Thrillerfest 2014 – My Experience

official photoLast January, I decided to attend Thrillerfest, of all the mystery conferences, this being the one that intrigued me most.

Steve Berry spoke to a packed house.

Steve Berry spoke to a packed house.

There was a great CraftFest segment with top authors.  A big luncheon and cocktail party where I could mingle with interesting folks in the mystery community. And there was the jewel, PitchFest, a singular opportunity to meet agents and put my second book — ESCAPE TO PANAMA — out there. ESCAPE wasn’t quite done but I felt sure I could pull it together by the conference.

Long story short, my optimism went unrewarded. Instead, I arrived in New York with a 3-minute memorized pitch, a 30-second elevator chirp, and a one-page promo piece (all mandatory according to conference organizers). After that, the cupboard was bare.

Panic set in on the ride from the airport. What if someone wanted the manuscript? How soon could I produce a finished piece? Or should I send pages and explain that ESCAPE was still being worked on? On the other side — depressingly — what if no one was interested? I’d worked myself into a rightful stew when a rescuer appeared, my roommate, our own Margo Carey, who is as delightful in person as she is on paper. She soothed me, for a time.

But installed in our cute little hotel "VFMLID=62054693" not far from the main action of the conference,  I pulled out my pitch and looked down at three minutes of – how to sugarcoat it? – puerile drivel. What had sounded so punchy, so dramatic before, now read like colorless blabber.

There was nothing to do but tear into it again, this time determined to establish exactly the perfect tone, convey my dazzling, ripped-from-the-headlines high-concept (agents were insistent on that, I’d been told), fascinating plot, lovable, hateable, memorable characters, unique to-die-for setting, and so on and so forth, all in 180 seconds.

The drafts mounted up. And so did the forfeits. First to go was the cocktail party. cocktail party
Why schmooze when you can work on Draft #135? Maybe inspiration would strike at the very moment I might have been downing a Manhattan with an unctuous bloviator. The cocktail party wasn’t even a blip on my radar.

Next, the luncheon went out the window. Who wants to eat rubber chicken anyway? Far better to pay the exorbitant price of room service and practice my pitch on the waiter.

Then – alas — something that really did matter. Even CraftFest was finally sacrificed on the altar of 3-minute perfection.

What I Missed.

What I Missed.

After 36 hours in the hotel room, bleary-eyed and bored to tears with every word I’d eventually memorized, I ventured to the scene of the event to actually meet the royalty I had come to beg patronage of.

These princely beings were arrayed in four rooms behind little tables, the scene much as others have described it. Margo and I arrived together, the start bell dinged, and off we went, scurrying into different lines. standing in line

I dove into one for a Very Important Agent who was on my “must see” list. Regrettably, about 300 other people joined me. (Okay, maybe 20 but I seemed to be behind most of them.) For the better part of an hour, I stood there, trying to read the faces of those who’d already given their pitches. Most seemed apprehensive going in, questionable coming out. No BIG smiles yet. Gulp. Should I stay in the line or jump to another? In for a dime, in for a dollar, I decided. The minutes ticked by. Finally, my turn came. Oh, Frabjous Day!! I sat down and opened my mouth.


My mandatory 3-minute stone-cold memorized pitch, the one I had sacrificed everything else for, never got out of the starting gate.  I nervously warbled “sequel” — and the VIA pounced.

Just how were the sales from my first book?!

Stunned by a question I hadn’t anticipated, I told the truth. Although I have social media platforms established, I haven’t pushed sales. I preferred finishing the sequel and then marketing both, as I’ve read that having a sequel is a strong motivator to sell the first of a series.

Well, said the VIA, shuffling papers and already looking at the next person in line, I’d like to see you prove you can sell your first book and then come back next year. In case I didn’t get it, she pushed my business card back toward me. Somewhere in there she did manage to say I could send some pages if I liked, but it was a throwaway line and I knew it.

I was crushed. I’d read extensively that modern-day agents want authors actively involved in selling their books — but to this degree? It begged the question: Why have an agent at all? For a few disheartening moments I roamed from room to room. No longer was I sure which agents I truly wanted to see – nor what I would say. And all the lines looked intimidatingly long.

In the fourth room, I saw an empty table and read its card. Great, I thought, one of the agents I was eager to talk to, and, my luck, he was a no-show. I plopped down in the chair to regroup — and right then there the agent walked in, a big smile on his face.

We hit it off immediately and fell into an easy chat. I heard myself mouthing pieces of my memorized pitch here and there but during my roaming around time my brain had absorbed two important lessons from the disaster: Be upfront about my sales strategy. And chill out a bit. It worked. Request for a Full!

Buoyed by that, I saw my next opportunity at a table with an agent duo. I improvised even more this time and they also wanted a Full. And they said the magic words over and over and OVER. “Send it. Send it now!

