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?”
Photo: Wyoming Writers, Inc.
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.
One of Denver’s grand old buildings, Union Station, has been beautifully restored and updated to serve as a modern transportation hub. The city didn’t always have such a fine space, though. From 1872 until Union Station opened in 1881, passenger trains pulled in at a much more modest brick depot at 21st and Wazee; that’s just about under home plate at Coors Field today.
Photo: Adrianne Montoya
The Station Agent at the old depot was a man named Frank Pierce, and he took his job seriously. As a tough new western town, Denver presented all kinds of possibilities for disorder, but the thorn in Pierce’s side was all who spit on the floor. It was more common then to chew tobacco, and so there was considerably more public spitting going on. So Pierce put out spittoons, he hung signs reminding people to use them, he cleaned up, and he did it all again, but the nasty, spitty conditions persisted.
Frustrated, Pierce bypassed what remained of his politeness and went for indirect threat. He grabbed a shovel, made his way to Mount Prospect Cemetery—that’s Cheesman Park to you, your dog, and your volleyball league—and came away with a human skull. He mounted it next to the ticket window with a sign that read, “This is the last man who spat on the floor.”
The public was spooked into minding their manners at the depot and those green-black gobs made their way directly into the spittoons provided. Problem was, now they had another kind of spook on their hands.
Collective member Adrianne Montoya is a Colorado native who’s spent most of her years in Denver. Though her podcast Southwest Gothic she shares spooky history and weird west stories and is currently working on two novels.
1. Name one horror author you admire. How did they help you become a better writer?
Paul Tremblay. His pacing is impeccable, the way he slams the reader with the right detail at the right moment. I’m inspired by his balance between the micro and the macro, and I’m striving to manipulate minimum details for maximum impact the way he does. He’s completely ruined Richard Scarry picture books for me, in the best way possible.
Playing with your fears is the sure way to make them your friends, in my highly-valued opinion, that is. But before I explain… I’ll just show you an example of how I like to play. This prose poem below is how I turned one of my fears into who I now call Big D.
Photo: Ryan Eldon Holmbeck
A Tribute to Big D
I am well acquainted with Big D; we are beyond a first name basis, Death and I. A few times a year he drops by to see me, just to say hello—although sometimes I really wish he’d call first. I always like to clean up a little before guests come over. You know, shove everything in the closet and under the bed, vacuum, wash a few dishes, fill the rooms with sweet fragrance, and buy a bottle of tequila.
I don’t always write bombastically, but when I do, I unashamedly employ verbiage from The Most Interesting Man in the World memes in my introductions. Well, that and I write with a ham fist like the blog post below.
You’ve decided you want to write horror, or maybe just experiment with writing it, so you do a little informal research. An immediate leap to googling “writing horror” ensues. Every. Time.
And that’s when the monsters show up.
You only have to read about 15-30 minutes worth of any combination of pretentious literary theory and the jaded, officious, and sarcastic swamp of a Reddit comment stream to become instantly uninspired before you even set pen to paper. Before one click on your keyboard, Do’s and Don’ts railings regarding the writing of horror will you have you tied up into a slimy, intestinal pretzel.
No, I do not have vast amounts of publishing experience as a front person. But I have some, and when it comes to ghost-writing and -editing, I certainly do have a lot of experience. And I’m here to tell you that by the time a know-it-all (as in, unhelpful) editor gets done with straining your work through the filter of their list of 99876983246528734 “horror tropes” to avoid, if you take that advice (or bow to those edicts) you will never get started on any writing, let alone horror. Okay, I’m exaggerating. That list isn’t 99876983246528734 (thank you, copy-and-paste) but in all of the articles you’ll find by googling “horror tropes” (don’t until you’re brave enough) that number is certainly somewhere around two dozen, and it’s guaranteed to drive a stake through the heart of anything you dare to create.
No, not all of the above entities are bad things–there’s good publishing peeps and writing resources aplenty–but most have the potential to be bad in terms of you beginning to write. It’s called intimidation, and it sucks. There will be a focus on minutia like never starting a sentence using “there will be”, placing a comma correctly before or after quotation marks, correct use of a semicolon; the sentences that go on forever–at least to them, and remember hyphens drive them apeshit as well–and also, overuse, or, even minimal use of commas or periods or even the word even, even when you need them to break up something like the end of this endless sentence that goes on forever too dangling. And some even prefer all-caps to italics!
