Share article:

Robert Dugoni

Best-selling author

Past affiliations include associate Gordon & Rees


BA Stanford University

42 rejections to breakout novelist

dugoni photo

On learning how to write a novel

On his first book being rejected 42 times and then…

On how lawyers can plan to be productive as writers

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

ex judicata:  Good morning.I wanted to talk to you about going from practicing law to becoming an author.  I’d like to hear your story and share your advice with lawyers who might be thinking about a writing career.  In listening to another interview you did, I learned that you are a writer—turned lawyer—turned writer again.  Would you start by telling me about how you got into writing?

Robert Dugoni:  My mother was an English teacher before she started having 10 kids. She began handing me books to read when I was in grammar school because I was getting in a lot of trouble, and I had a teacher that thought I was bored.  The books my mom was handing me were ones like “The Great Gatsby,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” I really fell in love with stories and found them thrilling. So, I was very lucky because I knew very early on what I wanted to do. I followed that career path through high school and college, and then got a job with the L.A. Times.

ex judicata:  So, it sounds like you started out in a career you would love. What made you change that path and become a lawyer?

Robert Dugoni:  I really chickened out because I didn’t want to get sent to the middle of the country to some small little newspaper. I was already in San Gabriel Valley in LA where I didn’t know anybody. I was 21 years old. I didn’t know a soul. I was working in an office where everyone was older. So, I thought about what to do. My mother always said, “Get as much education as you can.” I had enough credits and everything I needed to go to law school. So, I took the LSAT and went to law school.  I went with my buddies, and it was like a three-year reprieve before I had to become an adult, you know?

ex judicata: Sure, I get that.  Where did you go to law school?

Robert Dugoni: UCLA. But I knew right away I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Still, they tell you to put on a suit and go interview for a summer job. They pay a boatload of money because they’re trying to recruit you. Then, after you graduate, they’re paying you a boatload of money to come work for them. It was just hard to get off that treadmill.

ex judicata: Which firm did you work for and what kind of law did you practice?

Robert Dugoni:  I practiced in San Francisco at Gordon and Rees, and I was a civil litigation defense attorney.  One of the reasons I stayed as long as I did is I loved the people there.  In a lot of ways, it was an extension of college and law school.  There were a lot of young people, a lot of shooting from the hip. I had a lot of responsibility. We’d go out to lunch, talk sports, and we’d play on softball teams.   I really enjoyed the people.

ex judicata: But then you left law practice. Why?

Robert Dugoni: You have these epiphanies in your life where you suddenly wake up and you think, I’m not getting any younger. People say, “Wow, that took a lot of courage to do what you did.”  But it really wasn’t courage. It was fear. I remember moments in the morning when I would just be standing at the bathroom counter looking at my mirror image and saying, “What are you doing? This is not what you wanted to do with your life. Why are you doing this?”

ex judicata: That’s a scary thought. Change can be very difficult, but it’s your life and you ought to be happy.

Robert Dugoni:  Law is such a difficult profession, especially litigation. There’s so much confrontation and I think it’s a profession that you really have to love. You have to love confrontation. You must love the game, the fight.  I have cousins who are very good lawyers, but they’re also very good chess players.  They see trials as a chess game. They don’t see it as confrontation as much as it’s a game, right?  And they love the game.

ex judicata: So how did you get the guts to make the change?  I get the idea that we don’t want to do something we’re not happy with, but writing is one of the toughest things to do.

Robert Dugoni:  I was incredibly naive and incredibly egotistic. I figured that I wrote for the L.A. Times, so how hard could it be to write a novel?  I know how to write. I’ve been writing my whole life.  Well, I got kicked in the teeth because I realized it’s very hard to write a novel.

ex judicata: So what did you do?

Robert Dugoni:  When one door closes, another door opens.  And when that door closed, what I learned and what I realized was far more important.  You need to learn how to write a novel.  I figured there had to be books out here on the craft.  So, I started joining writers’ organizations, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and some other organizations. I started talking to people and I found out there were indeed books on the craft and about how stories are told and how they unfold.  Also, I was no dummy.  Anybody that goes through law school and is able to practice law for as long as I did has to have some chops.You know how to do research and that’s what I did.  I basically gave myself a practical MFA on how to write genre fiction and how to write commercial novels. Once I did that, I started having success.

