Legal thriller by name, but not by nature?

Julie ComptonI recently read and enjoyed the debut novel of American author, Julie Compton, called Tell No Lies. It’s billed as a legal thriller, but, as Julie tells me, she never actually intended to write one! Nonetheless, The Crafty Writer persisted in asking her about writing (and not writing) legal thrillers and her road towards publication with Pan MacMillan.

Julie Compton practiced law in St. Louis, Missouri (the setting for Tell No Lies) before moving to the East Coast, and most recently worked as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Wilmington, Delaware. She now lives in Florida with her husband and two daughters, where she writes full time.

julie-compton-tell-no-liesTCW: Tell No Lies is billed as a legal thriller. How aware were you of the genre conventions when you started writing it and which, if any, did you consciously build into the text?

JC: Not at all. I was never a big reader of genres, and I certainly did not intend to write a legal thriller or even a mystery (and I’m still not sure I did!). When I sat down for the first time to write what eventually became Tell No Lies, I had a scene in my head of two lawyers arguing about the death penalty over lunch. I knew they were attracted to each other and weren’t supposed to be, and I knew their mutual attraction would cause them problems both professionally and personally. I knew the death penalty issue would somehow come into play. But I had no idea at the time that one of the lawyers would be accused of murder or that the other would misrepresent his beliefs to win an election. Those plot lines grew as I continued to write and the theme of the novel crystallized in my mind.

Some people have asked me why I placed the murder in the middle of the novel, but I think asking that question gives me more credit than perhaps I deserve! I had no idea I was writing what would eventually be deemed a legal thriller, so I never thought in terms of, “Oh, I’m supposed to put the murder at the beginning, but I think I’ll do it differently and see what happens.” The fact that a murder occurs at all is because the story and the characters spoke to me as I wrote and told me it needed to happen.

TCW: As an ex-attorney, do you intend to continue writing legal thrillers or do you feel this may restrict you as a writer?

JC: There are no ex-attorneys. Once an attorney, always an attorney! We just become non-practicing and then when our kids start college, we find ourselves pulled back into it by necessity …

Seriously, my next book is not a legal thriller (though I suspect it probably qualifies as a suspense novel), but I don’t envision myself writing any novel with the intent to fit into a particular genre. It’s just not how I work. Perhaps I’m just sabotaging my writing career because everyone always says you should know your audience, but I write the story I need to tell and I enjoy telling, and then I figure out who the audience might be. Having said that, I do think the audience for each novel I write will most likely be similar, simply because of the type of stuff I write. Tell No Lies might be billed as legal thriller, but the heart of the story isn’t about solving the murder, it’s about the relationships between the people and the psychological explanations and motivations behind their actions. And I think (hope!) this holds true for everything I write. I believe it holds true for my second novel.

TCW: What do you believe are the pros and cons of writing to genre?

JC: Pros: From the start, you know there are certain elements to the story that you have to include, and for a writer who likes to plan and outline, those elements can provide a sort of guidepost for your writing. I envy the writer who can work this way – indeed, needs to work this way to be successful – because it probably makes the whole process a bit more manageable. But I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for me. If I think I have to follow a certain path, my mind shuts down and the ideas don’t flow the way they do when I just let the story and the characters take me wherever they want to go.

Cons: I’m reading a book right now by John Truby called The Anatomy of Story, 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. In the book, Truby talks about what he calls “genre plot”:

Genres are types of stories, with predetermined characters, themes, worlds, symbols, and plots … [T]hese … plots lose some of their power by the fact that they are predetermined.”

To some extent, I agree with him on this point. I think with genre, many writers run the risk of their story feeling “mechanical,” as Truby calls it in his book, as opposed to organic. For the truly masterful storyteller, it probably doesn’t matter. The story will transcend the genre. But for those of us with more average skills, writing genre might be an even tougher task because you start with an additional obstacle: how do you stay within the confines of your genre with its predetermined elements and yet still write something fresh?

TCW: Obviously having a knowledge of the US legal system helped you sketch the background for your book, but, in earlier drafts, did you find that it threatened to weigh down your plotting or characterisation?

JC: No, if anything, it made it easier. I had been away from practicing only about a year or so when I started Tell No Lies, so writing about lawyers and the legal system came easily. It’s what I knew. If anything threatened to weigh down my plotting or characterization, it was my propensity to write and write and write without necessarily knowing how and where (or if) what I wrote would ultimately fit into the story. The earliest first draft was epic length! It was my first novel, so I think I needed to do this, but I’ve since learned how to avoid this problem somewhat.

TCW: This is your first published book. Have you written any others before this? If so, why do you feel this got commissioned and not the others?

