Visit to Thrillerfest 2018: Craftfest

IMG_0168I promised a blog entry about my experience at Thrillerfest 2018, and here it is.

Thrillerfest ran from July 10-14, 2018, and, like recent Thrillerfests, was held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. It has three components, Craftfest, Pitchfest, and Thrillerfest. In addition, there are several other events associated with Thrillerfest. Mastercraftfest, in which small full-day classes with a well-published thriller writer are offered, and a full day presentation by the Alcohol, Tobbaco, and Firearms Bureau. There are a large and sometimes bewildering number of pricing combinations for these events. Even one-day passes are possible. I attended Craftfest and Thrillerfest, and volunteered for a number of related events. I aim to write three blog entries, one for Craftfest, one for Thrillerfest, and one describing my volunteer experience. This entry describes what I experienced at Craftfest.

Craftfest is composed of a number of standalone classes lasting 50 minutes, on various topics relating to the thriller writing world. It lasts the entire first day of Thrillerfest and half of the second day. This is a great place to start for the aspiring thriller writer. My own background does not include a lot of formal writing training and absolutely no training whatsoever in writing any kind of novel. Most of what I heard was all new to me. The first session I attended was “Writing Authentic Heroines” run by Terri Nolan.  Then I attended a session by D.P. Lyle on “Making your Characters Come Alive” followed by a session by David Corbett on “Watsons, Wheelmen, and Sympathetic Heavies”, very informative sessions on character development. I felt I need a lot of work on my character development, particularly women characters, so I attended sessions that appeared to fill that need. A complete list of Craftfest 2018 can be found at  http://thrillerfest.com/craftfest/schedule/. Each session was well attended, well prepared, and pertinent to the announced theme. I found these sessions informative, energizing, and simultaneously intimidating. These authors put a lot of sweat into their work. A large lunch was included in the registration, and they announced the winners of the “Best First Line” contest. Hearing some terrific first lines was really fun. The main event of the lunch was a discussion of the publishing world by Neil Lyren, the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons who was interviewed by John Sanford.

After lunch, I sat in on a session by Robert Dugoni on “Story Structure” that was very well done.

I attended a session taught by Paul Wilson, the creator of the “Repairman Jack” character and he is one of the best in my opinion.  The high point given was a reading of his descriptions of the same office from two different points of view. The descriptions included as much exposition of the characters describing the office  as they do about the office that was being described by these two very different characters. It was an example of the writing craft at its best. I also attended a session on “Bad Guys, Villains, and Antagonists, Oh My!” in which Cara Buckley and Jenny Milchman discussed classic protagonist types.

There was a cocktail party in the early evening in which a lot of Craftfest attendees mingled with the instructors at the event. It was a two hour event with very light hors d’oeurves and a cash bar. Each registrant for Craftfest was given a free drink ticket as part of their package. There was a lot of discussion and angst about the upcoming Pitchfest event and much practice pitching of the books the authors had written. It was a very friendly event, and provided a lot of good networking opportunities.

The second day of Craftfest included a half day of instructional presentations. I attended one session taught by Grant Blackwood on “The Premise Line” in which he discussed his method of coming up with a one-line summary of your plot, which is extremely handy for pitching your work as well as a method of keeping you on track while you write. I also attended a session on “Using TV Writing Techniques to Make Your Thriller Move Like a Rocket”. I felt that I was very far away from writing for television or doing a screenplay, I found this presentation highly entertaining and surprisingly pertinent to writing a thriller.

There were many more presentations that I did not attend, the most notable being on how to pitch your manuscript in preparation for Pitchfest, and how to manage the business aspects of thriller writing. I had attended Many of these sessions at earlier Thrillerfests, but did not attend them due to scheduling conflicts or volunteering assignments. Thrillerfest makes an audio recording of all sessions, and makes them available for sale, so it is possible to obtain a recording of all events, even the ones you did not attend.

In addition to the formal sessions, there is a bookstore at the conference site run this year by Strand Books. Works by a large number of thriller authors, especially those attending Thrillerfest, were available for sale. There are numerous book signings throughout the conference, in which you can obtain a signed copy of some book you admire, have a short conversation with the author, and even have a selfie taken if the author agrees to it. I have yet to hear of any unfriendly authors at this conference, and most really like to converse with their readers.