Can anyone say Heaven?

The team of agents who requested my complete amnuscript.

The team of agents who requested my full manuscript.

The clock was moving along and I’d wasted almost half of it on the first agent so I wanted to maximize my remaining time. I popped on over to a German agent who had a small line. A friend of mine, an interpreter, is interested in translating and marketing my books in Germany.german book store I thought  that should pique the agent’s interest.

It did but the word “terrorists” in my summary made his skin blanch. They only figure as a plot device, I said. Part of a sting. No matter. German people absolutely, positively don’t want to read about terrorists. Ever. Disappointing.

Time was almost up but there was one more agent I very much wanted  to visit. Although her line was long, things moved quickly enough in the beginning, until one author hit pay dirt and everything ground to a screeching halt. She and the agent huddled for 25 minutes, which was against the rules, grossly unfair, and needless. How about the agent setting up a proper meeting later instead of depriving seven other people of their turns?

The happy-beyond-measure author finally moved on and somehow I landed at the front of the line. The agent and I exchanged greetings, I said a few words, and out of nowhere came a shrill whistle man blowing whistleand a booming voice that announced the end of PitchFest. All  interviews must stop. There would be a break, some agents would be remaining, they and any authors who wished could reassemble in another of the rooms, etc., etc. All very noisy, intrusive, and distracting. It was impossible to continue.

My Very Important Agent smiled warmly and apologized. Send me some pages, she said kindly – and, I think, genuinely. I had to catch a plane and couldn’t stay much longer anyway. She was leaving, too. But she was interested in the little I was able to tell her about ESCAPE and I liked her, in the end.

PitchFest was over and I had some positive things to take home with me.  Two enthusiastic requests for Fulls and two for Pages, even though one was half-hearted at best.

Of course, my bigger problem was that I didn’t have a completed manuscript to send. And I wouldn’t for quite a while. I joined my family in mourning a death that had not yet occurred but that would soon enough.  I went to doctors’ appointments. I worked on my annual Amigos de Animales yard sale.

Setting up the day before.

Setting up the day before.

Only now am I returning to ESCAPE. We all know taking a break from a WIP can provide clarity. Now that I have some distance from my manuscript, the muddy thinking of last Spring is gone and I’m seeing my work through a clearer glass. I’m also thankful I didn’t take time away from my family. I’m thrilled that we raised a lot of money for the animals of our town.  Happy to have gotten mammograms and other tests that are better done in the States.

A monthly spay and neuter clinic in my town. We have sterilized over 5,000 community dogs and cats.

A monthly spay and neuter clinic in Boquete. We’ve sterilized over 5,000 community dogs and cats so far.

One part of my brain had known it wasn’t ready to finish ESCAPE while the other part felt guilty that it hadn’t. Now, happily, they’re both on the same page. And, finally, the words are flowing.

Yet to be determined if the agents read any of them. Fingers crossed..

Next time, in Part Two, I’ll share my list of suggested Do’s and Don’ts for Thrillerfest 2015.

~~Britt Vasarhelyi

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2 thoughts on “Thrillerfest 2014 – My Experience

  1. Britt—good piece. I want to point out two things raised by your post.
    1–It is always a good idea to have a completed manuscript before approaching an agent/editor. If they ask for it, what would you send? And if you wait 6 months to finish and polish the manuscript before sending it, the connection you made with the agent is now a bit long in the tooth. So finish the product before you try to sell it.

    2–Memorized pitches are fine but unfortunately they more often than not sound memorized. Best to simply give a sentence or two about the book–basic concept and story–and then ask the agent what else he/she wants to know. Be relaxed. Be yourself. Remember, your goal at one of these sit downs or with any agent contact is to grab their interest and get them to ask for part or all of your manuscript. That’s really it. And then the writing itself will either make the sale or it won’t.

    So write a good and complete story and then be yourself when pitching it. Agents don’t bite. Agents want to find new talent–that’s their business. It’s how the make a living. Give them a chance to include you in that business.

    DP Lyle
    ITW VP for Education/CraftFest Director

    • Many thanks for the helpful comments, Lyle.

      Of course I know that one should have a finished manuscript before pitching it. In my case, I made a hasty decision to attend ThrillerFest and then couldn’t complete the manuscript in time. As I live abroad, there was no changing my plans; they were set in stone too early. So, I worked with what I had. Hopefully, my submissions will recapture some of the enthusiasm that was exchanged over those little tables; I’ll just have to hope for the best.

      There are no regrets about attending — it was a significant learning experience and one that I’ve taken to heart.

      However, I am very disappointed that I missed your part of the show and will have to be satisfied with the tapes.

      Thanks again for weighing in on this.


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