{Author Guest Post} Bonnie Wynne on lawyer skills and creative writing

Saturday, 1 February 2020

High-flying lawyer turns courtroom drama into blockbuster novel success. Sadly, I’m talking about John Grisham, not myself. As far as lawyer-novelists go, he takes the crown for most famous. But even Charles Dickens dabbled as a law clerk, and Harper Lee dropped out of an Alabama law school at age 23. So what turns so many respectable legal minds into starving, bohemian artists?

Maybe the real question is what turns creative writers into lawyers. A home truth: law school is where you go when you love writing but also love money. So off I went to learn the law, bright-eyed and eager, with a briefcase full of dreams and unfinished manuscripts about dragons.   

The Venn diagram between lawyer skills and writer skills is basically just a circle, and the most obvious shared skill is ‘sitting down’. We do a lot of that. But the second most obvious is language. Lawyers spend all day wrestling with the written word. Every sentence must pull its weight. These days, I can draft cleanly and hack through superfluous adverbs like a machete through the underbrush. A writer must kill their darlings, and I have no qualms about executing mine on sight. And I like to think it works both ways; that my creative side gives my law writing a little extra pizzazz. My boss may disagree (as he strikes out the word ‘pizzazz’ from my draft).

Law school also teaches you to see an argument from both sides. That’s not so different from the job of a writer: to put yourself in the shoes of somebody else. Imagining the point of view of an orc is a little different from imagining the view of opposing counsel (or is it?), but the principle is the same.

The Ninth Sorceress tells the story of Gwyn, who was raised in a travelling wagon by a stern and emotionally distant father figure. My own childhood was crushingly normal, so I had to imagine the world from her perspective. Who would you become if you were forbidden from having friends? How would you react to the abrupt and cataclysmic upheaval of your life? Those were the questions that intrigued me as I was developing Gwyn’s character.

Lawyers are detail-oriented by nature, and that’s a great skill to develop if you want to write well. My favourite podcaster Tim Clare always talks about crunchy specificity, which basically means steering away from the broad and obvious word choices and picking something with texture, something that suggests a world or a time period or a cultural milieu. It’s putting your protagonist in a clumsily hand-stitched sarafan instead of a shirt and trousers. I often fantasise about tattooing crunchy specificity onto my forehead.

Law school teaches you to be specific, with statutes and precedents and case law. Sure, you can show up in court and ramble about how ‘it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s the vibe’. (But please don’t). And sure, you can write about how your wizard’s library smells of dust. But that’s an obvious choice, and it’s not going to wake up the dozing peanut-crunchers in the back row. What else? Floor wax? Woodworm? Buckram? Specific, specific, specific.

That brings me to the next great lawyer skill: research. At work, my browser history would put you to sleep. But at home it would put me in jail. Torture with hot irons. How to dispose of a body. How to make gunpowder. In law and in fiction, it pays to know what you’re talking about. Or if you don’t know, at least you can sound like you do. Research: the backbone of any convincing lie.

One thing every writer needs is discipline. Writing is work, even when you’re enjoying it. It’s tempting to go play video games or watch another episode or pair your entire sock collection. Those things are easier and more fun (well, maybe not the socks). And it’s no surprise that discipline is a mandatory skill in law school. If you’re a natural procrastinator (hello), the terrifying onslaught of essay deadlines and take-home exams will beat it out of you.

You can’t force inspiration – sometimes you turn the creative tap and only a trickle comes out. But you can force your butt into the seat. I wrote The Ninth Sorceress piecemeal over the course of a decade. But I wrote the first draft of Book 2 in just a few months, my fingers clacking at the keys so fast they started getting friction burns. Luckily, the warring wizards of The Ninth Sorceress are a lot more fun to write about than tortious misfeasance.

If my writing career takes off, it would be nice to eventually leave the law books behind. But in the meantime, I owe a lot to my legal training. And if I ever get sick of gods and alchemists, maybe I can try one of those twisty courtroom thrillers. John Grisham, I’m coming for your crown.

THE NINTH SORCERESS, Bonnie Wynne's debut fantasy novel, is slated for release February 13.

About the book

The Ninth Sorceress (The Price of Magic #1) by Bonnie Wynne
Released: 13th February 2020
Published by: Talem Press
Genre: YA Fantasy
Pages: 360
In the blackest dungeon of the Clockwork City, a prisoner lies bound in silver shackles. Who is she? And why are the wizards so afraid of her?

Seventeen-year-old Gwyn has no family and no past. Apprenticed to a half-mad herbalist, she travels the snow-blasted High Country, hawking potions in a peddler’s wagon. Her guardian hides her from the world like a dark secret, and she knows better than to push for answers. But when she discovers she is hunted by the goddess Beheret, Gwyn is drawn into a deep and ancient tale: of chained gods and lost magic, of truths long buried and the rising of a war she never could have imagined. Wizards and their magic-sniffing hounds pursue her – as does a stranger in a smiling mask, who calls her by an unfamiliar name...

But what really terrify her are the dangerous gifts she’s spent her life suppressing. Now, Gwyn must step out of the shadows and take charge of her destiny – even if the price is her own soul. The Ninth Sorceress is the breathtaking first instalment of The Price of Magic, a sweeping fantasy saga full of rich storytelling and tangible magic.

About the author

Bonnie Wynne studied Writing and Cultural Studies at UTS, and completed her law degree at the University of Sydney. After a brief stint in legal publishing, she now works for the Australian government, deciphering ancient law tomes.

She lives in Sydney with her cocker spaniel, Percival Hector (Canine Inspector). When she's not reading or writing, she can be found playing video games, booking her next holiday, or elbow-deep in flour.

THE NINTH SORCERESS is her debut novel and the first book in her series, THE PRICE OF MAGIC.