This week saw the loss of bestselling legendary author Tom Clancy, age 66. As yet, cause of his early death is kept under wraps, but rumors and speculations abound. While an illness is said to be the official cause of death, that hasn’t stopped the Internet from throwing around alternative speculation.
Could people within the federal government have murdered Tom Clancy? One theory goes that the author was too good at predicting events and had become a threat to the nation. This man predicted everything from 9/11 to the Bin Laden raid with razor-like accuracy. To silence him, the feds had him killed — and they did so during the shutdown of the government so that as few people as possible could potentially ruin the plot … so says this theory.
Just let the man rest in peace. He has left his fans 17 bestselling novels!
While I am not counting myself amongst his biggest fans (I am siding with his critics, which I quote further down) his legacy to aspiring authors is worth sharing. But let’s first look at some of his amazing achievements:
Starting as an insurance salesman, Tom Clancy went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest authors. His first novel, published in 1984, sold more than five million copies.
President Ronald Reagan helped to fuel the success of the book when he called The Hunt for Red October a “perfect yarn”. The novel was made into a film in 1990, starring Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan and Sean Connery as Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius.
Most authors would consider it as the pinnacle of their career. Not Tom Clancy. He surprised his critics when he went on to write ever more popular books that spawned several more blockbuster Hollywood movies. Who could ever forget Harrison Ford playing Jack Ryan in Patriot Games as well as Clear and Present Danger, or Ben Affleck playing Ryan in the 2002 release The Sum of All Fears.
Clancy didn’t just leave it at that. He arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games that were so realistic, the military licensed them for training. And on television, fast-paced espionage using high-tech tools in the Clancy mold found a place in popular shows like “24” and “Homeland.”
“Tom Clancy changed readers’ expectations of what a thriller could do,” said a chief executive of Penguin Random House. “He will be remembered as the Master of his Craft. He created the modern-day thriller, and was one of the most visionary storytellers of our time.”
Big accolades for the former insurance man. He usually wrote a book a year, all best-selling spy and military thrillers. His 17th novel, Command Authority, is due out in December, as is Shadow Recruit, a new Jack Ryan film.
His critics question the unwavering virtuousness of many of Clancy’s heroes, particularly Jack Ryan. “All the Americans are paragons of courage, endurance and devotion to service and country,” The Times wrote in 1986. “Their officers are uniformly competent and occasionally inspired. Men of all ranks are faithful husbands and devoted fathers.” On a personal level, Clancy also drew considerable flak for his life membership in the NRA, and for a passionate written argument in defense of the Second Amendment.
Regardless whether you’re a fan or critic, what can those of us following the craft glean from his work that might be useful. Let’s take a peek inside his toolbox.
Even at the height of his fame, when surrounded by high-ranking fliers telling war stories, Clancy was a careful listener, according to a retired US air force lieutenant-general. “My suspicion is he was soaking up as much as he was giving.”
The story around the publication of Hunt for Red October is fascinating and worth repeating at some length. The manuscript mesmerized an editor at the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. But she had a hard time persuading her boss to read it; Mr. Clancy was an unknown, and the publisher had no experience with fiction. She was also concerned that the novel had too many technical descriptions, and asked Mr. Clancy to make cuts. He complied, trimming at least 100 pages while making revisions.
“I said, ‘I think we have a potential best seller here, and if we don’t grab this thing, somebody else would,’” she said in an interview. “But he had this innate storytelling ability, and his characters had this very witty dialogue. The gift of the Irish, or whatever it was — the man could tell a story.”
But its details about Soviet submarines, weaponry, satellites and fighter planes raised suspicions. Even high-ranking members of the military took notice of the book’s apparent inside knowledge. In a 1986 interview, Mr. Clancy said, “When I met Navy Secretary John Lehman last year, the first thing he asked me about the book was, ‘Who the hell cleared it?’ ”
No one did, Mr. Clancy insisted; all of his knowledge came from technical manuals, interviews with submarine experts and books on military matters, he said. While he spent time on military bases, visited the Pentagon and dined with military leaders, he said, he did not want to know any classified information.
“I hang my hat on getting as many things right as I can,” Mr. Clancy once said in an interview. “I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real — that’s the spooky part.”
By the way, he was paid $5,000 for the book in 1984.
So here’s what worked for him according to his early editors: His innate storytelling ability; his characters’ very witty dialogue; research, research and more research. None of his success came easily though, and he had this to say to aspiring authors:
“I tell them you learn to write the same way you learn to play golf,” he once said. “You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s just hard work.”
And work hard, he did.