That’s why early on in your writing career/venture/prison break you need to develop a thick skin to keep writing. I’m not saying don’t work on your writing, including all of the egregious offenders above (and probably more to come in this post). I’m saying be prepared early on for the condescension or the outright non-response dismissal of your submission. Most editors mean well, but many have this vibe from their traditional publishing industry compound that comes across as them being a lot better off if you never wrote anything. Tales of mountainous slush-piles are constantly talked about by jaded editors, picky or jackpot-hunting agents, and blustering anti-self-publishing-mafiosos. This is often used to try to convince you, dear writer, that there’s a chance of slim-to-donut hole that your work will ever be seen anywhere.
Except maybe on Slush Mountain.
It’s at this point when you make any noise back in their direction like the above, you’ll be accused of being a big baby via their employment of ascribing those big scary disenfranchisement tropes, self-entitlement tropes, and other tropes, jabs, and bile designed provoke a reaction rather than discussion. WARNING: When you serve the self-appointed doctors a taste of their own medicine, brace yourself for the vomit fest aimed in your direction. They don’t like to be called hypocrites, and some will even have to look up that word before they give you a wiki-inspired history lesson it.
Find good and experienced peeps who’ll help you along the way. Their critiques may smart, but if they are helping you rather than sending strong signals for you to give up, then keep going. And keep writing. Talk to your fellow writers and glean the Greatest Hits of Writing from them. Chew on the meat, spit out the bones. If you want me to cut the crap with metaphors or aphorisms, then stop reading this and start writing.
Self-publishing is a longer discussion than what I’m going to say about it here, but know this: you do not have to be afraid of it. But you do have to respect it by simply not being sloppy. I’ve had to learn my own lessons in that realm. It’s not any different than most other things out there: most of it’s crap you don’t want to engage in as a reader, but some of it’s good and worth the search. In that respect, it’s no different from traditional publishing. And if you do want to engage self-publishing, bone up on its ins and outs and do it. Again, find some resources that will help you along the way rather than shut you down with a barrage of demoralizing–wait for it–horror stories.
Yes, simply start writing. You’ve heard it thousands of times before in every writer’s resource out there for decades, but there’s a reason for that. Starting something significantly increases your chances of finishing it. It’s okay if that first draft is raw and smells like a rat turd. Work with it. Nudge it, scoot it, or kick it into that punctuated equilibrium of its evolutionary path. But you have to start.
In my realm of artistic expression, which is primarily horror based, I don’t just write. Under the sobriquet The Rïpröck, I work as a commercial artist and graphic designer. I wrote the post below about four years ago:
“Some one asked me via PM what the most important advice I could give to an aspiring artist is. My answer: nothing. Because ‘aspiring artists’ don’t exist. They aren’t born. They’re not “in process.” Artists just are. They don’t apologize or wait for permission from a fickle circle of family and friends to create anything. They just do it. They don’t mistake humility for hoping the bulk of their social sphere will love or even approve of their work. Here’s humility: recognizing the privilege of being able to use a drawing instrument, and honoring that privilege by DOING IT. Artists can be trained and honed, but in the end, it’s up to them, and them alone. If you want ‘advice,’ here it is: when you move a pencil, paintbrush, pastel, crayon, stylus, or whatever…just MEAN it. Don’t hold back, don’t do wimpy, feathery strokes when a bold line is needed. Don’t blunderbuss a line when patience and a lighter touch is needed. MEAN it. Stop apologizing, and get to work.”
Now let’s take the above and apply it to your writing. From me to you:
Aspiring horror writers don’t exist. You weren’t born a horror writer, either. You’re not “in process.” You just are. Don’t apologize or wait for permission from your fickle circle of family and friends to write anything. Just do it. Don’t mistake humility for hoping the bulk of your social sphere will love or even approve of your work. Here’s humility: recognizing the privilege of writing horror, and honoring that privilege by DOING IT. You can be trained and honed, but in the end, it’s up to you, and you alone. If you want ‘advice,’ here it is: when you write, MEAN it. Don’t hold back, don’t do wimpy, feathery prose when a boldness is needed. Don’t blunderbuss a sentence when patience and a simple touch is needed. MEAN it. Stop apologizing, and get to work.
Just start already.
Jeamus Wilkes writes horror fiction and nonfiction, and works as a ghost-writer while juggling cats as Owner and Managing Editor at Autumn Tiger Publishing Arts. Wilkes was also co-founder and event coordinator of Colorado Horror Con 2015, and has been a member of the Denver Horror Collective since early 2018. Some of his short fiction is available in Amazon’s Kindle Store. For a launch pad into his writing, the first step is jeamus.com