Alone, We Stand Together: Lessons From ThrillerFest

by Bess Cozby
published in Community

At ThrillerFest, as with all writing conferences, you go into each session with a set of expectations. Most of the day consists of listening to panels on certain topics, and then interviews.  Over the course of the day, I heard discussions on everything from reading and editing to villains and violence, from debut authors and genre masters. Not all the discussions stayed on topic, but sometimes those were the most interesting.

But, in just about every panel discussion and interview, from the newest authors to the most seasoned, I kept hearing a simple theme reiterated. There were thriller writers, cozy mystery writers, debut authors and authors with twenty-five books under their belts, but they all kept coming back to a similar point: a writer is never not a writer. That’s what separates us from, well, everyone else. And that’s why we need each other.

Writers are Alone

The first panel I went to was a discussion about editing. Jodie Renner — a writer and freelance editor — said something that struck a chord, and set my mind on this track for the rest of the day. “Every writer has to be an editor. If you cannot edit your own work, no one else will.”

That simple observation highlights a hard truth: writing is a  lonely endeavor. It does not take a village to write a book. It takes encouraging friends, astute editors, enthusiastic agents and savvy marketing to fine-tune a book. Often, it also takes a combination of coffee/wine/retreats/insomnia/crying/Pandora Radio/Chipotle and, of course reading, but even if your writing friends are the best, even if your editor is a superstar, even if you have a blog with ten billion followers and Oprah just endorsed your book, at the end of the best-case-scenario, the story stands alone. And you–the writer–must stand behind it from the blank page to the bookshelf.

If you don’t, no one else will.

Writers are Never Not Working

One of the most interesting panels I went to was one that went wildly off-topic. The initial question was: Is Reading Really Considered Working? But, when discussing whether reading was working, the authors started questioning what else could be considered “working” and what couldn’t.

Jim Kearney, author of the forthcoming Red vs Blue observed that he considered watching certain TV shows as working. He learned a lot about structure and verisimilitude from shows like Castle and Mad Men. But, he observed, not all TV is created equal. He wouldn’t consider watching Reality Television “work.” At which point, Sandy Parks, author of Repossessed, countered that reality television has some of the most colorful and outrageous characters ever featured. How can you not consider that research? Kate Brady, author of One Scream Away, agreed, and declared that she learned a lot about building suspense from cooking and do-it-yourself shows, which sustain audience interest for half an hour over something as simple as building a chair.

Then she said, quite simply, “Everything in the world is research.”

No one disagreed.

Even when we’re not writing, we’re soaking up inspiration. In his interview, Michael Connolly described how he surrounds himself with people that inspire him and are also part of the process. When he started writing a book about a lawyer, he started spending more time with the lawyers he already knew.

A writer and a non-writer can watch the same TV show, attend the same party or read the same book, and have a completely different experience. It is not a question of what you do, but how you do it, and what you learn from it. We must approach life itself with a certain intention–the knowledge that we are going to write about it.

Kate Brady said, “Acknowledge that the time you spend reading will effect your writing in a good way. Reading always feels like something I shouldn’t allow myself to do, but it’s not a privilege. You’ve got to convince yourself it’s worth it.”

This is true of reading, and of everything else. It can effect your writing in a good way. But that, again, is up to you.

Writers Are the Boss

Being alone and always working seems rather bleak, but there is an upside to this–writers are also completely in charge. Sometimes it can feel like a story has grabbed you by the throat and you’re totally out of control. That might be a good time to take a step back and remember, “I opened this document. I picked up this pen. And I may think that I’m going crazy, but I’m the conductor on this crazy train!”

Maybe say that in your head. Not out loud. There’s a long and celebrated history of crazy writers already out there.

Or, you know what? Go for it. You can add yourself to the list, if you want. Remember — you’re in charge.

Catherine Coulter, while discussing point of view, simply brushed the subject off entirely. She writes books from third person and first. Sometimes she switches between the two within the same book. “You do what’s right,” she said, “You do what feels right. Do what you need to do. Do what your characters want to do.”

So, maybe it does take a village. But it’s a village in your head.

… and you’re still not crazy.

Which brings me to my last observation, which is to completely contradict my first observation.

Writers Are Not Alone

What? Yes. Why? Two words, two words that, every author at ThrillerFest agreed were among the most important parts of their writing life: OTHER WRITERS. They are as necessary to a writer as books.  And at ThrillerFest I heard author after author agree.

You think you’re crazy. You might be. You think the characters will never shut up. They might not. You think you can’t re-write chapter one again. You know you have to. And at this point, one of the best tools in your writing arsenal may not be books or the blank page. It may just be buddies.

That’s why conferences like ThrillerFest are so important. They are reminders that while we are alone at our desks, we are not alone in the world. You are not the first person to suffer writer’s block. You’re also not the first person to ignore it. You’re not the first person to read something you wrote and think, “This is brilliant!” You’re not the first person to read something you wrote and think, “This is awful!’  You’re not the first person to change your mind about those paragraphs a week later. You’re not the first person to cry when you scrap both of them.

You’re not the first person to write a story.

You’re not the first person that knows the inestimable joy and heartbreak that comes with being a writer, alone and in charge. All. The. Time.

C. S. Lewis — who knew a thing or two about writing friends — wrote, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

At the end of ThrillerFest, after having an entire day to talk to other writers, to hear them talk about writing, and to remember that I’m not the only one who is going home to a blank page, I am even more convinced of the importance of having this particular village. To get a book out, I’ll need a team: editors and agents and all the rest of the publishing industry. But to get a book written? For that, I need a tribe, not to write my book, but simply to be there at the moment when I need a person to say, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

I’m not. And neither are you. So let’s get back to our writing lives.

Oh wait. We never left them.


IMG_4628Bess Cozby writes epic stories in expansive worlds from her tiny apartment in New York City. By day, she’s an Editor at Tor Books, and Web Editor for DIY MFA. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency. Tweet her at @besscozby, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website at www.besscozby.com.

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