So You Wanna Be a Thriller Writer

“Dear Sir or Madam will you read my book,

It took me years to write, will you take a look?”

Paperback Writer by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

OK, ‘wanna be’ is a little unfair.  The population of attendees at the International Thriller Writers Annual “ThrillerFest” convention in New York City is — at least by a show of hands — people who had written or were writing books of the “thriller“ genre.

At first blush, the name ThrillerFest may seem a bit garish, conjuring up images of costumed FWLs (Fans Without Lives) wandering through aisles of arcania: props, posters, comic books, bootleg DVDs, CDs and of course action figures. 

Well…to borrow the old adage about telling a book by its cover, you can’t tell a convention by its name.

ITW ThrillerFest is an extraordinarily thoughtful, insightful and generous literary conference that offers its attendees a chance to gain pointers and perspectives and be forewarned of pitfalls from established practitioners of the genre.  Add in(and this is key) sage advice from employed book editors, legit literary agents, PR folks and marketing people (some of whom actually earn their living by enticing readers to purchase a book by its cover art), and you’ve got one valuable learning experience.

While this is no fan fest, it seems that those who write thrillers are also the genre’s biggest fans.  What’s more, for a literary conference there is precious little condescension and backbiting between the authors (academia are you listening?) and nothing but encouragement for those who come to learn or to improve their game from the genre’s current crop of successes and masters of the craft.

So…for four days every July at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan (this year it’s July 10-13th), the ballrooms, conference rooms, guest rooms and one suspects, local barrooms (after hours of course), are filled with purveyors of the insidious plot, treacherous twists and adrenalin pumping, pulse-racing resolutions.  For these four days each year, the hotel atop Grand Central Terminal marks the treasured spot for thriller writers, becomes the crossroad of the literary world, where popular art and commerce pick each other up and occasionally consummate that meeting with hot, steamy success.  

Before we go further, don’t confuse thrillers with mysteries.  While both are page-turners (at their best), mysteries celebrate the more cerebral solution of a plot (hence its ‘whodunnit’ hang tag).  A thriller typically gives the reader more information than the central characters have and ratchets up the tension and suspense with ticking clocks (or time bombs), truly deadly deadlines and of course, catastrophic consequences should the hero fail to thwart that which they presently know precious little about.  Toss in a few twists of plot, a turncoat or two and a typically fast-paced resolution (cliché car chase optional), and you may well be thrilled.

The names of current (and previous year) guest speakers fairly leap off the best selling booklists nationally and internationally.   This year’s Thrillerfest VIII honorees and instructors include Anne Rice, R.L. Stine (lest one thinks that the thriller genre is reserved for adults and adult subject matter), T Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child and Steve Berry.   Their descriptions – should they actually need describing – read like the stats on the back of a baseball card and often include data about how many books they’ve written, how many million copies they’ve sold and in to how many languages their works are translated.  

In all, ThrillerFest VIII will present hundreds of thriller writers participating in more than 85 classes, panel discussions, interviews and events over the four-day confab. They will provide insider views of the business side of the genre, from ‘how-to’ tips on perfecting the two-minute elevator book-pitch for editors and agents and, in a twist on speed dating, actual access to those agents called…wait for it…AgentFest.

In Thrillers the sub-genres are legion.  Indeed, the list can seem near as long as Bubba Gump’s methods for preparing shrimp (though in the thriller genre our hero, at great personal peril, would have to prevent those shrimp from being poisoned by say, a catastrophic oil spill perpetrated by powerful international oil interests in cahoots with a consortium of foreign shrimp mongers).  

Much like the hyphenates Americans use to retain some connection to their ancestral culture and perhaps define their current-day point-of-view, the thriller sub-genres cater to far more specific literary tastes and interests. Among the most popular and enduring are the traditional “spy thrillers” like Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (continued by others); John le Carre’s more realistic approach to the world of espionage; Ken Follet’s breakthrough “Eye of the Needle,” and more recently, Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. 

There are also psychological thrillers, political thrillers, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, romantic thrillers, erotic thrillers and techno-thrillers.  Who knows…in time the “Gump thriller” may well expand that oil-poisoned shrimp scenario with fresh new plot lines featuring radioactive-poisoned shrimp, E. coli-poisoned shrimp and the ever popular, Fugu-poisoned shrimp.

How DO they think of all those nefarious plots?

A few years ago I attended ThrillerFest for the first time in order to cover a panel discussion on writing spy thrillers.  The panel was moderated by James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson and populated by other published spy-thriller authors including the then latest Bond continuation author, Jeffery Deaver.  (Bond “continuation authors” are selected by the estate of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and to date have included Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver).  The newest one-off Bond continuation author tapped by the IF estate is William Boyd, whose contribution to the Bond canon will go public later this year.


