Specials to the Big Thrill
The mood at the Hyatt was exhilarating and energizing this year—what better testament to ten years of dynamic success at Thrillerfest? We’ve grown from a small event in Arizona to a widely respected international conference for writers, industry professionals, and enthusiasts of the thriller genre.
As co-founder Gayle Lynds shares: “ITW was based on a dream. Author organizations come and go, and there were no guarantees ITW would not only survive but thrive. What a thrill (truly) to see so many happy people hurrying down the halls of ThrillerFest and sitting in audiences and talking animatedly on panels. I particularly loved Daniel Palmer’s song at the banquet, which seemed to encapsulate the extraordinary experience of young ITW and ten ThrillerFests, from that first small gathering in Scottsdale to the rich feast of New York. Bravo, Daniel. And Bravo ITW and ThrillerFest! And BTW, one of my most proud inventions was the name ThrillerFest. To see it in tall letters everywhere was a high I’ll never forget.”
Between the FBI workshop, CraftFest, Master CraftFest, PitchFest, and ThrillerFest, and that memorable banquet, we had six incredible days of education and celebration, with people making vital new connections and catching up with cherished friends. I keep hearing people say that Thrillerfest is like summer camp for writers. It’s heartwarming to see a core of authors return, year after year, to have that kind of experience.
Last year, we added Master CraftFest, and it was such a hit that we decided to do it again this year. It’s a one-day hands-on workshop for writers of all levels, an intense but extremely eye-opening day for our authors. Each class is limited to 10 students. What an incredible opportunity for a writer to take it to the next level. As for Craftfest itself, more than 400 students gathered to learn from the best teachers in the business. Several authors who participated in Craftfest in years past, developed their manuscripts, and then found agents and sold their books. It’s so deeply rewarding to see that cycle. And guess what? CraftFest and Master CraftFest are not just for aspiring novelists. Anybody can jump in at any stage and up their game.
The Big Break: Breaking Into the Thriller Game
Joseph Finder’s Road to the Bestseller List
By Jeremy Burns
Joseph Finder is considered a modern master of the thriller genre. A founding member of the International Thriller Writers, his accolades include a Gumshoe Award (Company Man), a Barry Award (also for Company Man), the Strand Critics Award for Best Novel (Buried Secrets), and the ITW Award for Best Novel (Killer Instinct). His books are critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers, and two of his books have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters (High Crimes and Paranoia). But Finder’s writing career hasn’t always been so rosy. In fact, some of the obstacles in his path might have seemed nigh impossible at the time, making his current level of success all the more impressive, a testament to what he sees as one of the most invaluable traits a professional writer can have: perseverance.
While touring the country for his latest book, THE FIXER, which released June 9, Finder took some time out of his busy schedule to take us on his road to success—potholes, detours, and all. Though extremely humble, his determination and the fruit it has borne should prove inspirational to all who make the bold leap to pursue their lofty publishing goals or dreams. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your journey into writing.
I’d wanted to write since I was a kid, but I was talked out of it by my elders (my grandfather and my parents), who sensibly urged me to get a “real job.” So instead I thought about academia and business and thought seriously about a career in intelligence. But what I really wanted to do was write.
And what I wanted to do most of all was write novels. But I didn’t have the courage to try fiction, frankly. So when I was twenty-three, I came up with an idea for a nonfiction book, about the relationship between American businessmen and Russia. (I was inspired by the Martin Cruz Smith novel, Gorky Park.) I got an agent and sold it to a publisher. The truth is, I think I wrote a nonfiction book because I didn’t have the courage to try a novel. After that book was published, I kept getting asked, “What’s your next book?”
I still wanted to write a thriller, but I didn’t have the guts to try it. At the time I was reading a lot of thrillers, and I kept saying to my girlfriend (later, my wife), “I can do this!” She finally called me on it and said, “well, are you going to just keep talking about it or are you going to do it?” (Though she used a more earthy expression.) I think I needed a kick in the butt.
It’s interesting. Even a fairly confident guy like me was cowed by the prospect of writing a novel, probably because of all the unknowns—am I any good at it? Will I get an agent? Will it sell?
I was teaching writing at Harvard at the time and would get up early and spend a couple of hours working on the novel that eventually became The Moscow Club.
Riding the Pretty Horses: thoughts on dual time line thrillers
By Manda Scott
Writing a thriller is like riding a horse: some days it plods along with its nose to the ground and you’d go faster if you got off and carried the wretched thing, while on others it spooks at every plastic bag in the hedge and bolts at speed in directions you never imagined going.
Once in a rare while, you and your mount click into a rather miraculous harmony that carries you forward smoothly, effortlessly, beautifully… until the next plastic bag (or the phone call from an editor), brings it all crashing down.
Still, there are some kinds of writing that have always struck me as way more scary than the standard “get on a horse and make it go” variety. Writing a dual timeline novel particularly, feels more like the circus trick where you stand on the backs of two over-bred greys and send them spinning round the ring in the hope that neither will decide to bolt off at right angles: you have to be a hardcore adrenaline junky even to contemplate it.
We’re all on the edge of that, or we wouldn’t be here. By definition, a thriller mingles uncertainty with anticipation in just the right adrenaline-surging proportions, but even so, when we wake up one morning with the next book pushing on the borders of consciousness and part of its many demands is that there be two (or more) timelines, we know that it’s going to be harder than anything else that came before it. Getting it right is not just twice the challenge of a linear narrative, it’s challenge squared.
So, as always, when starting something new, we look at who does it best and learn from them.
Robert Wilson’s Gold Dagger winner, A Small Death in Lisbon, is a good place to start.
“It’s easily forgotten, Inspector, that history is not what you read in books. History is a personal thing. And people are vengeful creatures.”
Thirteen great new thrillers for $9.99 is a sweet deal. Now you can get that deal while contributing to a very worthy cause. Just grab the SWEET DREAMS Boxed Set (Thirteen New Thrillers by Bestselling Authors to Benefit Diabetes Research).
This limited edition collection is a dream-come-true for avid readers. But how did thirteen brand new novels and novellas written by New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors end up in one giant e-book? That was the work of Brenda Novak and her charity, the Online Auction for Diabetes Research. Novak, a bestseller in her own right, had personal reasons for curating this boxed set and contributing the money it raised to the Diabetes Research Institute.
“When my son was diagnosed with Type 1 at the age of five,” Novak says, “I knew I wanted to do all I could to fight the disease that threatened his health on a daily basis. That’s why I started my annual online auctions for diabetes research, which I ran for ten years.”
Last year, the first boxed set Novak curated, A Sweet Life, raised $100,000 for diabetes research. This year she’s back to raise more. Novak created a “wish list” of the biggest names in the genre and reached out. The authors in the boxed set all replied that they’d be happy to help.
“I explained that I thought we could raise more money with brand new work, and they were generous enough to contribute despite the added work that would cause,” Novak says. “I’m still in awe of the fabulous reception I received. These ladies—and Lee Child, who provided the incredible foreword for SWEET DREAMS—are some of the most generous and socially-conscious people on the planet.”
Theresa Ragan’s reaction was typical when Novak asked her to participate.
“My first thought was, how can I possibly squeeze in another project?” Ragan says. “And then my second thought was, how thrilling it was to be asked to be included. I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance. I am honored.”
Ragan contributed her newest suspense, Dead Man Running. It kicks off when an accused murderer escapes prison in a body bag and sets out to prove his innocence.
The stories in SWEET DREAMS cover the spectrum of thrillers. Novak purposely left her request to the authors wide open. She says her fundraising philosophy is to make everything a win/win.
Ten years ago, the first ThrillerFest launched in Phoenix, Arizona. Since this inaugural event, the International Thriller Writers organization has grown exponentially, and the NYC-based conference now annually hosts 1,000 thriller enthusiasts from across the globe. The presentation of a lifetime achievement accolade called the “ThrillerMaster Award” is the pinnacle of our weeklong gathering. Ten iconic authors have received this award, and we wanted to check in with these masters of suspense to explore their views of the thriller genre.
2006 Clive Cussler
Our first ThrillerMaster’s adventure novels introduced readers to a spectacular underwater world of treasures, taking us on Dirk Pitt’s journeys into the ocean’s depths. In this case, fiction mirrored reality, as the California-born Cussler founded a non-profit organization called NUMA—National Underwater & Marine Agency—where his marine experts have discovered over 60 historically significant wreck sites.
