Friday, July 27, 2007

THRILLERFEST 2007: THE END (for this year...)

The beginning of the end has to be the awards banquet. It really is a thrill to be in a room with 450 thriller writers and their fans, and I was fortunate enough to be seated with Lisa Unger and her family. Lisa's book BEAUTIFUL LIES was nominated for the Best Thriller award, and she brought her biggest fans with her; her husband, his brother & sister-in-law to be, her dad, her agent and her editor. Her mom was babysitting for Lisa's adorable daughter, Ocean, so she missed the festivities. BEAUTIFUL LIES was one of my favorite thrillers last year, along with the winner, KILLER INSTINCT by Joe Finder.

My only complaint about the evening was the temperature in the beautiful ballroom. It was so cold, I don't think there was a woman in the room who didn't have her escort's jacket on. I brought my 14-year-old daughter along as my date, so we just huddled together for warmth. The centerpieces were a much coveted stash of advance reader copies of upcoming thrillers, all tied together in a neat pile.

Besides awards, the Killer Thriller Band performed, including Michael Palmer & his super talented son Daniel, John Lescroart, F. Paul Wilson and several others. The Killerettes sang back-up: Alexandra Sokoloff, Harley Jane Kozak and no-longer-a-blonde Heather Graham. The show included David Morrell singing a special tribute to ThrillerFest chair M. Diane Vogt, and Jeffery Deaver doing a funny-as-hell impression of Bob Dylan. The biggest laugh of the night came when Clive Cussler tripped over a few words during his introduction of the 2007 ThrillerMaster, James Patterson. He quipped, “You just can’t get good teeth on eBay.”

I have to say a few words about this year's ThrillerMaster. Patterson has probably done more for the thriller genre than just about any other author except maybe Dan Brown. He's worked with several authors who help him write his four books a year, and he puts their names on the books too, making New York Times best selling authors out of people you might never have heard of, like Andrew Gross and Maxine Paetro. I heard so many authors offering to be his next co-author that it became a sort of running joke all through ThrillerFest. People poke fun at his super short chapters, but no one can say the man doesn't know how to keep his readers turning pages. In fact, Patterson poked a little fun of his own at the banquet, which sort of ground to a halt during the presentations of the awards, joking, "They should have asked me about pacing."

In case you missed it, here are the 2007 Thriller Award Winners:

Best First Novel - MR. CLARINET by Nick Stone

Best Paperback Original - AN UNQUIET GRAVE by P.J. Parrish

Best Screenplay - THE GOOD SHEPHERD by Eric Roth

Best Novel - KILLER INSTINCT by Joseph Finder

ThrillerMaster - James Patterson

Sunday morning after the banquet was a tough time to have a panel. It was even tougher when there was a technical glitch. I went to "Love's Masquerades: Thrilling relationships with a dangerous edge" with Elaine Flinn as Panel Master. Elaine's next book in her Molly Doyle series, which I love, is DEADLY VINTAGE, and comes out in September. Authors Sandra Balzo, Jane Cleland, Carla Neggers and Joan Johnston participated in an animated discussion. But it didn't start out that well.

We were all getting settled in when suddenly a man's voice boomed a good morning into the room. There were no men up at the mics, and everyone was looking around and wondering. More booming voice, followed by Elaine Flinn questioning the voice, and we learned that it wasn't God speaking to us early risers, but David Morrell, in the next room. It seemed that the mics were somehow mixed up, with the mics in our room being broadcast into the next room, and vice versa. The women stepped off the podium, came down front and started chatting away, and all was good.

This was an interesting mix for ThrillerFest, and for me. Balzo and Cleland write traditional, cozy mysteries, Balzo's set in a coffee shop (UNCOMMON GROUNDS) and Cleland has the Josie Prescott Antiques mystery series. Neggers and Johnson write romantic suspense, with Johnson having a firm foothold in the romance genre. A brief discussion of traditional mystery versus thriller ensued, with the mysteries having no graphic violence and what violence there is happening off stage, so to speak. Johnson said that her books have a lot of sex and mentioned THE RIVALS, that she claims has sex on almost every page. She is a one woman book producing machine, somehow tying all of her books together, and we are talking double, maybe triple digits here. Neggers made what I thought was the most interesting comment; she said "Agents are the keepers of the readers' expectations." Her new book, ABANDON, came out in June.