Together Again For the First Time…James Bond continuation authors Raymond Benson (L) and Jeffery Deaver (R) joined together with other spy-thriller authors for a “how to” panel discussion at ThrillerFest VI, New York City July 2011.  Photo (c) Richard E. Altman

That ThrillerFest marked the first joint appearance by two James Bond continuation authors and was followed by the first joint interview of the two for a lengthy feature on the literary Bond tradition I was working on for Autograph Quarterly Magazine’s September 2011 issue.

That brings us to the first two days of ThrillerFest, designated CraftFest for its attention to the nuts and bolts of thriller writing from concept to contract and beyond.  The folks behind it modestly call it their “writing school.”   There are also those panel discussions, keynote style sessions and interview sessions all designed to give the assembled writers and aspirers (sounds nicer than wannabes) insight into the creative and commercial process of thriller writing.

At one such keynote style session, an affable and eminently approachable Ken Follett takes the podium and gives a remarkable 50-minute talk on how thrillers work, giving a rapt audience of writers – published and not yet published – an insider’s view of the process of thrilling and the business of thrilling. 

With 27 books in print and more than 130-million copies sold, Follet knows from whence he speaks.  He appears to be the epitome of the successful writer.  No, appears to be is not quite fair. He definitely is the successful and ever popular thriller writer who, after a few published misfires, broke through the pop thriller clutter decades ago with “Eye of the Needle.”

The shock of brown hair at 29 is now silver at 62.  The intervening years have been good.  Two dozen best sellers and more than 130-million books sold is an enviable track record.  Follett offers a deferential nod to Ian Fleming in his opening remarks, noting that before Fleming a gun was just a gun.  In the post Fleming world, it had to be a specific gun… like a Walther PPK 7.65 mm carried in a Berns-Martin triple draw shoulder holster. 

Details are important…details make the fantastic seem credible, even believable.  And details mean lots and lots of research, lest the writer fall prey to the dreaded reader-identified error. No one is exempt… not even Ian Fleming.  It seems the Berns-Martin triple draw holster was meant for a revolver and did not accommodate an automatic weapon such as the Walther PPK. 

Armourer…a new shoulder holster for 007. Stat!


The Key to Ferraris…Best selling thriller author Ken Follett signs one of his books at ThrillerFest VI in N.Y.C., July 2011. Photo (c) Richard E. Altman


Follett – perhaps with a nod to those published, early career misfires mentioned earlier – noted too that simply getting published doesn’t buy many Ferraris.

The object is to write a bestseller. 

Crass commercialism one might argue, but oh the joy of those “guilty pleasure” reads on the nightstand, in the john, on vacation, at the beach or on the bus, subway or round tripping on whatever light rail system your commute to work has to offer.

Pace is a key to writing the successful thriller, Follett offers.  And he’s right of course.  As a reader I often try to savor a book that I am enjoying to make it last longer.  That’s a no-no with thrillers…one can’t be precious with a page-turner and hope to preserve the intended impact.

At a certain point you need to bite the bullet and go for it.  After waiting some two years for that last James Bond Thriller (the Jeffery Deaver one), page rationing went out the window and I read the last 175 pages in one sitting, enduring all of the twists, turns and false endings the author is known for. 

Damn it was fun.

On the more mundane side of the thriller business – the business side — the presentations were no less pithy.  Writers advising other writers included such gems as “You’re not the only writer your publisher/editor/agent loves,” “learn how to read the contract,” and it’s corollary, “It’s too late to wonder where your career went when you didn’t think about it being a career when you signed the contract.”

ThrillerFest VIII ( et al. returns to the Grand Hyatt Hotel New York, July 10-13, 2013. 



About Rich Altman

A writer and marketing communications professional for more than four decades, "Apropos of..." is Rich Altman's first foray into the world of personal bloggery. View all posts by Rich Altman

2 responses to “So You Wanna Be a Thriller Writer

  • semiatin

    Loved reading this! Your writing, as always, is delicious.

  • Fored

    Apropos shoulder holsters:
    Did you know that a certain, but certainly not the only, member of ‘the greatest generation, who fought in the war as a mild mannered GI, but was once cleverly disguised as ‘the man of steel’, also used a shoulder holster. Since officers are issued sidearms, the sight of one would suggest a good target of opportunity to a sniper or any enemy within range. Therefore a shoulder holster worn underneath a slightly oversized fatigue jacket or shirt concealed the tell tale
    invitation to shoot me first.
    Gen. Patton on the other hand thought he was the man of steel and therefore dared the enemy by wearing his pearl handle pistols in plain view.

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