Akin to his NUMA submarine, Cussler constantly resurfaces on the top of the bestseller lists, and feels that the thriller genre will go “nowhere but up.” An avid collector of classic automobiles, Cussler now divides his time between the mountains of Colorado and the deserts of Arizona. When asked about the proudest moment in his career, he quips, “When they burned my books in a parking lot in Georgia.” This master of thrills has plans for more adventures, and we look forward to fastening our seatbelts for the entertaining ride.
2007 James Patterson
Prolific is the key word when it comes to our second ThrillerMaster James Patterson who has created a dynasty of series characters, including the iconic Alex Cross. When asked what project he is currently working on, Jim responds, “That would be projects, plural. It’s like plotlines, you know? If you only have one going you’re falling down on the job. Let’s see—I am at work putting into various degrees of peril the lives of characters whose last names are Boxer, Bennett, Grimm, Ride, Morgan, Khatchadorian, Jordan, MacDonald, Kidd, and Cross to name a few. And then there are some TV shows and movies coming. And some science fiction, some mystery, some mice.” Needless to say, Patterson fans will have plenty of titles to choose from on their next foray to the bookstore.
Jim’s seamless prose and short chapters have captured a new generation of admirers, but his proudest moment rests closer to home, as he eloquently shares what matters to him most: “Helping my son Jack to become a reader. That ability of ours as writers to turn other people into readers—that is where the real payday is, here and in heaven. I really believe that. Helping people become readers is nothing short of holy work. We should feel very good about it.”
My debut thriller will launch in a few days. The galleys are out, the blog tour has commenced, events have been scheduled. I am, at the same time, excited and nervous.
Once a new writer manages to conquer the seemingly insurmountable hurdles of landing an agent and a publishing deal, a whole new set of challenges awaits. You only have to look at the statistics to know that the chances for a new writer being discovered and launching a successful debut novel are daunting. I won’t recite those statistics here, just to say that, to beat those odds, more pressure than ever is on the writer’s shoulders to promote themselves and their work—to stand out in the ever-increasing demand for a reader’s attention, build a readership, and create momentum for future books.
Word of mouth is still the best way for a writer and his or her book to be discovered, and that requires spreading the word as far and wide as possible. The dichotomy is that all of the promotion in the world will not guarantee a book’s success—success depends on the intangible: how does your book resonate with readers?
Yet, without promotion the book may never get into the hands of readers.
On a panel recently, I was asked what has surprised me as a newly-published author. The answer was an easy one. For all the fierce competition out there, authors are great supporters of new writers and their work. As authors rise in their careers, they reach back to offer a helping hand, and I wager many new writers would face an even greater struggle to establish their careers without that support.
ITW and the authors who created it are a perfect example. Part of the organization’s mission statement is to provide a powerful support network for all authors. This is especially true for debuts and those “next steppers” who face similar challenges with book two, three, and beyond.
OLD EARTH is a geological thriller that spans all of time—cutting backward and forward along the space-time continuum as the suspense builds and the mystery unfolds. It begins with an exploration by Galileo in 1601, jumps to a contemporary dinosaur dig in Montana, crosses back centuries to the Inquisition, and ultimately considers the very origins of civilization.
Through the investigation of paleontologists Quinn McCauley and Katrina Alpert, readers are taken on a globe-hopping adventure. Yet, just as the characters stumbled upon their find, Galileo provided me with quite an accidental discovery that became central to the plot development and excitement of OLD EARTH.
I originally outlined a purely present-day story: an excavation leads to a mysterious find, the find sets up an international search, the search reveals an amazing truth.
When I sat down with my initial outline to begin writing, I quickly realized I was missing something important. I needed a powerful inciting incident.
As a journalist and history buff, I looked for something profound, believable, and grounded in truth. As a researcher, I hoped I could dig up something tangible and exciting.
Digging deeper for a story is the part I love.
Open one door, it leads to another. Go down a path, there’s a fork with more possibilities. Come up with a strong notion, then more intriguing intersects reveal themselves, leading to more doors, more paths, and more forks, with decisions to make at each.
For me, the first “door to the past” led to Galileo’s early life—before the telescope. I wondered whether he, like Quinn McCauley in my contemporary story, had ever explored a cave. To my wonderful surprise, he not only had, but I learned something I had never known. In 1593, Galileo invented a rudimentary device to determine temperatures. Yes, Galileo invented the thermometer, or more accurately the thermoscope!
While I was driving my twelve-year-old daughter home from softball practice last week, she told me about her day—including an irate commentary about her history lesson. “Did you know that in Athens, women were considered the property of their husbands?”
Before I could respond, she continued. “I told Mr. B that if I lived in Athens back then, I’d kill my husband, hide his body, and tell everyone he disappeared.”
While I appreciate her independence and strong sense of gender equality, I fear I’ve ruined my kids. That, after writing twenty-five crime novels including my latest, COMPULSION, I’m raising five children who are plotting the perfect murder. I reminded her that we believe in Heaven and Hell and while there may be a perfect murder, she wouldn’t want to go to Hell later.
Yet, a little piece of my heart was so very, very proud.
Even before I wrote crime thrillers, I was interested in crime. I don’t know if it started with my love of Trixie Belden (age eight), or Nancy Drew (age ten), or Agatha Christie (age twelve.) In Cold Blood was the first true crime novel I read when I was in eighth grade, and for years I devoured both true and fictional crime stories.
When I worked in the California State Legislature, one of my jobs was to read public safety legislation then explain—in one page or less—what the bill would actually do, both pro and con. This analysis gave me not only an understanding of crime in California, but the ability to look at all sides of an issue. In this capacity, I read the news daily, and even when I left the Legislature, I kept up with current events, particularly related to crime.
So it’s not really surprising when, years later, my oldest daughter wanted a MySpace page (yes, this was many years ago), I printed out a slew of articles where girls had been beaten, raped or murdered because they’d hooked up with someone they met online. One of the saddest stories was a girl who lived only an hour from our hometown who had a private MySpace page. Her best friend posted information about a party and “tagged” her. A young man who had been stalking this girl showed up, kidnapped, raped, and murdered her, then dumped her body in the delta.
By Layton Green
I love international crime fiction—thus this column—and I’d long wanted to read something set during the Troubles (the brutal internecine conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland that I remember so vividly from my youth.) Adrian McKinty, an award-winning Irish writer who grew up in Belfast, was recommended to me by a friend, and so I picked up a copy of GUN STREET GIRL, Adrian’s latest novel featuring Detective Sean Duffy, a Catholic police officer working the mean streets of Belfast during the Troubles.
And what an inspired recommendation it was. A fascinating mystery grounded in historical events, a setting that taught me something about the world, and spare but beautiful prose: GUN STREET GIRL was just what I wanted.
A little about Adrian: he’s written sixteen books in total, including four in the Detective Sean Duffy series. The first three form a loose trilogy, though Adrian tells me that any of the four can be read as standalones. While I’m itching to read the first three, I certainly had no problem jumping right in with GUN STREET GIRL.
Adrian’s complete list of awards and nominations is too lengthy to include. Some of the highlights: he’s been called a “master of modern noir” by The Guardian, and “one of his generation’s leading talents” by Publishers Weekly; he won the 2014 Barry Award for I Hear the Sirens in the Street (an Detective Sean Duffy novel), for which he was also shortlisted for the 2014 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; The Dead Yard was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the twelve Best Novels of 2006 and won the 2007 Audie Award for best thriller/suspense; In the Morning I’ll Be Gone won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for best fiction, was shortlisted for the 2015 Audie Award for Best Thriller, and was named as one of the ten best crime novels of 2014 by the American Library Association.
From Fleming to Clancy and Beyond:
Why We Love the Political Thriller
We love a political thriller.
We love goodies and baddies, edge-of-your-seat suspense, epic stakes and politics far sexier than your average strongly-worded UN Security Council Resolution. But what’s remarkable is how robust the genre has proven to be in film and fiction; its evolution from James Bond through the Cold War to now. The political thriller remains a staple of pop culture storytelling.
Things were easy right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall: Western (usually American) hero battles maniacal USSR villain with earth-scorching consequences if he loses. Yet after spinning its wheels through the mid-90s with nobody to worry about, the genre found the road again, with the rise of Islamic terrorism and China as popular fears in Western storytelling. In doing so, the genre has shown itself to be the lens that reveals the collective fear of the time.
Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy, among others, toiled easily in the fertile soil of the Cold War, but both authors also showed a remarkable knack for predicting the next “other” that we’d fear. In Clancy’s case, some even considered his 1994 thriller Debt of Honor to be the blueprint for 9/11(extremists flying planes into buildings). In their work, political thriller authors give the audience what they want, but they also need to cast ahead for what the audience should worry about.
For the audience, the appeal is clear:
The hero. The villain. From James Bond to Jack Ryan to Jack Bauer to Carrie Mathison, the genre specializes in creating heroes who are fairly easy to cheer for. Combine that with shallow and entirely throwaway villains and an army of fanatics/terrorists/rebels/sycophants for all the black and white needed to pass a few hours in entertainment.
Done in Fifteen Years:
The Long Road to Collaboration
Whenever a substantial creative endeavor (novel writing, film directing, music composition, etc.,) is accomplished by two or more people working together to achieve a single voice, the first things people want to know is: How did you come together to write the novel? And how did you do it?
In this Special to THE BIG THRILL, Grant Jerkins and Jan Thomas—co-authors of the police-sniper thriller, DONE IN ONE—take a look back at the unlikely circumstances that brought them together to write this “high-powered, bone-rattler of a novel.”
* * *
Grant Jerkins: In the late 90s, I was working primarily as a screenwriter. I’d written five spec scripts and managed to get a few of them optioned—one to a well-regarded director/producer/writer who had a critically-praised hit under his belt. He was the real deal, a Hollywood player, so naturally, I was excited at the opportunity.
I received no money for the option, and there were a lot of ups and downs with funding, casting, and rewriting my original script. During this process, the director told me about another screenplay he’d optioned—he loved it, but wanted to do a complete rewrite. He didn’t have the time, so he asked me to take a swing at it.
I was excited and proud that he wanted me to take this on, even though I was paid in promises and glitter. I was desperate for a break, a chance to make my mark, so I rewrote the script, putting everything I had into it. I thought it turned out quite well, preserving the best aspects of the original while injecting my own brand of storytelling.
From my observations, people, especially the young, are surprisingly ignorant of history. When I taught writing courses to college students, I was dumbfounded by how little they know about historical events.
That got me thinking about some important periods in history, and what a travesty it would be if they were forgotten, only to suffer the risk of history, as they say, repeating itself. Thus became THE LAST WITNESS, a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust. In the book, the character’s one hundredth birthday takes place in 2039, but the world has all but forgotten.
Like many novels, it was first turned down by various publishers, one of whom said he had to “suspend disbelief” with the premise that people would know so little about the Holocaust a mere one generation down the road.
To prove my point, I decided to make a video—but not your regular, book-promo thing. I had a mission. A videographer and I spent an afternoon asking university students in Toronto, where I live, what they know about the Holocaust. And since this was a few days before November 11th, we also asked them about World War II.
What did we find? Many students didn’t know what happened at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, who FDR and Churchill were, or what the Holocaust was all about. “I’ve heard of the Holocaust but I can’t explain it,” one student said. When I asked how many Jews were killed, another said, “thousands”—which is a far cry from six million.
Not a single student knew what The Final Solution was, or had heard of Joseph Mengele, and most had no idea who the Allies were, and yet, our video was shot just before November 11th—Remembrance Day in Canada, Veterans Day in the United States. It made me wonder: What would a veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy with Allied forces on June 6th, 1944 think knowing that university kids today know nothing about what happened that day?
In something new for THE BIG THRILL, Barry-nominated author Tim O’Mara, a special education teacher in New York public schools, wrote this great vignette. It isn’t hard to see how his teaching led him to the world of detective fiction, with a series centered around a teacher / ex-cop who often gets involved with cases involving students or former students. —Eds
By Tim O’Mara
There’s something not quite right about the guy sitting across the table from me.
He knows it. I know it. But he’s not talking.
That’s why they called me. I have a rep for being good at getting guys like this to open up. If they go silent, it’s my job to pick up on the body language, subtle gestures, non-verbal clues.
After five minutes, I’m starting to think maybe they called in the wrong man. This guy’s as smart as they told me he was. Maybe smarter.
I decide to give him a task. Something to do that requires a set of skills unique to the situation.
He begins easily enough. He may be quiet and hard to figure out, but he’s willing to please. Most of them are. That’s what I count on. The quicker they give me what I want, the quicker they’re rid of me. That’s what they think, anyway.
I watch him for a while. I ease up out of my seat and walk to the back of the room. There’s usually not much to see from back here, but I give it a shot. I notice his back’s nice and straight. The head goes up and down more than it should, but that could just be a physical tick.
I move around to the side, just enough to give me an angle to observe as he continues to do what I asked. The head is still going up and down every three to five seconds. Too much. I complete my arc and stand in front of him. I check out his hands, his shoulders, his face.
And there it is. In the eyes. Poker players call it a “tell.” I call it squinting.
“You wear glasses?” I ask.
Six Mystery Bookstores Recommend Novels
You May Have Missed
By Barry Lancet
With the holidays approaching, the rush is on to find a seemingly endless string of perfect gifts. If you are passionate about thrillers and mysteries, why not pass on your enthusiasm to others? And what better way to do so, then introduce them to a new voice or a new discovery?
With that thought in mind, THE BIG THRILL asked a half dozen renowned mystery bookstores across the country to recommend the perfect gift. Our only criteria: they had to be books the stores loved—novels they regularly recommend to customers—that might have slipped below the radar this year.
The bookstores responded enthusiastically with an impressive array of twenty titles. So if you’re looking for gifts this year, check out the books below. And if you’re in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and visit these iconic stores. Or visit them online, as every shop has a number of additional offerings, from book clubs to signed books to rare editions that can be sent anywhere—for a gift, or to add to your own collection.
MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP · New York City
This store is a required stopover for any crime-novel enthusiast heading to New York City. Founded by owner, editor, writer, and publisher Otto Penzler in 1979, the shop is celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary this year. Aside from carrying an extensive catalog of mysteries and thrillers of every stripe, Mysterious Bookshop also stocks signed first editions, collector’s items, and “the largest collection of Sherlockiana in the world.” And should you be looking for a more expansive gift, consider a one-year subscription to one of its book clubs. Penzler and his crew also run Mysterious Press, which publishes books in paperback and digital editions. Ian Kern supplied these store picks for the holidays:
The Biggest & Best Book Contest Ever
It won’t come as a surprise to readers of THE BIG THRILL that the International Thriller Writers is about to sponsor a contest the likes of which nobody has ever seen before. After all, this is an organization known for innovation; for vastly expanding the thriller world and building a unique community of readers, writers, authors, and fans. But giving away a thousand books? That seems like a tall order—a tall stack, that is—even for a group as envelope-pushing as this one.
Yet that is what’s about to happen.
For the past six months, titles by ITW members have been sent to an office in California that must by now resemble Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory…with books. Hot-off-the-press new releases, beloved and favorite titles, debut novels, and even advance reader copies normally impossible to get hold of except by reviewers and booksellers—all have been shipped from across the country and overseas, by FedEx and UPS and the US Postal Service workers, so that ITW can achieve the near-impossible.
Which is this: award twenty lucky winners a new book every single week for a year. Friends, that’s one thousand books. That’s a “kilobook.”
All readers have to do for a chance to win the jackpot is subscribe to THE BIG THRILL when the contest kicks off on November 1. And if you’re already receiving this all-thriller, all-the-time collection of interviews, stories, news, and reviews? No worries, you can sign up again, here.
Twenty winners will be chosen, and each will receive a brand-new book by an ITW author every week all year long. Winners can even raid their book bonanza for holiday shopping, because books will be shipped at the beginning of December.
How Hollywood Gets It Wrong
By Chris Grall
In Elizabethan times, an ordinance was passed preventing men from wearing swords to the theater. Apparently, in an age where dueling was commonplace, the crowd could become overly enthusiastic and join the cast on stage during a fight scene. Because much of the audience knew how to fight, choreography was vitally important to the success of the production. If the fight scene was not convincing, the actors could be mocked or booed off the stage.
