Happily-ever-after endings; granting an "exclusive" to an agent
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: October 14, 2008
|In a critique I got lambasted for a story that ended where the character finally got what she wanted. What's wrong with that? |
Not a thing. At the end of Fredrick Busch's short story "Ralph the Duck," the main character, a security guard at a college, coaxes a suicidal student out of a snowstorm and navigates the treacherous roads successfully to get her to the hospital where they can pump her stomach of the pills she took. In Joyce Carol Oates' novel We Were the Mulvaneys, Marianne is raped as a teenager. Her father turns his back on her, the family disintegrates, and she wanders through life troubled, until her late-twenties when she finds solace at an animal hospital with the kindly Dr. Whit West, with whom she forges a healthy, safe relationship.
But here's the thing: there are no happily-ever-afters in real life. Even the brightest happiness is tinged with other emotions. This should be true for your characters, too. Saving the suicidal girl in "Ralph the Duck" doesn't bring back the security guard's own daughter, who died very young. He still has to live in the aftermath of that, with all the grief and helplessness that come with it. In We Were the Mulvaneys, the large, happy family isn't restored. The idyllic farm they lived on is only a memory. Marianne is in a good place in life, but she still seeks acceptance from her father, searching for it even when he's on his deathbed.
Strong stories rest on a foundation of conflict and desire. Characters can come out the woods alive, but they're bound to have gotten some scratches and bruises along the way. Without evidence of this, the reader will question authenticity. How could Huey succumb to heroin, ravage his body, attempt rehab six times, and end up healthy and happy with a wife and two children, living his life as if his past never happened? Huey can certainly find happiness. But there will be scars: the fractured relationship with his mother after years of stealing from her, an untrusting boss who knows Huey's done time, his own fear of returning to his old ways, perhaps even struggling with the choice to resist what so captivated him.
Also, your character may find that things aren't exactly how she imagined they would be once she gets what she wants. Rarely does life unfold in just the way we expect. That job she'd been working so hard for may have seemed all glamour and excitement when it was far off on the horizon. But in the middle of it, she might find the moments in the spotlight are fun, but few. There may be a slew of mundane responsibilities she didn't realize she'd have. Long hours might hurt her friendships. She may even be happy despite those sacrifices, but not in the delirious way she expected.
Stories suffer when endings don't reflect the fact that real life is complicated and messy. Memories linger. Past experiences leave marks. We make difficult choices. Some are made poorly. Others we regret for the results. Situations change. Expectations are dashed. Let your character find happiness if that's your intention, but make it a realistic happiness.
After sending out query letters for my first novel, an agent contacted me asking to see a sample, and now she's asked to see the whole thing. She wants to have it "on exclusive." What does this mean?
Agents invest a lot of time in reading queries, samples (often called partials), and full manuscripts as they consider whether they want to extend an offer of representation. Having an exclusive lets an agent know she's the only one considering the work, and that another agent can't snatch it up before she does. You can grant this request or deny it.
If you grant an exclusive on a full manuscript, you may have query letters out to other agents, but should they ask to see the manuscript, you'll have to hold off until you hear back from the agent with the exclusive. If the request comes after you've already sent manuscripts out to other agents, you can't grant an exclusive. But you can let the agent know the situation instead of giving a flat out denial of the request.
Giving an exclusive does have the potential to slow things down and it might put off other agents who are interested in seeing more, only to find out they have to wait for it. But granting an exclusive also lets the agent know you're serious about her representation. If you don't grant the exclusive, you risk alienating the agent who asked for it in the first place, but you keep more options open down the line. There's no right or wrong decision. Weigh how invested you are in this particular agent. And if you do choose to grant an exclusive, make sure to agree to a time limit so your manuscript isn't tied up endlessly. A month is common.
Be honest with potential agents and don't be afraid to ask questions if you're not clear about a request or the terms of an agreement. This will be an important litmus test for how well you'll work together, which can help you make a decision should you get the offer.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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--Posted Oct. 14, 2008