The Making of Special Circumstances
It started by accident in the fall of 1991. I was riding home on the Larkspur ferry with two of my colleagues from a law firm in San Francisco. As usual, we were talking about life at the office. More specifically, we were talking about who was going to run our firm. The jockeying for position for membership on our executive committee was in full swing. It was a shaping up as a battle between those who wanted to make the most money against those who wanted the firm to remain a somewhat civil place to work.
As we handicapped the race, we knew there was a very real possibility that a group of hard liners would ultimately prevail. When I suggested to one of my colleagues that there was a chance that three of the nastiest people in the firm might be running the show (actually, I described them using a word that I would not repeat to my seven year-old twin sons), he told me not to worry. When I asked him why, he smiled and said, "If they get in, they’ll kill each other." I had the first glimmer of the story that would ultimately become Special Circumstances.
I have wanted to write a novel since I was in college. I became more interested when I read Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. I remember thinking at the time that it would be fun to try to write a book about a big law firm. I figured the chances that I would ever do so were about the same as my chances of quarterbacking the Forty-niners to the Super bowl.
Around the same time, I was working on a multi-million dollar transaction for a client that was selling off all of its major assets in an effort to raise enough cash to fend off its creditors and stay afloat. The deal was a fire sale. The client didn’t want to proceed. The buyer was getting cold feet. As I was preparing for the closing, I asked the partner in charge of our client’s matters why the client was going to conclude the sale. There were two reasons, he explained. First, if the deal didn’t close, the client would file for bankruptcy. Second, if the deal didn’t close, our firm wouldn’t get paid. He smiled and said, "If the deal closes, everybody wins." I had the backdrop for a legal thriller set in a big law firm. The book would open with a conference room full of people involved in a big deal that nobody wanted to close. By morning, two of the lawyers would be dead. Everybody involved in the deal and many of the lawyers at the firm would have motive and opportunity. I had the basic plot for Special Circumstances.
That was as far as I got in 1991. I discovered that having an idea for a story and writing a book are two very different concepts. An idea may be good enough to get you started. Writing a full-length novel is another matter entirely. It would be another four years before I actually began writing the story. In the meantime, our twin sons were born in 1992 and I continued to bill my 2,000 hours a year as a corporate and securities lawyer. From time to time I thought about plot lines and narrative voice. I knew how I wanted the voice to sound. I never really figured I’d actually get around to writing.
Everything changed two years later. It was three o’clock in the afternoon on July 1, 1993. I was sitting in my office at Pettit & Martin on the thirty-sixth floor of the 101 California tower when a crazed former client came to our offices with two AK-47 semi-automatic machine guns and a loaded pistol. He gunned down eight people and wounded a half dozen others. It was the worst day of my life. I was lucky. He never made his way to the thirty-sixth floor. The 101 California massacre, as it has come to be known, had a profound impact on me in many ways. It made me appreciate my wife and kids. It gave me some greater perspective. It made me terribly uncomfortable about writing a book about a murder in a law firm. On the other hand, it made me think about all of the things that I wanted to do. It made me appreciate that you should try to do those things sooner rather than later. One of the things I wanted to do was to write a novel. Some of my friends have suggested that I may not have written Special Circumstances if the events of July 1, 1993, had never happened. They may be right. In many respects, Special Circumstances is dedicated to the memory of my friends and colleagues who died at 101 California on July 1, 1993. I’ll never forget them.
Two years later, we shut down the Pettit firm. I went with a group of eighteen of my colleagues down the street to the San Francisco office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, a large Los Angeles-based firm. With a fresh beginning and a little perspective, I began thinking about writing that novel that had been knocking around in the back of my head for almost five years
In the summer of 1995, I had finished a closing in Newport Beach and I was killing time in the United Airlines terminal at John Wayne airport in Orange County. I took out a legal pad and started jotting down some preliminary notes. I still have the legal pad. At the top of the page, I wrote the following words: "For the last twenty years or so, being a partner in a big corporate law firm has been like having a license to print money." The opening line never changed. The outline was two pages long. It was a start.
I live in Marin County with my wife and our twin sons. I have commuted to work in San Francisco on a ferry for the last eleven years. In the fall of 1995, I started working on my book on the 45-minute ferry rides. I wrote each way on the ferry. At first, I wrote long hand in a spiral notebook. In early 1996, I started transferring the handwritten pages onto an old Macintosh computer. I wrote every day. I wrote very quickly (I’m a lawyer, after all). I rewrote the first 50 pages at least a dozen times. I tried three different narrative voices. By the end of 1996, I had about fifty pages in the computer. They were absolutely terrible. My goal was to see if I had any aptitude for writing fiction. I just wanted to finish a chapter or two. An entire book seemed like a longshot.
