Guantanamo Writing Camp: What I Learned from Doing Time with John Grisham

prison-guard-for-webToday’s guest is Tony Vanderwarker a former advertising exec who moved to a Virginia farm to write fiction.  In case that’s not idyllic enough, Tony had the rare good fortune of being mentored through the process of drafting his debut novel, the thriller Sleeping Dogs, by none other than John Grisham.  He’s here to tell us about the surprisingly grueling experience.  Welcome, Tony!

Guantanamo Writing Camp: What I Learned from Doing Time with John Grisham

When my friend and neighbor John Grisham offered to take me under his wing and teach me the secrets of thriller writing, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  With seven unpublished novels wasting away on my hard drive, I felt as though I’d suddenly been offered the keys to the kingdom of writing success — maybe even bestsellerdom.

Little did I know, I was headed for the writing-camp equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.

If Guantanamo is the most grueling detention camp of our times, Grisham is its head honcho.  As we started work together on my thriller, he made it crystal clear he’d be a taskmaster.  “The best advice is based on brutal honesty,” he said.

And brutal he was.  First thing he did was to have me write a synopsis and an outline.  I thought, piece of cake, and came back to him with an outline I was proud of a few weeks later.  But he rejected it right off the bat.  “Throw it out, start over,” he told me.  “Takes too much ink to get it going.”

Ouch.  This, I said to myself, is going to be more painful than I thought.

It turns out John takes outlining extremely seriously. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since he majored in accounting and practiced law for ten years–two hard-core, disciplined fields.  Later I learned that he’d written his first novel, A Time To Kill, without an outline, spending three years in the process. He used a formal outline to write The Firm and after its success, when he found that the industry expected him to turn out a thriller a year, he committed to doing outlines each time.

He put me through a year of writing outlines before I could write Word One of the novel.  In good Guantanamo fashion, he even made me feel like a complete dunce at times, sending me back to rewrite outline after outline.  It often felt like pure torture, prosecution for the crime of delivering anything less than perfection.   While I gained more and more appreciation for his plot development acumen, I realized how totally inept I was in comparison.

It took six outlines and a year before Grisham was satisfied.  Along the way he kept revising and editing my work, adding plot lines and characters, subtracting here or there, until he felt the plot was working.

Then, when I was just beginning to smell the barn, he said, “Okay, this outline’s good enough to go ahead, now write a chapter outline.”

A chapter outline?  My sentence had been prolonged.  How much longer, I wondered, until I could finish this baby, send it out and nail a publishing deal? 

John explained that a chapter outline “keeps you on track when you’re writing the novel.  When you spin off a subplot, you revise the chapter outline.  Kind of keeps you honest.”

Yeah, I thought. Like waterboarding.

It was one of the hardest writing assignments I’d ever tackled, like trying to paint a landscape with a piece of drywall in front of you.  Based on my outline, John had me push the plot along chapter by chapter, detailing what was going on without ever having written it.  It’s the same process he goes through when he writes.  Making conscious, exacting decisions about pacing, length, tension-building and the role each element plays in relations to the story’s core. Six hours a day, at least five days a week, year round.

After a year of writing outlines I began the novel, more or less following my overall and chapter-by-chapter outlines.  But — more torture — John savaged my first draft.  Tore it to pieces, didn’t even read the whole thing.  The manuscript he returned to me looked like a flock of chickens with inked feet had tromped over it, whole sections deleted, errors pointed out and a gross plot malfunction that John held up and openly mocked.  He’d cut dozens of pages–sections that dragged–killed off characters, advised me to work on my dialogue.

The novel, Sleeping Dogs, is the story of an old B-52 pilot named Risstup who’s been locked away in a VA hospital by the Pentagon in a coverup of nukes lost in mid-air mishaps during the Cold War. A Pentagon whistleblower springs him from the VA hospital.  A chase after the nuke ensues with the Pentagon, with al Qaeda and the whistleblower all hunting it. But my cardinal sin was having everyone talk about the lost nuke and whether the pilot knows its location except for Risstup, who sits drooling away in a hotel room, unable to talk. As John writes on the manuscript:

Grisham's Notes

 Then he told me to take a year re-writing it. “Work the dialogue until it sounds real,” he said.  “Get off your damn soapbox and remember, show, don’t tell.” 

When I’d finished the second draft one year later, he gave me a tepid, “Vastly improved.”

Boy, did all that sting.

Ultimately, unlike most Gitmo detainees, I got out. Finished Sleeping Dogs, submitted it.  Got rejection after rejection, but just when I’d all but given up hope on it, I sat down and wrote a memoir about the two years of writing with John.  The memoir, Writing with the Master: How One of the World’s Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life, sold to Skyhorse along with the digital rights to Sleeping Dogs.

So in the end, Guantanamo Writing Camp served me well, as did its grueling lessons about outlining, attention to detail, slave labor, patience and tireless perseverance.

WU’ers, have you ever been mentored? What did you learn? We’d love to hear about your experience in comments!



