Conference wrap-up: Thrillerfest and ALA

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Just returned from crazy breakneck weekend – Thrillerfest in NY, and ALA in Chicago. Because I’m a Pisces I have this idea that I can be two places simultaneously. It doesn’t quite work that way. Or anyway, there’s always a price.

At TFest, as some of you know, my story “The Edge of Seventeen” from THE DARKER MASK anthology won the Thriller award for Best Short Fiction!

Here’s the complete list of winners:

ThrillerMaster Award: David Morrell
In recognition of his vast body of work and influence in the field of literature

Silver Bullet Award: Brad Meltzer
For contributions to the advancement of literacy

Silver Bullet Corporate Award: Dollar General Literacy Foundation
For longstanding support of literacy and education

Best Thriller of the Year:
THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND by Jeffery Deaver (Simon & Schuster)

Best First Novel:
CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing)

Best Short Story:
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN by Alexandra Sokoloff (in Darker Mask)

And yes, I was very happy to be the estrogen in the lineup. Actually I tend to do my best in situations of complete gender imbalance.

Then I went straight on (well, one missed flight later) to do signings at ALA, the American Library Association conference in Chicago, which apparently had an attendance of 27,000 people. Which was far more than anyone had anticipated and is great news for all of us bookish types.

And I have to say Chicago was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it, ever – absolutely stunning weather, which I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say about Chicago before. I could almost have been lulled into living there if I didn’t know what happens around November. Or in July, for that matter.

I took that riverboat architecture tour with my friends and Sisters in Crime sisters Doris Ann Norris and Mary Boone, and it really is the best thing about these conferences – being able to get these fast but incredibly layered snapshots of different cities. I love it.

Now I’m headed into a couple of weeks of signings and interviews (including North Carolina Bookwatch, a really big deal in that state) while doing revisions on BOOK OF SHADOWS, and at the same time I have to sort out everything that happened and didn’t happen during my move, which is another story entirely, and, oh yeah, get back to blogging.

Not much that looks like vacation there, right? But instead of feeling exhausted, I feel rejuvenated, and realigned. Conferences are really good for the Big Picture. Going to the same conference for several years in a row is especially great because you can see your career on a continuum. I wasn’t even published when I went to my first Thrillerfest. Now, my fourth year there, I know what to do with the people I meet and the opportunities that come up. I’m much more aware of what a conversation can lead to and how to take advantage of that (I know, it sounds like I’m talking about something else. Of course that potential is always there, too.).

Opportunities abound at conferences – I really do feel that everyone you could possibly need to talk to at a particular moment in time is at whatever conference you are at. That’s always been true for me, even when I had no idea what I was doing. Now that I have a bit of an idea what I’m doing it’s even more true. Example: I have been needing to ask a lot of precise, technical questions about the whole Amazon/Kindle publishing thing. So I’m standing around in the Hyatt lobby catching up with friends and Daniel Slater, the very guy in charge of all that, walks right up to us and introduces himself.

That’s not an anomaly, it’s what happens dozens or hundreds of times over a few days at a con. It’s like magic, I swear.

Also these days I actually remember who everyone is. Definitely a plus.

Seeing the same group of authors regularly (at a particular conference) gives you a good idea of what people are doing that works, and what is not working so well. There’s always a lot going on that you can’t see, but you do get ideas.

And then there are those moments of sheer inspiration and purpose – like this year’s Thrillermaster David Morrell’s speech at the banquet. He was talking about how we all have a responsibility to bring something new to the genre, to advance the genre, and explained exactly how he had been attempting to do that in several of his books. He also said that every time he sits down with a new project he writes a letter to himself talking about why he wants to spend a year of his life on this particular book. Whoa! Talk about getting in alignment. That is absolutely what they call in yoga “attention and intention”. There is no way not to write a better book if you have done that.

I’m telling you, a graduate course in writing in 15 minutes.

ALA, now, is scary for the sheer numbers of books. The “Why didn’t I write that?” quotient is high. Also the sheer number of books by some individual authors is beyond scary. The “Why didn’t I start sooner?” question can tear you apart.

The fact is, I’ve just finished revisions on my fourth book. I’m a complete novice comparatively. And I understand better than ever why a lot of readers hold authors in awe (I just finished Michael Connelly’s SCARECROW and I swear I was holding my breath through whole parts of it. How the HELL does he DO that?). But also, all of those books come out of those people, people we know. People we are. The more books out of an author the more you have to marvel that one little 120 or 220 pound person can make all that happen, all those characters and worlds. The power of that! It’s mind-bending.

But here I was, this weekend, surrounded by authors – who have dozens, if not hundreds of books to their name, and I was wondering how many books I’m going to have to have out before I feel any kind of comfort level. In fact, I wonder if there ever IS a comfort level – if Tess and Allison experienced a moment (a certain number of books, the first or second time on the NYT list) that they said: “Ah, yes. I’m here.” (I mean, even temporarily!)

At the moment, for me four still feels really scant, which is maybe ridiculous, since every completed book is a bloody miracle. But I think that that impatience and dissatisfaction, of “not enoughness”, is typical of not just authors, but artists in general. It’s what drives us to produce more. I love that Aristotle called artists “productive philosophers”. That’s what we do – we produce. Art is philosophy, I believe that, but it is also so concrete. We need to see, touch, feel what we do. We need to have other people be able to see, touch, feel it.

Which is good to remember because now, despite a pretty full promotional schedule, I’m going to be doing a huge amount of writing. One project, the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors book, is very near finished. I have two more that I need to put in proposal form, and a third I should be thinking about. At the beginning of an idea, all that chaotic newness and possibility, it’s good to remember that it will be a concrete product at the end: a book.

