It’s No Longer an Either/Or Publishing World and Other Notes from ThrillerFest

Last week I had the honor of being the first author to final for an International Thriller Writers Award for a self-published work, One More Lie. ITW has been forward thinking in this new era, recognizing that the future is now and a thrilling story works no matter what the delivery system.
Although I didn’t take home the top prize, it was cool to be there (along with former blogmate John Gilstrap and others) and to be confirmed in this: it’s no longer an either/or publishing world, but a both/and and why-the-heck not?

Mrs. B and I had our usual wonderful time in New York, where I used to pound the boards as an actor. We had dinner with my agent, Donald Maass, at a nice bistro in the Meatpacking District (really hopping these days). We talked about the craft, natch, and something Don said in passing I had to write down (this happens a lot when you listen to The Man): “Backstory is not just for plot motivation, but deep character need.”
Chew on that one for awhile.
Dear wife and I saw a hysterical Broadway show, One Man, Two Guvnors.It’s hard to describe, but suffice to say the Tony Award winning lead, James Corden, is a comedic genius.
Also saw about two hours of the amazing 24-hour film on time called The Clock.
And I got to teach at CraftFest. The room was packed! Then I realized Lee Child was teaching right after me….still, a good time was had by all.
The most interesting talk at the Fest, for me at least, came from Jamie Raab, senior vice president and publisher at Grand Central Publishing. Some notes:
Ms. Raab stated that, of course, the industry is in flux. Mass market paperbacks, for instance, are in steep decline as a category. Ms. Raab did not see any way for that format to come back to what it once was. Just what this means to the industry is not known at this time (like so many other things!)
Hardcovers, too, are heading south, simply because they have to be priced too high to cover costs of production. But, as we all know, prices are trending downward as more and more ebooks become available at consumer-friendly price points. Consumers are getting used to certain levels, and there’s no way to fight that. Consumers are co-regents with content in the marketplace.
Ms. Raab spoke about the thrillers she’s read over the years that were “game changers.” Not merely good books or great reads, but books that did something so amazingly original or compelling they actually changed the way the books after them were done.
The titles she mentioned:
Marathon Man by William Goldman
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
The Firm by John Grisham
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Absolute Power by David Baldacci
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Each of these titles did something “more.” Marathon Man, for example, had one utterly unforgettable scene. You all know what it is. If you’ve ever been to the dentist, that is.
Absolute Power begins with another unforgettable moment, a burglar hiding himself in a swanky house, witnesses the murder of a young woman by the President of the United States. That scene, and book, changed the course of political thrillers.
So here is what you ought to consider as you write: what are you doing that is “more” than what you’ve read before? What is it about the idea, the scenes, the characters, the plot itself that comes from the deepest part of you?
Here’s the nice thing, as Leonard Bishop once put it. “If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.”
Splendid isn’t a bad place to be.
Are you reaching for “more” in your writing? 

19 thoughts on “It’s No Longer an Either/Or Publishing World and Other Notes from ThrillerFest

  1. Great post filled with intriguing craft notions, inspiration & a Tfest recap too. The Clock looks interesting too. Congratulations on your nomination, Jim. Wow. Well done.

  2. “ITW has been forward thinking in this new era.” So true, Jim. The organization’s steadfast motto is: If we imitate, we fail; if we innovate, we succeed.

    I would suggest one more game-changing thriller: THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, Tom Clancy’s 1984 classic. It’s not often that a writer “invents” a genre.

    Congrats on your nomination.

  3. Thanks Jordan and Joe. And right, Joe, HUNT was certainly one of the big game changers in the thriller genre. It would have to be on anyone’s top 10 list.

  4. “Backstory is not just for plot motivation, but deep character need.” Certainly worth writing down, and I’m glad you shared it.

    Congratulations on your nomination, and on being a trailblazer in this ever-expanding and changing universe called writing and publishing. And thanks for being a mentor and instructor to some many who now populate that universe.

  5. Congrats on your nomination!

    It’s one of those things that’s hard to be objective about, but I usually feel like I’ve pushed myself to make sure the characters, concept, and plot are doing something new and interesting by constantly working over each element. Adding things, taking them away, and being aware of what’s been done a lot in the genre.

    This sounds really weird, but I also like to use to see what’s been done before, not just in books, but in comics, movies, and TV as well. It’s a wiki database you can search by trope. It defines the trope, and then people add examples to the page.

    I find it helpful to skim through the examples and brainstorm how I could do it differently, how I could put a fresh spin on things.

  6. Awesome news about your book – I love your short stories. I’m not surprised in the least.

    The comment from Donald Maass on backstory rings true – I’ve learned this summer while studying the craft of editing how to cut it from the beginning of the story and sprinkle it back in along the way, after my readers care about my characters.

    That’s how I’m reaching for more in my own stories.

  7. Doc, I appreciate the good word, as always.

    Elizabeth, I had a look at TVtropes (.org), and wonder if it might be a good place just to go for some brainstorming, then get quickly back into your own head.

    And Paula, that’s the right move: usually a lot can be cut from openings and “sprinkled” or “marbled” in.

  8. Another excellent post from JSB! I’m going to chew on this over the next week as I work on my WIP.

    Congratulations on your nomination. What a great honor! And, what a great picture of you and the Mrs.! What a nice lady — it was such a pleasure to get to meet her and see the two of you working side-by-side in Austin.

    All the best. And, BTW, I’m getting ready to purchase another one of your books today, so perhaps one of next week’s Starbucks is covered. 🙂

  9. Jim, I remember the movie ABSOLUTE POWER, although I never read the book. The movie was thoroughly mediocre, far from being a game-changer, and I certainly hope the book did not include the scene where Clint Eastwood’s character, supposedly an inscrutable master of disguise, shows up in a raincoat (supposedly his inscrutable disguise)!!

  10. Mike, I remember, too, being less that whelmed by the movie. I didn’t read the book as I’m not particularly into political thrillers. There are too many congressmen in them, and I get my fill of those cats on the news.

  11. Jim, congratulations on your nomination–that’s very cool. I like what you wrote about self publishing (and ebooks). It really is all about the story, not the delivery system.

    I think Shakespeare wrote something like, “The play is the thing.” Indeed, the story is the thing.

  12. Congrats Jim. You deserve all the success in the world. Wish I wasn’t stuck here in the arse (or ass) end of the world (Australia) though, as I’d rather have been at ThrillerFest. Oh, to be in the Northern Hemisphere… still, we get the nice weather I guess, so that makes it a little easier to live with. 🙂

  13. Congrats on the nomination! That is so cool.

    Great post, too. I think it’s vital to aim for game-changing when you write a novel, or at least “unexpected”, “uncommon” when it comes to theme or the core problem of the story. Just like you said, if it’s not enough to change the perspective on that genre or type of story, it’s usually at least enough to make for an entertaining, unique read.

    Thank you very much for a great post (and a great list)!

  14. I love, love, love your “either/and” take on publishing. Why not? As always, thanks for a great post. And congratulations on the recognition for your thriller!

  15. Jim – A huge congrats on the nomination. I’ve enjoyed your novels and your teaching as well.

    I certainly agree with the deep need coming from backstory. It’s a powerful tool that sets up not only real motivation but also a depth of character and the character’s deep-seeded need. Sounds like you had a great time in NYC. I love that city.

    Congrats agiain.

  16. Congrats on the nomination!

    I have a hard time grasping why anyone cares if hardcovers and mass market paperbacks go away. The stories are what matter, not the packaging. Since the advent of ebooks, people are buying more books. Let’s just be happy about that.

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