Robert Dugoni: So, the rejection is not unlike law in that you go to law school and then you come out and suddenly your partner hands you a pleading and says, “We need a motion.” You write your first motion, and you think, oh, I know how to do this. Well, you don’t. And your partner scribbles the hell out of it and says, “No judge wants to read all this crap. You get to the point, get it done, and get out.”  So, just like in law, writing is a learning process. You need to go through that process. You need to learn.

ex judicata: So you took courses and read up on the craft. That takes time. How did you prepare yourself financially?  A big law firm paycheck is a lot to give up.

Robert Dugoni:  I was lucky that I didn’t get married right away after graduating college. I didn’t have a family that I was trying to provide for and I didn’t have to worry about all those things and decisions that make up our lives.  I was married and I had a son when I finally ended up leaving the practice of law.  But my wife was also a lawyer with a good income. So, I had some safety nets underneath me in case I fell.

ex judicata: Did you try writing a novel before you left law practice?  Most consider doing that before taking the plunge and leaving that big paycheck behind.

Robert Dugoni:  I always thought I’d try to write but trying to write while practicing law is ridiculous. You don’t have time.  But I was very lucky. I lived very modestly. Even after we got married, we lived very modestly.  So we had a cushion.  Also, my wife wanted to live in Seattle, which is where she’s from.  And my son was the oldest grandchild on her side of the family.  On my side of the family, he’s like number 15.

Her grandmother remarried late in life, moved out of her home, but she kept her home in Seattle and moved into another one.  So, we had a home we could live in. She wouldn’t let us pay rent.  She absolutely forbid it. So instead of paying rent, I fixed the house up. Not having to pay rent was a blessing.

ex judicata: That’s huge. You mentioned before that you got kicked in the teeth.  Authors face so much rejection.  How did you cope?

Robert Dugoni:  I was still failing three or four years out and not making any income. Again, I was very fortunate.  I went to a writers’ group and a woman in that writers’ group remembered me from a wedding we had both been to.  She said, “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?  Don’t you do construction law?” She asked if I wanted to work part-time. She said that her firm had a big case and could use part-time help.  So, I started working three days a week as a lawyer for her.  I did that for about 10 years until 2013.

That part-time work gave me the opportunity to have an income and really focus on my writing. It was hard. I was working seven days a week. I was missing a lot of things. But as I always tell my kids, “Do you want to work hard now, or do you want to work hard 40 years from now?”  I had some opportunities that a lot of people don’t have.  I recognize that, and I’m very grateful and thankful for those opportunities.

ex judicata: There’s a lot that has to fall into place to make it happen.  I think about all the rejection authors face.  How did you go about getting published? Did you have an agent?  Did you market the book yourself? Did you consider self-publishing at all?

Robert Dugoni:  Well, agents are part of the rejection process because everybody’s trying to get an agent and agents are very selective.  I got 42 rejections from agents for my first novel.  When you start out, you just don’t have credentials. They would give me reads because they saw I graduated from Stanford, and I was a lawyer. Grisham and Turow were big at that time.  But you’re only as good as what’s down on paper.

I received a lot of rejection. But then when opportunities strike you have to be prepared. Because I had studied the craft, I was prepared.  I met this EPA agent with a story to tell.  And I wrote a proposal called “The Cyanide Canary” about a kid that gets in a tragic situation up in Silver Springs, Idaho.  It was right up my alley.   It was journalism. It was law. It was exactly what I did.  And we wrote this book and sent it to 10 agents and all 10 wanted it.

ex judicata:  Wow. That’s incredible. You really created a path for yourself, studying the craft, finding the right story, and not giving up in the face of failure.  So that was the real start of your success.  Tell me about that.

Robert Dugoni: One of those agents is the agent I’m still with. They loved the book so much that they asked what else I had.  So I said, “Well, I have these other novels I’ve been working on.” They asked to read them.  I said, “Let me work on them for a little bit.” But they said, “No, just let us read them.”  So, they read that first book that had been rejected 42 times, and they called me up and said, “This is brilliant. This is a brilliant novel.”

ex judicata: Yeah, go figure. Just like that, they loved it?

