Writing for any reason is fantastic but if you want to write a story that people actually want to buy and read, then you have to consider issues around story structure, plot, character and the other tools of fiction.
Today, author Tony Vanderwarker talks about being mentored by John Grisham and how that impacted his writing.
I had 7 unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive and an overflowing shelf of rejection notices, when John Grisham — a friend and neighbor — took me under his wing and taught me his writing secrets. Along the way I gained immense appreciation for the craft and expertise required to construct and realize powerful plots engaging millions of readers.
I also learned a number of painful lessons. One was how easy it is to get on the wrong track so your novel spins away from the central idea.
To avoid veering off track, it’s critical for a writer to keep peeling back layers of your story to find the key idea–an idea that can be expressed in a single sentence.
John’s admonition: if you can’t sum it up in one sentence it’s too complicated, or you’re off base. Don’t waste time on it, trash it and move on.
Look at the following two plot summaries:
- Young lawyer just out of law school is trying to decide between taking a job at a prestigious Wall Street firm or going to work in the boonies with a firm that offers all kinds of perks and bennies. But it doesn’t turn out as advertised.
- Recent law school grad finds a dream first job but it turns out to be a nightmare.
You get the point. The first, while factually correct, would lead a writer off on a wild goose chase about job hunting when the story is all about the ideal job that turns out to be a disaster.
Starting off on our novel-writing adventure, John asked me if I had any story ideas I was working on. I quickly sketched one out.
“Nope, not compelling enough, too weak, will never work,” was his answer. “Any more?”
I launched into the second, beads of sweat welling up on my forehead.
“Nah,” John said before I was even halfway through, as if sorting through plot ideas was like shopping for ties. “Too complicated.”
The third story I pitched was based on the eleven hydrogen bombs that are still scattered around the country as a result of mid-air collisions and mishaps during the Cold War, when we had B-52s in the air 24/7 so we’d be prepared to strike back in case of a Russian launch. “We lost a bunch,” I told John.
“You’re kidding me?” Like I’d hooked a fish, for the first time Grisham was engaged.
“Dead serious.” I explained that there are ten or twelve, in places like Alaska, North Carolina and off the coast of Georgia. The Pentagon claims the radioactive stuff is gone, and they’re harmless.
“Whoever heard of a harmless nuke?” John asked, smiling. “What if a bad guy got his hands on of one of these nukes? Somehow recovered it.”
“There you go,” I say, making headway for the first time.
John nodded. “Okay, I like that. Now there’s a real idea. Good place to start.”
Stating the idea’s just the first step.
Next, John told me to craft an outline. I spent two weeks writing one. He sent it back, saying, “Junk it and do another.” So I wrote another. And another and another.
Months went by, eventually turning into a year-long outlining process. Throughout John was coaching me, “Add this, take out that, don’t go there, watch out for this, don’t waste time with that, slow down…” Most importantly, he shaped the plot, chucking out story elements that didn’t directly relate to its essence: the bomb and the pilot who knew its location.
The process reminded me of a famous pro football player, a defensive end with the wonderful name of Too Tall Jones who, when asked how he managed to always find the ball carrier when a million offensive players were swarming toward him, answered, “I tackle them all and toss them away one by one until I find the guy with the ball.”
Grisham works the same way.
The first Grisham Law of Novel Writing. Find the locus of your plot.
The answer to the question, “what is this book really about?”
The most salient element, the pivot upon which the entire plot revolves. Toss everything away until you get to the core. In the case of my thriller, it wasn’t about lost nukes or the other strands I threw in like a bunch of Pentagon generals or a former Pentagon staffer who’s WMD obsessed. It was about a pilot who had a terrible secret. And locating the focal point is like peeling the layers of an onion, stripping off one and then another, until the nub of the plot is revealed.
Unless you mine that central plot nugget and bore down on it, your novel will wander all over the place, your reader will never quite figure out what your novel is about and eventually give up. And that’s if you get to the reader. Agents say the major reason for rejecting submissions is weak or wandering plots.
John taught me dozens of other priceless lessons during that first year. And when he finally thought I was there with an outline, he launched me into the even more grueling and exacting process of writing the novel.
In the end John bought into the resulting thriller, Sleeping Dogs, I submitted it into a market glutted with similar books — a plot twist I hadn’t envisioned. And in another unexpected turn of events, I wound up landing a publishing deal for the memoir I later wrote about the experience, Writing With a Bestseller.
Even though I no longer had John looking over my shoulder, I know the reason my memoir was picked up was that I followed his precepts closely, tossing four openings before I finally panned the story nugget that gave me a straight shot through to the end.
Learning like this doesn’t come easily or without discomfort, but in the end writers are much better for it. Especially when you have someone like John Grisham pointing the way.
Do you have any questions about finding the locus of your story? Please do leave questions and comments below.
Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is author of the memoir Writing With a Bestseller (Skyhorse, January 2014) about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, releasing in 2014. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Rocketship