Lee Child: How I Write

Lee Child was born in Coventry in 1954 and now lives in the south of France and Manhattan. He is the author of the ten-book Jack Reacher thriller series.

  • I write a book a year, beginning in September, finishing in March. I start with the first sentence. In some ways the first sentence is the easiest – it’s the only sentence in the book that doesn’t have to follow a sentence before it. But in other ways it’s the hardest sentence, because it’s the most important sentence. For regular readers and new browsers alike, the first sentence is the snick of the safety belt and the thump in the back as the rollercoaster gets underway. Regular readers need to feel the comfort of a familiar universe and new browsers need to sense irresistible promise ahead.

    For me the first sentence writes itself, usually during August, building up like a sneeze. I type it in September and never alter it. Over ten books I have learned to leave my first paragraph alone. The first draft has a vitality that editing can only diminish.

    This year’s book ‘The Hard Way’ starts like this: ‘Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.’ I was happy with it. It’s fast and rhythmic, and it asks the questions, who’s the man? How did his life change? It tempts the reader to keep going. At least, I hope it does.

    Then, with the second sentence onward, I set a course towards what I call ‘the thing’. Publishers and editors would call it ‘the reversal’, and film makers would call it ‘the reveal’. It’s the trick, the surprise, the wow moment, the not-what-it-seems scene, when the rollercoaster is already going a hundred miles an hour and then gets faster still. That moment usually happens about two thirds of the way through, and it supplies new momentum to the end sequence.

    I don’t plan and I don’t outline. It’s a seat-of-the-pants process for me. I figure that if I’m finding the story unpredictable, then the reader will, too. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, there’s no way the reader can, either. If readers tells me they knew the end after 100 pages, they either made a lucky guess or they’re lying. If I didn’t know after 100 pages, how could I have given it away?

    All my books feature Jack Reacher as the main character. But he’s the only repeating figure. There’s no fixed location, no supporting cast. It’s an unusual series in that respect. Reacher carries the weight. He’s the unique selling proposition. If people don’t like him, the books don’t work. But happily people do like him, partly because I don’t try to make people like him. I realised early on that an author can’t force a character into being likeable. He is who he is, warts and all, real and vital and organic. I try to like him a little less than I hope readers will, to keep him honest.

    ‘The Hard Way’ is published by Bantam at £14.99.

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