Killing Floor: The Archive

On Sunday, we’ll do a radically different novel, but first let’s wrap up Reacher:

So Why Do David Remnick and Malcolm Gladwell Like Jack Reacher So Much?

A lot of you have been holding your nose as I’ve stunk up the place these last two weeks with an examination of Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, “Killing Floor”. And I myself have had quite of few criticisms of it. Of course, I could counter that by focusing on how wildly financially successful the books are, but these books don’t just appeal to the teeming masses.

David Remnick is one of America’s most elite literary minds. He’s been the editor of “The New Yorker” for 20 years, and he currently hosts “The New Yorker Radio Hour”. Their August 10th episode was about summer reads. This being the “New Yorker”, one of them of course recommends “Moby Dick”, but Remnick differs:

  • “When summer rolls around I tend to reach for something, well, sometimes, a little shorter, a little lighter, and with more fistfights. For years I’ve been devouring a series of books about an ex-military-cop named Jack Reacher. Huge, hard-nosed, a quiet stranger who wanders into town and finds trouble inevitably… This all-American tough guy is the creation of one Lee Child…Lee Child, it’s an absolute delight to have you here, you’ve made so many summers come alive for me.”

Later, Remnick calls Child “a great writer of thrillers.” And Remnick is not alone, his “New Yorker” colleague, and acclaimed author in his own rite, Malcolm Gladwell has written about “The Lawless Pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Novels”.

How can they like these pulpy messes, hastily written without research, outlining or revision, filled with unintentionally comedic machismo? Well, mostly for the same reasons I do: Even these high-intellectuals appreciate Reacher’s inimitable voice. For his part Gladwell says:

  • “Action, in a Reacher book, is nearly always a secondary matter. We know going in that Reacher will kill the bad guy through some combination of tactical brilliance and brute force. The pleasure is in Reacher’s moment of introspection in the millisecond before the action occurs: his silent consideration of the variables of physics, geometry, and psychology that comprise a violent encounter…”

He later concludes: “I’ve read all twenty of Lee Child’s novels. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. But I can’t wait for the twenty-first.”

But there’s another thing going on here, too. These books offer the pleasures of macho reading without a lot of the drawbacks.

Reacher’s most obvious literary antecedent is Mickey Spillaine’s Mike Hammer, who was both the last of the great hard-boiled dicks and the first of a new generation of bullet-spitting, commie-hating, over-the-top manly men who sold to a much broader paperback-reading audience. Spillaine was a better writer than Child, and he has his literary defenders, but he began a trend of alienating liberal readers that most macho writers have kept with. Child, however, breaks with it.

Don’t get me wrong, Reacher is explicitly anti-Democrat. In the first book’s third paragraph, Reacher tells us, “I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a president I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time.” He’s not naming any names, but given that the book was written in 1996, it’s not hard to figure out who he’s talking about. He goes on to complain about said president cutting the military budget, and those cuts turn out to have emboldened the bad guys and triggered their plan (Remember when Democrats would actually cut military budgets? That was a long time ago!)

But even old-school liberal Democrats like Remnick and Gladwell like and identify with Reacher, in a way they could never identify with a bundle of hate like Hammer.

One of Reacher’s most salient qualities is that, unlike most macho paperback heroes, he’s humane. He has interest in and empathy for the downtrodden. He is, after all, first and foremost, a homeless man (albeit by choice). Here he is riding to the police station after being falsely arrested:

  • I was alone in the back of the car. A thick glass partition divided the space. The front doors were still open. Baker and Stevenson got in. Baker drove. Stevenson was twisted around keeping me under observation. Nobody talked. The backup car followed. The cars were new. Quiet and smooth riding. Clean and cool inside. No ingrained traces of desperate and pathetic people riding where I was riding.  
  • I looked out of the window. Georgia. I saw rich land. Heavy, damp red earth. Very long and straight rows of low-bushes in the fields. Peanuts, maybe. Belly crops, but valuable to the grower. Or to the owner. Did people own their land here? Or did giant corporations? I didn’t know.