What turned out to be one of the most popular panels of the weekend was called “The Snare of the Hunter: How writers and publishers work to get you to buy their books.” Moderated by Putnam editor extraordinaire, Neil Nyren, and featuring the always outspoken Tess Gerritsen, editor-turned-author-and-still-an-editor-but-at-a-different-house Jason Pinter, reviewer David Montgomery and St. Martins Press VP Matthew Baldacci, these folks told it like it is to a standing room only crowd that spilled out into the hallway.

David Montgomery was asked how he selected the books he reviews. His candor was refreshing. He said the newspaper usually wanted the popular titles reviewed, and it was almost impossible to get a first novel reviewed in his paper. He also said he does give preference to review copies that have actual covers over the more basic galleys with plain paper covers.

Somewhere I heard these magic numbers: there are 700 agents but only 70 editors that actually buy books; sobering numbers indeed. And speaking of numbers, this panel took lots of questions from the audience but there were some panel members - Baldacci, in particular - who shied away from giving actual figures. But Gerritsen spoke up and said, "They want numbers -- I'm going to give them numbers!" And she did. Numbers like she sells 3% of her books through, and fully one third through the wholesale clubs like Costco & Sam's Club.

Gerritsen also talked about money and how she likes her advertising dollars spent. She said she wants the bulk of her money to go to co-op, which is when the publisher pays the book store, like Borders or Barnes & Noble, to put their book at the front of the store. She says she sees her sales drop 70% when the book goes off co-op. She said that authors can get all their numbers from their editors, but it was important to remember not to shoot the messenger.

Someone asked how many books have to be sold to reach the New York Times best seller list. Again, Baldacci and Nyren - the only ones who would really have access to those sorts of numbers - hedged. But Joe Finder, sitting on the floor in the back of the room, offered that he'd heard that in a slow month, like January, a mere 7000 books or so would get you on the list. Someone else said they heard it was even lower, maybe 4000 or so.

Baldacci did share that St. Martins Press publishes 800 books a year. He also offered some excellent advice to writers. He suggested they should always check the flap copy very carefully. It is usually written by editorial assistants, who have been known to give away the killer!

I introduced myself to Mr. Nyren afterwards. I've been a fan of his for years, as he edits what sounds like the who's who in thriller writing: Clive Cussler, W.E.B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, Daniel Silva, John Sandford, Patricia Cornwell, Dave Barry, Jack Higgins, and one of my favorites, James O. Born. He also edited Sheldon Siegel's series, which I loved, but is no longer. The next thing I knew, Nyren, Baldacci, Gerritsen, Shane Gericke, and a few others and I spent so much time chatting outside in the hall that I missed the next panel - and it was worth it. I got to ask something that's always bothered me - why do publishers buy full page ads in the NY Times for best selling authors like Gerritsen or Patterson. I feel like the new guys like Gericke need it so much more. After all, Gerritsen and Patterson are going to sell just as many books, even without that ad. But Baldacci pointed out that it's just protecting their investment. There are more books produced, so there is greater urgency to make sure they are sold. Which made some sense to me. Wish I could have gotten a picture of that group.

The final event of ThrillerFest was the Grand Finale Brunch, featuring a spotlight guest presentation with Jeffery Deaver. Instead of being grilled, Deaver took the mic and spoke about his life and his writing. He was eloquent and funny and heartwarming and altogether a wonderful speaker.

Deaver spoke about being a nerdy kid; not nerdy in the billionaire way of a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but pudgy and socially inept. Which I think also applies to those guys but I digress. He said he started writing poetry and submitted it to these publications that would pay him in "pennies" then force him to buy a copy of the finished book if he wanted it, for $30-40. As he got older, he turned to singing and songwriting, but found he was too literary to be a songwriter.

