Killer Nashville writers’ conference full of inspiration, fun

Best-selling authors M. William Phelps, left, and John Gilstrap, right, and someday best-selling author G. Robert Frazier, center, seen at the 2015 Killer Nashville writers's conference.

Best-selling authors M. William Phelps, left, and John Gilstrap, right, and someday best-selling author G. Robert Frazier, center, seen at the 2015 Killer Nashville writers’s conference.

by G. Robert Frazier

The Killer Nashville writers’ conference has come and gone, I’ve had a day or two to decompress, and now it’s time to share some takeaways.

Overall, the conference was an enjoyable and educational experience. Kudos go to conference founder Clay Stafford, Jaden (Beth) Terrell, staff and volunteers. Everyone was especially friendly and helpful. The conference included three days of panels (as many as five panels running simultaneously every hour or so), breakout sessions, roundtable pitch sessions with agents and editors, guest lectures, autograph signings, and social gatherings. There were a few last-minute changes of rooms and panel lineups, and even a few technical glitches with the in-room audio systems, but somehow they managed to pull it off without too much confusion or frustration to the attendees.

killer nashville bookA highlight of the event was the book launch for the first-ever Killer Nashville anthology, Cold-Blooded. I managed to get autographs from most of the authors who attended. (Somehow I missed you Paula Benson!) Can’t wait to read all the stories and setting my sights on being a part of next year’s anthology!

I met a lot of other writers in attendance, “friended” their Facebook sites, and followed their Twitter accounts. (If you’re reading this and I didn’t get to you, just like me on Facebook and follow me @grfrazier23 and I’ll return the favor.) I encourage everyone to stay in touch. Writing is a lonely business and we can all use each other’s support and encouragement.

The conference’s guests of honor -– best-sellers John Gilstrap, M. William Phelps, and Robert K. Tanenbaum — were each fantastic. Clay Stafford did a great job interviewing each of them and getting them to share wonderful stories about the business of writing.

M. William Phelps

M. William Phelps

Phelps opened the conference with the talk: “Crime Pays: Books, Television and Film – The Explosion of the (Serial) Killer Genre,” sharing insights into the true nature of serial killers contrasted with the entertainment world’s depiction of such killers. He also provided attendees with the true story behind his hair (it’s about branding and marketing, ways to make you stand out in a crowd)!

Gilstrap provided the most moving and uplifting speech of the weekend with his “Dare to Dream” segment. He said the secret to finding writing success is to persevere. Keep believing in yourself even when others don’t.

Gilstrap also had the best, most memorable quotes from the weekend:

  • “The smartest conversations you will ever have is with writers.”
  • “I’m of the belief that we don’t value dreaming enough.”
  • On Hollywood: “You count your fingers after you shake hands.”
  • “Every success is preceded by rejection and failure.”
  • On writing: “The act of stopping is the act of surrendering.”
Murder She Wrote authors Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain sign a copy of their latest book in memory of my mother, one of their biggest fans.

Murder She Wrote authors Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain sign a copy of their latest book in memory of my mother, one of their biggest fans.

The award for friendliest authors has to go to Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain, co-authors of the best-selling Murder She Wrote series. My mother was a huge fan of the Murder She Wrote series and loved the books. The Bains signed a copy of their newest book in her memory and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with them about the series.

Robert K. Tanenbaum was by far the best-dressed author. Believe it or not, this was his first-ever conference appearance!

Best-hair belonged to M. William Phelps.

Following are some other highlights and observations, as well as my personal rankings on the panels and events I attended (one star being fair, two stars being good, three stars being very good and four stars being excellent):

  • Get A Literary Agent**** with literary agent/best-selling author Sheree Bykofsky. A great kickoff to the event on Thursday, Bykofsky provided practical advice on how to write a query letter and how to make a verbal pitch to agents. She was knowledgeable, encouraging, funny, and, perhaps above all, approachable. Plus, I won a free book from her for my “elevator” pitch.
  • Pacing Your Novel*** — The panelists here had a lively discussion about tips and tricks to keep your thriller novel moving. As panelist Don Helin pointed out, “Emotion is what drives real suspense.” Panelist Ken Vanderpool said he ranks each chapter he writes by the amount of tension it creates on a 1 to 10 scale, so that when you then look at a series of chapters together they should resemble a heartbeat graph with ups and downs along the way. And hey, they even had handouts! I love handouts.

