ThrillerFest XV • July 7 – 11, 2020 • Grand Hyatt • New York City

Leap Off the Fence

By Steve Urszenyi

I attended my first ThrillerFest in July 2018 with a completed manuscript and high hopes. In fact, registering for this writer’s conference was the push I needed to finish the novel I had been working on for four years. Knowing I had just spent good money to attend, I wasn’t going to go to New York without a completed—and hopefully polished—manuscript!

ThrillerFest exceeded my expectations, and then some. I was blown away by the camaraderie and sincere friendship of everyone there. Not just hopefuls like me, but seasoned, successful, published writers wanted to talk, to share success stories, to listen to my practice pitches, to offer valuable advice, to boost my confidence, and to assure me that they, too, had once been in my shoes.

I had signed up for PitchFest and took advantage of the practice pitch sessions offered on the morning of. And I was able to hone my delivery, or at least not completely embarrass myself, by sharpening and otherwise refining what it was I wanted to say. The practice pitches were also immensely helpful for bringing down the level of anxiety I felt because, quite frankly, my worst efforts were delivered to willing victims—I mean, coaches (published writers)—before being delivered to real, live agents!

I pitched my manuscript to six agents. All but one asked for some pages or the full manuscript to read and consider. I also began to query maybe a dozen more when I got home. I was hopeful. Soon, that hopefulness waned, though, and I came to understand that, although my story was good, I had some significant revisions to make. I went back to work on recreating my main character’s backstory and changing some story elements. I did this with the enthusiastic support of some friends I had made in New York and a professional editor I had hired for an objective viewpoint. I can’t stress that last point enough: having friends and family read your manuscript is essential, but having a practiced eye point out the holes in the story, or just suggest ways to make it so much better is vital.

So, undaunted and reinvigorated with my newly refreshed manuscript, I attended ThrillerFest XIV in 2019. I even volunteered at the conference as both a way to give back and to meet other writers. Volunteering opens up great opportunities to network with your peers.

At ThrillerFest 2019, I decided to target only one agent. All my research and everything I had heard and seen suggested he would be the best agent to represent me and my work. So, I pitched him during PitchFest. He was excited by my pitch. I was excited that he was excited! He asked for a read of the whole manuscript, and four days after I sent it to him, he offered me representation! I am thrilled that I am now represented by John Talbot of The Talbot Fortune Agency.

Everybody’s path is unique. Some have success straight out of the gate. Others take a little more time. You will hear this repeated over and over by successful writers at ThrillerFest and anywhere else they gather. As has been said many times by smarter people, the only difference between an unpublished writer and a published writer is the latter never quit.

I am in the process of wrapping up final revisions my agent (so cool to be able to say that!) recommended. Then, we will begin the next leg of the journey, which is to hopefully find a publisher that is interested in taking my novel to the masses.

If you’re on the fence about ThrillerFest or PitchFest, I highly recommend you get down off it. In fact, leap wildly into the void, because ThrillerFest is the real deal and, whether you sign with an agent your first time out or not, you will meet so many writers and others like yourself, learn so much, and come away as a renewed and rejuvenated writer, ready to tackle your next WIP!

Good luck!

 

 

You have to pitch that book!

By Julie L. Brown

After completing the first draft of a manuscript, I pitched it at a writers conference on the West Coast. The first agent said it wasn’t ready. I asked, “How do you know? You haven’t read it yet.” He shook his head and again said, “It’s not ready.” I had a lot to learn.

Two years later—after two major revisions—I attended ThrillerFest for the first time. I pitched the same book at PitchFest, which can be an overwhelming experience if you are unfamiliar with the process. Although several agents were interested, and I received partial requests, subsequent rejections confirmed that the manuscript was still not ready. After another two years of revisions, I completed my manuscript. As a businessperson, self-publishing intrigued me. Over the next three years, I self-published two more political thrillers. Meanwhile, I continued to attend ThrillerFest, not to pitch but to meet other writers and to continue to learn.

