In part three of Robert’s series, he gives you the ins and outs of querying a professional agent. It’s an interesting and in-depth piece I’m sure you’ll enjoy, so I’m going to get the hell out of the way and let you read on. Enjoy!
HOW TO BE A (PUBLISHED) HORROR WRITER 3—Query the Agent
By Robert E. Dunn
The last time Shane let me post one of my talks to you it was about interacting with literary agents. The basic lesson there was be polite and be professional. You will be amazed as a new writer how often that one lesson comes up in your life. You will be surprised, probably a little disheartened, how often it gets ignored.
Today I wanted to touch on one of the most basic, and most worrying tasks you’re going to be confronted with—the query. Everyone has to write them. Everyone dreads it.
Why do we worry so much about a short, single page letter after wrapping up a MS running anywhere from 60,000 words? I think it’s because we know our story too intimately. We know all the little pieces and can’t imagine anyone understanding without every detail. The good news is that you don’t want them to understand everything. It’s just too much. You want them to understand the story. More than that—or less—your job in the query is to give the core story. Aside from the story you want to convey the stakes. What makes the conflict of the story important?
We’re getting ahead of things a bit though. Before you even get to tell them the story, find out exactly who wants to hear it. That means research. It used to be that you got a copy of Writer’s Market and looked through the agents listed under your genre. Now of course almost every agency has a website that details the kinds of books they represent. Even better, each agent usually has their own presence that tells you a bit about them, the kinds of manuscripts they look for, and if they are open. Many post appearance schedules so you sign up for in person pitch or critique sessions at conferences. Even when closed to cold queries many agents will welcome an approach from a conference attendee who made a good impression.
Okay—you’ve done research, you have a top 10 list of agents who are looking for horror. (Just a side note, horror is growing and the number of interested agents is increasing all the time. That’s a good thing for all of us.) You’re ready to start the actual query process. Now I want to give you some rules.
Many of you are thinking rules are meant to be broken. Or you’re thinking you have a better way. I can’t stress enough that they aren’t and you don’t. Remember what I said earlier about be polite and be professional? This is where it comes in.
Rule 1 Write to the person you want to reach. That sounds silly to say but it’s not. You’ve done your research, or you should have, so there is no reason to address your letter, Dear Sir of Madam, or To Whom It May Concern, or to The Horror Agent… Get the idea? Know the person you want to reach, address them, spell their name correctly. Honestly if you got 100 letters a week would you keep reading when it was obviously a generic letter to anyone?
Rule 2 Even though you are speaking personally don’t be personal. Don’t begin a query discussing your mutual love of, INSERT SPORTS TEAM HERE, unless it directly relates to the query. Don’t talk about their dog. Don’t tell them they are pretty or handsome. A query letter is business correspondence. Keep it that way. The exception is if you have a prior relationship. If you met the agent at a conference it is perfectly acceptable to remind them. If you have positively interacted on social media you might mention it. I use Twitter a lot and have reminded agents and editors that we follow each other.
Rule 3 Short and to the point. Again, remember the volume of letters in an agent’s inbox. They won’t read a three page note. This is echoed in the next rule.
Rule 4 Follow the requirements. On every agency site you will find a listing of their specific query instructions. Sometimes, an agent will refine those on her personal bio page. Requirements will tell you if your intended rep wants sample pages or initial letter only. If she wants sample pages you will find the acceptable word or page count, if it should be in body or attached. Many will specifically tell you their desired font and size for your sample pages. If they don’t, Times New Roman 12 is a great default. Requirements are a part of your research, read and follow.
Those are my basic rules. As you get more experience you will refine them for yourself and build your own set. Now I want to tell you a bit about format. After the salutation, you can get right into the pitch or you can take a few lines to make a connection. This is where you include the personal but not Personal interaction. Then you give the hard information about your MS, genre, target market, word count.
I want to give a couple of examples from queries I sent for one of my latest books, THE HARROWING. The first was sent to an agent with whom I had been talking on social media about meeting at a writer’s conference. The second is a cold query.
Ms. XXXXX VVVVVV
The YYYYYY Agency
Dear Ms. VVVVVV,
I regret that I won’t be able to meet you at the Ozarks Writers Conference this month. I was looking forward to that. On the other hand I do appreciate the chance to tell you about my most recent novel. THE HARROWING is an 88,000 word horror/fantasy novel for adult markets.
