Sunday, September 25, 2016

MY ACCIDENTAL LITERARY CAREER



On the publication of my seventh (or is it my sixth) book, I got to thinking back over my accidental literary career, how it got started, and how it has progressed. I’d always had a hankering to become a published author, but never thought I'd actually do it. Then I retired from the State Attorney’s Office and things began to fall into place. 

[1] Prosecution Principles: A Clinical Handbook, West Group, St. Paul, MN, 2007.

When I started as a legal skills professor at the University of Florida College of Law, I couldn’t find a textbook on how to be a prosecutor, so I decided to write one myself. It wasn’t hard to throw something together because I had taught a lot of continuing legal education courses on a wide variety of subjects and I had written brief monographs for each subject. It was no trick to simply put the monographs together in the order I wanted to cover the subjects in class, and I had a textbook for my first semester. I made a pdf of the book and gave students free copies of the text. I’m almost never satisfied with something I make, and I keep going back and tinkering with it until I get it as near perfect (for me) as I can. Each semester I improved the textbook. One fine day a representative of West Publishing was giving us a refresher course on Westlaw, the computer research software. During a break, I told her about my plight in being unable to find a textbook and my solution. She said that West might be interested in publishing the book if it were aimed at a national audience. I told her I could certainly rewrite the book and make it less Florida-centric. And so, completely by accident, I got my first book published.

[2] The Last Murder: The Investigation, Prosecution, and Execution of Ted Bundy, Praeger, 2011.

Ever since guilty verdict in the Ted Bundy case, people have been asking me “Why don’t you write a book about the case?” I could write several thousand words on why I didn’t immediately try to write something about the case, but I won’t. I’ll just give two reasons: (1) I felt it was not proper to write about the case while it was still in litigation. (2) I needed to put a few decades between me and the crime before I could bring myself to write anything. I purposely set out to write a book that wouldn’t have a lot of commercial appeal. I wasn’t going to write a lurid, sensational penny-dreadful style book like most of the stuff that is written in the “true crime” genre. I wanted to write an antiseptic, professional analysis of the investigation and prosecution. Despite my best efforts to make the book unmarketable it sold fairly well. The style I adopted for The Last Murder would be the style of every subsequent book I’ve written. Academic, scholarly, and difficult to read unless you really want to learn something about the subject.

[3] Cross-Examination Handbook: Persuasion, Strategies, and Techniques, 1st ed., Wolters-Kluwer, 2011. (co-author). 

I hadn’t been practicing law long before I began to build a reputation as a pretty fair cross-examiner. I was often asked to teach on the subject of cross-examination at continuing legal education courses. (As a matter of fact, I’m going to be lecturing at a CLE on cross-examination in December). I wrote a monograph that I used in connection with my cross-examination lectures, and over the years I tinkered with it. More for my own amusement than with any thought of publication, I wrote a full-length book on the subject. It must have gone through 20-25 revisions. About the time I retired, I was talking to my good friend Ron Clark, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at Seattle Law School, and he mentioned he was preparing to write a book on cross-examination. I told him I had already written one, and he wanted to read it. I sent it to him, and he invited me to co-author the cross-examination book with him. I said “Why not.” We used some of my work from my unpublished manuscript in Cross-Examination Handbook, but Cross-Examination Handbook is definitely Ron Clark’s book, I'm just a helper.

[4] The Case Against Christ: A Critique of the Prosecution of Jesus, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

When The Last Murder came out someone asked me what I was going to write next. Without thinking I said “I think I’m going to write about the prosecution of Jesus.” I don’t know where that came from. I was surprised when I heard myself say the words, but I got to thinking that would be a very good project. I had been engaged in intense study of the New Testament since college, and I had two three-ring binders full of notes on the Gospels. The Case Against Christ turned out to be the hardest book to write of any of the books I have written. As I understand it, publishers expect fiction writers to provide them with completed manuscripts when they’re pitching a book; non-fiction writers give publishers proposals for unwritten books or books in progress. You send the publisher a description of your project, a sample chapter or two, and an annotated table of contents. If they like the book, they’ll give you a contract and give you direction in how they want you to finish the book. Publishers kept rejecting The Case Against Christ, and some of them were downright nasty about it. I took their critiques and rewrote, and rewrote, and rewrote. I lost track of how many rejections I got, but it was more than two dozen. I kept count of the number of drafts—48.  I finally found a publisher, and they seem to have a much higher opinion of the book’s worth than I do—they’re charging $75 a copy for it. This book turned out to be my biggest disappointment. It’s too dry. Chapters 3-6 should be Appendices A-C. It’s written for too small an audience. It’s formatted like a 19th Century Bible study book rather than a modern book. I could go on, but I won’t. I got my son John (who is a lawyer) to read the manuscript, and his assessment summed the book up quite well, I think. He said “The five people who read the book will really enjoy it.” One of these days, I’m going to revisit the trial of Jesus and write a more accessible (and affordable) account.