He studied journalism in school and got his first job as a journalist. But writing about 'the facts only" wasn't for him, he thought, "what's the fun in that?" Then he went to law school because "truth, accuracy and honesty were not valued there." He practiced mostly corporate law. But during all those jobs, writing poetry, singing, writing the truth and telling lies, he was writing what he loved to read: thrillers.

He set aside his first novel and decided to try another one to see if that first was just a fluke. Wrote another one, read the first one and threw it out. Reread the second one and shredded it. Six weeks later he wrote what he thought was the best thriller of the 1980s. Except it was rejected by everyone - including one rejection that was his manuscript returned along with his cover letter, only it was upside down and had a big footprint on it. His best rejection, he said, was a typewritten note that said that the manuscript was unpublishable. He was thrilled that they bothered to type it. And his next novel sold.

Four books later he was behind schedule so he sent in that "unpublishable" novel, just to buy some time. Except they loved it - same publisher that had previously rejected it, different editor.

Deaver also talked about his writing habits. He does full outlines, working on them for eight months or so before writing a single word of prose. And sometimes he ends up throwing the whole thing out and starting over. His latest novel, SLEEPING DOLL, had a 150 page outline with every clue, every red herring, every character, every exit. After that, the book only takes a couple of months to write. His favorite book is GARDEN OF BEASTS, which he said did well in Europe and won the UK's Dagger award. But Deaver says readers like series and he has very loyal fans. He sees no reason to do anything different. He's sticking to this genre, thrillers.

I haven't mentioned the auctions yet. There were two this year, one at CraftFest that was geared towards writers, and one at ThrillerFest. The two auctions raised thousands of dollars for literacy, and some very happy people went home with great prizes.

The ITW worked very hard to have diverse panels and to make them audience inclusive. Most of the panels had audience participation, games and giveaways. One of the nicest things they did was Author Bingo – conference attendees had most of the weekend to ask various authors specific questions to fill in their bingo cards, making for easy mingling. There were lots of great gifts and prizes offered throughout the conference, including advance reading copies of upcoming thrillers and the opportunity to win Sony e-readers, the iPod Nano, subscriptions to, and other prizes simply for being there.

For me, spending time with some of my favorite authors was prize enough.

Please check out my report on CraftFest, ThrillerFest 2007: The Beginning and ThrillerFest 2007: The Middle.

A much abbreviated version of this report will appear in the September 1 issue of Library Journal. Copyright © 2007 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.


Saturday morning began with the eye opening panel called "Dark Secrets: The badder the villain, the more adrenalin junkies like it" - no caffeine needed here! The always funny James O. Born was the "Panel Master", a title he deemed "a little too S&M" so he decided to moderate instead. I was really excited about this one because I finally got to meet one of my favorite new authors, Robert Fate, author of the fabulous Baby Shark series. Also on the panel was the very bright and always interesting J.D. Rhodes, police officer/author Robin Burcell who writes a terrific police series and is coming out with a stand alone thriller called THE FACE OF A KILLER, Kate Pepper, and Mallory Kane.

Jim asked the panelists how they make their bad guys believable without making them caricatures and I liked Dusty's (JD Rhodes) answer a lot; he said, "Always remember that the bad guy thinks he's the hero." Rhodes also said he prefers to think of the "bad guys" as the antagonist of the book, while Robin Burcell pointed out that "antagonist" has 4 syllables, two too many for the cops in the room, so she was sticking with "bad guys." She added that she never writes from the bad guy's point of view because she finds it "more suspenseful not to show that much." Kane said that she likes to write "intelligent bad guys who can outsmart the cops - a worthy opponent," while Pepper says she just "can't get inside the head of a villain, it's too creepy!" Fate said he enjoys writing bad guys because "they don't have any limits." It was a really good discussion, partly because Jim Born is such a good moderator, contributing his own comments on occasion as well as getting all the authors and the audience involved. Born gave out a set of those plastic handcuffs that cops use, only after making the lucky winner swear she understood that the only way to get them off is with a bolt cutter!