Ms. XXXXX VVVVVV
The YYYYYY Agency
Dear Ms. VVVVVV,
I’d like to tell you about THE HARROWING, an 88,000 word, contemporary fantasy/horror for adult markets.
You might notice two things. In example 1 I tried to personalize without being personal. In each, I defined the genre to match the interests of the agent. If your MS crosses genres it is all right to emphasize one in the query.
After the initial, and brief introduction, give a short pitch. Tell the agent what the book is beyond the stats.
Ms. XXXXX VVVVVV
The YYYYYY Agency
Dear Ms. VVVVVV,
I’d like to tell you about THE HARROWING, an 88,000 word, contemporary fantasy/horror for adult markets. THE HARROWING combines unique world building and a thriller’s pace with warring angels, dark gods, and magic sans wands.
That’s really all you need. Jump right in, tell them about the book in one short paragraph. Include the stats and a pitch. After that comes the story synopsis. Again this is what I used with the previous example for The Harrowing.
Andrew Jackson Presley, learned the hard way, never trust an angel. Recruited by archangel Puriel for a harrowing, a descent into hell to rescue the innocent, the first thing he has to do is die in the grill of a Mack truck. From there, things only get worse.
Not only is Hell at war with Heaven, it’s at war with itself. And there are secrets, buried in his own past lives that make Jack the key to victory for all sides. Negotiating brutal combat and angelic politics, Jack discovers that the woman he’s to rescue is Orisa Esu. She’s another secret from his past, and a half-angel, with her own role to play in the war.
With the help of the most beautiful woman in hell, Satan herself, Jack unravels secrets, his and the angels. When the war between heaven and hell threatens to spill Armageddon onto Earth, Jack learns his quest isn’t to save just one innocent person. He has to save all life, and all after-life. Even as the truth takes shape and the plans of eternity are playing out, Jack raises the stakes. To save the world, he sets loose the gods of antiquity, risking the entire universe.
Story and stakes. Forgive me for being literal there. When writing this blog post I had forgotten that I used the actual word, stakes, in the synopsis.
After the synopsis, is the place to say something about yourself and your credits or if this is your first book. You can even add something about why you chose the agent you are writing to.
Ms. VVVVVV, I wanted to reach out after reading in your blog about wanting edgy fantasy. I thought THE HARROWING would be a good match. After writing news, documentaries, travelogues, even theatrical trailers as an award winning video producer, I began writing fiction. THE HARROWING is my 8th novel following titles published by Severed Press, Necro Publications, and Loose Id.
After that, add something that shows you followed the requirements and close up.
Included after the body of this note are the first 10 pages of THE HARROWING. The full MS and synopsis are available at your request. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.
Put all the pieces together, even copy and paste filling in your own information if you want a way to get started. But that’s the real secret—get it started. It’ll come.
Full disclosure, I got some nice responses and requests to send the full MS. I never had an offer for representation on this one. One of the things you will develop is your own timeframe requirements as you work. THE HARROWING was released in Nov. 2016 by Necro Publications. Even with the book accepted by a publisher and issued in hardback, paper, and e-book, I am still receiving answers to queries. Recently I got a request to send the full MS based on a query I had sent 19 months before. All of this can be a long or quick process. You never know how things will run. But it is a business. You need to do what is best for you and your book. But keep that in mind, What’s best for you and your book. Don’t just give up. Find what’s best and keep working at it.
About Robert E. Dunn:
Robert Dunn (1960) was an Army brat born in Alabama and finally settled in Nixa, Missouri. A graduate of Drury College with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communications/Film he also earned a second major in Philosophy with a minor in Religion and carried an emphasis in Theatre. This course of study left him qualified only to be a televangelist.
An award winning film/video producer and writer, he has written scripts for or directed every kind of production from local 30-second television commercial spots to documentary productions and travelogues.
A writer of blognovels and contributor to various fiction websites his work has also included the book length prose poem, Uncle Sam, the collection of short stories, Motorman and Other Stories and novel, Behind the Darkness.
Mr. Dunn now resides in Kansas City where he continues to write genre fiction and experiment with mixed media art projects using hand drawn and painted elements combined through digital paint and compositing.