While writing the third book in the series, I began working on a standalone historical thriller based on a short story I had written almost a decade earlier. I mulled whether to self-publish or take the traditional route. After talking it over with a writing colleague, I decided to find an agent for it. I could always self-publish it, if things didn’t work out.

I wasn’t planning to pitch at ThrillerFest ‘19. Having just finished the third draft of the historical thriller, I had planned to participate in Pitch Wars in September. And then, I kept running into PJ Bodnar, a first-time ThrillerFest attendee. He practiced his pitch to me and then asked what my book was about. I told him I wasn’t pitching. He wanted to hear it anyway. After I told him, he said, “You have to pitch that book!” “It’s not ready,” I said. “I don’t care,” he said. “You have to pitch that book!” So, I registered, drafted pitches, attended pitch practice, and refined my pitch based on the feedback I received from two authors. That night, I researched the agents, prioritizing them into three tiers. I knew from experience, even with the PowerHour, I might run out of time.

Despite fumbling through the first pitch, out of eleven agents, I received five full requests and five partials.

When I arrived home, I researched the agents further and then emailed seven of them asking for a little time. All the agents graciously agreed. Over the next three weeks, I completed a fourth draft on limited sleep and sent off the manuscript. Four days later, one agent who received a partial asked for the full. Five long excruciating weeks later, she emailed me stating she enjoyed the book and wanted to set up a call to talk about it further. The next day, we discussed my novel, and we had the same vision for it. She answered my questions and told me her plans for submitting it to publishers. She then asked where I was in the querying process. I responded that I had fulls out with other agents, who requested to be notified if I received an offer. She said, “Well, tell them you have an offer.” [Insert silent scream here.] After speaking with Sharon Pelletier of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, I knew she was the agent for me. Three business days later, I accepted her offer.

Thank you ThrillerFest, PitchFest director, Sandra Brannan, Sharon, and, of course, PJ.

Seven years after pitching my first book, I have found a literary home. If it can happen for me, it can happen for you.

Julie L. Brown

Under the pen name, J. L. Brown, Julie is the author of the Jade Harrington novels, Don’t Speak, Rule of Law, and The Divide, and the short story, Few Are Chosen. She lives with her family in Seattle, where she is working on her next novel. You can find her on Twitter @juliebrownwrite and on her website: www.JLBrownAuthor.com

Against All Odds…

By Isabella Maldonado

I attended my first ThrillerFest in 2017 as a member of the debut author program. In my case, the cart was about a mile in front of the horse. I had already signed a three-book deal without an agent. Shortly after my first book hit the shelves in March of 2017, I realized I desperately needed representation. Off to ThrillerFest I went.

When I arrived in New York, I hardly knew anyone in the industry. Having spent the previous 22 years in law enforcement, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing (see previous comment about signing without an agent). My total ignorance was both a blessing and a curse. I struggled to find my footing, listening to lots of conflicting advice. A major benefit of attending such a prestigious conference was having the chance to speak to real pros, who offered their hard-won wisdom.

I recall telling someone that I was going to PitchFest. That person assured me no agent would be interested because I already had a multiple book deal. He shrugged. “What’s in it for them?”

I remember thinking that if one agent couldn’t see any value in me as a writer, I would try another. Wash, rinse, repeat, until I found someone who saw potential.

The day of PitchFest came, and I attended the pre-Pitch session, which I highly recommend. Seasoned authors listened to my pitch in advance and offered invaluable advice that helped me reframe my situation in a more positive light. Better prepared, I stood in line with hundreds of other authors waiting for the doors to open.

That’s when an author behind me complained to everyone within earshot. “I think all of these so-called pitching opportunities are a scam. I’ll bet nobody ever actually gets signed with an agent at these things.” She put a hand on her hip. “Do any of you know anyone who’s gotten an agent at this conference?” Her audience exchanged glances, lines of doubt forming on their faces.

