Category: query letters

The Simple Complexity of a Writing Career

On its face, to build a career as an author is easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Write something good.
  2. Get an agent.
  3. Be published.

Fame and fortune comes shortly thereafter, obviously.

Seems straightforward, right? It’s some sort of natural law that anything seemingly simple is nothing of the sort. Any process, put under rigorous enough examination, can evolve into a complicated labyrinth of best practices and advice. Let’s explore.

Write something good

This is like starting off a career as a carpenter by building an entire house. Sure, most of us hone our skills by laying flooring, doing some drywall, maybe taking on a single room. But even those tasks, as complicated as they are, pale in comparison to the entire house.

That’s just covering the “write something” part. Writing something good is a carpenter building a house on the edge of a mountain.

It’s hard to know what’s good because art is subjective. I know what I think is good. But it’s not the same as what my sister thinks is good. I can’t know if it’s what the public at large thinks is good.

So we focus on the elements that, in the alchemy of storytelling, sometimes add up to a good story:

  • Develop deep, complex characters.
  • Drop them into an interesting situation.
  • Layer in conflict.
  • ???
  • Profit.

Assuming we nail those parts of it, what if we’re just not good writers? What if our grammar is a little weird, or we don’t vary our sentence length enough, or, gods forbid, our voice isn’t apparent? Then what?

Writing something good isn’t an easy ask. Say we succeed, though, and write something we’re damn proud of? Surely the hard part is over?

Get an agent

Now that we’ve written something good, the path is clear. Just gotta get an agent to help shepherd the work into the world, where it will be loved and appreciated. With a story as good as the one we have, shouldn’t take more than a few tries to find someone as passionate about the story as we are. First, though, the query.

How do we write a query? There are numerous ways, depending on the medium you’re writing in (prose, screenwriting, etc.) and sometimes down to genre or agent preference?

That’s fine. No problem. We just wrote something good, so a query letter can’t be hard.

Oh but it is.

And so this becomes a new struggle. Eventually, through much forum-diving, advice-seeking, and rage-crying, we write one we’re happy with.

Next, then, is researching agents. We’ll start by identifying agents that represent our genre. Do we know what specific genre our story is in? Gotta figure out which is best, science fiction or literary fiction with speculative elements? Did we write a psychological thriller or a mystery? Shit, there’s a lot of gore, maybe it’s horror?

Ok, we’ve got that all figured out and created a list of agents that will soon be fighting over our story.

Except for this first rejection. And the second. The first ten are flukes, surely. We’ll make some adjustments to the query letter. Send another ten queries…

… and that’s another ten rejections.

But it only takes one, right? Just one person to see what you see. We’ll keep going. The rejections hurt less after a while, anyway.

Be published

Here’s where I must say goodbye, for I have yet to reach this stage, and therefore cannot offer anything of substance. Hopefully one day soon I’ll be able to update this post with my experience being published.

Until then, best of luck.

No Excuses (Or Never Give Up, Never Surrender!)

The moment I decided to start writing query letters I also decided something else: The only chance I’ll ever have at a career as a screenwriter, and the only way to be sure that I’m a hopeless cause (if there is a way to be sure), it to give it everything. I was scared of querying managers, agents, and producers because I didn’t want them to ruin my confidence.

With contests, or BL3.0 there is a wall between you and the reviewer(s). It’s easy to take a script down if it gets a bad review on BL3.0, or say that the reader did a poor job and ignore it. It’s even easier to write off contests. The competition was just too good this year. Contests are a scam anyway. My script isn’t marketable enough to win contests or my script is too mainstream to win this contest. I’m sure there are an infinite amount of excuses lean on, but I can’t personally rationalize such a rejection from a manager, agent, or producer. Especially since, in my interactions with a manager, if they do read your stuff and it is even vaguely interesting you will receive a thoughtful response. Maybe I got lucky my first time out. But I would like to think that’s how most “insiders” or “gatekeepers” operate.

Even though I was scared of querying because of the seeming finality to it the process has actually given me some confidence moving forward. I wouldn’t call it a homerun, not by a long shot, but it was a good start. I made a connection, proved that there is some semblance of talent beneath this insecurity, and learned a few valuable lessons that should help me in the future.