When Remnick and Gladwell read these books at their beach houses, they’re not going to wince with embarrassment at Reacher’s politics or worldview. Reacher tucks payment and tip under his plate as he’s being arrested at a diner and he’s a gentleman with his love interest, whom he described in non-salacious ways.

Child, who is himself an anti-Thatcher guy, has created a hero that will appeal to everyone. He knows that his most hardcore audience will be truckers and other mostly-conservative men, but his work has reached millions more by combining Spillaine’s two-fisted red-meat appeal with his own BBC-bred humanism. He’s hit the sweet spot.

How To Plot a Mystery: How to Get Your Hero Into and Out of Trouble

The hardest part of thriller writing is getting your hero into and out of trouble in compelling and believable ways. The easiest way to get your hero into trouble is to have him do something stupid. Blunder into danger. You see this in genre fiction all the time and readers hate it. We want to admire your hero. We want to feel that we’ve picked the right hero to handle this situation. Your hero can make mistakes, of course, but it’s always better if they’re not dumb mistakes.

We love to see our heroes fall into traps, but only if they’re clever traps.

“Killing Floor” accomplishes this just fine. Our heroes have a series of unexpected reversals throughout, but not because they do anything dumb. The biggest reversal happens on schedule around the ¾ point: Our heroes know that the local cops can’t be trusted, so they bring an FBI agent into the loop, but then, by bad luck, it turns out that the FBI guy is in league with the bad guys (as we discussed before, coincidences are more acceptable is they hurt the hero.) They show up to meet the fed in a motel room, only to discover all the bad guys waiting for them with guns.

But then we get to problem #2: How do the heroes get out of trouble?

At this point, in the book, Child has me where he wants me: I’m thinking, “Uh oh, how are my heroes ever going to get out of this one?? The good guys did everything right, but they made one mistake and now they’ve lost everything! The bad guys have all the cards!”

So now Child has several questions to answer. The most obvious is, “So why don’t the villains just kill the heroes straightaway?” Thankfully, he has a good answer for this: The bad guys falsely (but logically) assume that the good guys know where one of their missing confederates is. They intend to hold the good cop hostage while Child leads them to the missing man.

(Now we get to the first odd thing: It’s important that your hero get out of things cleverly, so Reacher should instantly say, “Yup, we’ve got him stashed away and I’ll take you to him.” Instead, Reacher says, somewhat idiotically, “I thought he was dead. I don’t have him.” But thankfully they don’t believe him and Reacher catches on that he should pretend he can lead them to the man.)

They send their man Picard and two gunmen off with Reacher. Now the odd decisions multiply. The two gunmen take their own car and Picard has Reacher drive his own car. Should they all get in one car so Picard can drive and the others can hold Reacher at gunpoint in the back? But fine, let’s go with it.

Then they stop for breakfast, which again, seems odd, as the bad guys are under a big deadline, and it gives Reacher a chance to pocket a knife, but fine I’ll go with it.

Reacher leads them far out of town until they run out of gas, refills it himself, punctures the tire with the knife and gets back in the car, and drives off: So far, so clever.

When the tire eventually flattens on the highway, Reacher does another thing clever: It’s been well established before that Reacher has a box full of counterfeit hundreds in the trunk, so Reacher causes a distraction by cutting it open and letting the hundreds spray over the highway. That’s great.

Then something crazy happens: Reacher suddenly has his big-ass gun in his hand and shoots Picard dead!

What?? Reacher had his gun on him this whole time?? They never searched him?? It’s the most jaw-dropping moment in a jaw-dropping book, and not in a good way.

