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Writing Advice From The Thriller Pros

by bdietrich on July 15, 2013

This year’s annual gathering of thriller writers in New York, called Thrillerfest, seemed to begin with an exclamation mark as the Manhattan skyline came into view on the taxi ride from JFK: the new 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, or One World Trade Center, that has replaced the hole left by the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers. It’s as striking from a distance as close up.

There were plenty of additional exclamation marks voiced by the presenters at Thrillerfest, as friendly a group of Type-A overachieving bestsellers as you’re likely to find. Lots of advice for the hundreds in attendance, including from the “history-mystery” panel I served on, headed by the ever-indefatigable and encouraging Steve Berry, another bestseller.

In an absolutely tumultuous book industry upended by Internet sales, e-books, self-publishing, and social media, it was reassuring how consistent the secret of success was – according to speaker after speaker.

It’s the book, stupid.

Or, as medical thriller Michael Palmer put it, “The only thing that helps books sell is to write another book.”

What ultimately sells books are readers recommending to other readers, the good ol’ word of mouth. I know because I bought a new David Morrell novel there after a friend insisted I read it. I hit David up for an autograph at the urinal.

Palmer, by the way, has an excellent primer on thriller writing advice on his website, michaelpalmerbooks.com.

“The book has to deliver,” said literary agent Lisa Gallagher, who added, “We all want something different, but similar (to existing bestsellers).”

Yes, said Kensington editor Michaela Hamilton, but, “Don’t be a copycat.”

Got that?

The experts advised working hard on opening sentences and first chapters, because they hook not just readers but publishers.

And while publishing is more of a ruthless business than ever before – sell or be damned – they also urged writing from the heart, with something to say.

Palmer was interviewed by his author son Daniel, and horror writer and “Thrillermaster” (it’s an award) Anne Rice was interviewed by her author son, Christopher. Yes, connections help.

But the common theme of the successful was hard work. I once was humbled by sharing a signing table with Thrillermaster R.L. Stine, the children’s horror writer of “Goosebumps” and others, and sat mostly lonely while his line of fans stretched to infinity.

Stine has sold 400 million books. But he got there, he pointed out, by writing nearly 400. (I’ve published 17, with two more on the way.)

Gravel-voiced LA crime writer Michael Connelly (25 novels) was typical of the lack of pretension. Writing is craft, not art, he said, his work the product of journalistic research (he was a cops reporter for the LA Times) and careful rewrites.

Just as I try to paint a picture of the Napoleonic world in the Ethan Gage series, Connelly said he has the serious intent of providing an anthropological dissection of modern Los Angeles in his own work.

I had the pleasure being the banquet “date” of my brain surgeon neighbor Allen Wyler, nominated twice for e-book originals “Dead End Deal” and “Dead Wrong” for the 2013 Thriller Awards. He didn’t win but the dual nomination was a well-deserved coup.

And the usual gallows humor of Thrillerfest continued when the Palmer duo performed a rock song parody of author career terrors with a chorus of, “I’m failing, I’m failing, I’m bailing.” Everyone laughed in recognition.

I left as news broke that J.K. Rowling published a “first novel” mystery in April under a pseudonym. It was rejected by at least one house, and while well reviewed, the book had sold fewer than 1,500 copies. Sales will now explode, of course…but if your first novel gets a modest response, know that you’re in good company!

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