A couple of days ago, I started reading the second Jack Reacher book Lee Child ever wrote. And his first Jack Reacher book was also very his first novel and a New York Times bestseller.
That “bestseller” label doesn’t always do it for me, but this is good stuff.
The guy’s an excellent writer. As opposed, say, to someone else who’s also always on the bestseller lists only because he’s a masterful marketer. Umm, even though his writing sucks canal water from all 50 states plus Puerto Rico.
Somehow that feels like cheating to me.
But Lee Child is an excellent writer, and I’m learning a great deal. Mostly I’m learning what do do, and a little what not to do.
I’ve found only a few “what not to do” things thus far. The first, his repeated spelling of “Marines” in all lower case, I already knew. But that was only in his first book, and the rest of the writing (and the story) was so strong I was able to overlook it. As a happy bonus, he corrected that error beginning with the second book.
The second, his interchangeable use of “clip” and “magazine” is annoying. But again, the story is so good that’s easy to overlook.
Of the “what to do” things, I’ve found some that I already know and use. That was useful to me anyway because his use of the same techniques validates my own use of them.
● Like me, he gets deep inside the character’s head. Every word he puts on the page is filtered through the POV character’s senses and opinions of the setting, other characters, etc.
● Like me, while he’s inside the character’s head, he sometimes slows the action with a lot of psychological stuff. It’s called psychological suspense. I noticed that most often he employs this technique when he’s leading up to a fast-action scene. But the psychological stuff is still gripping and holds my interest because it describes, in minute detail, a heightened thought process.
● Like me, he sometimes also employs Film Director Sam Pekinpah’s method of meticulous visual description of an otherwise fast-action event. This also slows the action, sort of, while pulling the reader directly into the center of it. It puts the reader inside the action in the place of the POV character. Usually that’s the good guy. Sometimes it’s the bad guy. It doesn’t bog down the action at all.
● Like me he sometimes drags the reader at breakneck speed through a fast-action scene that leaves the reader breathless. This usually occurs toward the end of a chapter. There will be a fast-action scene, then a short calming scene (usually no more than a 3- or 4-line paragraph), and then an absolutely shocking, usually psychological, cliffhanger.
● And like me, he employs the “team” concept. (This is one I’m still working on perfecting.) Jack Reacher forms a new team in each new adventure. Likewise, the main bad guy also has a team.
Interesting too, maybe, to note that the old saw about the protagonist being “an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things” applies in the Reacher series. Sort of.
Jack Reacher is most definitely not an ordinary guy, but the story seems always to open with him BEING an ordinary guy. He’s eating breakfast in a diner in a backwater Georgia town, for example. Or he’s strolling casually down the sidewalk in downtown Chicago.
Then stuff happens. As a quick result of stuff happening, he’s dragged into a situation he has no control over. It’s a life-threatening situation, and he has to fix it or die.
That seems to me a pretty good template for an opening. (grin)
Lee Child also does a few things that I recognize as techniques I want to learn. I won’t elaborate on those except to say this: they are techniques that create in the reader a particular effect I also want to create in a reader.
I’m tagging those pages. When I’ve finished the book I’ll go back and re-read those parts with an eye to how he does it.
Finally, earlier I mentioned I’d found a few “what not to do” things. I already elaborated on the first two because doing so was easy.
The third is that sometimes he OVER describes for no apparent reason. I recognize those places because I find it easy to skip over some of the writing. It’s rare, but it happens. ‘
He either repeats information unnecessarily or he goes into great depth describing a setting that doesn’t play a major role in the story.
And those are also things I’ve begun to recognize in some of my own work.
For now, I take care of most of those when I cycle back at the beginning of each day’s writing. I take care of the rest of them (or most of the rest of them) when I do a final read-through ALOUD after I’ve finished the work.
Lee Child has almost as many novels in the Reacher series as I have total. I was pleased to learn that he writes the same way I do.
He doesn’t outline. He doesn’t do character sketches. He doesn’t try to force his characters to do his will. In other words, he is not the Almighty Writer on High.
He just sits down and writes.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
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