12 July 2010

How Can He Get Away With That?

by Linda Yezak

I have now read one-fourth of the way through a thousand page novel. Four hundred pages into Tom Clancy's The Bear and the Dragon. And, other than in the first chapter, the action is just now beginning. Finally.

Clancy is the quintessential example of how not to write a book, at least according to all the how-to's I've read. He has far too many settings. In this one, we're dealing with the United States, of course, and China, Russia, and Siberia, with a little bit of England, Italy, and the Vatican thrown in, because, after all, if it's not confusing, it's not Clancy.

Each setting has its own assortment of characters. I took the time to count the major characters in China alone. Ten. Ten complicated names and ranks to remember. Not to mention what he does with the American characters. Each one has a first and last name, a title, a nickname, a codename, and an interesting array alphabet soup after his title, or as his title. And Clancy calls each one by each handle he can think of. Jack Ryan, now the President, is aka, Jack, Ryan, POTUS, SWORDSMAN, Mr. President, and a few unmentionable names used by those not fond of his policies. He's the easy one. But in one dialogue, Clancy will call him by each of the titles. And Ryan could be talking to CincPac, SecNav, or FLOTUS, it doesn't matter--Clancy uses each of Ryan's titles, and the other people are called each of theirs. Which leads to another habit Clancy has: using the name of the person multiple times in a dialogue. Like this:

"Well, Jack, it's like this . . .' CincPac said.

"I realize that, Robby, . . ." SWORDSMAN pointed out.

Even when Jack and Robby are the only ones involved in dialogue.

Clancy writes in a distant third person, which means he gets his exercise head-hopping and editorializing. He is far more likely to tell than to show, and to explain what he does show, as if we wouldn't get the emotion he's trying to portray. Aside from that, he goes on for pages ad infinitum about a character's opinions and thoughts that may or may not be relevant--you won't know until you finish the book. By page four hundred, I still don't know whether Golovko's opinion of Anitoly is important.

In other words, Clancy gets away with things most writers don't dare do.
So, why do I read him? I'm a huge Clancy fan. What books of his I don't have, I make up for in movies based on his books. And, I know that his roller coaster takes a bit longer than most to wind up, but once it gets moving, I'm in for a nail-biting ride. I know this. So do millions of other Clancy fans.
I'd love to know how he got his first book published. My first was long on prose and short on dialogue, too. I head-hopped, I kept the readers distant from the characters. The readers were ghosts roaming about through the pages watching the action happen, with me, the omnipotent one, explaining everything as they moved along.

The difference? My books are character-driven.

Even though I'm a quarter of the way through his novel, and there hasn't been a lot in the way of action, Clancy's book is action-driven. His novels are complex, taking on the world and creating crises of earth-shattering proportion. And he strives for realism as best he can, which means that he must have more than one or two characters, he must have multiple settings, and he must have time to familiarize his readers to the key characters, settings, and issues.

His books make great movies. Many of the things he spends pages introducing his readers to can be visualized in one simple scene of a movie. Which is why, once I've watched the movie, I can't then go back and read the book. Takes too long. Gets too confusing. And besides, those folks in Hollywood always edit. I tried reading The Hunt for Red October after seeing the film. It doesn't end where the movie does. I kept thinking I'd be reaching the conclusion soon, but the book went on forever compared to the movie.

But since The Bear and the Dragon is an older book, I guess Hollywood isn't going to make it into a movie. And I'm not going to get it read sitting here fussing about it.

Besides, I'm getting to the good part!

by Linda Yezak


  1. It seems that established bestselling authors can get away with things first-time authors never will. Oh, the unfairness of it all! But there is the factor of author platform and mastery of novel-writing that still excel despite the pet peeves the rest of their writing causes.

  2. I've been starting to understand that the importance of character development cannot be over emphasized. It's like salt on a poorly cooked meal you have to eat.

    Great Post!

  3. It is interesting to wonder whether authors like Clancy could get their first books published if they were setting out in today's publishing environment.

    And for readers who want to get away from it all and be transported to a world of intrigue and thrills, then action-driven ones are the books to read.

  4. This is really interesting! I have The Hunt for Red October on my bookshelf, but have yet to read it, now I am interested in picking it apart to see what makes it tick.

    This also raises the question: what was his first book and how did he get it published? I think I'll have to look it up.

  5. I think also that certain genres allow for things that others do not, particularly genres targeting male readers and written by male authors. Westerns, action/adventure, political thrillers, espionage and such tend to be written in a distant third person. Authors of action-driven books don't seem to have to follow the same rules as long as their structure is solid.

    This isn't to say that their work is "shoddy." Character development, description, setting, conflict, tension, climax--it's all there, as it would have to be before it would see the light of day with a shiny new cover.

    But if you're a romance writer, for instance, don't take your writing cues from an author like Clancy. Your worked would be hacked with a sharp ax and returned to you bloody and dying!

  6. That's an incredibly useful insight. I hadn't made the connection between the distance in POV and writing for men vs. women. It might be due to the fact that I normally read gender neutral or male favored work, but the expectations must differ intensely.

    I love the hunt for Red October. I can't help it. I watched the movie over and over since I was a kid and I still don't know what I love about it. Someone once said that my taste in fiction was "men yelling on ships." But, I also like stories about monks, not yelling, which makes that assessment unfair :).

    Writing romance must be a challenge. I admit, I haven't tried, but the depth required to generate so much interest and identification with two characters must be emotionally draining or enlivening. I'm inspired to put that on a list of things I have to do someday.

  7. With all my focus on starting the story right away, showing not telling, trying to limit my adverbs, etc... I am losing the joy of reading. I can't just read and enjoy the story. I critique. I just read a very popular mystery from Europe. The first 100 pages were character development and back story. If an agent only reads the first 50 words, how did that book get published? Even in Swedish?
    Of course, it was a great book once I let myself simply read like a reader, not a writer.

  8. I gave up worrying about adverbs etc. during the creative part of writing. At first it should flow, it can always be edited later.

    It's something a writer brought up in our blogfest, too. The creative part of the brain is not the same side as the logical brain, which means doing both at the same time can bog you down. You don't have to switch back and forth.

  9. Great observations. I've noticed the same thing about a few other writers (Meyer in Twilight, Wells in Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, etc.). If the rules are broken "well," it doesn't bother me. If they're not, I get indignant and think, Well heck, if they publish this, they should *definitely* publish me!! :P

    But either way, realizing that successful authors can and do break the "rules" helps me to ditch some of my perfectionist instincts. To focus on the characters and their story. To just WRITE. And that is always, always a good thing. :)