Feb 12 2018 3:00pm

Writing Styles of the Rich and the Famous: How a Famous Friend Helped Me Write My First Novel

Read an exclusive guest post from author Ivan Weinberg, then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of Justice by the Pound!

My only claim to the rich and famous was my closest friend in high school. Steve was always cool. He drove a cool car, had the cool haircut, was a great athlete, wore the right clothes, and said all the right things. But he just barely scraped by in school because he was dyslexic. He was dyslexic in a day when they didn’t know what dyslexia was, so they thought he was dumb.

We’d stay up all night studying for a test, and he'd have the material cold. Then, we’d take the exam the next morning, and he couldn't recognize the questions. He'd panic with the time limits and couldn’t read the writing. It was all backward, undecipherable. But he worked harder in school than anyone. It was clear to him that he wasn’t dumb, and it was clear to me too.

So, what became of the profoundly dyslexic Steve? He grew up to be Stephen J. Cannell, a writer of course, who morphed into the biggest independent producer of television in Hollywood. You’ve seen him. He’s the guy at the end of the show sitting at the typewriter as the pages float out and circle into his initials. Steve ended up with over 40 network television shows—most of which he created and wrote—which won him countless Emmys. And he made a boatload of cash, literally, as in his 160-foot yacht, Big D, on which we cruised the Mediterranean for several years running, poking in at Portofino, Majorca, and Ibiza, having cocktails out on the fantail and being fawned over by an immaculate crew as gawking locals walked up and down the wharf trying to guess who we were. I always imagined they figured I was Brad Pitt. Okay, maybe Jason Alexander.

Why do I tell you this? Well, about the time he bought the boat, Steve sold the studio and started writing novels, most of which were bestsellers. You might remember The Plan, Viking Funeral, The Tin Collectors, and King Con? And it was about that time—aboard Big D over single malt and Cohiba cigars late at night—that we swapped stories of his plot ideas and my cases as a public defender (he loved the cops and robbers) and he convinced me to write my own novel.

So was conceived Noah Shane, Alameda County’s newest public defender. Then, not only did he help me find an agent but he mentored me in my writing and gave me encouragement when it all struck oars from time to time—and here I am, ten years and two Noah Shane novels later. But it was the style, character development, and structure that he shared with me that I wanted to tell you about.

Steve was definitely a writer, even when he wasn’t one yet. He loved TV. What he loved most was the creation of it all, the ideas that came alive. And he loved real people, damaged like we all are. He was one of the first to come up with the flawed protagonist.  For example, he and a partner created Jim Rockford, the lovable and violence-averse private eye of The Rockford Files. So, step one for me involved characters who bring their own issues to the table.

Noah is a smart, athletic, talented guy, but he definitely avoids commitment at all costs, having grown up with a narcissistic mother who never committed to him. To make matters worse, soon after he arrives at the office, he finds that he’s claustrophobic in the lock-up when he goes to interview clients. What could be a worse malady for a PD? But now we have a couple of challenges that provide tangible obstacles, right? And the rudiments are in place for the arcing of his character over the course of the story.  

Since Steve came at the novel from his history of writing for television, he brought with him the structure of the three-act play and a propensity to be very visual in his descriptions. He wanted the reader to see the scene that he saw, like on TV, which was a posture that I didn’t agree with entirely. And as to story, his bias was to let the characters tell it through action and dialogue rather than entangle the reader in pages and pages of exposition of backstory and tangential facts as the omniscient narrator droned on and on. That part I embraced wholeheartedly.

As you can tell, I didn’t always agree with Steve’s very visual descriptions. My own experience is that I’m often disappointed with a film or TV series that’s created from a novel I have loved. Have you been there? I think it’s because we created our own movie as we read it, and the screenwriter can never match that. So, I believe in giving just enough description to put the reader in context and story, then letting him or her take it from there. Readers don’t have to see it just as I do; in fact, they often like it better when they bring their own experience to bear. The surprises are more acute, the lessons more real.

Such an extraordinarily rich part of my life, this writing. I sometimes wonder what the difference would have been had we not had those single-malt-fueled sessions on Big D that started the process rolling. I know I wouldn’t see things in the same way, with the eye of one charged with capturing motivation and story. I’d be missing a lot of the color and texture of what plays out around me, and I’d definitely be the poorer for it. When I think about it, Steve actually cut through all that cash and celebrity and gave me the gift of the real wealth he had accumulated. Of course, sitting on the fantail passing for Jason Alexander wasn’t all that bad either.

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Ivan Weinberg is a practicing lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in medical-legal litigation, representing physicians and patients in matters that focus on complicated medical issues. His interest in the criminal justice system was stimulated by his years as an Assistant Public Defender, and his novels explore conflict on the interface between law and medicine. Ivan lives in Mill Valley, California, with his wife, Marilyn. He has four sons, a daughter, and eight grandchildren.

