Q & A with Sheldon Siegel
What motivated you to be a writer?
I've wanted to write a novel since I was in high school, although quite honestly, I can't explain why. I started writing Special Circumstances with the modest goal of finding out whether I had any aptitude for writing fiction. Once I got started, I decided I wanted to finish the first draft by my fortieth birthday in July of 1998. I beat my deadline by three days. You should never underestimate the motivational value of a good midlife crisis.
Tell us about your training as a writer.
I have very little formal training as a writer. My undergraduate degree (from the University of Illinois at Champaign) was in accounting. I graduated from UC-Berkeley's Boalt Law School and I've been a corporate and securities lawyer since 1983. Special Circumstances was my first attempt at writing fiction since I was in high school. I took a 10-week creative writing class taught by two excellent authors, Katherine Forrest and Michael Nava. It helped me figure out structure and plotting. I wouldn't have finished Special Circumstances if I hadn't taken the class. I still meet with the other seven students every other Thursday night, where we read and critique each other's work. I try to read and write as much as I can.
Many people write books but can never get published. What's your secret?
It sounds terribly obvious, but the first thing you have to do is write the book. It is almost impossible to get a work of fiction published unless you have a completed manuscript. Agents and publishers are very busy. If they like your first three chapters, they'll ask to see the rest of the story right away to make sure you can sustain the quality of your work for an entire book. It REALLY helps if you can send them the rest of the book right away. Once you've written the story (and assuming it's good, of course), it helps if you can find an agent. Personal connections, bookstore owners and other authors are helpful, but not absolutely necessary. You should also check out publications such as the Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Your objective is to get your book to the top of the agent's pile. It helps if the first few pages are VERY good, because most agents and editors don't have the time to read more than a few pages or chapters. Serendipity, good luck and timing also play a huge role (if somebody tells you this isn't the case, they're lying). If you find an agent who gets excited about your book, you're 90% of the way to getting published. I got very lucky. My agent, Margret McBride, rides bikes with an attorney in my firm's San Diego office. She agreed to look at my manuscript as a favor to my colleague. That's how I made it to the top of her pile. She liked what she saw and sent it out to the big publishing houses.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline?
I start with an idea. For example, the "big picture" idea in Special Circumstances was a book about a murder in a big law firm. Then I think about the protagonist, with particular attention to the sound of the narrator's voice. I spent a long time working on the voice of Mike Daley as I was developing the story in Special Circumstances. Mike Daley returns in Incriminating Evidence, and in my subsequent books, so I already know a lot about my protagonist before I start writing. Next, I try to figure out the basics of the plot. In the early stages, I try to identify who did it, how and why. Then I put together a list of characters, including a few descriptive sentences about each of them. The character dossiers become more detailed as I write the book. Finally, I do a light outline of the story. I try to sketch out the big plot twists (there are usually about ten of them) and I lay out the beginning and the ending. Then I start writing. I usually outline in detail about fifty pages (5 chapters or so) ahead of where I am in the story. Then I write to the end of the outline and do another detailed outline of the next fifty pages. In my first two books, I started by writing the first 100 pages and then the last 100 pages, in that order. Then I wrote the middle (which is often the most difficult part of the book because it's hard to judge pacing). Everybody does it a little differently. Some authors outline in far greater detail than I do. Some authors don't outline at all. There aren't any rules. You do whatever works for you. In addition, I keep a detailed synopsis of completed chapters after I finish them. I have a chart of every scene in the book, in which I note the date, the time, where the scene takes place, who's there and what happens. It's a useful tool that ends up about 25 pages long, single spaced in very small type. It allows me to see the entire story in a few minutes. My manuscripts run about 500 pages double spaced (about 125,000 words). This translates to about 430 pages in hardcover.
Once I start writing, I try to keep moving the story forward until I complete a first draft (although I do a lot of editing along the way). From time to time, I go back and reread everything I've written, although I try very hard not to do too many detailed edits as I go. After the first draft is completed, I let the book sit for a few weeks. Then I go back and do a hard edit. After the hard edit is done, I go back and do a faster edit for flow and continuity. Then I show it to my wife, my writers' group, my agent and ultimately, my publisher. I've gone through three very detailed edits of each book with my editor, Ann Harris, at Bantam. I enjoy the process.
By the way, I type every word myself and I do all of my writing and editing on a laptop. I get very frustrated if I don't have my computer. We lawyers tend to do a lot of composing at the keyboard. As a result, it sounds a bit odd, but my hands and my brain now work at about the same speed. I type very fast.
