Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stories Don't Happen in a Vacuum

            I knew I would have to come up with something to post about today, but when I woke up, I still hadn’t thought of anything new, that is until I read today’s post at BookEnds Lit Agency.  Today is Workshop Wednesday at BookEnds, the day agent Jessica Faust posts one of the queries she’s received for critiquing, kind of like Janet Reid does at Query Shark.
I love query critiques.  I think it is the single most effective way to know what does and doesn’t work in a query.  Now, I don’t always agree with Ms. Faust’s opinion.  Case in point, a few weeks ago, she critiqued this query and loved it.  I thought the query was vague, at best, and had many of the qualities that agents advise writers not to include.  But she loved the “southern rhythm” of the voice.  Yeah, I didn’t get that at all and I lived in the south for awhile, but whatever, just like books, it’s subjective and if she liked it then kudos to the author.  Well done!
But this week’s critique struck a nerve with me because Ms. Faust alluded to something I hear over and over again when agents are critiquing queries.  After reading the first two paragraphs of the query, she more or less said, this is all backstory; the real story starts here.  In other words, cut all this crap out and get to the meat of the story.  While I agree the query needs a lot of work, I find issue with the fact that the agent automatically thinks the first two-thirds of the query, and therefore the book, is all backstory. 
In my opinion, this is the story, at least part of it.  It is how the author wrote it to give it structure and body, a reference point from which to contrast the conflict.  It bothers me that the agent thinks that everything that came before what she considers the core of the story is somehow irrelevant or that the story goes off track.  Yes, the author should have written the query differently to show the progression of the story and the importance of that progression. 
She implied subtly that the story might be about something else, or perhaps that was just the agent inferring that idea, but even still, that doesn’t mean all those points the writer thought important enough to include in her query are not crucial to the story.  Some of the commenters, in fact, seemed very interested in the writer’s story, calling out the fact that those first two paragraphs were simply acts one and two.
My point is that agents toss aside stories based on assumptions that the reader doesn’t want to know all that happened before, that they simply want to get to the meat of the story.  Well, okay, I don’t need to know everything that happened to the nineteen-year-old MC during her first seventeen or eighteen years unless it’s relevant to the story, but from age nineteen on, all the things that happen to her forge her into the woman she becomes and adds dimension to her reasoning, to how she handles the conflict.  Stories don’t happen in a vacuum.  We need to care about the protagonist and their journey and we do this through knowing and understanding their history. 
I often wonder why everyone is always in such a hurry to get to the end.  It’s all about instant gratification so we can move on to the next thing.  Why not savor the time spent with a story and let yourself get immersed in the simmering heat of the layers as they buildup?  I’m not saying that everything that the query writer put in her query is essential.  Personally, it comes off more like historical romance, not historical fiction, and so definitely not my thing, but I get that those details are important to understanding why there even is a conflict. 
Could you imagine if Winston Groom had to query Forrest Gump in today’s market?  Some agents would likely say to cut all that backstory about Forrest as a small child or in high school, but it is those details in the early chapters that show how Forrest changes later in life, how he manages to deal with all the drama that’s thrown his way.  How can we know if we weren’t privy to the backstory?
All this relates to me personally because last week I rewrote my query, for what must be the fifteenth time, based on advice from Stephanie DeVita in her post last week titled Slow Summer, where she says, In most of the queries that I read, the writer isn’t giving me the most thrilling aspect of their book, the crucial element that should make me desperate to ask for more pages. In other cases, it’s unclear if that pivotal element is even there.” 
So I cut all the “backstory” out of my query and just alluded to it in the second line, then got right into the major point of the conflict.  But now I worry that any agent who requests pages will think the first third of my novel is all backstory when, in fact, it is the story, or part of it anyway.  Since the story is all about a man who changes, who becomes a different man due to some pretty terrible things that happen to him, that first third of the book is the setup.  It determines what he was like at first and how those events twisted him into a different man, made him act a certain way and do that one awful thing that drives the story.  The rest of the book is how he deals with the repercussions of those decisions.  Why would any reader care about how he changed and what he did if they didn’t know his “backstory?”
And by the way, I hate that word, backstory.  It makes it feel like all those early words are somehow illegitimate, a bastard to be cast aside.  Yes, it matters how that information is presented, that we feel it is part of the actual story and not simply dumped there in a lazy attempt to give context, but I like to think of it as the ice cream in my sundae.  It’s all those yummy bits on top that make it special, but you can’t just eat the yummy bits.  You have to savor it properly with the ice cream set below.  Otherwise, it’s not a sundae.         


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I guess the query is a little like the back cover synopsis. (Something needs to happen fast.) I'm sure it's just pesonal preferance as well. I think my query had two whole lines of backstory before plunging into the main plot. Maybe not even that - it was really short!

Nancy Thompson said...

Boy, I'd love to read it, Alex. It's so hard trying to determine what works and what doesn't. Thanks for commenting.

