit more difficult. First, I had to get the legal details right (or other lawyers would laugh about it, possibly ridicule my work, which was something I definitely didn't want). Now, being a lawyer doesn't mean you know every single thing there is to know about the law. Being a lawyer means you know how to identify legal issues and look things up. And after you look things up, it's knowing how those things apply to your case.
So, in writing my first novel IDENTITY CRISIS, I had to think about all the legal implications involved in the scenario I depicted. I was writing about identity theft, so I had to figure out if any laws existed at the time that made it illegal. At the time, there were few (if any) laws that applied specifically to identity theft. So I looked a bit deeper into laws that dealt with fraudulent activity. Also, laws that dealt with theft in general. I tried to think about how any of those laws might apply.
Now, mind you, I did this as background research for the novel. I never intended to write a treatise on the subject. I did the research to satisfy myself that there wasn't a plot development in there that I might be overlooking. I did it to make sure there wasn't an obvious charge the police might bring against the alleged identity thief (one that would significantly affect the story, anyway).
In short, being a lawyer has made me more careful about my research and finding out the things that I don't know about a subject. Because when you come down to it, sometimes you simply don't realize you don't know something until you research it. Being a lawyer (and a librarian, actually) has made me more aware of my limitations in this regard.
Being a lawyer has also made me more aware of logical inconsistencies. As a result, I tend to look for ways that the plot fails to hang together or lack of justification for a character's actions. Legal training attunes your mind to notice when things don't quite add up. It forces you to seek solutions that make sense. The legally trained mind won't settle for illogical actions by a character nor will it be happy with plots that unravel or fail to resolve well.
In addition, my legal training has reinforced my tendency to outline. Throughout law school, we were encouraged to create outlines of our course material. These outlines were our study guides. I've always been an outliner, anyway. It goes with my tendency to take a step-by-step, rational approach to problem solving.
I tend to think of writing a mystery as, not only an exercise in creativity, but also an exercise in problem solving. If a mystery is like a puzzle, then a rational approach should help suggest its solution. My job as the author is to know the solution, but hide the proverbial ball. What I do is reason out how and why it happened, then create obstacles and red herrings that take readers in different directions. By doing this, the clues (necessarily) will get sprinkled in along with other possible solutions. The trick is to make those other solutions equally (if not more) logical under the circumstances.
Being a lawyer also gives me an amazing mental repository of material. Storytelling is all about conflict. Lawyers deal with real and potential conflict as a matter of course. For every case that exists, I could probably come up with a scenario in which someone would commit murder. (Pretty gruesome thinking, huh? Well, lawyers have a tendency to see the bleak side of human behavior. We're a little like cops that way.)
I could probably name all sorts of ways in which being a lawyer has affected my writing, but I'll move on to publishing instead.
First, let me tell you what being a lawyer hasn't done. It hasn't made me well-equipped to vet my own contracts. (I still won't do that. A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. I'm no fool. ) It hasn't made me an expert on copyright law. It hasn't familiarized me with standard publishing contract provisions or with industry customs.
It has, however, made me more aware of the need to know about these things. It's caused me to inquire into them. As usual, I've taken a logical approach and tried to research what I can about the subject. I've learned from other authors (though, frankly, many of them don't really understand the issues so much as their effect on them) and gone to a seminar or two on copyright. I've learned enough to know that there's plenty I still don't know and understand. Copyright is a highly complex subject – even legal practitioners that specialize in it get muddled over the details.
In any case, I know (now) that when I sign with a publisher, I'm entering a licensing agreement. My rights are still mine, I'm just licensing their use to another. This licensing arrangement allows them to publish my work. If we're talking about a traditional publisher, the license granted is exclusive (i.e., for that publisher alone). If we're talking about reputable self-publishing outfits (e.g., CreateSpace, et al.), the license granted is non-exclusive (i.e., the work can be published by others without limitation).
I know that I alone hold the copyright. And the copyright takes in many forms of expression. My copyright includes not only print books, but audiobook rights, e-rights (this has become a HUGE sticking point when deciding to sign with a publisher), adaptation rights (particularly, for movies or television) and translation rights, just to name a few.
I also know from my research and experience that good writing can be marketed, promoted and sold by individuals. I did it as a freelance writer, so it stands to reason that I should be able to do it as a fiction author.
I realize that operating as an indie author isn't easy. I realize there are obstacles to overcome (particularly on the print book distribution front). However, I've also seen the future (or really the present) in ebooks. I know that if I take a logical approach to my marketing and promotion, that I can distribute and sell ebooks with much less problem than their print counterparts.
In that way, my legal background and my resulting inquiries have made me more aware of my own power. My content is mine and nothing can change that. And I won't sign any deal that isn't worth my while. Why? Because I'm the creator. Without me, the publishers have nothing.
While traditional publishers used to wield (one might even say monopolize) the ultimate power of allowing an author to become published, now their power's slipping. Why? Because authors can do for themselves more easily now. With print-on-demand technology and ebooks, authors are no longer locked out. In fact, they hold the keys to their own success. They still have to work hard at marketing and promotion, but they'd have to do that, anyway.
My legal knowledge has helped me realize that I'm far from helpless. In fact, that knowledge has helped me realize that all authors with good stories to tell have it in themselves to make a living in this business.
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Thanks for reading, everyone! Don't forget to leave a comment with your email address if you'd like to enter the drawing for the 10 autographed copies of IDENTITY CRISIS I'm giving away. (One entry per person, but comment as often as you like.)
The drawing will be held on my blog My Life on the Mid-List after the tour is finished. Check my blog for the entire tour schedule.
And please join me at my next stop tomorrow: The Little Blog of Murder.
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Debbi Mack is the author of IDENTITY CRISIS, a hardboiled mystery and the first in a series featuring lawyer Stephanie Ann "Sam" McRae. She's also a short story writer whose ebook anthology, FIVE UNEASY PIECES, includes the Derringer-nominated "The Right to Remain Silent," originally published in The Back Alley Webzine. Debbi's work has also appeared in two of the CHESAPEAKE CRIMES anthologies.
Be on the lookout for her next Sam McRae novel, LEAST WANTED, which will be published soon (in print and ebook versions).
Debbi practiced law for nine years before becoming a freelance writer/researcher and fiction author. She's also worked as a news wire reporter covering the legal beat in Washington, D.C. and as a reference librarian at the Federal Trade Commission. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three cats.
You can find out more about Debbi on her Web site and her blog My Life on the Mid-List. Her books are available on Amazon, BN.com, Smashwords and other sites around the Web, as well by order at stores. You can also buy autographed copies of her novel from her Web site.