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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.