Not one who normally interrupts, I couldn’t let that slide. Couldn’t let one person dash everyone’s hopes at the exact moment when they needed to be positive and confident. I turned around and addressed the group. “I’ve read the accounts of authors who found agents at PitchFest. They’re real people. These agents are here because they want clients.” Then I took a leap of faith. “I’m going to find an agent today.” Several people smiled. One gave me a thumbs up. The naysayer muttered something under her breath and scowled.

The doors opened and the crowd surged in. Using the information packet supplied by ITW, I zeroed in on the agents who were looking for books in my genre. I was able to pitch to eight agents. A couple of them did scratch their heads and ask why I was pitching when I already had a contract, but several others expressed interest.

One of those interested agents, Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency, purchased my recently-published debut novel at the ITW conference bookstore. I was stunned when she came to my debut author signing spot and asked me to autograph the book! After I flew back to Phoenix, I found myself in the wonderful position of having a decision to make. After mulling it over, I felt that Liza and I clicked, and her enthusiasm for my unusual back story and my work told me she would represent me well.

If I could find the group that had been standing outside the doors with me waiting for their turn—who perhaps still harbor doubts because of one vocal skeptic—I would tell them that PitchFest works. Instead, I’m writing this account to reach anyone else who wonders if they should give it a try.

I’m so blessed to have found an agent to work with who truly “gets” me and believes in me. Having someone in your corner is critical in an industry currently undergoing massive changes. I’m returning to ThrillerFest this year and will meet with my agent again. Two years and three books in, we’re still going strong…all because of PitchFest. Yeah, it’s real.

 

I came back with a new book

By Colleen Winter

I am where I am today as an author because of Thrillerfest.

I first attended Thrillerfest in 2015. I remember landing at La Guardia airport and being absolutely terrified to be in New York city alone and headed to a conference with some of the most successful authors in the world.

I needn’t have worried. As soon as I arrived at the conference, I was amazed (astounded) at the open, supportive, and friendly atmosphere. I remember speaking with David Morrell before the Debut authors breakfast and being completely star-struck and charmed by him. He later introduced me to Nelson DeMille and I was shocked to be meeting such renowned authors.

I pitched to eleven agents that year and eight said yes to the manuscript. None of them ended up saying yes after I submitted and I distinctly remember one of the agents who said no, saying that the story was too ‘small.’ I was hurt and devastated but after going home and licking my wounds I understood what she was saying.

I also had gone home with an understanding of what it meant to be an A-list author after having observed the ones I had seen at Thrillerfest.  I knew I needed to up my game if I wanted to be a published author.

Two years later I came back with a new book. I pitched to eight agents and one editor. All of them said yes, and within one week of sending the first 50 pages to Tara Gavin at Kensington Books, I got a detailed email about changes she would need to reconsider the manuscript. Within a month I had made those changes and sent it back.

Six weeks later I sent a follow-up email. When I still hadn’t heard the following June, I registered for Pitchfest again. A week before I was to attend the conference, I received an email from Tara saying she was interested in the book and wanted to meet while I was in New York. Wow. Meeting with my New York publisher. That was something that only happened to other people.

That week at Thrillerfest was one of the most incredible of my life. It started with being selected as one of the winners of the The Best First Sentence Contest. That honour was nothing in comparison to the email I received the next day with Kensington Books offering me a three e-book deal.  It still felt like this was something that happened to other people.

After a quick re-adjustment on my strategy, I spent Pitchfest looking for an agent. It was an unexpected position to be in and it felt strange to all of a sudden be in the driver’s seat. It  helped that my feet had yet to touch back to the ground after the offer. I spent the rest of the conference speaking with agents and experienced authors to figure out my best course of action. It was the perfect place to be when having to make a decision on first whether I needed an agent and second which one it would be.

With the cards from many agents in my hand, I returned home and spent the next few weeks making my decision. Without exception all of the agents were kind, helpful and didn’t put any pressure on me to choose them. It was a relief to finally make a decision and I will be forever grateful to Tara Gavin at Kensington Books for having faith in the series and to Gail Fortune of Talbot Fortune Agency for helping me navigate the world of publishing.