Today, action scenes are ubiquitous in movies and television, yet relatively few people are versed in violence and/or the operation of modern weapons. This allows directors and producers a lot of latitude when it comes to action scenes. Mistakes and errors are usually glossed over by the rapid pace of the show—it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to look good. For this reason, misinformation about firearms or tactics are often passed on from visual media to the literary world.
In the following sections, we’ll explore how and why some of these errors are created, how writers can recognize—and avoid—them.
One of my favorite cinematic errors—and by “favorite” I mean something that makes my skin crawl—is the sound of a gun cocking when a character points a pistol at something. Not all guns need to be cocked before firing. Yet, in many scenes you will hear the weapon being cocked when it is pointed at a target.
The Foley artist adds these sound effects during post-production, since not all ambient noise are captured properly during filming. Sound cues are added to the action with the proper volume and reverberation in order to incite an emotional response from the viewer. The sound of a gun being cocked generates the expectation in the audience that the weapon is ready to be fired, regardless of how the weapon actually functions.
Spouses Andrew Grant and Tasha Alexandra’s Separate Roads to the Bestseller List
By Dawn Ius
One can only image the murder, betrayal, and intrigue that goes on in the home of Andrew Grant and his wife Tasha Alexander. Luckily, and to the delight of their legions of fans, all of it occurs on the page.
Bestselling author Grant was a precocious six-year-old when he penned his first thriller—a riveting tale about giant tortoises escaping from the Dudley Zoo in what proved to be a vain attempt to rally the British people in ousting Queen Elizabeth II, and insisting on republic, rather than monarchy.
Quite a complicated story for a first grader—and, completely untrue, a humorous anecdote made up by Grant’s wife of four years, New York Times bestselling author, Tasha Alexander.
While it’s conceivable Grant may have once imagined monstrous turtles, the references to history are more likely to come from Alexander (backed by a full black Moleskine notebook’s worth of research, of course)—which is why the couple is happy to share individual successful writing careers, but perhaps never the same story.
“Ha! That is something that would never happen,” says Alexander. “Though it could be hysterical. Contemporary thriller hero meets Victorian lady?”
True, the two aren’t likely to split a byline any time soon, but the power couple will celebrate two book launches this month—Grant with his latest thriller, RUN, and Alexander with the ninth novel in her Lady Emily series, THE COUNTERFEIT HEIRESS.
RUN, a calculated deviation from Grant’s “secret agent” David Trevellyan series, is a high-octane thriller that, in part, explores the scary side of telecommunications. For instance, when you send an email, do you know who will read it aside from the addressee? Makes you think, right?
Over the course of a fictional week, Grant puts his protagonist through hell—he’s stalked, ambushed, wiretapped, arrested, duped, and triple crossed, until he can no longer tell his enemies from his allies.
The inspiration for the novel stemmed from the idea of taking an ordinary guy and seeing what happens when “his safe and familiar world is dismantled piece by agonizing piece.”
“My favorite part of creating a new character is adding the little details that make him human and distinctive,” says Grant. “In Marc Bowman’s case, it’s his love of Lichtenstein, and the way he ends up drawing a parallel between art and computer code.”
Celebrating Ten Years of Innovation
It wouldn’t be summer in New York without hundreds of the country’s top thriller writers ascending on the Grand Hyatt for the International Thriller Writers’ annual conference, ThrillerFest. It’s a place where a new writer can get discovered, an old one can learn some new tricks, and fans can get up close and personal with legends in the genre.
This year’s event, held from July 8-12, was arguably the best yet, given that it was also a celebration of an incredible milestone: ITW’s tenth anniversary. “What began a decade ago in a meeting of forty writers,” ITW co-presidents Lee Child and M. J. Rose told attendees, “has turned into an organization boasting over two thousand members.” Child and Rose added that the event is the embodiment of the organization’s philosophy: “We believe that when we imitate, we fail, and when we innovate, we succeed.”
It was another year of innovation for ITW. The organization published FACEOFF, a first-of-its-kind anthology where bestselling writers co-authored stories pairing up their iconic characters. And what better way to celebrate ITW’s tenth year than with news that FACEOFF had hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.
It’s impossible to capture all the great moments of ThrillerFest IX, but here are a few highlights from the FBI Workshop, Master CraftFest, CraftFest, PitchFest, ThrillerFest, FACEOFF FanFest, the banquet, and some fun parts in between.
The week kicked off early with a full-day workshop at the NYC FBI headquarters for more than one-hundred inquisitive authors. Ten special agents from different departments of the FBI, including intelligence, counterintelligence, cybercrime, special operations, and organized crime, offered insights from their areas of expertise. The agents were enthusiastic and patient, answering the countless questions from our members because they really want writers to get the facts correct. Former FBI agent Daniel DeSimone, who now works for Thomson Reuters, was the luncheon keynote, detailing his fascinating real-life thriller experience while undercover in Vegas. “Sharing my story publicly for the first time, about my work as an FBI undercover agent, allowed me to demonstrate that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.”
This year, ITW created a new event called Master CraftFest. Participants worked in small groups under the tutelage of one of seven phenomenal New York Times bestselling author-instructors: Steve Berry, William Bernhardt, Grant Blackwood, Steven James, John Lescroart, D. P. Lyle, M.D., and David Morrell. ITW’s first intensive all-day writing retreat was a resounding success.
Steve Berry led the charge in organizing this special experience. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for several years now. This year we made it happen, and what a success. We were expecting around twenty students and we got seventy. I’d say Master CraftFest is around to stay.”
One of Berry’s students, William Nikkel, summed up his inspiring day: “I cannot give enough praise to Steve Berry for his contribution to ThrillerFest’s Master CraftFest session. As a published author, I entered the class dubious of the outcome. Even so, my goal was to elevate my writing to the next stage and to do that I needed to learn from a pro. The class stripped away the fluff, took me back to the basics, and then propelled me to a new level. Master CraftFest is a valuable experience I’d highly recommend to any writer. There is always room to learn. And there is nothing like learning from the best.”
CraftFest—ITW’s writing school—is always one of the conference’s most attended events, and grows in popularity every year. Just a few T-Fests ago, ITW hosted 150 attendees. This year, there were more than 400 students who learned the craft from our bestselling-author faculty.
ITW expanded CraftFest from three to four tracks to give attendees more choices. As usual, the instructors included a who’s who of thriller writers. In honor of FACEOFF, Wednesday and Thursday saw more than fifty classes, many taught by the authors featured in the anthology. FACEOFF authors who pitted their characters against one another in short stories “faced off” yet again in the classroom: F. Paul Wilson and Heather Graham taught a class on point-of-view, Lee Child and Joseph Finder on storytelling, M. J. Rose and Lisa Gardner on building characters, and John Lescroart and T. Jefferson Parker on finding your voice. Other FACEOFF authors—Linwood Barclay, Steve Berry, Linda Fairstein, Peter James, John Sandford, and R. L. Stine—also shared their wisdom with aspiring writers in an array of workshops.
But the classes weren’t limited to teaching. Weapons expert Chris Grall taught Firearms 101, PR extraordinaire Meryl Moss gave marketing advice, and editor Mark Tavani and literary agent Kimberley Cameron taught writers how to “bulletproof your manuscript.” The workshop hosted by Richard Krevolin and Jennifer Wilkov offered invaluable insights into the world of screenwriting.
Weapons man Grall, who is also a thriller enthusiast, said, “Imagine being invited to visit your favorite professional sports team and not only be accepted by your favorite stars, but to be treated like family. This was my experience at ThrillerFest.”
The event continued to provide one-stop shopping to learn both the craft and business of writing. CraftFest culminated on Thursday with an amazing Q&A luncheon with Jonathan Karp, the president and publisher of Simon & Schuster.
Another highlight of the lunch was hearing the winners of the Best First Sentence Contest. The Master CraftFest teachers were given a blind list of all the submissions, and they chose their favorite opening lines. Safe to say, “It was a dark and stormy night” was not among the contenders, but you can see the winners here.
The Director of CraftFest, D. P. Lyle, M.D., summed things up well: “The original vision of CraftFest was to build the premier school for learning the craft of thriller writing. I believe we have succeeded. But you’re only as good as your last at bat so now it is time to expand and evolve. This year’s Master CraftFest, Best First Sentence Contest, and the Online Thriller School ITW launched in April are examples of this evolution. Each of these will continue. And we have a couple of other online things brewing. Stay tuned.”