One of my favorite panels was “The Art of Deception: Can you write what you don’t do?” moderated by Christine "I sailed from Fort Lauderdale to New York for this!" Kling, and featuring a couple of my favorite authors, Lee Child and David Hosp, as well as new guys Phil Hawley and Nick Santora, and Lori Andrews. They were all asked to tell something about themselves and the audience had to guess if they were lying or telling the truth. All except Dr. Hawley, a pediatrician, were lawyers and surprisingly enough, all were very good, shall we say, story tellers? Santora claimed that he was arrested for attempted murder during his junior year of college while on spring break. Andrews told us that she was asked to help set up laws in Dubai for cloning men only. Hosp said he was stabbed in the chest on the upper east side of New York City. Child said he suffered with learning disabilities when he was young. And Hawley claimed that he was the third test tube baby born in the United States. The only liars? Hawley & Child.

An interesting side note: SLIP & FALL by Nick Santora is the first book published by the new publishing arm of Borders Bookstores. Towards the end of the panel, Panel Master Chris Kling asked for ten volunteers to stay and chat with Santora afterwards. I was one of the volunteers, and turns out his Borders rep was there with ten hardcover copies of his book, which he personally signed for all his "volunteers". It was a lovely and generous thing to do, and I can't wait to read it!

I returned after lunch to a panel entitled "The Killing Hour: How authors keep us turning pages into the wee hours" that had an all star cast: John Lescroart, Robert Liparulo, Andrew Gross, Heather Graham, and Lisa Gardner. They all had interesting ideas about that, like Heather Graham who uses prologues to "grab the reader in the first few pages." Lecroart says "you have to care about the character to care about the plot." Gardner feels that "it's not the "what" that's happening but the "who" it's happening to that hooks a reader." She also says she likes to use romance to "up the stakes: - what terrifies anyone more than losing their own life is losing someone they love." When asked how she felt about killing off the main character at the end of the book, her response drew the biggest laugh of the afternoon: "WOO HOO! Oprah book!"

Graham shared that setting is very important and she uses Miami, where she lives, quite a bit. She told a great story about a man who was sentenced to death in Miami and was sent to the electric chair. Usually they shave the prisoner's head for that but for some reason, they didn't for this guy and his hair caught on fire. She said the headline in the Miami Herald read "Electric Chair Deemed Dangerous."

Gross thinks that "married sex is less compelling," but only in his books! He also talked a bit about writing with James Patterson. He said he learned to do a thorough outline; they usually average about 80 pages. He said Patterson would send it back with notes inserted like "a horrible death" or "a clue that solves everything" as chapters to be written. Andy ‘fessed up to being co-author of more Patterson novels than his name actually appears on, leaving readers with another mystery to solve.

I also ran into another James Patterson co-author, Maxine Paetro. I couldn’t help but ask how the process of writing together worked. Ms. Paetro replied, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” She did allow that she’d known Jim since his advertising days.

I was really looking forward to the next panel, "In the Thin Air: 2007 Thriller Award nominees" that included Joseph Finder (KILLER INSTINCT); Lisa Unger (BEAUTIFUL LIES); Pat Gussin(SHADOW OF DEATH), George Shuman (18 SECONDS); Jack DuBrul (SKELETON COAST)& P.J. Parrish (AN UNQUIET GRAVE). I was not disappointed, these were interesting, articulate authors and it was a lively discussion. They all shared some secrets, which I will share here: DuBrul says that while writing his first two books, he always wore a hat. Finder spoke Farsi as a child, Unger lived in an apartment in NYC that was over a pizza place, much like her character Ridley, and Gussin has seven kids and seventeen grandkids!