My first book, The Gatherer is to be published in September 2019.

 

 

 

I came to an agent and completely blanked.

By Sarah Cain

I was a professional writer of speeches and direct mail and press releases—none of which are things people clamor to read.  I had written fiction for years, mostly short stories and flash fiction. Then there was my novel. I had worked on it for about eight years. I had even sent out queries, all of which had been rejected.

I started going to writers’ conferences to pick up tips and learn more about the industry. When I heard about Thrillerfest, I wasn’t sure I was ready to pitch to agents in person. I thought I’d just go for the workshops. Then I thought, I’ve worked on this novel for so long, and I’ve polished and polished it. I do it now, or go on to something else. So I came to New York, and I practiced my pitch. Believe me when I say I was shaking when I started my first pitch, but it got a lot easier when the agent asked me to send her pages. Then the next agent asked me to send a full manuscript. My whole session was rolling along with agents asking for full manuscripts and partials.

Then it happened. I came to an agent and completely blanked. I forgot my pitch halfway through, but she was extremely nice. She waited for me to get my act together and go through my pitch, and she asked for a full manuscript. I sent it to her and figured I’d never hear from her again. I was wrong. She was Renee Fountain, and she became my agent.  She took on my noir thriller, The Eighth Circle, and sold it to Crooked Lane Books in a two-book deal.

So many writers toil away at their craft and never get any recognition. I am, and always will be, so grateful to Renee and Crooked Lane Books for taking me on. I will always appreciate Thrillerfest for giving me the opportunity to get my novel, The Eighth Circle, out in front of the agent it needed. I do love to give people those deep, dark thrills.

She said no

By Don Bentley

She said no.

I’d attended PitchFest for the first time, found the agent I wanted, and pitched my newly completed manuscript. We’d hit it off during our five minute face-to-face and she’d agreed to read the entire novel. I sent it and waited on pins and needles only to get the dreaded rejection letter. To be fair, it was the most constructive rejection letter I’d ever received, but it was still a no all the same.

That was five years ago. In the ensuing time, I went back to ThrillerFest each year, bettered my craft, and wrote another book. And I sulked. A lot. But I didn’t quit and I didn’t stop talking to my dream agent. Each ThrillerFest, we chatted, getting to know each other better. A year ago, we sat at the bar for several hours talking about life, writers we both admired, great novels, and my work in progress.

She told me to finish my book.

I did.

Two weeks ago, I sent her Fallen Comrade. This time, she said yes.

Thank you ThrillerFest and thank you Barbara Poelle.

Don Bentley

I wasn’t really a writer

By D.A. Bartley

I wasn’t really a writer. A reader? Absolutely. The first grown-up book I remember getting my hands on was an Agatha Christie. I’ve worked as a lawyer and an academic, so I read professionally. I guess I wrote, too, if you count legal briefs and academic papers well suited for curing insomnia, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer.

That was before I saw the house in Pleasant View, Utah: the enormous 16, 000-square-foot house with its spectacular views of the Wasatch Mountains in front and the shimmering mirage of the Great Salt Lake in the back. It had been empty for years. What could happen in a house like that?

That’s how it started for me. It starts differently for every writer I know. Some have written stories their entire lives. Others write here and there, off and on, until eventually they have something ready to share. For me, it started with that house. The house I couldn’t leave until I wrote about what could happen inside its walls; the house that became my home until I finished writing Blood Atonement.

Not really being a writer, I had no idea about the world of writing, no idea about the universe in which manuscripts turn into books. I had to learn about query letters, agents, editors and publishers. So I researched, which is something I did know how to do. The result of that research was quite clear: if you’re interested in thrillers or mysteries, ThrillerFest is the place to be.

