Lee Child is one of modern literature’s most unlikely success stories – because he ignores the rules and writes just for himself.
If this world-famous sought-after author told you he doesn’t plan a single plot and has always ignored advice being offered, would you believe him?
Only picking up the pen after being made redundant from his job with Granada TV, James Grant has gone on to become one of the biggest-selling authors of the 21st century.
Under the pseudonym of Lee Child, he has sold more than 100 million novels around the world, had his books turned into blockbuster movies, and he continues to collect award after award.
So, you would expect the Jack Reacher creator to have had at least a loose plan on where his books were going and where they would take him.
But, surprisingly he rarely thinks beyond the next page.
To mark the anniversary of being made redundant, on every September 1 Grant will sit down with a blank page and somehow turn out yet another best-seller.
Drifting between first- and third-person narratives, each new novel is just as successful as the previous one.
But, what is the secret to becoming one of the most highly-anticipated novelists?
Grant’s main tip for new authors is to ignore advice and write the book you want to read.
My honest answer is ignore advice because it’s got to be your product. It’s got to be an organic product with a vital, vivid integrity of its own and you’ll never get that if you’re worried about what other people are telling you to do.
I write exclusively for the reader. I’m not interested in winning prizes or critical acclaim, I just want to give readers a few good days of entertainment. Happily, I’ve got a lot of readers but I can’t unconceptualise an idea – so I come back to myself. I am the reader. I write one book a year and I read hundreds. But you never find a book that’s 100% what you want, so you have to write it yourself.
In general, writers, especially beginner writers, are very nervous and insecure. People have a clear idea of what they want to do and there are rules that aren’t rules – they’re just advice, and sometimes bad advice. Showing not telling is one face of bad advice. There is no reason why you can’t tell something in a plain, declarative style. Classic post-war thriller writers just sat down and told a story, and the idea that you should not is very twisted and forces people to pass on information in a very weird way. My main point is always to avoid advice. Books only work if they are vivid and organic and have one imagination in charge.
But thankfully the author of such number one bestsellers as Killing Floor, Tripwire, A Wanted Man, and The Midnight Line does offer up a few suggestions for following in his footsteps.
I try to do about 1500 words in a day. That is comfortable for me. It’s a lot less than some people do. If I’m pushing it, which I usually am, 2000 words, because by the time you get close to the deadline you’ve frittered a lot of time away and done other things, so I’m usually in a bit of a rush.
To be a great writer, you need to be a great reader.
You’ve got to have read thousands of books and then you internalise that rhythm. You internalise the grammar of cliff hangers and pace and so on. I just start at the beginning, make it up, and somehow get to the end.
As with most other leading novelists, Grant acknowledges that characters are key.
It’s all about people, it’s about character. If the plot works well, that’s a bonus, but it’s the characters that people remember. Here’s my classic example that I always quote: the Lone Ranger. Everybody in the world has heard of the Lone Ranger. Nobody in the world could tell you a single storyline from a Lone Ranger show.
But don’t get too close to your creations.
At that point writers start to get defensive and feel a bit inhibited about putting in the bad stuff and negative characteristics. When I started writing, I always made sure I kept Reacher slightly at arm’s length. Ideally, I want me to like him a little less than you’re going to like him and that keeps him fresh. It keeps him honest, warts and all. It turns him into a real person, rather than a cartoon character.
With so many budding novelists vying for attention, Grant is also quick to highlight the need for a powerful opening to your book.
If you’re ever going to submit a book for publication, obviously some people start reading it. So, the first line, the first paragraph, the first page has got to be utterly compelling. If you can do that, then you’re home and dry because that’s what people want. They want a book where they pick it up and they’re instantly hooked.
Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, Blue Moon, is now available.