How do you come up with story ideas?
The conventional wisdom is that you should write about what you know. I've worked in big law firms for more than 20 years. As a result, Special Circumstances was about a big law firm. I'm also very interested in local politics (in San Francisco, politics is a spectator sport). Incriminating Evidence is the story of what happens when a local politician gets in trouble. A lot of the story takes place in San Francisco's Mission District, which is a very interesting and historic neighborhood that gets a lot of attention in the local press. My wife works for Lucasfilm so I decided to set Criminal Intent in the movie business. Final Verdict is set on San Francisco's Sixth Street skid row. The Confession is a story about a priest in the Mission District. I get most of my ideas from things I read about in the paper. From time to time, I hear something at work that gives me an idea.
How do you get your material?
I walk around the office and people tell me things (just kidding). I read the local papers and the legal papers every day. The local news section of the San Francisco Chronicle frequently provides ideas. I get material everywhere I go. I keep a small notebook with me and I write things down.
You're not a criminal defense lawyer but you play one as an author. You must do a lot of research.
I get a lot of help. I do a lot of research on criminal procedure. In addition, I have friends who are criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and police. They have been very generous with their time and I couldn't write my stories without them. I'm very pleased that I have received complimentary letters from police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. It's reassuring to know that I'm getting it right most of the time. It's also a reflection of the fact that my friends who work in the criminal justice system really know their stuff.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read as much as you can and write as much as you can. Try to write a little bit every day. If you can, try to write at the same time every day. If your schedule permits, try to write when you're wide awake and in a reasonably good mood. I wrote most of Special Circumstances on a laptop while I was commuting to and from work on the Larkspur ferry and late at night. I wrote most of Incriminating Evidence while I was on sabbatical from my lawyer job. It was a lot easier to write Incriminating Evidence because I was able to focus on the story every day. It's very difficult to keep continuity in your story if you can't write regularly.
You have to learn to deal with the fact that you're going to have good days and bad days. It comes with the territory. Even if you're tired and cranky, you should try to do your pages. A good day for most writers is five double-spaced pages of new material. A great day is ten pages. Don't be too hard on yourself. First drafts are always terrible (they range from bad to utterly unreadable), but are infinitely more useful than outlines or ideas. You will be able to fix your first drafts--I promise. You can't fix something if you never get around to writing it in the first place. If all else fails and you can't get anything in the computer on a given day, you should try to read some of the pages you've already written. At least you'll be able to keep the story in your head. You'll get better at writing and editing yourself as you go along. My writing teacher, Katherine Forrest, once told me that writing is like learning to play the piano. You have to practice your scales every day if you want to get good at it.
Try to write the story in a voice that you enjoy hearing and you're comfortable writing. It will sound more authentic if you do. People tell me that I sound just like Mike Daley. Actually, he sounds just like me. Finally, I would encourage you to write the book that you want to write, without giving enormous thought to whether it will be a commercial success (well, okay, you can think about commercial success a little bit if you'd like). Your story will be better and sound more authentic if you remain true to your instincts and tell your story the way that you'd like to tell it. You shouldn't feel compelled to add obligatory chase scenes, gratuitous sex, senseless violence or four-letter words (although you can if you'd like--the movie people love it). Write your story and be proud of it. Once it's written, nobody can ever take it away from you. If it's a good story, it will find an audience.
Your books depict some pretty unsavory lawyers. Are those lawyers based on real people you've had experience with?
Many of the lawyers in my books have certain characteristics of people I've met over the years. No character is based on a particular individual. The characters at Simpson & Gates represent various archetypes of attorneys I've met over the years in large law firms and large businesses. I have friends in all the large law firms in San Francisco. They all think Special Circumstances is about their firm. I have been asked from time to time whether I think it's good for the profession for those of us who write legal fiction to take swipes at the hand that feeds us. I try to remind those people that Mike and Rosie are the most honest and trustworthy people I can imagine. I think they're heroes and I try to portray them as such.
Tell us about the creation of Mike Daley -- he's such an interesting character, ex-priest, ex-public defender, ex-husband?