In 2015, I signed up for pretty much everything ThrillerFest had to offer, including Master CraftFest. The Master Class turned out to be one of the most transformative days of my life as a new writer. My instructor was David Corbett, who not only has a gift for writing, but also has a gift for teaching others how to find their best writing.  On top of that, the fellow writers I met are some of the most talented, generous and supportive people I know.  I left David’s class inspired, excited, and absolutely certain that what I had written so far was unequivocally terrible. There was a good idea for a book somewhere in that manuscript, but it was buried beneath layers of novice mistakes and unnecessary words. I had signed up for PitchFest that year, but deep down I knew wasn’t ready.

Between ThrillerFest 2015 and ThrillerFest 2016, I prepared: I edited, revised and rewrote. I cut a total 40, 000 words, moved chapters around, wrote a new 40, 000 words and changed POV more times than I care to count. I was committed to having a pitch-able manuscript this time around. I researched agents, read every Writer’s Digest interview I could find and created an extensive, color-coded table to keep me on-target at PitchFest.

This was the PitchFest where I met Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary Services. I knew she was my top choice the moment I read she loved Terry Tempest Williams (one of my favorites, too). After waiting in the very long line to speak with her, it was finally my turn. Paula was as smart and charming as I had expected her to be. My heart skipped a beat when she asked to see the entire manuscript. Months later, through a series of improbable events, Editorial Director Matt Martz of Crooked Lane Books contacted me to discuss publishing Blood Atonement. I knew I was out of my depth when our conversation turned to the business side of publishing. I needed an agent.

My fellow writers from Master Class suggested I contact my favorite agents from PitchFest who’d asked to see the manuscript, but hadn’t gotten back to me yet. Within minutes of sending a few emails, my phone rang. It was Paula. Today, not only am I represented by the fabulous Paula Munier, but I am thrilled to be working with the creative and dynamic Matt Martz and Sarah Poppe of Crooked Lane.

ThrillerFest is many things to many people. It’s a place to meet your favorite authors, it’s a place to hone your craft, it’s a place to learn about the business of books and it’s a place where everyone can feel at home…especially if you like your home to be a crime scene.

 

Signed with four agents

By Lissa Price

I will always be a big fan of of ITW and Thrillerfest because I owe my career to this conference.  It was here that I met and signed with four agents–one film, one foreign, two lit–and also found my writer’s group.

When I went to the very first Thrillerfest in Arizona, I looked up at the debut author’s panel, just a handful of authors back then, and promised myself I’d sit up there someday. I’d had some hard knocks, but was reinventing myself and I wanted to be published more than anything in the world. I continued to return like a holy pilgrimage, listening to authors like Lee Child, R.L. Stine, Jim Rollins and more, and I absorbed every word. Lee told us there was no magic to getting signed; getting an agent was procedural.  I’d never heard it that way before, and it made so much sense.

The next time I went, I signed up for Pitchfest. An author I’d become friends with at the first conference heard I was going to pitch his big agent, so he offered to put in a recommendation. Pitchfest was an amazing opportunity, a chance to meet so many agents in one room – and they all want to hear your pitch!

That agent signed me, but didn’t sell my first manuscript. I was devastated – for a day. Then, when I next wrote a YA manuscript, he felt he couldn’t sell a YA in that market, and nicely released me from my contract. Within hours, I had several agents who wanted the full manuscript. In 24 hours, I had offers of representation and they kept coming. The one I ended up choosing was someone I had met at Thrillerfest when a different author friend introduced us. This agent went on to sell my debut in a preemptive bid by Random House the night before the auction. STARTERS was a lead title that sold for seven figures, becoming an international bestseller published in over thirty countries, several that I toured.  They made a live-action trailer that played in front of The Hunger Games movie in ten cities and abroad. It was more than I ever imagined.

Many exciting moments followed, but the one that meant the most to me, because of the secret pact I’d made with myself at that first conference in Arizona, was getting to sit on that debut author’s panel.

Thank you, ITW, for creating this place for us.

_____

Lissa is a diverse author and supports diversity. To learn more about her, please visit her website.

