A special treat on this Halloween morning: Five literary agents, who all represent the horror genre, took a break from reading manuscripts to answer a few questions on horror, including what they're seeing a high demand for, what about a submission inspires confidence, and common weaknesses they see in writing. If you're currently struggling through your work-in-progress at the moment, take your own break and see what these horror literary agents have to say. You may just find your key—whether it's psychological horror, marginalized voices, or crossover appeal—to breaking out!
How has the horror genre evolved in recent years, in terms of both writers/books and readers/audiences?
Tricia Skinner: Horror has always proved it's not a genre to take for granted. As soon as you think no one wants to read it or watch it, out pops some crazy cool horror book or movie that resets everyone's perception. I think horror blends well with other genres, which broadens its appeal to readers who claim to staunchly dislike the genre on its own. Horror's growing crossover appeal is what I've seen in recent years. The purely niche stories aren't having a good time finding homes.
Caitlin McDonald: I think both writers and readers have become more discerning. There will certainly always be an appeal in campiness, but recent years have seen an influx of works that are more polished, more literary, that rely less on—or undermine—the usual tropes. I think the pressure to adhere to the “rules” of horror has lessened.
Carlisle Webber: I think it’s reached out to readers who normally wouldn’t go for a straight-up horror novel. I’ve seen horror books with plots that more closely resemble mysteries or thrillers, and I think that’s helped expand the audience.
Lane Heymont: Horror has stepped up its game recently—especially in the last few years—both in publishing and film. In years past, horror was reserved for those who already had an “in”, such as Stephen King, Koontz, Joe Hill (one of King’s sons), or to smaller presses. This was mainly because the genre was a hard sell to the Big Six (now Five) publishers. But, horror has made a huge comeback. Thanks, I think, goes to those smaller presses who took chances and produced fantastic stories by amazing authors. Some of my favorites are Nick Mamatas, Christopher Golden, Michael Hodges (I am biased since he’s a client of mine), Kate Jonez, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (who writes and edits a lot of women-driven Lovecraft), and Jennifer Brozek.
What I love about horror now is that it’s taken on this literary bent. For example, Silvia Moreno-Garcia edited She Walks with Shadows with Paula R. Stiles. H.P. Lovecraft was a notorious sexist, racist, and anti-Semite (despite his wife being Jewish), and it’s been fantastic to see his style of writing interpreted by so many talented women and POC.
The whole H.P. Lovecraft thing has caused quite a stir, and I hope not to receive any angry e-mails or comments about it. I love Lovecraft and everything he did, but it’s amazing to see his work translated to reflect our time.
As for movies—which are intertwined with books—we have The Conjuring franchise, the Insidious franchise, Sinister, and especially Get Out by Jordan Peele (from Blumhouse). Blumhouse has made huge strides and pushed boundaries with the horror genre. I can’t wait to see Happy Death Day!
Julie DInneen: The horror genre continues taking us in directions we haven’t gone before, overlapping with other genres and generally giving us more variety, as we would hope.
Meet the Agents
Julie Dinneen, D4EO Literary Agency: After years of editorial work, professional writing of many descriptions, and an internship at The Bent Agency, Julie joined D4EO Literary as an agent in 2017 to build her own list of upmarket fiction. Across the board, she's looking for books that hook her from the very first page, whether it’s the writing, the voice or some unquantifiable draw that demands her time. She's drawn to stories that are exceptionally well-written, that star dynamic, unforgettable characters, and that appeal to a wide, commercial audience. She's looking for literary fiction with commercial appeal and beautiful, stand-out writing (The Girls, Cloud Atlas). She's on the lookout for upmarket general, women’s, and historical fiction her book club will want to spend hours talking about (Big Little Lies, The Nest, Orphan Train). She'd love to discover a new twist on chick lit—think Bridget Jones for millennials—and she has a weakness for fun, perfectly-executed beach reads. She's also looking for well-written romance, both contemporary and historical. She especially enjoy epic, genre-bending romance (Outlander, The Bronze Horseman) and she never says never when it comes to paranormal, although believability and originality are essential. Genres she reads less of, but will still consider, include high-concept YA with blockbuster potential, psychologically complex horror, and female-centric thrillers. In these categories, she's looking for select projects with storytelling that won’t let go.