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Sally Schmidt
2. bigcootie
Very interesting post, and sounds like a good book. I like his viewpoint that we create our own movie as we read. Maybe explains why I rarely enjoy the movies based on my favorite books.
Sheila Korman
3. skkorman
I would love to read this book—thanks for the chance to win a copy!
sasha payne
7. sashalynn
I'm an attorney as well and think this will be an interesting read!
Darlene Slocum
8. darandsam
This sure sounds like a good book to me. Would like to read it.
Jackie Wisherd
9. JackieW
Would love to read this book. Sounds interesting.
10. Karen M.
Must be a tremendous help to have an already-successful best friend in your corner, but the proof is in the writing, and I'm curious to see the style and voice, characterizations, plot, etc. in this one.
Susan Pertierra
11. orchidlady01
Great story in your guest post! I'd love to read about Noah Shane.
12. janedoe
Never heard of this author before but would love to read this book
Karen Hester
15. rosalba
How fortunate to have a friend like Steve.
Gwen Ellington
16. mamadonie02
A great title and a public defender! I’d love to read this.
18. Rebecca B Cochran
Great background on your writing! Had no idea Steve was dyslexic. Looking forward to reading your books
Kareemah Hamdan
21. KHamdan
Thnaks for sticking with a friend despite what others thought of his intelligence. Too many people allow themselves to be swayed by the unthinking opinions of others but you knew a smart guy when you saw one. Kudos on your success.
pearl berger
22. beach
Fascinating to learn about your writing and the brilliance of Stepehn Cannell.
ellie lewis
23. italia
Your friendship endured and was based upon an authentic and wonderful foundation. Your novel sounds captivating.
Lesa Neace
24. lesaneace
This sounds interesting, can't wait to read it.
Lesa Neace
24. lesaneace
This sounds interesting, can't wait to read it.
Deb Philippon
27. DebP
Enjoyed reading the article, and am looking forwar to winning. Wish me luck!
Peter W. Horton Jr.
28. mosaix
The author is interesting and I want his book! Yes!
Jennifer Hodges
33. ViolinGeek
Looking forward to reading this. Fun backstory.
Barbara Bolam
34. Toodles
Ah, a flawed character just like real life. I'd love to read this book!
Barbara Bolam
35. Toodles
Ah, a flawed character just like real life. I'd love to read this book!
Laurent Latulippe
36. krag48
A good article. I want to check out the book.
Carol Lawman
40. juju2cat
Yes, I envision everyone and everything in my books and it's so like a movie! I'd love to read this book, thank you.
Christine Royer
41. chrissyR24
Thanks for wonderful insights into your freindship with Stephen Cannell. I would love to read your book!
42. Odedude
It’s good to have friends like that.
Tracee Imai
43. Arf2-D2
Its always interesting to hear what the author was thinking as he writes.
Janet Gould
44. jgould
Great article and it looks like a great book.
Janet Gould
45. jgould
Great article and it looks like a great book.
Jennifer Essad
46. JenE
love reading the back story of Ivan's friendship with Stephen - how ironic that they both are famous writers today
Lori Provenzano
47. Mountainesque
How fortunate to have had such a friend to encourage your talents, which might otherwise have been hidden from us all.
Sabrina Fox
48. sabkfox
I love reading all about authors and then getting their books. It helps me feel like I can connect to them more. Thanks for the chance at winning the book!
Janis Detmer
49. jflyer711
Looking forward to this book and adding a new author to my "regulars"!
50. LStirling
A good look at the value of friendship. Book sounds great, too.
50. LStirling
A good look at the value of friendship. Book sounds great, too.
Susan Morris
51. Samfor3
I want to read all about Noah Shane! Thank you for the chance to win.
Debra Patton
52. labsuper
Wow! You have an interesting path to becoming an author!
Cheryl Kula
As a writer, I especially enjoyed this post. Looking forward to the book.
56. Carl Scott
I'm ready for a new thriller and a new author. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.
Pat Murphy
57. murphyp2011
Sounds like a good read. Always on the lookout for new authors.
58. rdharrison
Thanks for the opportunity to win this book. Can't wait to read it!
Clydia DeFreese
59. clydia
I always like to hear experience of writers and their friends. Thanks for the sweepstakes...
Clydia DeFreese
59. clydia
I always like to hear experience of writers and their friends. Thanks for the sweepstakes...
64. pcal2
Very interesting anecdote! I look forward to reading this novel.
Patricia Nicklas
65. pmernick
Interesting story. I'm adding this novel to my to-read list
Valerie Hildebrand
68. gardengirl
Sounds like a stellar book....thanks so much for the chance to win!
Karen Willett
71. azstitcher
Wish I had read about Steve several years ago. My oldest daughter wanted to write more than anything else in her life. Dyslexia was always in her way but she continued to struggle to get there. She died before she could make it happen but this article would have given her a lot of hope that she would succeed.
Deb Philippon
72. DebP
Really enjoyed reading the interview. Love to read the book. Wish me luck!
dale Poulter
73. poulter
Interesting to read how you go about writing.
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