ThrillerFest 2009 - Day 2

I felt much more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Thursday, having snagged a good nine hours of sleep the night before.   Thursday was also a short day which left a lot of time for sightseeing in the afternoon.

My day started with Donald Maass, founder of the of Donald Maass Literary Agency, and let me tell you, this dude is one cool cat.  Lives and works in Manhattan, walks from downtown to midtown every day, has a hundred agents working under him and still loves to talk about what makes a good book a great book.  His workshop was called Sorry, Your Villain Isn't Scary, and he focused on having us do exercises to ensure that our villain (and all thrillers have one) wasn't mundane, cookie-cutter, or cardboard.

I was relieved to learn that my villain, Ethan, isn't too cardboard.  However, the guy in front of me looked like he was having an anxiety attack.

In the next session, James Scott Bell talked about creating suspenseful dialogue, and while I didn't learn a whole lot of new stuff in this session, I liked that he used movies as examples, which are lot easier to visualize than if he was quoting from books.   Plus it helps that he can do wicked accents and could probably teach drama classes.

James Rollins ended my morning, and his session was by far my most favorite.  He writes adventure thrillers, and not only is he a super nice guy with a self-deprecating sense of humor, he was also very honest about what writers need to do to make it in the publishing world.  He talked a lot about the importance of retaining your power as a writer.

For example, he advised us to send partial manuscripts along with every query, regardless of the agent's guidelines.  There was an audible gasp in the room when he said this, because as new writers we're told we MUST always follow the agent's submission rules and only send EXACTLY what they ask for, no more, no less.  But James thinks that's bullshit.  He said he's talked to a number of agents privately and they don't mind getting partials at all.  They simply don't encourage it because their mailboxes (and inboxes) would be flooded.

So of course one writer put up her hand and asked, "But won't the agent reject us outright if we send a partial they didn't ask for?  Because it shows we didn't follow his or her rules?"

And James said something like this (I can't remember his exact words, so I'm paraphrasing), "An agent isn't going to pass on a great piece of writing because you didn't follow the rules.  At most, they're annoyed, but if you're good, the last thing they'll want is for someone else to make money off you. If you're good, they'll snap you up."  He went on to explain that the purpose of the query is to get the agent excited.  If they are, and the excerpt is right there, fabulous.  If the query doesn't interest them, they'll go ahead and reject you without reading the partial, and no harm done.

He then said he'd tested this theory himself. Out of the 50 queries he sent for Subterranean, his first novel, the first 25 were just queries, no excerpts, as per "the rules".  He got exactly one request for a partial.  Frustrated, he sent out the next 25 queries and attached 50-page partials to all of them, regardless of what the agents asked for. Of those 25, he got 11 requests to see the entire manuscript.   The rest is history.

So.  Something to stew on there.

I met a few more writers on the second day but the one who stands out is Rick from L.A., a very tanned Don Johnson from Miami Vice lookalike (right down to the wicker shoes with no socks) who'd just finished his first novel.   He was also planning – like Bill with the three warts from the previous day – to pitch it to agents in the afternoon.  Rick is an ex-Air Force pilot who'd taken a couple of writing classes at UCLA and his teacher thought he was ready.  I wish I'd asked for his card – I wonder how his pitch went.

The day ended with more book signings.  I got to shake hands with Steve Martini (he writes legal thrillers) and James Rollins, and get my books signed.

Steve Martini signing my copy of The Guardian of Lies.

James Rollins signing my copy of The Doomsday Key. I wanted to ask to take a picture with him, but I got tongue-tied, dammit.

And this is what James Rollins wrote (and drew).

It's funny, these book signings.  The authors are all sitting at these long tables, in alpha order, with their names printed on cards in front of them.  Some writers, like Steve Martini, James Rollins, and Lee Child, have huge line-ups of fans wanting to meet them.  The others, even though they're published and successful, don't have hardly anyone coming up to chat with them.  In a way I kind of felt bad for them.  One author's face lit up when a lady approached with a book to be signed – which then fell when she passed right by him to line up in front of someone else.

I had David Morrell's book in my hand – a paperback copy of First Blood (Morrell is the guy who created Rambo) – and realized a man was staring at me.  Well, not just at me, but also at the book in my hand, and I got kind of creeped out and so I put the book back on the table and selected another.  I realized five minutes later that it was David Morrell himself.  Yeah, not one of my more brilliant moments.  He probably would have signed it for me right there if I'd had the brains to recognize him, but no, I had to let him see me putting the damned thing back.

I got to meet Jeffery Deaver, my All-Time Favorite Writer After Stephen King (yes, folks, this is true), on Saturday.  I didn't sign up for the panel discussions due to budget constraints, but more authors were around over the weekend and I made a point to go the Bookstore Room to shake Mr. Deaver's hand.  What a nice guy!  So gracious... and shaking his hand puts me two degrees away from Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.  Which then puts me three degrees away from Brad Pitt!  Which is not the reason I read Deaver, but still. Definitely the highlight of the whole trip.

I look washed out in this picture and if you're on my Facebook, you know my rule about never posting fugly shots but getting a photo taken with Jeffery Deaver is simply too awesome not to post. He offered, too, because I was too nervous to ask!

I'm going to start planning early for next year's ThrillerFest.  With some better budgeting I hope I can participate for the entire four days.  While I can't say I learned a ton of new things – I'd say 85% of what I heard, I'd before – the energy was incredible.  It was very inspiring to hear my favorite authors talk about why they love writing.  It was cool to talk to other writers about their work, and if you think I'm enthusiastic about writing, these people put me to shame.

It's hard to describe what it's like to be in a room full of people who get you.  People who don't think it's weird to climb out of bed at 2 a.m. to write.  People who don't think it's weird you think of your characters as real people.  People who share the dream.

By this time next year, I hope to have my third novel finished and a fourth book started.  Ten years or ten books, guys.

Although, if it continues to be as much fun as this, I might just up that number to twenty.