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Find more You're Doing It Wrong
In yesterday’s opening salvo, Joe Finder told Lee Child, “you are flat wrong about one of the great questions of the writing life, whether or not to outline a book before you start.” This sparked a fiery but friendly back-and-forth as the two old friends sparred on this and other issues of the writing craft. In the conclusion to this installment of You’re Doing It Wrong, we find these best-selling writers getting along better—but still willing to challenge each other’s way of doing things.
* * *
Your charm is legendary and you just used it to slide past my question about getting shot in the leg. We’ll come back to that one day.
You’re right about research. My flippant answer is, “I don’t do any.” And I don’t, in terms of notebook-and-camera tasks related to a work in progress. The iceberg factor prevents that, I think. Things have to settle and percolate, which takes time. But my pretentious answer is, “A writer’s whole life is research.” And it is. Everyone you meet, every movie you see, every book you read—everything—will be useful one day. And I like knowing stuff. The 747, for instance. Actually I know a lot about its cabin air circulation. I know a lot about the politics, economics, and engineering of its development. (I think it’s one of the few real signature products of the twentieth century. I love it.) I know that the only anagram of “Britney Spears” is “Presbyterians.” Maybe I’ll use that stuff one day, but more likely I won’t.
“I know that the only anagram of ‘Britney Spears’ is ‘Presbyterians.’ Maybe I’ll use that stuff one day, but more likely I won’t.”
The backstory issue you raise is interesting. You gave Nick Heller a real history—the stuff about his dad was terrific. I try to avoid that stuff with Reacher—the man with no past and no future lives only in the present. But the series will soon be 17 books long, and as early as the third, I felt readers needed to see some roots and some resonance. So I have doled it out sparingly now and then in the current-day books, and I have done two prequels. I think that’s the bare minimum—at least, I hope it is.
But you chose a reasonable maximum—family history, issues, and so on. Did you think that through? Did you consider not doing it? What would have happened if Heller’s father’s crime had been left unspecified? Personally I don’t see how it could have worked, but I can’t pin down the reasons. What are they?
Really interesting question. (Fellow writers always ask the best questions, I’ve found. No “where do you get your ideas?”)
When I started the Nick Heller series, I had the luxury of having published eight novels by then. This gave me a lot of time to think about how to do it. I was also fortunate enough to have you as a friend, so I benefited from your advice.The late Bob Parker was a friend as well, and the one thing he warned me most was to avoid pinning my hero down to a fixed chronology. He’d made Spenser a Korean War vet, which was OK in 1973, when The Godwulf Manuscript was published, 20 years after the Korean War ended. But in 2010, Spenser would have been 75. So he stopped mentioning that inconvenient part of Spenser’s bio. You’ve been careful not to be too specific about dates, but if Reacher was 36 in 1997, as he is in The Affair, he’s gotta be 51 today. I don’t have a problem with that (as a guy in my early 50s who’s in better condition than I was in my 30s)—but who says every contemporary Reacher story is set in the year it’s published? You could be writing about one harrowing year in the guy’s life, an adventure every couple of weeks.
“But for all my planning, I’ve already made some mistakes.”
Anyway, yeah, I thought a lot about Nick’s backstory. I gave him a complicated family background just to give myself some interesting material to work with and make sure the series stayed fresh over the long haul. So I made him a guy who was raised rich (until his dad was imprisoned for fraud). I never considered leaving the father’s crime unspecified, mostly because I think I’d have found that annoying as a reader. Too coy.
But for all my planning, I’ve already made some mistakes. I made him a Gulf War veteran. Whoops. I’ll have to change that in the New York edition. (Henry James rewrote a bunch of his novels and stories around 1907, for what he called the “New York edition,” though it didn’t exactly make the pages fly by any faster.) Then again, Superman/Clark Kent was a grown man in 1938, which would make him around 100 today, right? OK, Superman may not age, but Lois Lane’s got to be a member of AARP by now.
