American author Tom Clancy died this week. He was 66. While the circumstances surrounding his death are not yet known, his work is known around the world. Famous for a genre he created, the techno-thriller, Clancy crafted espionage and military science story lines so detailed that high ranking officials in the Pentagon wondered if he had access to military secrets.
He wrote or co-wrote 53 books, seventeen of his novels were best sellers with over 100 million copies in print. I don’t know what he was worth but I remember him accepting a $14 million advance for one of his books in the middle of his career.
He wrote with authority, technical accuracy and a creative flair that grabbed you and never let you go. Some of his fiction work included The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears, all of which found their way to the silver screen.
How did this insurance salesman turned novelist capture us with his prose? And what can we learn from him?
The lessons he leaves behind are many. Here are just three things that I gleaned from this visionary storyteller:
· The devil is in the details and so is your success. You don’t have to read but a few pages of any of his works to realize that he conducted exhaustive research. He translated details into twisting plot lines and established himself as a virtual expert on terrorism. Despite this reputation he was quick to admit that he was not an expert on terrorism, “I’m just an observer,” he said. Yet, by getting the details right his plot lines were plausible—and profitable. How can you punch up your novel with intriguing, yet relevant details?
· Own the facts so you can use them to advance the story not merely support it. Clancy owned the facts and wrote with such authority that he made the unthinkable possible and the impossible probable. And the minute he made the impossible probable by skillfully mixing facts with fiction, the reader was hopelessly hooked. How can you use facts to powerfully advance your fiction?
· He stretched his imagination as far as it would go. Clancy went places with his keyboard that few of us ever go—to the brink. In 1994, Debt of Honor was published. This Clancy novel ends with a rogue pilot crashing a 747 into the Capitol as the president is addressing a joint session of Congress. You can imagine the casualties, or can you? Have you ever thought about how far you could stretch your imagination to take your novel to the edge?
As we say goodbye to yet another great American novelist, we can all agree that millions of readers (and writers) will miss the man, his work—and his work ethic.