On Magpies and Fireflies – Impressions from ThrillerFest

Much has been said about ThrillerFest this week, so I won’t
recap the fun stuff here. But there is something that I took away from my first
major conference. There are a lot of very impressive writers out there. And
they all congregated in Phoenix this past weekend.

May I offer you a slice of humble pie?

Seriously, there is nothing more exciting that spending time
with the heavy hitters of your genre. Hence the Magpie/Firefly reference. I’m borrowing the phrasing from the wonderful John Connolly, who once described writers as like magpies,
easily distracted by shiny objects. And Fireflies flit and flut, dancing their
way around almost carelessly. That’s how I felt all weekend. So much to see, so
much to do, so many people to meet. I was all over the place because there
wasn’t enough time to do and see it all and meet everyone I wanted to meet.

Getting ready for and attending ThrillerFest was like
getting backstage passes to your most favorite band. Say you’re a fan of AC/DC.
You’d do anything to go to the concert, much less sit down with the band
members for four days, partying, learning new chords, watching them work their
magic. Yeah, it was like that.

Actually, the entire event felt like a rock concert to me.
You see that your band is coming, you wait for the tickets going on sale, you
buy said tickets and the anticipatory rush is on. As the day draws closer, you
play the CD’s over and over, gearing up.

You arrive at the concert and there’s this pulsing mass
of humanity, hundreds if not thousands of people JUST LIKE YOU, people who have
been sitting at home, playing the CD’s and wanting this for the past few

The room lights go down, the air is thick with adrenaline.
The stage lights flicker, then go dark and the band takes the stage to the
whoops and sheer madness of the crowd. The band plays their set, the level of
intensity building to a climax that leaves you breathless.

Take away the loud, frantic noise, tight t-shirts and jeans,
drunkenness (no, put that back in) and keep that level of intensity and
enthusiasm. That’s what my ThrillerFest experience felt like.

If anyone ever again asks if going to a conference is worth
the time, money and effort, I will always say yes.

Not only did I get to meet many of the writers I consider my
literary favorites (Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Jim Born, Allison Brennan, Alex Kava, Erica
, well, I could go on and on with that), I made new friends. I met
several of my KillerYear classmates. I met writers I’ve read, writers I haven’t
read, writers who were funny, writers who were witty, writers who are major
successes, writers who struggle and a lot of great reviewers.


  1. Writers write.

That may sound flip, but I’m dead
serious. Let me give you a little example. I had dinner with Heather Graham and her
husband Dennis (Thanks, MIRA!). Heather’s career is really missing a beat,
she’s only written 127 books. Let me repeat myself. 127 BOOKS. I’ve
written 2. And the first didn’t sell. There’s nothing like being around people
who do this for a living to make you go, Oh.

So I’ll say it again, and it’s the
most important lesson I took away from the conference.

Writers write. They don’t him and
haw, don’t “walk the dog” for days on end. The don’t get themselves so wrapped
up in blogs and emails and distractions that they find two weeks going by
without a single word written. When you have 4 books coming out a year, you sit
your ass in the chair and write the books. Heck, if you’ve got one book coming
out a year, you sit your ass in the chair and write. Period. End of discussion.

  1. There is always someone who knows more than you do about writing and publishing.

Seriously, these writers have sold
over 1 billion copies of their books. That’s a lot of writing. Can you believe
I’m sitting here trying to figure out the word count for that? If my math is
right, (I don’t do math. That’s why I became a writer) given the assumption
that each book averages 100,000 words, that comes to approximately 100 trillion
words. Crap.

So basically, as a newly published
author, you’re in the room with people who’ve forgotten more words per capita
than you will ever think, much less write. Pretty humbling. Plus each one has
been through what you’re going through; they have all navigated the proverbial

Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Buy drinks if necessary. Writers
with two or three or one hundred books know more than you. Remember that, and
be appropriately in awe.

  1. Connections are the name of the game.

I’m blessed that while I start off
shy, I can have fun by myself in a paper bag and have intelligent conversation
with walls. Letting shy get in the way of having a good time is the curse of
the modern writer. Tess Gerritsen is shy (don’t believe me? Read her
blog) and she comes to the conferences and
acquits herself quite well. If you worked at a company and went to the office
everyday, you’d find yourself with friends over time. Go to a conference and
within 2 hours you’ll have met five people who want to share your Xanax, within
5 hours you’ll be happily arm in arm, singing show tunes. Okay, I’m
exaggerating. But reviewers are real people. Major A-list writers are real
people. Editor and agents are real people (Hell, Bob Diforio can get jiggy with the best
of them). See where I’m going? I was so scared going in, and it was just a
silly fear of the unknown.