Finder is another author that really likes giving back to the writing community because he knew nothing about the publishing business when he got started. He told us how he wanted to write but didn't know anyone he could even ask about how to go about getting published. He was in a bookstore one day looking at some books, and was reading the author bio on the back flap when he realized that the author lived in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass. So he took a chance and looked the author up in the phone book, and braved a cold call seeking information on how to go about getting published. That author was kind enough to help, and they became good friends. But Joe doesn't want other authors to have to do that, so he tries to make himself available to any interested authors who have questions.

I headed over to the spotlight interview with Clive Cussler. James Rollins asked the questions, and Dr. Cussler told some great stories. He talked about how he came up with the name for his Dirk Pitt character. He wanted a short name, like James Bond, so he decided to use his son's name, Dirk, and needed a last name. He was watching TV and saw something about "Pitt the older and Pitt the younger" and thought that would be the perfect name - and it was. And the Dirk Pitt is the new version of the orange faced Doxa diver watch that Dr. Cussler has been wearing since the 1960's.

Cussler also talked about how he likes looking for lost ships, but he says when people come to his office, they're always surprised that he doesn't have all sorts of treasure strewn about. In fact, he doesn't have any, because he's not a treasure hunter - he thinks those people are "weird." If he finds anything, he just turns it in.

As far as his writing habits go, he says he always writes a prologue, and he always starts with a beginning and an ending - but he writes the middle as he goes. He calls the actual writing "a pain in the ass," but loves the research, and usually spends about three months on it. Cussler says he always thought of himself as "an entertainer, more than a writer."

Please check out my report on CraftFest, ThrillerFest: The Beginning and ThrillerFest: The End, for this year...

A much abbreviated version of this report will appear in the September 1 issue of Library Journal. Copyright © 2007 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


“An underground steam pipe explosion tore through a Manhattan street near Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday, swallowing a tow truck and killing one person as hundreds of others ran for cover amid a towering geyser of steam and flying rubble.”

A great first line from a new thriller? No, an actual news report, courtesy of MSNBC, of an event that followed on the heels of the 2nd annual International Thriller Writers’ conference, known as ThrillerFest. While there weren’t any explosions during the conference, there were parties, panels, auctions, and fun for all 600-plus attendees.

ThrillerFest kicked off with a spotlight interview that had Tess Gerritsen chatting with Lisa Gardner. Lisa talked about how she wrote a bakers dozen of romances under a pseudonym, and when she moved to thrillers with her "debut", THE PERFECT HUSBAND, it was published as a mass market paperback. Apparently that was such an unusual move at the time that the New York Times wrote an article about it, giving this new thriller author a big boost. Lisa also talked about how she got a lot of her ideas for her thrillers - she reads a lot of true crime and does lots of research - she's "a planner, not a plunger". Lisa has the need to "see it, touch it, taste it, to write it."

Lisa feels people like reading thriller novels because "we want to see people confronting the worst." Her next book is SAY GOODBYE, due out next year. Lisa has this unbelievable contest on her website called "Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy" where you can nominate people to be killed in her next book - the next one starts in September, so be sure and mark your calendar to enter. To get a glimpse of a different side of Lisa Gardner, be sure to view her video on YouTube as she explores "a day in the life of a writer" - it's a hoot!

The Random House Readers' Reception quickly followed, where a mass signing was set up for the recently released paperback edition of the Thriller anthology. Steve Berry, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Robotham, and Lisa Unger were there, to name just a few. The place was packed, there was lots of great food, a cash bar, and everyone was busy working the room.

Friday morning brought First Blood: 2007 Debut Thriller Authors Breakfast, emceed by Lee Child. Lee is simply an amazing man. He not only is a NY Times bestselling superstar, he is also most generous with his time and knowledge. He's been a force in helping this new organization, and has thrown his support behind many new authors. He even is mentoring one, J.T. Ellison, whose first thriller, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, comes out in November.