Lane Heymont, The Tobias Literary Agency: Lane has judged writing contests across the country and served as faculty member at a wide range of conferences. As Literary Assistant at the Seymour Agency, Lane led the marketing efforts for their authors and enjoyed connecting clients with readers. As a lover of literature since childhood, and at the prodding of his mentor Nicole Resciniti, he decided to pursue his passion as a literary agent. He went on to help found The Tobias Literary Agency. He strives to bring incredible and thought-provoking books to the masses, culminating in reaching the number one spot on Publishers Marketplace for agents representing horror, and the Top Ten for women's fiction and romance. Lane represents a broad range of commercial fiction including romance and all its sub-genres, fantasy, science fiction, horror, celebrity/memoirs, pop culture, serious nonfiction, and true crime. He is a member of the Romance Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the Association of Authors' Representatives. He believes what John Gregory Dunne said: “Writing is manual labor of the mind.”
Caitlin McDonald, Donald Maass Literary Agency: Caitlin joined DMLA in 2015, and was previously at Sterling Lord Literistic. She represents adult and young adult speculative fiction, primarily science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and related subgenres, as well as contemporary fiction about geeky characters. She also handles a small amount of nonfiction in geeky areas, with a focus on feminist theory/women’s issues and pop culture. Caitlin grew up overseas and has a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.
Tricia Skinner, Fuse Literary Agency: Tricia was raised in Detroit, Michigan. She obtained her undergraduate degree from the nationally acclaimed Journalism Institute for Media Diversity at Wayne State University and earned her graduate degree from Southern Methodist University. Professionally, she began her writing career as a newspaper reporter and wrote for The Detroit News, Investor’s Business Daily, MSN, and The Houston Chronicle. She’s covered small & minority business, personal finance, and technology. Tricia has 20 years of experience working with the video game industry in various roles, including public relations, industry relations, and writing/editing. She is also a hybrid author of passionate urban fantasy (represented by Fuse co-founder Laurie McLean). Diversity in genre fiction is dear to Tricia’s heart. As an agent, Tricia wants to represent authors who reflect diversity and cultures in their work. She specializes in Adult, Young Adult and Middle Grade. On the personal side, Tricia has a Tom Hiddleston obsession and she is definitely Team Vader. Her family includes three Great Danes (so far).
Carlisle Webber, Fuse Literary Agency: Carlisle refused to major in English in college because she didn’t think there was anything fun to read on the required lists. No Stephen King? No R.L. Stine? No thanks! After college, she took her love of commercial, YA, and middle grade fiction to the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences, where she earned a Master of Library and Information Sciences. She worked as a public librarian for years before deciding to move to the business side of publishing. She attended the Columbia Publishing Course, interned at Writers House, and worked at the Jane Rotrosen Agency in New York City. She considers herself to be an editorial agent and holds a Professional Certificate in Editing from University of California, Berkeley. She belongs to the American Copy Editors Society and Bay Area Editors’ Forum. When editing, she aims to make a book the best possible version of itself, shaping it in a way so it can best use its unique voice to appeal to a wide audience. Carlisle is looking for high-concept commercial fiction in middle grade, young adult, and adult. If your book is fresh and exciting, tackles difficult topics, reads like a Shonda Rhimes show, or makes readers stay up late turning pages, she’s the agent for you.
What are you seeing a high demand for in the market?
JD: Anything and everything that’s original, believable and well-written. One trend we’ve seen more of is the weave of humor into very-scary horror, as successfully done by authors like Grady Hendrix and David Wong.
CM: I’m seeing a (welcome) interest in stories like Get Out that mirror real-world issues in our society. Psychological horror is also strong right now.
LH: I’ve been receiving lots of requests from Big 5 editors for more psychological horror than anything else. This also works well with the film side of things—low budget, high return—affording more writers a chance to see their horror novels optioned for film.
I also think psychological horror allows for fresher ideas. Monsters are a dime a dozen, but what really interests readers (and editors) is the ordinary person’s reaction to those monsters. Take Stephen King’s It, for example. What makes Pennywise so terrifying is the ability to use the Losers’ fears against them. Yes, there is the pan-dimensional monster murdering people, but the story is really about the Losers’ psychological responses to that monster—overcoming fear and childhood trauma through friendship and unity.
There’s also been a huge push for horror by marginalized peoples and women. We want to see horror from the view of different cultures—a client, Sean Cummings has a very cool horror that takes place in 1920s Canada. I’d also love to see some more horror based on Jewish mythology, or by Cajun or First Nations people. Horror should join other genres in helping counter our current political climate. Editors are looking for projects that do just that, and so am I.
That’s the long-winded way of saying, psychological horror and multicultural horror.
