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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