L.G.Smith said...

Getting the balance right in a query is really tough. Hard to do in a novel too. I don't think I have too much backstory in my query, but I think I might not be highlighting the the "most thrilling" element of the story as well as I could. I've been reworking my query too, if you couldn't tell. :)

Bryce Daniels said...

Just my humble opinion, but I think backstory gets a rap in queries moreso than the manuscript itself. I can understand this. It all boils down to marketing.

When we watch a movie trailer, especially for a thriller movie, do we get to see the development of the characters, the setting, the conflict? Nope. We see the explosions, the terse conversations, those pivotal moments that make us say "hey, I need to see that."

Same with the agent. He/she wants to be sold, needs to be sold. And the query is a trailer, when all is said and done.

Emily Rittel-King said...

Interesting advice here. I guess it makes sense that the agent's would want you to jump to the heart of the story. I think that's why query letters are so difficult to write. How can you jump to the conflict without explaining the characters? It's hard to do!

Joylene Butler said...

Boy have you nailed what makes a good query. I haven't written one in years. Why? Chicken mostly. Three agents and I had to self-publish my first book to find a publisher for my second. I think that means I'm bias. But if I could write a good query... I'm send one to Donald Maas or one of the other top ten agents in North American.

Great post!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks for commenting Bryce, LG & Emily!

@Bryce - That's a great analogy!

I sure hope that's true because I have almost no backstory in my query and all conflict.

While I do have it posted in my pages as The Pitch, I will be participating in Deana Barnhart's BlogFest next week and posting my query directly on my blog for critiquing. And let me tell you, that scares the holy heck out of me, but I'm hoping to get some good feedback.

Nancy Thompson said...

@Joylene, did I read that right? You had 3 agents and still had to self-publish? Whoa!

BTW - I sent Donald Maass a query but it was when I was just starting (He was my second, actually) and my ms wasn't really ready and he never responded anyway. And I've hit up many of the big names already, so now I'm going for some of the not-so-well-known agents.

I've made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I've learned a lot, too.

Phil said...

Hi Nancy - Great blog! Backstory is very tempting to add in a query because it made our characters act the way they do, and it's always pivotal moments of their life. However, if the backstory was really so important, it would have been the actual story. I think backstory can be taken care of in a line or a phrase. Entice the agent, leave them wanting more.

Good luck!

TaraNator said...

I think that when it comes to queries most back story can be written in a few sentences. However, the first part of the book should show the MC in his or her 'everyday' life and inciting incident. Of course this shouldn't be 2/3 of the book, just a few chapters, but we need to know something about the character, right? Otherwise, how are we to connect with him/her.

Laila Knight said...

Hi Nancy. I read Jessica's blog on a regular basis and I respect and like her. However, I remember reading that query where she asked for more material simply because she liked the writer's southern voice. (What about the whole technique issue. Subjective? You bet.) I have trouble with queries mostly because they want us to start with the action. My book has two sets of villains and leads to two different conflicts. There is so much missing if I start with the action, and yet I know I can't squeeze everything into one paragraph, but there should be a little bit of some backstory. I'm still learning the whole query thing. Hopefully will get it perfected by the time UNTROUBLED KINGDOM is done. :)

Lisa L. Regan said...

This is an awesome post. I agree that "backstory" is important in many cases. Take your book for an example. There's a big difference between your main character just waking up one day and doing bad things and him losing everything that means anything to him and THEN doing bad things. In the first instance, he wouldn't be relatable if we didn't know his whole story. I also agree that not everything is "backstory". Like in your book I think the action all hinges on what happens to Jillian. So I think that's important to mention or at least allude to in a query. He loses everything and then . . . do you see what I mean?

Take Robert Crais' Hostage for example which was made into a movie with Bruce Willis. The main character is a police chief in a small town and is suddenly faced with a hostage situation. If Crais started there, fine but the story becomes so much more interesting when we know that the main character used to be a famed hostage negotiator for LAPD whose last case nearly destroyed him. There is a big difference between simply a small town sheriff and a former hostage negotiator who is haunted by the case that nearly destroyed his career. I think that is important backstory as it adds to the tension in the novel.

I think what it comes down to is this piece of advice I read over and over when I was writing my first query: you have to be able to distill the main conflict in your book down to one sentence. In other words in once sentence, what is your book about? That's what I did in my queries. The first sentence of my FCF query says something like "Detective Connor Parks meets a mysterious woman whose family reveals has been missing for ten years". That's the premise in one line. That's where the action begins. But as you know there's a buttload of backstory in my book.

I go on in the query in the next two paragraphs to allude to the backstory: "down on his luck, with his career in jeopardy, Connor takes solace in the arms of a mysterious woman." Okay there's "backstory": we know he's down on his luck and he might lose his job. Then in the next paragraph I say something about Claire having endured years of abuse at the hands of her abductor. Again backstory--but it's all essential to the book. But I began with the one sentence premise to hook the agent. If you read my pitch page on my website for Aberration I did the same there. One sentence premise and then a more detailed summary of the book.