Robert Dugoni:  I had changed that first novel over time because I had learned how to tell a story. But again, I had credentials.  I had something that they could look at and say this guy can write.

ex judicata:  Lawyers should know how to write but having a journalism background gave you a great skill set.  As a litigator and journalist, you have to be able to tell a story. That’s so important in presenting a case to a jury.  Do you think that your background as a lawyer really helped you in any particular way as a writer?

Robert Dugoni: Oh, yeah. It taught me how to work.  I put out 25 books with a large majority of those books published since 2013.  People always ask me, “How do you put out so many novels? How do you write so quickly?”  Well, I go to work every day. I’m at my desk six, seven hours a day at least.  The only thing I do now, a benefit I’ve given myself after so many years, is I golf in the afternoons with friends.  But I’m a working writer.  Law taught me to work hard and that’s what lawyers know how to do.

ex judicata: That’s very true. I remember you mentioning at my book club that you read an article about a guy with ocular albinism and that it just resonated with you and that led to the idea for the story for your novel “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.”  Where do you look for ideas? How do you go about it?

Robert Dugoni:  I don’t look so much because the stories just seem to appear. I was kind of thinking about my next Tracy Crosswhite book.  I happened to have some time one afternoon, so I was looking through an old scrapbook that my wife had about her grandfather, who was a very prominent lawyer in Seattle.  One of his first cases was a trial in 1933 involving an underworld figure.  So, I just started reading.  It was absolutely fascinating. It was clearly a story that should be told. Then I started doing research on Seattle in 1933, and I got maps and all those things.

I put together a story I thought I was going to write. It was going to be from the perspective of the defending lawyer. Then the minute I started something, there was that little voice in my head saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!  This is not the story you want to tell.  You want to tell the story from the perspective of a young, naïve reporter that comes out from Kansas City in the middle of the Depression.”  I started to build the story from that reporter’s perspective.  I saw the story and I saw the character and I knew how I was going to tell the story.  As Kristin Hannah once said to me, “Sometimes great stories just fall in our laps and our job is to get out of the way.”

ex judicata: I actually remember reading that she said that. It’s an amazing thought.  What do you find the most challenging aspect of writing?

Robert Dugoni:  Oh, I would probably say the rewriting.  I love rewriting because that’s when the story really begins to take shape, but there’s a lot you must cut to focus in on your story. You have to kill those scenes that don’t add to the story.  Sometimes you have to kill characters that you love.

ex judicata: Do you ever take those characters you had to keep out of a story and create a new story for them?

Robert Dugoni:  Oh, yeah, I do. I keep a file with all my edits every time I write a book because you never know when a character is going to come back or when a scene might come back. So, I never throw anything out.

ex judicata: You mentioned some skills lawyers have that make them good writers. Can you think of some others?   

Robert Dugoni:   Lawyers learn about building a case and paring it down to come up with one coherent theme. Everything else gets thrown away.   During the discovery process, you’re just taking everything in, right?  Then you pare it down to present your case to the jury.  You want the jury to be focused on the one issue that you believe is critical to the case.  Law taught me to focus on the story you’re telling, to get rid of all the extraneous stuff.

ex judicata: That’s right. You want to avoid the red herrings and build the strongest case and make your strongest arguments. That’s a skill that should be helpful in writing. I’m thinking back to how fortunate you were to be able to stop practicing law and become a writer.  

What’s your advice for those who simply can’t quit?  Clearly, saving up to create a financial cushion is very important.  What else can practicing lawyers do to position themselves to become writers?

Robert Dugoni:  I think lawyers who want to write novels and don’t have the luxury to just walk away or take a sabbatical, have to be realistic and recognize that now is not the right time.  They can’t focus on writing now, but they can learn and read books on the craft.”  Read Christopher Vogler’s book, “The Writer’s Journey.”  Read Saul Stein’s book “On Writing.”  Read Donald Moss’s book, “Writing the Breakout Novel.” Stephen James, “Story Trumps Structure.”

They can prepare so that when they do get that opportunity, when their kid goes off to college and they have more time, or when they decide they’re in a place where they can take a sabbatical, they can hit the ground running with all that knowledge.  They’ll know how to tell a story so their time will be productive, and they’ll be one step ahead of where I was in terms of trying to get an agent or a publisher or whatever their ultimate goal is.

ex judicata:  Also, before reaching out to an agent, it’s important to do some research to be sure you’re sending the type of work the agent will be interested in.  So, tell me what do you love most about writing?

