Have a question about how to use the law in your story? Need a character, plot twist or setting? Ask me in the comments section and I'll be glad to answer. I welcome all comments and questions.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"The Good Guys” Aren’t So Good On Police Officers’ Rights

I’ll say right out that I love Bradley Whitford’s new show, The Good Guys. It’s funny and fresh, the actors are fantastic, and the writing is sharp. However, they missed the boat in the last episode I watched called Cop Killer. It was about an Internal Affairs officer who has it out for our main character, Dan Stark.

Of course, IA can indeed have vendetta on their minds. But this show got it all wrong, and it wouldn’t have hurt the plot one whit if they’d done it right. Maybe it bugged me so much because I do employment law, but the whole episode made me squirm.

Union Reps and Union Lawyers

Once a police officer is accused of misconduct, he’d have his union representative in with him on any questioning. This show is in Dallas, which has the Dallas Police Association representing officers there. The DPA has a law firm on retainer to represent its members. The Texas Municipal Police Officers Association also provides legal representation to members. (It took me 10 minutes and Google to find out the names of the organizations and the kinds of representation they offer, so why didn’t the writers bother?)

The officer wouldn’t be sitting alone with IA answering questions unless he’d lost his mind. And Stark and his partner wouldn’t be dithering about hiring a lawyer. Stark says he doesn’t want to pay, but he wouldn’t have to. Even my husband, a non-lawyer, was frustrated. He kept yelling at the screen, “Get a lawyer!”

The union contract (the collective bargaining agreement) will have details about what rights the officers have if questioned by IA, who can be present, what hoops they have to jump through to suspend the officer, and what appeal rights the officer has at each step. It’s unlikely that the union would allow IA to announce they were taking away the weapons of the two partners and that they were no longer police officers during the investigation. What union would agree to have so few rights for its members? Police unions are very politically powerful. They have the ability to negotiate lots of rights for their members, and their members know to invoke their rights.

DAs Don't Represent Perps, Even if They're Friends

When our hero Stark’s partner asked his girlfriend, the Assistant DA who prosecutes police misconduct, to represent Stark they really crossed over into the ridiculous. The Assistant DA would no way be involved in representing an accused cop. No officer with any sense at all would even ask her. To her credit, she said no, then helped off the record. But the fact that the writers had Stark refuse to lawyer up was off the wall. He’d be screaming for his rights, and the show would have been funnier having Mr. Law-And-Order-I-Hate-Lawyers suddenly best buds with a defense lawyer.

Disbarment is by the Bar

The IA guy (played by Joshua Malina of Sports Night and The West Wing) also threatened to have the Assistant DA disbarred. How on Earth could he do that? He’s not the State Bar of Texas. He could maybe file a complaint, but more likely he’d just go up the chain of command and seek to have her fired or disciplined by the prosecutor’s office. He’d have no authority over her whatsoever. The prosecutor’s office (Dallas County District Attorney’s Office) and the police department are completely separate entities. They have to be. Otherwise no prosecution would have any credibility. Can you imagine the defense arguments? What jury would believe the prosecutor wasn’t in the pocket of the police if the Police Chief could fire her?

An Easy Fix

The Good Guys is a show worth watching. It’s about a talented but off the wall cop, mentally stuck in the 70s, who has no concept of modern police procedure, computers, or civil rights. His partner is a young up-and-comer who balances Stark’s recklessness while learning to loosen up. I’ve adored Bradley Whitford since The West Wing and Colin Hanks (Tom Hanks’ son) as his partner is perfect casting.

Stark is always in trouble with the department because he breaks the rules. The IA character mentioned Stark’s last IA investigation, and Stark crowed that he was cleared. We’re supposed to believe he was cleared without representation? That all these years he breaks the rules and gets away with it with no union rep or lawyer helping? Horse hockey. He’d know his rights by heart and have his union rep and union lawyer on speed dial.

There’s an officer in the show who absolutely hates Stark – I’d have made him Stark’s union rep. Union representatives have to represent coworkers they hate all the time. It would have been hilarious.

Getting it Right

This episode bugged me to no end. I expected to enjoy it since Josh Malina has also been one of my favorite actors ever since Sports Night. He was wasted here, but I hope we’ll see him as a recurring character. The episode was so far off reality that it took me out of the story. Hopefully the writers will step up their game to their usual high standards going forward.

Getting it right is worth the trouble, even when it’s comedy. A little research can make a good story better and give you good plot twists. Maybe I should send the writers a copy of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers.

Or they could just ask me questions here, in the comments section, like you can. I’m glad to help.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Who Might Your Murderer Character Want to Kill Off (Besides Lawyers)? Six People Who May Just Need to be Murdered

When I teach at writers conferences about using the law in stories, sometimes writers have no idea how helpful the law can be. One of the ways the law can really help your story is the characters. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need a victim. Who gets killed and why are central to your story. Now, everybody knows the first thing you do is kill all the lawyers (at least if you want to overthrow a government, as was the context of Shakespeare’s quote). So I won’t bore you with why lawyers make good murder victims. Res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself).

I want to talk about some other people operating in the legal system who move around enough or who have enough information that they might be asking to be killed off. I’m going to tell you about six of them, but my book, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, has loads of suggestions if you need more.

1. Legal secretaries handle scheduling, prepare some court notices, draft some minor court documents, prepare letters, type (although this is becoming less of the job now that most attorneys prepare their initial drafts on their own computers), transcribe (again, more and more rare), file, deal with client and opposing counsel calls, and keep the lawyer’s office running smoothly. You could have a legal secretary who steals a trust account check and the lawyer faces disbarment, or who knows the lawyer is the perpetrator of a giant ponzi scheme. Legal secretaries know everything about the attorney, so they make great witnesses, or blackmailers. Which makes them excellent murder victims.

