Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Horror and thriller

Please, please, please tell me I am not cracking up.
Please, please, for the love of all that is scary, tell me that YES, there IS a difference between the genres of HORROR and THRILLER!

I know that they are not the same.
Other writers and authors who write in the genres know they are not the same.

But why, oh Mary Shelley, why do some agents not?!?

I can't tell you how many rejection letters I have received over the past two months that say "sorry I don't represent that genre" when (*clears throat*) YES YOU DO, IT'S ON YOUR AGENT PAGE, I DID MY RESEARCH!! Agents list HORROR and THRILLER on their info page, but when they are sent an actual true for real horror novel they reject it with the "I don't represent..." form letter.

Now, perhaps a good indicator that some agents have no clue what they are talking about is when they dare put a diagonal slash in between the two genres like such - HORROR/THRILLER. They are NOT the same and that little line seems to say that they are darn near interchangeable. They aren't.

HORROR = a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust or startle its readers by inducing feeling of horror or terror. Horror writing may include elements of the fantastical and supernatural, (i.e. swamp monsters, werewolves, brain-eating aliens, blood-thirsty agents and the like).

THRILLER = a broad genre of fiction designed to elicit feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. Thrillers do NOT include any fantasy/supernatural elements and have a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. Thrillers are also set in the real world and utilize such literary devices as red herrings, plot twists and cliffhangers.

While some might argue that both genres share some similarities (albeit SLIGHT), they are not the same.

Am I possessed? Am I crazy? Am I wrong? Horror and Thriller, they are different. Right??

Unfortunately, until there is a clear consensus on the matter, it seems that my MS's will continue to get rejected because my blood-thirsty agents from the underworld of Rejectomondus should instead be a drunk riding a train, looking out of the window at her old house, seemingly glimpsing a crime going down in order to get a request.

I would love to hear what you think on the matter.

I think you're going nuts, but not for the reason you think you are. When an agent says I don't rep Horror/Thriller, they're not conflating the two. They're telling you they don't represent either one.

Much like I might say "I don't represent romance/women's fiction" and hope you won't jump to the conclusion I think they are one and the same.

As to why any agent's page says they represent a category and authors get a form letter saying they don't, well, we should all update our pages more often, or pay more attention to which form letter we're sending.

I also think your definition of thriller is a bit narrow and as proof, let me just offer up one of the best thriller writers I know.

To the larger question however: your cris de couer is EXACTLY why I advise writers to not mention the category of the book NO MATTER WHAT THE GUIDELINES SAY until the closing paragraph of the query.

The reason I advise this is to tell an agent about the story first, before you give them a reason to hit the pass key.

I generally do not take on horror novels. I represent Laird Barron and he's all the cosmic dread I can handle.

When a query letter arrives and the first thing the author tells me is "this is a horror novel" I generally stop reading.

If the story intrigues me, and I haven't gotten to the bad news yet, I might read pages even if I don't think the book is for me, because you guys get the category wrong  A LOT.

So, here's what you need to remember: even though I KNOW you get the category wrong a lot, I still stop reading. I don't pause to think "oh maybe this isn't really horror, it's a thriller." I just move on to the next query.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

HORROR/THRILLER, I got nothin'
BUT, just a thought,
HORROR/THRILLER is on the evening news every night.

Unknown said...

I was thinking about book categories yesterday. Is there a definitive description somewhere? A few days ago, Janet said a book was crime fiction. I would have guessed domestic thriller, another term I learned here. I remain confused (although I can tell horror from thriller, I think).

BJ Muntain said...

OP, is it possible the agents don't rep the *subgenre* of your manuscript? There's a wide world of difference between, for example, Freddy Kruger and Cthulu.

Some agents do list the subgenres they rep. Some will describe the exact type of science fiction they enjoy, while others will only say 'science fiction'.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

At the library, while processing books I've ordered, the Thriller question I run into (other than to do with the Michael Jackson song, and subsequently people doing Canine Freestyle to it) is "Is this book a mystery or a thriller?" If it's a mystery, it goes in our mystery section. If a thriller, it's just free-ranged into regular fiction because we have neither a catalog category nor a sticker for thrillers.

Granted, we don't have stickers or separate shelf space for horror either.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I just read the first chapter of The Breach.
Holy cow!

Mister Furkles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RachelErin said...

Most online query submission forms require you to state the category right away via a drop down menu, to help agents eliminate authors who don't write one of their categories.

