8.18.2006

Read this

Lee Child is a very very good writer. I'm not the first person to say it, and I won't be the last. Not news. But what struck me today was how clearly Lee Child demonstrates the power of first person narrative; how he uses the narrative voice to illuminate the character himself.


The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot. He moved like he knew his fate in advance. He pushed the door against the resistance of a stiff hinge and swiveled slowly on the worn vinyl seat and planted both feet flat on the road. Then he grasped the door frame with both hands and heaved himself up and out. He stood in the cold clear air for a second and then turned and pushed the door shut again behind him. Held still for a second longer. Then he stepped forward and leaned against the side of the hood up near the headlight.

In this opening paragraph of Persuader, even if you know nothing about Jack Reacher or the "I" you know something, quite a lot in fact, about what kind of person this guy is. You don't know it cause he tells you. You don't know it cause someone else says it. You know it because of what he notices, or doesn't, and how he describes it.

You know Reacher is watching closely; you know he knows something about cops. Notice he never says "I knew this" or "I watched him get out of the car". You're just inside his head and careful choice of language and focus lets you know what Jack Reacher is about.

He combines this exquisite elegance with an almost laconic unfolding of plot. By page four the cop is shot; page 10 the plot has turned, and page 18 it's turned yet again. By the time I got to page 18 you could not have paid me to stop reading.

This is what lifts Lee Child out of "good" into "stellar" for me.

I often times tell you about books that I think writers should study for insight into the craft. This one is on that list.

40 comments:

Phyllis S said...

He was the star attraction at the SC Writer's Workshop Conference last year and has the delightful ability be both glamorous and completely down-to-earth at the same time. And he's a damn fine writer.

Jenn said...

The Hard Way is even better.

Joshilyn Jackson said...

Yeah. He's THE nicest, coolest, down-to-earthest guy, which makes it all the sweeter, I think, to admire the hell out of his work. Which I do.

Jim Winter said...

I was invited to dinner in Toronto by a bookstore owner and publicist. She sat me next to the head of my previous agency. Lee Child sat directly across from me. Lee is so quiet and unassuming that I didn't realize I'd been talking to Lee Child for about 10 minutes. (To be fair, Jim Hime bending my ear over a review I'd written of his most recent, so I barely noticed anyone.)

Talia Mana said...

i love his books but i have to admit i've never studied his writing because they are such page turners that i race thru them and absolutely gorge myself to get to the finish line without thinking about the prose

MS has captured the show not tell. i think the best course i ever did on that was when i did a course on writing for radio. it teaches you how to describe things economically as well as conveying action and mood.

Richard said...

I was fortunated enough to have a few drinks with Lee Child in the bar at ThrillerFest this summer in Phoenix, and he's definitely as cool in person as his characters are on the page.

frrnb said...

yeah, there's a heaviness, a kind of heavy footfall, to these sentences of someone moving toward his death. it's brilliant. thanks for this.

Gerb said...

Yes. I love the Jack Reacher books. The writing is tight and vivid and Reacher's character is complex and interesting. Good reading.

I also met Mr. Child at the Thrillerfest in Phoenix this year. Polite, kind, unassuming. A true gentleman.

far from home said...

Before I found your blog I thought I was a novice with a good manuscript. Now I know I'm a nitwit, but capable of learning. L-E-E C-H-I-L-D ... how quick can Amazon get that to Djougou, Benin???

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

What makes his writing good is crispness.

But, then, I am partial to non-cicumlocuatious sentences that move us forward into the action like panthers stalking baby gazels on the verge of the verdant, undulating veldt, carefully and with a muscular ease that surprises even lithesome me, short that I am and graceful, so that I never write overly long sentences wrot with confusing grammar and missplaced phrases and similies or metaphores. Ever.

I just can't spell.

Kanani said...

Nice, tight writing. No flab, pure muscle. The language has heft and it's perfectly put together. Images are strong, clear, accurate and the scene has legs.

As I read, invariably I end up analyzing the writing. It's why some writers just lose me within the first chapter if I find any signs of sloppy or lazy writing. (But I won't tell you who).

Anonymous said...

I've read a couple of Lee Child's books (based on recommendations of others) and I'll agree that they're page-turners and tightly paced. But each time I start a new one, I'm struck again by the almost deliberately clunky sentence structure, which is clear from the opening you presented. One simple declarative sentence after another, with a dependent clause thrown in now and then for variety. Yes, his observations are accurate and relevant. Yes, he avoids over-using adverbs. But it's kind of stiff, no? BTW, the dialogue is nothing like that and sounds very natural.