2. Office managers handle the business and human resources end of the law practice. If your paralegal or legal secretary character starts mouthing off to the boss, the office manager may be the one to step in. Maybe he steps in front of a two-by-four wielded by a disgruntled secretary. Office managers can also be used in your story to do the dirty work: getting rid of staff, hiding documents, moving people from department to department to keep any one person from knowing too much. Does this get them killed? Do they embezzle the trust money? They will probably have passwords and access to the firm’s accounts. Frequently seen in larger firms, this role is now being handled in midsize and smaller firms by someone trained in either accounting or administration. Could your office manager character be quietly figuring out how to retire? Could she be undercover trying to bring in a crooked attorney? Or did she fail to end up in witness protection before the mobster client whacked her?

3. Notaries witness and put their seal on signatures to verify that they obtained good identification from the person signing and that the signature is true, and certify copies of documents as being true copies. They can give oaths and perform wedding ceremonies. Banks, law firms, and copy centers frequently have staff notaries. Did your dishonest notary put a piece of property in their own name? Did they notarize a document with lots of white space and turn it into a will in their favor? Or, do they know uncover a forgery? Notaries can be witnesses to all kinds of fraud in your stories. They could be on the run, in witness protection, or a murder victim.

Unscrupulous notaries can use the Spanish translation, “notario” to bilk unsuspecting immigrants. The term notario can refer to a lawyer or someone of similar stature in some countries. Many notarios engage in the unauthorized practice of law here in the U.S. This comes up frequently in immigration fraud scams. Is your character an illegal immigrant who thought they were legal? Did the notario’s scam get them deported? Might be a motive for murder.

4. The judicial assistant, or JA, handles scheduling of hearings, trials, and other court proceedings. They usually handle and mark the evidence when it is admitted. In other words, they are the judge’s right arm. The demeanor of a judicial assistant is usually a good reflection of the demeanor of the judge. Dealing with a great JA is one of the great pleasures of legal secretaries, paralegals and lawyers. A nasty or incompetent JA can make legal life miserable. Your characters can show up to hearings that aren’t on the calendar, sit in the courtroom for hours as proceedings run late, have courtesy copies of motions and cases that were sent to the judge well in advance suddenly lost, and other JA-caused tribulations. Could drive anyone over the brink, couldn’t it? The JA could also witness bribery, threats, or jury tampering, which means they could blackmail a lawyer or judge. We know what happens to blackmailers and people who know too much, don’t we?

5. Process servers hand court documents to people who don’t want them. Lawsuits, orders to testify in court or bring documents, or orders to stop doing something, your characters won’t be happy to see a process server. Many people try to evade process servers, who have to get clever to serve those individuals. Fake pizza deliveries, exterminators, pulling fire alarms, could be used to humorous advantage in a story. Or get your process server killed. Most people realize that the process server is just doing their job. The likely reaction of your character served with a suit is to thank the process server. Boring, but accurate. But maybe they see the character with a mistress. Many process servers are also private investigators, and some have law enforcement backgrounds. Having a character who moves around lots, who is observant, and who knows something about the law could come in handy in all kinds of creative ways, couldn’t it? Or do they know too much?

6. A court reporter’s job is to write down every word said in court, listen to every word of every legal proceeding they cover, and be able to write it down accurately. A missed word can be catastrophic to a trial. Imagine the deposition transcript in your story with an omitted “not” or “no.” Or with the wrong speaker listed. What if a court reporter hates your attorney character because he broke up with her? She might decide to change the words. Court reporters are almost invisible. During breaks, lawyers and witnesses forget they’re even there, so court reporters hear all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. You can have one hear a death threat or blackmail. If someone prone to murderous rage suddenly realizes the court reporter was present, who knows what might happen?

Some others who might be in a position to blackmail or witness something they shouldn’t have seen are bailiffs, runners/messengers, and paralegals. We all know that the motives for murder can be complex or simple, funny or horrible. Murder mystery writers need to choose their victims carefully.

Hopefully now you have some more ideas on who your murderer needs to knock off. The rest, my friends, is up to you. Happy writing!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Need a Character? The Top Five Characters Who Might Be Watching

When I teach at writers conferences about using the law in stories, sometimes writers have no idea how helpful the law can be. One of the ways the law can really help your story is the characters. The great part about lawyers is they don’t have just one background. Where doctors have to have studied certain things, lawyers can study absolutely anything in undergraduate school. So they make great characters who can give you infinite possibilities. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need witnesses. But many other stories need someone to see something happening to move the plot forward.

I want to talk about some other people operating in the legal system who move around enough or who have enough information that they might be useful to your stories. I’m going to tell you about five of them, but my book, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, has loads of suggestions if you need more.

1. Bailiffs: Bailiffs keep order in the court. They see and hear everything that goes on in court, so it’s their job is to observe. As characters, they can be witnesses, blackmailers, or heroes. They are the ones who protect the judges if there is any violence, and they protect the jurors, witnesses, and lawyers as well. They frequently have to lend a hand checking lawyers in for hearings, handling evidence, calling witnesses in, and other administrative tasks. They escort the jury to and from the jury room, and stay outside the door to make sure they stay safe, sequestered, and get what they need. Maybe they overhear jurors discussing a case with a reporter. Or they witness their judge accepting a bribe. They may be the one person who can identify the guy who delivered the poisoned lunch to the jury.

2. Runners and messengers make deliveries, do copies and run errands for the attorneys. This puts them in a place where they can move around and observe activities of all your characters. Courier services will usually handle most same-day deliveries, but many larger firms have in-house people dealing with deliveries. Did the runner in your story deliver flowers to a prosecutor with whom a defense lawyer is having an affair? Did they have the package of incriminating tapes they were supposed to mail but took home and listened to instead? In-house runners or messengers will also assist with copying and other more menial tasks. These make great characters because they know all the office gossip. And maybe what evidence was destroyed.

