Thoughts From the 2018 Thrillerfest

I had quite a whirlwind week in New York City while attending Thrillerfest. It was my first time back in four years and I didn’t realize how much I missed it.  I would like to use this week’s blog to share impressions and information gathered from listening to established writers, publishing house CEOs, agents, and information experts.

Thrillerfest

The stone head is the normal decoration inside the Grand Hyatt, but combined with the Thrillerfest logo, it made a striking visual statement.

One catchphrase that seemed to crop up a lot was “great plot can overcome bad writing, but great writing can’t overcome a bad plot.” I like to think this idea of “plot is king” refers to a few books that have become hits despite mediocre writing. Publishers are hungry for great, original plots. One of the impressions I got was that they are more willing to work with newbie authors to shape up the writing in order to publish a great story.

Information from Established Authors

Along with these lines, a panel of authors that included Brian Andrews, Steve Berry, Mark Dawson, Robert Dugoni, Bob Mayer, Jenny Milchman, and Jeffrey Wilson all answered questions on traditional publishing. The first question commented on “what was the point where you knew you had ‘made it’ as a writer?” The answers mostly focused on not having to put on a suit or working by the pool, but the one that struck a cord with me was “the answer is a moving target.”

I agree with that. My goals and ideas for success have changed since Independence Day Plague was published in 2009. They will change again with the next book’s publication because becoming a career author involves climbing a ladder rung by rung and not just sprinting towards some end goal.

Steve Berry in particular remarked on the three points to success in publishing: platform, product, and promotion. He related a story where he was quizzed by a more famous author (at the time) about his sales numbers for different books in different markets. He couldn’t answer any of the man’s questions and was chewed out for it. What he learned from that was the mantra, “know the business, know the numbers.” We are in a self-promoting business and we shouldn’t leave our success or failure with anyone else.

One piece of Advice Each

Finally, each of the authors was asked for one piece of advice that they would offer to a new writer. I’ve summarized them below. I would love to attribute them to specific people but I couldn’t hear them that well. If any of my readers also attended and can tell me who said what, please let me know.

Don’t give up, and revise and resubmit. Be ready to throw away  a manuscript and start all over again because you are learning about and improving your craft every time you write a manuscript. However, also be prepared to listen to expert advice and fix mistakes as well before submitting to the next editor or agent.

Learn along as you write and (different author) go learn the craft. Good novel writing is a skill that you must develop. The way you learn is through books, seminars, other writers, and conferences and constantly write. Critically review your work to make it the best it can be.

Don’t try to write like Steven King. Write like yourself and find your own voice. Your writing will be stronger that way.

Network all that you can. Writers support writers with information, help with research, and sometimes collaborate on projects. Although I don’t remember if this was said or not, I would add here to be an active part of organizations like the Indiana Writers’ Consortium, other local writers’ groups, and even national organizations like International Thriller Writers (or whatever your genre’s organization) simply for the support and sharing of information.

Break the rules. One author said know the rules and more importantly, know when to break them.

Write what you love but not necessarily what you know. An example of this is that you may know all about something like finance or courtroom procedures but you don’t love it. Instead, you love modern art or raising unusual chickens. The passion that you feel about your subject will come through in your writing.

Keep writing. We all know people who say they can write but somehow never finish a manuscript or others that give up because they can’t handle rejections. Getting published is hard. The success usually goes to those are doggedly determined to win that book contract or connection with an agent. Find the time and place that works for you and keep hammering at the keyboards.

More information to come. In the meantime, happy writing!

How to Choose the Best Conference for You

Conferences are often expensive, both in terms of fees and travel. Therefore, most people, particularly early in their careers, are limited to one large trip a year and maybe one or two small, regional events if they live close enough to a big city that hosts them. As a person who has attended a variety over the years, I can tell you that each type has its pros and cons. In order to choose one, you must have some idea why you are going in the first place.

First, consider where you are in your career. Are you at the beginning and want more “how to write” type advice? Then the smaller regional ones are great and affordable. Use them to hook up with local people in the business or find area writing groups. If the conference is in a fairly large city, such as the Houston Writers Guild Conference, then you may get an opportunity for meeting a handful of literary agents or editors. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers a number of smaller conferences across the country along with a major event in February. After attending a regional convention. you should come home fired up to hit the keyboard and burn through paper. They should leave you with a “yes I can!” attitude towards putting your work forward and getting it finished.

Do you feel like you know how to produce a good story? Do you have a manuscript ready and are developing an author platform? If so, then you may find small regional symposiums frustrating. After a while, the speakers are usually saying the same things. It’s time to move up to the larger conferences that include some manuscript review, experienced authors, and definitely interaction with editors and agents. At the midsized ones, the workshops often cover the subtleties about writing, such as developing strong characters or how to create winning query letters. The Pikes Peak Writers Conference, Chicago’s Love is Murder, and Midwest Writers Workshop  are goods examples. This point in your career is also a good time to make your first large conference as well since many offer craft style seminars. You should also pay attention to any advice about marketing yourself since agents want that in place before investing in your book. When you go home, you may have a “I really need to edit!” feeling but you’ll know how to fix your letter or manuscript to make it more presentable.

Finally, if you feel your manuscript is ready and you want the ability to really push it into agents’ or editors’ hands, then spend the money to go to a large, national conference. It’s time to meet the international experts and start networking, particularly if you have book out with a small press and are looking to move on to a bigger publishing house. The cons are the expense and the crowds. They can be overwhelming for some folks. This makes it harder to really slow down and talk to the professionals. The pros include meeting true top-of-the-line experts, participating in established pathways to pitch to agents, and receiving valuable information about marketing and life-after-publication. These conventions also provide valuable information on the state of the industry as well. The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and San Francisco Writers Conference are good examples. One word of advice is to research the seminars to make sure you will get your money’s worth. Consider going to a genre-specific conference if possible because the bang for your buck will be higher. I have attended ThrillerFest for three years because that is what my material is. Romance writers would not do as well here and have other, better conferences for their work.

As I hear about conferences and dates, I’ll post them at the bottom of my blogs. However, I hesitate to say any of them are better than others. For most, you get  what you put into them. If you go and just listen to the speakers, you will walk away more knowledgeable but not necessarily in a better position in your writing career. If you submit items, interact, join in discussions, and/or participate in speed-dating the agents, you’ll benefit much more.

More conference suggestions:

RT Booklovers Convention 2015 in May 12th-17th in Dallas, Texas. Focused on romance writing, it offers writer’s boot camps but seems largely focused on the love of books and meeting established authors. It may be a good place to sell your new book.

The Writers’ League of Texas 2015 Agents & Editors Conference June 26-28 in Austin. The name says it all and the Writers’ League is one of the biggest groups in Texas. Prices go up after April 5th.

New York Pitch Conference March 19-22 (four times a year) is extremely different from other conferences. If your manuscript is polished and ready, this may be for you. You spend one day developing an excellent pitch and receiving comments on your manuscript based off your pitch. Afterwards, you are put in a room with editors from some of the top publishing houses and pitch your idea. It is a rare opportunity to meet some of these industry leaders in person and avoid the slush pile.