Novelist Paul Levine has some writing tips. Why is “write what you know” bad advice? What does Stephen King say about rewriting? How does Paul find so much humor in court? And why does he pay homage to John D. MacDonald?
Q: Paul, you frequently speak to aspiring authors. Any writing tips you want to share?
A: Read! If you’re still in school, study history and literature and the social sciences. Everyone should read newspaper every day. Not just blogs and social media. And read both fiction and non-fiction.
Q: And when you’re ready to write?
A: Put your butt in the chair and keep it there. Write! Don’t dream about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Just write.
Q: Do you do a lot of re-writing or are you a first draft kind of guy?
A: Someone said all writing is rewriting. I do at least a dozen drafts. Sometimes way more.
Q: Do you recommend any books with writing tips?
A: Stephen King’s “On Writing.” King says your first draft is where you tell yourself the story. Then, when you rewrite, you take out all the junk that doesn’t belong in the story. Good advice.
Q: You write legal thrillers, but your lawyer-protagonists, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord in one series, Jake Lassiter in another, don’t spend that much time in court. Why is that?
A: Where would you rather be, in a stuffy courtroom, or on a beach in Key West?
Q: Which brings us to “The Deep Blue Alibi.” In the opening scene, a yacht crashes onto a beach, one man has a spear in his chest, the other is a shady real estate developer. Solomon and Lord have a tough murder trial to defend, but they seem to argue as much with each other as with the prosecutor.
A: I used to be a trial lawyer. My wife, Marcia Silvers, is a criminal defense lawyer, and we frequently banter about cases. Hopefully, the scenes I write are as funny as the ones I live.
Q: Is it true that you based “Bum Rap,” your most recent novel, on a criminal case your wife handled?
A: Yes, the Miami Beach bar girls trial. Marcia keeps asking for royalties.
Q: So Solomon and Lord are Paul and Marcia, not Tracy and Hepburn?
A: It’s a classic genre. Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate.” Hammett’s “The Thin Man.” TV’s “Moonlighting.” Two people love each other, but they also love to argue.
Q: Harlan Coben described your books as: “Carl Hiaasen meets John Grisham in the court of last retort.” Fair assessment?
A: I’ve long said Harlan is a genius. Yes, I bring humor to the legal system because I see so much that’s absolutely nutty there.
Q: In “The Deep Blue Alibi,” there’s a chapter at a Florida nudist resort. Is it fair to ask how you researched the scene?
A: Like Tom Cruise, I do my own stunts.
Q: Is the title of the book an homage John D. MacDonald’s “The Deep Blue Good-By?”
A: “Homage?” That’s French for “cheese”, isn’t it?
Q: Now, you’re being facetious.
A: That’s what they pay me for. “The Deep Blue Good-By” was the first of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. His writing deeply influenced me. You want more writing tips for thrillers? Read JDM’s “The End of the Night.”
Q: You and MacDonald are both Florida writers. Did you ever meet?
A: He passed away four years before my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” was published in 1990. But one of my first fan letters was from Maynard MacDonald, John’s son.
Q: Why do the judges in your books all seem a little wacky and the lawyers crooked, or at least somewhat flexible in their ethics?
A: Even though the “Jake Lassiter” series and “Solomon vs. Lord” series are fiction, real events and real people inspire the work. I practiced law in front of curmudgeonly judges, and I knew lawyers who could shake your hand and pick your pocket at the same time.
Q: You wrote 20 episodes of the CBS show “JAG.” and co-created the Supreme Court show “First Monday.” Any writing tips when working for television or features?
A: The great difficulty in writing for network television is the time constraint. Forty-three minutes to tell a main story and a B-story. You have to “write tight” and use the visual aspect of the medium.
Q: Any writing tips for those who want to break into Hollywood?
A: Marry a blood relative of Les Moonves or J.J. Abrams.
Q: Lacking that, when aspiring screenwriters sit down at the computer, what should they be writing?
A: Ransom notes, maybe. Look, it’s really hard to break into the business. Some people suggest writing a spec script. Be advised, though, how difficult it is to sell a script. Long ago, Elmore Leonard said, “Writing a script and sending it to Hollywood is like drawing a picture of a car and sending it to Detroit.”
Q: Any final writing tips?
A: Some people say to “write what you know.” But what you know is probably boring. You can always research something new. You can always travel to a new place. My advice is to “write what you love.” Because if you don’t love it, no one else will.
