"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

How I Got to Write for Hollywood: The Plot of a Lawyer’s Life Has Many Twists and Turns

by Royce Buckingham

Do our artistic pursuits outside the law get stifled by our intense legal careers? It’s a question a lot of us ask. Here’s one perspective from a guy (me) who has tried to make a go of both, for what it’s worth.

I didn’t always plan to be a lawyer. Growing up in the ,70s in Richland, Washington, I dreamed of making up fantasy stories. I loved Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Hobbit. I collected comic books. I saw Jaws at nine years old, then Star Wars at 11 and Alien at 13. I was even a “Dungeons & Dragons” nerd and created my own imaginary worlds.

By the late ,80s, I had earned an English degree from Whitman College and began tinkering with creative writing. However, I felt that I should pursue a “real career” and wound up at the University of Oregon School of Law.

During law school, I scribbled short stories in my “spare time,” and, in my third year, I got a call from San Jose State University’s literary magazine. They wanted to publish one of my stories. Hooray! But I needed a real career, so I stuffed that story in a drawer and got a great job at the prosecutor’s office in Bellingham.

In 1993, I began putting bad guys in jail and submitting fantasy stories to tiny magazines in my elusive “spare time.” Soon I’d collected more than 100 rejection letters. Undaunted, I sat down and wrote a novel. It took over a year of my life, and nobody wanted it. Okay, that was daunting. But about this time, I discovered screenplays. I loved the form — it was very direct, like me.

Then Demonkeeper happened. Demonkeeper was a story inspired by a street kid I used to prosecute in juvenile court. I imagined life on the streets as a monster that would eat him up, as it does so many lost children. The Demonkeeper script married my love of fantasy with themes I was seeing in the courtroom every day. It won competitions, and, by 1999, I was trying to sell my stories to Hollywood.

Over the next five years, I had children of my own and moved into adult felony prosecutions. My wife worked full-time too. I stayed up nights — typically until two a.m. — either writing like crazy or preparing for jury trials. This … was a problem. I even fell asleep at my desk once, sitting up. And though I won amateur competitions, I couldn’t break in professionally. By now I’d been doing it over 10 years, and I felt like I was chasing a silly dream. In 2004, with my career and family obligations weighing on me, I resolved to quit writing fiction and concentrate on real life.

That same week, Micro¬soft e-mailed me. They offered me a job writing a fantasy story for an Xbox video game. I impulsively left my legal career and wrote Microsoft an incredible story. A few months later, Microsoft cancelled the project, and I came crawling back to the prosecutor’s office to beg for my real job back. My boss was gracious about it, so long as I promised not to fall asleep at my desk anymore.

This time, I decided I was truly done with writing.

Along about here, Atchity Entertainment International (AEI) called and asked if they could read Demonkeeper. I sent my script to L.A. again and returned to my felonies, assuming I’d just get another rejection letter. At least, I thought, I’d given my dream of being a writer a shot with the Microsoft gig.

Then AEI called back. They loved Demonkeeper. They told me that they’d sell my novel in New York, then sell my script in LA. Yeah, right, I thought … big talk.

Around Christmas of 2005, AEI sold my novel, Demonkeeper, to Penguin in New York. A month later, they sold my screenplay to Twentieth Century Fox in L.A. Demonkeeper is currently on bookshelves everywhere. Fox is developing the movie. My second book, Goblins, will be out this fall.

Looking back, it occurs to me that achieving this dream wouldn’t have been possible without those real-world attributes for which we are famous. We are lawyers. We are smart, committed, hard-working, thick-skinned, multi-tasking professionals. Sure, doing both made me busy, but the traits that make me a lawyer helped me get the job done — plus I didn’t have to starve while I was being an artist. In the end, I believe that being a lawyer didn’t hinder my creative dream, it helped make it come true.

Royce Buckingham is a deputy prosecutor for Whatcom County and can be reached at rbucking@co.whatcom.wa.us. Find out more at www.demonkeeper.com.

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