By the way, I read once that John D. MacDonald, creator of Travis McGee and a writer I know we both admire hugely, was so worried he couldn’t write a decent series that he refused to publish the first one until he’d written five of them—to make sure he could sustain it! It took him a bunch of tries to get the character right, even the name (Travis was originally Dallas until the Kennedy assassination). I avoided writing a series until I found a character who had a job (“private spy,” as opposed to private eye) that hadn’t been done to death. I seem to remember your saying that from the beginning you intended Reacher to be a series hero á la Spenser or McGee, but did you think much beyond that about how to build him to last? Here’s why I ask: just about every other great series protagonist has evolved as the author develops his or her chops. (Spenser in Godwulf is a womanizer and sort of a brute, but after a couple of books, he’s become monogamous, sensitive, virtually a feminist—and a gourmet cook.) But—Am I wrong?—Reacher is the same guy after 17 books.
“Jack Reacher should have jumped the shark many books ago.”
Also, I have to ask: your prose is so damned spare, declarative, and crisp. Do you really not revise? How the hell is this possible? (John D. MacDonald: “It takes brute effort to achieve the illusion of effortlessness.” Easy reading is damned hard writing, someone once said.)
And: Jack Reacher should have jumped the shark many books ago. But after 17 books, it’s pretty clear you’re not coasting. How do you keep it fresh for you as the writer? You aren’t really going to kill the golden goose after the twentieth book, are you?
Maybe a companion quote to the easy-reading-is-hard-writing thing should be “Really effective planning reads like no planning at all.” I remember when you were first musing about the Heller series. (The restaurant where we had the great burger closed—a neighboring tower bought the lot for its lobby—and then went bankrupt . . . . The restaurant is still just a hole in the ground. Damn!) I know you thought about it in great depth and detail (that personality thing again, I guess), but it doesn’t read like that. Heller just breezed onto the scene like a force of nature. He didn’t feel planned at all.
In my case, yes, I wanted a series, because I love them as a reader . . . the aforementioned MacDonald, and Parker, and all the other greats. But in a rare flash of intuition, I looked ahead 10 years and thought about being bored—I had been bored 10 years into my previous career and was aware of the danger. Also, I looked at all the other series just starting out, and wanted to be different, in a purely down-and-dirty market way, and so I bet everything on a no-job, no-location, no-supporting characters, no-soap-opera idea. Planning? Kind of, I suppose, but all contrarian—I wanted to stay off the bandwagon, and I wanted not to be trapped down the line.
“Readers don’t want Reacher to change. They don’t want him to grow and develop.”
So I really do feel it’s fresh to me, even 17 books in. Everything can change on every axis between books. Even though Reacher always stays the same . . . because I think comfort and familiarity are huge in terms of series appeal. Readers don’t want Reacher to change. They don’t want him to grow and develop. Which was a stumbling block with Hollywood—Reacher has no character arc. He’s the same at the end as at the beginning. He doesn’t learn anything, because he knew it to start with. Eventually a small cadre of producer, writer, director, and star emerged that totally got it, and was comfortable with it. I don’t think the movie will change anything in future books. Reacher is who he is. He’ll shrug and say nothing and move right along. I’ll terminate him when I feel like it. Could be soon, could be years in the future. He would expect nothing less of me.
Rewriting? September’s book, A Wanted Man, had a sentence starting, “In the center of each panel was stenciled a design . . . ,” which I’m sure meant something to me when I typed it, but on the read-through it didn’t seem to make much sense, so I changed it to “Each container had on its side a stenciled design . . . .” and that was it. Seven words out of 112,000. Because for me, with no plan and no outline and no overarching theory, I feel when it’s done, it’s done. I believe very strongly that a book is a kind of snapshot of who the writer was during the months of composition. I can’t change who I was last year, so I shouldn’t change the book. And—weird, but you’ll understand—this stuff is kind of real to me. Sometimes an editor will say, “Wouldn’t it be better if this happened before that”, and I’ll think, “Yeah, probably . . . but it didn’t.”
All this is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Any two writers will have three opinions. From a wide-angle perspective we’re identical twins, working similar seams in a tough business. Up close we’re chalk and cheese professionally . . . or are we? Are we not just two scufflers trying to make a living in showbiz?
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