ThrillerFest XIV • July 9 – 13, 2019 • Grand Hyatt • New York City

Archives for August 2013

What if no one likes it?

By Lauren Francis-Sharma

I had never pitched a story before. “What if no one likes it?” I thought. I practiced my pitch before and after the luncheon. I practiced even as I stood in line waiting for the start of PitchFest, while other attendees chatted. My legs trembled and the suit I wore felt like heavy armor. “I only need one to say yes,” I said to myself.

I had tried query letters with my first and second books. I attended a writer’s conference in San Diego in 2000 and came close to getting an agent, but my dream fizzled. “Being face-to-face is better than query letters,” I convinced myself, as I placed the conference fee on a credit card. You have to try.”

Before arriving at ThrillerFest, I had meticulously researched each agent and their potential interest in my non-thriller manuscript (yes, I came to ThrillerFest without a thriller!). I knew which room I would attack first. The bell rang and the doors opened. I walked in, and immediately to my right was an agent who was on the top of my list.

I smiled and she introduced herself: Victoria Sanders. “I’ve never done this before,” I said. She nodded and assured me that all would be well. I closed my eyes and mechanically recited the five sentences to which my five-hundred-page story had been boiled down. I opened my eyes. “That sounds like something I’d like to take a look at,” she said. I couldn’t believe it. “The whole thing?” I asked. She smiled and said yes.

I shook Victoria’s hand and walked to the next line. Eleven more agents said yes that day. My voice trembled and the sweat poured at each table. “Twelve out of twelve!” I shouted into the phone to my husband at the end of the day. It was one of the sweetest moments of my life. But even sweeter was the call two weeks later from Victoria.

I’ve been smiling ever since.

Next Stop: Publication

By Gustavo Florentin

PitchFest 2011 was the first time I had ever pitched anything to professionals in the business. I was told I had a good pitch. But I was a little shaky telling the story after my one-liner.

I managed to pitch my thriller to seven agents. Of those, three asked for partials and two asked for full manuscripts. Most of these agents replied pretty quickly and gave thoughtful feedback, but nothing panned out.

Then a few months later, PitchFest sent an e-mail to attendees informing us that the Marisa Corvisiero Agency was accepting queries exclusively from ThrillerFest attendees. (Marisa was supposed to attend PitchFest 2011, but couldn’t make it at the last minute.) Of course, I sent in my query and sample chapters. Then they asked me for the full manuscript.

I got an e-mail asking to meet me via Skype, and Corvisiero agent Stacey Donaghy offered me representation for my thriller, THE SCHWARZSCHILD RADIUS.

ThrillerFest taught me the importance of the pitch, and I also got crucial feedback that caused me to change the ending of my novel—to something much better.

Next stop: publication. I’ll keep you all posted.

Update: 1/6/2014:

I signed a publishing contract with Curiosity Quills Press. My wonderful agent, Stacey Donaghy, worked tirelessly for a year to place to book and finally succeeded. Stacey now runs her own agency, The Donaghy Literary Group, so this was a great start for both of us. This was indeed, a storybook ending. PitchFest has changed my life.

Update 3/26/2015:

As I write this, my thriller, THE SCHWARZSCHILD RADIUS, is in the top-ten in Amazon Crime Fiction next to some luminaries of crime writing. It is also #1 in the category of Kidnapping, #2 in Serial Killers and #2 in Vigilante Justice–behind Lee Child. It broke the Top 100 in Kindle. I am now a best-selling author–the culmination of many, many years of work, but I can’t imagine how long it would have taken without ThrillerFest. I got my wonderful agent through ThrillerFest and rewrote a weak ending on the advice of ThrillerFest mentors who knew that a heroine had to get herself out of a fix without the cavalry. So if I can give some advice, it would go like this:

1. Condense your pitch to 30 words or less.
2. Make an effort to get a freelance editor to go over your MS. In addition, an editor often has connections with people in a position to open doors if you have a worthy book.
3. Be prepared for rejection. David Morrell began one of his CraftFest talks with this sentence which was seared into my brain: “You have to want this more than life itself.” Take those words to heart.
4. Always have queries out there looking for an agent.
5. Finally, take advantage of every single opportunity. I got my agent via an email inviting me to send in a query. What if I had said, “What are the chances THIS is going to lead to representation?”

