Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Learning How Tom Clancy Novels Keeping Coming Even Though He Died In 2013

The notice said that the author of the Tom Clancy thriller series was speaking at UAA.  I knew vaguely that this was a best selling author and I even thought I'd read one of the books, but it was hazy and I didn't have time to look it up before I went.  If there's a famous author coming to talk and I can ask questions - and more importantly, I can fit it on my schedule - I try to do it.

That's where my head was when I got to the UAA bookstore.

Marc Cameron started talking.  The talk was basically about writing and publishing - very little
about his books and their characters. As he spoke my mind twisted and turned.  Here was an author telling us about how he wrote books that have a dead author's name in giant letters on the cover and his name, much smaller on the bottom.

Teachers:  He mentioned two teachers who changed his life, making him believe he could be an author. One short story was totally marked up in red ink and had a C- (I think that's what he said), but at the very end, said, "I think this is publishable."  Another teacher - in theater - told him he moved like he had a broomstick up his butt, and this scarred him for life he said.  He still won't get up on the dance floor.

Blurbs - He mentioned one author who, when thanked by an author for whom he'd written a book jacket blurb, said, "I either read 'em or blurb 'em, but not both."   And Cameron said most of his blurbs credited to him were written by the publisher.  I guess that makes sense for someone who writes books that have another author's name.  When asked about the evolution of the Tom Clancy series, he likened it to movies - how many James Bonds have there been with different actors playing Bond?

Writing methods - He has a plan for the whole book and knows how it will end before he starts.  He usually has four or five different plots going and he has to map out how they intersect. Every chapter ends with a major unresolved issue that requires the reader to go to the next one to find out what happens.  The publishers pick the titles based on marketing strategies.  He keeps some of the original author's style - like offering esoteric explanations about items used by the characters - but not the way Clancy did.  Nowadays, he said, we have Google, so readers can easily look things up.  He tries to write the best he can, but he's telling suspenseful stories, not writing art.  Though he sometimes slips in something more 'artful' which may or may not be cut by the editors.

Money - He talked about authors getting something like 8% of the price of each book.  So he has a decent cash flow - given advances, hard back, second publications, paperback editions - but that if he stops writing, that will slowly dry up.  He'd mentioned that the estate of Tom Clancy owns the rights and decide who carries on the series.  When asked if that meant his royalties were less, he said he gets paid a flat fee to write those books.

I found myself reevaluating my stereotypes of 'hack' writers.  Cameron, in answering a question, told an anecdote about Ken Follett who was host for a literary award dinner.  The well known author award recipient said something about not thinking about the reader when he wrote,  and Follett was reported to have said, "That's why you win awards and I'm rich."

The sense I got of Cameron was that

  • He wanted to write from an early age.  He mentioned reading Where the Red Ferns Grow and also noting that his teacher loved it too and that it moved her to tears.  He wanted to be able to affect people like that.
  • For Cameron, writing is a job.  He likes the writing and being able to have a portable office and the idea that people buy his books and are somehow affected by them.
  • He is a story teller, writing stories that pump people with adrenaline, that take them out of their daily and less satisfying lives.  And he has to compete with video games and Netflix binging.  
  • He likes that he can earn a good living this way.  
It was good for me to hear him talk.  It's clear he works very hard.  He may be more like a factory worker producing formulaic books than a writer of literature, but he's good at what he does and serves his audience what they want.  And he's totally honest about what he does.  And I've been reminded of one of my unwarranted prejudices and am correcting it.  I may even read one of his books.  If you check the Wikipedia link I put on his name above, you can get a list of his books.  

Sometime during the talk, I realized that the Tom Clancy book I'd read was The Hunt For Red October, a book written by Tom Clancy.   

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