The Thrill of ThrillerFest
This is me sitting in the ballroom. Moments before the organizers invited us to stand and line-up for PitchFest, an opportunity to speak with agents about our projects. By we, I mean what looked like three hundred other writers. And by we, I also mean myself and two others chatting nervously at a table in a far corner of the room. A kind man with tired eyes and a southern accent, and a petite curly-haired woman who says she has been here before, and to ‘bring it on’, both sat across from me. He says he’s not ready, but this is only practice for him. He also tells us he drove all night to get here, which is why he looks so dang tired.
We chat about our manuscripts, giving words of support to one another after some idle chit-chat. Tired southerner says we are the cool kids because we are sitting calmly, hanging back. The only table still sitting down, as everyone else lined up at the door waiting to be released, despite being asked to remain seated. I’m not sure if we were cool or frozen in place, but I was just focusing on breathing, and grateful for their company.
This terrifying few minutes of my life shared with some lovely strangers was a long time in the making. I wrote a book! I was over the moon to have completed such a long and painful project. Literally painful. I wrote the rough draft as non-fiction as this book is based on true events in my life. This book lived in my head for ten years, was in progress for three, and was just returned to me from my amazing editor Michelle Barker, a week and a half before this ballroom moment.
When I stumbled across ThrillerFest online, it seemed like a pipe dream, but so did completing my novel. When I booked it, it became real, and fast. I had five months to finish my manuscript. I wrote another draft, did two developmental edits, (including a substantial rewrite) and had a final line edit until it was done.
I spent the last two weeks prepping a query letter, my pitch, my horrible ‘long’ synopsis (the synopsis isn’t horrible, but writing one sure is).
Also, in the weeks leading up to Thrillerfest, I ran a weeklong writers’ conference for the Federation of BC Writers on a much smaller scale than the one I was about to embark on. I was exhausted, but finally ready.
I packed my bags in ‘small town BC’, kissed my family goodbye and flew off to New York.
Two of my oldest and dearest friends joined me on the second leg of the trip, and I was excited to see and do touristy things with them. The plan was to attend two days of the conference, pitch my heart out and then celebrate, regardless of the outcome. I wrote a book! Whether or not the world will like it, who knows, but I did it.
The first day we were tired and took it easy on a three-hour boat cruise around manhattan. The cruise was a great way to orient ourselves to the city, all while sitting on our duff and sipping prosecco. We didn’t expect the 36 degree weather, but still had a wonderful time. What I wasn’t ready for was waking up at 4am my time the next morning.
It wasn’t pretty, but I managed. From the moment I walked anxiously and tiredly into that first session, I was surrounded by positive, excited, friendly people from all over the United States, Canada, and even one lovely woman who flew from Sri Lanka to learn and to meet her idol, RL Stine. I met him too, and though it was way outside of my comfort zone, I asked him for a selfie (nerd alert) to show my kids.
I drank way too much coffee, all while experiencing the soft sway of the boat from the day before. I have attended many conferences, sessions about writing, and have hosted several, but there is something extra delicious when it’s your genre. It was a blast spending two days talking about writing murder and mayhem with others who love it as much as you do.
Day one, I had booked a consultation with an agent and she asked me to send her five chapters – this was an exciting start. After a full day of rapid fire learning by some of the thriller greats it was time for some good eats at Nobu 57. I met my friends there, and it wasn’t far, so I walked. This was great on the way there, but not in the freak thunderstorm on the way back.
A quick dinner with the gals turned into 4 hours. Thank goodness dinner started at six. I had to cram. I had another half day of sessions and some agents to prepare for. My pitch was ‘okay’, but not memorized, and my nerves had a way of messing things up for me. As a child, I vomited every time I was anxious, and even thinking about it, I felt close.
I went back to the hotel room and studied. After an hour of staring blankly at my paperwork, the lychee martini, toban yaki beef, and jet lag caught up to me, knocking me out. Thank goodness I had set a psychotic amount of alarms in my phone, in the room and with the front desk.
As always, my best moments of sleep are immediately preceding the alarm bell, causing me to hit snooze with my eyes still shut. I had one of my favorite where-the-hell-am-I moments when I finally woke up. Something I miss from years of traveling. I had waited until the last possible moment and scuttled into the shower like the cockroaches we saw playing by the steaming grates the night before. My grand plans of applying make up and styling my hair were trashed for more sleep. New York would have to settle for red eyes, lipstick and a bun. How I normally look, minus the lipstick. I didn’t even wear my pitch outfit. I would doll up later.