Now go forth and publish.

Best regards,



Prepare for Contingencies and Adapt Quickly

By Tom Shawver

This past July I attended my first ThrillerFest. I went in with a game plan that proved ineffective, but for reasons that I had not anticipated, ended up with an agency contract.

The initial idea was to get an agent for a military thriller that I felt very strongly about—still do—and had carefully revised over many years. I’d had several “almosts” following numerous query mailings, and while HONOR CLEAN was set during the tail end of the Vietnam War, an era supposedly not popular with publishers, I still thought it offered a sufficiently unique angle to warrant a look.

So, for PitchFest I prepped a short and pithy pitch for a carefully selected lineup of agents with a history of representing military-themed novels. The first person on my list was already in possession of my manuscript, his reader having requested it after reading a partial I’d sent several months earlier. Sitting before him with high expectations, I was told in short order that my work, while admirable, was a no-go because of the post-Nam setting, despite the recent success of MATTERHORN by Karl Malantes. I thanked him for his candor, got up and, with clearer eyes, reconsidered my plan of action.

My instincts told me that the others on my list, while not as brutally direct, would say the same thing. I’d lived with the book so long that I’d become blind to the practicalities of the publishing business.

One of the first things a Marine officer learns is to prepare for contingencies and be able to adapt quickly and decisively when things go wrong, as they inevitably will. Prior to coming to New York, I included in my notebook a written pitch for a different manuscript. THE DIRTY BOOK MURDER was in a completely different genre, but it suddenly seemed clear that my chances for success were greater pitching a bookstore mystery set in the present than a military thriller concerned with events forty years ago.

Standing in line for the next agent on my list, I read the opening line of the synopsis:

Michael Bevan, the widowed owner of Riverrun Books, loses a bid for an erotic French novel containing a shocking inscription by Ernest Hemingway to Sylvia Beach that’s enough to keep literary scholars hot in the britches for years. Hidden within its bindings, however, is a key to something even more valuable—and deadly.

The two sentences seemed to be the beginning of an enticing series. I trashed my original list and looked for agents I thought might appreciate a biblio-mystery that wasn’t a cozy. Of the fourteen to whom I pitched that afternoon, thirteen asked for either a partial or full manuscript.

It had been a long, albeit exhilarating, day and as the time limit approached, I was ready to head for McSorley’s for a cleansing ale or two. Many of the agents had departed the pitch rooms by then, but Victoria Skurnick of the Levine/Greenberg Agency wasn’t one of them.

I’d been discouraged earlier from joining her line because it had been so long, but now she was alone, gathering her notes as the time limit for PitchFest approached.

After graciously agreeing to hear my offering, Victoria asked for the full manuscript. Last month, she called to tell me she was delighted with the novel as written and a contract was in the mail.

I was lucky. But I was also prepared and ready to go to Plan B as the situation required. The two manuscripts I had in my quiver for PitchFest were the result of many years of work and not a small expenditure of money. Both had been professionally vetted for grammar by a veteran proofreader of the Kansas City Star and for literary quality by a creative writing professor and Alan Rinzler, who has worked with Clive Cussler, Tom Robbins and Hunter S. Thompson. A good pitch means nothing if there is not a grammatically clean and strongly plotted story to follow it.

Of all the conferences I have attended, and there have been many good ones on both coasts, ThrillerFest has proven to be the most valuable. I say that not only because I obtained a fine agent through it, but because of the superior quality of instruction during the CraftFest segments and the opportunities to meet so many top-notch writers and agents in the various social settings. I did not sign up for the ThrillerFestpanel discussions this year, but will not make that mistake in 2013.

As a postscript, some of the best advice on pitching came from Katherine Sands, who preached that it’s a crime for a would-be writer to minimize one’s gifts. “Modesty,” she said, “benefits no one in this business. You must be an impassioned ambassador for your work until you get a professional one.”

I Was Surrounded by Kindred Writers

Donna Owczarek By Donna Owczarek

Shortly after completing the first draft of my novel, I somehow stumbled upon ThrillerFest while researching places to submit my work.

