Writing Thrillers. 50 Lessons Learned From Thrillerfest 2014

My head is still exploding with everything I learned and everyone I met at Thrillerfest this year!

ITWBelow is a mega-post full of lessons learned about writing, marketing, mindset, self-publishing and the FBI, but I wanted to start with an intro to ITW.

Why I love ITW and Thrillerfest

I have now been to Thrillerfest twice (you can read my notes from 2012 here), and I can definitely say that it is the only conference where I really feel at home – and ITW is truly the tribe I belong to.

I can sit in the bar talking about ways to murder people and weapons of choice and not feel weird. I can learn from some of the biggest names in the business, whose hours of writing experience number in the many thousands.

The education program is absolutely the best in the thriller business. I can fangirl like a geek with big name authors who are actually just a load of bookish geeks too. I can have a drink with people I have only previously worshipped from afar. I also feel absolutely accepted as an indie, with no judgement around my business choices. Five days of conferencing and not a single negative comment or sideways look about being an indie author. So I love ITW and I absolutely loved Thrillerfest!

face off thrillerIf you want to find out more about the ITW, check the details here. It’s an international organisation and I am trying to encourage any thriller writer to join as a Member, or an Associate if you’re getting started. If you like reading thrillers, you can also subscribe to the free magazine, The Big Thrill. You can also get the awesome FaceOff thriller compilation, with short stories that pitch famous characters off against each other here.


David Morrell JFPenn

J.F.Penn with David Morrell, Rambo’s Daddy :)

This year there was an extra day with some big name authors, where we spent 10 hours going through manuscripts and learning detailed craft information. I was in David Morrell’s class, and even after reading his great book, The Successful Novelist, and interviewing him a few weeks ago, I learned an incredible amount. Here’s some highlights:

  • What are the underlying themes of your life? The secret to being a writer is to understand your own personality. Be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of another writer. Self analysis will help you work through your schedule. “The hardest thing is to know what to write based on who you are. Work on yourself and the writing will get better. Example being Ludlum’s Bourne based on his amnesia from alcohol. The underlying truth in a story is what resonates emotionally.
  • Writers are born with greater awareness than others. Not everyone daydreams, but you need to grab yours and let your subconscious reveal your stories. “Maybe we’re mutants.”Other people aren’t like us. [I loved this as sometimes I really do feel like a mutant and people just think I’m crazy doing this writing job!]
J.F.Penn with Ian Rankin, Chelsea Cain, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner

J.F.Penn with Ian Rankin, Chelsea Cain, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner

  • Keep your day job until you have 3 years worth of income saved that will keep you in the standard of living that you are used to. It takes time to get to the point of mastery in your craft.
  • Write a genre book that doesn’t feel like a genre book. Do you want ‘stained glass’writing where the point is to look at the language? Or ‘windex’writing where the reader sees clearly through to the story and the language vanishes in the experience.
  • A flashback on the first page is easily the number 1 mistake David sees. Forward motion in your book is critical. You better have a damn good reason for a flashback. Too many flashbacks stop forward motion. Look for ‘had’and versions of to check for multiple jumps backward in your text. How else can you write it so you are moving forward in the story?
  • Use multiple senses, not just sight. Judicially added detail gives the work depth. When you move characters from one location to another, note the changes in the physical space as well as their inner sense.
  • The purpose of a simile or a metaphor is to help people understand what they couldn’t do otherwise. In these days of Google and multimedia, there are not many things we don’t understand. Check all your ‘like’and ‘as a’clauses.
  • Check for clichés and remove them. [The Cliche Finder is a handy tool for this!] If you let imperfections start to stray into your manuscript, they will only proliferate.
  • TV and movies have ruined dialogue for writers as they need to use names more often, as they don’t have dialogue tags. But we do in books – so stop using repeated names within dialogue. Are you writing dialogue for the characters, or to fill the reader in on what you can’t explain another way?
  • Don’t do introspection whilst driving. Don’t have people sitting around thinking.
  • Create a checklist of things to watch out for in your second draft. What are your writer’s tics?
  • Even when it’s good, it isn’t good. Perfection isn’t possible in this business. Learn and move onto the next book.

Day at the FBI


We all got cool name badges at the FBI :)

These comments are my own based on an interpretation of the day and my handwritten notes. They don’t in any way represent the FBI and I may well have got some things wrong. Please check the FBI website for further detail.

