Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Spoiler Alert: Don't Worry About Spilling the Ending

Maybe I'm in a self-reflective mood lately or maybe I'm collapsing in on myself like a character in a Zola novel (that oh-so-literary name-drop just earned me 5 future The Hills references), but I've been thinking a lot about how agents read. One thing that people sometimes ask me, especially with regard to synopses: should I worry about spoiling the ending? Doesn't the agent want to be surprised?

I can only speak for myself personally ("I know myself... but that is all," - F. Scott Fitzgerald -- watch out, we're up to 10 future The Hills references and a Bachelor breakdown), but I wouldn't worry too much about spoiling the ending. I don't read books like a normal person, where I'm waiting to see what happens next and where I need the element of surprise.

By the time I shop around a manuscript I've probably read it at least three or four times, sometimes more. I'm not going to be surprised every time, and I have to be able to see a work "fresh" even if I've read it before. It's a strange process where I basically dislocate my brain and think, "Even though I read this before, would this surprise me if I had read it the first time?"

In other words, no matter how many times I've read something, I'm looking for "what works."

Trying to figure out "what works" is sort of a reading style that I think everyone in publishing develops over time. When you're in college, you read to find hidden meaning. When you're reading for fun, you're reading for pleasure. When you're an agent, you're sort of like an architect searching for design flaws -- it doesn't matter what the building is going to look like in the end if the structure is unsound -- while still keeping the big picture in mind. (BTW, you know what's not "working" these days? THE HILLS)

So when an agent asks you for a synopsis: spill the ending. If they don't want to hear the ending they won't read it. Don't sweat that part. Instead, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, MAKE IT WORK.






23 comments:

Tom Judah said...

I have always wondered how you guys/gals (agents) do this. Once again, thank you for the hidden insight Nathan!

Tom

Jessica Burkhart said...

Kelly Ripa does "Bachelor theater" every Tuesday morning. You should check into that... ;)

Other Lisa said...

And just who is this Tim Gunn person? His photo scares me.

I think from a writing perspective it can be interesting knowing the ending (and the story) when you're reading. It's fun at times to see how the author executes and how something works (or doesn't).

Jaye Wells said...

Wait, you like Project Runway too? Excellent.

Enagwolo said...

Gosh. Am I the only person who doesn't watch any reality shows?

Thanks for the post. For some reason, I am scared of writing synopses... something about selling my stories short.

A Paperback Writer said...

Whoa. You mean I've actually been doing something right all along?
Cool.

Ello said...

New season of Project Runway! So cool! Nathan, if every once in a while you post about Project Runway, instead of the Hills, I would so love it!

I personally would love if every book I want to read would come with a synopsis so that I don't have to skip to the last page to see what happens! But I am weird that way.

urbansherpa said...

Wow... you brought out the heavy artillary... invoking Tim Gunn!

serenity said...

I loved your post on "the other things I do in a day". Very good to know. And, I have a dramatic theory that the Bachelor is not going to pick ANYone this season, but my husband thinks I'm playing right into their hands by believing that.

Kaleb Nation said...

I've probably read mine a hundred times already. It gets to the point where you have a manuscript memorized and can quote verses from it.

Heidi the Hick said...

Synopsis= ending.

Yay! I did it right!!

Dave Wood said...

Hi Nathan,
Any thoughts on how to develop the "what works" reading style for ourselves? Short of giving up our jobs and moving to New York to become publishing interns for years, I mean.

I really like what I've written. So does my mom. And a handful of less invested readers. And I know how to read for my own pleasure and for English Lit classes. I'm pretty confident my work passes both those tests. But I can't shake the notion that my baby is going stumble into the big, bad publishing world only to fall on its face without my ever really knowing why.

I'd like to be a savvy parent. So how does the "what works" reading style work?

Nathan Bransford said...

Dave-

Belonging to a critique group can help, because it forces you to read for quality, but honestly I don't know if there's a substitute for manning a slush pile at some point (whether at an agency, publisher, journal, etc.). It strips away a lot of what you think you've learned about writing, books, etc., and really focuses your readin eyes.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nathan. Great blog (I've rarely read about the Hills more) that I'm glad I discovered. I actually have a question that I have a great deal of difficulty finding the answer to...

If I want to publish a book under a pseudonym, should I send in query letters using that pseudonym or my real name? I fear if I use my pseudonym potential agents may feel 'duped' when I tell them my real name, and choose not to work with me as a result. Am I being paranoid, or are my instincts correct?

Anyway, thanks for having this forum where these questions can actually be asked and answered.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I prefer that people query with their real name, although if you want to use a pseudnym you can mention that in the query.

Anonymous said...

When you find design flaws, do you (or other agents) ever take a moment to tell the propsective client in your rejection note just what it is?

Also, are there some "designs" that you just steer clear of no matter what the subject - like, say, word length, do some turn you off instantly?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I have to respond to queries with a form letter and can't respond to follow up questions. I would never get through the day otherwise.

On partials, I try and give some sense of why I'm passing, but again, I just don't have the time to get too in depth (and sometimes I'm just going on a gut feeling I can't fully explain)

The only time I can really go in depth is with clients or people I'm hoping become clients. Otherwise I just don't hvae the time.

Nadine said...

Nathan,

I agree - The Hills is just not working these days. I no longer find myself anxiously awaiting the next episode.

And I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone, but I fear the episodes will only get worse with the current strike...

Isak said...

Nathan,

I often find myself with the same architectual slant in the reading and revision of my writing (going so far as to become flawed by perfectionism). Because of this, I think I guard the climactic points and the endings of my books and stifle my queries. Is the ending something I should allude to in the query as well?

John C. said...

I think a critique group can substitute for a slush pile, depending on how many submissions there are per week to the queue.

The one I belong to has a wide variety of queues, each with a different genre. I find that by choosing a few from each queue and reading them through--not to crit, mind you, but just to read--then you can get a good idea at the variations in quality.

I've read several submissions that were technically quite solid, but boring when it came to actual content. OTOH, I've read several that had very interesting ideas, but were technical nightmares, i.e. grammar, punctuation, etc.

Of course when you have to read through a slush pile as part of your job, there exists a pressure to read with a far more judicial eye than one might otherwise employ.

Dave F. said...

Thanks. I neede a couple YA Christmas gifts.

Rachel Hamm said...

Here's a question: is it okay to tease the agent with the ending in a query letter? I.e. hinting at the ending but not revealing what exactly happens?

I mean, with the query letter you are trying to sell your book, right? So adding in some suspense and trying to get the agent guessing at the outcome is a good thing, right?

This just came to my mind when I read this post. Thoughts?

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

Nathan, I'm with you: books (and movies) don't get spoiled for me if I know the ending. I like analyzing how stories get put together. One of the writing accomplishments I most admire is setting something up so that it evokes the emotion of surprise even after multiple readings/viewings.

(As I write, I'm watching "Sunset Boulevard" for the gazillionth time. I still feel surprised when the chimp's arm drops out from under the cloth!)

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