SPECIAL TO THE BIG THRILL: ThrillerFest IX
Celebrating Ten Years of Innovation
By Kimberley Howe and Anthony J. Franze
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.
- The March 2023 Edition of The Big Thrill is Here! - February 28, 2023
- On the Cover: Jacqueline Holland - February 28, 2023
- On the Cover: Jonathan Kellerman - February 28, 2023