Unlearning the Law: Novel Lessons


Unlearning the Law: Novel Lessons
by Martha Anne Toll, former lawyer, current novelist

Myriad lawyers transition from litigating to literature. I am no exception: I recently published my debut novel, THREE MUSES. Before that, I attended law school, practiced law, and worked for many years in social justice and the nonprofit world. Each of those jobs involved intensive writing where I had to learn how to present arguments clearly on the page, and to advocate for strategy and policy positions. I sharpened my research and analytic skills as I tried to present the incontrovertible. However, as I was becoming a novelist, I realized I had to unlearn the writing practices I found most useful in my time in the corporate and non-profit world.  I have thus identified three rules in fiction that may come in handy for others following a similar path: 

Rule 1. DEADLINES mean nothing 

Corollary 1: Time operates outside the Gregorian calendar


Corollary 2: Submitting does not correlate to responses


Rule 2. PROOF is of no consequence

Corollary 1: There is no defense for a fiction writer

Corollary 2: Readers are paramount

Corollary 3: Don’t hammer it home


Rule 3. TRUTH is an obstacle to overcome

Corollary 1: When in doubt, make it up

Corollary 2: Imagination is key


My first job after graduating law school was in the litigation department of a large corporate firm. I was consumed with writing legal memos and briefs where deadlines were set by judges and other rules of court. Lawyers are famous for requesting extensions, and they often receive them. Nevertheless, deadlines rule. Lawyers know when motions and briefs are due. They prepare to meet those deadlines, or work like hell to get them postponed. 

After several uninspiring legal positions, I landed  a dream job in social justice philanthropy. I was responsible for getting the organization off the ground and publicizing and refining our grant-making priorities. Did we have deadlines? You bet. We made grants twice a year. Grantees had to meet our deadlines, and I in turn, had to meet even more deadlines: board presentations, IRS, etc.

In novel-writing land, these kinds of deadlines are meaningless. I began THREE MUSES in 2010. I took it to the Tin House Workshop a few years later. I had a new draft by 2013. After two more revisions, I began sending it out in 2015. 

Following prolonged periods of waiting, I realized that literary decision makers operate outside the Gregorian calendar. Publishers and literary magazines say that they’ll respond within four to eight weeks, or six months, but these words do not correlate to time as the rest of us understand it. There is no pressure to respond to writers’ queries, and no consequence for not responding. Rejections can arrive for submissions you’ve long forgotten, sometimes two years later. And I do advise forgetting: waiting for a returned text or email is futile. Most often, there simply is no response.

I experienced extended periods of frustration and despair before I concluded that the rules in my workplace had no bearing in fiction land. Weeks stretched into months and months into years.  Time was altogether different. 


My first official publication was during law school, where I wrote a “Note” in the Boston University International Law Journal. Ironically, it was about the unsavory, illegal practices of the infant formula industry. If memory serves, my article had over 200 footnotes. According to accepted law review practice, every statement—sometimes two per sentence—had to be backed up.

As I started submitting my fiction, I was forced to learn that proof is of no consequence. If a reader does not buy what you’ve written, or worse, does not understand it, no amount of proof will change the equation. I’d share a manuscript with a colleague, friend, or agent. They would generously give me feedback. I would disagree and find myself arguing with them. 

“I did say that, right here on page 53.” 

Actual readers come to the written word with their own life experience and emotional baggage. There is no point taking issue with how they imbibe a book. I may be surprised, offended, outraged, or confused, but I cannot argue, and will not prevail, over a reader’s experience with my writing.


Truth is prized in the law, as it should be. Truth is the sine qua non of a fair trial. Early in my career, I was on a case where a worker was injured by a falling crane. Unfortunately, I represented the crane. I stumbled into a statute that would have foreshortened the time this fellow had to file suit. If applied, the case would have been thrown out. As a person with a conscience, I did not want his case to be thrown out. However, I had to tell the truth to my boss. He was ecstatic. It was a stroke of grace that after further research, I discovered the case law did not support my initial theory. 

Truth may be indispensable in law, but in fiction, it is not only a constraint, but can also be an insurmountable obstacle. Fiction is set in a specific time and place. Since I’m rarely writing in the present, that means doing research on a particular period of history. Research helps with details, and details distinguish a character from generic prototypes. 

Research can include period dress, place names, how people traveled, and what institutions were up and running. Was New York’s Bellevue Hospital a thing in 1955? How many “original” versions were there of Swan Lake?

And yet,  research can cause real problems. Sometimes, research is the problem. A novelist can be diverted from unloosing their imagination as they chase down obscure facts that are never going to make it into the manuscript. Further, it is not unusual for the truth to cause writing paralysis. What if I know the date, but can’t figure out what the décor looked like inside Bellevue Hospital? How can I write that scene?

The novelist has only one solution: to jettison the truth. However, “alternative facts” won’t cut it. I once picked up an otherwise gorgeous novel, a love story that opened on page one with a string quartet comprised of a violin, viola, cello, and double bass. As an erstwhile violist, I know that composers rarely, and possibly never, write for this musical combination. A string quartet means two violins, a viola, and a cello. If this sounds picky and annoying, you might feel the same if something with which you were intimately familiar was misrepresented on the page. You wouldn’t want a character driving around in a Tesla in 2008, for example. In the case of the string quartet novel, I was so distracted that it took me an additional fifty pages to get into the story, even though it had been burning with romance from page one. 

Unless you are writing science fiction, the world is still round. But otherwise, forget what you know, unlearn your research. Make it up, change the names, distort the facts, move dates around. Close the reference book or the tab on your computer. Abandon the library. Forget Swan Lake, make up your own ballets. Rename Bellevue Hospital and move it across town. Whatever you do, let the creative juices run. 

This is not as easy as it sounds. Before I started writing fiction in earnest, my experience and schooling—especially law school—taught me to do hew to the truth. As I developed my fiction chops, I had to close my eyes and imagine my way out of the real world. I learned to unlearn it.


My quality of life improved significantly once I had unlearned my legal writing practices. In fiction, writing operates in a different time zone, and proof is of no consequence. There is nothing you can argue to a reader that will provide an adequate defense. Moreover, you may need to conduct research to write your magnum opus, but if you’re writing fiction, you are also going to need to flaunt the truth. These are habits and skills that take long years of practice, and I don’t mean legal practice. I will be honing them for the rest of my life. I know I can’t rely on the force of a deadline to get where I need to go. Finally, I have learned that truth is not a defense. In fact, there is no defense for a fiction writer. 


Martha Anne Toll writes fiction, essays, and book reviews, and reads anything that’s not nailed down. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing on September 20, 2022.

Image source: Aleix Ventayol/Unsplash

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