3. Process servers hand official documents to people who don’t want them. Lawsuits, orders to testify in court or bring documents, and orders to stop doing something are items your characters won’t be happy about. Many people try to evade process servers, who have to get clever to serve those individuals. Fake flower deliveries, disguises, sneaking in the back, could be used for humor or get your process server killed. Maybe they see the character with a prostitute. Having a character who moves around lots, who is observant and who sometimes has a law enforcement background could come in handy in your story, couldn’t it?

4. A court reporter’s job is to write down every word said in court, listen to every word of every legal proceeding they cover, and write it down accurately. A missed word can be catastrophic to a trial. What if one of these reporters hates your attorney character because he yelled at her? They’re almost invisible, which makes them great witnesses. During breaks, lawyers and witnesses forget they’re even there. Court reporters hear all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. You can have one hear a bribe during a break. Or a death threat during a deposition.

5. Paralegals assist lawyers in investigation and research, prepare documents, organize and review client files, draft court documents, interview clients and witnesses, and assist at trials. The fact that the paralegal works so closely with the attorney puts them in a unique position for your story. They may know about a bribe, malpractice, or perjury. Maybe they were instructed to shred documents in the middle of a trial. Remember the paralegal character in The Riches? She found out Doug Rich may not be who or what he said he was.

So next time you say the law can’t help with your story, think about characters you need to observe something in your story. It doesn’t have to be a murder. Characters who are in a position to observe are handy in any type of story.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Using the Law to Enhance Your Sci Fi, Fantasy And Horror Story

           You have to build a whole new world if you’re writing sci fi, fantasy or horror. That world will necessarily have laws. And you’re the one who decides what those laws are. Thinking about the law and how it applies to your world will open up possibilities, provide inspiration, and make your story more believable.
If you think about it, you’ll realize the law touches everything your characters do, especially in sci fi. Their alarm clock went through customs and is regulated. Does your sci fi protag buy an experimental alarm clock that runs on nuclear fusion? Their cereal box has legal requirements about how contents are listed and what claims it can make. Does your horror or fantasy hero change into something non-human after he eats cereal contaminated with a mysterious chemical?
 Pharmaceutical companies have to test their drugs extensively before your characters can take them. Companies handling hazardous materials must dispose of them in particular ways. Your characters might lose a friend or relative if someone doesn’t follow the law. Or maybe the whole world changes because something deadly was set loose.
Anything that can go wrong for your characters might end up in court, or have already been there. You think the law doesn’t affect your sci fi character? Think again. Here are some ways sci fi, fantasy and horror stories are affected by the law.
Civil Rights: If you write about monsters, do they have civil rights? In the True Blood/Southern Vampire series, supernaturals who come out aren’t allowed to marry. The undead have property rights. In V, the aliens want parity with humans for nefarious purposes.
Justice: Are the courts in your alien world fair or is justice the privilege of the few? A series that showed the futuristic courts quite a bit was Star Trek. How the justice system works in your world will define how your characters behave and how they view the world.
Corporations: Are the corporations in your world unregulated? Did they run amok and cause major league damage? Do they have civil rights like individuals or are they treated differently? They could even have more rights than people in your story. Companies gone bad are great fodder for sci fi and horror. Does your corporate villain have to hide its evil activities for fear of legal consequences, or is the bad deed out in the open?
Character building: Even if the law or lack thereof isn’t a major plot point, it still affects your characters and the way they live. Are your characters divorced? Was it contested or amicable? What’s the custody situation? If there was an accident or death, was there a lawsuit? Insurance? Is your character well off or destitute? Do they have to testify in an upcoming proceeding? Do they rent or own their home? Legal situations affect the day to day life of your characters. If you’re not making a world from scratch, you’ll want to do some research to make sure you get the law right in your story.
Thinking about the law and how it affects your stories can make them richer. You may use the law as background or as a major plot point. When you’re building a sci fi, horror or fantasy world, don’t forget about the law and the part it plays in your story. I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration for your stories.  If you use the law, do the research. A little research can go a long way to help build trust with your readers. Make sure your plot is believable and rings true.
Now that you’re filled with ideas, start writing!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Using The Law To Enhance Your Romance Story

Romance writers frequently tell me the law doesn’t apply to their stories. Yet the law is everywhere in romance. If you start thinking about the law when you write, it can be used to enhance your story, flesh out your characters, get you unstuck, or even inspire you.

Let’s talk about some ways the law might impact your romance novel.

Background/characterization: Your characters come from a background that affects the way they view romantic relationships. If the characters’ parents are divorced, the nature of the divorce could color their view of romance. Was the divorce contested or amicable? Traditional or collaborative? Juno is the first time I’ve ever seen collaborative law used in a story, and it was used correctly. Collaborative law is the hottest trend in family law, so it might apply to your romance story.

Current lifestyle: If your characters are divorced, do they have custody or visitation? Is it still in court? The terms of divorce determine how much money they have to live on, when they have the kids, what property they own. It’s important to think about how the terms of divorce affect your characters’ daily lives. If it’s still in court, do they have to miss work to testify? Does their lawyer tell them not to date until it’s over? Do they feel pressured about the divorce proceedings?

Death and accidents: If they’re single due to a death, or if someone in the family has had an accident, then the law will certainly apply. Did they inherit or is the will contested? Did the decedent have insurance? Is there a lawsuit pending over the injury or wrongful death? Did they win a lawsuit over the death of their loved one or lose it? They could either be very well off or destitute as a result of a death or injury of a family member.

Stalking: Dating can turn to stalking, and stalking can turn into an injunction hearing. Maybe that’s where she meets Mr. Right. Or maybe your character is falsely accused of stalking because she pursued the wrong Mr. Right a little too aggressively.