Like many good things, Mike happened by accident. When I started writing Special Circumstances , Joel was the narrator in the first hundred pages of the first draft of the book. That's when I realized it's very difficult to have an accused murderer as your narrator because he spends a lot of time in jail. The book would have been pretty boring if it consisted four hundred pages of jail visits. That's when I decided I needed a new narrator. Mike was present in those first hundred pages, but he had a much smaller part in the story. After a couple of false starts, I rewrote the first hundred pages with Mike as the narrator (and I changed the point of view from first person, past tense, to first person, present tense). I knew it was right as soon as I read it. So I grafted the voice onto Mike.
Mike evolved into a more rounded character as I worked through the first draft of Special Circumstances . I decided he needed some baggage. The idea for Mike being an ex-priest came from some personal experience. I've known two ex-priests over the years (one married a law school classmate of mine and the other worked at my old law firm). They're both wonderful people, and neither of them resembles Mike in any meaningful way (other than the fact that they're both ex-priests). It seemed like an interesting hook with a lot of room for development. I made Mike an ex-public defender because I wanted to give him some credible background as a criminal defense attorney. He's hopelessly out of place at a large law firm at the beginning of Special Circumstances . I wanted him to have some conflict and room for growth in his personal life as well, so I thought he should be divorced. I thought about making him a recovering alcoholic, but decided that was a little too much. Mike is a very smart, honest, hardworking guy from the neighborhood who tries to do the right thing. He's a very good lawyer, but a very bad businessman. He's charming, but hopeless around women. He has a lot going on, but not so much that he can't function. Over the course of five books, he's developed a personality of his own. Sometimes, he surprises me. There's enough baggage to last for a few more books.
Mike certainly has an interesting relationship with his ex-wife, Rosie. Can you elaborate on their chemistry.
They're soul mates who are, in some respects, mirror images of each other. They're both bright, passionate, compassionate, opinionated, funny, stubborn, honest and caring. They're also fundamentally incompatible. Something magic seems to happen whenever they're on stage together. I love writing the scenes when they're talking to each other. They're the easiest scenes for me to write and they seem very natural to me. I can't explain why. People who know me well have noticed that Mike sounds a lot like me and Rosie sounds a lot like my wife (although Linda and I get along a lot better than Mike and Rosie do). People have also pointed out that Rosie has very good instincts and usually gets it right (so does Linda). Maybe this explains it.
It's all particularly odd because I created Rosie by accident, too. When you write in the first person, your narrator is on stage for the entire book. As a result, your story doesn't move forward unless your narrator is talking to someone or chasing someone (or being chased or whacked on the head, I suppose). In any event, I needed someone for Mike to talk to, so I invented Rosie. I chose a female character because I wanted to add a strong female lead. I decided that Mike and Rosie should be divorced because I wanted to create some natural tension between them. They're great at working together, but they have serious trouble living together. They have an undeniable bond (as well as a daughter). I was very concerned at first that readers wouldn't buy into a relationship where ex-spouses were working and sleeping together. I've gotten a lot of mail from people who have told me they have a similar relationship with their ex-spouses. In some situations, it seems that once you take away the day-to-day pressures of living together, paying mortgages, etc., people get along a little better. Criminal Intent is fundamentally a love story. It deals with Mike and Rosie coming to terms with their relationship (imperfect as it is). I think it's the most personal story that I've written because it deals with some very basic emotions.
What's next for Mike & Rosie? How many more Mike Daley stories do you have to tell?
I'm already working on Mike and Rosie VI. It's a story about a death penalty case. It's been interesting (and quite sobering to write). A friend of mine who handles death penalty appeals recently took me to visit one of his clients on death row at San Quentin. It was a very depressing experience.
Someday, I'd love to try to do a novel or perhaps a group of short stories where Nick the Dick Hanson is the narrator. I don't know if I'll ever get around to it, but he's one of my favorite characters and I think it would be fun to write.
How do you pick a book title? Did you design the jacket?
My only book that bears its original title was Special Circumstances . "Special circumstances" is the euphemism under California law for a death penalty case, but it has several meanings within the context of the story.
The working title for Incriminating Evidence was "Suspicious Circumstances." My publisher wanted something different (i.e., something that didn't have the words "special" or "circumstances" in it), so I went back to the drawing board. Rather than trying to come up with something by myself, I sent an e-mail to everybody at my firm and about a hundred friends and relatives. I got about a thousand suggestions. I narrowed the possible titles down and started feeding them to my editor. The winning title, Incriminating Evidence , was submitted by my friend, Sheila Gordon, whose name appears in the acknowledgments of the book. I suspect most authors use a slightly more scientific process for choosing their titles. The titles for Criminal Intent, Final Verdict and The Confession all changed many times.
