What I Learned at CraftFest with the ITW

Just like last year, CraftFest was fantastic. I met a lot of great people, learned a lot about my craft, and discovered numerous books that I want to read. The day before CraftFest started, I began to run into people with the conference. Heather Graham was the first, actually. We struck up a conversation. It took me several minutes to realize who she was. I felt like a fool, but we were cool because she’s so laid back. We hung out and chatted throughout the rest of the week. She’s such a sweet person. I could totally tell that she’s drawn to helping others get the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. I really admire her generosity. Super-big-time-best-selling-author Heather Graham is even going to read my book.

CraftFest is a day and a half of lectures and panels taught by professionals and experienced authors. Last year, I took Steve Berry’s classes; he had the same ones this year. I chose to attend Boyd Morrison’s lecture on pacing, of which I took two full pages of notes. First one’s always the longest and most thorough, amirite? Fortunately, he also has all of the slides for his lecture here on his website. I’ll be going over that again soon before I drop everything else for a couple of weeks and pound out my next book.

After Boyd’s class, I sat at the registration table and checked people in for a couple of hours. I met a few fantastic people and I feel like an asshole for not remembering their names. But I am so bad with names and faces. I can remember people better by their earrings, hair, or glasses than I can their actual face. I also got some practice interacting with complete strangers as I struggled to remember the different details to give for different events on their packets. It was a great learning experience for me.

 It's probably me. It's usually me.

It's probably me. It's usually me.

At 11:30, we all got to attend the CraftFest lunch, where they announced the winners of the Best First Sentence Contest. There was also an interview with the Senior Editor of Publishers Weekly. And who would happen to be at my table? Paige Dearth. I’ve seen her posters around for the last two years. I’ve even been using her bookmark for most of the last year. I told her so and we struck up a conversation. She also remembered me from the year before. We wound up hanging out often for the rest of the week. She’s an awesome person. She's like me in that she doesn't give a fuck what anyone else thinks--she's just going to be herself. Her husband seems pretty cool, too. She and I traded books and I can’t wait to read hers. The interview on stage was informative, but I was picking at my food longer than the others, so I didn’t wind up taking any notes.

The next class I attended was one called “10 Things Bestselling Authors Do To Make Their Manuscripts Sing” taught by Anthony Franze and Barry Lancet. They were a lot of fun. They also had slides, and I took a full page of notes.

 I just can't abide by #8. I'm addicted to adverbs, I suppose. 

I just can't abide by #8. I'm addicted to adverbs, I suppose. 

The ATF Special Response Team panel was freaking cool as shit. They gave a rundown of what they do, threw out some statistics, and gave us a handout. They were part of the search party for the Boston Bombers. They were informative and helpful. A lot of people are writing crime thrillers and the pressure is heavy to get details right—to make things believable. Questions that they could answer, they did. Things they couldn’t answer, they were able to brush off in a way that made the attendees laugh. It was definitely a worthwhile panel to attend for people who are writing those kinds of books. Really, I don’t know why I went to that one, though. I should’ve gone to listen to Andrew Gross talk about historical fiction.

For my last class on Wednesday, I went to listen to Lee Child talk. He always has good lectures, gives great interviews, and it is a lot of fun to learn from him. He’s British, so of course he’s witty and charming, tall and stylish. He gave a number of tips on how to build suspense, such as asking a question and then not answering it. Tell the what, but not the why. Dude is fantastic. His talent and skill are daunting and inspiring. But his down-to-earth personality makes the immensity of his celebrity seem unimportant.

 I promise I'll sit closer next year for better pictures of classes and panels. Here's a blurry Lee Child. 

I promise I'll sit closer next year for better pictures of classes and panels. Here's a blurry Lee Child. 

That evening was the first of the nightly cocktail parties. I had the fantastic luck of being able to swipe my underage niece’s drink tickets. Oh, yeah, and also I somehow wound up with three extra drink tickets in my own pouch. So I got to drink free all week.

The cocktail parties all tend to blur together. I met so many nice people with interesting stories to tell. I ran into a number of people I’d met the year before and we got to catch up. I spread the word of my work and got so many cards and bookmarks of books to add to my Goodreads page. So many fantastic people are with the ITW. I really love these social times in the evenings. It gives people time to seek out panelists and have further discussion, make new friends and connections, and catch up with old friends.


For the second day of CraftFest, I overslept again. I popped in for the end of Lisa Gardner’s talk about characterization but didn’t get any notes taken.

Allison Brennan gave a great lecture about breaking the rules of writing. I liked what she had to say. If you’re going to break rules, know what they are and why you’re breaking them. There has to be a purpose, otherwise, it’s just being sloppy. She mentioned a blog called Doubt Demons that I was looking forward to perusing. But now that I'm looking for it to link it, I'm not finding it. (sad face) She also covered conflict, suspense, not following trends, research, and prologues. I found it all very informative, but also presented in a fun way.