Dating at work: Is your character dating someone from work? He’ll encounter sexual harassment laws or anti-nepotism policies. The company likely has policies in place that define what sexual harassment is. It may have policies prohibiting employees from dating each other, or prohibiting supervisors from dating subordinates. In The Mentalist, the boss made two characters choose between transferring away from each other or breaking up. In Dexter, two characters pretended to break up yet stayed together, violating their employer’s policy. (They are now married and inexplicably working together with one as the boss, which is no way going to be allowed at that particular employer, so it bugs the heck out of me.)

See? I told you the law applied to your romance novel. If you do write about the law, do some research to make sure you’re getting it right so the 1.1 million lawyers who are also readers won’t throw your book across the room.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What Happens After You Kill Off the Parents in Your YA/Middle Grade Novel? (C’mon, You Know You Did It). Eight Ways the Law Affects Teen and Children’s Stories

           When I speak at writer’s conferences about how to use the law in stories, the first reaction I usually get from anyone other than mystery/thriller writers is, “But the law doesn’t apply to my story.”
Young adult and children’s writers are the first ones to tell me the law has nothing to do with their stories. But the first thing we usually do (yes, I write YA and middle grade too) is kill off the parents or have them divorce. Why do we do it? Because we want the focus to be on the teens in the story, not on the adults. We have to provide a reason why someone that age is running around doing stuff their parents wouldn’t normally let them do in a gazillion years. I actually heard of a group of children’s writers who called themselves something like, “Let’s Kill the Parents.” Sad, but true. Adults don’t fare well in most kid lit.
So now that they’re orphaned, lost at least one parent, or are in a split home, you think the law doesn’t affect your character? Think again. Here are just some of the ways the law may come up in your young adult or middle grade story.
1.      Divorce. Which parent makes the decisions relating to the child, or do they both make the decisions? Where your character lives, whether they shuffle back and forth between parents, is a major part of their life. Is the divorce acrimonious or amicable? Are they still fighting or is it resolved? Does the child have to face testifying? All these issues can add depth to your character, angst, conflict, and relationship issues. Even for older characters, divorced parents can affect every romantic relationship they have. Their world view of relationships may depend on how that divorce went. If Bella’s parents weren’t divorced, would she have moved to Forks in Twilight? The fact of her mom’s new relationship set the whole story in motion.
2.      Custody. Who has custody? Is it joint, shared, or sole? Whether the parents are alive or dead, your character has to have a home. Did they seek emancipation? Do they live with a distant relative they’ve never met? If Harry Potter hadn’t had an awful custody situation, would he have been as sympathetic?
3.      Inheritance. If one or more parent is killed, did they inherit? If not, who did? Is there a lawsuit over an accident or medical malpractice? Does your character or their family come into a bunch of money from a suit or an inheritance? Do they lose a suit and suffer financial devastation? Is there insurance? Who’s the beneficiary? Your character’s financial situation is key to how they live, how they get around, what resources they have at their disposal. The entire Series of Unfortunate Events book series related to issues of custody and inheritance.
4.      Siblings. Do the siblings live with your character? Or were they separated? Are there disputes over custody or an inheritance? Do they even know they have siblings? What would The Parent Trap have been had the custody arrangements been different?
5.      School. Even if the parents are alive and well, the law might still come into play. At school your character might run into issues of free speech. Do they write an article for the school newspaper that gets suppressed? Criticize a teacher on Facebook? There could be bullying issues. Discrimination. Civil rights (maybe a locker is searched). If your character is disabled, there may be issues of accessibility to facilities or materials. Everything that happens in school is regulated in some way.
6.      Dating. Dating can turn to stalking. Does your character need an injunction? What a different story Twilight would have been if Bella had sought a court order after Edward showed up in her room the first time. If your character is the victim of date rape, do they come forward? What happens when they prosecute or choose not to prosecute? Do they get falsely accused of stalking or rape? How does that affect them?
7.      Injuries. Is your character in an accident? Do they sue? Do they have to testify against a friend? Can they pay their medical bills? Do they get the medical treatment they need? Are they beaten up by a bully? Do they prosecute or sue, or do they stay quiet? If they don’t sue, who pays the bills for medical treatment?
8.      Work. Did your character get a summer job? Many young people new to the workplace encounter discrimination, unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, whistleblowing issues, and other workplace problems. Is your character savvy or clueless about workplace rights? It makes a difference to your story.
If you use the law in your story, do the research. Make sure your plot is believable and rings true. There are lots of resources available for your research. You can also ask a lawyer for advice on how to handle an issue in your story.
So there you have it. The law affects your story whether you like it or not. You can use it for ideas and inspiration, for background, for characters or settings, and to establish your characters’ personalities.
The truth is, the law is all around us. It touches everything we do from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed. That means it touches your story. You can use it to your benefit or choose to ignore it. But get it wrong at your peril. There are 1.1 million lawyers in the U.S. alone. Most of us read. If you do it well, we will be your biggest fans. Don’t make us throw your book against the wall.
I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration for your stories, and some ideas on how to get your stories right. If I can help even one novelist keep from having their book thrown down in disgust, or one TV writer from having the channel changed, my work is done here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Don’t Make Me Throw Your Book Across the Room: Top Ten Ways You Can Alienate the 1.1 Million Lawyers Who Are Also Readers

