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Writing with Grisham - Tony Vanderwarker on Being Coached by the Best

Writing with the Master
Writing with the Master

It's about every new author's dream scenario to be coached and mentored by one of commercial fiction's bests, John Grisham. Imagine one of Forbes Highest Paid and critically acclaimed authors combing over your every word from concept to the last draft. That's the opportunity new author, Tony Vanderwarker was given and he wrote a book about his experience called Writing with the Master: How One of the World’s Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life (Skyhorse Publishing, February 2013).

As soon as I heard about this book, I couldn't wait to read it and I can tell you, if you've ever dreamed of such an opportunity, this book is for you.

I had the chance to ask Vanderwaker about his experience working with John Grisham and what he says are Grisham's laws of storytelling every writer should know.

How did you meet John Grisham and how did the opportunity for him to mentor you come about?
We moved to the Charlottesville area about the same time and met through our sons who played football together. We became friends and often talked about writing, more about his than about mine since he was hitting it out of the park twice a year and I was barely getting on base.

Were you concerned, with all the demands he has, that you might be risking your friendship working with him?
Not at all, he was the experienced writer and I was the willing pupil eager to follow his lead and improve the quality of my writing and books.

You mentioned in the book a few "Grisham's laws" of storytelling. What were the laws briefly?
Hook the reader in the first forty pages, do an exhaustive plot outline to make sure it has the ability to hold up for 350 pages, make your main character likeable so the reader will root for him when the author gets him in trouble and get all your details right.

You include excerpts of not only the drafts of the novel but the outline in this book. For those who haven't read your novel, what's it about?
Sleeping Dogs is based on the fact that there are eleven unrecovered nuclear weapons scattered around the US as a result of accidents and mid-air mishaps during the Cold War. It's the story of a elderly B-52 pilot confined to a VA hospital who is befriended by a nurse who begins to realize that the pilot has a terrible secret. Searching "lost nukes" on the Internet, she discovers Howie Collyer's website that's dedicated to calling attention to the threat lost bombs pose. The two decide to kidnap the pilot and take him on a search for the nuke. What they don't realize is that an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell is watching Collyer and when he takes off with the pilot, a mad scramble ensues with the sleeper cell, the Pentagon which wants to cover-up the lost nukes and Collyer and the nurse. Who will get to the nuke first? The Al-Quada suicide diver intent on detonating the nuke, immolating millions, the Pentagon or Collyer?

What became of your novel? Did it get published? Did it do well?
Sleeping Dogs was picked up by Skyhorse, the publisher of Writing With The Master and they are releasing the two books simultaneously on February 4th. I began working on Sleeping Dogs in 2006 and have been working on it since with the exception of the time I devoted to writing Writing With The Master. And it was only through working with Grisham, did I gain an appreciation for the time and effort it takes to turn out a successful novel.

What did you learn from that experience that you would pass along to new authors?
Never stop perfecting your novel and never give up the dream of having readers enjoy it.

Are you going to write another novel? Will Grisham be at your side?
I'm bringing out two comic novels I wrote previous to working with John and am beginning a new thriller in what I hope will be the Sleeping Dogs series, same main characters facing a new threat. No, I'm not going to be working with Grisham, the training wheels are off and I'm on my own.

What did he have to say when you told him you wanted to write your book about your experience working with him? Does this book have his blessing?
He gave me the go-ahead and generously gave me his permission to use all his notes and comments from our mentoring experience. He complimented me on the craft I displayed in writing it and even acknowledged that some of his comments made him cringe a bit.

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