Getting published is hard. Just ask John Schulian, a prize-winning sportswriter and veteran television writer whose first novel, A Better Goodbye, was just released by Tyrus Books. There’s a lesson in his tale that’s not confined to the writing life. Achievement comes with hard work, persistence, an ability to handle rejection and a willingness to accept advice…and did I mention hard work? John is 70 years old, and there’s a lesson in that, too. It’s never too late…unless you let it be.
A Better Goodbye has gotten rave reviews. Here’s a quote from the book jacket: “Set in the sex trade that straddles the worlds of entertainment and crime, the novel is L.A. noir at its most keenly observed. Think Michael Connelly meets Elmore Leonard for a Metro ride from Universal City to Compton.” Oh, that quote…it’s mine. But now, let’s hear from John about the long and winding road of getting published.
As far as I can tell, I won’t be receiving any prizes for having my first novel published when I am 70. Holding the book in my hands will be reward enough, thank you – that and knowing I’m in the same age bracket Norman Maclean was when he bestowed his classic A River Runs Through It upon us nearly 40 years ago. Every predictable happy adjective applies to me as I go public with my L.A. noir, A Better Goodbye. But if I still resemble a punching bag, it’s because I never realized how long a decade can be until the one I just spent getting hit by rejection after rejection.
They came from every direction, like mosquitoes on a steamy summer night. Some editors instinctively backed away from what one called my “dark tale.” Others were repelled by the haunted ex-boxer, sex-trade sirens, and merciless criminals who populate my novel.
“Unsympathetic,” said one potential buyer, leaving me to wonder how he’d react if I told him what a fine time I had creating them.
The way I’d written my female characters, meanwhile, became a subject of debate. “(Schulian) has writing chops, particularly with the way he writes women,” one editor said. Another chimed in with praise for my soiled heroine’s love of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and “her attitudes toward men.” On the other side of the ledger was the spoilsport who found the ex-prizefighter in my novel “emotionally taut and compelling,” but said my star massage girl “never quite comes alive as a three-dimensional character.”
Mercifully, I managed to avoid what one editor told Vladimir Nabokov while rejecting Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Most of my rejections came wrapped in encouragement. I was “terrifically talented” and “keenly observant,” my writing “polished and lively.” But that didn’t make me any less dead in the water at Scribner, Penguin and Putnam. Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Kensington and Melville House told me thanks but no thanks, too. Then Random House and Soft Skull/Counterpoint joined the chorus. Thomas Dunne, William Morrow, Dutton and Berkeley didn’t bother to respond, but I got the message.
Who Said Getting Published Was Easy?
I was being initiated into a club that has been around since the first editor turned away a writer on behalf of a publishing house. Margaret Mitchell collected 38 rejections before she found a buyer for Gone With the Wind, James Joyce 33 for Dubliners. Even J.K. Rowling struck out a dozen times before someone got smart and snapped up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The showstopper, however, is the 111 rejections that buffeted James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie in the nine years it went begging. It might be the best novel Burke has written, nominated for a Pulitzer and better than his best Dave Robicheaux mysteries, but it’s still largely unknown and unread.
I feared the worst for A Better Goodbye getting published. Not knowing what else to do, I changed agents. It was either that or self-publish, and the thought of self-publishing pained me. I’ve been a professional writer – newspapers, magazines, Hollywood – since 1970, and I was dead set on finding a publisher for my novel. Whoever it turned out to be might not pay me a lot, but they would pay me.
With that in mind, my new agent took my novel back into the marketplace, zeroing in on a fresh set of editors whether or not they were at publishing houses my first agent had approached. I did my best not to interfere, staying busy by writing short stories and editing anthologies of sports writing. But every time I noticed a new crime novel published by an outfit I’d never heard of, I shot off an email to my new agent. Bless his heart, he never complained.
In 2012, on the same day he told me that Soho Crime, Mulholland Books and Grove had passed, he forwarded an email from Gerry Howard, who wasn’t just an editor at Random House; he was David Foster Wallace’s editor. And a Thomas Pynchon scholar. And the kind of heavyweight I never imagined being interested in A Better Goodbye. But he was interested. There was, he wrote, just one big problem for him: My hero was “too much of a mope for the book’s good.”
It was the smartest, most incisive note I’ve ever received. I rewrote a third of the book on the strength of it, and Gerry Howard liked what I’d done enough to put it in front of Random House’s decision makers. How could they say no to him? Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Things like that count in the literary world, right?
Genre Counts in Getting Published
It was the marketing people who got me. They said my novel, part crime fiction, part literary fiction, puzzled them. They said they didn’t know how to sell a book like mine. I thought it was their job to figure things like that out, but I must have been misinformed.
