If you’re not familiar with ThrillerFest, it’s the official convention of the International Thriller Writers, held every July in New York City at the Grand Hyatt hotel. The basic convention is two days, Friday and Saturday, with the Thriller Awards banquet held Saturday evening.
But, there’s a lot more if you include CraftFest, Master CraftFest, and PitchFest, where writers can attend special instructional panels led by master thriller writers and then pitch their books to agents at PitchFest.
The biggest problem with ThrillerFest is that you want to attend so many of the panels, and they start at 8:00 am. The first panel I attended included Lawrence Block, Julia Dahl, and Kim Powers, and it was about what inspired you to keep going—coffee, chocolate, alcohol, and little tricks they used.
Kim Powers said he starts writing naked so he can’t go anywhere. Others have rituals where they just start writing gibberish until the engine gets kickstarted. This is similar to some exercises in Write For Your Life by Lawrence Block, and also Jerrold Mundis’s terrific Break Writers Block Now!—both of which I recommend.
Anne Palmer writes at night, when she’s too tired to fret about writing. When booze was brought up as a tool for lowering inhibitions so you can just get to writing, Julia Dahl mentioned that her edits came back while she was pregnant. “I’m going to have to do this sober?” But, she did. Writers with experience will tell you it’s a crutch, and the long history of alcoholic writers only proves the point. Some of the famous ones lost the fire, and alcohol was of no use to them.
When it came to reading other writers for inspiration, Lawrence Block said it became tougher and he wasn’t sure if it was a function of age or if he just became “too aware of technique. I know where this is going, do I need to stick around?” Some writers thrive on reading while working on a project, others eschew it. Whatever floats your boat…as long as you keep paddling.
I found it no coincidence that Jacqueline Simon Gunn ran the NYC marathon and Lawrence Block was an ultramarathon racewalker (and he’s still pretty quick, if you try to catch him for an autograph…). To quote my friend Wayne D. Dundee—author of the Joe Hannibal series who signs his letters “Persevere”—a writer must…persevere.
Jenny Milchman (author of Cover of Snow) moderated a panel on Past, Present, and Future, which was very interesting for newer writers. We learned how authors like Bill Loehfelm and others got their break, how long it took for it to happen, and their plans for the future.
The one thing in common is perseverance there, as well. Jenny wrote 8 books in 10 years before her debut was published. Bill wrote two novels before his Maureen Coughlin series kicked off (though one of them won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, which got him a publishing contract with Penguin).
Mid-day is when the big dogs come out. Friday, David Morrell interviewed Walter Mosley, and on Saturday, Karin Slaughter interviewed Gillian Flynn. Thanks to NJ Transit, I missed most of the Flynn interview, so I’ll concentrate on Mr. Mosley.
Much of Easy Rawlins comes from his father, who served in World War II. His father had an ambivalent morality; on the night of the Watts Riots, he found his father at home drinking. “I want to go out there and riot, but I know it’s wrong, so I can’t.”
That kind of inner torment is found in his fiction, where there are no knights, just people. One of my favorites is Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con who tries to do good, but deals with bad people who seem to want to put their necks in his “rock-breaking hands.”
Some of Easy’s most memorable experiences come from his father. For example, he didn’t identify as American. Americans were white people, in his mind, until the war. Then, when he came home, he felt they were different again.
Mosley is not only a master storyteller on the page, but also with the spoken word. He made interviewer Morrell laugh so hard he turned red at one point, and we were all laughing with them. Mosley’s father grew up in the Jim Crow South; when he moved to California one of the first things he did was order a patty melt in an establishment in a white neighborhood, because he could. He was sitting there thinking of how good this was, when a white customer at the counter next to him died in his seat and fell right in his lap. Talk about ambivalent morality. He still enjoyed eating that sandwich…
As for the writing craft, Mosley writes ten to twenty drafts, an amazing amount of work given his prolific output. He writes two to three hours every day in the morning and feels guilty if he misses more than one in a row. His advice with editing is: “When it has errors you can’t fix, it’s done.” Or, at least ready for the editor to take a shot.
One audience question asked why he brought Easy back. Rawlins drove off the road at the end of Blonde Faith. Mosley said that he wrote it and felt that he should have changed it, but went with the gut instinct that put the words on the page. Easy had driven off the map, there was nothing more for him to do.