Does anyone else feel this way?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I must agree with the previous poster. I would never have described this passage as elegant. Effective, intriguing, but not elegant. Especially the second sentence bothered me. It's general and vague and (dare I say it?) a bit cliched.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this really demonstrates the differences that exist in taste. That opening seemed pretty clunky to me, and if the tale is first-person, I couldn't discern it from that sample. I have picked up a couple Lee Child books, but the openings never grabbed me enough to keep reading. This one would seem to be no different. Of course, that doesn't make his writing bad, just not what rings my bell.

Bernita said...

Child manages to tell all necessary backstory in dialogue alone in Killing Floor.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous, AKA My Dear Mum,

Please stop critiquing me in public forums, Mother. I'm really very sorry I forgot to call you on Mother's Day last year, and I thought the new Porsche would make things right again. I most certainly realise you would have preferred a Glock, but in light of the vicious tasering you gave dear old dad for forgetting your anniversary, I thought a ton of speedy steel would be more fitting.

Love,

Lee

Sherry Decker said...

anonymous said: "Yes, his observations are accurate and relevant. Yes, he avoids over-using adverbs."

Yet, his adverbs are very ordinary instead of unique. I think his sentences would be even better if he used powerful verbs and avoided the adverbs altogether. I do like the way he makes his characters seem very real by mentioning detail. The action is strong. I'd read it.

jude calvert-toulmin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
remember that Dan Brown question? said...

"But is Dan Brown a 'good' writer? In my humble opinion, no, he's a shit writer."

Be careful what you say about him. I learned that the hard way on this blog.

Bernita said...

Lee Child's openings?

"I was arrested in Eno's Diner. At twelve o'clock."

I was arrested too.

Anonymous said...

Most of us here will agree that Dan Brown is a very successful shit writer. So is Robert James Waller (Bridges of Madison County). Great ideas, crappy writing. I'm sure they fret all the way to their Mercedes convertibles and back.

jude calvert-toulmin quoted... "A great mauve flower was rising towards the sky; it was the night." Ack!

Additionally, a professor with a phD in English Literature told me, "use 'toward' and you'll never be wrong." I see 'towards' all the time in commercially successful books.

I'm going anonymous on this one - I've spotted my blog comments online lately; just Google your own name and add the word blog. Wouldn't want to be quoted on this one.

Talia Mana said...

re Dan Brown

Robert Kiyosaki (rich dad) describes it as the difference between being a best-SELLING author and a best-WRITING author. he admits he is not a good writer but instead states his skills are in marketing and selling his books

for some authors the sale is more important than the craft. well dan brown might even think he is a good writer, who knows? i couldn't read the da vinci code. i found it boring and didn't get past the first few pages

just as by the by i am a non-fiction writer, i guess one of the few readers of this blog who is not a novellist so my reading experience is probably different from others who are reading (in part) to improve their craft

Sherry Decker said...

For anyone interested in what truly consitutes great writing, try reading and heeding the advice given in, "Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft" by David Morrell, author of 'First Blood,' 'Testament' (and others). I'm almost finished reading it and have been slapped with a heady dose of enthusiasm for writing.

spy scribbler said...

Thank you, Miss Snark! Perfect timing, since I've been searching and deleting "I watched" and "I looked" and "I thought" from my manuscript ad nauseum for days.

Thank dog for second drafts.

And Lee Child has a new fan!

Anonymous said...

Kanani said...
Nice, tight writing. No flab, pure muscle. The language has heft and it's perfectly put together.


Hmmm. It struck me as ponderous and a bit bland. Simple, ordinary, used-a-million-times verbs.
Not muscular but heavy. Thud. Thud. Thud. One declarative sentence after another.

Which was likely deliberate. But it made me feel tired reading it. I wouldn't want to slog through a whole book written that way.

And I would've thought it omniscient.

Inez said...

I just picked up Persuader last week, and loved it. I am addicted to Lee Child, after listening to him speak. There's a thread on DorothyL asking which mystery character you'd like to, ahem,
be with. I vote for Lee Child.
No, I mean Jack Reacher

Anonymous said...

a professor with a phD in English Literature told me, "use 'toward' and you'll never be wrong." I see 'towards' all the time in commercially successful books

'Toward' is US English, 'Towards' is UK English.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. It seemed a bit ponderous and heavy to me. Not in a good way either. But maybe that's what was intended. Not a book I'll be buying, if that's what the rest is like.

Anonymous said...

