Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker - Book Review

Writing with the Master: How One of the World's Best Selling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life by Tony Vanderwarker (Skyhorse Publishing, February 2014, 208 Pages, $24.95) details the story of a successful retired advertising executive who is also an unpublished closet writer of seven novels that have never seen the light of day. Vanderwarker's story can serve both as an inspiration to aspiring writers and as a cautionary tale to the same people as it emphasizes the sweat, anxiety, and just plain hard work that go into writing. Vanderwarker finds success as he develops his skills as a craftsman in a world where persistance and hard work are more the hallmarks of success than inspiration.

Tony Vanderwarker had a long and successful career as an advertising executive in Chicago, where he worked as a copywriter and salesman before rising to success with major national clients in his own agency. Along the way he created campaigns and slogans familiar to those who pay attention to such things. He was able to sell his agency and retire to a gentleman's farm near Charlottesville, VA,the beautiful home of Thomas Jefferson's beloved University of Virginia, as well as best selling thriller writer John Grisham. Vanderwarker and Grisham became friends after meeting at a football game in which their sons were playing and through their work in a conservation organization dedicated to preserving the lovely rolling hills in central Virginia from excessive development. Their friendship ripened to the point where Grisham, whose legal thrillers and other novels have sold over 250 million copies worldwide, eventually said, "Look, I'd be willing to help you if you'd like. Kind of mentor you through the process." It's the first time Grisham had ever made such an offer, which he may have learned to regret, as the novice novelist and the one of the world's most prolific authors embark on a two year process of developing Tony's novel.

 John Grisham

After Grisham reads the Vanderwarker's draft, already rejected by several publishers, and returns it with a number of scrawled interlinear notes, the two meet periodically to discuss and develop the novel and the process of producing one. Grisham introduces Tony to what he refers to as his rules for writing a novel, which include careful plotting, learning to apply the writer's mantra "show, don't tell," and cutting to bare bones all extraneous materials that might reduce the drive to read while constantly tantalizing readers to read on. It turns out, as might be expected, that this process is agonizingly slow and highly detail oriented, which might seem unlikely for writing works as fast paced as Grisham's novels are. It might be useful to remember that Mark Twain once commented to a friend "If I had the time, I would have written a shorter letter." (also attributed to Blaise Pascal, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, and others). Vanderwarker is effective at humorously communicating the hard work he engaged in and the devastation of the critiques when Grisham returned each successive draft. Along the way, he learns a great deal about himself as well as about the (or at least "a") writing process, for it turns out that Grisham's approach may not be the only one that works.

Tony Vanderwarker
Raised in New England, Tony went to prep school at Andover, spent a couple years at Yale and then served two years in the Peace Corps where he got bitten both by tsetse flies and the writing bug. He went to film school at NYU and made documentaries and a full length feature film which didn’t sell so he decided to try shorter films and went into advertising. Fifteen years later, he had his own ad agency in Chicago where he did “Be Like Mike” for Gatorade. When his partners bought him out, Tony finally had a chance to write full time. It only took him fifteen more years to finally get a book published. “Who cares?” Tony says. “Some writers hit pay dirt fast, others take longer. I’m just glad my time has come.”

In today's publishing environment, Vanderwarker might have fallen prey to the allure of easy self-publishing and robbed himself of the discipline of learning his craft, thus becoming the published author of seven bad books needing much more work before being placed for an audience. Through the hard work apprenticing under John Grisham demanded of him, his writing improved and his life changed. Along the way, he becomes increasingly involved in regional conservation and preservation effort, learns how to accept the help and support of a group of male friends he meets with regularly, and develops an approach to his own writing that eventually yields ripe fruit. His journey is presented in a humorous and light-hearted, masking much of the trauma the at times envelops his life.

Writing with the Master: How One of the World's Best Selling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life by Tony Vanderwarker (Skyhorse Publishing, February 2014, 208 Pages, $24.95) is an engaging read by a likable man who desperately wants to write thrillers. Mentored by mega-best seller writer John Grisham, he learns much more than merely how to write a sellable book. Through the process of developing his project, the larger project of his life becomes increasingly clear to him, and therein lies much of the charm of this very readable tale. By the end, you may not want to buy his products, but you'll probably have bought some of what he learned. Especially interesting for people who write, Writing With the Master is also a good story for people working on themselves. The book was supplied to me by its publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.