To summarize, Craftfest was really great for an aspiring thriller writer, or even just a fan of thrillers to attend. It is inspiring and intimidating at the same time. To hear the stories such as  Steve Berry’s 58 rejections before he was successful makes you admire his persistence, but presents the realities of the book publishing process. There is no sugar coating here. The advice “Don’t quit your day job…” is freely given. The discussions of craft were very relevant to someone at my stage of writing. This was my third Thrillerfest, and I am still learning new things even after having written a first draft of a thriller. On the other hand, these successful authors work very hard at their craft, but make it look easy. Simultaneously inspiring and intimidating!

 

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Review of “Gunmetal Gray” by Mark Greaney

“Gunmetal Gray” was a very enjoyable read for me. It was the second book I have read in Mark Greaney’s “Gray Man” series. I actually liked “Agent in Place”, Greaney’s most recent Gray Man novel, a little bit more. “Gunmetal Gray” one was right up there, however.

The strength of this book is Greaney’s character, “The Gray Man”, a professional assassin that sometimes works for the C.I.A. and sometimes does free-lance work. What makes this character particularly interesting is his moral code.  Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies” he only seems to kill bad people. He tries to do the right thing in a very murky world.  “The Gray Man” makes a very entertaining main character.

In “Gunmetal Gray”, The Gray Man is searching for a high-level computer hacker who was a member of China’s People’s Liberation Army and is on the run after defecting. Apparently this computer hacker is very talented, since it seems that every major intelligence agency in the world is after him as well. Throughout “Gunmetal Gray”, the Gray Man tangles with the People’s Liberation Army, Russian commandos, Chinese Triads, Thai gangsters, the Italian Mafia and perhaps some other miscellaneous villains I have forgotten. Sometimes the encounter includes several groups of bad guys simultaneously. The plot is fairly intricate without being overly complex. There are enough twists and turns throughout to keep a thriller connoisseur intellectually engaged.

Greaney has some interesting other characters in “Gunmetal Gray” as well. Of particular note is a female Russian commando that seems to be a Russian version of the Gray Man. The computer hacker himself is a fairly well-developed character as are an old English friend, and his own handler within the C.I.A.

The book is set  in Hong Kong and Thailand. I am fairly familiar with Hong Kong, and Greaney seems very much at home there. Some of the sites visited there include the Peak, Tsim Sha Tsui, the Peninsula Hotel, and the Chunking Mansions. I would like to have seen more depth in Hong Kong, but that is strictly a personal preference. A larger portion of the book is set in Thailand, and Greaney seems to capture that as well.  Since I have spent very little time in Thailand, I can’t vouch for his realism, but his descriptions seem realistic.

My favorite part of the book is its discussion of tactical operations. Greaney uses a technique of alternating points of view in short chapters. One chapter might be from the Gray Man’s point of view, and the next chapter might be from a Russian commando’s point of view. Greaney does a really good job with this technique, and anyone looking to emulate this technique should refer to his books. He also seems to know his way around weapons and tactics. The Gray man and his many enemies go through a wide array of weapons, and his usage of them seem very realistic to this non-technical reader.  His tactics are well-described, and perhaps overdone, but reading how the Gray Man can defeat 50 or more adversaries all by himself is very entertaining.

All in all, this was a very good read. It was heavy on action, has a great protagonist, an intricate plot, and interesting settings.

Gunmetal Gray was published in 2017. I obtained it from my local library after reading Greaney’s most recent novel “Agent in Place”. It was a good find. I also published a version of this review in Goodreads.

Anthony Bourdain

 

Anthony Bourdain died June 8, 2018, an apparent suicide. The news of his death hit me surprisingly hard, as it did to a lot of people I knew from a wide variety of ages and walks of life. His most recent gig was as the host of “Parts Unknown” that was broadcast on CNN, but I have been a fan of his for many years. In addition to his CNN work Bourdain was a writer, hosted several other travel series, and made frequent guest appearances on various food-related shows.