Another of the many awesome things about this conference was the abundance of book signings. There was at least one signing every day, with three signings on Friday and three more on Saturday. It’s structured so that if you saw someone’s lecture or panel, then they would be signing at the next scheduled time for book signings.

On Thursday, I did some more volunteering. I was the clock watcher for a panel that ran until noon. It was run by Jeff Ayers and the panel was full of editors. It was really cool to see the varied and differing opinions between the industry professionals. Some of them were adamant about “never, ever have a prologue,” while others allowed their authors to have prologues, but only within certain parameters. I could see how firm some of them were in their beliefs and it really helped drive home to me how important it is to work with an editor that you like. You can’t work well with an editor that wants you to change your voice in your own work.

After that panel, I made my way upstairs and around the line of people who’d be pitching later. I should probably explain that, yeah? Yet another freaking fantastic thing that happens at this conference is PitchFest. Dozens of agents and editors from various firms and houses gather halfway through the events so that authors can pitch their stories to them. Every year, people get signed because of PitchFest. Now, not everyone does. There is no guarantee. You have to have good enough writing to be worth their time and effort to publish it. You also have to give a good enough pitch to get a “send me more.”

To help the authors perfect their pitches right before the actual PitchFest, there is a practice session that runs for an hour and a half. Authors who have more experience with pitching volunteer to listen to the other attendees run their pitches. They help them nail down the key points and figure out how to answer the important questions agents and editors will ask. It is another great example of how fantastic this organization is that such big names donate their time and their expertise to help aspiring authors.

I sort-of-not-really helped out during the Practice PitchFest. After everyone seemed to be all queued up, I just kind of milled around. I was supposed to be corralling people into lines and helping them find the author they were looking for. A few people asked me if I was okay. 1.) How nice everyone is there! 2.) I guess I’m not as good as I thought I was at hiding my extreme social anxiety. I wound up getting sent away because I "looked like I needed to eat some lunch."

 It's kinda my thing...

It's kinda my thing...

My niece, on the other hand, was there to pitch. Which meant I had the whole afternoon to myself to do whatever the hell I wanted. Did I wander around the city? Stroll through the park? Ride around on the subway and people-watch? Nope. I still had a book to finish reading and a blog to write that was supposed to post in less than two days. I curled up on the weird chair/sofa (?) that was in my hotel room, blew through the rest of the book, and rushed through a review. I threw it up in a scheduled post on my website—no links, no pics—just in time for my niece to come back from PitchFest.

My brother’s eighteen-year-old daughter got a "send-me-more" from six different people. She'd only pitched to eight. All week long, people were impressed with her only being a teenager, but having already finished writing a book and been published in an anthology. Girl’s got a long future of writing ahead of her.


We still had some time before the next cocktail party, so we ventured out in search of pizza. I figured we shouldn’t have to go far. I mean, it’s fucking New York City. Of course, there’s gonna be more pizza places than Starbucks, right? Eh…not that I could tell. We circled around the block, ventured down a bit more, and finally spied a place I’d seen the other day. They had an “A” health department rating in the window, customers coming and going, and it wasn’t too far from the hotel.

 But sometimes you can't tell?

But sometimes you can't tell?

We ventured inside, got greeted, and I told him we just wanted a couple slices of plain cheese. He said nothing else, but just stood there and looked away. I waited, stared at the thick, toppings-laden slices behind the window that stood between us, and shifted nervously back and forth on my feet. I don’t like standing still. I also get anxious when I can’t anticipate a situation or conversation. I’d expected him to respond to me, especially since he’d said something to me first.

Nope. Nothing.


After looking at the pizzas on display--there was no plain cheese that we saw--and being ignored for a couple of minutes, we walked out. It took a while, but we got the GPS to locate us and we found a pizza place that had one dollar sign, more than four stars for ratings, and was within a mile radius.

 The sign outside of the pizza place where we ate.

The sign outside of the pizza place where we ate.

All I needed was to walk in and smell the sauce to know we’d chosen well. A quick peek at the menu confirmed the rightness of our dinner choice. I ordered a combo—two slices of cheese and a can of Coke. It came out to exactly six bucks with tax. My niece got the same and we took some seats at the end of the only table. It was a long string of wooden high-tops that stretched the length of the small shop, ringed with stools. A narrow counter spanned the front windows of the shop. It was also lined with stools.

 Only six bucks? Fuck yeah! I'd also like to note that it did NOT already have the bites taken out of it when they gave it to me.

Only six bucks? Fuck yeah! I'd also like to note that it did NOT already have the bites taken out of it when they gave it to me.

