Today’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 With seven unpublished novels wasting away on my hard drive, I felt as though I’d suddenly been offered the keys to the kingdom of writing success — maybe even bestsellerdom.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:
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!