Obviously this worked for me eventually. I agree no story begins in a vacuum. It's impossible. Again, using FCF as an example, if Connor was happily married and hadn't killed someone that day, he wouldn't be at the bar and wouldn't have met Claire. Backstory.

I wonder if agents are starting to get ridiculously picky at this point. In the post you referred to--the historical fiction one--it might have helped that author to start out with a one sentence snapshot of the entire book and then go on with the rest. That way right out of the gate the agent knows what the book is about.

Sigh. No matter what this business is totally subjective. Sometimes to writers' detriments I think.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks to all of you for commenting!

@Phil: I think the real problem is calling it backstory. It's history and history makes it relevent. A query is just not the place to load up on it. Like you said and what I've done, allude to it in short, broad strokes.

@Tara: I agree completely. I sometimes worry I have too much of Jillian's story in the beginning, but if you don't know her story, you can't care about the MC and understand why he turns to the dark side, as Lisa says.

@Laila: So I wasn't the only one who couldn't understand what Ms. Faust saw in that firefly query? And I can't wait to read your novel. Need a critique partner any time soon?

@Lisa: You sure know how to boil it all down to the specifics, both in your book AND in mine. I'm so lucky to have you! Perhaps you could take at look at my Pitch page (on the right near the top) or I could email my full query to you again. (Yes, I've revised it AGAIN!) I added a logline after the book title and word count. Do you think it's okay to put that in at that point? I'm not sure how I'd work it in at the very beginning.

Laila Knight said...

Nancy, you'll be the firs to know when I'm ready for a critique partner. Thanks for the offer. :)

Al Penwasser said...

No, they don't. The only thing which DOES happen in a vacuum is I can get all those damn Cheerios off the floor before Mrs. Penwasser wakes up.

Nancy Thompson said...

Oh, All, you never fail to make me giggle! Lucky Mrs. Pennwasser!

And Laila, this is me doing my happy dance!!!

Empty Nest Insider said...

I like how you compare building a story to the perfect sundae! I agree that the details give the characters more depth. Thanks for following me and I look forward to seeing more of you. Julie

LynNerd said...

Hi Nancy! Thanks for stopping by my blog. Nice to meet you. I have a hard time with queries.

Lynda R Young said...

I'm not a fan of queries. They never seem right. I'm writing one now and it's driving me nuts. Hhehehe.

Kimberly Krey said...

I agree that we have to find the right balance. I sometimes wonder if agents are giving readers too little credit. I love to read, and I don't mind earning my way into a story. I personally thought The Host was a story I had to work my way into. But it had a great pay off! Sometimes story building takes time. Either way, if we're trying to land an agent, we've got to play by their rules, even if we don't love them. BTW, I too love reading query critiques. Thanks for checking out my site. Following you back and looking forward to more! :)

Lisa L. Regan said...

Laila (and everyone else): I am always open to critique partners as well. I am also willing to just do beta reads too. FYI.

Nancy: I'm not sure what a logline is . . . having a blank moment. I will email you though.

Valentina Hepburn said...

Hi Nancy,
Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. Your post couldn't have been written at a better time. I've been tying myself in knots over my query for weeks. D'you know what? I'm just going to send it and keep my fingers crossed.
I know it's not very scientific and it probably doesn't follow the rules, but it's written in my voice and that's how I write. I just don't know any other way.
Lovely to 'meet' you by the way.

M Pax said...

Flip over hot books in your genre. Read the blurbs on the back. Emulate. :) Center on the main character.

Nancy Thompson said...

@Julie (Empty Nest Insider), LynNerd & Lynda (WIP It): Thanks! No one seems to like the querying process. And I do hope to see you all around.

@Kimberly: You said it all. Agents don't give enough credit to the readers who don't mind putting in a little time. As for The Host, well, Ms. Meyer was already established so the rules no longer applied to her by that point. Too bad the rest of us unknowns do have to follow the rules!

@Lisa: Thanks for your help...AGAIN!! You know I always follow your advice.

@Valentina: I sent you an email regarding some query issues. I hope you got it.

@M Pax: Oh sister, I've done that. I used one from Michael Connelly's The Fifth Witness to help me get right down to the nitty gritty. Good advice!

Thanks all!!

doreen said...

This is the reason I chose my publisher. I decided not to pay someone 33% to hurt my feelings daily!!

Donna K. Weaver said...

This is a great post. It makes me think of Dr. Laura. I've caught her a few times on the radio, and I'm always amazed people listen to her and dare to call her. She's rather snappish and jumps to conclusions based upon the little bit of information the poor (nervous) called is providing. I know it's to move things along, but still. I guess when you read these queries all day long your patience gets really thin.

"I often wonder why everyone is always in such a hurry to get to the end."

Love this statement.