Five Writing Traps John Grisham Helped Me See
By Tony Vanderwarker
I had 7 unpublished novels languishing away on my hard drive and an overflowing shelf of rejection notices when John Grisham -- a friend and neighbor -- took me under his wing and taught me his writing secrets. Along the way I gained immense appreciation for the craft and expertise required to construct and realize powerful plots engaging millions of readers.
To say Grisham is a taskmaster would be a new level of understatement. First thing he told me: “The best advice is based on brutal honesty.” And brutal he was. He savaged every outline and every draft I produced. But the experience taught me how to spot a number of traps that nail all writers at one time or another, inflicting flesh wounds that may seem minor but can quickly get infected and ruin a good story.
Grisham himself looks out for these traps as he writes:
Repeating. This is something we all do instinctively. We use a word in a sentence and then use the word again. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. And why is it a trap? Because it flattens out your writing. Look at how much flavor and character the above sentence has if I rewrite it: Choose a word for a sentence and work it to death by using the same one again. It’s a tough discipline to catch onto but once you ingrain it into your neural processes, your writing will dramatically improve.
This-ng. Or, using a catchall word to make the going easy. For example: “He didn’t like being treated like this.” What’s this? That’s lazy writing, leaving the reader to do the work. “This caused Thomas to make a wrong turn.” Instead of, “The corpse Thomas saw in the road ahead caused him to make a wrong turn.” Not much different in communication but a whole lot more involving in feeling. I had an English teacher, Mr. Powell -- a mean cuss. Powell would whack a wooden yardstick down on his desk every time he heard the word “this” read aloud in a student’s essay. I still do a little jump when I hear this being used.
Wandering. We all have fascinating offshoots inherent to our stories we’re tempted to unfold for our readers. But when you get off onto the rhubarb pie that Grandma’s uncle used to make back in Columbus when you had to cook over wood fires, yadda, yadda yadda—you’ve gone too far. Grandma’s only in one scene. The uncle’s pie in Columbus has got to go. You have to keep calling yourself, “Does this deviation have anything to do with my central plot or is it a detour that’s going to distract my reader until he or she finally sets my book aside in frustration?”
Roadblocking. Grisham relayed this term to me, used by his agent, David Gernert. Literally throwing a roadblock in front of a reader’s train of thought, roadblocking brings the reader to a complete stop. Here’s an example:
“Joss poured himself an ice-cold Coke from the bottle on the counter and sat down next to me. ‘Looking cute today,’ he said. I whipped my hand out and slapped him, almost knocking the beer out of his hand.”
Wha??? He was drinking a Coke but in the next sentence had a beer. The reader’s left puzzling and as a writer, you’ll be lucky if you don’t lose him or her.
Speeding. In other words, putting the pedal to the metal when you need to take it slow. Grinding out a novel or non-fiction can be wearying and dismaying so it’s natural to smell the barn and rush for it. Invariably though, your writing is going to suffer. Not that you have to crawl, but trying to write an arbitrary eight or ten pages a day is not going to help you in the long run. You’ll make mistakes, take easy ways out, shortcut the really sparkling writing with ordinary stuff and end up putting yourself in a hole that’s hard to crawl out of.
I learned to spot all these traps the hard way, each draft Grisham returned to me looked like a flock of of chickens with inked feet had tromped over it. He deleted whole sections and pointed out my roadbloacking, repeating, this-ing and more. Mocked them openly sometimes, too. Another understatement: it stung.
Get these traps out of the woods you write in sooner rather than later and your story -- and morale -- will thrive. You’ll get more mileage out of time spent in critique groups or partnerships, focusing on the bigger picture of characters and plot.
And if you find any new traps let me know so I don’t step in them, too.
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 in 2014. He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny.
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