It sounded great, especially because several of the agents I planned to query were going to be there listening to pitches, but I had some concerns. While I usually can manage to string together somewhat intelligible sentences on the page, I’m a shy person who often comes off quite the opposite whenever I find myself in new places surrounded by a bunch of strangers. Plus I get lost extremely easily, and while New York City is not too far from me, I had never been there alone.

But, I decided it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I juggled my finances and signed up for both CraftFest and PitchFest. Then, determined to pitch a polished novel, I dove in and started editing it, finishing my final draft right at the start of July.

And then off to the Fest I went.

I needn’t have worried about, well, anything. Finding the place was easy…I hopped on a train to Penn Station, followed the crowd up into daylight and right to a line of cabs waiting to drop me at the front doors of the Grand Hyatt. My nervousness about talking with strangers at the conference?I didn’t find any. I was surrounded by kindred writers, many as nervous as me, and never once found myself feeling out of place or having no one to chat with. Pitching my novel? Okay, well there was that one incident…

While getting up from the table of the first agent who asked for my full, I got my foot tangled in the tablecloth and nearly spilled his water on him. But after a nervous apology, I scurried off, and it only got easier from there. All of the agents were really nice, even the ones who said “No,” and by the end of the day I had several requests for material – including one from Ms. Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch.

Even if I hadn’t gotten requests, the trip would have been worth it for CraftFest alone. The classes were all taught by esteemed agents like Donald Maass and talented writers like Steve Berry – from whom I even learned that I use the word “well” way too much in my writing. In fact, I learned so much that I’m hoping to return for more classes this year. Why not return for PitchFest too? No need, thanks to PitchFest 2012. Six months after the conference, I received an email from Sara D’Emic of Talcott Notch informing me that Ms. Panettieri had handed my manuscript over to her – and after a phone discussion about some changes she envisioned – Sara offered me rep. Seeing that Sara and I agreed on the revisions, and that Talcott Notch was amongst the top five agencies that I felt would be the perfect match for my novel, I readily accepted.

A Gold Mine of Learning

By James R. Hannibal

I was angry for a long time – as my insanely patient wife and a bloodied punching bag in my garage will attest.

In 2008 I was God’s gift to covert ops thrillers, a Stealth Bomber pilot with a Top Secret clearance and a gift for writing (we’re in my head here, not reality, so parts of that sentence aren’t really true). Imagine my surprise when not one agent bothered to even consider my 175,000-word masterpiece.

Lesson 1: If the opening line of your query letter includes “175,000-word thriller,” you might as well open with “I’m an amateur who is too arrogant to have done my research.” That’s what it screamed in my case, and it was true.

With a growing stack of rejections, I began to rethink my strategy. I may also have said some things about the profession of literary agent that my pastor would not appreciate – no swear words though, I have a thing about foul language.

Anyway, now it’s the fall of 2009 and I, an angry person who spat every time I said the words “literary agent,” chose to query small publishers instead. By the grace of God and His grace alone, I happened to choose one that was recognized by ITW, an organization I had never heard of. Therein lies the blessing.

Lesson 2: The key event in this success story is not my getting published by a small press that accepts unagented manuscripts. It is my attendance of ThrillerFest. The very fact that you are here on this website means that you are light-years ahead of where I was at the end of 2009.

I have slogged through nauseating muck beneath barbed wire while angry cadre screamed obscenities and insults that would make my mother faint. I have been dragged for miles through seaweed by Special Forces operatives that could eat me for breakfast. I have endured a number of events that took me down a notch, but I didn’t begin to learn humility until ThrillerFest 2010.

I sat down at the Debut Author’s Dinner on night one and felt like a complete fraud. Here were people who had studied, worked, suffered. They had forgotten more about writing than I ever knew. I had two nice blurbs from a gracious bestseller and a review publication, but these men and women were the real deal. Worse, there were two literary agents at the table and they were real, no kidding human beings who cared about writers. I learned that like a first responder at the scene of a horrible accident, agents have to perform triage. Time is short and they help who they can. My own arrogance had put me among the ranks of the too-far-gone-to-save. I had to eat every angry word of the last two years.