IMG_20151030_114738104 (1280x721)

  • Crime Scene/Dupin Detective Award*** — Dan Royse, assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, created a mock crime scene for participants to solve, complete with evidence to log and process, video interviews with “witnesses,” and a floorplan/grid on which to outline the murder scene and evidence found. The sheer amount of clues and information to be processed was remarkable in itself and gave me a new respect for the true men and women of law enforcement. All those TV shows fail to capture the true details that go into solving crimes.
  • Getting it All Done: Time Management for Writers**** — Another great panel, focusing on how to keep procrastination at bay and how to shut off your internal editor as you write. Author/panelist Jonni Rich suggested always ending each writing session on an upbeat note so that you’re excited when you get back to it. Lynn Cahoon suggested using apps like Freedom and Self Control to keep you off the internet until your writing session is over. “It takes courage to open that word document,” she said. “Your book has to take priority.” This panel proved to be time well spent.
  • How to Write A Thriller*** — Author David Bell described the thriller as stories of “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” “It should engage the heart as much as your head,” he said. Bell is a proponent of outlining because it gives no excuse for writer’s block. Recommended reading from the group: any John Sandford novel or early Robert Ludlum. For young adult genre writers, visit the Better Novel Project for a breakdown on how to write YA.
  • How to Write Effective Scenes*** — Philip Cioffari did a great job of breaking down scenes into their core elements and showing how writers can craft the best scenes possible. One trick: be aware of what’s going on in both the foreground and background of your scenes. It’s stuff most writers have encountered before, but served as good refresher material and good introductory material for writers just starting out. I was disappointed to have to leave the session early because of an agent roundtable I had scheduled.
  • How to Write Speculative Fiction** — This panel never really found its footing. I was eager to hear from writer about writing in the horror, sci-fi, paranormal genres, but they spent the first half of the session addressing more routine matters, such as outlining or “pantsing.” At that point I left to find a panel that was more on topic.

One astounding fact was that nearly everyone in attendance was already published. Whether with a traditional publisher, indie publisher or self-published, they all had books for sale or to talk about and they all managed to get onto a panel. It was discouraging in a way for anyone unpublished, but also encouraging in that if all these people can get published, there’s no reason anyone just starting out can’t too. The Killer Nashville folks recorded all the sessions and plan to make them available to attendees. I’m eager to see and hear what I missed.

Neither of the ticketed bonus sessions I attended were worth the extra money. (Lesson learned for the next time I attend.) The final event, in fact, was a big disappointment. It was supposed to bring together six of the agents attending the conference for a panel on what agents really want, but only half of them showed up. The others went home early. Not good when you’ve paid extra money for that session and you only get half of what was promised.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the venue. The Omni Hotel in Nashville was spacious (maybe just a bit too large) and clean, convenient to downtown, and elegant (and a bit cold). There were plenty of spaces to relax outside of the panel rooms to catch up with other authors or to just sit and unwind. The art adorning the walls was spectacular to look at, as were the views from the large windows. Even the patterns on the carpet and the chandeliers in the conference rooms were impressive.

All in all, I’d say Killer Nashville 2015 killed it.

More on Killer Nashville:

Anthology commemorates 10 years of Killer Nashville – BookPage

Killer Nashville shiny, bright – Mudpies and Magnolias

An interview with Killer Nashville author C. Hope Clark – The Reading Frenzy

A Conversation with Killer Nashville author Maggie Toussaint – Omnimystery News

Killer Nashville: Mystery, suspense all about setting the pace

Killer Nashville logoby G. Robert Frazier

The pace with which you approach your work, as well as the pace of the work itself, emerged as a common theme at Day 2 of the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference Friday.

Running through Sunday at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Nashville, the conference brings together hundreds of writers and book lovers for four days of educational seminars, lectures by best-selling crime authors, agent and editor roundtables, and social networking.

