Mentors: John Grisham

By Tony VanderwarkerFebruary 19, 2014

Mentors: John Grisham

JOHN GRISHAM was seven books ahead of me when we both moved to Charlottesville in the early 1990s. That’s seven to none. And the gap only widened with John cranking out one or two a year, while I watched my stack of rejection slips mount until it threatened to topple.

Chasing our sons’ football team around Virginia, John and I became fast friends and often chatted about writing — more about his than mine — as he was hitting long balls and I wasn’t even getting up to bat. Occasionally he’d ask, “How’s your writing going?” and I’d give him some stiff-upper-lip kind of answer like, “Going fine, just started a new one.”

John had been through the rejection nightmare himself a couple times so he knew the territory. Both A Time to Kill and The Firm were turned down repeatedly. At the halftime of one football game, he asked me out of the blue, “You doing okay with your agent?” I shrugged and said, “Not so sure he knows his way around the biz too well.” John immediately offered, “Be glad to give you an introduction to mine.”

John’s agent, David Gernert, said he’d take a look at my latest novel. You could have scraped me off the ceiling. My imagination fired up visions of auctions with publishing houses vying for my book, six-figure advances, and movie deals. I was on cloud nine and ready to crack open the champagne.

Ultimately Gernert passed, I swallowed my pride and struggled along for another couple years, cranking out two more novels that fell into the usual rejection piles. Then one day at lunch, after asking again how my writing was going, John said, “Be glad to mentor you, if you’d like. Kind of guide you through the process.” After reading Daniel Boulud’s memoir of helping a young chef, John had been inspired to give mentoring a try and I was the lucky mentee.

“So we need an idea,” he said to kick things off, and he pitched one to me. Seeing me demurring, he quickly said, “But that’s just one of many, you said you had a bunch so let’s hear them.”

His head started shaking halfway through my first. “Too complicated, won’t work.” I quickly went on to the second, “Naah,” he said, “Too easy, no stamina for the long haul.” It was obvious that sorting through plots was as routine to John as shopping for socks.

Three strikes and you’re out was running through my mind as I pitched the third: “There are 11 unrecovered nukes scattered around the United States.”

John cocked his head, “You’re kidding?”

“Yes, jettisoned and dropped from planes as a result of accidents and mid-air collisions during the Cold War. But the Pentagon says they are harmless.”

“Whoever heard of a harmless nuke? Can you imagine what would happen if bad guys got a hold of one?”

I’d hooked John Grisham and was pumped. He said my idea was big and that this was going to be fun.

So off we went on a two-year odyssey. Little did I know what a roller coaster ride it would be. At the outset, I was convinced that John was going to unlock the secrets to thriller writing and I’d be launched into the publishing stratosphere. I mean, how hard can it be? Grisham churns these babies out like clockwork, I just need to learn his tricks, was running through my mind.

The first step was an outline. “The beginning and end are easy, it’s the middle that’s the hard part,” he explained. “You do an outline to make sure your plot doesn’t run out of gas.” He’d learned the hard way. It had taken three years to write his first, A Time To Kill, and when it came time to start another, he was determined to find a quicker and more effective means of crafting a novel. So he developed an exacting and merciless procedure for building a plot that would hold up for 300 pages. (John is a lawyer with a degree in accounting.)

How hard can it be to write an outline? I wondered. I soon found out. He rejected the first one, told me it took too much ink to get the plot going and to junk it. Start another. So I did a second and he tossed that back, too. And another, and another, and another. Along the way, John was adding fillips and fascinating twists to my basic plot, ingenious and imaginative story elaborations he seemed to come up with effortlessly. A year later, when I’d been through six outlines, he gave me the go-ahead — sort of.

“Now write a chapter outline,” he told me. “It’ll keep you honest.”

The chapter outline turned out to be the most frustrating writing I’ve ever done. It was writing a novel before writing it. I felt like a painter trying to capture a landscape while staring a blank piece of drywall. As a friend John’s chummy and jovial, but as a mentor he pulled no punches, often being brutally honest. A year of writing outlines went by before I could write word one of the novel. Again, I swallowed my pride. I was working with one of the world’s bestselling novelists, so I thought, who’s to complain?

Eventually I came up with one that met his approval, and he told me to start writing.