I know people sometimes still choose the wrong category, either unintentionally or in the spirit of querying widely.

I've often wondered if agents with that setup worry about missing folks who opt-out because they've miscategorized their novels (the agents I'm thinking of are doing very well, so it must not keep them up at night).

I've also wondered what will happen to 'querying widely' and the space for surprise brilliance if those forms become ubiquitous. The number of authors trying to confirm their category at workshops and conferences (with the attendant increase in misinformation) will increase a lot.

I don't think it will matter for me personally. My work is solidly YA SFF is pretty clear, and I wouldn't be that eager to query an agent who didn't know and adore YA. But I imagine there are brilliant genre-benders who might get missed.

Craig F said...

Jennifer, I thought THRILLER was a sub-genre of the MYSTERY category.

I know that horror is a hard sell, I don't know why , but it is. It seems really popular in many places, just not in Agents' Inboxes. I think it might be better to call Horror as Supernatural Thrillers. That might get you past the dweller on the threshold.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Mister Furkles made me laugh out loud at work--where I should probably be doing my job right about now.

OP, I think it might help your blood pressure if you put a couple of things in perspective:

1) The agent knows what they rep better than you do. If the website is out of date, it sucks, but you can't tell the agent that they're wrong. A rejection is a rejection.

2) If you receive a rejection letter, it isn't necessarily because you did something wrong. I could be way off the mark, but my initial impression is that you might be a perfectionist--when a mistake gets made, it's important for you to figure out who's at fault so you can avoid the same mistake in the future. But it's not your fault if you followed the submission guidelines, so just shrug it off as annoying and try to move on. A rejection is just a rejection. It isn't a reprimand.

That's just my takeaway. Then again, I write high fantasy, and there's not a lot of confusion about which genre my book is.

PAH said...

Completely off topic. Who else is jazzed about the increased activity over there at the query shark so far?

Stacy said...

I once heard a writer (again, can't remember who) say that a mystery is where the protagonist is trying to figure out what happened ("whodunnit") and thriller is where the protagonist is trying to prevent something from happening. That's the best definition I've heard.

Although that definition is useless for shelving.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


*raises hand*

Ain't it grand? And they are long ones too so yay!

Unknown said...

Bethany, love this: "A rejection is just a rejection. It isnt a reprimand."

PAH, I re-read query shark periodically, and love new entries.

Joseph S. said...

What a horror story, OP, and not one that'll go away when you wake up.

I feel your pain. I've mentioned here before how I signed up to pitch to an agent at a conference whose bio said he represented thrillers. Only when I interviewed with him, he said he wasn't successful at selling thrillers and wasn't representing them anymore. Okay. Now what? Nice knowing you. Shortly after the conference he revised his bio on the agency website to eliminate all references to thrillers and mysteries.

John Davis Frain said...

Yeah, first thing I thought when I read this:

"Thrillers do NOT include any fantasy/supernatural elements and have a villain-driven plot,"

was Patrick Lee's The Breach. It's a thriller from start to finish, and without giving anything away, there's a little of the freaky inside.

I generally see some pairing of Mystery/Thriller/Crime/Suspense all jumbled together in various ways. But I can't think of times where I see horror/thriller paired together. I'm sure it happens per OP, but in my experience (admittedly limited), it's uncommon.

And it's even harder to imagine an agent not understanding the difference between horror and thriller. An agent who invites Mystery/Thriller knows they aren't the same--that slash means it's two distinct things. Otherwise, it'd be redundant.

Gayle said...

@Stacy That's basically what I've seen too. Only for Thrillers it was termed as a ticking clock. Also, my understanding for thrillers is the reader tends to know more than the protagonist, while that's usually not the case in a mystery.

I don't think I've seen a lot of definitions of horror before, but it's always been clear to me it's different than a thriller. I honestly don't like to be horrified by anything I read, so I haven't read much of it.

David S. said...

Hi, OP. You're in the same boat that I am. I'm chin-deep in the query trenches with what I thought was a horror novel, but I had one agent say something along the lines of, "It sounds a little gruesome, but it reads more like a thriller." She also suggested that if I didn't think so, I could always leave out the genre and just use the line I've been describing the novel as. That sounded contrary to a lot of advice out there, but then I read an article from a completely different agent who said since horror's a tough sell, don't mention it. He said to call it a "dark and terrifying novel," etc.

