From the Front Lines of ThrillerFest 2019

Every July, the premier thriller writers from around the world convene at the Grand Hyatt—a hotel connected to Grand Central Terminal—in New York City for ThrillerFest, a multi-day convention filled with panels, camaraderie, and more than a few cocktails. It’s a yearly tradition for many authors, and like any good thriller, you never truly know what you’re in for until you settle in.

ThrillerFest is organized by the International Thriller Writers Organization. Each year, the conference not only celebrates the best and rising stars in the genre, but it also works to equip the next wave of stars with the means to forge their own path towards publication. This year’s Thriller Master was John Sandford, and part of his role in that is to anchor ITW’s programming and new author workshops. Sandford was joined by dozens of other authors including Steve Berry, Robert Dugoni, Meg Gardiner as they led CraftFest, a two-day precursor to ThrillerFest containing panels with titles like “The Six C’s of Story Structure” (Steve Berry), “Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters” (Dugoni), “Plot Twists” (Gardiner), and “Polishing Your Manuscript” (Sandford).

Directly after CraftFest comes PitchFest where authors and agents are placed in the same room together with the intention of, unsurprisingly, pitching projects. It’s a wonderful opportunity for up and coming authors to get their ideas heard and to receive feedback. If you’re dubious about the potential for PitchFest to work as intended, I invite you to read any number of the testimonials on ITW’s website. I’d start with Glen Erik Hamilton’s.

And from there comes the official opening cocktail party where you can rub shoulders with nearly all of the attending authors, their publishing colleagues, agents, and even some media. It’s a bit overwhelming, and the 90-minute reception proceeds in a blur. But fear not, minglers, as most people progress to the hotel bar right around the corner. One word to the wise, though: ThrillerFest panels kick off at 8 a.m. the following morning, so make sure to hydrate.

To get a feel for ThrillerFest, one just needs to show up. I’ve been to Bouchercons, Book Expos, and Western Writers Conferences, but I’ve never felt more included (despite my non-author status) than when I’m at ThrillerFest. From the genuinely engaging panels to the friendly conversations in the hotel lobby, it’s always a weekend I look forward to. And this year was no exception. A clear highlight for me was a Saturday morning panel moderated by Anthony Franze. The panel, titled “Hardcover, Paperback or First Novel” featured an all-star cast: Karin Slaughter, Lou Berney, Jennifer Hillier, Jack Carr, C.J. Tudor, and Gary Grossman—each a nominee for that night’s Thriller Awards.

From L to R: Anthony Franze (moderator), Lou Berney, Jack Carr, Gary Grossman, Jennifer Hillier, Karin Slaughter, and C. J. Tudor.

The group discussed everything from Karin Slaughter (aptly donning a t-shirt emblazoned with just three big block letters: MEH) who admitted that “it gets harder with every book” and how after someone showed up to a signing with all 19 of her preceding books her admission that “f*ck me, I’m so old.” Slaughter also wowed the room with stirring speech about the importance of libraries and how we owe it to them to visit, volunteer, and donate. And if your town’s library is well off, just look to the neighboring town’s library, as they’re usually struggling. You can learn more about her Save the Libraries foundation on her website.

Lou Berney, in his professorly air, succinctly outlined the broad differences between mysteries, thrillers, and suspense:

  • Thrillers: What’s gonna happen?
  • Mysteries: What’s happened in the past?
  • Suspense: What’s going on now?

C.J. Tudor and Jack Carr weighed in on the best and worst advice they’ve ever received. For Tudor, she had the room nodding with her line “Any advice that starts with ‘don’t do this’ is bad advice.” And Carr brought the room to a murmured agreement when he said: “The same people who were discouraging when I wanted to be a Navy Seal were the same people who were discouraging when I said I wanted to be a writer.” In short, Tudor and Carr have one note: ignore the haters.

And in the ultimate use of Plant and Payoff, Jennifer Hillier spoke to the room with her heartfelt admission that not so long ago she was saying to herself “I don’t know if I can do this.” Less than 10 hours later, when she was standing on stage accepting the Thriller Award for Best Novel, it was clear to everyone in the room that not only can she do it, she does it damn well.

Full List of the 2019 Thriller Award Winners:

Jennifer Hillier — JAR OF HEARTS (Minotaur Books)

C. J. Tudor — THE CHALK MAN (Crown)

Jane Harper — THE LOST MAN (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Helen Smith — “Nana” in KILLER WOMEN: CRIME CLUB ANTHOLOGY #2 (Killer Women Ltd.)

Alan Orloff — PRAY FOR THE INNOCENT (Kindle Press)

Teri Bailey Black — GIRL AT THE GRAVE (Tor Teen)


Also receiving special recognition:

John Sandford, ThrillerMaster
In recognition of his legendary career and outstanding contributions to the thriller genre.

Harlan Coben, Silver Bullet Award

“Mystery Mike” Bursaw, ThrillerFan Award

Margaret Marbury, Thriller Legend Award