I went back and reread it for this blog post to see if I could figure it out.  On second readthrough it still made no sense.  But on a third reread  I scanned back through the book to find the last previous mention of the gun. Sure enough, I found a mention 50 pages before of putting the gun in his coat, and then I found a mention 10 pages after that of putting the coat in the trunk. So I guess it makes sense, but there’s two big problems here:

  • The first is that they never searched Reacher for a gun, which would have reminded us to wonder, “Oh yeah, what did happen to Reacher’s gun?”
  • Second, when Reacher finds himself at the trunk, Child never tells us that he finds the gun in the trunk! He just says that Reacher shoots Picard without mentioning where this gun came from!

Child needed to say that they searched Reacher in the motel room and found no gun and then he needed to do one of two things:

  • Either make it clear right then that the gun was waiting for him in the trunk, and then have everything from that point be a conscious series of events to get that gun back (but then that would have called attention to the fact that it made no sense to take Reacher’s car. Maybe have Reacher cleverly trick him into taking his car.)
  • Or Child could let us forget about the gun, but then reveal when he opens the trunk: “But there was one thing Picard didn’t know: That morning I’d put my gun in my coat, then I put my coat in the trunk, and it’d been waiting for me there the whole time. I picked it up, but to be safe, I needed a distraction, so I cut open the box…”

Instead, Child just gives the impression that Reacher could have whipped out a gun at any point, and it’s a laugh-out-loud moment. He’s really starting to convince me that he’s telling the truth when he says he didn’t revise the book!

The moments where your hero gets into and out of trouble are very tricky. Your reader is watching you like a hawk to see if they believe it, each way. You have to make it clear how the villain cleverly gets the jump on the hero and how the hero even more cleverly gets the jump on the villain. You have to play fair. After carefully rereading, I see that Child did have the elements he needed, but he just needed to revise so we could keep track of the gun, so that it didn’t seem to magically appear.

Rulebook Casefile: News You Can Use in “Killing Floor”

We mentioned last time that readers of Lee Child’s books admire Jack Reacher’s eyes, wishing we could see the world the way he sees it (although one commenter with more “threatening someone with a shotgun” experience than I pointed out it wasn’t the best advice), but let’s look at more examples of this.

I’ve talked before about the three kinds of jargon we like to find in a story:

  • Colorful but incomprehensible jargon that’s never explained: Reacher unleashes a blizzard of gun calibers, but we just take his word on it.
  • Nitty-gritty details about this world that they do explain: In this book, we learn a lot about counterfeiting.
  • The best of all, inside tips about this world that are also applicable to the life of the viewer: This book is full of this stuff. For example…

First and foremost the first chapter is a manual on “how to get arrested”. The most important advice here, of course, is don’t say a word, even when asked innocuous questions, even when asked to confirm you understand your rights. We also get very workaday details, such as that it’s hard to get your thumbprint to fit into the space on the form.

But the rest of the book has a torrent of advice about all sorts of things, often ludicrously macho advice. Here’s my favorite:

  • Then I cheated. Instead of counting three I headbutted him full in the face. Came off the back foot with a thrust up the legs and whipped my head forward and smashed it into his nose. It was beautifully done. The forehead is a perfect arch in all planes and very strong. The skull at the front is very thick. I have a ridge up there like concrete. The human head is very heavy. All kinds of neck muscles and back muscles balance it. It’s like getting hit in the face with a bowling ball. It’s always a surprise. People expect punching or kicking. A headbutt is always unexpected. It comes out of the blue.

I hope you’re writing this down. Absurdly, I read that and said, “Hell yeah, that’s what I’d do! It’s a perfect arch!” (Note: I am only tall enough to headbutt Bruno Mars).

Readers eat this shit up. I know I do.

And the crazy thing, as evidenced by my commenter, is that this might all be bullshit. The author is a tweedy English guy who’s never been in the police or the military or prison, never lived in America, and probably never been in a fight! But most readers (millions of them, anyway) don’t care. As with everything else in life, do it with confidence and people will believe you.

Next time: The thing I said I would get to next time last time.

