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

Something Did Happen

By August McLaughlin

Something Did Happen By August McLaughlin“So you’re going to fly across the country to one of the most expensive cities to attend a pricy conference? What if nothing happens?” a friend asked after I registered for PitchFest.

“I’m going. Something already is happening,” I replied, sensing that his skepticism was geared more toward his stay-in-Los Angeles plans than mine to attend.

I’d been to three other conferences since completing my novel, IN HER SHADOW. And although I benefited from every one, I’d met a grand total of twelve agents, several of whom did not represent thrillers. PitchFest provided an opportunity to “speed date” with rooms full of agents in my genre. (Can we say ‘heaven’???) Considering the stockpile of queries agents routinely receive, I figured any chance to stand out, demonstrate my commitment as an author and bypass the risks of accidental email deletions was worthwhile. Plus, what other opportunity do we have for immediate feedback?

It was costly, so I asked myself this: If you end up landing an agent at this conference, would the airfare, hotel and conference fees be worth it? Absolutely.

Lucky for me, that happened.

Before the two-and-a-half-hour pitch session, I stood in a long line of anxious writers, my heart pounding and palms sweating as though it really was an important first date. Thanks to a suggestion from the ThrillerFest website, I had my one-line, “What if . . .” statement prepared and an armful of information sheets with a synopsis of my novel and my name, photo and contact information.

I pitched to twelve agents and two editors. (Thankfully, my knees stopped shaking after my first.) Thirteen requested materials. About a month later, I received two emails requesting phone calls to discuss representation—one from John Rudolph of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. I knew as soon as I read John’s that I wanted to sign with him; he was my top choice of the twelve. We chatted by phone and I signed a contract the following day.

Even if I hadn’t gained representation, I would not have regretted attending. As writers, we often lead solitary lives. There’s little better than submersing ourselves in a community of others who “get” us—share similar passions and relate to the world through words and stories. You also get a gift bag of books and the opportunity to hear fantastic speakers. In this way, PitchFest beats most every conventional date I’ve been on.

I feel extremely blessed, both to have had the opportunity to attend PitchFest and to be working with agent John Rudolph.

As for my skeptical pal, he’s already signed up for next year.

–August McLaughlin

To learn more about August, please visit her website.

Success From Down Under

By Mark Dapin

As a journalist and author, I am quite well known in the eastern states of Australia. This is a bit like being a household name in your own house. A couple of years ago, I wrote a thriller, King of the Cross, about the rise and (of course) fall of a Jewish gangster in Sydney. It won the Crime Writers of Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for First Fiction, I optioned the movie rights to a local producer, and assumed I’d quickly become internationally famous. But all that happened was I grew slightly better known in Western Australia.

Agents in the US showed no interest in my work, and didn’t even acknowledge my emails. I was complaining about this to Peter James, whom I met at a writers’ festival in Melbourne, and who had somehow become lost in a city built around one of the most logical gridding systems in the southern hemisphere.

He told me about Thrillerfest, the International Thriller Writers (ITW) conference in New York. I was mildly surprised to learn thriller writers had a conference of their own – although I’d recently shared a ferry ride with a global gathering of proctologists (honestly) so I guess every trade and profession likes to get together once a year and share industry gossip and ass jokes.

Peter described to me an afternoon called “PitchFest”, in which authors without US agents attempt to acquire representation through a process he described as “speed-dating”. (It’s distressing to imagine what the equivalent might be at the proctologists’ conference.)

I persuaded my friend Mark Abernethy, also an Australian thriller-writer, to come with me to New York, which had the predictable consequence of persuading most people we met that all Australian thriller writers were called Mark.

I was mildly surprised to find “speed-dating” wasn’t a metaphor, but a literal description of the event. There were about sixty agents and several hundred un-agented authors, and the writers had to form queues in front of the agent’s desk. On each desk is a digital timer and a bag of lollies. Suitors have exactly three minutes to impress agents with their proposal, after which an alarm sounds and the next hopeful steps up.

I’d imagined only desperate, unattractive, acned, embittered, left-on-the-shelf agents might be into speed-dating, but some of the biggest agents in the US were represented, and we were advised to impress them by wearing a jacket and smart pants. The dress code had to be instituted to prevent authors from arriving dressed as their character, which had apparently happened in previous years, when a writer of westerns – who shouldn’t have been there anyway – turned up in a cowboy outfit.

The other would-be writers had been to workshops earlier in the day to refine their pitches, and been told to reduce them to a single sentence, which should also be a question. The only one I heard was: “What if Dexter was a professor of philosophy who only killed sex offenders?”

I didn’t have a sentence (“What if the Sopranos was a black comedy about Jewish mobsters in post-war Sydney?”) but I had my book, my award and my un-placeable accent. I spoke with eight agents, all of whom asked to see my writing. We were told not to bring our books, but four of the agents requested copies of King of the Cross. Astonishingly, they all read it within days, and each one arranged a meeting with me.