As I constructed my contact list I also realized that, much like dating, there are plenty of fish in the sea. If I don’t get any bites this go around the flaw is with the idea and/or execution and I need to do better next time. The door isn’t closed. Managers, agents, and producers surely talk to one another, but unless they read something horrifically bad (as in – offensively bad) I doubt they would gossip and blacklist some unknown writer that lives in Alexandria, Virginia by way of Buffalo, New York.

I’ve written a bit about knowing when to quit and worrying that I’ll be chasing this dream past the horizon, through the sunset, and into the vacuum of space where it’ll kill me, but there is solace in knowing I’m on my way to doing everything I can to make it a reality. It began with contests. Then it was professional reviews. Now it’s query letters. Next is the move to LA. Once there, if things don’t break, then maybe I’ll know for sure that this life isn’t built for me even if I feel like I was built for it.

The Art of the Query: What I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve had a tiny bit of success with my query letters. A modicum, if you will, but enough that I’ve learned a few important lessons. For maximum digestability of these lessons for you, dear reader(s), I’ll break it up into a very short “do’s” and “don’ts” listicle.

Do:
Include a favorable quote from a reputable place, if possible. The second response I got from a manager was because in my query I included a quote that compared The Inhabitors to Rod Serling. The manager got back to me immediately and said that he was a huge Twilight Zone fan and would love to read what I wrote. The problem with this is that it immediately raised expectations. So, on my follow-up email to him I jokingly said to blame the reader if I can’t live up to Serling and that I’d never be so arrogant to compare myself to him, even if I will be so shameless as to use the comparison in a query letter.

Be succinct. It’s important to keep a query short, if only to show a potential agent/manager that you respect their time. I tried to do the same with email follow-ups. I alternated between two different loglines, one that was a bit longer but better explained the plot and one that was shorter but more ambiguous. I had better luck with the more detailed logline, but even that was only two sentences.

Be patient. The Twilight Zone manager read my script in three days and got back to me (more on that later) but I’ve yet to hear from the other three managers that have requested my script. I can’t know for sure, yet, but I’ve heard that some managers/agents/producers can take weeks or months to read. It won’t help your purpose to continually bug them about it. There doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus on when to check in with someone, but most experienced queriers (my word, don’t use it) agree it should be at least a few weeks. Up to six, I’ve heard.

Don’t:
Send anything handwritten. I’ve made that mistake with nine fucking queries, like a dumbass, and I’ve probably just made myself a laughingstock. Alright, that’s a bit melodramatic, but apparently it’s unprofessional to send handwritten letters. I thought it would be nice, personal even, but I guess not. If you’re going to mail a query it’s best to type it up and print it out. Easier, too.

Query more than one person at the same company. Do your research and find someone who represents people that write in the same genre as you. My thinking, which is admittedly probably wrong, is that if someone reads a query and it doesn’t interest them that doesn’t mean it’s dead. They may go, “This doesn’t sound like something I’d necessarily like, but this might be up Bob’s alley.” And then they’ll send it on over to Bob. Am I being overly optimistic? Oh, definitely. But I do think it’s a bad idea to send to more than one person in the same company.

Expect too much. I’ve had decent luck with The Inhabitors on both BL3.0 and in querying so far. At least, I think I have. The Inhabitors has a strong hook and unique concept. It gets people to want to read it. From there it’s been less hopeful at worst, polarizing at best. But I think the typical process for this sort of thing is much more frustrating. I do not expect to find representation. Nor do I expect my next script to go out, Peripheral, to get a similar response.

Ambigous:

I haven’t totally decided on these points yet, so I don’t know whether they can help or hurt. I’m on the fence about comparing my work with someone else’s to garner interest. In all of the query letters that got a response (a whopping four so far, remember) I didn’t. I think it can be good in the sense it shows you did your research and are proving that you know what they’re interested in. But it can be bad because it creates expectations you may not be able to live up to. I also think that, unless you’ve actually read or seen what you’re referencing, the person you’re querying might just say, “How would you know what this project is like? It just sold.”

Along the same lines, I don’t know if researching managers to find seemingly similar clients is all that useful. Definitely find what sort of genre they tend to work in, but in a lot of my research I found most managers and agents to have a pretty diverse portfolio. Some definitely do only work within comedy, or horror/thrillers, but mostly there seems to be a decent mix.

Expect:

To hear back almost immediately. This experience has been backed up by what I’ve read from other people on forums and the like. With email managers and their assistants are connected 24/7. The first request I got took a day. The next three happened within a half hour of my sending the query. They had the script in their hands within an hour. If it’s been a few days and you haven’t heard anything it’s probably safe to assume they’re not interested and you should move on.

