In “Dark Wisdom,” we seek writing and/or publishing advice from the horror fiction masters making up Denver Horror Collective’s Advisory Council.
For this installment, we query Angie Hodapp, Director of Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency: “What sort of horror novels are agents looking for?”
ANGIE HODAPP: While I certainly can’t answer that question on behalf of all agents, I can take a stab (ha, ha) at nailing down (I slay me) a few thoughts that I hope you’ll find useful. I’ll break it down into three things: writing style, premise, and plot.
Upmarket or Literary Writing Style
Nelson Literary Agency is always open to horror submissions, but one of the first three things we’re going to look at is the quality of the writing. We’re unlikely to request a more commercial-leaning, trope-heavy horror novel—cheap thrills, gratuitous violence, gore porn any premise or milieu* that feels recycled or derivative, a work likely to be released as a mass market paperback or ebook only. But send us a more cerebral, psychologically challenging work that demonstrates the tense, suspenseful, unsettling, atmospheric slow-burn of masterful horror writing, and we’ll jump all over it. Read 100 reviews or blurbs for bestselling horror novels and count how many times the words “tension” and “suspense” are used. So much of a writer’s ability to bring tension and suspense to the page lives in their writing style and voice.
We want (and, frankly, who doesn’t?) the next big crossover horror project—the one publishers are going to release in hardcover, the one booksellers are going to set out on their front-of-store displays because it has the potential to capture readers who “don’t read horror” as well as those who do.
*Some horror milieus, however, are evergreen. Haunted houses. Morgues. Cemeteries. Gothic churches. Basements. Abandoned shacks. Maybe that’s because such places are metaphors for the corners of our minds where fear and apprehension lurk. It’s often how a writer chooses to render a familiar setting that makes it feel unique rather than derivative.
Writing style is important, but it can’t stand alone. After reading tons of submissions over the years, I can tell you there’s no shortage of gorgeous, voicey prose in the slush pile. But a solid, unique, fresh, high-concept premise? That’s rare. This is where being well-read in your genre is so important. Know what’s already been done and by whom, and then do it differently and better! (Then drop the mic and walk off the stage. Easy, right?)
When I’m reading a query letter and think “This sounds exactly like X” (often something Stephen King or Hollywood already did), then I’m likely to send a quick rejection. But a query letter that hits me with a premise I’ve never encountered, one that makes me think “How in the world is the writer going to pull that off?”—you can bet a query like that is going to get me to read the sample pages.
Another reason a solid premise is important is because it’s pitchable. If we sign on to represent a novel, we want to be able to quickly and easily pitch it to our co-agents. Our film/TV co-agents want to be able to quickly and easily pitch it to producers, and our foreign co-agents want to be able to quickly and easily pitch it the publishers in their various territories. [Fun fact: Horror is super popular in some countries, while other countries have zero interest. Our client Josh Malerman (Bird Box, Unbury Carol, Inspection) dominates the horror-lit market in Brazil and eastern Europe, especially Turkey, and he’s pretty huge in Korea and Scandinavia as well. Subrights potential is on a lot of agents’ minds when they’re making decisions about which projects to offer to represent.]
As I’m sure you know, a good horror premise is often built on a universal human fear, so start there. Being buried alive (Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman, The Vanishing—the one from 1993), abducted or imprisoned (also The Vanishing, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Girl in the Box, Saw), accused of something (The Witch), getting lost (The Ritual, The Descent), encountering any supernatural force…the list goes on. A lot of these play on more than one fear. Go for it!
A premise can also be built on a real horror, like slavery, say, and then amplified or twisted in some way. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, for instance, explores an alternate post-Civil War world in which slavery has been abolished—but when the dead soldiers rise up off the battlefield as zombies, the new American government forces blacks to train as zombie fighters, claiming they have a natural immunity to zombie bites (which everyone knows is a lie). So Dread Nation offers us the horror of both a real and an imagined-but-plausible social injustice to grapple with, as well as the external threat of zombies. Rather brilliant. (And well-written, too!)
Now we know writing style is important, and we know premise is important. The third leg of the stool is plot.
Plot might be the hardest for most writers to master. It’s such a disappointment for me as an agency reader to get halfway through a manuscript that’s artfully written and that promises a cool, unique premise, only to realize the author is a little lost in the weeds when it comes to spinning a tale or structuring a story. Mastering plot is like learning to juggle bombs: drop one, and your whole story could blow up. Or at least suffer some significant damage. OK, that’s a little doom-and-gloom, but seriously—plot is hard! But it’s also more concrete than writing style or premise, so don’t despair. Anyone can learn plot.
In general, solid plots start with creating relatable characters who have clear goals. Are those goals logically and/or emotionally motivated? Are they connected to a rich backstory? Are they tied to high stakes, and will the story’s events continually raise those stakes? Is your scene craft tight? Does your pacing move along at a good clip, keeping readers turning pages? Do your story events force your characters to grapple with both internal conflict and external conflict? Are the internal and external conflict related in such a way that one cannot be resolved without the other? Is each conflict or try-fail cycle too easily solved by your protagonist? Does your villain or antagonistic force change tactics after each try-fail cycle and come back at your protagonist with bigger, badder powers or resources that, in turn, force your protagonist to dig deeper and deeper into his/her reserves of strength, knowledge, or sheer will to stay in the game? Have your key characters grown or changed by the end or the story, and is that change the inextricable result of your story’s external events?
For horror specifically, have you honored your contract with your readers by building speculative elements and conflicts that are plausible—that don’t strain their willingness to suspend their disbelief? Have you avoided falling back on deus ex machina? Have you built your premise around a physical or psychological fear, or, better yet, both?
To become a student of story structure and air-tight plots, I recommend Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere by Lisa Cron (winner of the best subtitle award) and Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby.
Writing style, premise, and plot: When all three are present and working together, you’ll turn your readers into superfans.
Denver Horror Collective Advisory Council member Angie Hodapp has worked in publishing and professional writing, in one form or another, for sixteen years and currently works as Director of Literary Development at Nelson Literary Agency. Her short stories can be found in various anthologies.