Review: Writing with the Master

This is the true story of a retired businessman who’s been writing novels and having them rejected by publishers/agents.  The businessman’s friend John Grisham (the best-selling author) offers to coach him in the writing of a new novel. The book sets out, in detail, all of the coaching provided over two years.

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Tony Vanderwarker                               John Grisham

Tony Vanderwarker is a retired advertising executive who had his own, very successful, ad agency, sold it and moved from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia with his family.  John Grisham, also a Charlottesville resident, is a friend of Tony’s, and one day, over lunch, John offers to ‘mentor’ Tony in writing a new novel.  Grisham had previously referred one of Tony’s works to an agent whose review was positive, but not quite good enough to be published.

The process started with John asking Tony what he wanted to write about.  Tony’s first two ideas were rejected out of hand.  His third idea was a thriller about nuclear weapons lost by the US Air Force in air crashes where the weapon was not recovered.  There are nearly a dozen such weapons, dating back to the 1950’s.  Tony prepared a three sentence description of the plot and then a full, multi-page outline.  At each stage we see portions of what Tony has written and John’s written critiques.  The critiques are blunt and to the point.  After three and a half months of trial and error, Tony revises his plot outline, and is ready to start chapter outlines.  During this process, we see a reflection of the way John Grisham writes his novels.  First, a one paragraph outline: is it interesting enough, strong enough?  Then the three page outline, complete with characters: do the subplots support the main plot or are they extraneous?  Are the events credible?  Are the characters interesting and likeable?  Then comes the first draft of the manuscript.  In Tony’s case, John tears into the manuscript and points out a number of problems:

  • the writing is sloppy: there are repeated words and phrases and factual inconsistencies.
  • there are too many distractions to the basic plot
  • the actions of a key character don’t make sense
  • too many bad guys
  • minor character isn’t fully credible
  • inserting the author’s political views into the story
  • make the dialogue real: repeat it out loud.
  • Show! Don’t Tell!

Tony is absolutely gutted by this critique!  He turns his attention to the notes John has written on individual pages of the manuscript.  Here, again, we see the text and the comment.  Tony divides the manuscript into seven piles and begins the task of rewriting, which takes a year.  Once again Grisham responds with a cover letter describing his principal concerns and returns the manuscript with page-by-page comments, including:

  • too many detours; too much backfilling
  • don’t be afraid to cut
  • not allowing the suspense to build

Tony makes the suggested changes and submits the manuscript to John’s agent, who likes it and refers it to another agent because it doesn’t fit for him.  The agent to whom it is referred is very complimentary but declines. Tony goes back to the default mode of mass submissions, without success.

When Tony has essentially given up on getting his novel published, he gets a great idea.  Why not write a book about the process that he and John Grisham have been through.  Grisham agrees, and the book is published by Skyhorse Publishing, who also agree to publish the mentored novel: Sleeping Dogs.

For anyone who is interested in the process of writing fiction, this book is a must read.  And for those with only a passing interest in the creative effort, there is enough of the rest of Tony’s life fitted neatly in to make to book a good read: his life as an advertising executive, his work for an environmental charity, his relationship with his wife and the Charlottesville area.

Personally, I’m not surprised that Sleeping Dogs didn’t get published on the first attempt.  From my point of view, there’s too much that stretches credibility.  But, I’m not surprised that Skyhorse decided to take it up.  Writing with the Master is a great promotion for Sleeping Dogs.

As for John Grisham’s advice, I think that ninety percent is spot on.  Two quibbles: I believe in outlining, but not to the extent that John does.  I think that detailed outlines can stifle creativity, and I notice that Tony has reached a similar conclusion.  There’s not much in John’s advice about the use of creative language, which I think is important to differentiate the writer and his/her text from the mundane.

Tony writes well, and I’m glad that he decided to follow-up on his brainstorm: why not write a book about the mentoring process?

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