Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lee Child's Writing Wisdom

Last night, Lee Child made an appearance at the Tyneside Cinema to discuss his newest Jack Reacher book, A Wanted Man, and to introduce a screening of Se7en, his favourite film. I first heard about the Reacher books when my dad started reading them, and I bought the first one, Killing Floor, to read in Venice (it was that, or Fifty Shades of Grey). Despite its sometimes simplistic writing style, it's a compelling read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I always like to take the chance to listen to other writers talking about writing, as it's always good to get another person's perspective on the process. Writing can be a solitary task, and sharing your working practices with others helps make it seem less lonely. So here are Lee Child's top tips as I can remember them, summarised in one handy blog post.

1) Avoid unnecessary words.
Lee made a point of discussing his obsession with Chuck Berry, in particular the song, Johnny B Goode. It's a whole story told in just over two minutes, but Lee pointed out the opening lines, in which we are told that among the evergreens close to New Orleans "There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood / Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode". We know what log cabins are made of, so making a point of its method of construction is essentially a waste of time, and a waste of words. I think this explains the stripped down, minimalist style favoured by Lee for the Reacher books, but it's equally applicable to other genres - and also helps to back up my hatred of adverbs. Don't tell me someone "shouted loudly" - how many other ways are there to shout? Find a word that communicates your point and use it - don't use several phrases where one will do.

2) Treat writing as a job.
Lee described his process as being like the artisans making various products in Birmingham as he grew up. You can't sit and wait for the muse to appear and provide a story - you have to turn up every day and get your fingers moving on the keyboard. There will be days when you don't want to, but once you get into the habit, the muscle memory takes over and you'll write. As Lee pointed out, truck drivers don't get truck driving block, so why should writers get writer's block? Be an artisan, not an artist, and concentrate on producing a product. You can refine the product through editing once you've gotten the words on the page.

3) Ignore all advice.
Most writers give this as a piece of advice, and it's Lee's belief that if a writer simply writes from the heart, and writes the story they want to tell, then they'll get an organic, vivid story. If you want to write a story and then read advice by, say, Stephen King, you may feel you may not be able to write the story the way you want to. If you then read advice by JK Rowling, you might feel even more stuck. By writing things your way, the story will be more 'natural'. On one hand, I can relate to that because I felt somewhat hamstrung when I started reading books about plotting and certain writers insisted you outline a story down to the last full stop, but on the other hand, you need to know the rules before you can start breaking them. There's nothing wrong with learning about writing, but be aware that you might need to bend or break rules for your story to really work.

4) Always leave reviews.
Finally, one of the questions he was asked regarded the so-called 'sock-puppeting' scandal, and the practice of leaving reviews for books. Lee believes the only way for readers to really know what to buy is to read reviews, but the only way to drown out phony reviews is for readers to always post reviews, even if they're not favourable. I know I struggle to get reviews, but Lee reckons he gets one review for around 2000 sales - that's a lot of people reading who aren't reviewing. So do a writer a favour today, and review one of their books!

In case you're wondering, I did get a book signed, and I thought he was thoroughly charming!

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