The John Grisham Primer for Writers

Caleb Pirtle III takes a look at the hallmark career of John Grisham, who is recognized as the wealthiest mystery writer of them all, providing some of Grisham’s key advice for writers. 

John Grisham had toyed with the idea of becoming a writer someday, but that was in the ninth grade, so it didn’t count. He became a lawyer instead. Didn’t like it much. Worked too hard. The hours were too long. Besides, there wasn’t a lot of money being a public defender in a small Mississippi town where the poor, especially the black and poor, couldn’t afford the best and never had much of a chance of winning.

John Grisham

In an interview with Nicholas Wroe of the Guardian, he recalled, “I represented real people, poor people, who often couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer, but still had problems. Directly across the street from my office were insurance companies, banks, and big corporations. It was a very clear line between us, and I learned very quickly who my friends were.”

He didn’t like it, but being a lawyer changed his life.

John Grisham may have only been a bystander, but he was in the courtroom when a twelve-year-old girl testified about her rape. She was ashamed, embarrassed, and horrified. He turned and looked at the girl’s father, trying to imagine what would happen if the angry man took matters into his own hands.

What if the father turned his back on the court and judicial system?

What if he took his own measure of revenge?

How would the law respond?

What would society say?

The thoughts refused to leave him. Grisham said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement: “I was doing a lot of courtroom work. I was a very young lawyer, but I was handling a lot of court appointed criminal cases, in trial a lot. And I knew the criminal system, and I knew a lot about it. And so I came up with a story about a murder trial, and some of it was based on personal experience. Most of it was not. And I kept telling myself that I would like to be the lawyer who defended a father who murdered the two guys who raped his daughter. I think it would be a fascinating case. One thing led to another, and I was sort of consumed with this story. And one night I just said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to capture it, see what I can do with words.’ And that’s what happened.”

John Grisham at a book signing. Photograph: Academy of Achievement

The writing of A Time to Kill took him three years. Grisham remembered what his ninth grade teacher told him when he had announced to her that he wanted to be a writer, she told him: “Write what you know, and write every day.”

He knew law. He forced himself to write every day. Grisham would roll out of bed at five o’clock every morning, head down to his office, which was five minutes away, and write until seven. He wanted to write at least one page a day. Some days it took ten minutes. Some days it took the full two hours. On many mornings he doubted that he would ever finish the novel.

A time to Kill found a little publisher but no audience at all. In desperation, Grisham bought five thousand copies and sold them out of the trunk of his car. He had a book but little else. He remembered, “When I stated, my motives were pure. I was not driven by greed or money. I had a story. It was a courtroom drama.” That’s all.

He kept writing, stealing whatever time he could from his law practice. And two years later, he wrote the final paragraph to The Firm.

It was an immediate blockbuster. When the book hit the New York Times bestseller list at number twelve, Grisham clipped the list from the newspaper and stuck it to his office wall. He did the same thing for the next forty-four weeks.

Grisham says, “These people are my friends. I couldn’t imagine publishing a book and not going back to their bookstores to see them.” Photograph: Academy of Achievement.

As Grisham said, “My first publishing experience was entirely normal, and my second entirely abnormal. I responded much better to the second experience than I did the first.”

He was working on his third novel, The Pelican Brief, churning out a page a day, maybe two pages on a good day, when, Grisham said, he received the most important and valuable advice he ever received. It came from the most unlikeliest of sources.

He was at a book signing when a very young executive with the chain happened to mention to him in passing, “The big guys come out every year.”

He was talking about Tom Clancy and Stephen King and Ken Follett and Michael Crichton, and John Grisham wanted to be among the big boys. He suddenly understood the value of coming out with a new book like clockwork, year after year.

He went home, locked himself inside a room for sixty days, and finished The Pelican Brief. Exactly one year later, he published The Client, and those books placed the name of John Grisham on everybody’s bestseller list. By the 1990s, Grisham Day in bookstores, large and small, became a fixed point of the publishing year, of the publishing wars. No other publisher dared to release a book if it might be forced to compete with Grisham’s newest work. Such a conflict would be an immediate recipe for disaster.

As he said, “My name became a brand, and I’d love to say that was the plan from the start. But the only plan was to keep writing books. And I’ve stuck to that ever since.”

John Grisham has provided the following advice for writers:

  • I know what I do is not literature. For me, the essential component of fiction is plot. My objective is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible. If I want to achieve that, I can’t allow myself the luxury of distracting him. I have to keep him hanging on, and the only way to do that is by using weapons of suspense. If I try to understand the complexities of the soul, people’s character defects, and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.
  • I always try to tell a good story. That is my first and primary goal. Sometimes I can tackle an issue – homelessness, tobacco litigation, insurance fraud, the death penalty – and wrap a good story around it.
  • I give off rather mixed messages about the law. On the one hand, I can honestly say I don’t miss working in a law office. On the other hand, I do enjoy watching the law, and while the profession may have its problems, I have sold zillions of books out of magnifying them.
  • I was a lawyer for ten years – a short time – but it molded me into who I am. My clients were little people fighting big corporations, so it was a natural thing to not only represent the little guy but also to pull for him – it’s the American way.
  • I’m a Christian, and those beliefs occasionally come out in the books.
  • However, one thing you really have to watch as a writer is getting on a soapbox or pulpit about anything. You don’t want to alienate readers.
  • Don’t compromise yourself – you’re all you have.
  • In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you is original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard.
  • Over the years, I’ve written two types of books: those that pick up an issue, and what Graham Greene called entertainments.
  • I don’t dare think of the future. The past is still happening.
  • You live your life today, not tomorrow, and certainly not yesterday.
  • If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough.
  • I have learned not to read reviews. Period. And I hate reviewers. All of them, or at least all but two or three. Life is much simpler ignoring reviews and the nasty people who write them. Critics should find meaningful work.
  • I always do book signings with the same blue pen. That way, if I add a personalized message to a book I’ve already signed, it’ll be the same color as my signature.

John Grisham has reached the top of the writing profession. His books have sold more than three hundred million copies. He has earned more than six hundred million dollars. Yet, he admits: “Quite often I can be in a bookshop beneath a great big picture of myself and paying for a book with a credit card clearly marked John Grisham, but no one recognizes me. I often say I’m a famous author in a country where nobody reads.” They’ve read enough to make him rich.

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