Oh, to be Lee Child!

By Louise Ure

“When I’m done writing that final scene, I save the work then press Send and never read it again.”

That’s just paraphrasing the conversation I had with Lee Child a couple of weeks ago in New York, but it’s very close to what he said, and it stunned me.

I was in town for an MWA Board Meeting and a signing at Partners & Crime. Lee had ambled over from his apartment to join the fun. As he and I often do, we found ourselves braving the icy January temperatures outside the bookstore in pursuit of nicotine.

I’d told him my third book was done, but that I wasn’t completely happy with it yet.

“Then it’s not done, is it?”

Well, when you look at it that way, Mr. Smartypants, I guess not.

I’m a revisionist, you see. Once I have the entire book down in a concrete form, I go back and change everything. Not just tightening the writing or adding a bit of back story. Everything. The characters’ names, the point of view, the ending. When I revised Forcing Amaryllis, I changed who the villain was. In The Fault Tree’s revision, I changed the crime that had been committed.

The editing I have planned for this third book could turn it from a chrysalis to a butterfly. Or not. But it will definitely be changed.

That’s not the way Lee works. When he sits down to write, he rereads and edits the work from yesterday and then adds new scenes or chapters. And on the last day — when he finishes that final scene – he hits Save and then sends it off to his editor.

WHAT????? No rereading from page one to see if it still makes sense? No agonizing over the final line in the penultimate chapter? No second thoughts about having all those character names starting with the letter M? No angst about whether the protagonist’s motivation is clear in that scene?

I think Lee’s vision is clearer and his aim is truer than mine. He doesn’t outline, but he knows where the book is going and how to take it there. And the fact that he’s written nine more books than I have doesn’t hurt either.

I, on the other hand, muddle.

I wallow.

I vacillate.

And I revise.

Lee knows when a book is done because that’s when he’s written the last line. I know a book is done when I’ve exhausted every possible avenue of change, written and erased an additional forty thousand words, and bored myself silly rereading it.

I would love to end my second-guessing. To have that kind of confidence or skill. To write a book, hit Save and then Send.

Instead I plod along, wiping out entire casts of characters and rebuilding back story to support a plot development I came up with later.

This third book will change in ways I haven’t imagined yet. And the revision will probably take just as long as the original creation of the book did.

Oh, to be Lee Child!

I’m traveling back to San Francisco from Seattle today, so I may not be able to check in on blog comments as often as I’d like. But I’d love to hear your stories. Are you Child-like in your work or do you find Ure-self agonizing over revisions? When do you know your book is done?

And it’s Primary Day in 22 states. Go vote, or I’ll have to take away your whining rights for the next four years.


40 thoughts on “Oh, to be Lee Child!

  1. Zoe Sharp

    They’re never done, Louise. Not really. Even after they’re published, you spot things you’d love to go back and change. Or is that just me?

    I think at the end of the day, writing is a belief issue. As a writer of fiction you’re keeping this whole fantasy afloat with nothing more than the strength of your own belief in it. One slip, and the whole thing comes crashing down around your ears.

    When I was writing purely non-fiction, it was easy. It was someone else’s story – the facts were the facts and I couldn’t change them. I know some feature writers who did, but I tried to stick to the facts as they’d been told to me. The people about whom I was writing appreciated that I’d made such an effort to stick to their truth.

    But with a novel I feel it’s literally the sweepings up out of my head, emptied out, sorted through into some sort of order, and presented to others. You need a certain level of arrogance to believe that anyone’s going to want to read that. And to sustain that belief over the course of a number of books, well, it don’t get easier …

    Unless you’re Lee, of course 😉

  2. Zoe Sharp

    Oh, and yes, go vote! Never forget that over here women threw themselves under the hooves of racehorses and chained themselves to railings for that right.

    And yet, more people voted on the TV show Big Brother than in the last UK election. Sad times we live in.

  3. ken Bruen

    Louise a grawhatever way you do it, it sure sings on the page so keep doing it your wayHope the book tour went mightyloveKen

  4. Lee Child

    Zoe and Dusty, I hear ya. But to my twisted logic, that’s a great reason not to revise … if you’ll never finish, don’t start. A book is a snapshot of who you were when you wrote it. Can’t change that, so live with it. Like those old photos from the 70s, stuck in a drawer somewhere … the hair, the clothes … they are who you were.

    And note exactly what Louise said – I revise every morning, so each part of each book has been checked over. So it’s not laziness or confidence – it’s a transcendent thing … books would otherwise change every day, but you have to pick one and say, it’s done.

  5. Karen Olson

    I don’t hit “send” until I hate the book. Really hate it. Can’t look at another word without revulsion. Then I know it’s done.

    And yes, VOTE TODAY! For the first time in a long time, this vote really counts.

  6. Bryon Quertermous

    I’m a Ure-ite, sort of. My stuff changes as much as yours, but I don’t know that I agonize over it as much. The way I work works for me and its the only way I know. It’s miserable and confusing at times, but I know it and I’m comfortable with it.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    I revise, agonize, rewrite. But after my book is out in the world, I let it go and move on to the next one.

