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Find more You're Doing It Wrong
Put two writers onstage in a roomful of fans, and you know they’ll get along swimmingly. They’ll gush about each other’s books and nod thoughtfully at each other’s pearls of wisdom. In the bar afterward, of course, it can be an entirely different matter—because that’s when the truth comes out. Unfortunately, we can’t all have a drink at the bar with best-selling authors in order to find out what they really think and how they really talk to each other. That’s why we’re introducing a new feature called You’re Doing It Wrong. In it, we’ll be asking authors to engage in friendly arguments, sharing the kind of back-and-forth you don’t always hear.
Our first two authors to enter the ring—arguing about whether to outline or not—will need no introduction to readers. Lee Child is the author of 16 wildly popular Jack Reacher books (The Affair was the most recent; A Wanted Man comes out in September); and Tom Cruise will embody his hero onscreen in One Shot, opening December 21, 2012. Joseph Finder’s second Nick Heller book, Buried Secrets, earned rave reviews last year—and another of his books, Paranoia, is headed for the screen in 2013 starring Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford. Finder and Child clearly don’t need to be introduced to each other, either—from the sound of it, they’ve been arguing for a long, long time.
* * *
You know how fond I am of you, and I have the greatest regard for you as a writer, but you are flat wrong about one of the great questions of the writing life, whether or not to outline a book before you start. Whenever I’m lucky enough to be on a panel with you, and you’re asked—usually by a novice writer—whether to outline or not, you inevitably claim that you never outline, that you never know what’s going to happen next.
“ . . . you are flat wrong about one of the greatquestions of the writing life, whether or notto outline a book before you start.”
I’ve always thought there was something a bit precious when a writer (usually a self-designated “literary” novelist) proclaims that her characters take over and tell her what to do next. Even that most mandarin of twentieth-century writers, Vladimir Nabokov, ridiculed that notion. Writers who claim their characters tell them what to do “must be very minor or insane,” he said. “My characters are galley slaves.”
I think you actually do know what the main beats are in a story before you sit down to write. It’s in your head. You’ve done it enough to know what has to happen. You know what a savvy reader will predict, so you turn left instead of right. You might not know how Reacher is going to get out of one tricky situation or another, which allows you, the writer, to be in the same position as your reader—thinking, Now what the hell are you gonna do, Reacher? But I’ll bet you know what the set pieces, the big action sequences, and the plot twists are ahead of time.You just don’t put them on paper. Or on screen.
Well, I’m the last person on earth who would claim he’s a literary type, chasing the muse, following his characters wherever they want to take him. Especially that last part. Who’s doing the damn typing here? The characters go where I send them. With a tiny caveat—I think it’s possible to do a substandard hour or two, where you’re not paying 100-percent attention, and your muscle memory warns you you’re heading down the wrong path, and as a kind of face-saving shorthand you say, “the character wouldn’t do it.” And, anyway, the characters aren’t real. They don’t exist. There are only two real people in this deal—the writer and the reader. So let’s dismiss the notion that I give Reacher or anyone else free rein.
What I do is try to match my limited energy with the task in hand, which is to write a full-length novel in six or so months. I feel I don’t have time to plan. I just start, and I see what happens. Like life itself. I think the spontaneity and the suspense benefit tremendously. And—maybe this is personal—if I outlined, then I would already know how the story came out. I would be bored with it by the actual writing stage, and I think that feeling would show through.
“I know you misguidedly prefer to plan . . .admit it: my way works.”
Do I know the beats beforehand? Absolutely not. I promise. I sometimes have a scene or a vision in mind, but it’s ghostly, and it might be abandoned. Do I know the genre well enough to turn left when the reader expects me to turn right? Absolutely, and I’m happy to do that.
But . . . it’s not in my head, and every paragraph is as much of a surprise to me as I hope it is to the reader.
I know you misguidedly prefer to plan (except once, in Power Play, which I thought was a terrific book). So admit it: my way works. Maybe it’s a personality thing. I know you also love to research—like when you had yourself buried alive. Gotta admit, I was impressed and thought I was a bit of a slacker. But what happens if you want to get your main character shot in the leg? You going to try that?
My friend, if I ever get shot in the leg you can be damned sure I’ll find a way to use it in a novel. That’s a solemn promise.
Now, I happen to know that you (like me) love trivia and obscure facts, that you gather brightly colored bits of arcana like a magpie and give them to Reacher (“Rainman with huge biceps,” as NPR recently described him). Reacher’s the guy who knows that “the human brain can withstand front-to-back displacement maybe 10 times better than side-to-side displacement. Some kind of a complicated evolutionary reason.”
See, I don’t think you’re a slacker at all. I actually don’t buy the Lee-Child-never-does-research mythology. That’s an invention. As you yourself pointed out once, after some typically huge event at a Barnes & Noble where you were told they hadn’t had such a crowd since Sarah Palin: “Why not? We have a lot in common. We both make shit up for a living.”
You’re like the smartest kid in the calculus class who never studies but always aces the test. By which I mean, I think that you’re in fact always doing research. I’ve seen you scope out a room and notice some detail that would escape almost anyone else. It’s kind of scary.
We’re both in agreement, I bet, about how annoying it is when a writer shows off what he knows: dammit, I went to a lot of trouble to find out how a 747 recirculates air in the cabin, so I’m putting it all in. Every last bit. Research should be like an iceberg, you once told me—only 10 percent of it visible. Agreed.
“I actually don’t buy the Lee-Child-never-does-research mythology. That’s an invention.”
I do love research, mostly because I like finding stuff out. But I’ve gotten a lot more disciplined about it, since research can be like crystal meth, dangerously addictive. I’m in a research 12-step program. Research is a great excuse for not writing. And when you’re writing a book a year, you can’t waste time. You’ve gotta spend your time wisely.
My theory is that from the very beginning of the Reacher series you set it up so that you’d never need to know too much about America, your adopted country. So you gave him a French mother and an upbringing on military bases around the world. Brilliant. If Reacher gets some detail about his surroundings wrong, well, that’s because he never lived here. And where does Reacher solve crimes? Almost always in made-up towns. You’re not going to be getting e-mails from residents of the town of Despair, Colorado, complaining that Main Street is actually one-way on that block.
But put Reacher on the New York subway, and he gets nice and specific. Because you take the subway all the time, and you notice stuff. You eat at Denny’s, and so does Reacher. A good chunk of Bad Luck and Trouble is set at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Ever stay there, by any chance?
Yeah, I’d say you do research, all right. I’m sure you’ve made the occasional slip (we all do), but you’re not the kind of guy who likes to get things wrong. Neither is Reacher. You’re no slacker at all. You just use your time very, very efficiently.
And speaking of details, I thought Jack Reacher was supposed to be a man without a past—The Lone Ranger with a folding toothbrush, right? But after The Affair (which was terrific, by the way), the Reacher series is starting to have more flashbacks than Lost.
Stay tuned for part 2 of “You’re Doing It Wrong: Lee Child vs. Joseph Finder,” coming tomorrow!
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