Part One: Writing with a Bat
(Part one of a two-part series about writing and publishing FITNESS CONFIDENTIAL — the new, hit book by Vinnie Tortorich and Dean Lorey.)
Firing Vinnie Tortorich was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I was not a healthy guy. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT had been cancelled and I was traveling the country, visiting schools, happily promoting my NIGHTMARE ACADEMY series, but my diet and lifestyle had caught up with me. I was a good thirty pounds heavier, felt terrible — slow, lethargic — and wanted to stop feeling that way. So, on the recommendation of friends, I hired Vinnie as a personal trainer and was ready to do anything necessary to get in shape, as long as “anything necessary” didn’t involve changing my diet or having to exercise. I guess I thought that the very act of hiring someone would just “miracle” the weight off. Didn’t happen. It wasn’t Vinnie’s fault. My mind wasn’t right. I didn’t lose a single pound or get any fitter. I wanted to quit.
Which is when Vinnie discovered he had leukemia.
We took a walk around my neighborhood, and he explained that he was going to have to stop training people for a while to focus on his illness. I guess, in fairness, I didn’t actually fire him — his cancer got in the way — but after a brutal bout with chemo got his cancer into remission and he started training people again, I didn’t continue working out with him. And yet, the truth is I liked the guy. A lot. We remained friends, occasionally going to King’s fish house for a glass of scotch and a meal.
And then I had my own health scare, after a routine exam showed a blockage in one of the arteries of my heart. Another story for another time…
I realized I needed to make some changes. I’d always eaten like a typical American: pizza, chips, beer. I had worked diligently my entire adult life to get into the crappy shape I was currently in, and now it was time to work just as diligently to repair the damage. I started walking a half hour a day and, when I would meet Vinnie for dinner, I began to pay attention to what he ordered. Usually, a piece of grilled fish and some vegetables.
Without making a fuss, I passed on my typical meal of battered shrimp or fried fish and chips and just ate what he did. Vinnie noticed, but didn’t say anything. After a time, I started dropping some weight. Vinnie commented on it, suggesting that maybe I wanted to mix a little jogging into my walking. And after he saw I was enjoying the jogging, he suggested that maybe I should train to run a half marathon. After a LOT of hemming and hawing, I finally agreed, trained for it, completed the Malibu half-marathon and had a blast doing so.
Eventually, I dropped over 30 pounds and felt great.
And, somewhere in there, I started thinking that maybe there was a book in Vinnie’s way of eating, as well as his philosophy of exercise and his incredible life story, which included not only his fight with leukemia, but his completion of the brutal Furnace Creek 508 cycling competition (biking 508 straight miles through Death Valley) the year after getting his cancer into remission.
But what was the book?
Was it a diet and exercise book? Lose 10 pounds in 10 days…
Was it a book about being a cancer survivor?
Was it a book about being an ultra athlete?
Was it a tell-all about training celebrities?
Was it an expose on the shadier side of the fitness industry?
Or maybe it was a book about growing up in the Louisiana swamps, beaten and teased by other the kids (not to mention nuns…) until finding salvation through fitness after seeing Jack LaLanne on TV.
The only thing Vinnie and I knew for sure was what it wasn’t. It wasn’t going to be a tell-all about training celebrities. Vinnie was very protective about guarding the privacy of the people he trained, and I didn’t want to write that kind of crappy, hack book anyway. So we batted around ideas. It was a tough nut to crack. The only thing I clung to was that it had to be written in his voice. The guy is funny. He’s a blue-collar Italian by way of the Louisiana swamps, and his raunchy, no screwing around, r-rated take on fitness felt very fresh to me.
Still, the task seemed monumental.
