A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Philip Vernon and Chelsey Emmelhainz of Crooked Lane Books

Philip and Chelsey, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Philip, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.

PHILIP Hi Beth! Thank you so much for the congratulations. I can’t overstate my excitement!

My debut novel WHEN YOU FIND ME is a twisting Southern Gothic psychological suspense. It’s about an alcoholic who is taunted and terrorized by her missing husband’s lover. To uncover his fate, she must draw its connection to her own traumatic past. When she finally does, decades of lies unravel, and the truth is far deadlier than she ever imagined.

I’m a huge fan of suspense, and write both female-driven and LGBT domestic noir. One day, in a book store, my partner handed me a book he felt I might like. I glanced at the back cover, glanced back up, and my partner had vanished (to look for more books, but my creative mind was already turning). What would it be like if someone you love—or think you love—simply vanished in the blink of an eye? Under what circumstances might such a thing transpire? What if a stranger claims to know where they’ve gone? What if the stranger isn’t a stranger at all?

As far as the setting, I’m from South Carolina, so the Carolina Low Country (a marshy, coastal region including places like Charleston and Beaufort) was the perfect setting for my novel. Thus, the fictional town of Elizabeth, SC was born. Write what you know! SC holds a lot of history, some of it grand, much of it rightly reviled. It’s absolutely gothic. The perfect locale for dark secrets to fester. Secrets are patient like that. They’ll wait decades before flaring up in ugly and sometimes violent ways.

Chelsey, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?

CHELSEY: Hi Beth! As Philip mentioned, this novel is full of dark, twisty secrets and set in the south. Add in some seriously shady family dynamics and you’ve pretty much already stolen my heart. Philip’s story kept me turning pages and wondering where the story was going to go—which is a challenge when you read as much as I do. This is a perfect read for fans of psychological suspense. It’s original, dishy, and dark!

Philip, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?

PHILIP: I typically do not have an outline. Rather, I have waypoints in my plot I know I must reach. I also always know the ending, whodunit, but I permit myself the space to discover new twists and secrets as I go. I once uncovered an extramarital affair between two of my characters. They were pretty good at hiding it even from me.

My writing mantra is “write first, get into trouble later”, and I adhere to that ideal pretty strictly. I’m able to churn out a draft quickly, especially since I write high-concept stories that are actually quite simple—if not twisted—at their heart.

Then comes phase two, and the part where I get into trouble with my amazing critique partners and beta readers. This process held true for WHEN YOU FIND ME. My critique partners had the first stab at my draft. Then a trusted group of beta readers who are either authors themselves or avid readers of suspense. Then it was off to the cold-query and Twitter pitch trenches.

My other mantra: “If you must be in the right place at the right time, you better be in all the places, all the times!” Be in the slush pile, be in the appropriate Twitter pitch parties and contests, heck, paste your query front and center on your blog or website’s home page in the off-chance an editor or agent pays a visit.

And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?

PHILIP: I love, love, love #DVpit. The #DVpit mission is a powerful one. Many of us have come to learn recently our fight for equality and representation is never finished. Rather, it’s a generational battle that must be fought anew over and over again. In this light, #DVpit has taken on even more importance for authors and readers alike.

I participated in two #DVpit events with two different manuscripts. Fall of 2016 and Spring of 2017. Both experiences were amazing.

I won’t lie, I was very nervous the instant my very first pitch went live. Like all authors, I was a jumbled bag of insecurity. When my first “heart” rolled in, the relief was incredible. It was already a success no matter what happened from that point forward. I was fortunate enough to experience a great editor/agent response to my pitches, and even though I didn’t wind up finding the right fit for that manuscript, I was completely sold on #DVpit.

When I rolled up my sleeves with a shiny, new manuscript this spring, guess who was my very, very first “heart” on my very, very first pitch? The fabulously amazing Chelsey Emmelhainz of Crooked Lane Books!

How was the experience for you, Chelsey?

CHELSEY: It was great, though I’ll admit, I definitely had the easy job: I just read pitches! Still, I can’t get over how much preparation goes into getting ready for #DVPit—especially from authors. That hard work is evident in how many projects are favorited, read, and eventually signed by agents and editors. I’m very grateful to the #DVPit team and all the authors who participate in bringing diversity to readers! We need you!

Philip, did you receive pitch help? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?

PHILIP: I’m a lucky member of several great local writing groups, as well as partners with very talented critique partners—some I’ve met through Twitter. I get lots of eyeballs on my writing, and this certainly includes pitches. There’s always a word to be cut here, or a more succinct way to express something there.