The next day, I sat down for my first course, taught by David Morrell – the creator of Rambo. Oh how my eyes were opened! ThrillerFest is a gold mine of learning. And the people! From aspiring authors to number one bestsellers, everyone treated me like a colleague, like a fellow soldier in the epic battle to make a career out of writing.

Lesson 3: Volunteer! I jumped in to volunteering that night for a selfish reason. I was feeling like a fraud and lifting heavy things makes me feel better about myself. Again, this was a blessing from heaven. Volunteering gave me a chance to meet more of those wonderful people that I mentioned – in particular, Kimberley Howe and Elizabeth Berry. These two took me under their wings and gave me encouragement that I desperately needed.

I went home from ThrillerFest 2010 on fire. In the next year, I gobbled up every ounce of craft that I could find and poured it into my next manuscript. By the summer, I was ready for PitchFest 2011. Then my unit dropped a bombshell. We were mobilized. They could not spare me. To make a long story short, one of my squadron mates canceled his own leave so that I could go to New York. I owe him and his family so much. I made it to PitchFest, pitched fourteen agents, and got eleven requests for pages or a full.

Not one of those agents picked me up.

Lesson 4: PitchFest can become your success story even if you don’t get picked up by the agents you pitch.

Here’s why: Three of those agents – Lucy Carson, Jason Yarn, and especially Scott Miller, took the time after PitchFest to give me constructive criticism. That generous criticism helped me write a novel that finally earned a life changing call from Harvey Klinger, a dream agent.

The angry guy is gone. Replaced with someone who can’t believe God’s blessings. SHADOW CATCHER will release from Berkley Books in October 2013. I cannot overstate the impact that ThrillerFest and the people that make it happen have had on my life.

God Bless,

James R. Hannibal

PitchFest Was Brilliant!

By Vaughn Ripley

My 89,000 word cyberthriller was complete and I was ready to run to the highest mountain, or at least a hilltop, and scream, “I did it!” I have no illusions about books and publishing… You see, a few years ago, I self-published my memoir, “Survivor: One Man’s Battle with HIV, Hemophilia, and Hepatitis C.” My original plan with SURVIVOR was to type it up and then everything else would fall into place… Right? Wrong! I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In all honesty, I think that writing the book was the easiest part of the whole crazy process. I’m totally serious! After some harrowing months (nearly a year) of writing agents, editors, publishing houses, and so on I finally broke down and self-published.

With my fictional book, I was determined to get a traditional publisher. Self-publishing may have worked for my autobiography, but I was convinced that my fictional cyberthriller, DECRYPTED, would have a much better chance for success going the traditional route. So, I started investigating my options. I quickly determined that an agent would be the best bet for success. On top of that, it would also help me through this serious maze of the publishing world. Now that I knew my direction I needed an avenue to find and partner with the appropriate agent. Reading and research revealed writer conferences as a perfect venue for me to meet face to face with potential agents. I’m a people person and passionate and I knew immediately that this would be a practical way for me to sell myself and my story.

As I searched for conferences, you can imagine my shock when I found ThrillerFest; which was the precise genre that I was pitching! Then I saw that they do agent speed dating during the PitchFest part… Holy crap!!! It was like the conference was designed specifically for me. I knew right then and there that I would go. I also knew in my heart that I was going to win over an agent!

Deciding to go with my pitch in my head, I carefully crafted the short and sweet single sentence… This is the pitch I created and memorized for DECRYPTED:

“A female hacker stumbles on a plot to assassinate the Vice President, only to discover a deeper plan to attack several major cities with nuclear weapons.”

Perfect… Right? Hmmm… Did I mention that sometimes nerves get in the way? HA! Okay, so I had the pitch memorized, but when I sat down with the first agent, I stumbled and fumbled for the right words. It’s all a bit of a blur… As a matter of fact, I’m not positive I even mentioned that I’d written a book. HA! This leads to my first piece of advice: If there is any chance of you being uncomfortable with the first and/or second speed date interview then choose the first agent with this in mind. Make it someone that you don’t mind stuttering in front of. In short, save the best for the middle. Middle? Yep… You don’t want to leave them for last, because you might not get to them before the day ends (that was piece of advice 1a).