Either way you go, good luck.

P.S. I've had requests with horror as the genre and with thriller.

Lennon Faris said...

I've found that when an agent rejects you with a form letter, the rejection part is true. The rest of it rarely is!

Stacy said...

@Stacy That's basically what I've seen too. Only for Thrillers it was termed as a ticking clock. Also, my understanding for thrillers is the reader tends to know more than the protagonist, while that's usually not the case in a mystery.

Gayle, those are great things to add to the thriller definition. And you're right--often the reader is ahead of the protagonist in a thriller. Makes me feel like I'm on the right track for my novel. One of 'em, anyway.

Steve Stubbs said...

I am reluctant to hazard a guess without seeing the query, but reading the question, I suspect that is where the problem is.

Your question is excellent. You could also ask it with far fewer words and with a tone that is not at all histrionic. That does not matter here, but if the tone of the query is typified by language such as, "Please, please, for the love of all that is scary" that is likely to cue a reader that the book is written like that as well. I can't quite put my finger on what it is about that, but it feels as if you are begging for rep rather than pitching a dynamite idea.

I am reminded of something I read in an editor's comment on queries he received. Someone (this is from memory) wrote a letter that said. "Please, Mr. Editor, publish this thing. You're my last chance (or only hope, I do not remember which.)" That implies that the editor is running some sort ofcharity and should accept it as a sort of mercy deal because it has been rejected everywhere else and nobody else wants it. My instinct is, you do not want to create a mental image of someone standing on a street corner wearing sunglasses and holding a tin cup filled with pencils.

A more effective tone might be, "I saw on the Agent Information Site that you represent horror and thrillers and I think you might find this serves your need."

That reflects the reality that the agent, like everyone else, is motivated entirely by self-interest rather than a desire to dispense charity and aims to appeal to that agent's pursuit of self-interest.

Please, oh please, oh please don't say please, oh please, oh please.

And good luck.

Unknown said...

Definitions (origin unremembered) that help me distinguish thriller and mystery:

In a mystery, protagonist and reader know what was done (e.g., the murder), and the protagonist has to figure out who did it.

In a thriller, the protagonist and reader know what will happen (or who will do something), and the protagonist has to prevent it from happening.

I guess both fall under crime fiction.

Colin Smith said...

At last I'm able to comment and... uh... what Kathy said. :)

I would like to see a definitive list of category definitions from those people who care most about them, i.e., publishers. Yes, I know agents often ask for them, but ultimately categories are about marketing, which, I believe, falls more on the publisher side of the equation.

Also, Patrick Lee(nytba)'s brand seems to be the thriller with a twist of sci-fi. I've read three-and-a-bit of his books (I started GHOST COUNTRY in the New Leaf conference room last year), and they all have some sci-fi element about them. Hopefully that's not a spoiler. Even if it is, you should read his books anyway. :)

AJ Blythe said...

Hmm, I read OP's question to mean on the "genres I represent" page they have Horror/thriller listed (not on the list of "do not send" genres). But I have nothing to suggest other than leave genre until the very end as our esteemed Queen recommends.

As I can't handle horror in any form (not even a teensy bit) I will never face the Horror/thriller conundrum. In fact, reading the column to the right about "The Breach" as the love child of Lincoln Child and Dean Koontz has just meant I will never read (I tried a Dean Koontz once, nightmares for a week). Would that describe all of Patrick Lee's books (thriller with horror)? If so, I will remove the one I have from my TBR pile forthwith and stick to the wonderful that is Gary Corby's books.

Off topic...still having computer problems. Microsoft haven't been able to get my computer working after getting close to 12 hours of phone calls with them (another call later today) *sigh*

Colin Smith said...

AJ: I wouldn't say horror. More sci-fi, though they are first-and-foremost thrillers--at least in my estimation. Try SIGNAL. :)

MA Hudson said...

OP - just keep querying, until you reach the 100 mark. Hopefully you’ll find someone who’d be thrilled to represent you and the others will be horrified when they realise what they missed!

Craig F said...

Colin: Patrick Lee's books fall into the speculative thriller category.

It seems like all of the lists of genres online are someone's legal compromise.

Here's the Wiki list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_genre

It doesn't look right to me but all of the others are worse.

Colin Smith said...

Craig: Yes, speculative. That Twilight-Zone area I seem to gravitate toward... :) Good call.