I’d never written a non-fiction book before — I mostly wrote for TV shows and movies, and my NIGHTMARE ACADEMY book series was fiction. So, while trying to figure out what to do, I asked Vinnie to write up notes on anything that struck his fancy. His philosophy on eating and exercise. Anecdotes about training people. His experiences as an ultra athlete and his bout with Leukemia. Maybe I was just stalling, because I had no idea what to focus on. But Vinnie responded with something like 30,000 words worth of notes: amazing stuff, hilarious, touching — but all over the map.
What the hell was this book?
And then it came to me.
I sat down with Vinnie during another dinner at King’s and told him, “You have to read KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL by Anthony Bourdain. It’s brilliant. It’s not a cookbook, although there’s some cooking advice in there. It’s not a memoir, although you certainly learn a lot about the guy. It’s not a how-to on becoming a chef, even though you can find a lot of that stuff in there. It’s basically all those things, wrapped up in a great narrative about living the insane life of a restaurant pro. That’s what we’re going to do, because your life is easily as interesting as his. It’s going to be KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL in the fitness world.”
And so FITNESS CONFIDENTIAL was born.
Vinnie came over to my house every day and, for about three hours, we would write. Usually, we’d start by standing in my kitchen, eating pistachio nuts and talking through what we were going to tackle that day. Then we’d go up to my office, I’d sit at the computer, he’d sit next to me, I’d ask him questions, he’d talk and I’d type. And when Vinnie got in a ranting mood (which was common) he would pace.
The first chapter we tackled was the one about how health clubs are worse than used car lots. I still didn’t know where in the book that chapter might be, but at least the topic seemed compelling, fresh and funny. And that became our yardstick. We only wrote what we wanted to read — fast, fun and entertaining stuff with heart and good advice, minus the bloat. If we felt like a chapter was merely “obligatory” or “necessary,” we kicked it to the curb until we could find an entertaining way to get out the same information.
Our goal was to make sure that nothing in the book felt like homework. We wanted it to be great beach reading, as enjoyable as the latest Dan Brown thriller. There’s life-changing advice in there, but we wanted to make the medicine go down easy. And because neither of us had ever written a book like this before, we viewed everything through this simple lens: if we had fun when we read back through it, it stayed. If not, out it went.
We finished the health club chapter and then decided to tackle a chapter about personal trainers. I had no idea where to begin, so I asked Vinnie “What’s your take on trainers in general?” And he said, in that growly voice of his, “Trainers are like astronauts.” I remember staring at him, thinking how in hell is he going to compare personal trainers to freaking astronauts? And he did, in the most bizarre and hilarious way possible. And I thought, “If Vinnie has these off-the-wall points of view on everything, we have a real book here.” I had no idea if anyone other than me would want to read it, but screw it. We first have to write to please ourselves, right?
We continued working together every day and, slowly, pages began to pile up.
One day, Vinnie walked in with a Louisville Slugger and started pacing and talking while smacking the bat in the palm of his hand. It was unnerving, because he was often walking behind me, getting angrier and angrier as he ranted about how the fitness industry was screwing people just to make a buck, while he loudly cracked that damn bat just out of my sightline. It reminded me of that great scene in THE UNTOUCHABLES, where Robert DeNiro beats a guy to death during a fancy luncheon while talking about “baseball!”
In fact, we actually started watching that UNTOUCHABLES scene for inspiration… along with the occasional music video. I have news for Shakira: she’s right. Hips don’t lie. We also folded in some FAMILY GUY clips. I remember almost laughing myself to tears while watching the one about the guy at a bank, cutting to the front of a line of Italians. “Hey, whoa! Get to the back of the line, Copernicus!”
We kept writing and, eventually, started to get to the personal stuff.
Vinnie began to talk about his childhood, and about a hearing defect he was born with that caused him to talk funny, which made him a favorite target for bullies and the nuns that taught at the Catholic school he went to. As he told me about it, he became emotional, which startled me. I never knew any of this stuff about his childhood and I had no idea that it had affected him so deeply.
We were at a crossroads.
