Thrillerfest kicked off yesterday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here in New York and I had the pleasure of attending the full day — I’ll be back tonight and most of Saturday — meeting some great people, picking up some interesting books, and taking in some insightful information on the publishing game from the perspective of successful authors in the thriller genre. Prior to attending, I considered myself a fan of thrillers but quickly realized the genre I tend to enjoy most is classified more as mystery than thriller — marketing semantics that, according to several authors, means more money for the thriller genre — the difference being the former’s focus on figuring out what happened while the latter emphasizes something that’s going to happen and the clock is ticking.
Lawrence Block’s Scudder series, my hands-down genre favorite, definitely falls under crime mystery, while Charlie Huston’s Thompson and Greg Rucka’s Kodiak series are thrillers, though neither author is in attendance at the show nor represented in the Barnes & Noble bookstore on-site, presumably because neither is a member of the sponsoring organization, International Thriller Writers. Inspired by the energy of the conference, I picked up four novels by authors I’ve never read before, including Kathleen Antrim (pictured, right), Steve Berry, Andrew Gross and David Liss, all but the latter I saw or met yesterday. I’ve started reading Antrim’s Capital Offense, which she describes as “What if the First Lady was plotting to kill the President?” and so far, it’s a brisk read that hits all the right notes expected from the genre.
The first session of the day, Learn How to Pitch Your Book (conducted by Antrim & Bob Mayer), was particularly fascinating for its breakdown of the process of developing a 25-word summary of your book that serves not just as your pitch to agents and editors — the only two influential people who will have actually read your entire book before it hits the bookshelves — but when done well, will represent it all the way through the sales process, internally and externally.
Some of the key takeaways:
- “Idea” is not “story”; all ideas have been taken so the challenge is to find a different angle. ie: Gone With the Wind becomes The Wind Done Gone when told from a slave’s perspective. Alien introduced a strong female protagonist, a rarity in the late-70s.
- 25-word summary will illuminate the true heart of the story, often not what the writer may have thought it was; avoid too many character details, but aim for emotional engagement.
- Think back to what excited you in the first place to sit down and crank out a 100,000 word novel.
- Read TV Guide summaries and reframe as “What if…” questions; ie: “What if an indestructible cyborg was sent back in time to kill a woman before she can give birth to humanity’s savior?”
- Develop your antagonist and their goal first and fully. Conflict is key to any story and the protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist.
- What’s at stake? Thriller writers in particular must be able to answer the question: What if my protagonist fails?
- Start as far into the action as possible and ramp up the tension right away.
One thing that struck me as particularly interesting was the fundamental connections thrillers and poetry share: the need for compression and concision. In thrillers, the clock is ticking and most take place within 24-72 hours, moving along at a brisk pace with short chapters and minimal introspection. In poetry, the metaphorical clock is ticking (whether it’s the 3-minute rule in slam or the various constraints that come with different forms) and poets must choose their words carefully to get the maximum impact from each one.
Another interesting thread that ran throughout several of the sessions I attended was the idea that formal writing education is overrated and unnecessary. As Lee Child put it, “Stephen King didn’t read On Writing before he started writing.”, and the majority of the writers at the conference came to writing via other professions with nary an MFA in the bunch. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, of course.
The best education for a writer is to read as much as possible, in as many genres and styles and by as many authors as possible, and to find a trusted network of fellow writers to share ideas and offer encouragement and feedback. There is more value in attending a couple of really good writing conferences every year than there is any creative writing program or workshop out there.