But, he brought him back when he realized that while he had plumbed the depths of his father’s experiences, he had not explored his own. So, Easy came back to react to the ‘60s, with a daughter listening to white and black singers on the same radio station while he tried to remember the first time that happened. And, the good thing for all of us is more Easy Rawlins.
Another panel that exemplifies what writers gain from attending ThrillerFest was the Movies panel, where seven writers spoke of their experiences with TV and Hollywood deals and gave advice for new writers tempted by lucrative contracts.
Lee Child, who came from writing television, said, “Assume they are lying. You know how they’re lying? Their lips are moving.” That’s from someone who worked in the business—and that’s what it is: business. As friendly as anyone across the table in a contract negotiation might be, you must be on guard. They’re not trying to eat your liver, but they’re not going to give you something for being nice and agreeable to their terms. There are plenty of books on the subject, such as How to Negotiate Anything, by Kristine K. Rusch, or Negotiating a Book Contract, by Mark Levine.
There was plenty of experience here. It was moderated by David Morrell—who wrote First Blood, which became the Rambo franchise. One lucrative contract point that Morrell negotiated was that he gets to write novelizations of any of the movies using his characters. This led to him getting 85% royalties for the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II, because they wanted to release the book and he was the only one who could write it. Morrell’s advice is to demand profit participation, assume that remakes, sequels, derivative works will happen, and keep book control of your characters so you’re not competing with novelizations and book series of your own creations. Solid advice.
Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli and Isles series, wrote the novel and screenplay that the film Gravity was based on and told of her experience. She was happy with the payment she received from New Line when they bought the rights to her novel and paid her to write the screenplay, but when Warner Brothers bought it, the director said that he wrote the screenplay himself in three weeks. She wanted credit. The Ninth Circuit Court, which has ruled against writers a hundred percent of the time, ruled against her. Her advice was to get as much money up front as possible, and this was echoed by all in attendance, because creative accounting can make the biggest blockbuster look like it didn’t turn a profit. “Profits recede infinitely, like the horizon,” Morrell said.
A term in the contract for all rights is essential. This holds for any contract, otherwise you are licensing your rights for the life of copyright or in perpetuity. John Sandford said what should be obvious, but isn’t to many writers. Get a lawyer, one who specializes in intellectual property and entertainment law, not necessarily the one your agent’s house uses. You want someone that’s fully on your team.
ThrillerFest is more than just writers talking the business side, but you can’t put a price on those experiences. The business is rarely talked about, often because contracts have non-disclosure agreements. Even Publisher’s Weekly uses code for how much cash a deal is worth (“nice,” “good,” etc.), which all mean a different number of zeroes. But, at TF it’s more open. No one waves contracts around, but it’s the place to hear legends talk about their beginnings and their successes and when they stumbled. It’s invaluable for a new writer who may otherwise be a babe in the woods.
After all of the panels, interviews, and discussion, it was time to announce the winners. Below are the results. Congratulations to all the nominees, and thanks to everyone that made this year's ThrillerFest one to remember!
2016 ITW Thriller Awards
2016 ThrillerMaster Award: Heather Graham
Heather Graham is the bestselling author of The Cafferty and Quinn series, The Krewe of Hunters series, and the Bone Island Trilogy. Graham also launched books for Dell’s Ecstasy Supreme line, Silhouette’s Shadows, and for Harlequin’s mainstream fiction imprint, Mira Books. The award was presented by R.L. Stine, the 2011 ThrillerMaster Award winner.
2016 Silver Bullet Award: John Lescroart
Lescroart, a founding member of ITW and a New York Times bestselling author of legal thrillers, has donated funds from character-naming auctions to support libraries, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and many others. He’s also been involved in the Authors on the Move fundraiser for the Sacramento Public Library Foundation. Lescroart was presented the award by Steve Berry, the 2013 Silver Bullet Literary Award winner.
Best Hard Cover Novel
The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell (Simon & Schuster)
Best Paperback Original Novel
Against All Enemies by John Gilstrap (Pinnacle)
Best First Novel
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Best E-Book Original Novel
The Prisoner's Gold by Chris Kuzneski (Chris Kuzneski)
Best Young Adult Novel
Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud (Viking Books for Young Readers)
Best Short Story
Gun Accident: An Investigation by Joyce Carol Oates (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
Images via ThrillerFest.com & David Morrell's Twitter.
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.