ThrillerFest is an annual event in early July in which the leading authors of thrillers (Lee Child, John Sanford, Richard North Patterson, Steve Berry, etc.) give seminars on how to write thrillers, along with many other meet-and-greet events. A highlight of this one week meeting at the Grand Hyatt in New York City is an afternoon session called "AgentFest" in which aspiring authors (400 of them!), such as yours truly, get to pitch their thriller to the leading agents in the United States who represent thriller authors, with a goal of getting one of them to take you on as a client.
I was set last year to go to ThrillerFest, but a sudden illness and near death (see Related Posts below: "Mama Cat Saves My Life") prevented me from doing so. Happily, the recovery of good health and the willingness of the nice people who run ThrillerFest to spot me this year's attendance fee, allowed me to participate this year for no extra outlay of cash (I'd had to forfeit last year's fee when forced to cancel the day before ThrillerFest 2011 began). So on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, I flew to NYC, checked into the Grand Hyatt, and began to experience the 2012 version of the conference and meet many famous people.
AgentFest, which occurred on Thursday afternoon for three hours, is set up much like a speed-dating event. You pitch your novel to an agent for a few minutes, get the agent’s reaction, and then move on to a different agent. It is both humiliating and exciting. Ahead of time you're given a list of the agents (about forty of them), along with their bios, pictures, and a description of what they're looking for, and then as the event begins you line up in front of their tables, mumbling to yourself as your practice your "pitch" (a rehearsed explanation of what your thriller is about and why you think it will sell). There is a maximum of three minutes per pitch, so you have to be concise, and attractive, and persuasive, etc. It's . . . well, a challenge.
Since my self-published novel "Imaginary Friend" (available both on Amazon and Kindle) is a thriller about an atheist who gets himself into major trouble by admitting on national TV that he doesn't believe in God, it's also controversial. I pointed out to the agents that there'd been a goodly number of non-fiction bestsellers about atheism in recent years (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc.) and that it was time for an atheist thriller to enter the market. I said this whenever I sat down across the table from a prospective agent, adding that if he/she wasn't interested in the subject matter please say so fast, lest we both waste time. My record for rejection in my fifteen or so pitches was thirty seconds. But, happily, six of the agents asked to see the entire manuscript (some of them were willing to take it on a flash drive immediately, others wanting it sent via email, or even as hard copy through regular mail). I was very pleased. Frankly, it would be the thrill of a lifetime to have "Imaginary Friend" published by a professional company that would promote its existence and get it into mainstream distribution.
What impressed me most about these lectures/discussions was how very much the presenters cared about helping those who were newbies. It's a truism of the human condition that those who know things are almost always anxious to teach them to others, and that trait was much on impressive display at ThrillerFest.
What did Douglas Whaley learn? I thought a lot about that question when it was all over. Here are my conclusions:
1. It's fun to hear famous people talk about their craft. Some of them are just downright fascinating (Lee Child comes to mind as a prime example: an Englishman writing about an American adventurer, and constantly being asked "What do you think about Tom Cruise playing your hero Jack Reacher in the upcoming movie?).
2. Their advice contradicted each other over and over. Phillip Margolin stated you should never start writing until you have a detailed outline; Lee Child says he never begins writing with a plan, but just makes up the story as it goes along, always curious himself as to how it will come out. A number of the writers intoned "There are no rules." Others explained their rules in detail. I did learn a lot about jargon: "He said" or "she asked" are called "tags," an interruption of dialogue with a movement ("He rose from the table") is called a "beat," a narrator who tells what is going from a viewpoint not that of one of the characters (as if God were explaining things) is "third person omniscient," etc.
3. A couple of writers were frank in saying that while you can teach tricks and techniques, you cannot teach people how to write well. That's a talent that you either have or you don't.
4. Depressingly, every single one of the presenters without exception kept saying "you know," thus succumbing to the verbal diarrhea sadly engulfing the planet, and against which I have thundered in prior posts. It was most disappointing to hear these famous people swept up in the plague and blundering on with the rest.
I also had much fun outside the conference, seeing Broadway shows, having supper with friends, and much else. I've been going to NYC since 1961 (senior high school trip), and my knowledge of Manhattan is good enough that in a cab I can glance up at any time and within a block of so figure out where on the island I am.
I flew home from ThrillerFest excited about the future of "Imaginary Friend." Between the possibility of acquiring an agent, the existing sales online, the many bookreadings I've been doing all over Ohio, the terrific Amazon reviews, and the great emails I've received from readers, I have a renewed confidence that my novel—so lovingly created—might have a healthy future.
More to come.
"Frightening the Horses," April 7, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter One of my novel)
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter Two)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter Three)
"I Hate 'You Know' You Know," November 28, 2010
"Report on Old Doug: Health, Theater, eBook, and More," June 28, 2011
"Mama Cat Saves My Life," October 23, 2011
"Needed: Readers of the Final Draft of my Novel 'Corbin Milk,'" December 13, 2011
"How To Stop Saying 'You Know,'" April 28, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Bookreading," May 17, 2012