John Grisham’s 3 Must-Haves of Novel Writing

GrishamThe following is a guest post by author Tony Vanderwarker:

I spent two years writing a novel under the guidance of my friend and neighbor John Grisham. So in light of this piece on There Are No Rules speculating about John’s rules of thumb as a writer, I’m sharing the three absolute requirements for writing popular fiction he drilled into me during the time we worked together.

The first is to have an elevator pitch. If you can’t describe what a book is about in one or two sentences, you don’t have a story worth telling. For example, to pitch The Firm: “Young lawyer fresh out of law school gets a dream job that turns out to be a nightmare.” Or, for The Confession: “How can a guilty man convince lawyers, judges and politicians that they’re about to execute an innocent man?”

I went to a panel discussion a while ago where the moderator, Bella Stander, had all the writers in the audience stand up and pitch their latest book. I was the first one called on. “I had lunch with John Grisham one day,” I started, “and he asked me how my novel writing was going and I said, ‘OK’—when I was really contemplating taking up competitive croquet. Then he offered to mentor me …”

“Stop there,” she commanded. “How many novels have you written?”

“Seven,” I said.

“OK, here’s your elevator pitch: ‘I had seven unpublished novels rotting away on my hard drive when John Grisham took me under his wing and taught me the secrets of thriller writing.’”

Was she ever right! I’ve since penned a memoir about the experience of working on a novel with John. My editor recently sent me flap copy for revisions and she fell into the same hole, starting off with lunch. I rewrote it to say, “I had seven unpublished novels …” and now it sings.

For the soon-to-be-released novel I wrote under John’s guidance, Sleeping Dogs, he summed it up this way: “An old pilot with a terrible secret about a lost nuke leads a disgraced Pentagon whistleblower to find it while the Pentagon and Al Qaeda follow close behind.”

The second must-have is a strong middle. John maintains the hardest part of writing a novel is the 300 pages in the middle. Coming up with the opening and ending is easy, he says. It’s that 300-page hunk in the middle that has to hold up and not run out of gas.

He wrote his first novel, A Time To Kill, without an outline and it took him three years of trial and error. When he sat down to write The Firm, he used the outline format for the first time. It proved to be a godsend. When he came to the realization that he had to come up with a novel a year to stay on top of the pile, outlines became a permanent part of his writing process. With a completed outline, you have the confidence that the story you are about to tell has the staying power to carry the reader from the beginning to the middle and through to the end. Grisham even had me write a chapter outline to “keep me honest,” as he put it, which helped me know what was going on at every point in the book.

In crafting a strong middle, however, you have to avoid falling into the risky trap of subplots. Though they can keep the action going, it’s easy for subplots to wander off and become distracting. The reader gets confused, losing track of where the book is going and puts it down. Grisham calls meandering subplots “detours,” taking the reader off the main road of the plot. For example, a writer can veer off about Grandma’s marvelous pie-making skills, which she learned from a German chef who cooked for Kaiser Wilhelm and the German ruler who had his botanists develop a special strain of apples that yadda, yadda, yadda. The novel is about a young actress who gets a huge part in a new play but the author is ranting on about the Kaiser’s apples.

To avoid detours, I employ a technique I picked up from Grisham I call “stringing pearls”: a helpful visual to keep writers on the straight and narrow. It’s important to make sure each subplot is on the same string as the main plot, or a parallel string so that the subplot ends up in the same place and doesn’t veer off into the woods. Remember that agents say their main reason for rejecting manuscripts is weak plots. And fogging up your main plot up with a bunch of unrelated subplots will doom your book in the marketplace.

The third must-have is a great hook. You must hook your readers in the first 40 pages or you risk losing them. I reread a bunch of John’s novels, and damned if he doesn’t come close to precisely following that rule in all his books. In The Firm, the scene when one of the law firm employees talks about killing someone happens on Page 39, and that’s exactly where you realize the hero is in deep trouble. For the rest of the novel, you’re pulling for the new associate as he deals with the frightening realities of his new job.

If you don’t get the hook in by Page 40, the readers’ minds start to wander and you’re on the way to losing them.

So by figuring out how to nab them early, developing a plot that won’t run out of gas, and summing it all up in a great elevator pitch, you’re well on your way to a great novel.


Tony Vanderwarker

—Founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, Tony Vanderwarker is author of the memoir Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book And Changed My Life (Skyhorse, February 2014) about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs, releasing through Skyhorse at the same time. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.



For more from WD, check out a copy of the latest issue of Writer’s Digest. And if you need some help surviving and thriving in the writing life? Check out James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers

Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel can be like fighting a series of battles—against the page, against one’s own self-doubt, against rebellious characters, etc. Featuring timeless, innovative, and concise writing strategies and focused exercises, this book is the ultimate battle plan and more—it’s Sun Tzu’sThe Art of War for novelists.

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