First Time’s the Charm

Thoughts from a debut writer on attending ThrillerFest.

First Time’s the Charm

I attended ThrillerFest, the annual conference for the International Thriller Writers, a couple of weeks ago and want to share what I learned with you — the good and the bad.

Because it’s ThrillerFest, this column will be in bullet points. Get it, bullet poi…you probably got it.

  • It’s expensive. Like, really expensive. Most conferences I’ve attended cost, at most, a couple of hundred bucks. Depending on the events you want to go to, ThrillerFest could run anywhere from $300 to $1,200. The package I chose was just under $500. It’s a good thing I have credit cards and atrocious money-management skills because, otherwise, I might not have gone.
  • But it’s worth the expense. I arrived on Friday morning, so I had the opportunity to attend panels dedicated to the craft of writing, career advice, interviews with top writers, etc. It’s hard to think of an aspect of writing and publishing that wasn’t covered. Attending ThrillerFest is a crash course in the writing life, regardless of how little or how long you’ve been in the business.
  • I was there as a member of the Debut Authors Program, a program open to writers who have recently published their first novel with an ITW-recognized publisher. Our group was skillfully managed by Jenny Milchman, a former debut and terrific writer. No organization I’ve joined has been more beneficial to me than ITW, and the debut program is hugely helpful. I received invaluable advice, had the chance to meet writers I’ve long admired and, most importantly, everyone in the organization is just so damn nice.
  • No matter how bad-ass a thriller is, a nerd probably wrote it, because writers are a pretty nerdy bunch. I can admit that. But I saw some super-famous nerds up close, including Anne Rice, Scott Turow, David Morrell, R.L. Stine, Lee Child, and Brenda Novak. Actually, Lee Child didn’t really come across as nerdy. He looks like a man who knows how to kill you.
  • There was a breakfast for the Debut Authors on Saturday morning, and we had the opportunity to address the entire conference for a minute each. That doesn’t sound too bad, but we were all pretty nervous. After all, you’re on display in front of some of the writers you love, some of your heroes. I chose not to eat breakfast because I was scared of throwing up everywhere. The only thing I wanted coming out of my body was my voice.
  • Unfortunately. I ended up going first because of my damnable last name. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. I gave the briefest elevator summary of my novel that I could, and then told the assembled writers how happy I was to be on this side of the publishing fence, and how relieved I was to have a full night of sleep (my wife and I have a 5-month-old at home). The rest of the speeches struck that same balance between professional and personal, and there was little to no vomit.
  • Another full of day of panels, and then there was a closing banquet. Unfortunately, I thought the banquet started at 8 p.m. and was in my room ironing my pants and watching Everybody Loves Raymond. So I casually strolled in while everyone was finishing their dinners. Fortunately, I found a table with some very nice people — including Shannon C. Kirk, who will be a member of next year’s Debut Authors class, and ended up being just in time for the awards.
  • You can find the award winners here. The only real nerd-gasp during the ceremony came when Best Hardcover Novel, the loftiest prize, was awarded to Andrew Pyper for The Demonologist. The surprise had nothing to do with Andrew’s book; rather, it was due to the big names in the competition he beat out. For his part, Pyper took the microphone and said, “I’m just as surprised as you are.” I liked that and immediately bought his book.
  • So that was it. I went to an after-party and stared at some famous writers, hung out some more with my fellow debuts, and went to bed to catch an early train. I didn’t even get drunk, which is probably for the best because I was almost positive I’d leave NY having made an intoxicated ass out of myself. Little victories.
  • This isn’t meant as an insult, but I’ve been thinking about it, and Lee Child has definitely killed someone.
  • Would I go back?
  • Absolutely. I plan to go next year. Writing can be lonely and bewildering when it becomes a business. And when you’re lonely and bewildered, it’s good to know you’re not alone out there.


E.A. Aymar earned a B.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in literature. He lives with his wife and son just outside of Washington, DC. His debut novel is I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.


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