      As an attorney who has practiced law 24 years, I have a hard time watching shows or reading books involving the law. Why? Because so many of them get so much of it wrong. It takes me right out of the story to sit there thinking, “That would never happen.”
      Most lawyers I know can’t read or watch stories about law because the factual errors are too frustrating. Gross misunderstanding of how the justice system works can take away from even the best plot. There are over 1.1 million lawyers in the United States, so alienating us with mistakes that are easily corrected can affect your sales and ratings. While I’m willing to suspend disbelief for a great story, some things tick me off so much that I find it hard to watch or read past the point where the writer commits any of these gaffes:
·         Length of time of court proceedings. There is no case in the world where the client walks in the door and they’re in trial the next day or the next week. Cases take time. At least show that some time passed in the proceeding. Age the characters, have something in their lives change. There are all kinds of things your lawyers do to prepare – depositions, hearings, motions. This gives you lots of opportunity to create interesting moments in your plot.
·         Lawyers switching sides. I really didn’t think this needed to be said until I saw it on a TV show. A lawyer can never change sides in the middle of the case. I don’t care how much the client on the other side begs. I don’t care if the firm the lawyer works for is okay with it. This will never be okay. If the lawyer in your story does this, show the disbarment proceedings in the next chapter.
·         Turning against client or going rogue. The lawyer doesn’t get to accept settlements the client didn’t agree to or secretly work against the client. If you show a lawyer doing this, you’d better have done your work to develop your character as a sleazy lawyer with zero ethics who knows they’re doing wrong.
·         Meeting alone with the judge. There are very few times when a lawyer can meet ex parte with the judge. Ex parte is fancy lawyer talk for without the other side. An emergency injunction is one of those circumstances. But in most cases, if you show the lawyer hopping into the judge’s office alone to talk about the case, you should show the judge’s bailiff escorting them to the door.
·         Meeting alone with a party on the other side. The lawyer can’t meet with a party they know is represented unless that party’s attorney agrees to let the meeting happen. I don’t care what Patty Hewes does on Damages. And you know why it doesn’t bother me on Damages? Because the lawyers did their character development and I know Patty Hewes has no ethics. It’s in character and I believe it.
·         Secret recordings. All states require at least one party to consent to a recording, so a lawyer or a party can never plant a device to record a conversation they’re not part of. Many states require both parties to consent to the recording, so if your lawyer is in one of those states and they hid a tape recorder in a purse, they’ve likely committed a felony. An illegal recording probably won’t be admissible in court.
·         Improper questioning. I see lawyers virtually testifying in TV and movies all the time. If the lawyer is talking about evidence that hasn’t been introduced through some witness on the stand, they’ll be told to cut it out.
·         It’s just circumstantial. All that great forensic evidence you see on CSI? It’s circumstantial. Eyewitness evidence is the most unreliable evidence. I hate it when lawyers and judges go around saying, “oh, but the evidence is just circumstantial.” Circumstantial evidence is reliable as heck. Witnesses are lousy at remembering details, but ballistics rarely lie.
·         Wrong jurisdiction. Showing a federal judge handling foreclosures, a criminal judge handling small claims cases, a divorce judge trying a personal injury case, is all amateur hour. Judges are limited in the types of cases they can hear. Do your homework and show the right judge hearing the right kind of case.
·         Yelling at judges. If a lawyer yells at a judge in court, they’ll land in jail for contempt, or at least get a severe dressing-down. There are all kinds of proceedings that don’t happen in front of judges where you can set the big dramatic scene where the lawyer acts out. If you set it in court, the next scene should be in jail.
            So, do your research, and get it right. Thank you in advance for writing something that 1.1 million lawyers will be happy to read. If I can help even one novelist keep from having their book thrown down in disgust, or one TV writer from having the channel changed, my work is done here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

10/9/10 Writing and Publishing News

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Lawsuits that kill books http://shar.es/0lkPW

Some newspapers decline to print Non Sequitur comic strip with punch line ‘Where’s Muhammad?’” http://tinyurl.com/22w2nnt

Can The 'Gist' Of A Book Be Defamatory, Even If Nothing Is Proven False? http://bt.io/G6x4  Um, no.

http://tinyurl.com/29skaqz  ACLU Lawsuit Charges That Jail Policy Banning Books and Magazines Is Unconstitutional

Uproar Over Muslim Center Echoes Protest Against Church in 1785 - http://nyti.ms/9DHAZR

More Writing News

Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children - Publishers are scaling back on picture books http://ow.ly/19lLiE

Ten of the best vendettas in literature http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/02/ten-best-vendettas-literature-mullan?CMP=twt_gu

Literary agents are open to self-published writers (if you've sold 5000 copies in the past year) http://tinyurl.com/2cmu2aj .

Knopf Buys 4 Great Pages For $2.5 Million http://www.deadline.com/2010/09/knopf-buys-4-great-pages-for-2-5-million/  Easy peasy. As long as you win the Booker Prize, that is.

Xerox Expands Sales, Service Model for Espresso Book Machine http://news.xerox.com/pr/xerox/xerox-expands-book-publishing-with-Espresso-Book-Machine.aspx Will this help bookstores or put them out of business?

How businesses can help writers. http://www.thevoicebw.com/?p=5007

Podcast: Last night at the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize http://tinyurl.com/2ejbobw

'The Hunger Games': How reality TV explains the YA sensation - http://tinyurl.com/2bq59xs

"Twilight" book's hand model seeks glory - http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/vampy_fame_slips_her_grasp_RmLOmyGKnlmGI3xtsvcRrI

Plagiarism or your perfect mate? Happy couples copy each other. http://tinyurl.com/2wawjjv

Harris Poll Finds Mysteries, Thrillers Edge Out Romance Novels. http://bit.ly/a6aViO

Friday, October 8, 2010

Named an Editor's Choice in Blogville!

The Write Report has been named an Editor's Choice in Blogville!

I'm honored and excited to have been picked. Only 1% of blogs are chosen for this honor. Thanks Blogville!

