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John Grisham, 20 Years of Writing

July 2, 2009

Twenty years ago John Grisham couldn’t get published.  But he stuck with his instinct, and 20 years later he has written 22 books that have sold over 250 million copies and spawned ten movies, with an eleventh in development.

“I’m a famous writer in a country where nobody reads.”

Humble, Yet Disciplined Beginnings
Grisham started writing his first book while practicing law. “If I had 30 minutes to an hour, I would sneak up to the old law library, hide behind the law books and write A Time to Kill.” (USA Today Interview with Dennis Moore)

Grisham was consumed with an idea, and he was disciplined in his efforts to write this book.  It would take him 3 years to complete A Time to Kill. “When I started writing in the fall of ’84, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was motivated for all of the right reasons,” he says. “I had a story to tell and I wanted to see whether I could tell it.” (USA Today Interview with Dennis Moore)

I didn’t study writing. I don’t think you can study it. I’ve always read a lot. I don’t study other authors. There’s — it’s a god-given gift to be able to just tell a story, in such a compelling way and 400 pages that hooks the reader into all — till the very end. (Bill Moyers interview)

His friend Bill Ballard said Grisham’s writing habit was very disciplined in spite of the stress of his full time job. “Practicing law was stressful. If he had to get up at 4 a.m. to get in two hours of writing, he would get up at 4 a.m. He certainly has that voice in his head. When he’s writing, his characters are talking to him in his head. (Robert Lee Long, Desoto Times Tribune, June 29, 2009)

Grisham fills in some details: “I would wake up at 5:00, and I’d be at my office by 5:30. That was the only quiet time of the day. Because Renee and I were having babies and life — I was in the legislature in Mississippi. I was, you know, my law office was busy. It was never profitable, but you know, it was still busy. A lot of clients who couldn’t pay. From 5:00 until 8:30, or 9:00, that was the only quiet time of the day. And I’d go to the office and make some strong coffee and sit down and start writing. And I didn’t know, I mean, I’d never written before. My goal, when I started the book, was just to finish it. ‘Cause I’m always starting a new project and never finish….I worked on it for three years. I remember I had to go to court sometimes at 9:00. And I can remember just sitting in court being dead tired ’cause I’d already written for three hours. And it, you know, it’s draining. When you do it a lot it really takes a lot out of you.” (Bill Moyers interview)

The road of writing wasn’t easy.  John experienced many times of doubt and discouragement.  “And there were times I would put it down for a month. And I didn’t really want to go pick it up again. And I would say- I’m tired. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to sleep. Just why am I doing this? I used to walk in a bookstore and see all those tens of thousands of beautiful books and I would say, “Who wants to hear from me?” you know, what have I got to say? How can I add to that? And, you know, I just– I finished it. After three years. And lucky enough to get it published.” (Bill Moyers interview)

Grisham queried forty to fifty publishers with, A Time to Kill.  They all rejected his book.  He was broke, yet he was already writing his second novel, The Firm, “at his desk wedged between the washer and the dryer in the laundry room.”

Two years later the small New York publisher Wynwood Press took a chance on Grisham and printed 5000 copies.

Wynwood was not able to market A Time to Kill as strongly as John wanted, so he bought 1000 copies of his book and began his own book tour and marketing strategy.  While marketing A Time to Kill he finished writing The Firm.

Random House picked up The Firm, and this book launched his career.

Writing Habits
Since then, John writes on average one book a year.  His writing habits are seasonal and have not changed.  He told Slushpile, “The books are written from August to November, from 6 a.m. to noon, five days a week. Old habits die hard….I write at the same place, same table, same chair, with the same cup and type of coffee. The same computer has produced the last fifteen books, and it’s about to give out.” (Slushpile interview)

Outlines
Grisham outlines his stories extensively.  Sometimes these outlines take longer to write than the manuscript.  And at any given time he may be working on several outlines for different stories.

Grisham’s outlines consist of 2 paragraph synopses of each chapter projected for the story. Aside from the editing, the outline is the most painful part of the writing process for Grisham.  Yet he refuses to cut corners on this part of the writing process.

“The more time I spend on the outline, the easier it is to write the book.” (Borders interview)

When you lay out the entire landscape of the book, you see what subplots are not needed, and what characters you may or may not need.  Once it’s all laid out, you can examine how the beginning, middle and end are working.  The beginning has to be captivating.  The middle must have enough interest to sustain two hundred pages. The ending should be unpredictable. This is Grisham’s “secret” to a good story, and the outline is the tool that helps this construction.

