Thriller Fest–Craftfest Day One

I wanted to learn to write so I went to a national conference.  The largest ones that I discovered in my limited research were a conference sponsored by Writers’ Digest and one called Thrillerfest, sponsored by the International Thriller Writers (ITW). Both are in New York City in the summer months, both are expensive and have much á la carte pricing. I chose Thrillerfest due to its specialization in writing thriller fiction. The conference took place July 11-15, 2017 at the New York Hyatt across from Grand Central Station.

Thrillerfest is divided into three main parts: Craftfest, Pitchfest, and Thrillerfest.

Craftfest is designed to teach the craft of writing to both newcomers and those seeking self-improvement. It was easy to see I needed that so I signed up for it.

Pitchfest is sort of a speed-dating festival between aspiring authors with a completed manuscript and agents looking for clients. You can only register for Pitchfest if you have registered for either Thrillerfest or Craftfest. In a perhaps misguided attempt to save money, I registered for Pitchfest and Craftfest only. When I signed up for early discounted registration, I thought I would have a completed manuscript. Based on this faulty assumption, I registered for the Pitchfest speed dating event.

Craftfest was a really great event. It was one and a half days full of classes taught by successful thriller writers. Four sessions were presented simultaneously, so the attendee needed to choose one presentation from a number of attractive and informative alternatives. In many cases, it was a tough choice. Thrillerfest does offer recordings of all sessions.

The first two classes I attended were led by Steve Berry, author of 11 Cotton Malone novels. I had read one of these after hearing Steve at an earlier event, and I was very much impressed by him. His presentation was highly structured and well prepared, very appropriate since his topic was “The Six C’s of Story Structure: It’s not everything, Its absolutely everything.” As a beginning writer I found his presentation very helpful, and very clearly presented. Implementing what he says, however is a difficult task, and I can see how my writing could be much improved by using his template for structure. His second topic was “Who’s Telling the Story, and what are they saying: POV (Point of View) and Dialogue.” This was an introduction to point of view and some tips about writing dialogue. Again, Steve Berry was informative and well-organized. I certainly hope I can remember what he said. My writing will be better for it.

The next class I attended was taught by David Morrell, author of “First Blood,” which spawned the Rambo series. He was a long time professor of writing, so he knows how to deliver a presentation. He did not disappoint. His topic was “Common mistakes in dialogue and description and how to fix them.” His approach was scholarly, and was peppered with words of wisdom like “an adverb is an admission of defeat.”

Lunch was topped off by a presentation from Peter Cannon, a senior editor of Publishers Weekly. I have to admit not knowing a lot about Publishers Weekly, but it appears to be a very powerful gatekeeper in the mysterious would of publishing. A positive review can do wonders for an author. Peter Canon explained how the review process takes place for Publishers Weekly. While I didn’t grasp all the nuances of the review process, he indicated it was very informal and driven by a cadre of low-paid independent reviewers. Canon winds up rewriting a lot of the reviews and reads a number of the books himself. Apparently this process can make or break an author. He makes the decision as to whether or not a book gets a box around it, or even better, a “boxed star” review. My lack of knowledge of the publishing world was becoming evident to me.

After lunch I heard Jon Land’s presentation called “It’s the Story, Stupid.” Jon is the author of the popular Caitlin Strong series. He is an engaging speaker and encourages and obtains a lot of audience participation. He runs through a process where the audience creates a story using a kind of group brainstorming process. It was an interesting exercise.

Anthony Franze and Barry Lancet presented the results of a study they completed where they interviewed a number of top thriller writers and extracted words of wisdom from each of them. It was titled “Ten Things Top Selling Authors Do to Make their Manuscript Sing.” I did make notes of the ten items and will  let them inform my own writing a bit.

Peter James, a British Thriller Writer who has a number of novels set in Brighton, England, gave a talk on “Keeping the Reader Turning the Page.” He started by referring to “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” as a framework for good story telling. He notes the use of high stakes and a ticking clock as ways to keep the reader interested in a story.

The final presentation of the day was by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher stories. He is an interesting character who has made a very good living writing about American characters even though he is thoroughly British. He is a master of the pithy comment, and he claims he writes his novels without any outline and in one writing. He doesn’t claim to do a whole lot of research either, but his novels seem like they are extremely well-researched.