JC: This is the first one I ever finished. I’d had other novels I’d started but stopped when I hit dead ends. The road that led to Macmillan buying the novel is a long and convoluted one, but I’m convinced the long hours I spent revising, editing, and continually going back to the novel to see what needed fixing is what enabled it to finally sell. I felt I’d written a publishable story, and that’s why some part of me refused to give up on it, but I most definitely put a lot of sweat into it before it was ready.

TCW: Did you approach an agent first with your manuscript or did you go straight to a publisher?

JC: Oh boy, here’s the long and convoluted road I mentioned above! Yes, I approached many agents, but I did so at first before it was ready – a common rookie’s mistake. I knew I was heading in the right direction when I started to get personalized rejections and constructive criticism. At some point I started approaching smaller publishers directly as I continued to search for an agent, and I was eventually offered a contract by a small publisher here in the States. It had been released (with a different title) for only a couple of months when an acquaintance staying at a rental property my husband and I own found a copy in a drawer, read it, liked it and gave it to someone she knew at Macmillan. They expressed interest, and fortunately, I was able to get my rights back from the first publisher. The rest, as they say, is history.

TCW: How long did you ‘tout’ your manuscript before it was taken up?

JC: Off and on for about three or four years, but I was also continually editing it during much of that time.

TCW: How long did it take to write?

JC: I spent about three years writing the first draft and another three or four editing (and that doesn’t include the time spent editing it even more with my editor at Macmillan). But I didn’t think of myself as a “writer” back when I started the book; I was just someone who liked to write and was “working on” a novel. So, even though there were many days when I wrote for ten, twelve hours at a stretch because I was so into the story, there were also many days when I didn’t even sit down in front of the computer. Plus, I wrote very, very slow.

I’ve become a much more disciplined writer, and I’m also a bit faster now. My second novel took about sixteen months to write. Quite a difference.

TCW: Are you working on anything new?

JC: I just turned in the manuscript for my second novel to my editor at Macmillan. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a guy – a biker – whose girlfriend is severely injured in a motorcycle accident and mysteriously taken from him without so much as a goodbye. In his quest to get her back and literally save her life, he ends up figuratively saving his own, too.

I’ve recently started working on my third novel. I wrote the synopsis and about ten pages when the idea first came to me, but because I was in the middle of the second book at the time, I had to set it aside. I’m excited to turn my attention to it again.

TCW: Your publisher describes you as a cross between Jodi Picoult and Scott Turow. Would you agree with that comparison?

JC: I think it’s a good description for Tell No Lies. Indeed, that’s how I described the novel when I queried agents and publishers (though I might have used Grisham instead of Turow). I think it’s the shorthand way of saying what I said above: the story has lawyers, murder, suspense, etc., but it also has the psychological and relationship issues you often find in Jodi Picoult novels.

TCW: Which writers have influenced your style?

JC: Hmm, well, I guess I’d better say Jodi Picoult! Really, I read such a wide assortment of books, but I think it’s the writers of novels in which the relationships and dynamics of people are the focus, whether it’s families, spouses, siblings, friends, etc., that have influenced my own writing style the most. I’m not even sure how you categorize them, but writers such as Picoult, Sue Miller, Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta, Charles Baxter, Ian McEwan … I could go on …

TCW: What are you reading right now?

JC: In addition to Truby’s book mentioned above, I just started The Witch of Portobello, by Paulo Coelho. He’s one of my new favorite writers. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by him.

I also just finished a novel called Isabella Moon, by Laura Benedict. Laura is a debut novelist and fellow member of International Thriller Writers (who, like me, also didn’t think she was writing a mystery!).

TCW: Do you have any advice to give yet unpublished writers?

JC: First, don’t give up if you really want it. It’s a tough industry, so you have to grow a thick skin and believe in yourself when no one else does. Find a mentor who believes in you, also, for those times when you don’t believe in yourself.

Second, don’t send anything out until you are absolutely sure it’s ready. Just because you finished the first draft doesn’t mean it’s ready. Moreover, don’t trust your friends and family members to tell you when something is ready. Find someone who will give you brutally honest feedback and don’t get mad at them when they give it to you. Be willing to learn.

Related posts:

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  2. Co-authoring: when two become one

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3 comments on “Legal thriller by name, but not by nature?

  1. Pingback: Legal thriller by name, but not by nature? · - Online Legal Blog

  2. Aart Hilal on said:


    I’m a big fan of Paulo Coelho! You will love this! He’s the first best-selling author to be distributing for free his works on his blog:

    Have a nice day!


  3. Pingback: Bookmarks about Legal

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