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Shop Talk: John Vercher on Improvising Novels, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, and Finding the Beats

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John Vercher’s debut novel Three-Fifths was nominated for nearly every crime-writing award imaginable after it was published in 2019. Three-Fifths has also been added to the curriculum at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. John’s forthcoming book, After The Lights Go Out (June 2022), is a literary novel that focuses on a mixed-martial arts fighter suffering from dementia. Oh, and John also happens to be a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu himself. 

But don’t let any of that fool you. John isn’t one of those grind-it-out types of writers. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  

At times throughout our talk, John’s approach to writing baffled me. I listened to his routine—our lack thereof—and thought to myself, There’s no way this guy’s serious. But by the end of our conversation I began to realize John wasn’t only serious, he was way ahead of the game.

John Vercher: Alright, so I’ve been thinking about this since you reached out. I even got into a long conversation with my wife about it. I told her I was either going to bore the shit out of Eli—like, there won’t be enough content—or you’d find it fascinating and love it. Long story short, I am the opposite of precious about craft and writing and writing spaces. I’m just not that dude. There are plenty of hot takes nowadays. Are you a writer if you’ve got a job and have to write? Do you write five-hundred words a day? That shit drives me crazy. It’s always felt very gatekeepy to me. When I first started writing I was working forty-plus hours a week. Same as my wife. We have two kids. So getting—and keeping—my ass in the chair every day, that wasn’t a possibility for me. And then, when I finally did have time to put my ass in the chair, I didn’t feel like writing. I was fucking mentally exhausted. So, when it comes to the process and the craft, man, I just wrote when I could. I’m more fortunate now. I have more time to write, but I could never in good conscience tell someone they had to write every day, especially anybody trying to break in. Writing is hard enough, right? It’s hard enough that you don’t need to feel like if you’re not sitting down to do it today then you must not be doing it.

Eli Cranor: A very Zen approach, man. So no structure. No routine. You just go with the flow. Write when the mood hits you.  

JV: Yeah. I spend a lot of time writing in my head. It’s not always done in front of the computer. It’s on a run. It’s in the shower. It’s any of those places. And I always start with my characters first. Characters and then a situation. So, if there’s a scene that hits me. If there’s something about the character that hits me. Then, yeah, I’ll carve out time. But it’s still not very scheduled. I know, I know . . . There’s some danger in allowing the mood to move you. Somebody said to me the other day, There’s a reason why people who are inspirational coaches make a shit ton of money doing what they do, and that’s because most people aren’t just struck by inspiration.   

EC: Now that I think about it, a “disciplined writer” is kind of an oxymoron.

JV: I don’t even like the word discipline when it comes to writing. It’s just writing. I tried to do the four thirty in the morning thing. I tried writing at five in the morning too, and then it just became—I’m not getting the fuck up. It just wasn’t a fit for me. But writing my first novel was different. Three-Fifths was a more regimented process. With that book I was in my MFA program. I had to be on a timer. I had to have so many pages turned into my faculty advisor. I think there’s a sports metaphor there. Like when a baseball player puts the weight on the bat and starts taking practice swings. After having that amount of discipline for the MFA, I was able to then take the weight off and just go with the flow.

EC: Has having kids changed your writing?

JV: Not much. My wife and I are a great team. If I need to write, she takes the boys. If she needs to do something, then it’s my turn with the kids. Damn. Listen to me saying “my turn with the kids.” I hate when dads say that. I mean, they’re you’re fucking kids. To be honest with you, there are times when I’m like, “Yeah, maybe I should be sitting down to write,” but then the boys want to go outside and play, and I go. I know good and well I can write after they go to bed.

EC: Damn. That’s a gut check for me. I struggle with putting my writing to bed, so to speak.

JV: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I establish boundaries. And I’m at the luxury of having kids that are older. They’re more independent now. So I can bring the computer downstairs and say, Hey, guys, Daddy’s got some stuff to do. We’re able to make it work.

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EC: Jerry Spinelli is one of my favorite authors of all time. He and his wife, Eileen, have six kids. I read somewhere where he described his work schedule as “writing in the cracks.” That sounds like how you do it too. Do you set any word count goals, or hours you’d like to put in each week?

JV: So, when I started really getting deep into my second novel, After The Lights Go Out, I did start to set some goals. If I didn’t quite hit it, I didn’t punish myself. I just got to a point where I was like, Alright, I’m just going to get five-hundred words. When I was blowing through that and still felt like I had juice, I started going with one thousand. Toward the middle of that book I was getting one thousand-word days, and I was getting them regularly. I wasn’t beating myself up to get it every day. I was just in the flow where I couldn’t wait to get back in that world.

