Hi, I’m Tony Vanderwarker, happy to be with you at the Castle Hill Writers’ Retreat. I’m a recovering ad man from Chicago—twoallbeefpattiesspecialsauce, Big Mac Attack and Be Like Mike are some of the things I’ve worked on. I’m going to take a few minutes to tell you a story about John Grisham and his craft as this is stuff you’d never get out of him. He’s much too modest and unassuming.
Twenty years ago, I cashed out of the ad biz and moved down to Charlottesville to write novels. John Grisham also moved down about the same time also to write novels. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. We got to be friends chasing our sons’ football team around Virginia. We’d talk about his writing all the time, seldom about mine and there was a reason for that. He’d knock out a bestseller a year like clockwork and I was lucky if I got one done in two years. His fame and bank balance ballooned and the only progress I saw was that my stack of rejection slips got higher.
I had seven unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive when John offered to take me under his wing and teach me the secrets of novel writing. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine. John was going to give me the keys to the kingdom, the holy grail, the formula that would send me into the bigtime. I was one lucky guy, right? At least I thought I was. First thing I was going to do was learn to write an outline. Okay, I said, how hard can that be. I’ve written scads of outlines.
You’ve probably heard of the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, maybe the Sewanee Writers’ Conference? Well writing with Grisham is like going to the Guantanamo Bay Writers Conference. Brutal. I slaved away on my first outline for two weeks. Got it back with John’s comments. “Throw it out,” he said, “it takes too much ink to get the plot moving. Start a new one.”
I did another, and another, and another and another. By the end of a year, I’d written seven—a year writing seven outlines and I hadn’t even penned one word of the novel yet.
John finally said, “Good, you’re good to go on.” I was ready to leap out of my chair until I heard him say, “Now do a chapter outline. You need a chapter outline to guide you through the novel, if you do a sub plot, you need to modify your chapter outline. It helps keep you honest and on track.”
A chapter outline? What? And around that time it began to dawn on me that John didn’t have any secret novel writing formula. It was simply sheer hard work. Endless massaging the plot to make sure it would keep his readers interest and would hold up. The secret to keeping people turning page after page after page was assiduous plot crafting with imaginative writing, of course, bringing it to life.
Long story short. I wrote my first draft and he savaged it. Only read half and sent it back marked up like a herd of chickens with ink on their feet had clucked around on it. There wasn’t a page without comments. And they were cutting.
I eventually finished the novel and submitted it. Zero, nada, nothing. Oh agents liked it, but they didn’t love it. And a hundred other reasons. So I figured if I couldn’t write a publishable novel with Grisham looking over my shoulder, it was time to hang up the laptop.
I became Chair of a regional environmental organization and didn’t put a word down on paper for three years. But you know, this writing thing can get in your blood. And I had this idea of writing a book about writing the novel with John.
Sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry or grass grow, doesn’t it?
Well, I took a couple three shots at it and it was watching paint dry. But I kept at it, putting some of the lessons I’d learned from John to work. And about the fifth try, it started to come together. I wrote twenty pages that held up nicely.
But I had a problem. I needed to use John’s critiques and margin notes. So I had to ask for his permission. I pitched the book to him and made the ask. “Sure,” he said, “No problems at all.” He didn’t need to do that.
Fast forward. After twenty years of writing novels, Tony’s finally getting books published. A non-fiction book. Writing With The Master was published in February 2014 along with the novel I wrote with John, Sleeping Dogs. And I’m epublishing two of my other novels so I’ll have four books coming out next year. Desert to deluge. Go figure.
Judy Dench’s character in The Best Most Exotic Marigold Hotel, aptly sums up my writing experience, saying, “Life doesn’t always go as planned but often it’s what happens instead that’s the good stuff.”