TS: Writers amped up the psychological terror, which continues to work. Horror that mirrors the world today, how people are so disconnected, hateful, and paranoid, but provides a scapegoat in the form of a monster, are doing well right now.
CW: Books that feel like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, where there’s not necessarily a lot of fast-paced terror up front, but a looming dark presence that builds as the novel goes on.
What about a submission inspires confidence that you'll be able to find the work a home with a publisher?
LH: This is a fantastic, and almost impossible to answer, question! The answer mostly given, and appropriate, frustrates authors to no end, so I apologize in advance.
What makes an agent or editor feel a project will be successful? Voice! A fresh angle also helps, but if you have a killer voice—see what I did there?—you can tell a clichéd story like it’s as fresh as ripe tomatoes. After all, there are only so many plots. Just ask Aristotle, Georges Polti, or Carroll Carroll, who said, “There hasn’t been a new idea in seventy-five years.” That was in the 1950s!
What I’m getting at is it’s important to hone your craft. Work out your voice. Avoid clichés. I often tell writers to help avoid falling into traps they must ask the questions before the readers have a chance to. Or do what James Wan did while writing Insidious: keep a notepad by your desk with all the known clichés and when you find you’ve written one, rewrite it.
CM: A strong and unique voice. This is true of any genre, but in horror it’s even more important, because this is where that tense atmosphere comes from. Think of it like the cinematography of a horror film: How little things like camera angles and cuts can build audience terror far more effectively than just showing a monster on the screen. The same principle applies here: How you tell the story is, in horror, almost more important than the story itself.
JD: As mentioned above: originality, outstanding writing, and storytelling that pulls me in and won’t let go. Right now I’m reading Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box and I’m finding myself reading [it] when I should be doing other things. When that happens with a submission—and when it can sustain that momentum throughout—I start thinking about which editors might be a good match.
CW: Just like other genres, if a book has compelling characters, high tension, and other hallmarks of a quality novel, I’m more likely to want to represent it. A good scare is even scarier if it’s happening to a character I’m invested in.
TS: Crossover appeal is the first thing I'd look for in a submission. The writing must be gorgeous and mesmerizing. A publisher will always consider any work with incredible writing.
This course is designed to help you understand how to craft a winning premise, how to outline your novel, and then how to take both of those things and assemble a synopsis that will act as a guide for you to write your novel and sell it.
What are the most common weaknesses in your horror submission pile?
TS: Poor writing, weak structure, and failing to deliver on the horror premise. The weakest submissions are usually from writers skimming the genre's surface layer. Some writers spend too much time in one area (e.g. creature creation) yet very little in another area (e.g. character motivation). The worst is never delivering the chills and cold sweat throughout the story. If the only time the story is scary is when the monster is in the scene, something is wrong.
JD: For horror that involves the supernatural—and most of it does, though not all—believability is especially difficult to pull off. Convincing readers that the supernatural is real—and terrifying—isn’t easy. Holes in the world-building can undermine a reader’s belief and shatter the illusion. The central job of effective horror is to scare or shock the reader and to simultaneously make us want more. If we don’t believe, we won’t feel the fear. In the same vein, if we don’t feel the need to find out what happens next, the writer has more work to do.
CW: The first is too much gore coupled with not enough characterization. It’s not enough to have blood and guts for the sake of having them. They have to surround a main character whom I want to follow to the end of the story. The second is a lack of world-building. The author writes a book and can clearly imagine their world and its rules, but it isn’t well explained to someone who’s coming in with no knowledge of their world at all.
CM: Stories that are just not unique enough in premise. I see many of the same two or three basic ideas over and over again, and unless you have a truly phenomenal narrative voice, it’s going to be hard to make that stand out on the bookshelf. Look beyond the usual settings and tropes for your story. I want to see more horror that really shakes it up.
LH: This goes along with the previous question: clichés, and then gore.
Those are the two biggest weaknesses I’ve found in horror. Blood is fine, but it must serve a purpose. Just like foul language, sex, and nudity. I’m not against those things, but it’s obvious when they are there just for thrills or to pull a gut reaction.
Horror is more than violence, blood, and monsters. It’s the shadows creeping beyond the door when you look away. It’s the sense of dread clawing at your insides when you look up at the inky night sky and find the stars are not there.
Relying on physical fear often leads to a weak plot, weaker story, and a lack emotive prowess. This is because we can only suspend so much disbelief. We’re reading words on a page so we instinctively know we’re not in any real danger, which is why it’s so important to focus on the power of words to cause the air around us to saturate with dread.
