Internationally Acclaimed Thriller Author Lee Child Offers Writing Advice

By Amie Flanagan

The duality of Child’s writing process indicates controlled spontaneity. He believes in the organic process but still maintains a sense of logic when he writes.

He doesn’t outline his books but he does have a general idea of what he wants to write about. Every August, he thinks about the story and in September actually writes the story.

“I prefer to start some place and let it expand organically, just to find where the story’s going in the same way the reader is going to,” Child said.

The opening line shapes the story. The best opening lines meet three criteria: it must be interesting, provocative and suggest the future excitement of the story.

“The opening, in my opinion, is always best if it’s the spontaneous first draft opening. I think that reads better.”

His instinctive insight into writing helped him create the legendary Jack Reacher. After 19 published Reacher novels, it’s safe to say that Reacher is pretty well established as a reluctant hero, an ex-military cop, rogue wanderer who winds up in life or death situations. Each new town presents a new cast of characters, which presents Child with a bit of a problem.

“The biggest difficulty for me is stylistically, is coming up with character names. I’m just really bad at that. So what I do, in the old days, I’d use a phone book and now I use random name generators on the Internet, and I try to pick a good sounding name. I find it very difficult,” Child said.

Despite his difficulty in naming the characters he still maintains the ability to give each character their own unique voice. The dialogue reads naturally, but writers write highly unreal dialogue, which is typically coherent and succinct rather than how real people speak. He suggests eavesdropping on a conversation one day and imagining the words spoken written down on the page, with pauses, stops, repetitions and filler words. The writer has to edit it down to make it read smoother.

“That’s one of the great conundrums of writing, really, is that it’s not accurate but it looks very convincing.”

Child’s art of convincing readers doesn’t end with the dialogue. In 1995 he wrote his first novel, “Killing Floor” based in a fictionalized city south of Atlanta. He’d never been to Atlanta but he was able to suspend belief with certain techniques. These techniques included using a logical geographical location to the plot, a map of Georgia and Atlanta to solidify basic landmarks and using a made-up city to avoid becoming too specific about the city.

Child points out the importance of creating an organic and personalized story. His best advice? Don’t listen to advice.

“If you have something in mind and you are somehow inhibited from doing it because Lee Childs says do it differently, or Stephen King says do it differently, or someone else says don’t do it at all or someone else says do it later in the book, if you start to listen to those voices of doubt, then it’s no longer an organic product, it’s a committed decision, so my advice is to go for it, and write the book exactly how you wanted to write it.”

The reason for this advice stems from the idea that humanity doesn’t vary too much in interests. If one person likes the story, usually the writer, chances are others will also. However, if the writer doesn’t like the story others won’t either.

Child currently serves as the co-president of the International Thriller Writers. Child’s novels have sold over 80 million copies and translated into 41 different languages.


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