Monday, September 20, 2010

9/20/10 Writing and Publishing Headlines

My guest blog post at the New England Job Show about age discrimination is up: http://nejs.org/2010/09/20/state-of-the-market-age-discrimination-and-harassment/

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Plagiarism plagues Chinese science: http://newhumanist.org.uk/2365/lies-damn-lies-and-chinese-science

Embargoed book lands briefly on Google Books: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/political-bookworm/2010/09/embargoed_carter_book_lands_on.html

DRM keeps library books off Kindle: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/50260537-80/kindle-books-library-libraries.html.csp

Book burning stunt costs pastor $150,000+: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1313420/Preacher-Terry-Jones-vowed-burn-Koran-9-11-hit-100k-security-bill.html

More Amazon price wars: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/128694-amazon-using-price-for-e-book-land-grab.html

Other Headlines

Is Twilight altering young minds?: http://www.livescience.com/culture/twilight-books-altering-teen-brains-100903.html

Want buzz? Appeal to librarians: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/09/11/1817511/a-sly-comment-on-modern-times.html

12 people who are changing publishing: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-pinter/12-game-changers-in-publi_b_718198.html

Some ways to instant rejection by an agent (for god’s sake, get the name right): http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/2010/09/09/addressing-me

Vietnam publisher struggles to issue Western classics: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hyF5VdwSMJSUIqN0BSDU74NXCTOg

Why Kindle books aren’t up to snuff: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/hardware/the-problem-with-kindle-app-ebooks/9678

Why Stephen King deserves the Nobel Prize: http://www.journal-news.net/page/blogs.detail/display/368/Stephen-King-Deserves-a-Nobel-Prize.html

Glenn Beck books jacket quotes Jon Stewart negative comment: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/16/glenn-beck-book-stewart-time_n_720159.html

BFF, bromance, hockey mom and LMAO are new dictionary entries: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/editors/new_oxford_american_dictionary_adds_bff_bromance_hockey_mom_lmao_entries_173768.asp

iBooks more popular than Facebook (on the iPad): http://www.thebookseller.com/news/128673-ibooks-more-popular-than-facebook-and-twitter.html

9 apps for word junkies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/18/apps-for-word-junkies_n_718527.html

7 words you probably screw up: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/14/mangled-words-american-heritage_n_715170.html

Monday, September 13, 2010

9/13/10 Writing and Publishing Headlines

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Lawyers demand author remove details of prime minister’s affairs from novel (it’s fiction, guys!): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/7996634/Lawyers-step-in-over-Kay-Burleys-account-of-prime-ministers-affairs.html

Pentagon’s attempt to buy out all copies of counterterrorism book to destroy it turns it into a bestseller: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-thomson/counterterrorism-memoir-ebay_b_714999.html  and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/09/AR2010090907747.html 

6-year-old’s book deal is a hoax: http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/09/a-book-deal-that-was-too-good-to-be-true/

Iranian woman faces deportation, stoning for distributing banned book: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/sep/13/iran-deportation-woman-stoning-mp

Other Headlines

Teen lit festival cancelled after post-censorship author boycott: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/07/authors-boycott-cancels-teen-lit-fest?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Just in case you thought you were too old to write your debut novel: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randy-susan-meyers/41-over-40-novelists-debuting_b_706576.html#s135678

Is Google Book Search so full of errors that it’s useless for research?: http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/09/09/google_books/index.html?

Behind the scenes with the Espresso Book Machine: http://www.bookbusinessmag.com/article/coo-tom-allen-on-demand-books-espresso-book-machine/2

How to handle (and not to handle) a holy book: http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2010-09-08/story/handling-holy-books-such-quran-or-bible-touchy-subject

Protester thwarts Quran burning by stealing the book: http://amarillo.com/news/local-news/2010-09-12/protester-steals-quran-thwarts-burning?cmon-this-is-a-totally-awesome-story!

Atheist smokes Bible and Quran pages on YouTube. Nobody protests: http://www.news.com.au/national/lawyer-alex-stewart-smokes-pages-from-the-koran-and-bible-and-says-we-should-get-over-book-burning/story-e6frfkvr-1225919970728

Will publishers start picking their midlist from the ranks of the successful self-published?: http://blogs.forbes.com/booked/2010/09/08/if-self-published-authors-owned-the-midlist/?

Why bestsellers are choosing to self-publish: http://gizmodo.com/5629812/5-reasons-why-best+selling-authors-are-going-direct

Do present-tense novels suck?: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/7994914/Philip-Pullman-and-Philip-Hensher-criticise-Booker-Prize-for-including-present-tense-novels.html

This is your brain on Google: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/7999081/Google-damages-users-brains-author-claims.html

WSJ starts book review section: http://gawker.com/5633760/wall-street-journal-starting-a-book-review-section

Sunday, September 5, 2010

9/5/10 Writing and Publishing Headlines

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Did Simon & Schuster violate campaign finance laws against in-kind contributions with book promo video? http://tinyurl.com/29ltks9

Writer sued by publisher over missed deadline (you all have my permission to throw rotten tomatoes at anyone who had their chance and blew it this badly): http://content.usatoday.com/communities/campusrivalry/post/2010/09/yahoo-writer-sued-by-publisher-over-failure-to-meet-deadline-on-valvano-biography/1

BBC loses court battle over driver’s secret identity: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-11151777

What do you do when someone gives you your own comic book? Threaten to sue, of course: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/comic-riffs/2010/08/bluewater_comics_justin_bieber.html

Scribd charges for free books, uses subscription to get around copyright: http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2010/08/scribdcom-gets-greedy.html

Why the bankruptcy clause in your contract is useless: http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2010/09/sometimes-it-pays-to-pay.html

Stranded children’s authors form collective, go it alone vs. traditional publishing: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/127604-stranded-childrens-authors-go-it-alone.html

Other Headlines

Which book did the Discovery Channel gunman want them to make into a movie? The author’s reaction to really horrid publicity: "There is no disagreement between us," he said, "but his expression of the idea is very different from mine." http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7184520.html

Battle of the media – print vs. pixel?: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/technology/02couples.html?_r=1&src=busln

13 books nobody’s read but say they have (maybe they own the free Kindle versions): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/03/lying-about-books_n_703762.html I’ve read 4 of them, but 2 were because I was forced to in school. How many have you read?

