Choosing A Writing Conference

If you’re working full time (or more than full time) at another profession while writing, it can be a tough call to devote your a week off to a writing conference. It is worth it, though, if you can enjoy the time away from your usual work, learn about writing craft or business, and meet writers and other people who may help your writing journey.

If you write suspense, mysteries, or thrillers, one that should be at the top of your list is the annual ThrillerFest in New York.

It meets three important criteria for a writing conference:

  1. Good Location (as in one you’d want to visit if you were taking a “real” vacation)
  2. Quality Content
  3. Helpful and Friendly People
Location – New York

First–New York.

I love visiting the city. There is energy in the air. There are wonderful wine and cheese bars. There are books everywhere. Once I passed a psychology institute on the way to a restaurant, and there was a cardboard box of free books left there for any passers-by to take.

I also always love returning home, as it makes Chicago’s downsides–traffic, air quality, crowds–seem so very livable by comparison. (Sorry, NY.)

The library is a great place to tour.

The museums are fantastic. This time I visited The Brooklyn museum, which had a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit and an exhibit that was focused on the color blue. In that one, I learned that Nemesis was a goddess who punished people whose good luck made them overconfident. Who knew.

Content In Three Parts

ThrillerFest has three parts plus. There is CraftFest, where you can learn in smaller sessions about specific writing issues. For instance, I attended mystery author Hallie Ephron’s talk on the Web of Character. (More on that in a future article.)

Next is Pitchfest, where you can pitch your novel to agents and editors. This part starts with a talk the night before on preparing your pitch, which is mainly getting it down to about 25 words. The next day in a large conference room you have a chance to practice your pitch on established authors and agents and get feedback.

Sidewalk sale at The Strand bookstore

After that, you find the agents and editors you want to pitch in three or four smaller rooms by alphabetical order. You wait in line (usually 1-3 people ahead of you) to sit at a small table and tell them about your book.

To a person, I found them helpful to talk with, and the questions they asked about the work aided me not only in getting across why I thought they might be interested but in further refining my plot. (I was pitching my mystery novel in progress.)

Pitchfest also included the No Pitch Zone.

For two hours, several agents who were not accepting pitches were available to look over query letters and first pages. The agent I talked with struck two lines out of my page one that confused her.

That in itself was invaluable. The lines made perfect sense to me. But if she was lost, other readers will be too, and the last thing I want is for a reader to say Huh? on the second paragraph and walk away. (I hope my beta readers would have noticed the same line, but since they’ll be looking at the novel as a whole, they might not focus so specifically one page.)

Finally, the actual ThrillerFest portion includes multiple panels of well-known authors and speakers. Topics are as diverse as hostage negotiation (with an FBI negotiator), women’s roles in thrillers, writing gruesome horror, and marketing. (See this year’s schedule here.)

The fest ends with a dinner where the 2017 award winners are announced.


Volunteers, presenters, agents, coordinators–all were helpful and fun to talk with. The agents must get weary by the end of the second hour, yet each one smiled and took time to talk with me as if I were the first person rather than the fiftieth.

Attendees also were friendly.

It was easy to introduce myself to others and start chatting. This seems like it ought to be a given. After all, we’re all there because we love to write. But I’ve been to conferences where I said hello to someone in line and received a blank stare in response, or where I went to the evening dinner and all my attempts at conversation fell flat. At ThrillerFest, everyone acted happy to meet someone new.

The presenters, too, were accessible and willing to answer questions after sessions. I got good advice on where to seek an agent regarding trying to turn The Awakening series into a video series (such as on Netflix or through the other companies entering that space).

If you decide to attend next year, I recommend volunteering. While you don’t get a discount on the price, it’s a great way to meet people, all of whom I found to be friendly and fun. It also gives you the chance to hear inside stories from people who sold their books through contacts made at the conference.

In the coming weeks, look for posts on what I learned about pitching and in the craft sessions.

Until Friday–


L.M. Lilly


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