My agent resumed knocking on doors and I began clearing space in the desk drawer where my novel would likely stay until it turned to dust. I didn’t even think about it much anymore. And then in March – on the 23rd, a day that should be a national holiday – my agent called with not one but two offers to publish A Better Goodbye.
I took the offer from Tyrus Books. They had published muscular crime fiction by Craig McDonald and Scott Weddle and brought my friend Robert Ward’s stunning blue-collar novel Red Baker back into print. As soon as I came aboard, the lead foots from Tyrus stomped on the gas. They wanted to publish my novel right after Thanksgiving, which meant a lot of work in a hurry – writing a new top for an early chapter and a completely different final chapter; combing the manuscript again and again for typos, misspellings and graceless sentences; arranging for publicity; having a website built; putting in days at the computer so long I thought my eyes would melt.
But Ben LeRoy, who runs Tyrus, called my novel “great” the first time we talked on the phone, and that was enough for me even if he lays the same praise on all his other writers. As anyone who reads my book can attest, there are happy endings and then there are happy endings. This one suits me just fine.
(Author Interviews Note by Paul Levine: The closest I ever got to Harvard was in 1973 when its law school offered me admission to its LL.M. program. I was just about to graduate from the University of Miami Law School and thought I wanted to be a professor. Oh, that was a long time ago! Anyway, I was a new father and needed a paying job, not more tuition, so I reluctantly said “no thanks.” This week I sat down with Mary Yuhas of The Harvard Square who grilled me with questions, both literary and personal. (Hemingway was unavailable). This is adapted from her article, which appeared February 12, 2014).
Author Interviews: Lawyer-Turned-Novelist Paul Levine
The author of 18 novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, and James Thurber prizes. A former trial lawyer, he also wrote more than 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. The critically acclaimed international bestseller To Speak for the Dead featuring Jake Lassiter was his first novel. Levine is also the author of the Solomon vs. Lord series and the thrillers Illegal, Ballistic, Impact, and Paydirt. His most recent novel is State vs. Lassiter. He is a graduate of Penn State University and the University of Miami Law School. More information on his website.
Author Interviews: The Q & A
H.S.: How did you begin your writing career?
Paul: I blame windsurfing. I was on vacation in Maui and got injured windsurfing off the North Shore. It was hard to walk so for two weeks. I had nothing to do but lie on the beach. I had a pen and a yellow legal pad, which was useful because, at the time, I was a lawyer. I was thinking about a case of mine in which an old man’s busty secretary set up the theft of $2 million in negotiable bonds from his home office. In real life, the story was fairly boring. I got the bonds back; no one went to jail, but I saw possibilities for fiction…involving windsurfing.
H.S.: So you started writing in longhand on a legal pad?
Paul: This was a long time ago. A “laptop” was a dance in a strip club. Anyway, I scribbled one sentence on the legal pad: “The old man loved money, gadgets, and large-breasted women, and at the moment, he had all three.” It’s the first line of fiction I ever wrote unless you count all the legal briefs I filed over the years. The sentence got me started. It opens chapter one of Riptide, one of the Jake Lassiter series.
H.S.: Your novels “often have a sly, sardonic tone,” according to Wikipedia.
Paul: They’re one to talk.
H.S.: Seriously, you often write about murder trials, and yet you often bring humor into play.
Paul: As Jake Lassiter points out, there’s a hilarious sign in every courtroom in Miami: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” Then there’s Steve Solomon who makes up his own rules: “When the law doesn’t work…work the law.” Let’s just say that, having tried cases for 17 years, I have a healthy skepticism about what Lassiter terms the “so-called justice system.”
H.S.: If you were starting out today, would you look for an agent or publish via an e-book?
Paul: I would definitely try the traditional approach of a getting an agent and a legacy publisher. Self-publishing a single work without a backlist is very, very difficult. How many ebooks are out there? Five million? Six million? More? How do you get noticed? The optimum way is the old hardcover/paperback deal. Or trade paperback by a recognized publisher.
The Equation: Writing Equals Rejection Squared
H.S. Did you ever have doubts about your writing ability, especially after harsh criticism or literary agent rejections? How did you handle it and what do you suggest to others?