My incredible PitchFest experience had me sitting down and chatting with ten people (eight agents and two editors). I figure the time allotted (about three hours) would allow any normal author a chance to meet eight to twelve agents (give or take one). So, that puts the middle around four or five. The fourth person was right around where I started to hit my pitching groove. Guess what… The fourth person was Francine Edelman of the Schiavone Literary Agency. She was the agent I most wanted to sign with because of her amazing marketing background. When I sat down and introduced myself, Francine said, “Oh, I remember you… You emailed me to say you were coming to this… How are you?”

Ah hah! I forgot to mention that prior to the conference I did what many of the others did and investigated each agent carefully. But, I took it one step further and wrote each of them a brief email introducing myself and simply saying that I would see them at the conference. No pitch. No hidden agenda. Just a brief “hello” and “see you soon.” This put my name in the back of their mind, and provided a smile for me when I said my name. My second piece of advice is to investigate each agent, pick your dozen (or so) carefully, and email them to say “hi” a week or so before the conference.

Francine–along with nine out of the ten people I met with–asked me to send her a copy of my manuscript. I sent it to her, and she wrote me the next morning to tell me, “I read the whole thing last night, enjoyed it, and would like to work with you.” I was elated! Francine was the number one agent on my list of twelve. And, not only did she want to work with me, but she loved my story to boot. WOW!

PitchFest was officially a success! And, it was brilliant!!!

Let’s discuss my third piece of advice… Your manuscript. Before you sign up for agent speed dating at any conference, make sure that your manuscript is done and edited. And, have a short pitch memorized. It also really helps to have a two-page and four-page synopsis completed (most of the agents will request this).

It is important for you to be responsive with the agents and editors that request copies of your work. If you don’t have your ducks in a row for this easy part of the timeline, how can an agent, editor, or publisher trust that you’ll be ready at other stages? You are a professional… Act like one!

My last piece of advice may be the most important. I was a volunteer for the event and this really helped me, because I met some of the more famous authors, a few editors, and some agent. And, it allowed me access to the central nervous system of the conference. I can’t tell you how awesome of an opportunity it was to volunteer and work side by side with some amazing people in the coolest business in the world – writing!

ThrillerFest was a fantastic venue and I can’t recommend CraftFest and PitchFest too much. These are awesome and a terrific way for you to shine as an author. If you’re a fictional author and working on getting an agent or publisher, you MUST sign up for ThrillerFest, CraftFest, and PitchFest!!!

To learn more about Vaughn, please visit his website:

The Trick is to be Prepared

By Simon Gervais

When I registered for the 2013 ThrillerFest last February, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be signing with an agent before the event was over. I was confident the agents would like my pitch but never did I expect to hear from one of them only a few hours later. It was surreal…actually, when I think about it, it still is.

There’s already enough information available about the actual PitchFest and how it’s run, so I’ll share with you my personal story on how I ended up signing with an agent at ThrillerFest. I hope it will help you decide how best to psychologically approach PitchFest.

The first time I pitched my book was at the 2012 ThrillerFest. I pitched to twelve agents and all of them either requested a partial or the full manuscript. So far so good, right? Not really. I had a problem. A big one. My book wasn’t completed. I was still working on the edits. By the time I was confident the manuscript was strong enough to send to the agents who requested it, we were late in January 2013. My gut told me not to send it. The same gut that saved my life twice during my career as a federal agent was telling me to wait until the next ThrillerFest. What did I do? I sent it anyway.


Too much time had elapsed since the pitch. I know we all think we’re special and that the agents will remember us forever, but that’s not always the case. The magic connection you had felt with the agent months before during your three-minute pitch has disappeared. It might still be alive in your heart, but for these poor agents who received between 15 and 50 queries a day, it’s long gone. Mercifully, I’d only sent one full and one partial. The partial became a full but the agent finally passed. I was crushed. I had just lost my only chance with one of the biggest agencies in the business. I was mad at myself for not listening to my gut instinct and decided right then and there to stop submitting my manuscript until the next ThrillerFest. It wasn’t easy and temptation nearly got the best of me. But I resisted the urge. Days, weeks and months were passing by too slowly for my liking. I was dying to start pitching again. ThrillerFest couldn’t come fast enough.

