By Lisa McElroy.
It turns out that, when you’re writing your first novel, finding a hook is crazy hard. How can you capture a reader’s interest in the first few pages? How can you make her relate to your characters? How can you reel her in, keeping her on the line, guiding her expertly into your net, all the while making her think it was her own idea?
It was my own career teaching writing that brought me to question what I really knew about the process.
Since 2001 – for almost all of what I perceive to be my adult life – I’ve been instructing students on the art of legal writing. To teach first year law students to write is to teach communication, the kind that future lawyers need to develop to represent clients, help them solve their problems, convince courts to rule in their favor. Legal writing is highly structured, nearly formulaic in some instances. But as many legal scholars have discussed, it is also storytelling of a very high degree. A good attorney must find a way to tell a client’s story that draws the reader in, holds her interest, and – most importantly – evokes sympathy and understanding for the client’s plight.
It’s a lot like writing a novel – or a novella, at the very least.
Every fall, when a new crop of students sits down in my classroom, eager to learn, I realize for what seems like the first time that legal writing is, while natural to me, overwhelmingly difficult for students who do not know the lingo or the structure or the strategy that make up a simple memo to the file, a motion for summary judgment. The rules – and a certainty about when to break the rules – are all brand new, mysterious, seemingly ungraspable.
Last fall, as I listened to my students’ questions, considered their concerns, I realized that I was too far removed from that struggle, that year-long attempt to master a completely new type of writing. Almost twenty years after I graduated from law school, analyzing a client’s problem and then discussing it in print was something that came naturally.
And so, last September, I signed up for a class. A novel writing class. Online, with a reputable company and a highly credentialed teacher. And I decided to give myself over completely to becoming a student of a new (to me) written form.
It’s June now, and I’ve completed a full draft of my first novel. Unsurprisingly, it’s set in law school, centered around a brand-new law student who’s preternaturally wise and her jurisprudence professor who has a lot to learn. I originally thought my novel was about role reversal, but now I know that it’s not.
Because it was through these 300 pages, through this year-long creative process, that I rediscovered just how complex and confounding learning to write can be.
It turns out, I learned, that every good novel is driven by some seemingly unsolvable conflict. “Throw rocks at your protagonist,” my teacher said. “Then throw bigger ones. Then make them harder.” Huh. Rocks. What would those be exactly? Is being worried about succeeding in law school a big enough rock? Nope. Is losing a friend? Maybe. But how do I know, how do I figure out how to judge for myself when the conflict hums, just so, not too big, not too hard, but just arduous enough? And then, how do I resolve it?
Legal writing centers around conflict, too – ready-made conflict, it’s true, but real life, as well. For my students, the story revolves around how to resolve the conflict in a way that leads to a client’s victory. They work backwards: presented with a conflict, their task is to resolve it.
Is it harder to create a conflict or to remedy it? Turns out, they’re both pretty tough, and I benefitted from a reminder.
Dialogue? You just wouldn’t believe how complicated that is. To make fictional characters sound convincing seems like it should be a snap, right? After all, we all talk to people all day long, every single day. But talking like a young man, for example, as I had to in my novel as I created the law student’s love interest? Grueling. Thorny. Intricate. Tricky.
I’m thinking it’s hard for my students to talk like lawyers, too, in their legal writing. Just as I’m a middle- aged, female lawyer, not a young man, my studens are mostly young men and women, not middle-aged lawyers. How can I expect them intuitively to take on the voice, the cadence, the spirit and passion of a seasoned attorney, even after a year in my classroom? In an entire year, I still haven’t made my protagonist’s love interest as realistic and relatable and three-dimensional as I’d like. I think I’ll give my students a pass.
I could go on, and on, and talk about structure (“You need a major plot point at page 100!” “Primacy and recency matter in legal argument!”) and plot (“Tell a story that your reader can relate to!” “Tell a story that the judge can relate to!”) and resolution (“Resolve the conflict in a real and surprising way!” “Resolve the legal conflict in a way that will make the judge feel like justice has been done!”). But my overarching theme is this: You can’t teach writing, teach it really well, unless you yourself, at some point, try to write something new, and different, and, yes, hard. And when you try to teach people how to write, you have to keep in mind that learning to write is a baffling process. It’s not intuitive. It’s not straightforward. It takes persistence, and courage, and patience – on the part of both the teacher and the student.
In my law school classroom, I stress the intersection of law and justice. In my novel, the new law student and seasoned law professor explore these concepts, too. Who learns the most? The teacher or the student?
They’ve both got a lot to learn – about reading, and writing, and relating, and finding the hook.
Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at Drexel University. She recently completed the first draft of her first novel.