All in all, it was a long and exhausting day, but full of a large amount of information about the craft of thriller writing. It will be very difficult to implement what I learned here, but hopefully I can absorb enough to improve my own writing. I will write about the second day in my next blog entry.

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Macau–Planning the First Encounter

Fast forward to about 1999. I was a professor at a Jesuit University in the United States at that time. The Jesuit Business Schools in the United States had joined together to offer an MBA Program at Beijing University in Beijing. I applied to teach in this program and was selected to teach in the first cohort during the Spring of 1999. This was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to go to China so I jumped on it with both feet. So in spring 1999, I found myself and another colleague from a different university teaching in Beijing. That “once in a lifetime” trip turned into many others in the following years, and I really found the experience exciting.

During this initial trip to Beijing, a colleague from another Jesuit school in the United States and I were approached by the Dean of a very small university located in Macau, near Hong Kong. He was looking for foreign faculty to teach in their MBA Program. As he was speaking, my mind traveled back to a night in 1971 when I  standing on a pier watching the Macau Ferry and was not allowed to go there. My eyes lit up and my colleague and I agreed to try it. They were willing to have us go there during our semester breaks or during the summer. My colleague went first and reported a positive experience. The invitation went out to me and I accepted. U.S. relations with China were on a positive note at that time, so I was encouraged to go on many fronts. The thrill of going to a once forbidden spot had a lot of appeal to me as well.

My first visit to Macau was now in the planning stages. I agreed by email to pay my own airfare subject to future  reimbursement and head to Macau. Apparently the Dean who had made the initial contact with us was being replaced. I would be met at the ferry terminal by someone named José, whom I had never met. I found myself in the position of paying a substantial airfare to go to a place I had never been to meet someone who I had never seen, to teach in a school that I knew virtually nothing about. In retrospect it seemed foolish, but I went along with it.

Macau–A Near Encounter

Macau is the setting in the first draft of my novel. At this point, I have to ask myself how did this happen? How did I get involved in a place that few of my contemporaries know a whole lot about? People are only recently learning that it is a “gambling mecca”.

The first time I ever heard of Macau was In the late 70’s when I was serving on an aircraft carrier in Southeast Asia. One of our port calls was Hong Kong, then a British Colony on the South China Sea that had been “leased” to Britain by China as a result of the Opium War. Britain held onto this colony, and governed it as an important part of its overseas Empire. Hong Kong was surrounded by China, then embroiled in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. It was often described as a British enclave. As we pulled into the beautiful Hong Kong harbor, I learned there was another  lesser known enclave administered by the Portuguese.  I use the word “administered” because that is the term everyone seems to use to describe that strange relationship. Macau (sometimes spelled Macao) was clearly part of China. The Portuguese made it clear that Macau was not a colony in any way shape or form. The Portuguese administered Macau very loosely, and a sort of laid-back live-and-let-live philosophy seemed to take hold. Gambling was tolerated and allowed to flourish. Chinese gangs, called Triads flourished. The Catholic Church, as a result of the Portuguese influence in Macau became an important part of this society. I understand that Portugal wanted to give Macau back to China and actually tried at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Legend has it that Mao Tse-tung refused to take it back saying something mysterious like “The time is not right.” Macau had a reputation of lawlessness. It seemed like a good place to visit and it was only a one-hour ferry ride away.

The problem was that the U.S. Navy placed Macau in an “off limits” status. No U.S. serviceman or woman was allowed to go there and that was made quite clear to us. The reasons given were that the ferry passed through Chinese territorial waters, and they occasionally boarded the ferries. We were not on good terms with China in those days. The Cold War was in full bloom and “ping pong diplomacy” had not yet begun. Apparently the U.S. State Department did not want to explore the implications of the Peoples’ Liberation Army having an encounter with a U.S. sailor on the Macau Ferry, so it was off limits. I am sure the reputation of lawlessness had something to do with that ban as well, but I was not about to test the issue.

I did make my way to the Macau Ferry Terminal while I was in Hong Kong. It was near the Star Ferry, one of the greatest boat-rides in the world. At that time gambling was prohibited in the United States everywhere except Las Vegas, so the lure of seeing gambling in action was very strong on a young sailor. I had the itch. I was a rule-follower throughout most of my life, so Macau would have to wait until some undetermined time in the future. I actually thought I would never get there, but the world did change over the years, and through a fortunate chain of events, I was able to scratch that itch many times as I grew older.