CraftFest participants had the opportunity to learn the art of the pitch from experts Kathleen Antrim and Jon Land, and then used what they learned in real pitches to the more than fifty literary agents, publishers, and producers who participated in Thursday’s PitchFest.
No other conference offers writers such direct and immediate access to this number of industry professionals. And PitchFest has many success stories, including John Dixon, an author who got his agent at a past PitchFest and who appeared this year at the Debut Author Breakfast (more on the breakfast below), to celebrate his debut novel and the CBS television show based on his book. ThrillerFest Security Director Simon Gervais, who participated in PitchFest last year, landed a two-book deal.
This year, Marine Samuel Octavius created a stir with his pitch for GRASPING SAND, “a story about a Marine named Tyson who enlists in order to escape the guilt he feels over his brother’s suicide. In Iraq, Tyson encounters a ten-year-old girl who has been forced by insurgents to attack Americans. He must choose between saving her life, or his own.”
When asked about his PitchFest experience, Octavius said, “The PitchFest event topped the cake as one of the most amazing segments of the week. The agents were extremely patient and professional, and allowed every author the opportunity to pitch their novel without stressing the time limits. Whether I land an agent from the event or not, I learned a valuable lesson that I’ll keep throughout my entire career: I know I’m on to something when I can clearly describe my story in thirty words or less.”
Boyd Morrison, ITW’s PitchFest Director, gave his parting thoughts about the event. “In my third and final year as PitchFest Director, I had the pleasure of meeting many eager new authors hoping to make their dreams of publication come true. After the session was over, authors excitedly told me how many agents and editors wanted to see their manuscripts. What those authors may not realize is how many agents and editors excitedly told me afterward about the pitched manuscripts they were eager to read in the hopes of finding the newest bestseller. I know that in the coming year we’ll be reading about success stories from those connections.” The phenomenal Sandra Brannan will be taking over Morrison’s role as PitchFest Director. ITW extends a huge thank you to Morrison, Brannan, Terry Rodgers, and Shane Gericke for all the work they do to make PitchFest such a special event.
Panels, federal agents, and drinks, oh my . . .
Friday and Saturday brought on the amazing panels—nearly fifty this year—on a myriad of topics, including a phenomenal panel on military thrillers that featured SEAL Mark McGinnis. ThrillerFest included everything from Jeffrey Deaver on a panel about thrillers and literature to Chelsea Cain on how to end a novel; from Michael Connelly on writing a series to Steve Martini on writing about the law.
Speaking of the law, let’s not forget the G-Men in the house. Three FBI special agents—Daniel McCaffrey, David Chaves, and Andrew Cordiner—participated in an incredible Q&A with writers. Not to be outdone, Edwin M. Donovan, Deputy Assistant Director of the Secret Service, gave an insider’s view of his agency.
Friday ended (officially, anyway) with the FACEOFF FanFest cocktail party and book signing. As the Huffington Post described the event, it was a night of drinks with 2014 ThrillerMaster Scott Turow, posing for photos with R. L. Stine, and watching Lisa Gardner’s mother help her work the room.
ITW was thrilled to have so many authors traverse the ocean to attend ThrillerFest, including FACEOFF contributors Ian Rankin, Peter James, and Raymond Khoury. Rankin commented on the experience: “Writing a story for FACEOFF (with fellow Brit Peter James) was a challenge, but one delicious result was the opportunity to visit ThrillerFest and meet so many colleagues (old and new) and see so many heroes. ThrillerFest is unlike any other writing festival I’ve been part of, because so much of the focus is on the actual craft. I came away filled with fresh insights and enthusiasm, which I hope I can bring to bear on future writing projects, be they solo or collaborative.”
The Debut Authors Breakfast
One of the highlights of ThrillerFest every year is the Debut Authors Breakfast on Saturday morning. This year, two dozen authors from the Debut Authors Program had their moment to shine. And shine they did.
It was a remarkable group. As Library Journal reported, “[c]ollectively, these authors had rights sold to twenty countries, earned at least ten starred reviews, and could boast a LibraryReads pick, a New York Times Editors Choice pick, and a Goodreads debut feature among them.”
Debut author Barry Lancet, who already had remarkable success, including his first novel JAPANTOWN optioned by J. J. Abrams, said that “the idea of a debut breakfast, where first-time authors are introduced to the world, is a brilliant one. By ‘world’ I mean to an audience of fans, journalists, other media, and so many people just interested in the genre, who spread the word. For debuts, this is invaluable. And as if that were not enough, ITW goes a step further by arranging hands-on opportunities to promote debut authors’ books, including feature stories, interviews, and, this year, free book trailers. It’s really representative of what ITW does—the organization reaches out to authors at all levels.”
After the debuts took the stage, they were treated to a keynote address and advice from Silver Bullet Literary Award recipient Brenda Novak, who was honored for her literary work and her philanthropic efforts to battle diabetes. Novak, who has raised more than two million dollars at her annual diabetes auction, said, “ThrillerFest was amazing! I loved the workshops, the people, and the setting (who doesn’t love NYC?). I can’t wait until it rolls around again next year so I can present the Silver Bullet to the 2015 winner. It was truly an honor to be recognized.”
Later on Saturday, Douglas Preston’s phenomenal interview of 2014 ThrillerMaster Scott Turow captivated the packed ballroom. The ThrillerMaster theme continued later on Saturday with Christopher Rice as a most entertaining panel master for a panel that included ThrillerMasters Scott Turow, David Morrell, Anne Rice, and R. L. Stine.
The Awards Banquet
ThrillerFest closes each year with a banquet. This year, the event was bittersweet as ITW mourned the loss of Michael Palmer, whose musical numbers with his son Daniel were an annual banquet tradition. Daniel performed a moving tribute to his father, reworking the song Cat’s In the Cradle, with lyrics that were at once humorous, touching, and memorable.
Daniel Palmer found the evening unforgettable: “I knew everyone was looking forward to the song as a way to honor my dad’s memory, but I was really nervous to perform it. I thought the song was good, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received. When I started to play, the audience was right with me from the very first bars and it really lifted me up. I think folks were glad the song captured my dad’s spirit by having both humor and heart. After I finished and saw hundreds of people on their feet applauding, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this community. As much as people seemed to enjoy the song, they were also applauding my dad’s legacy of kindness and friendship. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and will treasure always.”
In addition to some great speeches and memorable moments, the winners of the Thriller Awards were announced. This year’s winners included Andrew Pyper (hardcover), Jennifer McMahon (PBO), Jason Matthews (debut), Rebecca Cantrell (eBook), and Cristin Terrill (YA), Twist Phelan (short story). Cantrell said, “I was so thrilled to find out I was nominated for the Best eBook award by ITW, the organization where I grew up as a writer, and gobsmacked when I won. Thank you, ITW!”
Anne Rice’s presentation of the ThrillerMaster Award to Scott Turow was a special moment, as she had reviewed Scott’s blockbuster novel PRESUMED INNOCENT years ago when he was first starting out as a novelist—and now they had come full circle—Rice presenting him with a lifetime achievement award that she in turn had received the year before.
At the banquet ITW also honored the two writers who helped start it all, the organization’s founders, David Morrell and Gayle Lynds. After blowing out the ten candles on the ITW birthday cake, David Morrell “couldn’t help comparing the five hundred people at this year’s ThrillerFest banquet with the few dozen people who attended the first ITW meeting at Toronto’s Bouchercon ten years ago. As founders and the first co-presidents, Gayle and I spent many months phoning people, enlisting support. Many of them went on to become key developers of the organization. ITW wouldn’t have survived and flourished without a lot of help from a lot of generous, talented people.”
Lynds added that “wherever I look around during ThrillerFest, I see halls and rooms filled with smiling faces—readers, authors, other industry professionals. There’s always a lot of animated talk, collegial exchanges, and opportunities to meet people whose work one admires. It gives me a tremendous sense of awe. I think David and I will always be grateful for the privilege of having been in the right spot at the right time to start ITW, and to have been able to watch others step in to carry the organization so successfully, and happily, into the future.”
As for the future, ThrillerFest X will be held July 7-11, 2015, will honor 2015 ThrillerMaster Nelson DeMille, and will have many surprises. As always, it’s gonna be a thriller.
Thanks to our sponsors, our spotlight guests, our ITW board, our attendees, countless industry professionals, our ThrillerFest staff, and all our special volunteers for taking the time out of their busy schedules to come together in NYC for such a fantastic celebration.