Crossroads

Sheena_medSheena Kamal

About two years ago, I was working as a TV researcher for a crime drama series when an idea began to form for a project of my own. A dark, psychological suspense novel. I’d never written a novel before, but the idea wouldn’t let go and I found myself at a crossroads. In a moment of righteous conviction, I took the least logical path available. I quit my job and moved across the country to Vancouver, because this is where my story would be set. I had no employment prospects on the West Coast, no money, no friends, nothing but the drive to write.

For the next year, I took day work in the film and television industry to make ends meet, ate out of cans, pocketed food from set. One week I had nowhere else to go so I lived in a tent. I’m told some people do this for fun. I am not one of them.

It wasn’t easy, but I wrote every day. Almost a year later I had a complete draft of my manuscript. I called Robert Rotenberg, a wonderful writer that I’d known for years, for advice on the next steps. He told me great, Pitchfest is just around the corner. Go to New York and meet some agents. I couldn’t afford the trip, but I made it anyway. Because I’m committed to my insanity.

At Pitchfest, all nine agents I spoke with requested material.

Most of the day was a blur, but I remember my initial meeting quite clearly. I was the first person waiting for Miriam Kriss from Irene Goodman. She was a few minutes late, but I didn’t move on. I can’t quite explain it, but I felt strongly about her before I even met her so I sat at her table and waited for her to arrive. She came in like a tempest, with her hands full and her beautiful hair in disarray. Something clicked between us during our conversation, and Pitchfest was over for me then. I could have dropped the mic and walked away.

I sent Miriam my opening chapters the next morning and within an hour she asked for the complete manuscript. Six months later, I had multi-book deals with Harper Collins, Bonier Zaffre, JC Lattes and Ullstein. My debut novel, the first in a trilogy, will be released in 2017.

Before I found myself at that fateful junction two years ago, debating whether or not to take a risk, writing was a gift that I gave to myself in stolen moments. Those moments are not stolen anymore. Largely due to the support of Robert, Miriam, and the ITW, writing is what I do now. Minus the tent, thankfully.

 

I decided to get serious and give PitchFest a try.

beatty_squareBy Robert Beatty

I had been writing novels and attending writer’s conferences for many years, but it wasn’t until I attended ThrillerFest / PitchFest that I found a real agent and received a publishing contract with a major New York publisher. Here’s how it happened:

In the past, I had been to a variety of writer’s conferences throughout the country, attending all sorts of workshops and pitching my manuscripts to various types of agents. I was working on a new novel called “Serafina and the Black Cloak” about a strange and unusual twelve year old girl who lived secretly in the basement of Biltmore Estate, a vast Vanderbilt mansion in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. After completing the manuscript, I decided to get serious with it and give PitchFest a try. I flew up to New York, studied the list of agents, and picked the ones I thought would be most receptive to a spooky, historical, mystery-thriller for young readers.

One of the things I loved about PitchFest is how intense, time-efficient, and concentrated it was. Someone had told me, “I know pitching your story to an agent is intimidating, but try to pitch to at least two or three agents to increase your chances.” Hoping to increase my chances even further, I ended up pitching my story to ten agents in one day. Amazingly, all ten were excited about my story and asked to read the manuscript! I picked the person who appeared to be the best, most effective of those ten agents (Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman) and sent him the manuscript. He read it over the weekend and called me on Monday morning to tell me he wanted to represent me. A few months later, we landed a contract with Disney Hyperion.

Two years later, when “Serafina and the Black Cloak” launched, it became a New York Times Bestseller in the first week and remained there for 20 weeks. It’s been a major success. I now have publishing contracts with Scholastic (school paperback), Random House (Audiobook), and translations/publications all over the world. And most excitingly, Disney Hyperion has acquired two more books for the Serafina series! After struggling as an aspiring writer for many, many years, it has all been a dream come true. And there is no doubt in my mind that ThrillerFest/PitchFest was instrumental in making it happen.