July 13, 2011
Perhaps this is the loner or curmudgeon in me talking, but I have never felt much attraction to conferences. People droning on about theory has always seemed to me like a poor substitute for doing, and if you’re a writer-entrepreneur you’re paying for the big schmooze out of your own pocket, to boot. I think “conference” and I picture a roomful of middle managers debating how to move a stack of forms from one tray on their desk to another.
Thus a couple of years ago, I bridled when my old friend Jane Dystel suggested that I attend an event known as ThrillerFest. I sold my literary agency to Jane years ago, and I admire the pluck and the author-centricity with which she’s built a substantial stand-alone agency. Among many of her clients is the novelist David Morrell, one of the driving forces behind ThrillerFest, so I figured Jane was being supportive of his project rather than suggesting something particularly worthwhile for me when she mentioned it.
I was wrong.
The event, which takes place every year in New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel, is a central (but not the only) component of a relatively young organization known as the International Thriller Writers. Last week, I attended for nearly a week and my hesitation proved unwarranted. You wouldn’t want to do this every week, mind you, but I had to admit that the group’s camaraderie helped relieve the general loneliness of a writer’s life. Here were eight hundred people mostly yearning to be read but also willing to help others get discovered.
I sat on a panel on the subject of alternatives to so-called traditional publishing. (That panel was led by novelist David Hewson and included Lou Aronica of The Story Plant and The Fiction Studio, novelist and Shakespeare scholar A.J. Hartley, Steve Feldberg of Audible.com, and Dan Slater of Amazon.com). But I’m not here to report what I said; I’m hear to report what I learned.
Combined, there were a couple dozen individual speakers and panel discussions on the business and craft of writing. While emphasis fell on the thriller genre, many of the observations that were made would apply to anyone trying to make it as a novelist. In this crowd, “making it” signified earning a living, although it was often noted what a long shot that could be. And yet, there were people there who had overcome those odds, real people willing to share their insights with enthusiasm.
Here are Five Lessons I Learned from ThrillerFest:
One: Use Craft Consciously
One of the keynote speakers at ThrillerFest was Ken Follett, who wrote several novels that went nowhere commercially until he published Eye of the Needle in 1978. The subject and structure of that book, Follett said, resulted from his study of what worked in the commercial thriller market. He didn’t just want to write books; he wanted his books to be bestsellers, and he began writing with that in mind. While there are no guarantees, of course, this was not an uncommon story among successful authors at the event.
The point I wish to make is not that we all should study the techniques that make for great sales; to some of us commercial success is unimportant. Yet, whatever we are trying to accomplish with our writing, we should use the authorial tool kit toward a conscious purpose: Not to indulge our own creativity or even simply to advance the story, but to create whatever response we want in the reader.
Two: Create Verisimilitude
Thrillers are especially susceptible to losing a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief because the main thrust of their story is generally quite implausible. (This observation also applies to other genres, of course, such as Romance and Horror.) Therefore, those elements that can be made to ring true serve to ground the reader in some plausible “reality,” allowing him or her to accept the unfolding story more easily.
Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of discussion at ThrillerFest on the merits of research. That research is not meant to educate the reader (though it may accomplish that as well), but to create a milieu that will encourage the reader to follow the story willingly. A lack of verisimilitude doesn’t just risk trying a reader’s patience; it fails to set up that reader for acceptance of the unexpected. If they hit a turning point and they’re not buying it, you’ve failed to do your job as author.
Three: There’s No Substitute for Hard Work
Judging by what I’ve read of the various presenters at ThrillerFest (most of whom were bestsellers and some of whom were mega-bestsellers), there were varying degrees of talent in the room at any given time. But what all the successful novelists shared was seriousness of purpose and relentless productivity.
It was common to hear of authors who wrote novels for ten years or more before finding any level of commercial success. (Those who give up sooner, I suppose, are destined to be known by few.) One woman I met who has a “first” novel coming out this year has written nine before, all of which went unsold. Another author who consistently hits bestseller lists has a third of his production sitting in a filing cabinet.
On one panel, John Sandford, who has been writing bestsellers for the better part of three decades, went out of his way to remind participants that attending a conference is not writing. Sitting your ass in the chair and stringing sentences and paragraphs and pages together — that’s what working writers do.
Four: Shelf Space Matters
It is the rare novelist in any genre who sees early efforts hit bestseller or favorite-book lists. Writers usually have to build an audience one reader at a time, and each book is another opportunity for newcomers to become familiar with all your work. The more there is out there, the more you have to offer them.
In the bookstore, shelf space matters. On the internet, where it’s even harder for customers to browse, “shelf space” (or, if you don’t like the euphemism, mindshare) might matter even more. The most successful novelists at ThrillerFest had written dozens of books. And while simply cranking out product is no guarantee of success, failing to produce in volume will likely lead to long-term failure.
Five: Be Your Own Strongest Critic
As I alluded to above, talent is unevenly distributed in the world and writers don’t all share the same goals. If you’re a literary snob, I’m sure it can be laughable to hear a purely commercial writer talk about craft when each sentence may be poorly constructed. But when it comes to what’s important to that writer — storytelling — if he is to succeed he will read his own work ruthlessly before sharing it with an agent or editor.
At one time or another, all writers make the mistake of trying to pass something off as ready for prime time when it isn’t. (I confess.) True professionals learn early from this mistake. For them, eventually, the most important rejection pile is the one that sits in their own office, filled with their own writing.
These observations are not the only ones to be made about the craft or the business of writing, of course. They are simply the most salient ones that I took away from a single conference. If you dismiss them because it was a conference devoted exclusively to thrillers, don’t invite me to your funeral. I’ll be too busy writing.
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 18: The Value of Nothing
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