  • The FBI want to help authors who write about them in order to ensure accuracy in books, films and TV. The public is the best partner for solving crime, so there needs to be trust and respect. Popular culture shapes perception, and that can turn into reality in people’s heads. You can contact the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit if you want to apply for project assistance which is reviewed on a case by case basis.
  • The FBI uses active brand management through a press office, social media and online tools. “If we don’t tell our story, someone will tell it for us. I found this particularly fascinating as so many authors resist branding and telling their personal story, but it’s critical to take control of it yourself. People will always judge you based on what you put out into the public eye – taking control of your branding is the best way to manage it.
  • FBI agents have had jobs previously, with the oldest recruitment age being 37. Analysts and other roles may be recruited straight from college. The agent’s previous jobs and background go into the decisions around where they will work. So, if you’re writing such a character, their previous life will be important in their FBI work. One Italian-American retired agent talked about going undercover in Las Vegas, with his looks, accent and cultural background being critical to the role.
  • We were given a breakdown of all the different departments and an (unclassified) glimpse into what they do there. You can find out more here. The counterterrorism talk was one of the most popular, as would be expected in a room full of thriller writers. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria was discussed, as well as the ‘dark net’and gamified content that is so immersive it has changed the radicalization model.
  • Listening to agents talk was fascinating in terms of the words and phrases they use. The sheer number of acronyms was mind-boggling, but having come from the mega-corporate world, I understand how that happens! These types of details in dialogue can bring your writing alive. Here’s some I wrote down: ‘deadly force policy,’‘threat driven organisation,’‘capabilities of the adversary,’‘advanced persistent threat,’‘there are categories within top secret,’‘OCONUS’- areas of responsibility outside the US, ‘Guardian squad’- first response to threats and judging what response they need. ‘patriots or sovereign citizens’- Americans who think they aren’t subject to government.

If you’re interested in learning more about the FBI, hopefully the day will be repeated at Thrillerfest 2015 so keep an eye on the website around November. They also have a Citizen Academy you can apply for.

Face off Peter James

UK mega-crime writer Peter James

More writing advice

  • Your characters don’t have to be likeable, but they can’t be all bad. The trick is to have them love something e.g. Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs has a poodle. Or, make them express emotion e.g. Frankenstein’s monster says he didn’t ask to be created. From Peter James.
  • There are no rules around how to get the book written. Lee Child won’t plot at all, doesn’t know the end and just writes until he’s done. “I don’t want to type out a story I already know the ending to.”Jeffrey Deaver writes a 350 page outline. Everyone else is somewhere on the spectrum.
  • “You don’t commit to writing one book. You commit to being a writer.John Lescroart. Most authors write at least 5 books before anyone wants to read more of their work. Even when you’ve ‘found your voice,’some people won’t get it.
  • “A novel must be novel, or there’s no point in publishing it. Mark Tavani, Editor. An editor is looking for something they can sell. The concept may have similar elements to other books but it must be fresh. Get the little details correct– in an age of Google Maps, there’s no excuse. Anything that jars the reader will end their experience of the book. The editor is thinking about whether this is the beginning: of a series, of a business relationship, of a new career for this author. “Start as close to the end as possible. Stop flashing back – keep moving forward. Readers react to lag time negatively, so a book a year is recommended.
  • “The fact is: authors die. Peter James on why there’s always room for more authors! This made lots of us feel better. When faced with huge mega-famous names in the room, it can feel as if you’ll never make it – but many of them have been writing for 30+ years. I’ve been writing fiction for 4 years now and I’m 39. I have time!
Killer swag from Karen Dionne

Killer swag from Karen Dionne

  • On film. “Don’t fall in love with your investment. Tony Eldridge, film director. The film is unlikely to match the book, even if it gets made (which is highly unlikely). “A producer’s favourite author is one who has just died. Ben Mezrich (presumably so they don’t have to deal with the author’s opinion on the screenplay!)
  • “If you sell something in publishing, it usually comes out. If you sell something in film, it almost never comes out.”Ben Mezrich.

Marketing tips

  • Chelsea Cain talked about doing book events, instead of signings. She teams up with Chuck Palahniuk and they do ‘Bedtime stories for grown ups’evenings at alternative venues like an abandoned library. People dress up and they encourage pictures, social media and sharing. Chelsea also said that, for her, Facebook sells books, and Twitter gets people to events.
  • Lisa Gardner talked about the importance of the book cover. Her ‘overnight success’came after 15 years of writing when an iconic cover of a burning wedding dress helped her book take off.


With all the kerfuffle around self-publishing at the moment, and the fact that Scott Turow was a ThrillerMaster this year, I was concerned that there would be grandstanding around the Amazon/Hachette discussions. But actually I didn’t hear anything at all – it was all business as usual. I heard no negativity

Rebecca Cantrell J.F.Penn

J.F.Penn with award-winner Rebecca Cantrell

around being indie, and in fact, lots of people asked me about it, or told me about their own indie experiences, and plenty of the panelists talked about being hybrid authors.

