Mmmm…not a bad neighbor to have: John Grisham. Author Tony Vanderwarker is lucky enough to live near the mega-successful writer and with John’s coaching help, Tony spent two years crafting a novel called Sleeping Dogs. He also wrote a memoir about the experience called Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book And Changed My Life (Skyhorse, February 2014). Along the way, says Tony, his pal John shared “three absolute requirements” for writing popular fiction which found their way into an online issue of Writer’s Digest:
Must-have #1: A pithy elevator pitch. You should be able to capture your book’s essence in one or two sentences. Make them punchy and to-the-point — this will help you stay focused as you write. “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?'”
Must-have #2: A great hook. As Tony put it, “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.”
Must-have #3: A strong middle. According to Tony, “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.” To counter this problem, John depends heavily on outlining. By mapping out his key story points in advance, he can pinpoint mid-book weaknesses and resolve them before he gets into draft mode.
One danger Grisham cautioned against: subplots that can become long, rambling detours. As Tony put it, “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.”
Great writing tips from a master storyteller are always a treat — let’s savor them. Write on!