I used to be a lawyer. Not one of the flashy types, not a criminal lawyer with headline-grabbing cases, nor a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer making big money. I had business clients and worked on stodgy matters that put bread on the table and some savings in the bank. I did it for thirty-one years, and then I retired.
I didn't intend to have a second career as a writer. But, after five months of travel, tennis, volunteer work, fishing, and cleaning out the file cabinets, I started writing—for fun—and I’ve had some success, with my first manuscript winning the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Award. My first book comes out in September. I have an agent now, a second book in her hands, and a third book begun.
It’s finally sunk in that I have a second career as a writer. And, if there is one thing I am certain of, it’s that writing is not something I would have succeeded at without having had another career first. Here’s why:
1. Life Experience
Good writing is not about the best plot, the most enticing place descriptions, or presenting the most endearing characters to the reader—as much as all these things contribute to a quality work. I believe that, deep down, good writing is about getting the human experience on the page and having your reader wrap themselves emotionally into that experience.
Can you go to college, major in English, call yourself a writer, and carry off the delivery of that emotional experience to the reader? Maybe.
Is it easier if you have fallen in love, been fired, fired someone else, stood in front of a jury to receive a verdict, seen someone die, watched a mother have her children taken from her, and lived through five decades of striving, happiness, foolishness, arrogance, failure and success? Definitely.
2. Writing Experience
I wrote in high school, college, and law school. It was nice, safe writing—an intellectual exercise with a grade attached at the end. Then, I began practicing law. I wrote every day. I wrote in situations where precision was vital and where holding the reader’s attention meant money, someone’s job, or saving a business. I wrote where the right word and the right phrase was the difference between success and utter failure—not just for myself, but for my clients, their families, and their employees. I wrote for a living.
Alright, it wasn’t fiction. But, it was the practice of the craft of writing: organizing thoughts, putting together sentences, paragraphs, and entire stories, and making it all clear. It was keeping the reader’s interest. It was thirty plus years of writing practice, and we all know that practice makes (somewhat) perfect.
3. Knowing How the Business World Works
As much as some of us want to call it an art, writing is a business. What we write had better be commercial or it will never see the light of day, except maybe as an e-published failure. After my first career, I think I understand business. I can roll with the punches and not take it personally when an agent says “not for me” to my masterwork or a publisher insists that a title be changed. (Although, I’m not sure that would be my attitude if they made me put “girl,” which seems to be almost a requirement these days, in the title).
4. Having Fun
I’d already climbed the ladder in that first career, worked the weekends and holidays, kowtowed to the clients and judges, and done the garbage work. This time around, I don’t have to do things unless I want to, which means I don’t do them unless I like to do them. Which, for those of you who may be far removed from it, is called having fun.
It is doing something that I love and it is liberating for a writer. It is not a job, in the flipping-burgers-for-a-paycheck sense. I am able to open my heart, to write what I want for the sheer joy of writing—and that is when I do my best writing.
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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder is his first novel and the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.