Robert Dugoni: I just love telling the story.  And the minute I’m done with one story,  I’m ready to tell the next.  There are certain stories that are special to me, like “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell,” but it’s discovering the next story and the next great character and making that character and the story come to life that to me is really the most beautiful thing about writing.

ex judicata: Someone once said what makes a great story is when readers can see either themselves or someone they know in a character.

Robert Dugoni:  Well, exactly. As a writer, you don’t necessarily want to be injecting yourself into the story, but you want to make a character who is empathetic, so readers can stand in that character’s shoes because they’ve either been through something similar or can relate.

ex judicata: You did that so well in “While the World Played Chess.”

RS:  Thank you.  I got an email just this morning about that book.  So many Vietnam veterans have emailed me to say they were there and that I captured it exactly the way it was.  One said it was very hard for him to read the book because it was very hard to go back, but it was also very cathartic. They stood in the shoes of William and my other characters there who lived that experience. It’s extremely gratifying when you can reach people on that level.

ex judicata:  Well, your character Vincent in that novel, and I are all contemporaries, so I related quite well to him.  I had a P.O.W. bracelet and my guy did not come home.  I still have that bracelet and I could really relate to and understand exactly where Vincent was at that point.  I saw the veterans coming home and how broken people were. It was really horrible.  You did a great job of connecting people with your characters and making people sensitive and feel empathy.

Robert Dugoni: Thanks.

ex judicata:  What else should lawyers know before leaving law to write?  What do you wish you knew when you made the change?

Robert Dugoni: Lawyers know how to write a legal brief because they learned that in law school and then they learn it from their law firm’s partners.

You know how to write a college essay because you learn that in school. Your professors make it clear if you don’t.  There’s a structure to writing a novel. You need to learn the craft.  Creative people also need structure.  Read the biography on Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, the greatest artists who ever lived. They were incredibly structured. They did extensive research and studied. Michelangelo didn’t just create the David by walking up to a piece of stone and tapping on it.  He studied and studied and studied until he knew everything about the human body that he needed to know.

ex judicata:  Absolutely. Both studied anatomy.

Robert Dugoni: Yes, and they studied their craft.

ex judicata: What advice do you have when it comes to rejection?  I don’t know how you toughen up to the rejections.

Robert Dugoni:  As a lawyer, you get kicked in the teeth a lot by opposing counsel, judges, arbitrators, and clients. You steel yourself.  Rejection is part of writing.  It’s also a lot like baseball, which I’ve always loved.  You fail seven out of 10 times, but it’s those three out of 10 times that really count.  Perseverance is a big part of it.  But I think you said it best and I always say it too, you need to be positioned well.  And I would also say that when an opportunity presents itself, you have to kick the door down and step through because you may not get multiple opportunities. You may only get one and you need to be prepared. If you’re not, you’ll miss that chance and that’ll be nobody’s fault but yours.

ex judicata:  I’m very excited about something that I heard recently. They’re making your novel “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell” into a movie! Tell me about that.

Robert Dugoni: Well, they’re working on it. There’s an incredibly well-credentialed woman and a screenwriter that’s also incredibly well-credentialed.  I spoke to them probably about six months ago.  They were in the process of putting together the screenplay.  Once that’s written, they’ll try to find a studio and director and all that kind of stuff.  So it’s out there and it’s happening, but it’s not what I focus on because it’s one of those things that might happen.  The woman who bought the rights seems like a terrific person.  I hope that she can make it happen because I would love to see Sam come to life and I hope that she will do it in a way that is true and honest to the book.

ex judicata:  Yeah, I know what you mean.  I think about Patterson and Morgan Freeman playing the Alex Cross character when Patterson clearly had Denzel Washington in mind when he created the Cross character.

Anyway, you’ve given me a lot here and I really appreciate all of your insights and great advice.  Is there anything else you’d want to add for lawyers who want to become authors?

Robert Dugoni:  Life is short.  When you get to be my age, in your early sixties, you really begin to realize that life really does pass in the blink of an eye.  We get one opportunity to do this so do it to the best of your abilities. Take chances because you don’t want to look back on your life with regrets.

ex judicata: That’s so true. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. It was great to see you again.

Share article: