by C.J. Darlington
Randy Singer Interview
"I've spent so much of my life trying to change things that are out of my control. I'm starting to sense the freedom of letting God take care of that, and only working on the things He's given me to do." -- Randy Singer
Randy Singer is a critically acclaimed author and veteran trial attorney. He has penned seven legal thrillers, including the award-winning debut novel Directed Verdict. In addition to his law practice and writing, Randy serves as a teaching pastor for Trinity Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He calls it his “Jekyll and Hyde thing”—part lawyer, part pastor. He also teaches law at Regent University and serves on the board of legal advisors for the American Center for Law and Justice. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Virginia Beach. They have two grown children.
C.J.: What are some of your earliest memories of reading? What books had the most influence on you as you were growing up?
Randy: I wasn't a great reader growing up. I was more interested in sports and outside activities. Almost every author I know except for me has these great memories of going off to a library or some place in their backyard and getting involved in a book. The only books I read growing up were sports books. As a little kid I loved detective stories, but I came across a love of reading later in life. I don't know of any other author who has said, “I really wasn't that fond of books as a kid.” (laughs) But that's actually the truth for me.
In our last interview, you mentioned that a good trial lawyer is a good story teller. Were you trained in story telling as a lawyer? Or did it come naturally?
I was trained in good story telling, but I didn't realize that was what I was being trained in. I thought I was being trained to try a case and be a good lawyer. All of the principles I learned about how to give an effective opening statement (which is just a story about what's going to happen in the case) are really principles of great story telling. I just didn't conceptualize it that way at the time. The funny thing is that a lot of lay people think lawyers get trained in advocacy, but the truth is that law school teaches you how to “think like a lawyer”. Really you're just reading old cases and learning the law, and you learn how to try cases once you're out of law school from the school of hard knocks. I had a wonderful mentor named Palmer Rutherford, who was a senior trial lawyer at the firm I started with. He took me under his wing, and he showed me how to try a case. Looking back I now realize that everything he was teaching me was great story telling.
Two examples of what I learned: Don't take that precious time at the very beginning of your opening statement and waste it with a bunch of introductory comments. You hear lawyers do this all the time, “Hi, I'm Randy Singer. I represent the defendant. This is an opening statement. Blah, blah, blah.” That's what a lot of writers do. They put in a lot of back story at the very beginning, and it bores readers to death. So Palmer's point was to jump right into the middle of the story and tell them what they care about. If I were giving an opening statement for my novel The Justice Game I would say “This is a case about a tragic shooting at a television station.” I'd start right in the middle of the action, because that's what good story tellers do.
The second thing is that the power of a case, the authenticity of a witness, is found in the details. What Palmer taught me about an opening statement was don't tell the jury general facts, show them. Take the jury there. I even used that in one of my books. One of my lawyers is saying to himself that a good lawyer will tell the jury what happens, but a great lawyer will take them there. I think that's true of a great story teller too. You engage all the senses, and the power of the scene is found in the details that resonate with people. They’ll say things like, “Yeah, that's what that smells like. That's what that feels like. That's what that looks like.” Those are the kinds of things I learned in trial work.
And I learned to always save a few surprises, especially for cross examination. (laughs) Readers love surprises. One of the things that makes for a good surprise is to subtly lead a witness or a reader down one path, but not so obviously leading them that they know what you're doing. They have to work to figure it out. And then when they figure it out they are already going down the path you want them to go down. That's when you spring the surprise. That's what I learned in Cross Examination.
The Justice Game is different from some of your other works in that it's based on real life events. Could you share with us the evolution of this novel?
It was actually three streams that kind of merged together. One has to do with the issue at stake in the litigation—the issue of gun rights. There is a lot of discussion these days about gun rights. People have some pretty firm opinions one way or the other. I wanted to write a book so balanced that both sides would look at it and say, “That fairly represents our case.” I wanted to do it through a lens of faith, through a Christian lens, because a lot of times Christians have some pretty firm views one way or the other, but they never really thought of it from a Christian world view perspective---how do those two things intersect? I was excited The Justice Game got an endorsement from the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, The Brady Center, and also from Alan Gura, the lawyer who represented the gun owner in the most important second amendment case to be argued before the Supreme Court. I was able to get endorsements from both sides.
The second stream was purely a character development issue, or heart issue, the notion of how so many of us live with junk from our past we try to keep hidden from people, and how that ends up keeping us from being all that we can be in the present. We're living this lie. Rick Warren made a statement: “Courage comes when you have nothing left to hide.” The idea is that a lot of us don't engage because we know we've got some skeletons in our closet. If people found out about them it would embarrass us, and because of that we don't get into the fray. I've created a book in which the lawyers on both sides are being blackmailed and having their pasts used against them.
The third stream came from a time when I was just sitting in a legal seminar learning about the cutting edge techniques for what we call shadow juries. If you're trying a big, important case nowadays a lot of times you'll panel a group of citizens from the area where you're trying the case, who share the same characterizations as real juries. So every night you can get real time feedback. Even though you can't talk to the actual jury you can talk to the folks who are like the actual jury. What did they think of your witness? What did they think of your opening? What did they think of this piece of evidence? I parked that in my mental parking lot, and in doing some reading I learned how in a political campaign pollsters can predict, just based on your life choices, which way you're going to vote. So depending on what kind of car you drive, where you shop, what magazines you read---these consumer profiles they obtain based on your digital profile---can tell which way you're going to vote. That allows political candidates to target people with these telephone calls and mailings who are more likely to vote for them.
So I thought, “Wow. What a fascinating thing. Could there be a company that predicts the outcome of an actual trial?” By building a shadow jury that actually mirrors the real jury, and trying the case on an accelerated basis, they could know a week or so ahead how the trial is going to come out. If somebody could accurately predict the outcome of trials they could make billions of dollars in the stock market. These three ideas merged together in this book The Justice Game.
So mock juries like you described really do exist?
I tell people no, but after the book comes out they will. (Laughs.) It's a good idea! There are jury consulting companies whose job is to help lawyers do this. They will set up a shadow jury for you and mirror what's going on in the real courtroom with the shadow jury and give you the feedback. There are companies that do that, but there are no companies that take it to the next level and predict the outcome of cases, warning stock brokers how they should invest based on that. Not that there would be anything illegal about it, by the way. It's just good stock research. It's public information. But it would be very expensive.
Was it harder to write something that is personal (because of the experience you had with the shooting at the school years ago), rather than something that is purely fiction?
I thought it was going to be, but it was actually easier to write it. The emotions that the real life experience conjures up translate into the story, and you don't have to wonder what Kelly Starling would be thinking or going through. Or what would Jason Noble, the defense lawyer would be thinking. Because I've been in that trial. I've had that media exposure. I've had the emotions of the gun issue. I think that's why they say writers should write what they know. But it was harder in some ways because a friend and a really good teacher lost her life. That's a very sad chapter of my life, and of the school. It's harder because the emotions that it does bring up are melancholy and sad. You hate to relive anything that's been that emotionally traumatic. But I think it makes for a better book if you're willing to go there because you don't have to manufacture what the emotions might be like.
You've previously mentioned a character named Jason Noble was to be the main character in another book you were writing at the time. Did you take Jason Noble as a character from a different story?
Yes, I did. My thinking on the genesis for his character is that people who do really good trial work are a lot like actors and actresses and public speakers. Outsiders thin, “Wow, that person must be really outgoing and really good with people and relationships.” But the truth is that a lot of people who perform publicly, whether they're a trial lawyer, an actor, a preacher, they are very quiet private people who at a party would just withdraw into a corner with their stomach churning. They don't like those kinds of events. Jason Noble was a character who developed out of that kind of personality, someone who is a really gifted trial lawyer but doesn't fit the stereotype that we have outside of the courtroom.
Another very cool aspect of this novel is that invited the public to vote on the ending. Who's idea was that and how was it received?
It was my idea, and it was very well received. I've had a lot of feedback. It's been amazing to me the number of people who voted and the intensity with which they studied the issue. I had a 4 minute video online because I thought to myself, “If I can get people to give 4 minutes that's really doing something.” And I also had the closing statements of each lawyer on the website. I had a lot of people read that, and I got emails from people who had additional questions. A lot of it depends on your personality and how comfortable you are making snap judgments. One of the neatest experiences for me was that I started this whole polling process with a group of independent Christian bookstore owners I spoke to. I showed them the video. They loved it, they gave me feedback, and they voted. The voting was very balanced. I knew that based on the reaction of that crowd it was going to be a big hit. Then the last group I had was a group of lawyers and judges, probably about 80-100. I showed them the video, and I had them vote. When I counted the votes they were split right down the middle, except that it was an odd number so one side had one more vote than the other. That's when I realized, “That's just what I was hoping for.” The arguments were so even. I was really excited about that aspect of it.
You had to write two endings because of this? Did you enjoy doing that?
No, and I cheated on it a little bit. (laughs) I plotted out both endings, but I really put most of my time into the ending that was ahead. I knew that if we needed to switch it out we could use the other ending, but we'd have to fine tune the editing of it. We never really edited two endings. The ending that started ahead stayed ahead, even though it was like 60/40; I think it was 63% to 37%. Fortunately for all of us that one ended up winning. Otherwise I would have been scrambling to insert the other ending. (laughs)
Did you have an end you were personally hoping would win?
No, I didn't. I was happy to go either way. What happens in the story is that the verdict itself becomes less important and more about what's going on in the lives of the characters. To me the ending is more about the characters than which way the verdict prevails. That's why I was willing to do this. I didn't feel like I was surrendering my creative control over the story.
As you were writing the story how did you manage to keep that balance between both sides?
I thought I knew it all, but I did so much research. I sent the manuscript to some friends who are very active in gun control issues and some friends who are very active in the NRA. We went through detail by detail, sentence by sentence, to make sure that the arguments of the attorney for the gun manufacturer accurately reflected the kinds of arguments they would make. I did that on both sides. I think it really helped it. The way you know you're balanced is this - the people who are big, big gun rights enthusiasts will say they think I favored the other side. And the people who really want gun control will say they think I favored the gun rights side. You know it's a good balance if both sides are mad. (laughs) I really worked hard to make sure that people who felt strongly about this issue read through it. I told them that the whole book wouldn't reflect their point of view, but I wanted to make sure the characters on their side reflected their point of view. I wanted compelling characters on both sides.
Your character Melissa Davids was very colorful. How did you create her?
Melissa Davids is the CEO of the gun company. I tried to bust through some stereotypes with her. First of all, she's female. Secondly, she comes across on the surface as very cold, hard, matter of fact. But as the story unfolds you see she's got another side. She is very colorful. I needed somebody who's willing to put it out there the way I think the CEO of a gun company would. I wanted that to come from someone who's not Charlton Heston, a diminutive woman with a strong personality. It throws us off balance a little bit.
How do you decide which book to write next?
If there's a book burning inside me I'm always going to write that one next. I've got to love the book, because I'm going to spend a year with it. I don't put my finger up into the wind and say, “What's the market doing now?” It's more like, “This is the story I've got to write.” I love these characters, I like the subject matter, I want to learn more about this. That's my first criteria. But sometimes I'll have a couple ideas. This happened to me for the book I'm working on now. I had two ideas, and I liked them both. I had passion for the characters in both. If I don't have one that's just clearly at the top of my list I involve my publisher in the process of helping me choose which one to write. I put out a brief synopsis on a Facebook fan page, and they gave me some feedback. That was very helpful.
Here's a sneak peak: The next book started with this thought - What makes To Kill a Mockingbird such a classic legal thriller? It's that Atticus Finch represented someone who no one else was willing to represent at the time. He was willing to do the highest duty---to represent the least popular person among us. I asked myself, “What does that look like in today's society?” Representing someone who was accused of terrorism and fostering some sort of fundamentalist Islamist act. I've noticed that worldwide there seems to be an increase in honor killings. My next book features a young Christian lawyer who is assigned to represent a muslim cleric accused of being a ring leader in honor killings that are happening in the United States. It gives a very natural platform from which to explore these two religions. Another twist? The young lawyer is also, like me, a part time preacher. He has all the dynamics of a church to deal with in addition to defending this very controversial case.
Do you have that all outlined, including how it's going to end?
I do. The title of the book is License to Kill because the allegation is that the cleric wasn't doing the killings, but they are tied back to people in this mosque, and he was instigating them. I had a very detailed outline, several pages long. I like to have it all outlined when I start. But then once I start it often veers down different trails. But at least with an outline I feel like I'm moving towards something. It allows my writing to be a little tighter than if I was just rambling. I sometimes spend months outlining the plot before I start writing.
What is your biggest struggle as a writer?
Right now it's just time. I don't really have writer's block. I love to write. There are just so many things in life - I'm preaching in a church, and I'm practicing law. The problem is that there is a crisis everyday in both of them. (laughs) The writing is something where you have a deadline, but it's out there. Sometimes it's easier to put that off as you're dealing with the fires you're putting out. Then suddenly you see that you're really behind. The hardest thing for me in writing is just finding the time. I'm not a fast writer; I'm not particularly slow, but I'm probably medium speedwise, and I just need time to write a good book. The Justice Game is about 120,000 words. I never worry too much about work count. But my books do end up being longer than most.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Sesame seed bagel, not toasted, no cream cheese. Which is one bagel more than I usually eat. I usually skip breakfast. And coffee is my favorite part of the day.
You're stranded on a desert island and can only bring three things. What are you packing?
My Bible. My wife. And I'm going to bring a really good carpenter. Maybe he can build a boat to get me off!
Where can we find you on a Friday night?
It varies. You can probably find me at the ocean. I love Virginia Beach, the strip called Atlantic Ave. They have these street performers on every corner. I love going down and watching the people and listening to the music. Or sometimes I’m in a movie theater. During high school basketball season, you'll definitely find me at a high school basketball game.
The Purple Cow Diner in The Justice Game, is that a real place?
My friend owned The Purple Cow, but as I was finishing with the book it closed down. We decided not to change it since it was such a fun place in Virginia Beach life. I do try and incorporate real places and make my books as authentic as possible. I always try to tell readers about it. The facts and data that I recite in the lawyer's arguments are true. I want my readers to be able to rely on my books for authentic, real facts, unless I indicate otherwise.
Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
I would love to get feedback from readers who took the poll. Once they read the book, did that impact the way they read this book and looked forward to the story? I'm trying to decide whether to do this again. Whether it was a fun interactive part for readers, or whether it's not that big of a deal. 'Cause it's a lot of work, but if it helps readers to become more a part of the story I'd like to know that. The downside may be a lot of us love reading a book because we create the visuals in our own imagination. Sometimes when we come out with a trailer before the book comes out it takes a little bit of that away from the readers, because you're always going to imagine the characters like the actors in the trailer. I did pick the actors though.
How do you stay strong spiritually to be able to give of yourself in your writing and minister to others?
You could ask the exact same question about my preaching, too. That same
issue comes up. The first thing I try to do every day is to get into God's
Word just for myself. Not for the message I'm preparing. Not for the book
I'm writing. Just for myself. What is God saying to me? Then I write down
my prayer requests for that day. Starting the day with God is the first
thing. The second thing is total dependence on Him. Every day I'll begin
something that's way beyond my meager ability. I have to rely on God. The
third thing is that this past year I have really started embracing the
notion of God's will. Your kingdom come, Your will be done. It has allowed
me to not worry about the things I can't control. I've spent so much of
my life trying to change things that are out of my control. I'm starting
to sense the freedom of letting God take care of that, and only working
on the things He's given me to do. So much of writing is like that. All
we can do is write a good story. And then we have to release the book and
move on to the next one.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.