Tony Vanderwarker’s WRITING WITH THE MASTER and How John Grisham Does It
Writing is a solitary pursuit. You can have a thousand writer friends, participate in a hundred workshops and have an editor who calls you every day, but in the end, it’s just you and the blank page. And one of the sad ironies of writing is that you can never, ever read your own work outside of your own consciousness. Even if you put your novel aside for fifty years, it’s still you turning the pages. This dilemma is a corollary to the problem inherent in all writing instruction: writing is a complicated cognitive process, not a simple step-by-step. No one can present you with a checklist that will make your book a bestseller. Writing advice must be vague and personal in many ways.
Tony Vanderwarker surely knew this when he decided to retire from the advertising world and become a novelist. Unfortunately, none of his novels were picked up. He did, however, make friends with a small-town writer of whom you may have heard: John Grisham. Yes, that John Grisham. The conceit of Writing with the Master is simple: what would it be like to write a novel under the tutelage of one of the best-selling novelists in the history of the universe? That very thing happened to Mr. Vanderwarker. One day, over lunch, Mr. Grisham asked how his latest novel was going. The answer? Not well. So Mr. Grisham shocks the author by saying:
Look, I’d be willing to help you if you’d like. Kind of mentor you through the novel-writing process. Something I’ve never done before-not that plenty of people haven’t asked.
That’s one heck of an inciting incident, isn’t it? Writing with the Master chronicles, among other things, the process by which Mr. Vanderwarker wrote Sleeping Dogs, a spy thriller. The real value for us, of course, is getting a glimpse into how Mr. Grisham’s mind processes plot and character.
Mr. Grisham, in addition to being a top-flight writer and literary citizen, sees a story the same way an architect can look at a pile of materials and see a building. I am reminded of the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart hears a piece of music once and simply knows how to correct and improve it. It’s not his fault; Mozart was simply born with the talent and honed it over the process of years at the keyboard.
What must it have been like for Mr. Vanderwarker to see the glint in Mr. Grisham’s eyes as he talked about Sleeping Dogs and almost involuntarily rewrote it in his head? On character:
So you have to get over David’s problem with your people. Your hero, you have to have someone readers want to root for right from the start. You have to ask yourself, “Are my readers going to like this guy?” Need someone who’s interesting, you follow him along until he does something unexpected and then what you do is put people’s lives at stake, or everything but their lives, and your central character gets them out of the mess. That’s the way it works.”
Here’s the way popular fiction works. You’ve got three acts. First is the setup. The novel has to get off to a fast start. Then comes the second act, that’s the hard part, the 200 pages in the middle of the novel that have to keep it going without overcomplicating it. And then you’ve got the ending. That’s why you do an outline, so you’re sure you’re getting off the blocks fast, you’ve got enough in the middle to make a 360-page book, and then an ending that doesn’t run out of gas.
There’s so much to unpack in just those two sentences. Mr. Grisham understands that art and commerce must go together. You are more than welcome to write purely for your own joy. You can write a short story and then lock it in a cabinet and never take it out. That’s fine. However, if you foist your book upon an audience, you have to have them in mind. You need to give people a reason to read your work.
In only a couple paragraphs, Mr. Grisham advised Mr. Vanderwarker (and us) to employ the three-act structure, just as screenwriters do. Not only do you need a compelling character, but you need to put them in a compelling situation. Think about an example from Mr. Grisham’s work. His most recent novel is Camino Island. Here’s the book trailer:
I loved Mercer (an underpaid adjunct English teacher hoping to have more success in publishing…), and I thought Mr. Grisham did a great job filling out the rest of the book’s roster with realistic characters. But that’s not enough! Interesting things need to happen!
So they do. A team of thieves steal the F. Scott Fitzgerald papers at Princeton, planning to ransom back the manuscripts of The Great Gatsby and the rest. Mercer is enlisted by a shadowy organization to befriend the rare book seller who may have the treasures. Interesting things happen to interesting characters!
Mr. Grisham reminds us that there must be big stakes in the story! The stakes for Mercer in Camino Island? She needs money. She needs time off to write and think. She needs to make friends in the writing world who can help her. The story provides her with all of these. Of course, the greatest stakes of all are related to the Fitzgerald manuscripts. These are priceless and cannot be replaced! We don’t want anything to happen to them! Tangible stakes!
Writing with the Master is fascinating in a great number of ways. Mr. Vanderwarker is an interesting fellow and definitely a sincere and creative person. Like I said earlier, there are no step-by-step ways to become a good (or even adequate) novelist. This book also demands that you put some effort into it before you can reap maximum benefit. Mr. Vanderwarker and Mr. Grisham are kind enough to include snippets of what they wrote to each other. You get to see Sleeping Dogs evolve according to the advice released in Mr. Grisham’s letters to the author. (I wish they had been reproduced in full.)
I suppose the biggest lesson I gleaned from the book is to play with plot and character as frequently and dedicatedly as a baseball player thinks about hitting. (A position player, obviously.) I certainly can’t do what Mr. Grisham does (obviously), but decades of writing have made it so that I can play with plot and character in the way Mr. Grisham does in the book. Show me the trailer for a film, and I can break down what happens (or easily could happen) in all three acts and populate the story with appropriate characters. Stories feel like shapes to me, building blocks that can be moved around A Beautiful Mind-style. (Again, not saying I’m anything special; I just have a good imagination and lots of practice.)
Consider reading each story and novel with pen in hand, noting when you see the inciting incident. (And if it takes too long to find one…you can always put the book aside. Pause the movies you watch around the 15:00 mark. You’ll find that the protagonist either is or is about to enter a new situation because they’re crossing the turning point of Act One. Most of all, look at stories the way a mechanic looks at a car. For all of the intangible beauty of a novel, it’s still a work of craft. Mr. Grisham is a master craftsman and Mr. Vanderwarker was fortunate to have had the chance to serve as the apprentice.