For posterity’s sake, here is the final query letter I ended up going with on most queries:

Dear (Insert name of Agent/Manager/Producer),
A broken young man and his friends struggle with the ethical implications of using a mysterious box to control the consciousness and view the memories of others. As he learns the secrets people keep, and the secrets his friends have kept from one another, he spirals into madness.
This is the story of THE INHABITORS. It is a Science Fiction Thriller that was rated a 9/10 from a reader on the Black List 3.0. The reader wrote, “… Rod Serling himself would be proud of this gripping and upsetting story.”
If you would like to read the full script, please contact me via the information provided.
Thank you,

Craig Gusmann

You’ll notice that I cut the stuff about making the semifinals of the Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship and made no mention of similar clients or work. This is the letter that got me all of my responses. Speaking of responses…

I’ve had my first interaction with a real live manager! How exciting for me, I know. This is the Twilight Zone fellow mentioned above and as far as I can tell he seems like a nice guy. Of course, I would imagine it’s part of the job description to be decent to people. It is a people-based business after all. Anyway, he requested the script. I sent it to him. Three days later he got back to me–

— with a soft pass. I say “soft” pass because he didn’t tell me it was the most disappointing, poorly executed piece of shit he’s ever read. No, that would be what I would call a “hard” pass*.

*In reality, a hard pass would probably have been something along the lines of, “This isn’t for me. Good luck placing it elsewhere.” In other words, short and blunt.

He basically told me that he loved the concept but had some issues with the story that made him feel he wouldn’t be able to sell it. He outlined those concerns nicely and then (this is where it became a “soft” pass for me) said he would be open to reading another draft.

Now, this can mean several things for someone who does his best to view a situation from every angle (i.e. me). At face value, which is the best value in my opinion, he means what he says. He doesn’t think it can sell the way it is, wasn’t blown away, but sees potential and would be interested in revisiting the script after I make another attempt at realizing that potential.

Or…

If we look beneath the surface a little bit, it could be a test. He might be interested, maybe more interested than he’s letting on, but wants to see how I handle criticism and whether or not I can take a solid idea with decent execution and incorporate changes based on the market. That would be a smart move on his part, especially considering the script isn’t where it needs to be to make it in a professional market.

Or…

He wants me to write it until he thinks he can sell it, at which point he will sell it, take his cut, and promptly see me off without working with me to develop. I do not think this is what is happening. But it’s a possibility and I believe in being prepared for all possibilities.

All in all, not too bad for my first attempt at reaching out independently. Twilight Zone manager seems like a pleasant guy and I’m looking forward to hearing from the other three managers that have requested my script. Maybe I’ll luck out and one will see enough potential to nurture me a bit until I can consistently write work that will sell. I’m not short on ideas but I do need someone to help steer my execution. Sometimes it feels like I’m writing in a vacuum because I can’t seem to find any reliable criticism (outside of a few sources that I don’t want to exhaust). A manager with a bit of patience would be great for my development.

I will have updated statistics at the end of the month with my query letters and also some new scores from BL3.0. That might contextualize all of this rambling a bit.

The Search for Agents and Managers

As detailed in my last post, I’ve begun the long, arduous task of finding a manager and/or agent. Once you write a great script, your query letter is in somewhat decent shape,  and you have a strong log line, what do you do with it? That’s the question I’ve found myself struggling to answer.

I once again scoured the Done Deal Pro forums, read blogs, and listened to podcasts to determine how others have found representation of any sort. Turns out, it’s extraordinarily simple and complicated at the same time. It’s simple in that all you need to do is gather a list of names and contact information and then start personalizing query letters (I plan on personalizing mine using a standardized scheme, as it’s less time-consuming and allows me to focus on gathering specific information for each person as opposed to sorting through new information each time). The complicated part is finding contact information.

So far I’ve found that the contact information for agents is easier to find than managers, for whatever reason. That’s not to say either has been a cakewalk. When you go to many Agency or Management Company’s websites, you’ll often be greeted with a static page adorned with the company logo, or a barely functional page that reads, “We don’t take unsolicited materials.” This sucks, but is understandable considering the amount of people querying. Most agencies/management firms probably don’t need new clients. They’re plenty busy as it is. Basically, I’ve had to get creative.