This outlining practice was a hard won lesson he learned after writing A Time to Kill. The book was over 900 pages.  “It was a mess,” said Grisham in a Borders interview. Three hundred pages were cut out of the manscript.  This was perhaps one of the greatest writing lessons Grisham ever had. “That’s a lot of hard work, I’m not going to do that again. So when I wrote The Firm, I said, I’m going to outline this thing–to streamline this thing.  I’m going to get it down to a 500 page manuscript so that I won’t have to write the 300 pages that I’m going to throw away. It taught me a valuable lesson about planning–outlining.

Influences
Grisham was a self-taught writer, driven by instinct and by critical reading. He studied successful novels to understand their structure and pace.  Bill Ballard relates, “He analyzed how best sellers were constructed, plot development, at what time readers would be engaged, at what time they would put the book down.” (USA Today Interview with Dennis Moore)

John Steinbeck had a great influence on John’s writing style.  In fact, he says he reads The Grapes of Wrath every three years, and in 2008, he reread all of Steinbeck’s works.

Bill Moyers asked John what fascinated him about The Grapes of Wrath.  John replied, “Just the people. The story. The human conflict. The suffering. And the sense of survival those Oakies had in the face of the great injustice. And, you know, it was written for the little guy. And great characters. A great moment in history that he captured beautifully with– with his best writing, I think, that he ever pulled off at the age of 37. It’s just a great story.” (Bill Moyers Interview)

Grisham also admires Mark Twain, Pay Conroy, and John LeCarre, who he says is “probably my favorite writer.” In one interview Grisham mentioned he recently read E. L. Doctorow’s The March and loved it.

Writing Advice
Grisham has clear advice for fiction writers.

Make the fiction as good as possible, and everything else will fall into place. (John Grisham interviewed at Slushpile.net)

When you write suspense, you cannot spend too much time with other elements of the story, such as setting, food, wine, relationships, etc. It’s a long list. You have to continually keep in mind that you are trying to make sure the pages are turning at a rapid rate. (John Grisham interviewed at Slushpile.net)

Outlines are crucial. I start with Chapter 1 and write a paragraph. Then Chapter 2, then Chapter 3. When I get to Chapter 40 the book had better be finished or I am in trouble. The outlining process is no fun, but it forces the writer to see the entire story. (John Grisham interviewed at Slushpile.net)

Write at least one page every day, without fail. If you’re trying to write a book, and you’re not writing at least one page a day, then the book is not going to get written. (John Grisham interviewed at Slushpile.net)

Soledad O’Brien asked John if he works one book at a time, or on multiple books simultaneously. John responded, “I work on a couple of ideas, and most of them don’t stick.” (CNN with Soledad O’Brien)

June 2009 marks the 2oth anniversary of A Time to Kill, and Dell has released a 20th anniversary edition in paperback, with a new introduction by Grisham.

Further Reading & Watching:

John Grisham’s Author page at Amazon.com

John Grisham’s official website

Dennis Moore’s article at USA Today

Interview with Charlie Rose

Borders Interview

Collection of Interviews at John Grisham Online

Practicing law was stressful. If he had to get up at 4 a.m. to get in two hours of writing, he would get up at 4 a.m. He certainly has that voice in his head. When he’s writing, his characters are talking to him in his head.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Catherine S Santi permalink
    August 30, 2009 12:18 am

    Question:

    On October 9th of this year, my first book will be published through Author House.

    I was told you self promoted your work. Can you tell me what is the best way to promote on a limited income?

    And congratulations on all your accomplishments!

    Thanks so much

    Catherine S Santi

    • August 30, 2009 6:50 pm

      Catherine,
      I haven’t done any self promotion of my work, other than what you see on this blog and my website. Wish I could help you, but there are many others who give you better advice in that area than I could.
      Best of luck.

  2. August 11, 2010 3:04 pm

    In Dec, 2008 i was laid off of my job as a coordnator on TV show. i had no idea what I was going to do. I would get in the internet and job hunt everyday, with no luck. then about two weeks later i got up turn on my PC with the intent to job hunt, but something pulled me away and i went into office and just started writting a story out of nowhere. i have no idea where it was coming from, but it would not stop. when i fiannly finish, i knew it needed work because i knew nothing about writing.
    then a part two to the first story started coming out of me , to make a long story short, 6 books later and iam about to self publish my first book which is 3oo pages amd my second is 598.
    Of course because i have never done anything like this before iam always looking for inspiration, and i just found it so thank and good luck to me.

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