Bourdain was a guilty pleasure of mine. He was a bad boy with a sense of mischief and a huge talent. The man could write. What I admired the most about him, however, was his integrity. In a field ripe with the possibility of ethical lapses, you always felt Bourdain was telling the truth as he saw it and he was always innovative. When you tuned into “Parts Unknown” or any other of his series, like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get. Some of his shows were excellent, such as his shows from Beirut and his shows from the Congo. Most of his shows were very good.  I felt he sometimes didn’t deliver on some shows, particularly those involving some sort of celebrity chef. He even managed to make a bad show entertaining through a lot of self-deprecating humor. That is what made his show so much fun to watch. It was never a formula and you were always going to get something you hadn’t seen or even thought about out of his trip. He was equally at home with common folks in a particular country or someone with a great deal of fame.

He always alluded to his past drug use and his use of alcohol. You admired him for making a success out of a very bad start in life. As they say now he made some “bad choices”, and you really hoped he was past those bad choices. Some of his shows were a little disturbing, particularly in retrospect. An alcohol-fueled romp through San Francisco comes to mind here.  I will enjoy those shows a whole lot less now. They remind me of the dark side of the restaurant culture of excess, and of the price one inevitably pays for spending a large part of their life on the road. It all takes a very heavy toll.

I was very sad to see him come to this end. After watching him for so many years on television, I felt like he was a friend, and I mourn his passing. I wish I could have told him how much I admired his work and how much I admired his struggle even more. I wish I could have said something to him that would have helped him somehow. I suspect many of us share that wish.

 

Going to Thrillerfest

I am going to Thrillerfest this year. I wanted to learn from the best, and Thrillerfest provides me an opportunity to do just that. It is a fairly expensive undertaking, but one that provides a not-to-be missed opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the big names in the thriller community and learn a lot at the same time. I have been to Thrillerfest before, but I haven’t written about it. I thought it was time to blog about it based on those past visits.

Thrillerfest takes place in New York City, at the Grand Hyatt New York, from July 10-14, 2018. The New York venue makes it a relatively expensive undertaking, but that’s where a lot of the top-notch publishing houses and literary agents have their home, so a New York location makes their attendance more likely and enriches the conference. There is a lot of a la carte pricing which makes it possible to pick and choose among opportunities and reduce your costs somewhat. The Thrillerfest website is http://thrillerfest.com/. There are three major components, Craftfest, Pitchfest, and Thrillerfest itself. There is also a pre-conference tour to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (last year was the F.B.I). There is a small bookstore where authors are available for a book-signing.

Craftfest provides opportunities where the authors teach short courses related to the craft of writing as they each see it. The authors are very generous with their time and the information about their craft that they present to a very willing audience. I have attended a lot of theses talks, and they are generally excellent, particularly for someone just learning to write a novel. Trust me, there is a lot to learn. Topics such as “Ten Mistakes New Authors Make” (I made at least six before I lost count) have been offered at prior Craftfests as well as more specific topics such as character, plot, dialog, pacing, writing career advice,  etc. Every lecture I attended at Craftfest has been informative, well-prepared and well-presented. I will be attending Craftfest again this year.

Pitchfest is sandwiched in between Craftfest and Thrillerfest and in many ways is probably the heart of what goes on at Thrillerfest. It is an opportunity for aspiring writers to pitch their work to agents who are looking for writers to represent. Direct pitches to publishing houses are also possible at this event. It is like speed-dating where the author has about three minutes to sell themselves to a prospective buyer. The whole affair is crowded and zoo-like, but is extremely well run by a small army of volunteers who direct traffic and offer encouragement to nervous authors. If an agent likes your pitch, they will ask for more samples of your writing before exploring a more serious relationship. It is an intimidating process. This is a tough business, but Pitchfest provides a great opportunity to showcase your work to a number of potential agents.

Thrillerfest itself is largely topic-oriented panel sessions relevant to the thriller community. I have not attended this in the past, but it appears well-attended and has an impressive array of authors and industry leaders as members of various panels. I will be attending this part of Thrillerfest this year.

Thrillerfest is staffed by a large army of volunteers who provide the oil that makes this large conference run smoothly. I will be volunteering this year as a way to give back a little bit to this event that I have enjoyed so much in the past. In addition, it will be a great way to meet people. Authoring is a very lonely profession, and networking is necessary just as it is an any other endeavor. As at most conferences I have ever attended, a lot of learning takes place outside the formal events of the conference, and volunteering provides a great opportunity to meet a large number of extremely interesting folks. I’ll let you know how it all goes.