Paul: I am filled with self-doubt! I am always surprised when a story works, or dialogue zings, or a character becomes real. I wrote two books on spec that never sold to publishers. Yes, that hurt. I also now see the weaknesses in those books. I also wrote many spec features that didn’t sell to Hollywood and wrote TV pilots (both hired by the networks and on spec) that didn’t were never made. There should be an equation. Writing equals Rejection Squared. Advice? Handle it! Persevere. Don’t whine. Put your butt in the chair and write!
H.S.: What’s the biggest mistake first time authors often make?
Paul: Impatience, which causes poor writing. With beginning writers, there’s a tendency to think you’re done when you’ve finished with your first or second draft. Unless you are a genius, which I’m not, you’ve just reached second base. To score a run, you’ve got to rewrite and rewrite. Hemingway said, “all good writing is rewriting.” Take his advice. Rewrite and polish.
H.S.: Any other tips for first-time-authors?
Paul: Read good authors in a field you enjoy. But DON’T copy their style. There’s nothing worse than a faux Elmore Leonard. Read books about story structure and writing novels. There are really too many to recommend, but Stephen King’s book On Writing comes to mind. And, of course, write!
H.S.: Is it easier or harder to get into writing today than when you started?
Paul: It’s harder to break into traditional publishing than when I started in the 1980s with Bantam because there are fewer major publishers. There has been some growth in smaller, independent presses, which is good, but the flip side is that the amount of the advance is generally less. But then, there is the new world of self-publishing on the internet with Amazon and its competitors. Nothing wrong with that, but there seems to be a myth that self-publishing ebooks is an easy way to riches and fame. That’s not the case.
H.S.: Author Interviews wants to know: how long does it take you to write a book?
Paul: From idea to concept to research to outline to writing and revisions, it takes me nine months to a year for most of the series books. I already have my protagonist and his world in my head. I don’t need to drive to the courthouse to see what a courtroom looks like. For standalones, such as Illegal, it took closer to a year and 1/2 to two years Part of the book is written from the point of view of a young Mexican woman and part from her 12-year-old son’s POV. I was terrified I could not write in the voice of a 30-year-old female illegal alien. In the end, I believe it turned out well.
H.S.: How did you break into writing TV screenwriting?
Paul: I became friends with fellow Penn State grad Don Bellisario, the creator of “Magnum, P.I.,” “Quantum Leap,” and “JAG,” among others. He enjoyed my books, and I enjoyed his shows. When he wrote the two-hour pilot of “JAG,” he shared it with me. I told him I liked it very much, but did television really want a show about Navy lawyers? (What did I know! The show ran 10 years and about 220 episodes). Anyway, in the third season, Don asked if I wanted to write a script as a free-lancer. I’d written a couple of TV pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, and I thought I understood the voice of the show and could write those characters, so I did it, and the episode aired pretty much the way I wrote it.
The next year, I freelanced another script for “JAG,” and the year after that, Don asked me to move to Los Angeles and work full-time on the show. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. But I had just written one of those spec novels that didn’t sell. So I took the job, which frankly paid WAY more money that I expected. And the Writers Guild has a helluva health plan and a pension plan, something book authors don’t get. Of course, occasionally you have to stop working and hit the picket lines. I’m a big believer in unions, by the way. Without Hollywood unions, there’d be no royalties, pensions, or health plans.
In my second season on the show, I took an idea to Don for a drama set at the Supreme Court, focusing on the interactions between the justices and the law clerks. (It was loosely based on my Supreme Court thriller, Impact.) Don liked it; Les Moonves at CBS liked it; and it became the short-lived “First Monday.” Don and I co-wrote the pilot, which starred James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning and folded after 13 episodes, with some of the oldest demographics in the history of television. Or as I like to say, we were a hit with the crowd between Medicare and the mortuary.
H.S.: Any Author Interviews tips for writers interested in script writing?
Paul: Read Robert Towne’s script of “Chinatown.” Read “Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee. And good luck.
H.S.: Any truth to the rumor that you steered a nuclear submarine?
Paul: One of the perks on “JAG” was that the writers got to hang out with the U.S. Navy, without having to be in actual danger. One day, we flew from a naval base to an aircraft carrier. The landing was pretty cool. Another day, we spent on a Los Angeles class attack submarine. And yes, they let me steer it for about 30 seconds. No international incidents occurred as a result.
H.S.: Finally, thank you for sitting down with Author Interviews. What’s in your future?
Paul: I read a lot of emails from readers. The ones who don’t point out typos are evenly divided between writing a new Lassiter or another in the Solomon vs. Lord series. If anyone out there has an idea, I’m open to it and can always be contacted through my website. And, living in Miami, I am still trying to make the perfect mojito.