Okay,

I'm with all the confused anonyrats. The first sentence seemed contrived, meant give the reader something to hang onto through the ponderous paragraph. Take it out and see if you can wade throught the next. Seemed like it was an example from,Writing the Breakout Novel, in how you don't have to describe every detail of every movement of a character. I've always been awed by Miss Snark's chosen examples and poetry, but this one left me kornfused, as we nitwits say.

Anonymous said...

If I submitted this to an agent, or publisher, I'd be turned down after the first paragrah. I was...I was...I was.


I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

Anonymous said...

Because the death is foretold, by four minutes, then it can't be Reacher's observation unless there's some woo-woo thrown into this story. And if Reacher isn't right next to the cop to see worn vinyl and hear stiff hinges, then it's narrator observation, a no-no in today's fiction.

Anonymous said...

It's true that even in that short extract there are sentences that don't quite work. The Reacher novels are successful - largely - because of the appealing wish fulfilment of the central character, not because of the effective prose style (which, as other comments demonstrate isn't really 'all that'). Reacher's unbound by responsibilities, family, jobs and likely free in a way the reader, heading to work on the commuter train, isn't. Most of the stories are basically 'Shane' - lone hero rides into town and stands up to the bullies on behalf of the little man. It's a mistake to think the magic is in the prose style - it's more in the undiluted, unashamed deployment of a powerful archetype. Much of the text in between the satisfying set pieces is leaden, existing only to stall the main event and build tension.

So why would Miss Snark play up the 'prose style'. I suppose as a literary agent, she has to give the appearance that she knows wht's what in the world of books. Given that Lee Child is in the realms of the mega-selling blockbuster, you can't very well turn around and say 'o I think this is rubbish', so the fashionable stance is 'You know what - he's brilliant, his spare prose is remarkable'. Except, that's sort of missing the point; it's just trying to associate with a successful book in order to appear as though you would have spotted it, would have exploited it, even if it hadn't already been a blockbuster.

As someonelse said, many of Child's first paras would get turned down by most agents and publishers.

Anonymous said...

Whew! I'm glad to see I'm not alone in being totally unimpressed. It sounded like something a child would write in his "what I did on my summer vacation" essay. I'd have picked that book up in the bookstore, read the first paragraph, and put it back on the shelf.

You want to read an effective first paragraph, pick up a book by JoAnn Ross or Lisa Gardner.

Sadie said...

Who's Lee Child

Tori Scott said...

While it's not a style I like to read, I did get a picture of the cop, probably overweight, tired, lumbering. (I haven't read the book so I have no idea if that's correct).

I guess it's like other kinds of art. I'm not a big fan of minimalist paintings. I prefer big, bold color, lots of detail. I'm not a fan of rap, but prefer songs with melodies and words I can understand. But that doesn't make the others wrong or bad--just not for me.

But I will agree with the comment about JoAnn Ross and Lisa Gardner. They rock!!

Anonymous said...

"And if Reacher isn't right next to the cop to see worn vinyl and hear stiff hinges, then it's narrator observation, a no-no in today's fiction."

This does read more like omniscient POV to me. Very surprised to know it's written in first person.

I'm not a fan of flowery prose, but writing that's too simple has problems of its own. This extract and the "I was..." extract above certainly have a "style", but for me, that style becomes annoying at the same moment it becomes apparent.

Anonymous said...

"He pushed the door against the resistance of a stiff hinge and swiveled slowly on the worn vinyl seat and planted both feet flat on the road."

Gaaaaaah. I'm sorry, I'm yawning already, and even knowing that the cop is going to get shot won't improve that.

You want elegant? Try Nabokov.

Mary, contrary

Anonymous said...

His writing is very good, his plotting superb and his characaters - for the most part - very believable.

Too bad he gets so many of his facts wrong. I mean really. There were a LOT of mistakes in Persuader.

Plot Baby Plot said...

Lee Child's a great writer.

Commenters are entitled to their opinion, but I'm entitled to laugh at them.

You could post Nabokov on this blog and a hundred unpublished anonymous commenters will nitpick at the grammar, the clunky prose, and so on.

jude calvert-toulmin said...

I wrote something short-sighted on this comment trail about Dan Brown not being a very good writer.

I've just deleted it.

However the fact that so many people think best selling writers are not necessarily quality writers, got me thinking about what constitutes good writing, and inspired me to write a blog entry called "The Book Snob / Big Macs and Quail Brains" about how any writing that sells is worthy of recognition, here:

http://tinyurl.com/l8lhs

Hopefully, realising what a short-sighted comment I made and writing something about my mistake, has finally cured me, because if there's one thing I abhor, it's snobbery.

Especially in myself.