by Terry Ambrose
Killer Nashville began fifteen years ago as the brainchild of author, filmmaker, and industry executive Clay Stafford. A firm believer in education, Clay said he started the conference to give back to the writing community.
Those efforts have turned the Killer Nashville International Writers Conference into one of the premiere writers’ conferences in the world. Publishers Weekly described Clay and Killer Nashville as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.”
Clay believes the conference is highly regarded for several reasons. “It has top-notch sessions that are specifically targeted to educate authors. A lot of conferences have a mixture of meet-and-greet style sessions, readings, and some educational events. I think our focus on education really makes us stand out amongst all the other conferences. Our attendees can take the knowledge they’ve gained at the conference out into the world and put it to good use, resulting in many success stories.”
In his own career, Clay believes his success has been as much about who he’s gotten to know as it is about his ability to tell or visualize a story. “Relationships can make all the difference,” he said. “Education makes all the difference. Education and long-term relationships, those are the focus of Killer Nashville.”
Not just another US conference
“Many conferences are aimed at people in a particular region or city,” Clay said. “We want Killer Nashville to bring people in from all over the world—and it does! Each year, we have attendees who have flown across oceans just to attend our event. We’ve had people from Japan, Canada, Russia, etc. I hope to say someday that we’ve had attendees from every country on the planet!”
Given how far Clay has brought Killer Nashville to date, it’s entirely possible he may someday see his dream fulfilled. In fact, attendees have written on their blogs that they feel Killer Nashville is totally directed towards each of them when they attend and that it treats them almost as a family. To make sure that feeling continues, the conference limits the maximum number of attendees to 350.
“We strategically keep the attendance numbers low so we can create this intimate feel. Nobody should get lost in the shuffle. We want attendees to talk to one another and build relationships. We also structure the conference to maximize these opportunities by creating multiple daily networking events such as our Shine-N-Wine tasting, our daily authors’ bar, networking breakfasts and lunches.”
In order to ensure that all attendees feel welcome, Clay said they insist attendees leave their egos at the door. “When it comes down to it, we’re all people. Whether you’re a NYT bestselling author or someone just learning the ropes, when you come to Killer Nashville you are there to learn and share. No exceptions. We encourage our Guests of Honor to be open to discussions with authors. Our networking events are great opportunities for this. It’s not uncommon for someone who has never published a single word to wind up elbow-to-elbow with household names at the lunch table.”
Not just mystery, thriller, and suspense genres
“Our central focus is on mystery, thriller, and suspense writers, but you also find these elements in horror, sci-fi, western, literary, just about any genre you can name. Genres are for where booksellers are going to put the book on the shelf. To a writer, genre is not important. It’s the story. Every good story has mystery, thriller, and suspense. No matter what genre you’re writing, we teach you how to keep that story moving forward using those elements.”
In some ways, mystery, thriller, and suspense writers are unique because they have, as Clay calls it, “a penchant for murder and subterfuge.” Otherwise, he believes writers are writers—simply a curious lot who want to share what they’ve learned with others.
Among the things attendees will learn are some of the ins-and-outs of law enforcement. Law enforcement personnel are usually eager to work with conferences like Killer Nashville because cops are readers, too—and they hate it when writers get things wrong. “I think the biggest reason they work with us is that authors who haven’t learned any better can often portray law enforcement and their capabilities in an unflattering or unrealistic light. I think many of them come to set the record straight and portray law enforcement accurately.”
Unique features of Killer Nashville
Killer Nashville Crime Scene
Of course, it wouldn’t be a mystery convention without a dead body, right? And Clay says they’ve got it covered. “The Crime Scene is one of the most beloved annual features of the conference. Attendees try to solve the murder of the fictional Ralph Reed by analyzing clues left behind at a crime scene designed by special agents and law enforcement personnel. They often base the crime scene on real-world exercises conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to train new Special Agents. The person who best interprets the clues and solves the murder wins the Killer Nashville C. Auguste Dupin Detective Award, which includes a heavily discounted registration to the next year’s Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference.”
Silver Falchion Award
The Silver Falchion Award was founded in 2008 to honor the best books of the year previous. Entrants in this award range from NYT bestsellers to authors who have only sold a handful of books. Clay said, “In a world where titles are being published at previously unheard-of rates, winning or placing in this contest can really help an author stand out amongst the competition. Many of the authors who enter our contests are up-and-comers. It’s important to recognize those who aren’t backed by huge publishing companies with limitless budgets. This award matters to these authors, and it also matters to publishers because they know that our choice is quality, not the size of the publisher or the history of the author entering the competition.”
The Claymore Award was created in 2009 to help unpublished authors get their foot in the door. The competition is open to the first fifty pages of an unpublished manuscript. Clay said, “This may be my favorite of our awards, as it’s often an author’s ‘big break’. Winners and finalists of the Claymore have gone on to get agent representation, book deals, movie deals, etc. Often, our entrants are authors who have never been published in any capacity before. This award has helped dozens of new authors find homes for their manuscripts and realize their dreams of being a professional author.”
John Seigenthaler Legends Award
This is the highest honor given at the conference each year. The John Seigenthaler Legends Award is given to an individual in the publishing field who has a history of championing First Amendment rights. The award was created based on a belief that every writer has a voice that needs to be shared.
“The award’s namesake was a well-known editor, publisher, writer, TV personality, First Amendment champion, advocate for writers, and longtime supporter of Killer Nashville. This award is as much to honor his memory as it is to honor those who embody those same qualities. I think perhaps now, more than ever, it’s important that we champion free speech, as we’ve seen attacks on that principle in recent years from multiple angles. Writers are the world-changers, the idea-shapers. It’s deeply important to me that we continue to defend the right to share our thoughts and views and allow our characters to honestly portray real people, whether someone agrees with those characters’ views or not.”
Looking beyond Covid-19
Killer Nashville was postponed last year because of Covid-19. This year, Clay and the other organizers are planning on holding the conference, but making sure they do everything they can to keep attendees safe. Besides complying with all city, county, state, and federal rules regarding Covid-19, Clay said they’ll also be practicing common sense.
“I’ve been vaccinated and I’m still wearing a mask. We cannot compromise on safety. By the time Killer Nashville comes, everyone should have had the opportunity to have been vaccinated. The hotel has their protocols in place for protecting others in terms of spacing and food service. We’ve got a multitiered and excellent plan of action. It’s going to be so good to see everyone again this year.”
There will, of course, be tons of information as part of the conference. Clay said there will be audio of all events available after Killer Nashville ends. But a conference is more than just about information—it’s about the people and making them comfortable. And that’s a part of Killer Nashville that won’t change from previous years. Clay had several suggestions for attendees on how to get the most out of the experience.
“It’s a lot of fun and you will make many, many contacts and friends. Attend as many sessions as you can. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, no matter who they are. Ask questions of your presenters, mingle at the authors’ open bar (you don’t have to drink), participate in an agent roundtable, or meet with an agent one-on-one for a manuscript critique. Make connections.”
And what about after the conference? Clay had one other piece of advice. “Close the door and write.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new episode went up this week.