Eight months later, I had what I thought was an impeccably crafted novel. A three 300-page humdinger I was convinced would zoom to the top of the bestseller list. A nurse in a VA hospital befriends a patient who turns out to be a former B-52 pilot with a terrible secret. She finds the website of a disgraced Pentagon weapons expert and teams up with him to kidnap the pilot and start a mad scramble to locate the nuke with the Pentagon and a sleeper al-Qaeda cell shadowing them. Who will get to the nuke first? — made for a riveting plot.

John took a few weeks to look it over.

Outside his office, I sat in my car reading his comments and dying inside. Not only did Grisham savage my novel, he didn’t get more than halfway through. My manuscript looked like a flock of chickens with inked feet had scampered across it, whole sections deleted, endless factual mistakes underlined, blatant sermonizing called out, fatuous dialogue redlined and devastating plot deviations and errors identified. “Take a year rewriting it,” he wrote to me. “Slow down and make sure you’ve got your facts right, that you’re showing not telling and your dialogue rings true.”

So much was wrong with my first draft that I was tempted to walk away. To put my hands up and declare defeat. But I hung in there and gradually stitched the novel back together.

Almost a year later, I gave it back to him. I was sweating bullets as the days ticked by. A couple weeks passed and finally his secretary called to tell me it was ready. As Grisham handed it to me and we stood awkwardly in the anteroom of his office, I asked, “So, what do you think?” And his response was: “Vastly improved.” Not great, or even good, just the faint praise of “vastly improved.” Before I could question him further, his secretary hustled him off to take a call.

In his critique, John asked me to cut 60 pages and a big part of the storyline. He also said he was bowing out, concerned that he’d lost his perspective. “Make these revisions and start submitting,” he told me. It was time to roll the rock uphill again. My safety net was gone; I’d have to go through the arduous process of revising again and deal with the daunting gauntlet of literary agents and torrents of rejection notices on my own.

The novel, Sleeping Dogs, died 60 deaths at the hands of agents. “Sick of terrorists,” “Not for me,” “Like it but don’t love it,” “yadda, yadda, yadda” — went the rejections.

So I decided, if I can’t write a saleable novel with John Grisham looking over my shoulder, it’s time to hang up the laptop. I shut down my studio, unplugged the computer, turned off the lights and became the chairman of a regional land conservation trust and land use policy organization, gratifying work that kept me busy and away from rolling rocks uphill.

Fast forward three years and I got this nagging itch to write a memoir about writing the novel with John. I took a couple runs at it, and eureka! I picked the lock and the book opened for me. Writing about penning the novel peeled back all kinds of layers I’d missed on the first go around. I slowly began to grasp the substance of what John had been saying to me, “Slow down, get your plot progressing, make your dialogue believable, and instead of describing events in your book, find ways to bring them to life.” Critical elements I’d ignored in my pell-mell dash to create a bestseller.

Writing with the Master came together in eight months. Not long after, I found an agent. Waiting as he submitted to publishers, I dove back into Sleeping Dogs and brought my new understanding of Grisham’s directions to bear on the manuscript, lifting “vastly improved” to a new level of meaning.

Eventually a publisher asked my agent for the rights to Writing with The Master and to take a look at Sleeping Dogs. Now, after years of having six novels rotting away on the far reaches of my hard drive and twenty years of rolling rocks uphill, I’ve got not one, but two books on their way to the printer.

Recently, I was asked to introduce John at a writers’ retreat. As I stood in front of the audience giving my spiel about writing with John, I cracked a few jokes and told a funny anecdote about the experience. As I looked out of the corner of my eye, I saw Grisham smiling. I wondered, Is John thinking, “How do you like that? Vanderwarker finally put it together?

What do I take away from my experience? A couple things: If you’re lucky enough to find a mentor, pay exquisite and achingly careful attention. Although it’s not easy to internalize their lessons, they have learned the hard way and their advice is priceless. No magic keys, just some doors they can point you to that are easier to open.

And don’t ever let self-doubt or rejections derail you: don’t ever give up. Cheryl Strayed recently said, “Wild would have been a good book even if it hadn’t been such a hit.” You have to learn to appreciate the process rolling the rock uphill to no applause or adulation. And if you hang in there long enough, you will eventually write yourself into your own understanding of who you are and what you bring to the page. And that’s where it gets good.

Or, as T. S. Eliot so brilliantly put it, “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.”


Tony Vanderwarker is the author of Writing with the Master: How One of the World’s Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life, a memoir about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs.

LARB Contributor

Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is the author of Writing with the Master: How One of the World’s Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life, a memoir about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, both of which will be released in 2014 (Skyhorse). He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.


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