Here’s the most important
realization that I had this weekend…

4. No matter how big and
important or small and unimportant, we’re all in this together
. Big name
writers get those twinges of self-doubt when they sit down to their computers
just like Newbies. The reason they broke through is a certain je ne sais quoi,
a desire to explore new worlds, to share their magnificent brains with the rest
of us, to entertain, to teach, to amuse and enlighten. And they have AIC
syndrome. Ass. In. Chair.

Guess what? You can do it too! Put
away that shyness, put aside the procrastination. Write like there’s no
tomorrow, then make the reservations and go spend three glorious days with
people who think just like you do.

Wine of the Week — Domaine Des Espiers Côtes du Rhône


13 thoughts on “On Magpies and Fireflies – Impressions from ThrillerFest

  1. Iden Ford

    Ah JT, I can see you are suffering from book conference honeymoon syndrome. Like all relationships, after awhile you have to work at things. Maureen and I have gone to conferences since the 1990 London Bouchercon. One of the things we like most about conferences is when they are a bit more intimate. This was obviously your experience at Thrillerfest, and also why we love Magna Cum Murder so much. Bouchercon has become a bit like the “Woodstock” of mystery conferences, with many strutting egos and wannabe’s on display. In the end I find the most fun at B’con’s is hanging out with friends in the dealer room, and going to the occasional panel. But alas, for most mystery writers, it is a good place to meet fans and get known a bit more each time. Schmooze. Certainly Thrillerfest sounds like fun.

  2. JT Ellison

    Iden, you’re right, I do have a honeymoon feeling about T-Fest. I was a smaller group, which I’ve heard was one of the keys to its success. Next I’m doing Bouchercon, and I’ll be curious to see what my impressions of a massive Con are.Thanks for stopping by! Your comments are always appreciated.

  3. Allison Brennan

    “No matter how big and important or small and unimportant, we’re all in this together. Big name writers get those twinges of self-doubt when they sit down to their computers just like Newbies.”

    This is so true, JT! I think that’s something I learned more at this conference than any other one I’ve been to. Even at RWA most big-name authors didn’t admit they struggled (or if they did, I wasn’t in the room!) Hearing that Sandra Brown and Brad Meltzer and others had those doubt demons was both inspiring and calming to me. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay as long as you keep writing.

  4. Naomi

    I’m wondering if it made a difference that this was the first ThrillerFest and there was no set organizational culture. In other words, all the participants may have had more freedom to really shape the event. I think that the organization seemed very inclusive, too. Many newbies were involved at the ground level. It’s always exciting to be part of a “first”–is this thing going to be successful? Is it really going to happen? Ten, fifteen years from now, J.T., you’ll be one of the veteranos in the bar, saying, “I remember when . . .”

  5. JT Ellison

    I’m excited to attend a fan based conference too. I know writers are readers as well, but I’m looking forward to getting to know the people on the other side of the fence a little better too.Rae, it was lovely to meet you as well! You still look like my maid of honor.Rob, your pictures exemplify all the hard work you put in.Thanks!Tashsa, you were greatly missed.Naomi, I can only pray that I’m successful and still in the biz 15 years from now! It seems a daunting prospect to even think of!

  6. Pari

    J.T.,Your advice to newer writers is priceless.

    I started going to conferences a year before CLOVIS was published. The acquaintances and friendships I made, both with authors and fans, helped me more than I can ever express — from getting advice to learning the ropes, from finding empathy when things seemed bleak to sharing the joy of successes — these first friends remain cornerstones of my sanity.

    Now, a little further down the path, I still enjoy cons though — like Iden — I’m finding that smaller ones seem to bring more personal satisfaction.

    Thanks for a great post.

    I plan to follow it up on Monday with a post on what I call “overmarketing” — one of the dangers of running right from conference-honeymoons straight into becoming everyone’s noisiest relative.

  7. Naomi


    I love your topics–always on point.

    And I went by Vroman’s yesterday and there was a little writeup on the shelf (staff recommendation) regarding BELEN HITCH, but no more books. (Perhaps an e-mail is in order.)

    Looking forward to future Murderati entries, including ON THE BUBBLE WITH IAN RANKIN, tomorrow!!!

  8. Elaine

    Whew, am I late in congratulating J.T. on a terrific post. Been one of those days. Excellent observations, J.T., and your post over at ‘Killer’ was terrific!

    I’m happy that J.T.’s first con experience was so great. And TFest was (as I’ve been telling so many) probably the best run, and most fun con I’ve attended. As others have also said-the size had much to do with the success. Bcon will most likely be four times the size of TFest-a bit more spread out-which makes it sometimes hard to connect. A different fan base, and a different set of writers-but still a great convention-and you’ll have a great time.

  9. Elizabeth Krecker

    JT, it was so great meeting you. You were the life of the party; I think you managed to meet everyone! Thanks for your inspiration, your encouragement and your friendship!

    Great post!!


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