Monday, December 6, 2010

“Tom Clancy--He Uses the Perfect Words . . .”

Okay, so when my husband said those words about how Tom Clancy writes—they irked me. Not that I don’t agree that Clancy is a great writer. I’ve read several of his novels, including The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s first, but my hubby’s words weren’t to praise Clancy’s writing, completely, he was basically telling me that I don’t—use the perfect words.

I couldn’t respond. I was hurt. Maybe he didn’t know his not-so-perfect words wounded me. But maybe it was his way of gently discouraging me from continuing my pursuit of writing, like he has for the past couple of years. He’d rather I use my time to paint. That craft, at least, he can see. Watching a painting form day to day is very visual and more immediately gratifying, satisfying in ways writing can never be to the casual observer. But to me, writing can never be replaced by anything. I’d never give up my artwork. I believe both can live harmoniously together.

Still, the words keep ringing in my head: “He uses the perfect words . . .” I dug out Clancy’s Dept of Honor and began reading. First thing I noticed was the prologue. I read many blogs, mostly other writer’s posts, but some literary agents and editors. One thing they all have in common is the loathing of prologues. Yet here is an author known worldwide who writes prologues, and they work. Could his popularity be the reason he gets away with them? Are they really needed? Granted, this particular prologue set a scene, but I wouldn’t have missed in the story it if I hadn’t read it before turning to the first chapter. It’s that way with most prologues.

“. . . uses the perfect words . . .” I learn a great deal from the first few pages of any book. The style and “voice” of the author show up immediately. I wish I could have found our copy of Hunt for Red October. I’d like to have seen who he acknowledged, or who his experts were back when he first started. Today, Clancy’s research base is practically unlimited. He’s famous. I am not. He can call any expert he’d care to. I cannot. Therefore his words will sound more authoritative. I’m limited with were I can go—in my story. “Write what you know” is a well known phrase in the writer’s world. So it stands to reason the more you know the better the story. Research is a key ingredient in any novel.

“. . . the perfect words. . .“ Clancy’s target audience, more or less, are men. Some women, like me, read him too—for the adventure. There isn’t romance in his stories, but plenty of intrigue and action. He writes for intelligent adults, and his words reflect our level of education. We know what he’s talking about, and we also know he’s using double-talk, or b.s-ing us. This is another important thing about writing. Know your target audience. Whether you write young adult or romance, thriller or mystery, using the wrong words will kill your story faster than a rumor goes around a beauty parlor.

“. . . perfect words. . .” Are there perfect words? Like I said, I started rereading Dept of Honor and I got confused. Not at the situation Clancy presented, but at his taglines. You know, the “he said” part of the dialog that comes with conversation between characters. I’ve been schooled that the best, almost the only words used in taglines is “said” yet on the first pages of chapter one of Clancy’s New York Times Bestselling novel were lines like . . . “The world had rules before,” Scott Adler pointed out. And “And that doesn’t include Japan and China,” Ryan finished for him. Adler goes on to “suggest” or “observed” while Ryan “grunted”—the point is, only on occasion did Clancy use the seamless tagline of “Ryan said” or “he said” like I’ve believed is the best—the professional way to write a fictional novel. If you don’t believe me, search out Stein on Writing and read it for yourself. I’ve taken his book to heart while others, like Tom Clancy, write like—like—a rich author.

Some say you should write the proper way and obey all the rules, get published and then break them. Is Clancy breaking this small rule of taglines? According to Sol Stein he most certainly is. So who’s right?


David J. West said...

I'm inclined to think you have to write what feels true to each scene or story.

Clancy is giving us more when he writes-“The world had rules before,” Scott Adler pointed out. And “And that doesn’t include Japan and China,” Ryan finished for him.
We are seeing the back and forth clearly-but I agree it can be tricky to be sure you get it right.
I like breaking up the monotany of "said" but I also want to be careful that not every character drawls, shouts or sniffs etc etc

It all comes back to, we will get better and better as we work on the craft.

David G. Woolley said...

You can't break a rule you don't know. And Clancey likely has no clue about the rule, or didn't when he wrote those locutions. And now that he's famous, he doesn't have to draw within the lines. Send him an email and ask about his tags. I'll bet he's matured.

Debra Erfert said...

Hey, David G. Woolley, you don't happen to have a current email address for the illusive Mr. Clancey, do you? I'd love to ask him exactly why he wrote those taglines the way he did.

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