John Grisham’s Independent Publishing Roots

Though John Grisham is known today one of the most successful authors in the world, many people forget that the writer actually got his start thanks to an independent publisher called Wynwood Press. Originally a lawyer, Grisham’s life changed course in 1984 when he witnessed the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. The heartrending court case inspired the concept for Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill. As happens with most first-time authors, the book was rejected by many publishing companies before Wynwood Press decided to pick it up and give it a limited print run of 5,000 copies.

Grisham didn’t remain in the independent sphere for long, however. His second novel, The Firm, made it into the hands of a few Hollywood executives while it was still being shopped to publishing companies in New York. The buzz resulted in a film producer buying the option to the book before it was even picked up by a publisher. Of course, that stroke of good fortune gave publishers new reason to take Grisham seriously. Dave Gernert at Doubleday ended up making the offer and scooping up the book, and he and Grisham have continued to collaborate ever since.

Wynwood Press, meanwhile, never got to play more of role in Grisham’s legacy than putting out the first edition run of A Time to Kill. Doubleday and Dell Publishing eventually circled back to republish the book, which in turn was made into a dramatic film starring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Spacey. However, the fact remains that John Grisham got his start because a small independent press saw promise in his work before anyone else did.

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Indie Groundbreaking Book: Writing with the Master

Author Highlights Writing Sessions with John Grisham in Eye-Opening New Book

“Few authors hit it out of the park the first time at bat,” Tony Vanderwarker writes at the outset of his new authorial reference book, Writing with the Master. “It’s taken me 20 years just to get on base."

As a successful advertising executive with an illustrious education that includes Yale and NYU—not to mention a brief stint in the film business—Tony Vanderwarker has always dreamed of writing a bestselling novel. Like many people with similar aspirations, Vanderwarker has scores of manuscripts littering his hard drive, many of which he has sent off to literary agents only to receive a pile of polite rejection letters for his troubles. Luckily, Vanderwarker’s earlier career successes have given him the time, freedom, and flexibility to spend most of his days writing at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s also got another ace up his sleeve: he’s friends with legendary thriller writer, John Grisham.

That’s the set-up for Writing with the Master, a hybrid between a memoir and writing reference book that relates Vanderwarker’s experiences of working with Grisham on his own novel. At the start of the book, Vanderwarker and Grisham are casual friends, guys who have bonded not only over their mutual love of writing, but also over the state championship high school football team for which their sons both played, their fondness for stinky cheese, and their frequent chats over afternoon lunches and evening beers. At one such lunch in the fall of 2004, Grisham offers to help mentor Vanderwarker through the novel writing process, something he’s never done before for anyone else. What follows are 200 pages of outlines, rewrites, margin notes, and advice that, while they relate directly to Vanderwarker’s book—a thriller about missing nukes called Sleeping Dogs—can still be easily applied to any novel writing project.

Undoubtedly, it’s the golden advice of John Grisham that will attract the most attention to Writing with the Master. After all, Grisham is the name behind dozens of bestselling novels, many of which, from The Firm to A Time to Kill to Runaway Jury, have been the stuff of Hollywood films. He’s sold over 300 million copies worldwide in his career, more or less inventing the genre of “legal thriller” and establishing himself as a master of compelling plots that thrill readers from the first page to the last. As Grisham reminds Vanderwarker repeatedly, keeping the readers interested is the hard part. Inventing an intriguing plot concept and a few characters that readers might be interested in following through a 350-page adventure? Easy. Coming up with an ending that ties up all the threads of the story and offers thrilling, unpredictable revelations? Child’s play. It’s the 200 or 300 pages in the middle that make or break a novel, and that’s where Grisham wants to help Vanderwarker.

Throughout Writing with the Master, Grisham offers Vanderwarker numerous pieces of advice, from the obvious mantras that just about every writer has heard (write about what you know best, don’t be afraid to start over or revise) to more surprising tidbits that provide intriguing insight to the creative process of a bestselling author. For example, John Grisham is known as one of the more prolific authors on the scene right now, generally churning out a novel or two in any given year. But Writing with the Master reveals that Grisham keeps a slow and steady writing pace of about five pages a day. Working in manageable pieces and not getting burned out, it seems, is one of the many secrets to Grisham’s success.

Grisham’s other big secret—and the one that Vanderwarker spends most of Writing with the Master struggling with—Is to use detailed outlines to map out his plots before he begins writing. As we see in this book’s earliest chapters, envisioning a plot is easier for Grisham than it might be for the rest of us. In a single lunch with Vanderwarker, the famous novelist whips together three or four start-to-finish plot ideas that could become full-fledged, bestselling novel concepts. And since Vanderwarker is more of a “see how things unfold as I write” kind of guy, Grisham’s outline process proves immediately grueling for him. Half of the book is devoted to the six different outlines that Vanderwarker draws up at Grisham’s instruction, all before he even puts pen to paper to write the actual manuscript. The other half of the book shows Vanderwalker’s drafts getting cut up, torn down, and refined by Grisham. It’s a lengthy process that starts as a five-month project, escalates into a two-year sprawl, and transforms eventually into a 10-year timeline that culminates with this book.

In between all of the writing work with Grisham—which is presented in full detail here, with many of Grisham’s notes reproduced verbatim for readers to read—Vanderwalker finds time to tell his own story, and it’s a testament to what he learned from Grisham that he manages to sculpt it into such a riveting start-to-finish narrative. Even though most people will pick up this book looking to read John Grisham’s tips and tricks, they’ll inevitably also find themselves rooting for Vanderwalker to succeed. They’ll cheer the author’s elation at getting the chance of a lifetime; they’ll relate to the disappointments and rejections he faces along the way; and ultimately, readers will see themselves in the shoes of a guy who, at the end of it all, is just another hopeful author struggling to “make it.” I won’t give away the ending by saying what becomes of Sleeping Dogs (since the suspense is a big part of the fun here), but suffice to say that Writing with the Master is an absolute must-read, whether you have hopes of writing the great American novel or simply want to enjoy an inspiring, well-crafted tale.

 


 

Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953@gmail.com.

 

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