Straying from the Party Line: The Big Motivation Hole (And Big Coincidence) in “Killing Floor”

Lee Child insists that he doesn’t research, doesn’t outline, and doesn’t revise. He just sits down and writes, and the most he ever deletes is seven words, which he finds painful to do because “it’s inefficient.” He is, almost certainly, lying. Writers are strongly encouraged to lie about such things by their publishers. It creates the impression that the voice of the muses flows through the author’s pen directly onto the page, perfect and immutable. The reader is communing with the heavens. This is not a product that someone has clumsily constructed at great effort, tweaked and calibrated to manipulate our emotions.

But at times, Child’s claim is somewhat convincing, because “Killing Floor” sure could have used more revision than it got. This was Child’s first novel, and he seems to have fallen into a classic beginner’s trap: The motivation hole. We begin with a neat set-up. Jack Reacher is a former MP who decided to drop off the grid and become a hobo. His only living relative is a brother he hasn’t seen in years, but the last time her heard from him, his brother mentioned that he’d passed through a town in Georgia and heard some rumors about a Depression-era blues guitarist they both like. One day Reacher is on a greyhound bus that passes a few miles away from the town and impulsive gets off and walks into town. But an unidentified corpse is found nearby and the cops decide that the drifter must be the killer. And then we’re off to the races.

This is a neat set up for a book: A falsely-accused drifter in a small town has to clear his name. We haven’t seen that a lot before. It’s more compelling than just a cop on the job. And it’s fun to root for a homeless guy for once.

But then we run into the motivation hole, because after about 100 pages, Reacher has convinced the local detective Finlay he couldn’t have done it (the bus driver alibied him). Normally, at this point, our hero could have decided to keep helping with the murder because he’s intrigued, or out of civic duty, and maybe that was the original plan, but Child, to his credit, seems to have listened to his hero, who told him that he didn’t really care. Reacher was free to go, and he was inclined to do so, so the book was over without the crime being solved.

To keep him there, Child pulls out the world’s biggest coincidence: before Reacher can leave town, the corpse is identified as his brother. True, his brother had told him about the town, but it’s sheer coincidence that Reacher showed up an hour after his brother was killed, especially because, as far as Reacher knew, his brother had just passed through once, months ago.

Obviously, this gives Reacher the secondary motivation he needs to get through the rest of the book: revenge, resulting in a far more clichéd book.

But how do we deal with that massive coincidence? Child simply has Reacher marvel over it for a minute:

  • I leaned up against his warm metal flank and thought.
  • The United States is a giant country. Millions of square miles. Best part of three hundred million people. I hadn’t seen Joe for seven years, and he hadn’t seen me, but we’d ended up in exactly the same tiny spot, eight hours apart. I’d walked within fifty yards of where his body had been lying. That was one hell of a big coincidence. It was almost unbelievable. So Finlay was doing me a big favor by treating it like a coincidence. He should be trying to tear my alibi apart. Maybe he already was. Maybe he was already on the phone to Tampa, checking again.
  • But he wouldn’t find anything, because it was a coincidence. No point going over and over it. I was only in Margrave because of a crazy last-minute whim. If I’d taken a minute longer looking at the guy’s map, the bus would have been past the cloverleaf and I’d have forgotten all about Margrave. I’d have gone on up to Atlanta and never known anything about Joe. It might have taken another seven years before the news caught up with me. So there was no point getting all stirred up about the coincidence. The only thing I had to do was to decide what the hell I was going to do about it.

Got that, reader? “No point going over and over it.” “No point getting all stirred up about the coincidence.” We’re moving on.

Now John August has a rule of coincidences which states that you can get away with one big coincidence in each story as long as it hurts the hero instead of helping him. And this seems to fit at first: The victim being Reacher’s brother makes no sense in the current narrative, but it makes perfect sense if Reacher came to town to kill his estranged brother. So he should be back in the detective’s crosshairs.

