Pub Rants

Can A Manuscript Jump The Shark?

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STATUS: One of my goals for this travel week was to get caught up on the fulls we have requested. The week is drawing to an end. I’d better hop to it!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SOS by Rihanna

You know I almost never respond to questions in the comment section but one astute reader asked a question that really got me thinking. Have I ever asked for a full manuscript, started to fall in love, and then had the manuscript jump the shark halfway or three quarters of the way through the full?

The answer is yes. In fact, that should be in capital letters– YES. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it can be a huge sad moment.

It’s one reason why agents always read until the end—even if they are sure they love the voice, the plot, and what have you. There really is such a thing as a manuscript suddenly taking a sharp left turn and leaving the agent stunned and confused.

What’s interesting though is this. I don’t keep a running track record but I do know of a few authors whose first projects I read, really liked, had this happened so I ultimately passed on that novel who then went on to get agented (and sold) with a later manuscript. Sometimes it’s just that last little kernel of knowledge that the author needed to learn about plotting before having it all click on a more mature manuscript.

In fact, one of the authors I have right now is a writer I passed on originally for her first manuscript (not exactly for this reason but for something close). I then took her on for her second novel and sold it at auction.

So when I see it, I always tell the writer that the manuscript diverged too suddenly for me (and why) but we see talent here and would be open to seeing future stuff.

Sometimes they take us up on it. Sometimes they end up represented by an agent friend (which is how I ended up knowing about it). Otherwise I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t remember as I don’t keep track.

13 Responses

  1. jnantz said:

    Ms. Nelson,
    Was it more beneficial (in your opinion) to the career of the writer who got you to rep something more mature after you rejected the shark-jumper, or for the writer who took that same shark-jumper to a friend of yours and got it sold?

    PS – If you have seen the newest Indiana Jones, you might find it interesting to note that “Jumping the Shark” has now found a synonymous phrase: “Nuking the Fridge.”

  2. Chris Bates said:

    This is an interesting topic.

    In my view – uneducated as it is – you are talking about two very different things – one being writing style, the other being plotting and the mechanics of story.

    An author that has both talents is someone to be reckoned with.

    Many scribblers don’t have these two traits. Which is why editors, agents, publishers and pain-in-the-ass, know-it-all friends are worth their weight in royalty checks.

    Fiction – if this is fiction we are talking about – is a complicated recipe that can be, at times, served half-baked with coincidence and the inevitable deus ex machina or overcooked resulting in unrealistic scenes and cringe-worthy melodrama.

    Often a writer blasts away at the story from the get go with such force because they have a tale that ‘just needs to be told’. The reader, for a moment, is taken on a great ride … only to discover the quagmire that is ‘undisciplined writing’ mid-story.

    All passion, no love.

    In such stories the reader is left feeling that they have been taken for an entirely different ride. One that robbed them of 25 bucks.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean they are crap writers – they just need guidance. Good film directors are a great example of this. They re-mold a blueprint screenplay into something better … except when they stuff it up!

    My point? Did I have one?!

    Authors live and breathe their fictional worlds. Often we need someone to love our style but we need advice to shape our story.

    Many of us just rush right in a write without any clear destination to aim for.

    One thing I learnt through my very short and very unsuccessful TV scriptwriting career was that writers should stop being so friggin’ precious about words, and be far more willing to embrace plot/structure criticism.

    Does any of that make sense?

    Or is it just me that thinks that I know everything?! 🙂

  3. Amy Nathan said:

    I know you don’t answer comments here, but perhaps one of your esteemed readers will. I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure what this means. In terms of TV shows I know what jumping the shark means – but in a literary way? Not so clear to me. Anyone want to help a writer who hasn’t had enough coffee this morning? 🙂 When there is something I shouldn’t do, I want to understand what it is!

  4. Sheila Connolly said:

    I think some examples of this problem slip past both agents and editors. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read in which I loved almost all of it–the voice, the plot, the characters–and then the end just fell on its face, as though the author had run out of steam. I understand the difficulty, but I still regret it.

  5. Jeanie W said:

    It doesn’t surprise me that this sort of thing happens. I’ve heard fellow writers talk about getting the beginnings of their first manuscripts ready – just polishing up those first two or three chapters that go with a partial – then submitting them. I believe the thinking is that they’ll be able to revise the rest of the manuscript while their partial is out.

    That’s a dangerous way to play the game. The agent could get to your submission faster than you’re counting on, your own personal life could interrupt your writing schedule, or revisions could take longer than you anticipated. Even worse, in the midst of revising the end of your novel you could discover that you need to change something in the section the agent has already read.

  6. nomadshan said:

    Amy – For me, a book jumps the shark as soon as the story disregards the rules of its universe. For instance, the author gives you a main character who is a librarian, has only ever been a librarian, and plans to die a librarian. He has never shown interest in anything but shelves and shelves of books. Then, at the climax of the book, the author suddenly reveals that this dude is a blackbelt in karate — which he uses to vanquish a foe — but the author gave you no clues to these skills beforehand. The shark-jump always comes out of left field and makes you say, “What?! Since when?”

  7. AR said:

    Well, this is one of those really home-hitting sort of dicussions. I’m guessing that if I committed the sin of a query at this stage in my self-education, something very like this would occur.

    I, too, would like an explanation from someone on the finer meaning of “jump the shark” – but if it’s anything like “nuke the fridge” I’m guessing a baldly unlikely escape out of a tight spot you’ve written your character into.

  8. ink and beans said:

    Thanks Kristen! I think I knew this was the answer when I asked, but now that you’ve confirmed it I realize, in retrospect, the question materialized out of anxiety. I finally started letting some friends read the first chapter of my novel and the feedback has been very good. This energized me greatly but there appears to be a backlash: “What if they think the ending sucks?” Ah, paranoia.

  9. Deaf Brown Trash Punk said:

    one example I can think of is “STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND” by Robert Heinlein. the first part of the book was awesome, sci-fi and fun.

    then the 2nd part of the book went downhill, focused on sex and cults. I became angry, furious and I read the book to the very ending, hoping for a shift back to sci-fi, but nope. That was the only time a book REALLY pissed me off and broke my heart. blimey!

  10. Marian said:

    Amy – one of my fantasy manuscripts jumped the shark in the last part. It was complex and (I thought) tightly plotted in the first two parts, with a tense, charged romance and everything leading up to a climactic battle.

    In the third part, the peotagonists fought the climactic battle. They pounded at a medieval city with siege engines, the gates went down, they charged in and defeated their enemies. That was a linear and simplistic conclusion, and my agent pointed it out as a problem. It didn’t help that the protagonists also got together in part 2, taking all the sexual tension out of the story as well. So… kind of a flat ending.

    I rewrote it so that the protags had a vicious argument at the end of part 2 and therefore didn’t communicate before the battle, which contributed to their losing it. They do win, eventually, but it’s nowhere near easy for them. I’m waiting to see what my agent thinks.

  11. helengranberry said:

    In very general terms, Jumping the Shark is when the plot(or character) takes such a rediculous/unexpected/unbelievable/inconsistant/out of character turn, there is no going back. Everything was great, then X happened and it all fell apart.

    Fonzie jumping the shark
    Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a fridge
    Greedo shooting first