When PitchFest finally came around, I was ready, I was pumped but most importantly, I was confident. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to be successful. I knew I had a good and proven pitch that would attract interest. Nonetheless, like every other author who pitched that day, it would be a lie to say I wasn’t nervous, that I didn’t feel the stress. The trick is to be prepared. And prepared I was. I had spent the previous two weeks analyzing and researching all the agents that were going to be present during PitchFest. I knew which authors they were representing, the style of writing they preferred and what genres they weren’t looking for. I’d also practiced my pitch a dozen times facing a mirror and I had recorded myself to ensure proper intonation throughout the pitch. Like I had done in 2012, I decided to wear a business suit. If you’re wondering why I did that when most of the other attendees were wearing casual clothes, I’ll tell you. Because that’s who I am. That’s how I dress when I go to work every morning, that’s how I feel at my best. Remember, the first ten seconds of your pitch are the most important. You need to capture the agent’s interest quickly. You can achieve that through how you look or with your pitch. I suggest doing it with both. In the short lapse of time you have in front of that agent, you need to convince her/him that you’re marketable, have written an amazing book and that you’ll succeed in this industry no matter what.

So when the go-ahead signal was given at the beginning of the pitch session, I took five deep breaths and walked purposefully into a room full of literary agents. The first seven agents I pitched to requested material. I felt they were genuinely interested but I didn’t feel a real deep connection with any of them. (That’s hard to do in three minutes, I’ll admit.) Ready to move on and inspired by my great start, I scanned the room and saw the waiting line leading to Eric Myers of The Spieler Agency had only six people. I joined the line and consulted my iPhone on which I had stored all the information about each agent. During my research, I found out that Eric’s reputation within the publishing industry was stellar. In addition to having solid sales figures to advance-paying publishers, I also noted he’d worked extensively as a publicist within the motion picture industry. If there was one agent in the room I wanted to impress, it was this one. Once it was my turn, I introduced myself and we shook hands. He looked at my nametag and asked me if I spoke French. I told him I did and I added that it was the language we spoke at home. He then explained to me he had studied in Paris for a number of years and that he was fluent in French. I replied that I had recently returned from Paris where my wife and I had spent a long weekend in the company of our two children. We exchanged a few more pleasantries before I began my pitch.

I started by telling him about my background as a federal agent within my organization’s counter-terrorism unit and how I landed on the protection detail of numerous heads of state. (Tip: always start with something that will force them to pay attention to you.) While he was listening to the pitch, I saw him nod a few times. At the end of my pitch, I let him know I had hired a well-known editor to go through my manuscript in order to correct any mistakes that I could have missed. (Tip: try to conclude with something that will show you’re serious about the craft and the quality of your book.)

Once I was done talking, a few seconds passed where no words were exchanged. Eric finally looked at me and smiled, “Could you send me your manuscript? I’d like to take a look at it tonight.” (Tip: This is exactly why you should always pitch a polished manuscript. You never know when you’ll meet an agent who’s as excited as you about your book and wants it NOW!).

A few hours later, I was having dinner with Ethan Cross, Barry Lancet and Jeremy Burns, three author friends of mine, when I received an email from Eric. To my surprise, he had already visited my website and read a few chapters of my book. He had a couple questions and we agreed to talk more the next day. After exchanging a few more emails, we spoke on the phone and decided to meet Saturday afternoon at the Hyatt lobby bar. We had a great conversation and we both realized rapidly that we had the same vision regarding my book and my career. We shook hands once again, and that’s how I became a client of literary agent Eric Myers of The Spieler Agency.


UPDATE from Simon:

On May 2nd, 2014, Eric Myers of The Spieler Agency sold Simon’s book in a two-book deal to Lou Aronica at The Story Plant.

Here’s the Publishers Marketplace announcement:

“Federal agent and former infantry officer Simon Gervais’s debut THE THIN BLACK LINE, in which a counter-terrorism operative and his wife, working together for a clandestine organization, must risk everything in order to prevent the US economy from total collapse, to Lou Aronica at The Story Plant, in a two-book deal, for publication in 2016, by Eric Myers at The Spieler Agency (World).”