I subscribed to Done Deal Pro and began a two-week free trial of IMdB Pro. I’ve been using them in tandem to find either all or 3/4ths of the information I need. Done Deal Pro has been useful because they list all the new spec sales. I’ve just gone through the list of my genre and picked out agents and managers names who have sold recently. This might not be the best strategy because those who have sold recently may not be interested in taking on new clients, but I’ve used this approach because the information is up to date. My understanding (as naive as I might be) is that agents and managers tend to move around a lot so I want to target people while they’re hot. Once I’ve tallied some deals off of DDP, who doesn’t typically have contact information, especially not for individuals, I head on over to IMdB Pro and look them up. IMdB will often have contact information, but I can also see client lists and former projects to see how I would fit into a specific agent/manager’s portfolio.

Thus far I’ve found six agents and nine managers to query. In this small sample I’ve also found that submission differs between places. Some require a handwritten letter sent over snail mail. Others have a submission link to use that they claim to vet. Others don’t say anything at all, which are the ones I’ll reach out to directly. I want to follow the rules set by each place as best I can so as not to take myself out of the game before I’ve even started playing.

Some of these rules is basic consideration. I posed the question on a message board: When is the best time to query someone? The most useful answer I got was focused on when not to query. Most people consider it rude to query on weekends because of the proliferation of smart phones. When querying directly to an individual, respect their personal time. Don’t query on weekends or maybe even evenings. Stick to business hours. Another unspoken rule is not to query more than one person at the same company. Choose a horse and stick to it. Even if your research is off, if they find something worthwhile in your writing either they’ll take a look at it themselves or they’ll pass it off to someone who will be interested in it.

Querying is an intimidating arena to step into, but it’s a necessary fight. I want to have a long and fruitful career as a screenwriter and this is one of many baby-steps before I can start taking some longer strides. And now it’s just a waiting game.

The Art of the Query

Aside from contests, the Black List 3.0, and other sites that allow you to keep your script in a database in the hopes that some enterprising agent/manager/producer will find them (Tracking Board, Spec Scout, etc.) the only way to gain the attention of Hollywood is to query. This is something I’ve put off, partially because I wasn’t confident enough in my work and partially because it’s intimidating. As evidenced by my short time as a telemarketer (I lasted three days) I’m not one for soliciting or marketing myself. I would much prefer someone stumbles on my work and recognizes me for the genius I am without me having to submit myself to the awkwardness of asking strangers for personal favors.

Alas, ’tis not the type o’ world we live in. So I wrote a query letter. It’s generic so I can tailor it as needed:

Dear (Insert name of Agent/Manager/Producer),
LOGLINE
This is the story of (INSERT TITLE OF SCRIPT). It is a (GENRE) that has (ACCOLADES from CONTESTS or BLACK LIST).
If you would like to read the full script, contact me via the information provided.
Thank you,

Craig Gusmann

This is how it turned out for The Inhabitors:

Dear (Insert name of Agent/Manager/Producer),
A broken young man and his friends struggle with the ethical implications of using a mysterious box to control the consciousness and view the memories of others. As he learns the secrets people keep, and the secrets his friends have kept from one another, he spirals into madness.
This is the story of THE INHABITORS. It is a Science Fiction Thriller that recently placed as a Semifinalist in the Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship and was rated a 9 from a reader on the Black List 3.0.
Based on your work on (INSERT PROMINENT TITLES) I think you would enjoy THE INHABITORS. If you would like to read the full script, please contact me via the information provided.
Thank you,

Craig Gusmann

I plan on further tailoring it based on what I find the needs/wants of each respective agent/manager/producer is. I cobbled this together based on advice I’ve read in several places online, including the Done Deal Pro Forums, blogs, and common sense. What seems to be the most prominent advice is to be concise. You’re soliciting busy people who are already inundated with unwanted solicitations. Be polite, be concise, be unique if you can.

My letter isn’t super unique in any way. I kept it straightforward and focused for one main reason: Professionalism. My sense of the unique or humerous, I’ve found, tends to be different from others and also long-winded. My favorite jokes are rambling, incoherent messes that don’t reveal themselves until later. Don’t know why. So, for me, adding too personal a spin on a query letter is a tenuous prospect. I believe that my logline is strong enough, my premise interesting enough, that it will get me at least a few reads.

As I experiment and send queries I will post statistics and lessons learned. Until then, I’m going to have a drink to tame my crippling anxiety.

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