Mining Your Central Plot Nugget: A Lesson In Writing From John Grisham

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.

writing rToday, 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I had 7 unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive and an overflowing shelf of rejection notices, when John Grisham — a friend and neighbor — took me under his wing and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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

vanderwalkerAbout Tony:

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

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  1. says

    Fascinating story, Tony.
    Question: did your background in advertising help or hinder in getting down to the essential idea of a story? More broadly, did you find experience in advertising helped with finding the right style/voice for a novel, or are the two forms too different?

    Best wishes, John Barlow

    • says

      John, Thanks. Not really, because as you say, the forms are too different–advertising is more about products than people. There was some storytelling involved, but only within the 30 or 60 second format. Everything I’ve learned about style, voice and plot nuggets is from the school of hard knocks–writing every day. And fortunately, the experience I had with JG.

    • says

      Patricia, It’s not an easy discipline to acquire because as storytellers, we tend to ramble. And that’s just fine, except when you’re trying to hook an agent or reader. And I’m working on another post on the same subject, its focus is on putting “promise” in your one-liner. As in, what’s the promise that the reader is going to get from buying my book.

  2. says

    Hello Joanna. I read the title of your recent eNewsletter from your blog (Mining Your Central Plot Nugget: A Lesson In Writing From John Grisham) and the first thing I thought of was McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. Maybe because it is almost lunch time. I was thinking of feeding my elderly parents the nuggets for badly needed protein. And I thought of the point of the eNewsletter of how important it is to stay with the plot instead of moving from tangent to tangent. But then you need to create the world and write a good story, whilst staying with the plot. Oh well, I better just write it.

  3. says

    Hi Tony and Jo
    Great post, thanks.
    I am intrigued at your description of spending a year outlining. At this point in my writing, the longest I have spent outlining is probably half an hour! However, I have spent many, many hours editing.
    This made me question whether I was going through a similar process to you, only in a different order. How much editing did you do on your manuscript, and to what extent was it plot edits, as opposed to language, or dialogue or grammar?
    I have grown up being a big fan of sprawling fantasy epics, featuring multiple story lines, some of which are directly related, and others only partly, to the locus of the plot, so I imagine I’m not hitting quite the focus that you are describing. This post has made me want to go back and re-examine the novel I’m soon to be releasing… oh well, there’s always time to sleep later. :)
    Sorry to ramble, but another thought that has struck me is whether you write short stories? I find that within the confines of a short, I am much more focused on the centre of the plot, and everything is clearly driven by that.
    Thanks again for the post

    • says

      Mike: Keep in mind this outlining process is for thrillers where you’re expected to come up with a plot that holds up for 350+ pages. And as for your question about revising the ms., I spent six months revising it, another two after John got through with it and then I’ve spent two more months on it getting it ready for publication in the winter. I don’t write short stories, don’t hold much interest for me.

    • says

      Hi Mike,

      I think it’s important to remember there are no rules :) Every writer is different!
      I do some outlining up front, then tend to discovery write around that – and then I do a major plot at around 20,000 words – and then finish first draft. Then re-outline at second draft, rewrite etc. It may be that you can get a cleaner first draft if you plot so well, but someone like Lee Child writes one draft, seat of the pants, no plotting … we’re all different!
      It also changes with time I’m sure – I’m finding the 5th novel to be easier in some ways, harder in others!

      On short stories, I recently wrote some for the Kobo launch for Dan Brown’s Inferno – and they are now available as a collection on Kobo as ‘A Thousand Fiendish Angels’
      I brainstormed the theme and tone of the story e.g. post-apocalyptic vs horror and had one plot idea as well as establishing character and POV, then wrote first draft pretty fast. I really enjoyed it and definitely want to write short stories and novellas going forward as well as longer works. It’s really fun to play with creativity and easier to do it out of your main genre in a short.

  4. says

    Hi both
    Thanks for the replies.
    I agree entirely with your final comment, Jo. My first few shorts were horror, something I haven’t even thought of trying in a longer format.
    Thanks also for the reassurance. I agree entirely that everyone has their own method, but it’s nice to know that there are successful authors who pants-it!

  5. says

    Hi Tony and Joanna,

    First I want to say–John Grisham–I am jealous! He is absolutely my favorite author! I just finished reading “The Racketeer” and I now have insight into why the plotline was so riveting. I just can’t put his books down (no sleep when in hand), and the plots twist and turn, but they are actually leading to where he wants them to go–to the locus.

    Loved reading about your process, and I wish you the best success! Now that you have discovered the formula that works for you, I’m sure your books are absolute page turners. I’m going to keep my eye open for them. Congrats!

  6. says

    Penelope, Thanks much. I was fortunate to have learned from him. By the way, we were talking about The Racketeer and I told him I read through sixty pages and I had absolutely no idea what was going on bit I hung in and it paid off and John saidz: “Yeah! It took me about ten years to figure out how to pull that off.”

    • says

      10 years! I believe it! That was one of the most compelling, fascinating, twisting, turning and surprising plots I have ever read. He is definitely the master!

      Enjoy your weekend, Tony.

  7. says

    I never thought of explaining a book in one sentence–what a challenge! Thanks for sharing your journey. What an amazing mentor to have by your side!

  8. says

    …Reading this blog post made me realize that all the work I spent recently reoutlining a novel that I’ve written twelve drafts of and have been working on for four years has basically been for naught. Dammit.

  9. says

    Don’t let the self-doubt/failure monster get the best of you. Put your drafts aside for a month or two and come back to them with a fresh perspective. You’ll find the diamonds and chuck the crap and you’ll be on your way again.


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