Kimberley Howe has the honor of winning three Daphne du Maurier awards for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense and numerous other writing awards. She works as a medical, health, and fitness writer, excellent training ground for research and answers to countless Jeopardy questions.
Travel and adventure are her passions. She has had the pleasure of riding racing camels in Jordan, learning how to surf in Hawaii, hanging upside down on the zipline in the Costa Rican jungle, swimming with Great White Sharks in South Africa, and working with elephants in Botswana. Home is in Toronto, Canada, but she is often missing in action!
To learn more about Kimberley, please visit her website.
Anthony J. Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a major Washington, D.C. law firm and author of the debut legal thriller, THE LAST JUSTICE. Franze also is an adjunct professor of law, a legal commentator for several news outlets, and the Managing Editor of THE BIG THRILL. Franze lives in the D.C. area with his wife and three children, and is currently finalizing his next high-court thriller.
To learn more about Anthony, please visit his website.
What It’s Like to Write a Television Tie-In Novel by Karen Dionne
There are two broad categories of television and movie tie-ins. A novelization is a retelling of the show or movie. An original novel based on the show uses the show’s characters, but the story is the author’s. Neither are fan fiction, since tie-in authors are hired by the license holders to write their books.
Well-known tie-in writers include Kingsley Amis, Raymond Benson, Lawrence Block, Orson Scott Card, Leslie Charteris, Arthur C. Clarke, Max Allan Collins, Ian Fleming, Jonathan Maberry, David Morrell, and Robert B. Parker to name just a few.
Tie-in books are published by major publishing companies, sell tens of millions of copies worldwide, and regularly appear on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists.
Writing a tie-in novel presents a unique set of rewards and challenges. Unlike my previous novels, which were 100% my own creation, in my latest novel, THE KILLING: UNCOMMON DENOMINATOR, the story is mine, but the characters are not. They belong to the show, or more accurately, to fans of the show. My job as the author is to bring the characters fans know and love to life on the page.
When I was first asked if I’d be interested in writing an original novel based on the television series The Killing, I wasn’t familiar with the show. I purchased the pilot episode from Amazon, and was hooked. The Killing is inspired by the wildly successful Danish television series Forbrydelsen, and tells the story of the murder of a young girl in Seattle and the subsequent police investigation.
By Barry Lancet
Lovers of thrillers and mysteries will find Sarah Knight’s pedigree of more than passing interest. During her long career at several major publishing houses, Knight has worked with a star-studded array of writers, including James Lee Burke, Stephen Hunter, Jeffery Deaver, Taylor Stevens, and Gillian Flynn, among many others.
Before she moved over to Simon & Schuster to work with the house’s stable of bestselling crime writers, Knight plied the editorial waters of Scribner, Henry Holt, and, most recently, Random House, where she was fortunate to edit Gillian Flynn’s DARK PLACES and then pick up a little property called GONE GIRL—only to accept a job offer from S&S soon after. She still finds leaving behind that future bestseller painful to recall.
While she continues to seek out debut talent for S&S that might one day reach GONE GIRL proportions, she also casts a wider net, searching for compelling “narrative nonfiction, memoir, travel and food writing, pop culture, and humor.”
With her strong background in suspense, it may have been something akin to fate that Knight acquired the International Thriller Writers’ latest anthology, FACEOFF. In her introductory letter to the collection’s advance reading copies, the senior editor recalled her first impressions:
The minute I saw the list of contributors, I started fantasizing about the possibilities…. This was going to be huge. Eleven stories later, I knew it wasn’t just a great concept—it was (pardon the pun) a stellar execution…. [T]his anthology is a love letter to the craft.
Once again her editorial sensibilities hit the mark. FACEOFF clambered onto the both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists in its inaugural week.
In the interview that follows, Knight offers candid, often eye-opening observations—from further thoughts on FACEOFF, to what constitutes an irresistible book, to how editors prefer to work with authors. So let’s dive in.
Not long after I had first moved to Hollywood, I ended up in a meeting with several senior studio executives on the 20th Century Fox lot. The subject we were dealing with was a remake of PLANET OF THE APES, the classic 1968 movie starring Charlton Heston as an astronaut and the great Roddy McDowell as a chimpanzee.
Oliver Stone was a producer – and being courted assiduously by Fox to also be the director – and Don Murphy, who some years later would be hugely instrumental in bringing the Transformer movies to the screen, was the other producer. My role was to write the script – an assignment which had come my way thanks to my writing work on, among other things, two of the Mad Max movies and DEAD CALM, which had launched Nicole Kidman’s international career.
The Apes project was no easy task – for a start, the screenplay of the original had been adapted from a novel by the legendary Rod Serling, the former paratrooper who created the TV series THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Not only that, the ’68 version is widely regarded as a classic movie with what is, in many people’s opinion – mine included – one of the greatest movie endings of all time. Not intimidated by such an illustrious pedigree – you should understand, I was very young then – I had set to work and written a first draft of the proposed reboot. It was that 120-odd pages which were under discussion in
the expansive executive office on the lot – how to improve it, how to sharpen it, how to get it one step closer to that ever-elusive target called a greenlight.
In the midst of endless talk about character arcs, second act climaxes and various ideas to match that remarkable ending, the senior Fox executive in the room – who had been looking increasingly distracted and preoccupied – suddenly interrupted and said: “You know what we need?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“A baseball game.”
By Chris Grall
There is nothing I love more than a good story. I’ve been a voracious reader since the second grade, when I cut my teeth on just about every Hardy Boys book ever written. As I grew older and left Frank and Joe behind, my taste evolved to more complex fare. Growing up also meant a career, which for me happened to cultivate an expertise in firearms and tactics.
Put those two things together and you have an avid reader who recognizes weapon errors in fiction. If it were just firearms instructors who notice these mistakes, I wouldn’t worry too much about them. However, with between 270 to 310 million firearms in the United States* it’s a good bet that simple errors could distract many of your readers. Here are ten of the most common firearms mistakes that I’ve encountered, and some advice/tips on how to avoid them.
1. Clips and magazines (The most common mistake in fiction!)
Analogy: belt and suspenders… What’s the difference, they both hold up pants, right? Not necessarily.
A “clip” is a small metal device that bullets slide into. The clip is used to load a magazine that is internal to the weapon. The clip is discarded after the bullets have been loaded into the magazine. The M1 Garand is a WWII rifle that uses this loading system. Handguns mainly use a detachable, or an ejecting, box “magazine.”
All modern pistols use this system. In fact, the only pistol reloaded by a clip, that I’m aware of, is the Mauser C96. The C96 is one of the classic handguns German officers brandish in WWII movies—not exactly a common handgun on today’s streets. So, use “magazine” or the slang/lingo “mag,” when referring to loading and reloading handguns.
Want to write a better thriller? Want to crack into publishing? Or maybe the bestseller list? Here’s your chance.
Thriller School begins April 7.
Fiction writing isn’t easy. Not for anyone. Whether you’re writing your first manuscript or your fiftieth, it’s difficult and time-consuming work. And a life-long pursuit. Professional writers never cease improving their craft. I think every writer understands this simple truth.
Virtually any writer will tell you that regardless of how many times you’ve done it or how far up the bestseller list you’ve climbed, that first blank page is a scary proposition. Fears and self-doubts always rise up.
But experienced writers will quickly add that the more you know, the more you write, and the more tools you have at hand, the less intimidating the process.
This is where Thriller School comes in.
For years ITW has presented CraftFest at ThrillerFest each July in New York. The success of CraftFest is primarily due to the outstanding cadre of teachers, many of whom are New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors, that come each year and share their knowledge and experience with both aspiring and published writers.
Now ITW has developed a new program to help writers continue their growth: Thriller School. In this seven-week program, the craft of thriller writing will be front and center. Each instructor will teach an aspect of craft through a podcast, written materials that include further reading and study suggestions, and an entire week of on-line Q&A with registered students. The goal is simple: to make each student a better writer.
We are very excited about this new endeavor. I think you will be also. Here is the schedule for the inaugural program along with a few words from our instructors:
By Dawn Ius
It started with a tweet.
A one-hundred-forty-character plea from a fan asking R.L. Stine to revive the sprawling creeptastic series that vaulted the FEAR STREET author from funny man to “the Stephen King of children’s literature.”