I tromped down to the first session and noticed a much smaller attendance than the previous day. 8am is hard. I filled one cup with coffee and one with water and sat in the back slurping life back into myself. I considered wearing my sunglasses, but the presenter kept making eye contact with me, so I couldn’t do that to her.
I only attended three morning sessions, (skipping two) so I could have those two extra hours to practice my pitch and look more human-ish. To save additional time, I opted for an expensive room service breakfast in my room, so I didn’t have to search for sustenance. Everything takes longer in New York. Getting places, line-ups, and making decisions (too many killer restaurants). This small-town girl isn’t used to that.
I wolfed down my omelette and practiced some techniques my sister shared with me before I left on the trip. Tricks for your memory. Ever since I had covid my memory has been rough. I have an incredible recall of my favorite 90’s rap lyrics and other pop culture, but my short-term memory is still recovering.
The suggestions that came from some podcast she listened to were a mixed bag. Some made sense and others were ridiculous, but I figured, what have I got to lose? One was to drink coffee after you learned or practiced something new, not before. Oat milk latte, check. Another was to dip your arms in ice cold water after practicing. I forget why (pun not intended), but I did it anyway. And then I laughed to myself at the ridiculousness of it. Then I wondered if people in the hallway could hear a crazy woman doing weird shit alone in her room and laughing to herself. This only made me laugh harder.
After collecting myself, I paced while practicing my pitch. I thought it might help, it was also releasing some of the anxious energy. I had set timers for doing the weird tricks, memorizing my pitch and pitch notes, reviewing the agent information so I would remember who to line up for, and lastly the timer for getting ready. It was like a creepy pitch boot camp, that I am sure no one else did. When the last timer went off, I dressed up in a pre-planned outfit my sister helped me shop for and put on makeup.
I was as ready as I would ever be. Please don’t mess this up.
So back in the ballroom…. Me and the cool kids finally stood up in the lineup with the rest of them and wished each other good luck as we filtered out of the ballroom and into three other rooms filled with in-person agents and laptops zooming with a few agents who couldn’t make it.
The next three hours were spent fidgeting in those line-ups for agents while watching other lines moving faster or slower, always second guessing my choice. Not the agent, but that line up at that time. I had a list of twelve who I really wanted to see as their wish lists lined up with my manuscript. I saw nine. Two were immediate ‘no’s’ which stung, not because I wasn’t expecting some rejection, but because each line up was 30 mins long. I quickly scurried away into the next line and awaited my turn. Most of my pitches were confident and exciting, resulting in requests for pages, even a few for full manuscripts. During a couple of my pitches, nerves got to me, but the agent either saw through it or liked my rambles enough to ask me for more. At the end of three hours, I had sore legs and blisters from standing in my cute shoes. I was bagged.
I sat for a moment before leaving, reflecting on the day, the conference, and the years leading up to it. Even though it was stressful and tense waiting to pitch, I talked to dozens of kick-ass writers while waiting and felt like I was where I was supposed to be. Sitting there afterward, I felt euphoric and proud.
I don’t know if any of those agents will like my manuscript or offer representation. In fact, I have no clue what the next part of this process will be like or how long it will take. Two weeks? Two months? Longer? I have no idea. What I do know is, I did it. I wrote the dang book; I pitched and gave it my all, and now I wait.
But while I wait, I begin writing the next one. Why? Because I love it.
I fished out my flip-flops and went to take a cab back to the other hotel. A friendly doorman asked me if I sold any books when he spotted my conference name tag. I said I didn’t know and laughed. He asked what it was about, and I told him. He kindly said he would buy a copy in a heartbeat and waved a cab over. He then told me his favorite book was the Power of Now by Eckhardt Tolle. I found this random yet fitting and told him he had good taste as he closed the cab door. I grinned like an idiot the whole way back to the hotel, beating my friends there. They were picking up wine to celebrate. It was perfect to have those few moments alone. Before I celebrated and moved onto the touristy part of my trip, and after I called my number one fan club at home. I snapped this picture.
This is me, done.