A short few minutes passed while we waited for our food. Our numbers were called and we were each handed a tray containing two massive slices of delicious cheesy goodness. Words were lost for a bit while we both devoured our dinner. Midway through the meal, a wiry older man stormed into the restaurant.

He had my immediate attention. I try my best to always be aware of my situation and my surroundings. I’ve been some strange combination of smart and lucky to have avoided being a victim for as long as I have now—especially given the number of risky situations I've put myself into. So if the atmosphere or mood changes—if someone bursts in and starts shouting—my attention is instantly captured. Do I need to run? Drop to the floor? Throw something? I have to instantly assess the situation and act before it’s too late. I also have my niece with me and I’d promised her parents I’d keep her safe.

And I take my promises really fucking seriously.


I’m ready. Before he can even finish his first statement, I already know what I need to do. The decision is made and I’m ready to act. I’m dropping my pizza and pressing my arms against the edge of the table to brace myself for rapid movement. I need to apply pressure within a narrow range of angles in order to give myself leverage without tipping over the table. I'm lucky it's not wobbly. It will aide in giving me cover. I'm tensing my legs to kick my seat out from underneath me. I want it to fall away from me. I want it out of my way so that I can drop straight down. But before that can happen, I’ll be directly between him and her. I can't see his hands. I don't know if he has a weapon. I assume that he does. It's always better to assume that he does.

I know I can't push her down. She won't be ready for that. She'll get hurt if I don't help her safely to the ground. She’s smaller than I am, so I’m confident in my ability to reach over to my right, hook her around the waist, kick her chair out from under her, and pull her down with me. If she struggles, I risk a dislocation since backhand is the fastest and most efficient, but she might just freeze and allow it. This will put the long line of tables between us and him--perhaps giving us a chance to escape into the back through the kitchen door behind me and to my left.

“I’m gonna steal your Wi-Fi,” his shrill voice called out before the front door even had time to fall closed behind him. An insane laugh—interspersed with buzzing, clicking, and various non-lingual vocalizations—bounced around the small pizza shop. He may have been trying to imitate the sound of a dial-up modem.

I froze, my chair still beneath me, but my feet still reaching toward the ground. Wi-Fi? Did he just say—

“I’m gonna steal your Wi-Fi,” he shrieked again. More bizarre noises that couldn’t quite pass for laughter burbled from his mouth.

I glanced around the restaurant, trying to gauge the reactions of the patrons and employees. They looked blandly disinterested. Even the staff behind the counter wore expressions that said this was not an uncommon occurrence. I turned back to the cackling lunatic. His eyes darted over everyone watching him like he was checking to make sure he had the attention of all. “Now I gotcha!” A few whoops of laughter later, he was back on his way out the door.

Everything went right back to normal. Sounds resumed in the kitchen. The woman at the counter started folding boxes again. Other customers picked up their food and conversations. I turned to my niece and we shared a baffled look. “Welcome to New York, I guess,” I told her with a shrug. She laughed, and we finished what we could of our slices before we went back to the Hyatt for the nightly cocktail party.

We even wound up catching a rare sight. Up on the mezzanine of the Hyatt, it’s on the level of Park Avenue, which is an elevated road that runs over Pershing Square and in between the side of Grand Central and the side of Grand Hyatt before it returns to ground-level beyond the train station. We could see all the way down 42nd Street from our vantage point on the side of the hotel. After dark, we could even pick out the flashing sign of Madame Tussaud’s down on Times Square. But it was not dark yet.

 Fuck taking pictures at night with a phone. Madame Tussaud's is the tallest glare mid-photo.

Fuck taking pictures at night with a phone. Madame Tussaud's is the tallest glare mid-photo.

The Park Avenue Bridge was lined with people just staring west. I’d never seen this before and found it curious. Paige told me that the sun was going to set between the buildings. It only lines up perfectly like that once a year and people gather every year to watch it. Unfortunately, it was cloudy so we never did get to see the sun. We caught some glimpses of pink sky, but that was about it.

We went back to the cocktail party, and I drank my share, along with my niece’s share. It was a great night. The whole first two days were awesome. The things that I learned—and the resources that I was given—are invaluable. I’ll admit that I don’t take enough notes, and I didn’t take notes for every class or lecture. Panels are even harder to take notes on, but those aren’t exactly structured for notes like lectures with slides are.

Still, though… I’ll write about ThrillerFest next week. I’ll probably even go ahead and roll the Awards Banquet and after party into the same one. Why drag it out, right? And also, because I have video of some of the ceremony, including the Beatles medley/parody rewritten for Lee Child. Are you super fucking excited? Oh, you should be because it was fantastic. Hilarious. Fitting. If you didn't catch it on my Facebook or Twitter, you'll soon have a chance to find it right here on my very own website. 

Did you also go to CraftFest? What classes did you take? Care to share what you learned in the comments?