For Stine, the request came as quite a shock. It had been more than fifteen years since he’d abandoned the harrowing halls of Shadyside High School, leaving behind nearly one-hundred books that have sold more than eighty million copies worldwide.
“Before I knew it, a whole bunch of people started tweeting me with the same request,” he says. Fans of all ages began reminiscing about gory deaths, favorite characters, and the books they’d dug out of their basements and passed on to younger generations. “These kids grew up on FEAR STREET and to my surprise, they wanted more of it.”
The twitter campaign got Stine seriously thinking about reviving the series. He shopped it around, but despite the ongoing success of GOOSEBUMPS, a handful of movie and TV options, and a couple of adult novels under his belt, he couldn’t find any takers for a FEAR STREET revival. Publishers felt the genre had changed too much, the titles were too young, young readers had moved on—Stine almost gave up.
“One night on Twitter, I decided to be honest,” he says. “I told my followers that I would love to do more FEAR STREET books, but it wasn’t going to happen. No publishers are interested in it.”
A short while later, he received a tweet from Kat Brzozowski, an ambitious editor with St. Martin’s Press.
“She said, ‘I’m an editor and I am very interested in doing more FEAR STREET books.’”
They met for lunch, and much to readers’ delight, the publisher bought six new books.
I am often told that my top-secret clearance gives me a leg up in thriller writing. True, I won’t deny it, but a military clearance is not as big an advantage as you might think. Non-disclosure agreements and a general sense of operational security prevent me from relying on my professional past. As a writer, I am stripped of my background, forced into that blinding white space beyond my experience. I do, however, carry my training forward with me into the emptiness. Let me share with you the most important principle from my intelligence past that guides my novelist future:
You don’t know what you don’t know.
It sounds like something you might hear on PBS, a tagline to the Reading Rainbow, but it describes a mindset that is vital to intelligence work. You don’t know what you don’t know is a reminder that an operative or analyst whose hunt is too focused on the evidence he already has is hamstrung right from the starting block. His senses and intellect are blinded to other trails that may ultimately lead to mission success. More directly, this principle helps professionals absorb open-source information and turn it into valuable intelligence. It can help you absorb the same information and turn it into your next great thriller. I am about to give you a list of practical applications, but if you forget everything else, just remember that you don’t know what you don’t know, and that mantra will guide you to the rest.
Application One: Expand your library, but not with books
I’ve heard it said that to write fiction, you must read fiction. Writing high-tech thrillers means reading a whole lot of non-fiction as well. And because you are trying to stay on the cutting edge of a wide breadth of topics, your starting point should be periodicals rather than books.
Harlan Coben, Phillip Margolin, F. Paul Wilson, Kathleen Antrim, and Heather Graham, recently returned from the “Operation Thriller IV” USO tour where they shared time and special moments with our troops and their families. The group kicked off the tour with a three-day, morale boosting visit to Washington, D.C. where they met with wounded warriors at Walter Reed Bethesda National Military Medical Center and later aided with the presentation of this year’s Service Member of the Year Awards at the 2013 USO Gala. From there, the authors traveled to Kuwait, Germany, and the UK, bringing a touch of home to our nation’s heroes.
We hope you enjoy reading about some of the authors’ experiences.
F. Paul Wilson
We spent the afternoon at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I knew it as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center back in my college days at Georgetown. Since then it has merged with the old Bethesda Naval Hospital and now serves the Air Force as well.
We set up in the cafeteria of Building 62 where the wounded warriors transition from hospital life to real life. This reminded me very much of the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio that I visited a number of years ago with a clutch of my fellow Macmillan authors to sign and give away copies of our books to the rehabbing soldiers down there.
“Freedom isn’t free.” Like me, you’ve probably heard that phrase often enough to dismiss it as a hoary cliché. Let me tell you, it stops being a cliché when you visit a place like Building 62. These young men and women are survivors, though all have had friends who paid the ultimate price. But many of these survivors have paid within a hair’s breadth of that ultimate.
“We are heartbroken at the loss of one of our most beloved members. Michael Palmer was an amazing writer, a wonderful mentor, a great friend to all of us, and a tireless worker for good causes. No ThrillerFest will ever be the same without his smiling face and the funny, wonderful songs that he and his son Daniel performed. On behalf of the whole organization, our thoughts and hearts are with the Palmer family.”—Co-Presidents Lee Child and M.J. Rose
“What a dear hilarious guy! What a joy, so funny and so generous, and so talented…and so enthusiastic, and he just—drew you in, sharing and laughing and singing and looking at the world in the most spectacular of ways!…He did it, though, right? He got it. He enjoyed it, and embraced it, and loved it and loved us. Oh. I will truly miss him. I miss him now.”—Hank Phillippi Ryan
By Jeremy Burns
Jan Burke and DP Lyle M.D are not your ordinary writers. For one, there’s the literary awards: Burke’s won the Edgar, the Macavity, and the Agatha; Lyle’s won the Macavity and the Benjamin Franklin Silver Award and been nominated for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, and USA Best Book awards. Then there’s the multiple bestseller lists. And their leadership roles over the years in ITW and MWA.
But Burke and Lyle also have been instrumental in helping other authors “get it right”—when it comes to forensics.
Before the OJ trial or television’s CSI, Burke and Lyle were at the forefront of forensics in fiction and film. Though neither are forensic scientists, they have become the go-to sources in Hollywood and the fiction world for accurate, real-world information on forensics. Along the way, they’ve advocated for the improvement of forensic science and increased public awareness of the funding and other difficulties faced by crime labs across the country.
To the delight of thriller writers everywhere, they recently joined forces to co-host a radio show, “Crime and Science Radio,” for SUSPENSE RADIO.
Burke and Lyle were kind enough to tell THE BIG THRILL about themselves and their work. They also identified the most common mistakes that fiction writers make in forensics.
Tell us about yourself.
JB: I was born in Texas but have lived in Southern California most of my life. I was president of the Science Club in high school, but eventually both my lack of attention to my math homework and my love of history classes changed my career direction. I have a degree in history from California State University, Long Beach—history is an excellent major for people who enjoy research. From the age of seven, I wanted to write, but had it drummed into my head that no one made a living at it. I didn’t give writing novels a serious try until I was in my late thirties. Before that, I worked at a wide variety of jobs, but the last one I had before I sold my first book was manager of a manufacturing plant.
DPL: I was born in Huntsville, Alabama but have lived in Southern California for the past thirty-seven years. My childhood interests revolved around football, baseball, and building rockets in the backyard. This latter pursuit was common in Huntsville during the 1950s and 60s due to the nearby NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center. I then received a Chemistry Degree from the University of Alabama (ROLL TIDE) followed by medical school and internship, also at Alabama. Then on to Houston, Texas for an Internal Medicine residency at the University of Texas at Houston, and Cardiology fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute, also in Houston. Since then, I’ve practiced Cardiology in Orange County, California.
ITW’s origins date back to the early summer of 2004 when Barbara Peters of Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen Bookstore hosted a literary event at the famed Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix. Barbara invited (in alphabetical order) Lee Child, Clive Cussler, Vince Flynn, Steve Hamilton, Gayle Lynds, myself, and Kathy Reichs to give presentations throughout that Saturday.
As we bonded at an authors’ reception and over late-night drinks at the Biltmore’s bar, many of us felt that it would be fun to get together again. Our fiction tended to be different and yet fit into a general category of thrillers. “Why not have an organization for thriller writers?” someone suggested.
Over the summer, Gayle Lynds and I had several telephone conversations about this idea with Adrian Muller, who attended the Biltmore event and later founded an annual crime writers’ conference in Bristol, England. Besides other critical tasks, Adrian arranged for a room at the upcoming 2004 Bouchercon in Toronto, where those interested in a professional thriller organization could meet.
Thirty-five people showed up, a small group in what was a very large conference room. The enthusiasm was huge, however. When C.J. Lyons received a Thriller Award at our 2013 conference, she recalled crossing paths with me at that long-ago Bouchercon and saying that she was eager to meet like-minded thriller authors. “Then follow me,” she remembered me saying. “We’re about to have a meeting.”
Gayle and I acted as moderators for that meeting. The group agreed on two guiding principles: to educate readers about the creative possibilities of thrillers, and to help one another achieve those possibilities.