[5] Abraham Lincoln’s Most Famous Case: The Almanac Trial, Praeger, 2014.

The Almanac Trial was far and away the one that I had the most fun writing up to that point in my writing career. By the time I started writing the book, I was beginning to think that I needed write more like the newly emerging genre of “creative nonfiction” than the dry genre of academia. I had a contract to write the book in no time, and I tried hard to be more of a storyteller and less of a dry lecturer. It worked in some places and in other places it didn’t. The critique I got from my daughter Laura was that I spent too much time talking about how I figured out what happened. I felt like I had to do it, though, because some of the things I was saying were so contrary to the conventional wisdom about the Almanac Trial.
  
[6] Cross-Examination Handbook: Persuasion, Strategies, and Techniques, 2nd ed., Wolters-Kluwer, 2014. (co-author).

You might think I’m cheating by counting a second edition as another book, but we put a lot of work into the rewrite.

[7] The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case: A Critical Analysis of the Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, 2016. (co-author).

When I was still with the State Attorney’s Office, my good friend Jim Dedman, who was with the National College of District Attorneys, asked me if I would like to write a chapter in a collaborative book he wanted to edit about the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. I had written chapters for a couple of law books already, and I was game to write another one, so I agreed. Jim was busy and I was busy, and things never quite got off the ground until Jim retired, and the project morphed into just Jim and me writing the book. This book was the second-hardest to write, mainly because I knew absolutely nothing about the Lindbergh case before we began and the volume of material on the case is gigantic. I’m still no expert on the shenanigans that went on outside the courtroom, but I’m pretty well versed in the evidence now.

[8] Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln, in prepublication with Southern Illinois University Press. Projected publication date: late 2017.

To date, this is my favorite book, and I think it is going to be the most marketable. Of all the books I have written it is the least “academic.” Scholarly books have to go through a peer review process where anonymous experts read the book and critique it. You have to have a thick skin to get through the process. One of the reviewers barbecued me because my language wasn’t scholarly enough—it sounded like I was writing mystery stories rather than an academic text. My response to that was “Good.” He didn’t think I had enough footnotes, either. I added some footnotes, but I didn’t change my language. The book is still written in plain English, not “Academian.” I can hardly wait for the publication date. 

[9] Six Capsules: Poisoned Innocence (tentative title, 70,000 words written so far.

When we were finishing up The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Jim asked me what I was going to write next, and I told him I didn’t know. Jim said “Why don’t you write about the Carlyle Harris case?” Not many people know anything about Carlyle Harris, but back at the end of the 19th Century, he was New York City’s answer to Ted Bundy—a handsome, articulate, charismatic medical student charged with the murder of a beautiful young girl. The case made headlines all around the nation, and it made the reputation of Francis L. Wellman, author of The Art of Cross-Examination. I read The Art of Cross-Examination when I was a senior in law school, and I read it about once every three months for the first two years I practiced law. There is a chapter in the book on the Harris case, so I was familiar with the case to that extent, but I wasn’t aware of all the bizarre goings-on surrounding the case. I dug into the facts a little, and I got hooked. I have written the book all the way through to the verdict of guilty and the appellate opinion affirming the conviction, and I’ve got about three more chapters to go. The case really gets bizarre after the Court of Appeals affirms the conviction. I haven’t started shopping the book around to publishers yet—I’m actually thinking about self-publishing this one. I want to publish a book in the price range of $15-$25. Well, we’ll just see what happens. 

[10] Who Knows? 

Where I’m going to go after Six Capsules is anybody’s guess. I do know one thing. As long as I can, I’m going to keep on writing. I’m never going to be on the New York Times bestseller list, but I’m going to do something that I really enjoy and something that I think is really worthwhile.