As for the book jacket and the cover art, that's all done by my publisher. I've been very happy with their work. They send me the cover art and the copy for the book jacket and I get to make suggestions.
Your books use titles and opening quotes for each chapter. Why did you use this device?
I was trying to come up with a device to allow my readers to get back into the story after they'd put the book down for a couple of days. The chapter titles and the quotes are intended to bring the reader back into the story as quickly as possible without having to do a lot of re-reading. I use short chapters to keep the story flowing quickly.
Compare your stories.
Why don't you ask me to compare my children? Special Circumstances was a story that I had wanted to write for at least ten years. It was also my first book. As a result, it will always be very special to me. It introduces Mike and Rosie and gives my readers an inside look at what happens when you look just below the surface at a big law firm. Incriminating Evidence gives my readers an inside look at what happens when you go just below the surface of the life of a prominent politician from Pacific Heights. It also gives a lot of insight into San Francisco's historic Mission District and Mike and Rosie's families. Special Circumstances is a little funnier. Incriminating Evidence is a little darker. I'd like to think my writing is a little cleaner in Incriminating Evidence (you hope you get better at this with practice). Criminal Intent deals with some very personal issues involving Mike and Rosie and their families. Final Verdict involves a case where Mike and Rosie must represent someone from their past. The Confession deals with Mike's decision to leave the priesthood.
How long did it take you to write the books?
Special Circumstances took three years. I was working full time when I wrote it and did most of my writing on a laptop on the Larkspur ferry and late at night. That was very hard. The first draft of Incriminating Evidence took about six months. The editing process took another six months or so. My subsequent books take about eight months to write.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like to hang out with Linda and our twin sons, Alan and Stephen. I'm a long distance runner and I play squash once a week. I coach on our sons' little league team. I like to go to baseball games, travel, read legal thrillers and almost everything else, watch TV and go to movies. I spend more time surfing the Internet than I should. I'm a pop culture junkie. My favorite TV shows are Law and Order, The Sopranos, Will and Grace, and, yes, Survivor. I still miss Seinfeld.
If you weren't a lawyer or an author, what would you like to do?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be the centerfielder on the White Sox. When that didn't work out, I wanted to be a novelist and a lawyer. I'm very lucky. I get to do what I love to do, live where I want to live and hang out with the people I want to hang out with. I have a really good deal.
What do you like to read? Which authors do you admire?
I like to read legal fiction and mysteries. My favorite legal authors include Steve Martini, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Richard North Patterson, John Lescroart, Robert Traver, Brad Meltzer, William Bernhardt and Michael Nava. Some of my other favorite authors among the non-lawyers are Penny Warner, Katherine Forrest, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Ridley Pearson.
What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
Everything. I like the process of writing. I don't think I could do this (at least for any length of time) if I didn't love it. I like putting together stories. I love to edit (it makes me feel like a mad scientist). I love writing in Mike Daley's voice. I get to write funny lines (which I can't do at the office--you can get in a lot of trouble if you put a joke in the middle of a legal document). Book tours are fun. Fan mail is great (most lawyers don't get fan mail from our clients--we're lucky enough if they pay our bills). It's a lot of fun meeting other authors.
What do you least like about being a writer?
It gets a little lonely from time to time. I spend about seven hours a day in front of the computer in my own little world. First drafts are very hard.
Has the success of your books changed your life?
It was nice to fulfill a longtime goal. On the other hand, I still have to get up and go to work every day (although nowadays, my job frequently consists of writing and promoting books). We still live in the same house, drive the same cars and hang out with the same people. I don't think your personality should change in any meaningful way just because you happen to get your name on the cover of a book. And Linda and the boys keep me pretty well grounded. Linda does computer graphics for Industrial Light and Magic. Her name is in the credits on some of the biggest grossing movies of all time. The boys think it's nice that I write books, but they still think Mommy has the cool job in the family.
Are you still a practicing attorney?
Yes, although I'm working a reduced schedule now. My colleagues at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton have been very understanding. I like being a lawyer and intend to remain with the firm. I am also very appreciative of the fact that my clients have been very supportive. Many have gone to great lengths to schedule their legal problems so that they don't occur while I'm on deadline.
How can I get in touch with you?
Drop me an e-mail at email@example.com. I answer all of my own mail, so please be patient if it takes a few days.
Reproduced, with permission, from Sheldon Siegel's website, 2004
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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