EC: Do you outline before you begin to write?

JV: I know where I’m going to start. I have a pretty good idea about the end. But that’s about it. Characters who are in trouble are the most interesting to me. So that’s where I start. I have read a few great books on writing beats recently. 

EC: A what?

JV: A beat is just like what each scene is going to be. What the chapter might look like. At that early stage in the game, I don’t even really consider what I’m thinking about as a chapter. I just know there’s going to be this moment in the book. I’m a huge TV and movie buff, so I was using a lot of this before I even read those books on beats. I just didn’t realize I was doing it. So yeah, that’s how I plan to do my next book too. I haven’t written a word, but I’m already starting to think about beats. 

EC: Moving from the mental to the physical—you look like a beast, man. You definitely take care of yourself. Were you an athlete? 

JV: (laughs) I played grade-school basketball, knee high socks and everything. High School—no organized sports. That was when I fell in love with martial arts. I got a brown belt in Taekwondo in high school. Then in college, I started drinking and didn’t really do anything. Early thirties I got back into mixed martial arts. Started really training serious for the next nine years. Mixed martial arts. Kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. Took a break when my kids were born and then went to just Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I got my brown belt a little while ago but then the Delta variant started kicking up again and I was like, fuck that.

EC: Does your physical regimen have any impact on your creative process?

JV: I’m sure it does, but I’m not really sure how. Something I can articulate—the one commonality that I’ve found between the two—is the rampant imposter syndrome that comes with training jiu-jitsu and writing. Finding ways to overcome it on the mat, that’s important to me. I’ve rarely met the writer who hasn’t felt imposter syndrome in some form or another. I mean, shit. Every time after I’ve written something I’m happy with, I feel like an imposter the next day. It’s the same thing in jiu-jitsu. I told you I just recently got my brown belt, but I’m still like, I’m kind of a shitty purple belt. But how insulting is that to the guy who gave me that belt? You know? It’s the same way with your readers. If somebody likes your book, you can’t just shrug it off and say, Ah, it wasn’t really that good. That’s insulting.

EC: Do you feel like you write better on days when you train?

JV: Nah, not really. But I did just think of something. I wouldn’t have even thought of this until you brought it up, but jiu-jitsu is very improvisational. It’s a lot of thinking on the fly, only looking a few moves ahead. I would say that relates really well to writing. It definitely relates to my style of writing which is improvisational, only trying to think a few moves ahead, a few beats, like we talked about.

EC: Once you finish a draft, what do you do next?

JV: I have two extremely trusted beta readers. When I finish a draft, I usually send it to them again. 

EC: Again?

JV: Yeah, after every thousand-word session, I’m always like, Hey you got five minutes? Want to read what I wrote? And they always do. These two are the best. Ted Flanagan is one of my readers. He’s a great author whose debut hits in October. We got our MFAs together. He’s the greatest, and he’s like one of my most trusted BETA readers. The guy’s just an excellent writer and also just like an awesome all around dude.

EC: So I’ve decided—at least for now—to try and end each one of these columns with a slight deviation in subject matter, a shift from “how” to “why.” Why do you write, John?

JV: You know who Daryl Davis is?

EC: No.

JV: Daryl Davis is this blues musician who has in his lifetime collected hundreds of Ku Klux Klan robes, from, you know, Klansmen. He’s a Black blues musician. Didn’t even start off as an activist. Story goes, he was playing in a club somewhere down south, and there was some good ol’ boy from the Klan who came up to Daryl after the show. This good ol’ boy’s like, I never thought I would’ve liked music like this, but I did. I do. So they sit down and start talking. And the more they talked, the more they wanted to keep talking. The more they liked each other. Eventually, the Klansman started realizing all this rhetoric, all this shit he’d been learning all this time was wrong. None of the things he’d been taught about Black folks was anything like what he’d learned about Daryl. So this guy renounces the Klan. Gives it all up. And now, Daryl’s done that exact same thing with over like two hundred of these guys. He’s been to Klan rallies. That shit stuck with me. I kept wondering what they talked about, and then I realized they did what everybody does when they get together—they shared stories. Stories about who they are and where they came from. Fiction, in particular, allows you to tell stories with a different kind of truth. People connect to stories before they connect to policy or rhetoric or ideas. I think stories are the one commonality we all share. Stories involve some level of empathy, which is an area we—as humans—are really falling short in lately. I know this sounds like a lofty answer in regard to why I do this, but the reason I wrote Three Fifths was because I hadn’t read a story like that. A book that had experiences in it similar to the ones I had. I wanted to connect with people who wanted to read a story like that. So I wrote it.

Read more from Eli Cranor and the Shop Talk series here.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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