I met with an obviously brilliant agent from Trident Media in a Madison Avenue building. I had to have a security pass made – with my photograph printed on it – just to access the elevator. (By contrast, my much-loved Australian agent doesn’t even have an office). But in the end I chose Yishai Seidman of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner, because he seemed so fantastically enthusiastic about my work and promised to “never, ever give up” trying to sell my books.

I am now signed to the same agency as Patti Smith, Marilyn Manson and Tommy Lee, and even a few people who are known for writing books.

The next night, I went for a celebratory drink with The Other Mark. Now, I’m not as young as I once was – terrifyingly, I’m not even as young as the current first lady – and an evening of mildly irresponsible drinking scraped the skin off my heart and sent darts into my brain.

So I was not particularly receptive when I woke up in my hotel room – how the hell did I get here? – to a phone call from Mark inviting me downstairs for a conference breakfast. But he appealed to my torn and bleeding conscience, so I gathered what remained of my faculties (i.e. nothing) and lumbered towards the lift.

Breakfast, on the other hand, was noisy and packed, and held in honour of a group of first-time authors who had joined ITW. I wanted to go straight back to bed. The waiter brought around coffee. I asked for tea.

Everyone knows Americans can’t make a proper cuppa, so I wasn’t surprised when the tea the waiter poured was pale yellow, or that he didn’t bring me any milk. I asked for milk, with a condescending smile, and the waiter brought over a little jug, because the customer is always right. But when I tipped it into my tea, it instantly congealed into foul little cheesy balls, because that’s what happens when you add milk to camomile tea. I glanced at it, gagged, and ran out of the room. The bloke sitting opposite me, another hungover journalist, made the same mistake and had the same reaction.

After a couple of hours and two pints of Earl Grey tea I was on the mend, which was just as well, since I was supposed to take part in a panel discussion in the afternoon. I was asked to write a short biography for my introduction. After the moderator read out my modest self-description – “…although quite famous in Australia, he is unknown to anyone but his family in the US…” – he moved right along to Karin Slaughter, introducing her with the words, “And now for someone people have heard of…”

Four months later, Yishai hasn’t yet sold my book, and I’m still not famous in the US, although I am rather well known to the good people who run the ITW and who have been enormously supportive of my efforts take over the world.

I’d recommend PitchFest to any thriller writer looking for a US agent. Unless, of course, they’ve actually written a western.

You Won’t Be Sorry

By Martha Pound Miller

Martha Pound Miller was born and raised on the Arizona desert. She married an architect, had three children and went on to become the Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects Society in Arizona for 20 years. Writing was always of primary interest but with a family and job, there was never time. Much later came retirement and a decision to move to the cool, wet Pacific Northwest where you could turn over almost any mossy rock and find a writer. Possibly a web-footed one. It does rain a lot in Portland where she lives, but rainy days are great for hunkering down by the fire and writing thrillers, so that’s what she did, running her stories through three critique groups and polishing them to the best of her ability. Each manuscript she wrote got a little stronger and she began to get more courageous about pitching them to agents.

Last year, a friend suggested they go to New York for Thriller/Agent Fest, so they began to make plans. Martha went online and studied the bios and pictures of attending agents, astonished at how many there were. She printed all the Agent Fest information and began the interesting task of reading and rereading the bios to find the best fits for pitching her novel. One face in the crowd of agent photos stood out. It seemed almost to say, “I’m the One”, so Martha put a double checkmark beside that picture/bio and on Agent Fest day made her way to the table of Marian Young of The Young Agency. Marian asked for a partial, then the whole manuscript, and after a few revisions, invited Martha to be her client.

In addition to college classes in creative writing, after Martha moved to Portland she studied extensively with and was mentored by James N. Frey of “How to Write a Damn Good Novel” and several other writing craft books. She worked with him for many years, and credits him with teaching her the basics of good commercial fiction. “But if I hadn’t attended Agent Fest, this story would have a very different ending,” she says. “With that many agents in attendance, all looking for thrillers, it was the best thing I could have done for my career. Anyone who is undecided about attending next year, take my advice and go. You won’t be sorry.”

The First Two Said No

By John Dixon

The first two said no.

They were both really cool about it, explaining they weren’t actually repping young adult titles anymore, and both offered referrals to agents who did rep YA. I jotted down the recommendations, thanked them, and moved on, turning once more to the daunting yet oh-so-exciting event that was PitchFest.

This was my first PitchFest—my first ThrillerFest, for that matter—and I’d come to New York with fairly humble hopes: if I could get one agent interested in seeing pages from my newly finished YA thriller, PHOENIX ISLAND, I’d count the experience a success.

But turning back to the room full of agents, editors, and hopeful writers, success seemed a long shot. I was 0 and 2 on the day. Gulp.

