Getting into writing – an interview with Michael Carter

I’ve been writing as an attorney for some time, and I recently returned to creative writing. I’ll give you my perspective on both, as relevant.



Twitter: @mcmichaelcarter

What got you interested in writing?

I read Frank Herbert’s Dune when I was in the fourth grade. It blew me away. Many of the concepts were over my head at the time, but it introduced me to all sorts of topics, such as politics, ecology, time, space, betrayal, all sorts of things. I remember thinking to myself, this guy created a universe from his head, with thousands of characters and even its own vocabulary (Herbert has to provide a glossary with the novel). I remember thinking I wanted to do something like that someday.

I started writing shortly thereafter. I joke around that my first “publication” was a magazine I created as a kid. I called it “M.C. Magazine” (below, © 1984) and later “Mike’s Mini-Mag and Fun Things to Do.” It had crossword puzzles, word searches, and a few very short stories. I had the magazines copied and laminated at the local high school, and then I handed them out in the neighborhood. I had a blast thinking up all sorts of weird characters, writing about them, and illustrating them. That experience was the genesis of a lifetime interest in writing.

Mike Carter

I kept writing creatively through high school and college, but things tapered after I shipped myself off to law school in California. But that experience led to a couple decades of writing in the legal profession. Most people think of lawyers as standing in a courtroom and arguing to a jury, like Atticus Finch or Perry Mason. Trial lawyers actually represent a small percentage of the lawyering that is done in the US. I was very fortunate after I graduated to land some great attorney jobs that have allowed me to make a living writing. Even though we have our own quirky language and set of rules, it’s not much different from writing fiction than you might think.

I got back into creative writing last year after reading Stephen King’s On Writing. As I read his book, I kept saying to myself, yeah, yeah, I can relate, I know where you’re coming from. I realized I had so many things already in place from my legal writing that I felt it was time to get some of my stories back out there. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, that book changed my life. I highly recommend it to anyone who writes or is thinking about writing.

stephen king - on writing

What are your happiest memories in your writing career?

Some of the first writing awards I received were for briefing in moot court competitions. Those were rewarding experiences because writing was one of the reasons I got into law in the first place. I was, of course, very happy the first time an opinion I wrote as an attorney was published.

On the creative front, one happy memory really stands out. The second story I wrote after my return was about, of all things, a snowball fight. It had a positive message and I was proud of it. I gave it to my wife to read, and when she brought it back to me she had tears in her eyes. Sure, seeing your wife cry isn’t really a happy memory, but I was pleased that the story had such a strong impact. We still talk about that story. I submitted it a couple times and it was soundly rejected, but it still remains one of our favorites. I might submit it again someday, or perhaps just keep the story for myself.

Since then I’ve been fortunate to have some of my work picked up, and long/shortlisted or place in a few competitions. I have a story from one of the competitions that will be included in an upcoming print anthology. I don’t submit very much, so those are obviously very happy memories that I hold onto.

How do you handle success and failure?

For me, it’s very simple. If you’re having fun doing what you’re doing—whether it’s writing or anything else in life—you’re succeeding. I think you have to look at it that way. If you can honestly say, I had fun writing that piece, or I had fun taking part in that competition, or whatever your current writing pursuits are, I think you are succeeding. If you’re having fun doing what you’re doing, there’s no way to fail.

Another way I look at it comes from a federal judge I used to write for. She told me, “There are only two types of writers: bad writers, and writers who are trying to get better.” So I guess my answer is twofold. If you’re having fun, and you’re trying to get better, there is no failure.

What is your advice to young and new writers?

A lot of writers give this advice, but it’s so important I’ll repeat it here. You have to read, a lot, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing. The answers are all there. The blueprints have already been made. You just have read and uncover them, and from that create work that is your own.

Develop editorial checks and balances for yourself. For me, this includes having a second set of eyes look over almost everything I write. Many of us don’t have a team of beta readers to test out our work. But I think you should have someone, even if it’s just one person, look over what you’ve done. I’m fortunate to have my wife do that for me for my creative writing. For my legal writing, fellow lawyers or judges perform that function. The other thing that helps me is setting down my work for a while. You’ll be shocked at what you find when you revisit your work weeks or months later. I hear stories of writers who crank something out the night before a competition and win. Good for them. Most of us aren’t that special and aren’t that talented. I know I’m not.

Get a rule book—doesn’t matter which one. Don’t treat it solely as a reference though, read it cover to cover. The fun thing about creative writing is we’re allowed to break the rules. But how can you take credit for cleverly breaking a rule if you didn’t know it existed in the first place? Like a lot of other writers, I recommend Strunk & White, especially the version illustrated by Maira Kalman. Not many people truly enjoy reading grammar or writing books during their free time, but this one is short and the illustrations make it fun. Plus, it has stood the test of time.

elements of style

That being said, you don’t have to become a grammarian. I know I’m not anything close to that. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s why you have a second set of eyes look over your stuff. That’s what editors are for. We all make mistakes and, hopefully, we’re all trying to get better.

Are you a traditionalist or a digital? (paper or eBook)

I read paper books almost exclusively. But I recognize there are definite advantages to digital publications. I experienced one such advantage a few months ago. An editor accepted my story but suggested I take out a couple words. I was concerned about those words before I had submitted, so I quickly acquiesced to the change. However, the original version was inadvertently published online. When the story went live, I emailed the editor and it was fixed in a few seconds. You don’t get a second shot like that with print. That experience really opened my mind to the benefits of digital publication.

Do you self-publish?

I don’t. This kind of goes back to my second-set-of-eyes comment earlier. I like to have someone else, an editor or editors, endorse my work by accepting it for publication. It’s just another part of my checks and balances.

How did you gain a publisher?

I don’t have one yet, and I haven’t looked. I’m having fun with flash writing right now, and being published by the journals that have accepted my work. I don’t know if I’ll ever write that Dune-like novel I envisioned as a kid, but if I do, I will be on the hunt for a publisher.

Why did you start your website?

I’m going to date myself again with this answer. I put together a website in the early 90s at the University of Washington. This was back when it took a whole day to set up a screeching modem connection through your phone line. I wrote my own HTML for the website and had a lot of fun with it. But I let it expire when I graduated, and, for the most part, I have not developed an internet presence since then for a variety of reasons.

Earlier this year, I received the email by Jane Friedman that was sent to everyone who subscribes to the Writer’s Digest newsletter. She outlined three very simple things you can do, for free or low cost, to develop a writer platform. I knew things were very user-friendly now compared to when I had my last website, but I wanted to see for myself how easy it really was. I followed her advice and set up a rudimentary website in just a few minutes. I don’t have a lot going on there, but that’s kind of what I like about it. Check it out and feel free to send me your thoughts on it, anything I’ve talked about here, or just to say hello.



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