Either the book was going to be a fun, but superficial, read (albeit with great fitness advice) or it was going to dig deeper. But digging deeper was going to require Vinnie to bare himself in a personal way, and I wasn’t sure he was up for it.
He talked and I listened and wrote, always trying to find the plain truth in what he was saying. I knew it wasn’t easy for him to open up like that — he is, after all, a bit of a tough guy — but he soldiered on, even as we got to his discovery that he had leukemia, as well as the draining chemo sessions that followed. I would press him for details to try to get to the core of what he was feeling in those moments about life, death, and how fragile it all is. And finally, in talking about the fragility of life, he arrived at a revelation that seems so simple but struck me as very profound.
We are not weak, we are strong.
That sentiment became the cornerstone of the remainder of the book. Vinnie kept talking, I kept typing. Occasionally, he’d look at something and shrug. “I wouldn’t say it like that.” Then I’d ask him how he would say it, and it was almost always better.
I only wanted to kill him once. While reading what I was writing, he used his bat to point something out by sticking the damn thing a half-millimeter from the glass screen of my beautiful new iMac. We almost experienced a murder/suicide. I’m not sure who was murdering and who was suiciding, but I know it would have ended with Anderson Cooper shaking his head sadly. I would later learn that he got the bat to begin with to help remind himself to “keep your eye on the ball.” He was focused.
The process was pure pleasure. We wrote and ate thousands of pistachio nuts and laughed and endlessly re-watched Shakira videos. And then, one day, just like that, we were done.
Until we realized we weren’t.
We hadn’t chronicled his experience competing in the Furnace Creek 508, and that’s where the book told us it wanted to end. So we listened to what the book demanded of us (damn that book!), rolled up our sleeves, and went back to work. Several weeks later, we had a blow-by-blow, blood and guts and even piss account of what it’s like to compete in one of the world’s most grueling ultras.
Finally, finally, we were done.
With a first draft.
Then we began polishing, tightening, clarifying, rearranging. We worked it to death, until we ultimately had something we both felt proud of. I sent it to my book agents and we waited nervously to hear what they thought. And it turned out what they thought was this:
Who the hell is Vinnie Tortorich?
At the time, Vinnie was a top Beverly Hills personal trainer but, to most of the world, he was an unknown. This was before his iTunes podcast was even a flicker of a notion of an idea. He had a website at the time, but it had been hacked so that, when you went to it, you saw a cartoon picture of a devil face and the words: Hacked by the Devil.
It was not encouraging.
The agency insisted that Vinnie improve his online profile and find a way to reach out to people. So he started his (now hugely successful) podcast with Anna Vocino, cleaned up his website, got on Twitter and discovered, to his shock, that people really responded to what he had to say and how he said it. And the podcast took on a life of it’s own. Instead of being something to help bring awareness to the book, it became a separate, incredibly popular thing. He and Anna worked on it tirelessly.
Eventually, Vinnie got his own agent and, with the podcast now a hit and his online profile raised, we went out with the book to all the major publishers. And the answer from the publishing world was unanimous.
They weren’t interested.
Not a single publisher wanted the book — at least not the way it was written. They were interested if it was what they called a “prescriptive” (lose 10 pounds in 10 days!) or if it was a tell-all, exposing the dirt on celebrities, but this thing, this mix of fitness advice and memoir — nope.
So we faced a choice.
We could either rewrite the book, sand away the rough edges, and make it something more palatable and marketable for the major publishers in order to land a sale. Or we could publish it ourselves and release it to the world exactly the way we wanted it.
We decided to self publish.
(Coming soon — part 2 of FITNESS CONFIDENTIAL: Behind the Scenes. The Heaven and Hell of Self-Publishing.)
And just so you can see that I not only wrote this, I lived it — this is what I looked like before I started Vinnie’s No Sugar/No Grains (NSNG) program.
BUY FITNESS CONFIDENTIAL! The new, hit book by Vinnie Tortorich and Dean Lorey!