    Lee,If you’re still checking in, I’d be curious to know if you’ve always worked this way. Was there ever, ever, any insecurity about those words on the page, about the coherence of the story?

  8. Louise Ure

    Zoe, I love the image of a book being “the sweepings up of your mind.” After each book I think “That’s it.I have nothing else to say. Heaven help me if I have to write another.”

    Then my mind gets cluttered with ideas and characters again and needs sweeping out.

    And thank you Ken. If I can find one image … on thought … one description that I’m happy with in each book, I call it a success.

  9. Louise Ure

    Dusty, do you find yourself revising even at the point of reading aloud from your book at a signing? I’m doing that this week on tour, and asking myself why, oh why, I felt it so necessary to add all those words to the sentences to begin with.

    Yes, Lee, a book is a snapshot of who and where we were when we wrote it. You just have a better camera than I do.

  10. Louise Ure

    Karen, I can SO identify with that “get this book out of my sight” mentality. Bryon sounds like he’s a kindred spirit, but he doesn’t agonize about it as much.

    Alex, what would that verb be, then?

    Pari, it sounds like your deadlines define when the book is done — angst and all. Is that true?

  11. Rob

    Lee: I can see if you revise your work from the day before that the prose would be acceptable, but what happens (especially since you don’t outline) if there is some major plot or character shift that requires structural changes throughout? Do you make those changes before moving on, or does that not happen to you (i.e. you truly are touched by the writing gods)?

  12. PJ Parrish

    This topic always fascinates me, the different revision routes writers take. I used to be a true “get it right as you write” soul but found I get paralyzed by some sick need to be perfect. So I am trying to be more flexible.

    I think of the writing process as a complete act of devotion and passion for eight months or so. But once that last page is typed, I tend to be more of Lee’s mind: It’s over, and it’s time to move on to the next thing. Which makes me a serial monogamist, I guess.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    I still have things I’d change. I have found one small section I can read aloud when requested to that I don’t feel utterly compelled to edit as I read. It’s like nailing down a cloud with hammer, nails, and a bit of glue… I keep hoping that at least one tool in the box will have an effect, and I hope I’ve not gone through all of the tools, yet.

  14. Allison Brennan

    I edit as I go. I often completely rewrite scenes, delete them, add new ones, as I’m striving toward typing THE END. I probably write two words for every one word that ends up in the book–when you look at it on the macro side, my books are 100,000 words–that means I really type 200,000 words during the writing process.

    When I type THE END, I send it to my editor. I do editor revisions with each book, so I know I’m not submitting something that is so perfect it can go straight to production. But unlike some writers, no one reads my book before it goes to my editor. She knows she’s my first reader, so the system works for us.

    The thing is, the one book that I wrote, rewrote, stressed over, revised, and changed everything three times–I still had editor revisions. In fact, that book had the most extensive editor revisions of the eight I’ve published. Sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t . . . but when I rewrite after I get to THE END, I second guess my instincts and the story ends up much weaker.

  15. Louise Ure

    Like you, Patty, I adore the revision process. If the book were a house, I’d enjoy decorating it more than building it.

    And Rob, you nailed my question to Lee. What about all those major plot and character shifts I’m adding at the revision stage? I think Lee has been blessed by Erato; he doesn’t need to revise that way.

    Yep, Wendy, I’m stunned too. And toad green with envy.

  16. Louise Ure

    Serial monogamist! Ha! That would make me a perpetual flirt.

    And Toni, I’ve found a single paragraph I can read without changing it at signings. As long as they don’t want anything longer, I’m fine.

    Allison, it sounds like you’ve found that perfect balance between perfection and revision. Even if it means writing double the number of words before distillation.

  17. J.D. Rhoades

    Louise: I’ve definitely edited at signings. Mostly for language, though. Mostly.

    “Serial monogamist! Ha! That would make me a perpetual flirt.”

    You say that like it’s a BAD thing.

  18. JT Ellison

    I love this topic too. It’s fascinating to see how many different ways up the mountain there are.

    I’m not a huge reviser, and I’m not a one and done either. I write the story, start to finish, then go back and layer in things that are needed, remove as many ands and insert periods, and make sure it flows. Then my critique partner reads it, I do one more pass and send it in. My editor will make suggestions, I know she’ll have excellent points, so I don’t worry too much about that. I’ll tell you though, it gets easier to get the meat down on the first run every time I write a new book.

    My question for Lee, if you’re still playing, does your editor ever ask you to change anything once you’ve submitted the manuscript?

    Have fun today, Louise!!! And I’m wearing my I VOTED sticker with pride.

  19. J.D. Rhoades

    Actually, now that I think about it, my process is very much like Le”s…I revise as I go. And sometimes (as with the current WIP) I do change something that changes everything else, so I go back and do it right then.

    It’s agonizingly slow, but when I’m done, I’m done.

