Over the course of this year’s ThrillerFest, the highs and lows of the writer’s life—both as a craft and as a business—were discussed at length.
In one-on-one interviews with genre titans Mark Billingham, Charlaine Harris, and Thrillermaster Nelson DeMille, as well as in a number of breakout panels, many of the participating authors shared about their own ups, downs and most surprising moments, touching on every phase of the writing journey from starting out to making it big.
On Learning the Craft
Authors at the conference were encouraging on the topic of writer’s efforts to improve their craft—but consensus was that it’s developed with persistence, not education.
“No one can teach you how to write, but you can learn how to write,” according to Gayle Lynds. Nelson DeMille agreed, downplaying the importance of a formal creative writing education, saying, “You know, if you think you need it. But really … I think most of us came to writing through reading,” rather than courses.
And no matter how many stories an author writes, many of the pros were insistent that writers all start each new novel from the same place—practice may improve a writer’s skills, but it doesn’t make the journey from a blank page to finalized manuscript any easier.
On Work Environment
Many writers expressed strong preferences for their ideal writing environment, but each writer’s needs were distinct and unique.
Mike Pace said he writes better with a messy desk—“I want everything in front of me [while I write], and for me, that works.” Sandra Brown has kept an office outside the house for over thirty years to get away from the demands of house and family while she writes.
There was also a diverse range of needs regarding background noise. D. P. Lyle swore there was nothing worse for his concentration than total quiet, and that some solid background noise was a must (Joseph Finder recommended Coffitivity).
Gayle Lynds said she prefers to listen to jazz music while she writes and avoids anything with words, and Simon Toyne agreed, saying he usually uses movie soundtracks to set a dramatic mood.
Outlining vs. Pantsing
There were strong representation of both outliners and pantsers among ThrillerFest’s esteemed collection of international bestsellers.
Steven James insisted that his best ideas came to him when he’d written himself into a corner, and had to figure a way to get his character out of it. After all, as Jon Land put it, “If you don’t know what happens next, your reader certainly can’t.”
But other authors were staunch outliners, citing it as their saving grace against everything from writer’s block to missing deadlines to having to scrap contracted projects entirely. Steve Berry insisted that a story should start as close to the end as possible—“And what does that presuppose? You must know the end.”
On the Big Break
As with everything else, every author’s story of how they reached success was completely different.
R.L. Stine insisted, “It’s all been luck, and pretty much an accident,” citing that his original ambition was to become a humor writer, and he only considered writing horror when a colleague ordered him to, with an editor already waiting on the manuscript. Others referred to piles of completed manuscripts that never caught industry attention before they finally made their break.
Charlaine Harris was a midlist author for years before ambition prompted her to aim for something bigger, resulting in the Sookie Stackhouse series that inspired the HBO hit show True Blood. And even though she believed the novel could sell, she said she got a deluge of nos and had to push her agent to keep pitching it before it finally found the right editor.
Even when a writer does everything right, the reality is that getting your big break takes time and persistence.
“Try to become Teflon,” advised literary agent Meg Ruley. “My experience is that something can be rejected many, many times and end up in the right hands.”
Always Worth It
At the beginning of a session titled “Embracing the Yoyo: The Ups & Downs Of Being A Writer,” panel master Jaime Levine summed it up well: “This is a job, and it’s a long, long job … there’s always ups and downs.”
Everyone on the panel agreed, but the broad consensus across the conference was that even during the downs, writing is an amazing job to have and well worth the effort
By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.