And I just put one away, for the time being. Maybe for a month, maybe for longer. I haven’t done that with a project in a while, but I think it’s the right thing to do, for reasons I can’t even articulate at the moment, but I think I’m doing the right thing. One thing about having a small number of books out is that you want to maintain a certain focus. Especially when you’re writing standalones.

There’s nothing like a conference for putting your priorities in order. Out of all that chaos, you come away with clarity.

So I’d love to get other reports. Those of you who were at Thrillerfest or ALA, or RWA (going on right now!), what did you come away with that you can share with us?

And everyone else – will you tell us some great thing you learned or experienced at a conference?

And has anyone here EVER experienced that “Ah, yes. I’m here.” moment?

– Alex

19 thoughts on “Conference wrap-up: Thrillerfest and ALA

  1. Neil Nyren

    One of my favorite times ever came at a Sleuthfest some years back. I was hanging out with about half a dozen people, all forensics experts, m.e.’s or actual CSI people — and all of them women — and just listening as they swapped stories and shoptalk over bottles of wine. The stories were hair-raising, outrageous and hilarious, and I felt privileged to be there.

    And it was great at T’fest meeting you at last, Alex!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Neil, you don’t realize it, but I’ve been stalking you for years. I just chose to reveal myself to you at this TFest. 😉

    You and your wife have the most sparkly energy! It was fun to finally chat f2f.

    And I’m with you – the law enforcement people are always mesmerizing!! I’m jealous that you got to hear so many over wine.

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Good words to read first thing in the morning, Alex. I have to say, that I really got a lot of my first B’Con in Baltimore last year. Just being able to meet other writers as well as readers was an amazing experience. It was also nice to discover what a sense of community there is among the genre writers.

    I walked away from that conference with great inspiration, great books, great tips on writing and other stuff and perhaps, more importantly, a couple of good friendships.

    Looking forward to T’Fest next year.

  4. Alli

    A workshop on "High Concept" sent me on a path to the current MS I’m working on – the idea came out of the blue and nagged me until I finally gave up and started. It’s almost complete and ready to send out to agents.

    A couple of years ago at RWA natioals I sat in on a workshop called "Novelist’s Boot Camp". The main thing I have adopted is to set realistic goals. Don’t look at the whole book and get daunted. Take baby steps. Set out to write X amount of words, or finish the scene/chapter, etc. EVentually you’ll get to the end and have accomplished your goal without the "I have a whole book to write" angst.

  5. Louise Ure

    I’m on the faculty at another conference right now, Alex. The Book Passage Mystery Conference in Corte Madera CA. And oh yeah, I’m feeling that same kind of sociability and renewed vigor from hanging out with these folks.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alli, I think every author would benefit from a workshop on High Concept. You’re lucky to have had one this early in the game. Good luck finishing!

    And yeah, realistic goals. I’ll have to write that one down and stick it up somepleace I can see it. Every day.

  7. Melanie

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m nowhere near the "ahh" moment, but it helps to know that even published authors feel that way.

    I lived in Chicago for nine years and the architectural boat tour is one of my all time favorite things! The first time I went on it was the day before the Air & Water Show, so all the planes were practicing right over top of us!

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Serioiusly, Melanie, I wonder if any of us EVER have that Ahh moment.

    I wanted that tour to go on all day and all night. It made me want to buy a million architecture books and just read for a month.

  9. tess gerritsen

    >>I was wondering how many books I’m going to have to have out before I feel any kind of comfort level. In fact, I wonder if there ever IS a comfort level – if Tess and Allison experienced a moment (a certain number of books, the first or second time on the NYT list) that they said: “Ah, yes. I’m here.” <<

    I haven’t reached that moment yet. I think it’s an unreachable destination.

    Wonderful summary of T’Fest — much appreciated since I couldn’t attend this year!

  10. billie

    It’s been a long time since I was at a conference, but I remember numerous moments when things were illuminated in that mystical, magical way that means you feel it in your cells but are hard-pressed to put any of it into words.

    I love love love David Morrell’s letter to self in advance of writing a new book. I think I’m going to do that starting with this project I’ve got in front of me right now.

    For the first time since 1997 I actually do NOT have a novel in progress, and I’m feeling a bit lost – with a nonfiction project sitting here that I absolutely want to write, but it isn’t the same as being taken over by the characters and the world of the novel.

    I think writing that letter to self might get me over the abyss.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – you could write the New Authors’ Guide on How to Run Your Career. Great info here. I couldn’t go to Thrillerfest this year – I’m looking forward to next year. I’m very excited about your award, though! It’s interesting how you found clarity in all the chaos, and it’s refreshing to see that each year you become more capable of managing your career and your dreams. My first conference will be Bouchercon – in the city where I was born.
    By the way, I’ve been on that architectural water tour of Chicago – LOVED it. I want to do it again. Those guides are amazing. Unless, of course, they’re just making shit up. I knew a guy who did a tour of the stars’ homes in Beverly Hills and he made a third of the info up. He pointed to some mansion we passed and said, "That’s the home of film director Stephen Jay Schwartz." Still, the Chicago architectural crowd seems like they’d have some ethics.

  12. pari noskin taichert

    Great read, Alex.

    I wish I could go to cons this year and next, but that’s out of the picture. Oh, well. I’ll just have to find other ways to rejuvenate.

    Congrats on the Short Story award and all of your incredible work thus far. I had to crack up when you said that about being a Pisces and believing you can be two places at once. Boy, does that resonate.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I know, Billie – David Morrell always says the most inspiring and PRACTICAL things. I would never miss him speaking at a con if I could possibly get there.

    I know what you mean about non fiction. It’s a nice break, but not the same as being taken over by STORY.


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