  1. says

    So where are you with Sleeping Dogs now? Are we going to see it published soon? You see, my fear of such mentoring programs is that what works for one person might not work for another. I am sure it was a great experience for you (and I am deeply envious), but sometimes we have to admit that it’s not just technique, discipline and writer’s tricks, but also chance and time and place which contribute to acceptance and success.
    Marina Sofia´s last blog post ..Escapist Friday: Tree Houses

  2. Morgyn says

    LOL, really, Grasshopper. Sounds like ‘beyond tough love.’

    My first drawing teacher was just like that, erasing this line and then that, carving away silvers of what I thought was pretty darn good. All this at her kitchen table in a white six column Missouri mansion & me just the kid whose family rented the ‘help’s’ house. At least I got homemade, hand cranked peach ice cream out of the deal.

    Honest, blunt crit is the only stuff worth having. And you got method as well. Talking about right place, right time.

  3. says

    Congratulations, and how wonderful for you. I’ve never been mentored but would welcome the experience if it was someone I had enormous respect for–like Grisham. I’m heading over to amazon to check out your books. All the best to you with many more books!

  4. says

    I don’t know if it counts as mentoring, but I did an online novel writing workshop and then continued working with the instructor (a literature professor as well as a published author) while I finished the first draft (which wasn’t really a first draft, but the first draft I finished before starting over again).

    He pointed out where I got lazy in description, scenes and moments I could do more with, where the pace was too fast, and occasionally too slow, but he also kept me motivated by pointing out the strengths of my story whenever I doubted myself (which I did almost continuously), plus he recommended Ray Bradbury to me, who has become one of my favorite authors.

    And if we can mention who we’d love to be mentored by… then I’d say Toni Morrison, Alison Croggon, and Philip Pullman. ;-) I’d like to write a novel with the depth and skill of all three authors, the emotional depth of Toni Morrison, the characters of Alison Croggon, and the vision of Philip Pullman.
    Andrea van der Wilt´s last blog post ..Blog thoughts

  5. says

    Oh man, that sounds excruciating… But it does make a good story! Glad you got TWO of them out of the experience — and actually, I’d guess there are dozens more to come. ;)
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..Confession

  6. Tina Goodman says

    I took a novel writing class at a university. Each class period we first listened to students read their first chapter and then we (the students and instructor) took turns making comments until the class time was up.
    When it was my turn and I read the first chapter of my novel this is what I was told: My first chapter seems more like a prologue, it is overly-written, I should write more like Raymond Carver, I should put only one space after a period at the end of a sentence.

  7. says

    This is an incredible story – what a cool experience for you. I’m a huge advocate of doing outlines, but I never thought about doing chapter outlines. I’m pretty disciplined (and highly OCD), but the thought of doing an outline for each chapter makes my chest tighten up. However, I think if I had an opportunity to work with my favorite author (Margaret Atwood) for a couple of years – I’d write paragraph outlines! Hell, I’d walk around naked for that opportunity.
    Simone´s last blog post ..The Book Marketing Plan – Installment Five

    • says

      You bet, it was a rare opportunity and I turned lemons into lemonade and learned a bunch in the process. Chapter outlines are tough, outlines are tough too because you have to figure out the whole thing before you start. Very unnatural feeling.
      tony Vanderwarker´s last blog post ..Tony Vanderwarker on CBS 6 News

  8. says

    That actually sounds like a wicked good memoir right there. I’m not much of a thriller person, but I would read the shit out of that. Now if only Thoreau had written one about Emerson and Mozart had written one about Haydn.
    Baby June´s last blog post ..Cookies for breakfast

  9. says

    Oh wow…I’d say I don’t know if I could stand that, but if I had a chance at a mentorship like that, I hope I’d know better than to throw it away! I try to keep lessons like this in mind while editing my work, but no matter how tough I could be on myself, I can tell John Grisham is FAR tougher.
    Jen Donohue´s last blog post ..Flash Fiction: McCarthyism

  10. says

    I think there’s a lot to be said about learning from a
    master. I was mentored by one poet and two novelists who blend
    commercial fiction with literary fiction. Learned a ton from all
    three. I suspect that one reason your time with Grisham benefited
    your novel so well is that the master defines your genre. Grisham
    knows suspense and the art of writing tight thrillers that plunge
    the reader into the action immediately. You’re fortunate to have
    had access to the craft-process of a great writer you admire.
    Congrats on your success!
    Erin Harris´s last blog post ..Chapter Three

  11. says

    I think we writers (artists) believe we have a gift and
    expect what we produce to immediately be gold. We forget that the
    art is in the crafting, the honing, polishing, shaving and
    reworking. We want to write and be done. When people ask me if I
    wrote today, I always say yes (even if I didn’t sit at the
    computer). So much of writing happens in our heads – the mulling,
    the stewing, the visual revising. I’m amazed at how you got through
    this, Tony, with this “task master” extraordinaire. I’m also
    jealous! Congrats! Ellen