All twenty debut authors were assigned their own tables, where they broke bread with readers and other writers. Lee introduced them, and each author got to stand up and do a little show and tell with their new book. I breakfasted with Michelle Gagnon, author of THE TUNNELS, a thriller about an old, abandoned tunnel system beneath a prestigious New England college that becomes the gruesome stalking ground of a serial killer. She was smart and lovely, and it was so much fun meeting these new authors. Marcus Sakey, author of one of my favorite books this year, THE BLADE ITSELF, was adorable and looked even younger than on his jacket photo. I asked him how old he was, wondering if he was twelve? He was very gracious in the light of my rudeness, as he told me his mom had dropped him off that morning. I heard he won some award for the "best hair at ThrillerFest" or something...

After breakfast I went to one of the most popular panels from last year, updated for TFest 07, called “Thrilling Sex: Part Deux with Booze.” Mimosas were served at the morning panel, along with comments from the moderator, Steve Berry, who said he had one sex scene in his first novel, THE AMBER ROOM. His ex-wife suggested he take it out, offering the advice that he should “write what you know.” Barry Eisler, who has a great sex scene in his latest, REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, and was Marcus Sakey's biggest competitor for "best hair at ThrillerFest," admitted he often has to fight with his “inner fourteen year old”, and John Lescroart offered the thoughtful comment that sex helps make characters real. He suggested that Dan Brown would have had a much bigger hit on his hands if he had added a sex scene to THE DA VINCI CODE. All the writers agreed that there are certain terms that should never be used in writing a sex scene: Eisler suggested avoiding "member", MJ Rose suggested ditching "rosy nipples" and "thrust", and Lescroart shirked away from "coltish calves."

I missed the spotlight interview with Vince Flynn, but I don't think he missed me - I heard it was packed! A lot of women were anxious for that panel for some reason...can't imagine why. Plus some lucky audience members got advance reader copies of upcoming thrillers.

I did get to another panel though, "Notorious: Series character, blessing or curse?" which was moderated by the always funny Jon Land and featured some really great writers I'd been wanting to meet - Jack DuBrul (HAVOC) but he also co-writes a series with Clive Cussler, Sean Chercover (BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD), Marcus Sakey (THE BLADE ITSELF), and series writers Christine Goff and Judith Kelman. It was a very lively and thought provoking discussion. Jon Land offered that he felt the mark of a great thriller is that you "should be able to open any page and be grabbed by it." Marcus Sakey told us about his next book, a stand alone thriller about an Iraqi war veteran who returns home to find a similar war on the south side of Chicago - an intriguing premise for sure.

I had planned to go to "The Devil's Alternative: Protagonists who hover at the edges of humanity" that featured one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Santlofer, as well as some new-to-me authors: Rebecca York, Laura Benedict, Diane Emley, and Erin Grady, but due to some technical problems back home - my fax machine was answering every call instead of the answering machine! - I just caught the tail end of "A Dangerous Fortune: High Finance Thrillers" instead. Joe Finder moderated a panel consisting of Matthew Baldacci from St. Martins Press, and authors Katherine Neville, Jim Fusilli, Twist Phelan and Robert Dugoni. I especially wanted to meet Dugoni, whose books I really enjoy, and I was not disappointed other than I wish I had brought my camera - he was really nice, as well as being very bright, personable, not to mention very good looking. He made a comment I found very interesting. He offered the advice to "write honestly" and said he would never have written a sex scene in DAMAGE CONTROL if he had thought about his mother reading it - she told him it was "disgusting!" Sometimes the best advice is the most obvious, and Matt Baldacci offered the very practical advice of marketing books to "the people who buy hard cover books."

The first day ended with a spotlight interview with Heather Graham, followed by "The Making of a Thriller Writer", a presentation by David Morrell. David spoke about how much he admired Sterling Silliphant, the writer of Route 66, and how much Silliphant influenced his decision to become a writer. He then showed one of his favorite episodes, featuring a very young Robert Duval.

Please check out my report on CraftFest, ThrillerFest 2007: The Middle & ThrillerFest 2007: The End (for this year.)

A much abbreviated version of this report will appear in the September 1 issue of Library Journal. Copyright © 2007 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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