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January|February 2005
Identity Crisis By Andy Latack
Parliament of Dunces By James B. Goodno
The Fall of New Rome By Geoffrey Gagnon
The King of Plots By Aaron Dalton
the Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

The King of Plots

Meet Michael Levin, the man who teaches lawyers how to write.

By Aaron Dalton

AT THE MARRIOTT IN CHARLESTON, W. VA. RECENTLY, 45 lawyers came close to developing a gripping novel. They'd congregated, each paying $395, to attend author and manuscript consultant Michael Levin's continuing legal education class titled "Fiction Writing for Lawyers."

Levin, the cheerleader-cum-instructor, began by boosting the lawyers' confidence with inspirational mantras like "Replace fear with faith!" and "Once I let go of quality, writing is really easy!" He explained his theory that a novel requires nothing more than a desire-filled character overcoming risk-filled conflict while demonstrating some core idea of the author's. Levin cited Dorothy's perilous quest in The Wizard of Oz as an example of a story based on the idea that we all possess the ingredients necessary for self-fulfillment.

To illustrate the ease of plucking a novel out of thin air, Levin encouraged participants to call out ideas for starting points, characters, desires, risks, and conflicts until a plot emerged.

The audience weighed various concepts: corporate greed was destroying the environment, local political corruption was unusually bad, coaching soccer was more fun than being a lawyer. The soccer idea came close to carrying the day. But it was beaten out by one about the corrosive effects of media bias on democracy.

As Levin had promised, the novel unspooled with ease. The lawyers developed a character, named him Dave, and made him a newly appointed TV news anchor whose mother was a flower child and whose father had fought and died in Vietnam. Now, peacenik Dave, facing marital troubles at home, tried to sway the country from a looming war even as his son volunteered for the military and was shipped overseas. As the plot unfolded, the lawyers called out plot twists with increasing bravado, congratulating each other for clever turns that put Dave through the ringer.

Dave was mainly given positive traits because Levin said that readers would want to imagine themselves as the protagonist and they prefer being the hero. So the lawyers molded Dave into a smart, impassioned, and successful man. (Good-looking, too.) But Dave also needed defects, explained Levin, because a perfect hero is boring and so must face a struggle.

"He's gay!" called out a member of the crowd.

That quickly dampened the mood, but Levin reminded the crowd that being gay isn't a defect. After some more shouting and by consensus, Dave's defects became his crippling sense of self-doubt, his addiction to power, and his inability to present the news objectively.

United again, the class built a plot in three acts, ratcheting up the tension along the way: the country went to war, Dave's son went to war, Dave was embedded and sent to cover the war!

What happened to Dave, his family, and the country, we'll never know. The group took a break for lunch, and, when the lawyers came back, they moved on to discuss scene structure and the business of getting published. The morning was a ride on a hot-air balloon lifted by the joy of writing fiction. The torturous process of finding an agent and a publisher, waiting for the book to appear, and then scrapping with the publisher over royalties (if there are any) brought the class down to earth.

Levin has been coaxing novels from classes for years. At 46, he holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School, but he went there only because he thought law would give him a steady income. But after selling a novel called The Socratic Method critiquing law school life, while studying for a bar exam that he failed twice, he figured out that his talents lay elsewhere.

To date, Levin has written 36 books, 18 under his own name and 18 as a ghostwriter. He has also coached many students into print and has guided a handful onto the best-seller lists, including Sheneska Jackson, author of Caught Up in the Rapture, a novel about the hip-hop music world published when she was 25.

In West Virginia Levin got a warm reception, with most attendees agreeing that he had motivated them to tackle the novels they had been meaning to write for years. Many of the lawyers said that as lawyers they saw themselves as storytellers in the oral tradition, usually telling jurors how the story of the case before them should end. For Levin's students as writers, however, the challenge is learning the art of the tease, parceling out information piece by piece as the plot progresses, and keeping the conclusion at the end of the book. The session also gave lawyers what they saw as a new way of thinking. A participant named Bob Gaudio said, "There is great merit and potential success in thinking well outside the hackneyed, weather-beaten box of motions practice."

ACCORDING TO LEVIN, IN ANY GOOD NOVEL a character must face two kinds of risk—the going-for-it risk and the not-going-for-it risk. For his students, each a main character in their own personal drama, the not-going-for-it risk is to devote their talents to a world where having to convince a jury often takes the fun out of storytelling. The going-for-it risk is to write a novel and maybe fail.

"The character has to go for it, or there is no story," said Levin.

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