Writing Advice from John Grisham

So. A few days ago my friend Mark (check out his blog: makinghismark) turned me on to a recent NPR interview with John Grisham. In my friend’s words, “it’s motivating.” See, Mark and I are both aspiring fiction writers, so when he described the interview, I knew it was something I had to check out.

Grisham was on NPR promoting his new novel, “Camino Island.” I’ve read a number Grisham’s legal thrillers over the years, but when I think about writing advice, Grisham’s name isn’t really the first jumping to mind. But of course, since he’s an incredibly successful writer, anything he has to say on the matter is relevant to aspiring novelists like me.

There were two points during the interview where Grisham’s words stood out to me. NPR’s host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Grisham about his thoughts on the current state of the “book world” as she put it. Grisham voiced his concerns, but transitioned to another point that really interested me. He said:

And I tell writers who are trying to get published, you know, it’s sort of discouraging. I got discouraged, you know, 30 years ago when I’d walk into a bookstore and see all – the wall full of these big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list and I would say, good gosh, who wants to hear from me? And I would get discouraged by that. But every year, you know, several hundred first-time novelists are going to be published. And publishing needs the new talent every year. Publishing needs a new best-selling author every year.

I found this fascinating. It’s hard to believe an author whose sold almost 300 million copies of his work would ever be discouraged, but sure enough, he was at the start. He paints a picture I see myself in all the time. (Literally every time I walk into a bookstore.) After hearing this, I discovered Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” was rejected by 28 publishers before being picked up for a modest printing run by an unknown, small publishing house that went bankrupt a year later.

Grisham’s declaration that “publishing needs new talent every year” is incredibly encouraging. And it makes sense. We need new voices. Sure, any bookstore will sport a wall of best-sellers, but there will always be room for more. There will be room for my work.

It’s toward the end of the interview when Grisham provides his best advice for writers. He said:

I tell students, people who are trying to write, there’s, you know, certain tips that – I guess we, you know, call them tips, suggestions, do’s, don’ts, whatever.

But you’ve got to find somebody who loves you, who can read your stuff and be critical, and somebody who really wants you to succeed. It can be a teacher, a parent, a spouse or girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, somebody who’s on your side but who can be very honest with you. And that’s – you’ve got to have a sounding board.

This piece of advice articulates an important part of the writing process. Grisham’s “sounding board,” as he described it, is his wife, who he revealed “reads everything before anybody else does.”

Finding a reliable sounding board provides a writer with an outlet to collect important feedback. Some people might hesitate to share their work, but it’s vital for writers to understand how their work is being received. It’s during the revision stage where a writer can take that feedback and make necessary adjustments to their stories.

While I work toward my goal of being a published novelist, I will continue to heed the advice of successful writers like John Grisham. I will try to avoid discouragement and I will search for sounding boards to help me improve my work so that one day I can walk into a bookstore and see my novel on the wall full of big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list.

Here’s a link to purchase “Camino Island” from Books & Books, the locally-owned, independently-minded neighborhood bookstore with five locations in South Florida. Books & Books serves as a community center for writers and readers, hosting 60 author events a month.

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