That said, my biggest piece of advice for pitching on Twitter? Comps! And good ones, at that. Even when I believed my logline was pitch-perfect—sorry, had to—my comp pitches always attracted the most attention. When you only have 140 characters to pitch a manuscript (and less after hash-tags), you need to say a lot in very little space. For me, pertinent comps that editors and agents are already familiar with are the best way to achieve this. Pertinent being the important word. Comps can make your pitch successful, but they’re another opportunity to shoot yourself in the foot if they’re off-base. So, know your genre canon and choose wisely. Also, don’t be afraid to get creative with classic fairy tales, TV shows, film, whatever it takes to capture your book.

And Chelsey, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?

CHELSEY: I have to second what Philip said: a good comp goes a long way! Really, editors spend hours thinking about this, so if it’s a strong comp, you’ve really saved us some brain cells.

I would also encourage authors to keep Twitter pitches simple. Often I see authors trying to cram way too much detail into their pitches, which is understandable given that you’re condensing 80k words into 140 characters, but do try to boil it down to your book’s essence. If your book was a movie, what’s the tagline that the Movie Phone guy would use to get our attention? Keep it smart and sexy.

Tell us about The Call, Philip!

PHILIP: Oh my goodness. I’m always on email, so when Chelsey’s name appeared in my author inbox, I was ready for the next rejection (side note: I could wallpaper a room with my rejections… I’m so proud of my writerly battle scars). But then a few unfamiliar phrases jumped out: “pleasure of reading”, “still looking for publisher?”, and of course, “phone call?”

Initial reaction: Maybe the story is such a hot mess it warrants a personal plea to stop writing? Correct, second reaction: Oh my god! Chelsey loves my story!!!

Speaking with Chelsey was an absolute joy. She quickly got praise for the story out first, which put me at instant ease. Then we jumped right into ways to sharpen and improve it. I can talk writing forever, and I loved hearing the ideas and vision someone with her incredible talent had for what a final book might look like. Her suggestions really resonated with me, making me even more certain she was the one for this book. The fact that she’s really funny and fun to talk to, icing on the cake.

Even as I write this, I’m still a bit in disbelief I found someone like Chelsey who connected with my story the way she did!

Philip, what has the editing/publication process been like since #DVpit? Any news you can share about the book at this point? Publication date, cover, blurbs…?

PHILIP: Well, my first round of revisions will be due before I know it, so I’m in the process of re-reading my changes, letting them sit, and polishing further. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Chelsey has been so accessible every step of the way. Every question from the oh-so-critical to the minor or banal has been answered in a way that reinforces what good editorial hands I’m in.

As you can guess from my pitch below, we had a title change. Love WHEN YOU FIND ME. It’s a very layered title. Complex and germane to the story on several levels. The amazing folks at Crooked Lane Books are working on a suitably creepy cover. I don’t have an exact pub date, but I can say look out for WHEN YOU FIND ME Fall of 2018.

Give us the pitch that hooked your publisher!

PHILIP: Of course! “TRY NOT TO BREATHE x MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD & EVIL = ANNIE, a Southern Gothic psychological #suspense #DVpit #Own”

Chelsey, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?

CHELSEY: Broken record alert: It was the comps! We’ve got a little bit of old and new here, which is a good way to balance it out if you’ve got a great comp but it’s pretty dated. Plus, the newer comp wasn’t GONE GIRL (an automatic disqualifier for me because it was such a huge bestseller) which meant that Philip had done his homework and was really looking for the right comp, not just the biggest comp in his genre.

What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?

CHELSEY: Funny you should ask… I am definitely still looking for more adult psychological/domestic suspense, specifically from DV/OV authors. I also just recently fell in love with the Icelandic noir series, Trapped, and would love something in that vein. Otherwise, I’m always looking for great upmarket (i.e. more literary) mystery, suspense, and crime fiction!

Warm congratulations to Philip and Chelsey, plus the team at Crooked Lane, for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!

Philip Vernon (@PVernon_Author) was born in South Carolina. He holds a PhD in immunology and published science before turning his hand to publishing fiction. Philip is an insatiable reader of suspense and domestic noir. His writing — and love for all things unsettling — is influenced by the works of Gillian Flynn, S.J. Watson, and the late A.S.A. Harrison. Apart from spinning tales of dark secrets or terror in suburbia, Philip is an active member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association. He lives in Alberta with his partner and two wily dogs.

Chelsey Emmelhainz (@CKEmmelhainz) began her publishing career with HarperCollins where she published a wide range of fiction including psychological suspense, noir mysteries, thrillers, and romance. From there, she joined Arcade Publishing, where her list grew to include literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. In 2017, she made the move to Crooked Lane Books, an independent publisher of mystery, suspense, and crime fiction, as a senior editor. Chelsey has had the pleasure of working with New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors and ITW award finalists. With a special love for debut novelists, Chelsey is always on the hunt for the next great story to keep her up at night.