Rules for Aspiring Techno-Thriller Writers:
I’ve been asked several times for advice to new writers. I started making a list, and it’s gotten a lot longer than I expected. These are all things I’ve learned since I got into the business. Some were as Tom Clancy’s co-author (apprentice); others were after I struck out on my own. I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out which ones I learned the hard way. Carve these in granite:
1) Know the difference between a magazine and a clip, and which weapons use each one. You will get letters.
2) Avoid numbers when you can. They make a reader’s eyes glaze over, even when they’re important to the story. And it is not important that a 5.56mmx54 bullet from an M-4 carbine has a muzzle velocity of 2,970 feet per second, unless the person being shot at can run 2,971 feet per second.
3) Do research in the field, not just on the Internet. The Web can answer almost any question you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you don’t know that you need to know. And it’s fun.
When I was researching my first book (back before the Web), I had some specific questions about the F-16 I needed answered. I called the US Air Force Public Affairs Office and asked if there was an F-16 pilot in the Pentagon I could interview. It’s only a 15-minute drive from my home, and I figured there had to be one in there somewhere. The public affairs officer insisted that I didn’t want to do that, but instead arranged for me to fly to Valdosta, Georgia, where there is an itty-bitty civilian airport next to the truly huge Moody Air Force Base.
On arrival, I was turned over to the 69th Tactical Fighter Squadron’s operations officer, a major. I explained that the character I was researching for the book would be an F-16 pilot in the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (the Wolfpack), a real-world unit based at Kunsan, South Korea.
The major nodded sagely, then asked, “Is he a Panton or a Juvet?” (nicknames for members of the two squadrons that made up the 8th). He’d served in the 8th himself.
I started taking notes. He took me all over that squadron, and I didn’t stop for six hours. It all went straight into the story.
4) Still, the Internet is a gift for authors: From aerial photos of your setting to finding foreign names, it’s a rich source of material. If somebody’s shooting something, YouTube probably has more than one video of that exact something being fired, plus more videos of the BOOM the shell makes when it hits.
5) Don’t be intimidated by the words “That’s classified.” They won’t arrest you just for asking. And you don’t have to stop asking questions; just stop asking questions about that particular thing. If that creates a hole in your information, write around it, or make up something that sounds reasonable, secure in the knowledge that anyone correcting you is either full of bovine excrement or is violating federal law.
6) Don’t be afraid to approach people, whether subject matter experts, military service members, or even celebrities. The service members I interviewed were especially helpful, generous with their time, and gratified that someone was interested in telling their story.
Example 1: When we decided that the Russians would invade Iceland in our story, Tom Clancy wrote a letter to the Icelandic ambassador: “Dear Sir, we are writing a novel where your country is invaded. Could you send us some information about Iceland?”
I went “Ack!” or words to that effect, but in due course we received a fat package of brochures, maps, guides, and even a videotape.
Example 2: We wanted to write about the Politburo in our story, but in the ’80s, that was still a decision-making body surrounded in mystery. A book by high-ranking Soviet defector (Breaking With Moscow, by Arkady Shevchenko) had recently been published, so Tom had our agent call his agent, and in short order, Tom and I were at a Washington party interviewing Mr. Shevchenko.
7) Verisimilitude is my favorite authorly word. In our interview with Arkady Shevchenko, I asked questions about who attended the Politburo meetings, how often did they meet, etc. I was focused on process.
Tom asked about what kind of room they met in: Stark and modern or one of the Kremlin’s Imperial halls. Did they serve water or vodka during the meeting? That’s verisimilitude.
8) Sooner or later you will run out of ways to write boom. Using a thesaurus is not a sign of weakness.
9) The hardware is fun, and flashy. You may have to explain how it works so the reader can understand what’s going on, but don’t get sucked in by the “knobology,” or which button get pushed when. The story isn’t about the gear. That M1A1 battle tank is performing the same role as a cowboy’s trusty Appaloosa. It’s just a tool that helps a character get the job done. Make sure your reader believes that the hero can operate it satisfactorily.
The story is about people, not technology. Sure, you can write a story where they’re trying to build and launch a spacecraft in an insanely short period of time to protect our GPS satellites, but the people will remember the pilot and his girlfriend more than the spacecraft.
10) Nothing will break a reader’s lock on your story quicker than losing track of characters’ names (or “Who was that person again?”). Whatever country they come from, including the USA, make sure all the characters’ names, especially non-English names, are short and easy to pronounce.
11) Give your characters quirks. Maybe they like old movies, or they’ve grown a goatee to compensate for thinning hair. It shouldn’t be too weird or take up too many words, because then it’s a distraction. That small fact, even if it has no bearing on the story, helps the reader visualize the character. It’s simple stuff. They go to a Chinese restaurant, and someone’s allergic to MSG.
12) Do not try to use present tense to tell your story. I’ve read more than a few manuscripts where a new author tried to make the story more “immediate” with this technique. Didn’t work.
13) The hero doesn’t hit his target every time he shoots. Just when it really counts.
Now where did I put that chisel…