  20. Louise Ure

    Pari, those self-inflicted deadlines are just as angst ridden. I know that for a fact.

    And Dusty, I like your blend of daily revise + major adjustment if needed.

    Louise (the perpetual flirt)

  21. Stacey Cochran

    My writing process is very much the same as yours, Lee. One chapter at a time, revise it in a day or two, move on to the next. I usually do a full-scale revision at the end as well.

    The trouble is, when I click “Send” I usually get a response that says: “You write suspense very well, and your protagonist is someone I think a lot of people can identify with. However, it’s a very competitive marketplace, and I am sorry to say that I have to pass.”

    It’s remarkable how many responses I’ve gotten the past 2-3 years like this.

  22. JT Ellison

    Flirt,It does. Though every time I start a book, I can’t remember how in the name of God to write one. If someone could fix that up for me, I’d appreciate it!

  23. Lee Child

    Pari asked, was there ever, ever, any insecurity about those words on the page, about the coherence of the story? Yes, of course, and there still is, big time. It’s just that those things won’t go away however many times I revise, so I might as well pick zero as a number.

    Rob asked about plot and character shifts … there aren’t any – page 2 follows page 1, and so on.

    JT asked about editorial input – my editor asks for very few, simply because she bought the series for what it is, so why shell out and then change it?

  24. Elaine Flinn

    Coming in late to the party – but I’ll go along with the ‘edit as I go’ routine. After each session, I stop -look and listen – and revise. And then I make notes for the next scenes. I always know the beginning and the end. It’s that damn middle that sometimes a muddle.

    But I’m with Louise on unexpected changes – especially characters who pop up on the page uninvited. If I like them – well – it’s just more damn revisions. But what the hell, right? That’s the fun of writing…the surprises.

  25. Allison Brennan

    Louise, I’m nearly done with book #9. It’s the hardest book I’ve written. Before this, the hardest book I wrote was #8.

    The only book that I thought was *easier* (for lack of a better word) than the ones that came before was #6. Easier in that I didn’t make any substantive changes in my edit-as-I-write process. The story came out almost as it ended up in the book. (My editor had minor suggestions, one that was particularly spot on . . . I got so caught up in one of my secondary characters that I didn’t notice I’d ventured off and wrote forty pages that focused just on her–talk about killing the pace! I condensed those 40 pages into two, 3-page scenes.)

  26. Rob Gregory Browne

    Louise, don’t kill me for this, but I pretty much write the way Lee does. I can’t say I NEVER go back, but generally speaking when I type THE END, I’m pretty much done. To my mind, at least.

    I’ll let you know what happens with the new one.

  27. Louise Ure

    Stacey, your revision plan is good, but damn, man, we’ve got to change the outcome! Wouldn’t it be great to hear — just once — “your book sounds very much like a Lee Child book, and we already have him.”

    JT, you forget how to write? “Start now … write every day … finish.” See? Three easy steps.

    Elaine, you mentioned making notes about the next scene. If you guys haven’t seen it yet, ask Elaine for a copy of her “scene/chapter notes page.” An absolutely extraordinary quick look at what you need to write next.

  28. Louise Ure

    Lee said: “I pick zero as a number” in terms of extra revisions he’d be willing to do to quell any insecurities or doubt. Very zen-like of you Mr. Child. I love it.

    And yeah, Rob, I’m ready to kill you if you, too are a Child-like writer. Damn you geniuses.

  29. Allison Brennan

    Louise, I should have been more clear 🙂 . . . I meant that, it’s never gotten easier for me. (Except book #6 which just came out right–boy, I’d love another one of those!)

    Each book is still a challenge–book 2 harder than 1, 3 harder than 2, 4 harder than 3, etc. In some ways more of a challenge because I’m trying to be a better writer and storyteller. I now have Reader Expectations. We can talk all about how we write what we love (I do) and we write with the door closed (I do), but there’s that niggle at the back of my mind that if I don’t deliver a BETTER book than last time and meet (or exceed) my reader’s expectations (and my editor’s), that I’ve failed. That creates second-guessing that pretty much kills me. I’m hoping I can get rid of that self-doubt, but the fact is that the better my book does on the shelves, the more pressure there is on the next book.

  30. Louise Ure

    Now I understand, Allison. And yes, for me too, Book Two was harder than One, Book Three is harder than Two. Reader expectations play a big role in that, as do agent expectations and writer-firends expectations. Ah, that internal censor, hard at work again.

  31. Charles King

    Oh hell no. I revise and poke at things until the orderlies pry the pages from the hands and take my pencils away.


    PS: My doctors say I have to learn to let things go.

  32. Cornelia Read

    I revise every morning. And then I STILL suck. I only know a book is done when I hate it–perfect way to put it.

    Sadly, this seems to be the point at which my editors say, “ahem, actually *we* hate it too,” and that I need another few passes. “Just a couple of minor things…”

    So now I think I’m finished when I not only hate it, but it also feels like I’m writing in Portuguese.


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