ThrillerFest 2009 - Day 1

Heading down the hallway at the Grand Hyatt to the conference. Lots of advertising for the newest, most exciting thrillers.

I'm back from New York and exhausted.  Really freaking tired.  Mainly in my head.  New York City is an incredible place, but to try to pack in a hundred touristy things plus a conference all in five days is not something I recommend.

ThrillerFest was by far the coolest experience I've ever had as a fledgling writer.  I think the average person would think it's pretty weird to fly all the way across the country to sit in conference rooms and listen to writers and agents talk about the craft of writing, but it was exciting!  It was, for lack of a better word, thrilling.

And it is a craft, I've learned.  It's a creative process, obviously, but the focus of this conference was on plot, structure, characterization, and other big picture stuff, and these types of writers – commercial fiction authors who write for mass market appeal – look at it very, very differently than the published authors I've taken workshops with who tend to be more literary.  This conference really focused on story.

Steve, ever the sales guy, asked me when the conference was over what my take-away message was.  I've been stewing it over, and I'd have to say that the bottom line message for me was: Story Trumps All.  As James Rollins, Lee Child, and Steve Berry all said, "Readers can forgive bad writing if the story is terrific.  But they can't forgive a bad story no matter how great the writing is."

I'm sure literary writers would disagree, but this resonates with me.  As a reader, I can overlook just about every writing mistake if I'm sucked into the world the author has created.  But if I'm reading a book full of beautiful prose where nothing interesting happens, I'm done by page 25.  If that makes me a mass market reader, so be it.  Good thing I'm striving to be a mass market writer then!  I don't read fiction for anything but entertainment. If I want to be educated, I'll read non-fiction.  If I want to be political or up on current affairs, I'll read the newspaper.  But fiction is about storytelling.  And if you can tell a good story – and tell it well  – then you've struck gold.

The speakers, with the exception of one, were all phenomenal.  All were personable and funny, and all were happy to share their stories on how they became so successful.   Steve Berry, who writes historical thrillers, wrote eight novels before the first got published, and that took him eight years.  But he doesn't consider the first seven books to be a waste.  Two got published eventually, and from the rest, he "cannibalized" the best parts and was able to use about 70% of those manuscripts in future novels.

Lee Child is simply awesome.  He writes the Jack Reacher novels, which I've never read, but since I laughed so much during his session I bought one of them afterward.  He talked about creating series characters, but mainly he talked about life as a writer and opened up the session to questions.  Lee has this disdainful British-turned-Manhattanite sense of humor that makes him a character all by himself.

Lisa Gardner writes romantic suspense and she got $25,000 for her first novel, which took her two years to write (and now, of course, she's making millions).  She's contractually obligated to write a book a year and she has a specific process for writing – three months of research, six months to write the first draft, followed by three months of revisions.  Yeah, she's fast.

William Bernhardt focused on story structure.  Thriller writers are passionate about structure – they have to be, or else their plots would fall apart.   He actually drew diagrams to show where in a story certain elements should take place.  I won't bore you with it, but I think it hit me in this session – even though people had been talking about it all day – that there really is a formula to storytelling.  Obviously as writers we can be as creative and as exciting as we can, but there is a formula.  It's like building a chair.  Most chairs, no matter what period they're from or what material they're made of, share a similar structure.  What sets your chair apart from the others is all in the details.  Master the structure and you've got the perfect foundation to build on.

I met a couple of people over the course of the day.  Most writers came by themselves and so people were smiley with each other, eager to network and find out what everyone else was working on.  The only person whose name I can remember from the first day is a guy named Bill, who had exactly three warts on his nose and who writes techno-thrillers (something about computers taking over the world).  He was getting nervous because he was planning to pitch to agents on the second day.  He said he'd published a book in 2003 – I didn't ask why he didn't already have an agent.  I'm guessing he might have been self-published.

Milling around in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore Room at the Grand Hyatt. Authors at the back, waiting to sign copies of their books.

Day 1 ended with book signings.  I snagged Steve Berry's signature, and also Lee Child's. Since I was coasting on about four hours of broken sleep after a massive flight delay getting into NYC the night before, Steve and I stuffed ourselves on shrimp in Times Square and I shamefully passed out around 9:30 p.m.

More details to come in the next post.