Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker


Vanderwarker is a personal friend of John Grisham, and over a casual lunch, Grisham made the mistake of saying, “Sure, I’ll help you with your novel.” Vanderwarker—a former ad man and author of six novel attempts—assumed that Grisham was in for a full mentorship, including reading his first drafts.

Grisham verbally sketches a complete outline for him and Vanderwarker gleefully sets to work, expecting that soon he’ll be driving a Porsche and will be booked on the Today show. But it’s telling that his dream is not to be famous for his novel. He dreams of being famous because John Grisham helped him write his novel.

Vanderwarker reproduces his full outline in WRITING WITH THE MASTER as well as excerpts from the novel, called Sleeping Dogs. It’s so full of rookie mistakes that it’s painful to read. At their next lunch, he learns brilliant insights from Grisham like “chuck out story elements that don’t directly relate to the plot” and “a novel has three acts, and the middle one is the toughest” and “show, don’t tell.” This is Writer 101, but to Vanderwarker, they are groundbreaking revelations. (I see why none of his six novel attempts were ever published.)

Even more painful is the fact that John Grisham is no editor. His editorial letters are reproduced in full, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know how to help Vanderwarker beyond vaguely saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Grisham spends dozens of hours going over Vanderwarker’s novel, but in the end, can only stomach half of it and declines to read the rest.

Vanderwarker doesn’t get the hint. He obviously worships Grisham and sincerely tries to implement his suggestions, but between Grisham’s hazy advice and Vanderwarker’s cluelessness, the novel doesn’t get much better.

After a year, Grisham finally tells Vanderwarker that he can’t help anymore. Vanderwarker interprets that as meaning Sleeping Dogs is ready and starts sending it out. It’s rejected by every agent in town. He puts the novel in a drawer and then has the clever idea of writing a book about what it’s like to write a book with John Grisham. This becomes WRITING WITH THE MASTER. It gets picked up by a small press and becomes Vanderwarker’s first published book. :::head desk:::

Billed as a how-to book full of good advice, WRITING WITH THE MASTER is actually the sad story of a groupie who’d rather piggyback on another man’s success than honestly learn the craft of writing for himself.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers or Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell instead of this book.


12 thoughts on “Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

  1. I hear John Grisham’s next novel is called THE LEECH, about a jerk who wants help with his book, and winds up murdered and no one investigates and that’s just fine.

  2. If the novel was never published, then is it really fair for the tagline to state that Grisham “fixed it?” I think it would have been more interesting if Vanderwarker told about how the experience of working with a successful fiction writer helped him realize he himself was not cut out to be a fiction writer. An honest dealing with that realization would have been something worth reading – not just by writers, either, because is there really anyone who has never, ever found they just really weren’t what/who they dreamed of being?

    As ever, thank you for the thoughtful review, Alex!


    • And thank you for the thoughtful comment, Aniko!

      I believe Sleeping Dogs was picked up by the same small press that published Writing with the Master. It feels very gimmicky to me, as if the reader is meant to read both books side-by-side and marvel at John Grisham’s. . . generosity? Genius? I don’t know.

      I like your idea a lot better. A memoir from someone who tried to piggyback on another person’s hard work, but ended up finding their own path would have made for a more interesting and inspirational story.

  3. It seems to me that the wanna be writer was just najve somewhat. Maybe lazy too, but not out to damage Grisham. I could be wrong on about this, of course.

    • I don’t think Vanderwarker ever wanted to hurt his friend, John Grisham, or make him look bad. He probably thought Grisham would lift him up. But he ended up dragging Grisham down.

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