In her separate account of ITW’s origins (below), Gayle gives special mention to David Dun, and I’ll add to what she says. An author/attorney, David volunteered his office and staff as ITW’s address and base of operations. In the rapid months to come, he wrote various drafts of ITW’s bylaws. The organization would never have moved forward without his generosity and legal expertise.
For Gayle and me, the most important part of the meeting was something that I didn’t know happened. I nodded to a friend who came to the meeting near its end. Belatedly, I realized that while I was distracted, Gayle and I had been elected as ITW’s first presidents. Other people graciously agreed to help, Gregg Hurwitz, Alex Kava, Lewis Perdue, Richard Pine, and Will Staeger among them. Teetering, we were on our way.
Throughout the next year, Gayle and I put our writing aside, spending long days contacting writers who we felt would be attracted to the organization. Some were hostile and actively tried to sabotage us, telling other writers that they shouldn’t have anything to do with ITW. But many authors got the point, especially those who were just starting their careers and welcomed a support group. In a way, they were the unofficial version of our much-respected Debut Authors program.
Lee Child and Tess Gerritsen joined Gayle, me, David Dun, and M.J. Rose on the first board. As Gayle notes, M.J. had the brilliant idea of presenting a gala party during Book Expo in Manhattan the next spring in 2005. The setting was famous for its association with authors: the Algonquin Hotel. Editors and agents were invited to what many remember as one of the most joyous literary receptions ever. That helped our credibility. If we could put together so splendid an affair (and afford it, thanks to generous donors), maybe ITW had possibilities.
In July of 2006, we presented our first ThrillerFest at the Arizona Biltmore, where almost two years earlier the idea for ITW was born. As with the Algonquin soiree, many people who attended that first ThrillerFest never forgot its energy and spirit.
I served as a president for three years. Gayle remained for an additional year, establishing a pattern in which the board would always have a mix of veteran officers and new ones, guaranteeing an institutional memory. Thanks to authors such as Shane Gericke, Jon Land, D.P. Lyle, and Shirley Kennett, each subsequent ThrillerFest had something fresh and exciting. CraftFest was added, then AgentFest, and new award categories, such as e-publications and the Silver Bullet award for achievement in promoting literacy.
With Hank Wagner, I co-edited THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS. I speak from experience about the generosity with which authors donated their time and talent to write stories and essays for our various anthologies. Never taking a dime in royalties, they enabled ITW to accumulate sufficient funds that we not only survived but also stopped charging dues.
The dedication and wisdom of later board members, committee members, and volunteers are inspiring as we mark the end of our first decade and approach the challenges and triumphs of the second. I wish I had the space to list everyone to whom the organization is indebted. I mentioned some here, and Gayle mentions others in her separate piece about ITW’s origins. Please look at the History page of ITW’s website, which also includes a list of the donors who helped us get started.
By Gayle Lynds
One wanders in the wilderness until one makes one’s own path. That’s the way ITW began. What fun we had. It was a time of dreams, but there was a lot of nail-biting, too, of hours reaching out through email and the phone, and of brain-storming to create innovative programs our new membership would enjoy and value.
Today, it probably seems inevitable ITW was born, but that wasn’t true in 2004. The very idea of a new author organization was met with dismay by some. “We have enough of them,” we heard. “We don’t need any more.” Others thought the thriller form was a sub genre, not strong enough to stand on its own. One author told us he would join if we took the word ‘thriller’ out of our name. Really. Even then it was funny.
We wrote personal letters to writers, inviting them to join. The price was deliberately bargain-basement – $50. (“It’s deductible as a business expense,” we’d remind them enthusiastically.) To help those who couldn’t afford it, David Morrell and I wrote checks to cover their memberships. ITW had no money to run the organization, until David Dun came up with the idea of offering higher-level memberships (i.e., more expensive). David sat on the first board and today remains ITW’s valued treasurer and financial officer.
Searching for other ways to make money, I realized no one had ever published an all-thriller anthology, so I went to James Patterson who bravely said he’d gamble on our unknown and untried organization. He agreed to be editor. With that, I solicited 16 other best-selling authors, each of whom promised not only to write an original short story, but to do it for free, as a donation to ITW. One of those was Steve Berry, who became the managing editor and eventually an ITW co-president. He sent the anthology, THRILLER: STORIES TO KEEP YOU UP ALL NIGHT, sky-rocketing.
While all of this was going on, David Morrell was thinking about the future, too. He set about the monumental task of compiling the nonfiction compendium THRILLERS: 100 MUST-READS, which went a long way to proving thriller authors across the ages have been and are – amazingly! – fine writers deserving respect.
Within seven months of ITW’s founding, M.J. Rose put it on the industry map – first by convincing BEA to choose the thriller novel as that year’s theme, and second by orchestrating a cocktail party during BEA to introduce ITW at the famous literary haven, the Algonquin. It was incredible. All sorts of publishing executives did the unthinkable – they asked to be invited, and then the party was covered by the national press. M.J. and original board member Lee Child are ITW copresidents.
Next we needed thriller awards. Gregg Hurwitz headed a committee to create rules for judging – another area of terra incognito for us. Then Jim Rollins took over and recruited judges, a daunting task since the awards were just as untested as ITW. After I retired, Jim joined Steve Berry as ITW copresident.
Finally, there was the thriller convention. We were warned that we needed at least 3 years to create a successful one. But we were in a hurry, so we did it in 18 months, with Diane Vogt at the helm and later Kathleen Antrim taking over and becoming copresident. I was fortunate to be the one who coined the titles – ThrillerFest and ThrillerMaster.
How things have changed. ITW’s membership has grown from a handful into the thousands, our publications have been so financially successful that we don’t even have to charge dues anymore, and ThrillerFest gets larger and more interesting every year. I love to walk the halls, looking at the smiling faces and listening to the talk of books and the future. Who knew anyone could have as much fun as we did starting ITW, and do it well enough that those who followed us would better us over and over?
Our tenth anniversary celebration, in July, is going to be a blast. No one should miss it. We’re not just feting what ITW has accomplished, but what the next ten years will bring. Stay tuned. It’ll be a thriller.
The 35 members who attended the first meeting (in Toronto, October 2004) to decide whether they wanted a thriller organization:
Natalia Aponte, Gary Braver, Debbie Carter, Lee Child, Lori Dandrea (A.K.A. C.J. Lyons), Wes DeMott, David Dun, Barry Eisler, Joseph Finder, Maggie Griffin, Peter Guttridge, Raelynn Hillhouse, Gregg Hurwitz, Alex Kava, Christopher Keane, Susanna Kearsley, Christine Kling, David Liss, Dennis Lynds, Gayle Lynds, Heidi Mack, Bruce Makous, Chris Mooney, David Morrell, Adrian Muller, Katherine Neville, Richard Pine, Lewis Purdue, Christopher Rice, M.J. Rose, Joel Ross, Leslie Silbert, William Staeger, Rich Thompson, and Angela Zeman.
NEW YORK TIMES bestselling authors Allison Brennan and Laura Griffin discuss how spending time with cops, CSIs, and SWAT jocks helps them write edge-of-your-seat suspense novels. Brennan and Griffin’s newest book, CRASH AND BURN, is a collaboration featuring the Southern California detective duo, Moreno & Hart.
Griffin: Some of my favorite writing advice came from my first boss, who was the news editor at the paper where I landed my first job. He told me, “Don’t write from your chair.”
Each time I begin a new book, I like to go on field trips. I track down people who have the same jobs as my main characters and then go interview them about what they do. Whether it’s a police sniper or a cold case detective, people out in the field are a great source of those colorful details that bring a story to life.
I’ve toured crime labs and FBI offices, even visited a body farm. One of the most fascinating field trips I ever did was in Los Angeles, where I got to meet LAPD’s elite SWAT unit.
Brennan: SWAT is a lot of fun. Through my involvement with the FBI Citizen’s Academy, I’ve participated as a role player in numerous SWAT training sessions—both small groups and large regional training days with more than 30 teams from all over Northern California.
I’ve watched first hand (as a bad guy or a victim) how individual SWAT teams address a variety of situations, but it’s what I learn during the subsequent de-briefing that provides the most useful information to bring my stories to life. Why did they approach the target as they did? What were they thinking? Often they relate real-life scenarios that have impacted their experience, reminding me these men—and a few women—put their lives on the line every day.