Truth be told, I didn’t tumble into total pessimism. I loved my book, and with the help of Jon Land, I’d polished and practiced a pretty good pitch. So I leapt once more into the fray.

And everything changed.

The rest of the agents I “speed dated”—nine in all—wanted to see the book. Needless to say, I was over-the-top excited.

I submitted to five agents. A week later, one offered representation. I couldn’t believe it happened so quickly. I was even more surprised when three additional offers of representation poured in. Thus began a very exciting, incredibly nerve-wracking time, where, through multiple phone calls, emails, and a face-to-face meeting, I got to know the agents and worked out my best fit. The agents were great, one and all, brilliant and charismatic and generous with their time and patience; but in the end, I knew the right choice for me: Christina Hogrebe of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Christina read the first half of PHOENIX ISLAND in one night and e-mailed the next morning to let me know she was soliciting further readers within the agency. The next day, we had a nice phone conversation, and she invited me to visit the agency and meet “the team.” A few days later, when I rode the train into Manhattan, at least four people at the agency had already read my manuscript. Four people in just a few days’ time—talk about an advocate!

With the help of all the amazing people at JRA, Christina and I knocked the manuscript back and forth, creating what she calls a “mean, lean thriller machine.” She also secured the help of Joe Veltre from the Gersh Agency, who agreed to handle the film rights.

Joe put me in touch with another great guy, film producer Tripp Vinson, the man behind a ton of blockbusters, including THE NUMBER 23, THE GUARDIAN, and the remake of one of my all-time favorites, RED DAWN. Tripp loves the book, and he’s been a great champion. He teamed up with NORTH COUNTRY writer, Michael Seitzman, and together they pitched to ABC Studios, who optioned my thriller as the basis for a TV series called INTELLIGENCE. From there, they approached the networks and sealed a deal with our top choice, CBS. INTELLIGENCE premiers this fall (2013), starring Josh Holloway, Marg Helgenberger, and Meghan Ory.

Finally, the happiest news of all, literally a dream-come-true: PHOENIX ISLAND sold in a two-book deal to Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint, where I’m overjoyed to be working with editor Adam Wilson.

Needless to say, I’m a big, big fan of ThrillerFest and PitchFest. I owe a huge thanks to Shane Gericke, Kimberley Howe, Jon Land, Kathie Antrim, and the entire army of amazing folks who make the convention come together so perfectly. If you’re an aspiring thriller writer, I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. ThrillerFest changed my life, and I can’t wait to attend again next year.

To learn more about John, please visit his blog.

 

 

Face to Face Makes all the Difference

By Mike Stewart

PitchFest 2011 wasn’t my first attempt to garner the attention of an agent. And, if I’m any measure, I’d bet many of the authors who attended tried for years before deciding to see if meeting agents face to face makes a difference. I’ve been writing for seven years. Graphic novels, novels, new media writing and in several genres. I’ve really committed. And submitted. Let me tell you, face to face DOES make all the difference.

Seven years ago most agents made me send in Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes with my snail-mail query letters—that’s right, I had to pay to get my form rejection. As a Canadian author, just getting my hands on American stamps was a challenge. Even after having several of my graphic novels published, success with HURAKAN selling to a great independent press, and doing new media work with a major publisher, I still couldn’t seem to get my book into the right hands. I was willing to accept that my early work wasn’t strong enough, but my most recent novel, THE TERMINALS, was already optioned for film and to be published in graphic novel format.

It was time to invest in PitchFest.

And it is an investment. Having four daughters and coming from Ottawa, it takes a lot of monetary and family support to enable me to gallivant off to NYC. But I added up all the time I’d spent crafting query letters, personalizing notes, researching the right agents, printing and expediting manuscripts, etc. and the decision made itself.

It paid off.

This December, after pitching her at PitchFest, I received a request to speak on the phone with Literary Agent Gina Panettieri, President of Talcott Notch Literary Services. Under her wing ever since, I have revised and revised and the manuscript rocks. I couldn’t be more ecstatic.

But I’ve skipped the best part! PitchFest was nerve rattling …

Despite having honed my pitch at the CraftFest workshops and researched the top agents and agencies I felt would be a fit, my mind drew a complete blank as the countdown to PitchFest began. For the first few moments when the doors opened and I stood at the very back of what seemed like a herd of authors, it was as if I was being corralled into a slaughterhouse; I was a dumb cow ready for the bolt gun and the room full of agents prepared to carve my pitch into cubes of stewing meat.

So with total disregard for my carefully prepared list, I went to the first free agent I saw. In retrospect, a good plan. My delivery was terrible. Little did I know, however, I had time to loosen up.

In all, I pitched seventeen agents. SEVENTEEN! And had fourteen requests to see what I had. Some requests were for partials, but most for full manuscripts.

While writing this, my spell check corrected PitchFest to Pitch Feast. How apt. It was a feast.

I’ve had good experiences on and off the Internet with agents, but PitchFest is in a class by itself.

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,

Gus

 

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