Want a bestseller? Say God didn’t create the universe: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/127578-hawkings-controversial-comments-see-sales-surge.html

The best books on writing: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-winokur/advice-to-writers-books_b_700945.html  (Hey! Where is The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers?)

The art of co-authoring: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alexander-humez/coauthoring-all-for-one-a_b_703916.html

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

8/31/10 Writing and Publishing News

I’m interviewed here on preventing workplace violence: http://blog.ebosswatch.com/2010/08/how-to-prevent-workplace-violence/

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Wylie deal with Random leaves issue of who owns ebook rights in older books unanswered: http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/random-house-andrew-wylie-backlist-ebook-amazon-kindle-rights-deal/19607446/

Does NYT discriminate in its reviews?Jodi Picoult weighs in: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/20/jodi-picoult-white-male-literary-darlings

95% of political books reviewed in NYT are by white authors and 87% male: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129324346&ft=1&f=1008

How publishing really works, and the realities of ebook publishing: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/08/23/seth-godin-and-print-publishing/#

More writing and publishing links

Why vampires aren’t fading as the latest rage: http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=11476109

Dick and Jane and Vampires: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/book_jackets/dick_and_jane_and_vampires_behind_the_scenes_172133.asp  (I predicted the mashup trend would head to children’s books a year ago)

Are the Disney princesses turning girls into narcissists?: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Princess+culture+turning+girls+into+overspending+narcissists/3403856/story.html

Will ads soon appear in iBooks?: http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-19512_7-20014626-233.html

Why do we need publishers?: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-goldberg/who-needs-publishers-we-a_b_689763.html

Book’s FB page with almost 700,000 fans doesn’t increase sales: http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/a-book-attracts-loads-of-facebook-fans-but-why/

Print dictionaries go the way of the dinosaurs: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/7970391/Oxford-English-Dictionary-will-not-be-printed-again.html

Monday, August 23, 2010

In Entourage, Ari Gold Should Have the B---- Arrested

If you’re following Entourage, you’re familiar with the latest plotline where an agent left Ari Gold’s talent agency along with a bunch of tapes of his inappropriate comments. And if you know anything about the Ari Gold character, you can just imagine that there were a ton of inappropriate slurs, jokes and disgusting comments. Frankly, someone should have sued his agency for sex, race, national origin, and sexual orientation harassment long ago. But my sympathies here are with Ari, and the whole plotline is making me squirm.

That’s because the agent taped the conversations illegally, and this is one of my pet peeves in commonly used lazy plotlines. California, along with 11 other states, requires two-party consent to taping, meaning all parties to the conversation have to agree to be taped. Otherwise, it’s a crime. The tapes wouldn’t be admissible in court other than the criminal prosecution against the illegal eavesdropper.

It’s probably too late for this plotline, but what I think Ari should have done is have her hauled out in handcuffs. Instead of having the perps arrested, most TV and book writers have the taping victim quiver and shake at the prospect of their words being used against them. Wouldn’t it have been fun to see Ari’s conversation with her in the jail visiting room? I’d have loved to see him crow to his staff that if they cross him he’ll have them arrested too. Classic Ari.

So this season I’m a little ticked off at one of my favorite shows for lazy writing. Still, if you’re not watching Entourage (and don’t mind foul language and nudity) you’re missing one of the best, funniest shows on TV.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

8/22/10 Writing and Publishing News

Where the Law and Literature Meet
16 authors sue vanity publisher for deceptive practices: http://www.indystar.com/article/20100818/BUSINESS/8180323/1003/BUSINESS/Suit-by-16-authors-claims-deception-by-book-publisher

Libel tourism bill signed into law: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jeNqZbaTbimE1aUCRkkqHq1kl2xQ

Is ignorance of the copyright violation a defense? We’ll find out soon: http://www.betanews.com/article/Innocent-Infringer-copyright-defense-for-downloaders-goes-to-US-Supreme-Court/1282317133

BBC wants to keep driver from revealing his secret identity in a book. Legal stuff ensues: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/news/7953303/BBC-lawyers-fight-to-keep-Top-Gears-The-Stig-secret.html

If you’re a Macmillan author, don’t sign that e-rights amendment without getting advice from your agent or lawyer: http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2010/08/publishers-behaving-badly-again.html

More writing and publishing links

Wanna be a bestseller? Announce the proceeds are going to charity: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/aug/17/tony-blair-book-preorder-sales

The art of book thievery: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/7903230/The-love-of-the-high-end-heist.html

Who are the 10 best paid authors? Pretty much who you’d think: http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/19/patterson-meyer-king-business-media-highest-paid-authors.html

Writers get revenge: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704554104575435531552525078.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_LeadStoryNA

Seth Godin to go completely digital, abandon traditional publishing: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/authors/new_york_times_bestseller_seth_godin_to_no_longer_publish_books_traditionally_171395.asp

Authors oppose censorship of Blair signing: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/126323-free-speech-campaigners-back-waterstones-over-blair.html

Ellen Hopkins uninvited due to censorship: http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/book-blog/article_65e5a834-ab19-11df-8f0b-00127992bc8b.html

Was a well-known children’s author a baby murderer?: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/20/mummified-babies-peter-pan_n_689052.html

Sunday, August 8, 2010

8/8/10 Writing and Publishing News

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Connecticut joins other state attorneys’ general in investigating Apple and Amazon’s most favored nation deals with publishers: http://www.ct.gov/ag/cwp/view.asp?Q=463892&A=3869

Apple’s agency model comes under more scrutiny in the UK: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/125214-apples-agency-model-scrutinised.html

Glenn Beck followers convince library that gay literature is child pornography: http://gawker.com/5604429/glenn-becks-minions-convince-new-jersey-library-a-gay-book-is-child-pornography

Paperback publisher goes all digital: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703309704575413611289773690.html

Paul Levine, on how legal thrillers fall short, legally speaking: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-levine/legal-thrillers-trial-and_b_670856.html

The art of the book thief: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/7903230/The-love-of-the-high-end-heist.html

Both houses of Congress have passed libel tourism bill to protect free speech against foreign suits: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/07/30/libel_tourism_bill/

More writing and publishing links

How many books are there in the world? Google claims to have counted: http://booksearch.blogspot.com/2010/08/books-of-world-stand-up-and-be-counted.html

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

7/20/10 Writing and Publishing News

Big busy week for me, even though I’m on vacation. Ha!

