During July 2016, I attended “Thrillerfest” a major thriller writer’s industry show and workshop held at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. A daunting crowd of hundreds of novice and experienced thriller writers gathers annually there. It is arguably the most significant event for writers in the thriller category with dozens of workshops moderated by some of the top-selling thriller writers, which this year included Lee Child (Make Me, Jack Reacher novels), Karin Slaughter (Pretty Girls, Blindsighted), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Tess Gerritsen (Gravity, Rizzoli & Isles) and many others. As I sat in the workshops surrounded by both established and fledgling authors I wondered what serendipity is required for a new writer to break through in a world of so many talented, great writers. Self-doubt permeated my mindset every minute I sat in these workshops, and let’s remember that most writers are fairly introverted people but here we are trying to network, and find a magic formula to write the next great thriller.
I wanted to share a couple of highlights. One was the workshop where Karin Slaughter, successful crime thriller author, interviewed Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl which of course became a very successful movie. Karin’s questions were funny, off the wall, and engaging (she could easily qualify as a talk show host). Flynn explained how she had to write every week as critic for Entertainment Weekly for nearly a decade, and during this time she wrote her first couple novels which did not catch on as far as great sales. Slaughter marveled at how Flynn created success with Gone Girl, which features an unliked protagonist and, according to many readers, an unsatisfying ending.
Gillian Flynn explained how she went to one book signing event and a lady waited 30 minutes for Flynn to sign her copy of Gone Girl. The enthusiastic reader said she hated the protagonist and hated the ending. Flynn laughed about the irony. The point was obvious—the fan still loved the book, despite an unlikable protagonist.
Readers become engaged with an unpredictable or unliked protagonist, and I adopted this in part with the high school protagonist Amanda Michaels in Taming the Telomeres, and a number of readers said they did not like her (excellent, mission accomplished). Anyway, Flynn also wrote the script for the film adaptation of Gone Girl. This is fairly rare, most writers of novels do not double as the scriptwriter of an adapted screenplay. These are two different art forms entirely. She is an impressive as hell writer.
Another interesting workshop was one about books becoming movies and movies that later became successful books. David Morrell, the writer of what became “Rambo” (the 1972 book was entitled First Blood) was on the panel, and he explained how negotiating compensation for sequels adapting characters from your book was important—wow, sure was for his concept.
Tess Gerritsen, a medical doctor, who wrote the novel Gravity in 1999, had a tortured story to impart about her novel. She sold the copyright and movie rights in 1999 for “a lot of money” in her words. The script was never immediately made into a movie and the company that purchased the rights (New Line Cinema) had its assets and portfolio of properties later acquired by Warner Brothers, and recently the very successful movie starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. All well? Not quite. The problem was that director Alfonso Cuaron claimed that he wrote the screenplay which remarkably resembled the Gravity novel Gerritsen sold in 1999. Tess Gerritsen demanded only that credit be given to her as the scriptwriter who created Gravity, she recognized she had sold the copyrights. Cuaron and Warner Brothers refused. What also irked Gerritsen is that famous producer Cuaron claimed in interviews that he wrote the screenplay himself in several weeks. In a blog article Tess wrote she explained that this was quite incredible if true, she had in fact researched the space exploration script for over a year! She filed suit in Los Angeles and believe it or not she lost the case! Tess explained that her suit was for breach of contract, that once she sold the Gravity copyright to the first company, she lost the rights against Warner, according to the judge, to be able to require that she be listed as writer of the movie screenplay as they did not breach a contact.
As a lawyer author myself, I was so amazed that I talked to her in the hall after the workshop because I could not understand how Warner Brothers and Cuaron could prevail against her claim. As she outlines in another article on her author blog, it came down to having sold the copyright and having to prove breach of contract (read her entire explanation here). Think about the fact that it took more than 14 years for that adapted screenplay to become a successful movie, from the time she sold the script…and how major producers can get away with claiming authorship of a script that is slightly re-cast, even though her major script elements were all adopted in the successful movie. As Tess mentioned, she did get well paid when she first sold the script, and she has been well compensated for Rizzoli & Isles, her book series, made into a successful T.V. show on T.N.T.
In any case, I came away from Thrillerfest 2016 energized about writing thrillers, and also encouraged that any debut thriller could rise to the top, indeed my first thriller Taming the Telomeres actually hit #1 on Amazon during May 2016 in the suspense thriller category proving thriller dreams can come true.