But he’s not. The detective just accepts the coincidence. Moving on. It’s absurd.

This fits what I said last time: Novel readers love voice, and its close cousin, character. At this point, we love Reacher, and we’ll go anywhere with him, even into absurdity. We’re glad he didn’t stick around out of civic duty, because this is a fully-realized character who wouldn’t do that, so we accept the coincidence so that the book can keep going.

Don’t get me wrong: We’re annoyed, and we wish Child had revised to avoid creating a motivation hole that could only be patched by a big coincidence. We’re a little alienated by that, but ultimately, we go with it, because we like this guy and we like this case and we want to see how he kicks everybody’s ass (and shoots a lot of them in the head.)

Next time: Another thing that should have been revised!

Why Do They Only Want Fifteen Pages?

When I work with authors, one of their greatest frustrations is that potential agents and publishers, and even some contests, only want to read the first 5-15 pages. Authors ask, “How am I supposed to establish my big plot in 15 pages? How are I supposed to introduce all my appealing characters? Maybe I can cram the first 100 pages down into those 15 pages to maximize their value…”

But of course that’s the last thing the gatekeepers want. If they care about your plot, they’ll additionally ask you for a one-page summary of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, theyd prefer the plot kick off strongly in those first 15 pages, and maybe get to plot point #2 as a cliffhanger on page 15, but the last thing they want to do is have to digest 6 plot points crammed in to those 15 pages. And they’ll be glad to discover later that you’ve got lots of appealing characters, but they don’t want to meet a lot of them in those 15 pages.

No, the real thing they’re looking for is the hardest part of writing: voice. If you’re writing in third person, they’ll give you a few pages to establish this, because voice is more subtle in third person, but if it’s first person, forget it: they might just read your first page before they give up.

Tweedy English BBC director James Grant (soon to adopt the pen name Lee Child) got fired at age 39 and sat down at a computer to see if he could write a book. He claims that he didn’t outline or revise. Supposedly, he just started typing and composed a first paragraph:

  • 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.

That’s exactly what they’re looking for before they request your full manuscript. A distinctive, intriguing voice. Distinctive syntax. A rhythm and pace. Of course, it helps that (as with Beloved’s first page) we get more right away: a situation, threat, and setting. We know where we are and what we’re reading about. All in three lines.

Further down the page, we get something even better:

  • The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. These were fit lean boys. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake.

The hero not only has a unique voice, he’s got unique eyes. He’s got a distinctive way of looking at the world. He sees things we wouldn’t see, and we feel privileged to have an opportunity to look through his eyes. He’s also got idiosyncratic opinions: He wants the guys arresting him to do a good job. That’s manly and appealing.

We don’t know anything about his backstory yet, and we won’t find out more in the first 15 pages, but, more importantly, we can tell that he does have a backstory, and we’re intrigued by it. We want to know more about this guy, but we don’t want him to spill it all right away. We’re content to be intrigued. It’s fun to be intrigued.

I suspect that it only took Child one paragraph to sell this book, or one page at the most.

This is one reason why writers should be writing all the time, even if they’re working on a crappy plot that’s crashing and burning. Novelists are not really in the plot-writing business, they’re in the sentence writing business. Readers want good sentences, so agents and publishers want good sentences. Readers would rather read a lame plot made up of good sentences than a great plot made up of lame sentences.  No matter what you’re writing (even blog posts), you’re writing sentences. You’re choosing words. You’re playing around with rhythm and voice.

 Your voice is your brand. That’s all they’re judging in those 15 pages.

The Annotation Project: Killing Floor

Let’s do our first Annotation Project in a while. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are comically macho, but they’re big fun and massive bestsellers. He’s living every aspiring author’s dream: Start at 40, get a big hit with your first book, crank out one a year every year starring that same beloved hero until you’re ready to retire. Let’s figure out how to do that.  You can download a Word version of these notes here.  (I promise our next book will be more literary!)