Today’s lineup for attendees includes Guest of Honor speakers John Gilstrap, M. William Phelps, and Robert K. Tanenbaum, culminating with Killer Nashville’s annual banquet and awards ceremony. The public can get in on some of the activities at no charge as part of the conference’s first-ever BookCon, where they can meet Gilstrap, Tanenbaum, Phelps and Murder She Wrote authors Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain. A full lineup of events is available online at www.KillerNashville.com

But remember to pace yourself, because you’ll want to stay all day.

Writers on hand Friday, including myself, learned firsthand about how pacing plays an important role in any novel. Panelists Ken Vanderpool, David Bell, Don Helin, and Sharon Marchisello provided tips on how to turn up the tension and keep readers turning the pages in your novel.

Shorter sentences and chapters, cliffhangers, rapid-fire dialogue, active voice, short hard-edged sentence fragments were just some of the tactics shared to create a quicker reading experience. The opposite techniques are useful in slowing down the pace of the novel, allowing your character, and readers, a chance to catch their breath.

But perhaps the most important element, Helin noted, is the emotional connection authors strive to create between their characters and readers. If the reader can be drawn to empathize with the character and his/her plight, then they’ll be swept along for the ride, experiencing each high and low the character experiences.

Pacing in the first few pages of any novel also emerged as a key component during editor-agent roundtables throughout the day. Publishers want to get hooked by writers right away, without a lot of boring and unnecessary backstory. There’s time enough for that later, but a quick jump out of the starting blocks is crucial. Anything less could be the difference between obtaining representation, book deals, and readers who want to come back for more.

Pop quiz: You’re in an elevator with a literary agent. What do you do? What do you do?

Killer Nashville logo

by G. Robert Frazier

Picture this: You’re a writer attending the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference in the luxurious Omni Hotel in Downtown Nashville, taking part in hour after hour of educational seminars on the craft and opportunities to network with fellow writers.

Suddenly, IMG_20151029_175431362_HDR (793x1280)as you make your way to the fourth floor for another session, you see Sheree Bykofsky, one of the many literary agents on the bill and your instructor from an early afternoon session, rushing to catch the elevator. You hold the door open until she gets in.

The door whooshes shut.

You’ve got her right where you want her. You make your move – and start pitching your novel.

But what do you say? How do you make an intelligent, succinct pitch without making a dreadful, embarrassing mistake? Or moose calls, as she refers to them.

You’ve only got seconds. Maybe a minute at best before the elevator arrives at its destination. How do you gush out 90,000 words of action, emotional twists and turns and characters who you have lived with and breathed life into over the past year or more in such a short time?

Answer: You don’t.

Not exactly. Not plot point by plot point, certainly. That’s not what agents want or anything you can do justice to in such a brief period of time.

Instead, you hit the highlights. You give your book’s title and genre. The premise of your story. What makes it unique. What makes you the best person to have written the story. What makes you the person that can take that story and promote it to an eager audience.

You make your sales pitch, short and simple, in seven or eight well-thought out–preferably well-rehearsed–sentences. Your elevator pitch.

Bykofsky, who is the lead agent with Sheree Bykofsky Associates Inc., shared tips on just how to make an elevator pitch with writers attending the opening event of this year’s Killer Nashville conference Thursday. By attending the session, Bykofsky says the writers immediately have a leg up on late-comers to the conference who may not know what to say when their moment in the elevator comes.

Bykofsky also shared invaluable advice on how to craft a written query letter by analyzing samples submitted by class participants. All needed a little work, but with Bykofsky’s expert input and a little savvy revision on the part othe Complete Idiots Guidef the writers, their query letters will be nearly perfect by the time they are sent into the real world.

But don’t fret. If you didn’t get to attend the session and hear her tips, or for any of those who did and want more on the subject of obtaining literary representation, Bykofsky has shared her wisdom in writing. She’s the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published, Fifth Edition.

Read it. Study it. Rehearse your pitch. And, for the love of God, don’t make any moose calls.

More reading about agents:

Killer Nashville 2015 ran from Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at the Omni Hotel in Nashville.

G. Robert Frazier is an author and screenwriter living in Middle Tennessee. He is a reader for the Nashville Film Festival and Austin Film Festival’s annual screenwriting competitions and a member of the Nashville Writers Meetup and Tennessee Screenwriters Association. Follow him on Twitter @grfrazier23.