  • David Morrell talked about the “pre-2009 reality and the post- 2009 reality”of publishing and how different things are now; how there are many ways into publishing. Peter James mentioned self-publishing as a way into the industry and the many choices available now to authors.
  • Lee Goldberg led a panel on self-publishing and hybrid models, explaining how the mid-list authors dumped by traditional publishers are finding a new and vibrant living as indies. A passionate Jon Land said: “Big publishers created the current environment by cutting advances – so an author used to living on a certain amount has to make up that income somehow. If you don’t take charge of your career as an author, you’ll be stuck in a past model where revenue will decline. Hybrid publishing creates new revenue streams.”We don’t know what will happen in the next 5 years. Trying to be a better business person is part of being an author.
  • Rebecca Cantrell won the Best eBook Original Award for her book, The World Beneath, which is indie published. She also has books with New York publishers, including the brilliant Sanguines series with James Rollins.

So I had a brilliant conference! But there’s one more thing I need to share – and hopefully I will listen to my own advice at the next event.

Know thyself, introvert author!

Introverts get their energy from being alone, and being with people for too long is draining and exhausting. I’m an introvert – I’m not shy, but I am INFJ Myers Briggs and it shows! I made a mistake in that I scheduled Mon – Sat pretty much back to back sessions, meetings, events and oh yes, some drinking too. I couldn’t cope with it all in the end and had to duck out for renewal and time alone in silence, as well as skipping the gala dinner to head home early as I essentially collapsed near the end of the conference. Note to self and other introvert authors – schedule down time at conferences!

Do you have any comments or questions about ITW or Thrillerfest? Please leave them below and join the conversation … and perhaps I’ll see you there next year!

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  1. David says

    Hi Joanna,

    ” – so stop using repeated names within dialogue. Are you writing dialogue for the characters, or to fill the reader in on what you can’t explain another way?”

    I don’t understand exactly what this means. Can you “unpack” it for me a little bit? Is this 2 different points, ie: 1) Don’t write things like “Hey Joe, blah blah” “Well Jim, blah blah” and also 2) Don’t write things like, “As you know, Jennifer, here in Fantasy World we Rothgardians hold a planet-wide celebration every 1000 years to vote for a new leader.”

    Is that (sort of) what this note means? Or am I missing it entirely?

  2. says

    Fantastic post, Joanna! Thanks so much for sharing! So much great information. My favorite take-away is, “Be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of another writer.” Love that!

  3. says

    Thanks for your enthusiasm as ever, Joanna. The tips from MastercraftFest are especially useful and David Morrell can chalk up another sale of his book thanks to you!

  4. lidys says

    Joanna, I am an E/INFJ
    I had to choose which E or I as they were too close to call (2 points away). I am both. I need downtime badly after a conference type setting. But I also enjoy interacting with the people in events.

  5. Douglas Dorow says

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I was at the first ThrillerFest in Phoenix, and I’m hoping to make it next year. I’m hoping they have the FBI day again, since my characters are FBI agents.

    Maybe we’ll run into each other at TF 2015.

  6. says

    Really enjoyed the post and the pearly wisdoms, especially Morrell’s take on personality, self-awareness and style.

    I’m quite inspired to do a conference after reading this. I’m an INTJ and can’t do more than 3 days of socializing before I need to retreat. (But a couple glasses of wine turns me into an ENTJ.)

    You glow in the photos – it’s clear you found your people.

  7. says

    Thanks for the feedback on the event Joanna – I’m definitely making plans to attend next year if I can save the funds to travel from Australia. It sounds like a wonderful experience to soak up some great advice!

  8. says

    Thank you so much for sharing your notes. Sounds like it was a great conference, except for almost collapsing at the end :). I’m just getting back to writing after taking a hiatus for 25 years (my bad) and I found these notes very inspiring and useful.

  9. says

    Thanks, Joanna for sharing your notes! I am learning so much from you.

    And if you ever need to ask for support for the podcast, I’m in! I learn so much there. (Yes, I listen! We all do!)

    You challenge us all to keep at it. You remind us that the epub biz is new, so get at it! And you are where I want to be in the next few years. (Note: I am not putting a time limit on it! Could be sooner than I think!)

    Take care …

  10. says

    Wow Joanna, you’ve really out done yourself again. Incredible post, loaded with wonderful content, great advice, and many of us are so jealous of you. Not only did you attend an event for yourself, you took notes for those of us who couldn’t come. That’s awesome of you and I hope someday we will be able to take a photograph together for a blog page like this in the future. Keep up the great work!


  11. says

    Loved this post, Joanna! For those of us who do not have opportunities to attend events like this one, we appreciate so much your willingness to share what you’ve learned . . . and you do it with such enthusiasm. Thanks for making us your “partners in writing.” The info you shared is first-hand and impacts us all. Some real treasures here!!

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