Judge William Whitbeck on how to write a book

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By Roberta Gubbins

Legal News

"I have two purposes here," Judge William Whitbeck, Court of Appeals judge and author of "To Account for Murder," a legal thriller, said to a large group of lawyers assembled to enjoy lunch and listen to his thoughts on books, publishers and writing.

"First, I want to sell and sign copies of my book. Secondly, I thought you might be interested in the process of writing a book. I think everyone in this room has thought 'I could write a book.' Anyone who is literate, has a computer with a word processing function, access to the Internet for research and, most important, the will to do it, can write a book."

"The next question is the harder one 'Can you write a good book?'"

"My commercial definition of a 'good book' is a book that people will buy and read. There are probably manuscripts out there that are brilliant but no one has ever read them. That is not a good book."

"How do you go about writing a good book?"

"First, appraise the difficulties. Be realistic when you start the journey. A lot of people start, but very few finish. There are perhaps five to six hundred people in the world who make it to the New York Times bestseller list. That is the apex of the writing world."

"Second, do you want to write fiction or non-fiction?

"If fiction, what genre? There are any number of genres. My book is a legal thriller, which combines legal fiction with thriller. '

"Third, do you wish to write literary fiction, which is reviewed by the New York Review of Books, fiction written by a lot of authors you have never heard of because most literary fiction does not make the New York Times bestseller list and does not sell many copies."

"Commercial fiction, on the other hand, sells a lot of books. The book publishing industry in 2010 sold more books than in 2009. Charles Dickens, in his time, wrote commercial fiction. His novels were published as serials in The Times of London. He was writing for the masses but, looking back, it was literary fiction."

"Last, do you self-publish or publish. I personally think that self-publication is not the way to go. If people are not going to pay you for your writing, you shouldn't be writing."

"Your next step, if you decide to go forward is to research the craft of writing. Lawyers are bad writers, partly because of what we read. Appellate decisions, for example, are basically oatmeal. We are not taught to tell stories. There are books about the craft of writing, publications such as Writers Digest, and there are writer's conferences such as the Rally of Writers in Lansing. And a big part of learning about writing is reading in your chosen genre."

No matter the topic of your book, you will have to research your topic.

Whitbeck then explained how he wrote his first book. "For this book, I had a detailed outline. I had 3 x 5 cards with complete biographies of each character in the book. I knew the ending, I wrote that out, but it so happens I changed the ending. This is called architect theory of writing--you construct the edifice as you go along according to some blueprints. Another theory is called the Madman theory. This is better expressed by Janet Evanovich. She simply sits down and starts writing without an outline--she lets the characters take over."

Whitbeck has no preference for style, but noted that by the end of his book, "the characters had taken over. I know how the protagonist would speak. The characters became real."

He recommended that "you have someone who is biggest fan and your sharpest critic. Stephanie, my wife, fulfills that role."

"When you are finished, you have a manuscript and a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. What do you have? You have, at best, a first draft. What you have produced will not be your book, it will be far from your book. The final manuscript in my computer is draft 14. I re-wrote the book twice, from start to finish. That first draft is not saleable."

Whitbeck then sought an agent. He sent out 100 queries to agents he had researched on the Internet. He drafted a query letter that "tells what your book is about and explains how you're going to sell it. After checking the agent's website for the submission guidelines, you send it off."

After a series of rejections, "I was discouraged. Out of the 100, I got five feelers. After going back and forth, I ended up with an agent. The decision to accept or reject is made by the newest hire at the agency, not the agent. Under the standard contract, the agent receives 15% of the sales."

"The agent will take your manuscript and pitch it to the publishers. When he finally finds one, a contract is offered. My publisher is a mid-size publisher. There are a variety of rights that surround the manuscript, which are all subject to negotiation. Your agent will do that for you."

"This is not the end," he said. Now you must promote the book. You have to sell this book yourself. Book signing events, get on talk radio, write columns for newspapers, get on local television. He likened it to a political campaign. You have to pitch an audience, it is word of mouth that sells the book. Today, you are my word of mouth audience.

"Writing a book is a journey," Whitbeck concluded. "If you never get beyond the first step, if you never put pen to paper, think what you will have achieved--you will have read more widely, will be a better reader, and you will be a better writer. You will also be a more self-aware person."

"To Account for Murder," a legal thriller set in post-war Michigan, Judge Whitbeck's first book, is available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com

Published: Thu, Feb 10, 2011

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