I continued to tinker. I worked very hard on the narrative voice. I knew how I wanted the book to sound. It was very difficult to translate that voice onto paper. I wanted to write a story that had soul and sardonic humor. I wanted to tell my story in dialogue and action. I struggled. I wanted the book NOT to sound like it was written by a lawyer. I read everything by John Grisham, Scott Turow, Steve Martini, Richard North Patterson, Lisa Scottoline, John Lescroart, William Bernhardt, Perri O’Shaughnessy, Philip Margolin, David Baldacci, Brad Meltzer and John Martell. I attended continuing education classes on criminal procedure and sat in on some trials. I talked to a couple of criminal defense attorneys and two San Francisco police officers (one of whom is the brother of a secretary at our firm; the other coached my kids’ t-ball team).
In January of 1997, I changed the narrative voice from third person to first person. And I made a previously minor character named Mike Daley the narrator. It worked. I knew it as soon as I read it. The focus of the story shifted. It was still a story about a murder in a big law firm. And it was still a story about a murder trial. Most importantly, however, it became a story about Mike Daley, a criminal defense attorney, ex-public defender and ex-priest, who would be called upon to handle a high-profile murder trial.
In early 1997, my wife looked at my first fifty pages and told me (perhaps charitably) that I had some aptitude for writing fiction. She felt that it was important that I find out. I’m an unlikely author. I was an accounting major in college. I’m a corporate and securities lawyer. I had not written a word of fiction since high school. The only work that I had ever had published was a short legal treatise on the California Nonprofit Law. Not exactly bestseller material.
In the summer of 1997, I signed up for a creative writing class at Book Passage, my local bookstore in Corte Madera, California. The class was taught by Katherine Forrest and Michael Nava, two accomplished local authors. I attended the ten sessions and dutifully worked on my story. In the final weeks, I brought my fifty pages to class. If Katherine and Michael had told me to give it up, I would have done so. They generously reviewed and edited those first fifty pages. They said I had potential. They said my story had promise. They liked the narrative voice. And they told me that I should try to finish the story. Katherine Forrest and Michael Nava changed my life.
It was all I needed to hear. My wife bought me a used laptop computer. In the fall of 1997, I set to work. I wrote on the ferry every day. I wrote late into the night. I wrote on weekends and on vacations. I met with my friends from the writing class every two weeks. We continue to meet and read each other’s work. I set a goal for myself. I wanted to finish a cover-to-cover draft of Special Circumstances by my fortieth birthday on July 14, 1998. It was a very productive use of my mid-life crisis.
I beat my deadline by three days. I finished the first draft of the manuscript at our firm retreat at Lake Tahoe. I let my wife read the manuscript. She said it was good. I finally told my colleagues at work that I was spending my free time working on a novel. Some were skeptical. A few asked to look at the story. Those who started it finished it. They were relieved to find out that they weren’t in it. I was relieved when they said they liked it.
Later in July, I attended the Mystery Writers’ conference at Book Passage. I met with other authors and agents. Katherine Forrest agreed to read the manuscript. I knew it needed work, but I began to think it had a chance. A month later, Katherine left a message on my voicemail at work. She had finished the manuscript. She said it was definitely publishable. I met with her the following week. With her guidance, I spent the fall editing Special Circumstances. By the end of October, I had completed my rewrites and I began to look for a literary agent.
Fate intervened, and I found an agent, Margret McBride (she rides bikes with Chris Neils, an attorney in our San Diego office). Two weeks later, Margret persuaded Bantam to agree to publish Special Circumstances.
I have learned a great deal since I started working on this book in 1995. You must be patient. You must write every day. It really helps to have a supportive family and friends. It is essential to have mentors like Katherine Forrest and Michael Nava. It’s hard work. At times, it’s very lonely and very frustrating. When I started this adventure, I wanted to see if I had any talent for writing fiction. I’m pretty sure now that I do. I’m no longer afraid to show drafts of my work to my cynical colleagues. I would not have done so three years ago.
I’m an unlikely author of a legal thriller. I have never handled a criminal defense matter. Except for researching this book, I have not set foot in a courtroom in sixteen years. I have great admiration for anyone who does. I have even greater admiration for those who write fiction. It’s hard work. It requires a lot of dedication. And it takes great courage to show your work to strangers.
I hope you like my story.