My interview on work life balance on Women Lawyers Online is up. You can listen here: http://www.womenlawyersonline.com/2010/05/donna-ballman-interview/

I did an article for Women On Writing titled, “Using the Law in Your Story: Character, Plot and Professions.” You can read it here: http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/40-FE5-FictionWritersToolkit.html#UsingLaw

Another article I wrote on using the law in writing is up at Selling Books: http://www.sellingbooks.com/category/research

Where the Law and Literature Meet

Barnes & Noble have been in court defending a poison pill that kept a big investor from amassing too much stock: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100709/bs_nm/us_barnesandnoble_trial  and http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-12/barnes-noble-poison-pill-trial-testimony-centers-on-aletheia-fund-votes.html  

Yet another suit has been filed claiming Harry Potter was plagiarized. Give it up guys: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/43843-new-plagiarism-suit-against-harry-potter-and-scholastic.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+Children%27s+Bookshelf&utm_campaign=09ce3d971b-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email  and http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/news.html?news_id=63877

Lawsuit against Scribd claiming its copyright filtering violated copyright is dropped: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/07/copyrightfiltering-scribd/

“The Shack” author in dispute with partners over royalties, proving that even self-publishing can be financially perilous: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-the-shack-20100713,0,6240949.story#

Janet Evanovich leaves publisher over refusal to pay giant advance: http://www.deadline.com/2010/07/st-martins-losing-biggest-fiction-author/

Tasha Tudor’s heirs battle over estate: http://www.timesargus.com/article/20100712/NEWS02/7120348/1003/NEWS02?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+Children%27s+Bookshelf&utm_campaign=09ce3d971b-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email

Court orders opening of Kafka safe deposit boxes: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/after-lengthy-legal-battle-franz-kafka-and-max-brod-safety-deposit-boxes-being-opened-1.301792

Why publishers are ticked (and afraid to speak up) over Amazon bullying: http://www.thenation.com/article/37484/trouble-amazon?page=full

Figes to pay damages for fake reviews: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/16/orlando-figes-fake-amazon-reviews

British author arrested in Singapore for libel, contempt of court over book on death penalty: http://gawker.com/5591443/british-author-arrested-and-freed-on-bail-for-book-on-singapores-death-penalty

Serial book thief goes to jail: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7900426/Serial-book-thief-William-Jacques-jailed-for-three-years.html

More writing and publishing links

The best and worst writing advice: http://writersdigest.com/article/the-best-and-worst-of-writing-advice/

Who do you write like? New program tells you: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/17/i-write-like-website-goes_n_650037.html

Sarah Palin invents new word, compares herself to Shakespeare: http://gawker.com/5590304/sarah-palin-invents-new-word-refudiate

Are book trailers a waste of time and money?: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/fashion/11AuthorVideos.html?_r=2&ref=style

Do we need to read more slowly?: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/15/slow-reading

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Shrek Forever After Teaches A Good Lesson to Writers

I recently saw the new (and most excellent) Shrek Forever After with the kids. It occurred to me that the movie taught an essential life lesson. That lesson is something all writers (and everyone else) need to sear into their brains. The lesson is: Read The Contract Before You Sign It.

The plot involves Shrek making a deal with Rumpelstiltskin, which should set warning bells off in his head immediately. But he signs a contract based on what Rumpelstiltskin tells him it means, and doesn’t bother to read it. Not only did Shrek make this mistake, but the King and Queen did the same thing when they signed their own contract with Rumpelstiltskin. I’m in the audience smacking my forehead at the idiocy of doing this.

Oh sure, I understand that it would be a lousy movie if the characters spent 30 minutes each reading a contract. And I understand that the writers needed the plot device (although they could have used invisible ink or enchanted paper or something better than sheer stupidity). Still, I’ll give them some slack. It’s just a cartoon.

The sad truth is, most people don’t read the contracts they sign. Substite Rumpelstiltskin with an unscrupulous agent, and you have a situation many writers have faced. Since failing to read it and understand it isn’t a defense to enforcing it, the time to fully understand what you’re agreeing to is before you sign on the dotted line. Don’t believe what the drafter tells you it means. Get legal advice if you don’t understand. The Author’s Guild in the US and the Society of Authors in the UK will advise you on your contracts if you don’t have a lawyer.

Are you giving away e-book rights too cheaply? Do you really understand how the publisher is going to compute your royalties? Who is going to bear the expense of marketing your book? Is your book going to be printed on endangered rainforest paper or recycled?

If you’re signing with an agent, are you signing for all your works or just one? What is the percentage they’ll get if they place your work? How is it calculated? What happens if they don’t place your work? How does the agreement get cancelled?

The law allows few excuses for failing to understand a contract. Don’t speak English? You’re expected to get it translated. Don’t read? You’re expected to have someone you trust read it to you. The person tells you it says something it doesn’t? Too bad. You should have read it. So why do so many people sign important contracts like car leases, real estate purchases, publishing contracts, and agency contracts, without bothering to read them?

I know it’s exciting to get a publishing contract or an agent’s contract. But read the darned thing before you sign it. Otherwise, you might not have a happily ever after experience in your writing career. Take it from Shrek.