What do you wish you would see more of in your inbox?
JD: Voice. In any genre, originality of voice really stands out. And, of course, wonderful writing.
CM: More crossover horror: Stories that serve two genres at once. One of my recent sales is The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling, which combines a horror narrative with a science-fiction setting for a whole new level of creepiness. Using science-fiction or fantasy to change up your setting from the real world is a great way to bring a freshness to your horror novel—not to mention all the new scary elements you can introduce.
TS: I'd prefer physical creatures instead of ghostly/spirit manifestations. I'm not tired of truly dark Southern Gothic. Horror manuscripts with a multi-ethnic cast and set in a large city, or a city that isn't Seattle, along the east coast, or fictional. An international horror story would rock. Something that jumps continents. And in all of these suggestions, I don't care if it's historical, alternate history, present, or future. Query me!
LH: Psychological horror—I recently signed Shadow Award-winning author Daniel I. Russell, who has written a fantastic psychological horror involving an “evil” doll. It may sound cliché, but with his voice, we truly feel the maddening suspicion of whether this inanimate object is possessed by some evil or if it’s our own madness stalking the hallways. It gave me the spooks and several of my interns complained about nightmares after reading it!
I’m also less interested in gore and violence, and more craving projects which show us how horror affects characters. This is something H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, and Le Fanu excelled at. You might be able to tell I love me some Gothic and stories involving horrors beyond description.
Last, but not least—actually, most importantly—I’m looking for projects from marginalized writers and multicultural stories. If you have a horror novel involving voodoo, ifrits, mazikeen, or any other non-European horror, send it my way!
CW: I’m addicted to true crime podcasts and TV shows, so I’d love to see more human-based, as opposed to primarily supernatural, horror. Since psychological thrillers do so well, I’d love to see some psychological horror land in my inbox. I also love stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
Are there any premises or plot structures that you've seen played out in this genre?
CM: Ancient evil powers tormenting sleepy rural towns. The Thing in the Woods. This is a subgenre that still seems to have something of a market, but in my opinion, it’s been done to death. That’s not to say that I won’t be interested if the voice is especially amazing and unique, but there’s a lot of competition out there and it’s hard to find a new angle to bring to this table.
JD: I don’t think any premise has "played out." Every writer spins a tale from a slightly different angle and brings her or his own unique vantage point to a story. When writers have talent, a good idea, and trust themselves to follow their vision along its own unique path, it becomes something new. You might think the market has had enough of horror stories about teenagers getting lost in the woods or hunted down at summer camp. But then a book like Joey Comeau’s The Summer Has Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved comes along and it’s new. It’s gruesome, almost funny, and somehow turns something that could have been derivative into something original. This happens all the time. In 2010, we could have been forgiven for thinking the market had seen enough of vampires, but then Justin Cronin proved us wrong with The Passage, which is inventive, well-written, and truly eerie. And on that note … if you’ve written 2017’s completely original, well-written vampire novel (in any genre), please query me!
CW: Books where a serial killer is a primary or secondary character can be hard to sell. I get the appeal, because serial killers are a little like modern-day fairytale villains, but in too many manuscripts I’ve seen they lack dimension. Also, when a serial killer is involved, there’s almost always a plot element of “How do we stop them?” so that gets repetitive.
LH: Haunted houses—we currently have an author on submission with an excellent haunted house project.
No mad scientists, either. I once mentioned—okay, maybe several times—Frankenstein is my favorite book of all time. Notice the Gothic horror? So, lots of authors pitch their horror novels as being in the vein of Frankenstein. Obviously, that’s not an automatic rejection, but it’s sure close. No one’s novel can compete with perfection. You might as well tell me you’ve written the next Iliad.
Horror only works if it’s fresh, so you need to come with a totally different angle than we’ve seen before. Think about films that left us scratching our heads: M. Night’s Sixth Sense or Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. Both movies had the same twist, but it’s the delivery and tones which set them apart.
Something else that bothers me about horror projects I’ve been receiving is the treatment of women. Too many people seem to use them as fodder for murder to gain our sympathy or anger. I’d love to see some kick-ass women in horror—think The Descent (one of my favorite horror films) or She Walks in Shadows or anything in the vein of Billie Sue Mosiman.
TS: I'm bored with the "malevolent forces target a child" trope. Same goes for ghost house, pissed off witch spirit, vampiric whatever, cannibal neighbors, etc. If it's on Netflix in some form, I'd rather not read it. I'm looking for new and fresh.