Friday, December 16, 2011

The Déjà Vu Blogfest



Today, I am participating in DL Hammon’s Déjà Vu Blogfest cohosted by Creepy Query Girl’s, Katie Mills, The World is my Oyster’s, Lydia Kang, and Nicole Ducleroir of One Significant Moment at aTime.  This blogfest gives participants the chance to resubmit their best posts for the benefit of all those who might have missed it the first time around.  I look forward to reading as many of the participants’entries as physically possible, and maybe make a few new friends in the process. 

The posts I’m most proud of are those I wrote on craft:  One on setting and another tension.  But the one I’ve chosen to enter for this bloghop has received the most hits and continues to do so every week.  I first posted this on July 13, 2011, and while my perspective has changed slightly, I still believe in the message.

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 protagonist 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 her 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 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, 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.

_______

As an aside to this original post, I’d like to say that backstory in a query, while important, should only amount to a few words in a single line, and only if the content is of the utmost importance to the heart of the story. 

49 comments:

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, backstory has become a dirty word, just like ly-adjectives. :) I can definitely see your point.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I know what you mean. As with Forrest Gump, all of that backstory WAS the story.
Now, can stories happen in a vacuum cleaner?

Donna K. Weaver said...

This is a great post, Nancy. I'm struggling with my own query for this very reason. The thrilling pirate attack isn't what the book's about, but everyone who hasn't read it jumps to that conclusion. Even now in the comments on Matt's post, I'm still seeing it.

Joanne said...

To me, a good story is made up of many layers. And some of those layers must be from the past, in some way. So done in the right way, backstory is absolutely necessary.

Timothy Brannan said...

Great post!

I was actually digging through some old drafts last night and I was not thinking about the story on my screen, but rather the events and story going on in my life at the time that prompted me to write all that stuff!

So yeah stories don't happen in a vacuum at all, any more than anything else.

Stopped by from the Deja Vu thingy.

Lisa L. Regan said...

That is SUCH a great post. I remember it well. So true, so true.

L.G.Smith said...

I remember reading this post. Still agree with you, too. In fact, the novel I'm writing now is actually the prequel to the last one I wrote. It's ALL backstory in that respect.

carrieannebrownian said...

I completely agree with this. I too don't get the modern-day obsession with immediately jumping into a story, without taking any time to gradually set up characters, setting, and storylines.

I recently took part in a query critique contest (for my Russian historical novel), and was surprised by the feedback I got, since I've gotten a number of positive readings from other places. Since I mentioned (in a few concise paragraphs) a couple of different aspects of the story, it was questioned as to where exactly the story begins and what the main plot is. The story begins exactly where I meant it to begin, as everything that happens afterwards is because of what happens in the first chapter. If I'd started my story where my female MC is abandoned by her child's father in January 1919, instead of in April 1917 during the week leading up to her expulsion from school and having to go into hiding from the Bolsheviks, a lot of important things would be utterly lacking, and many character motivations would make no sense.

Are long books and historical sagas that unusual nowadays that many people genuinely can't understand that so-called "backstory" is merely part of the entire story and just lays the groundwork for important parts of the plot and characters' development?

Laurel Garver said...

I never liked the terminology "backstory" either, for the reason you mention. I think the real art is to weave it in carefully rather than simply eliminate it.

Nice to meet you! (I'm deja vu-er 158).

Lydia Kang said...

All supposed "rules" were meant to be broken. In any case, a writer will find his or her sense of comfort within the context of all those millions of rules out there. Like you have!

Thanks so much for joining the Blogfest!

Nick Wilford said...

Great post, very thought-provoking. It's a dilemma when you have to send an agent the first three chapters along with your query letter (this is pretty standard with British agents, I don't know if it is the same in the States). If those chapters don't go straight bang into the action, you haven't got a hope. But I totally agree you need to understand your characters' past for their actions to have any meaning.

I would agree with Laurel who said you need to weave it in. Drop little hints, clues that could pave the way for more details later on. Keep the reader guessing then they will either be pleased that they worked it out, or go "Oh, now it makes sense! Gosh, this writer is clever."

DL Hammons said...

I totally agree. Backstory (for use of a better term) has been given a blanket thumbs down, when in reality used properly it can prove to be most effective!

Excellent choice for re-posting! Thank you for taking part in the blogfest and making the day so special! :)

Jennifer Hillier said...

This was a great post, and well worth the second read!

I was actually asked by my agent to add in MORE backstory because she felt it was necessary to give my protagonist (who you know is really flawed) some context. She wanted to know what made Sheila tick, and she believed readers would, too. I remember being surprised because never did I think an agent would ask for MORE backstory! I had cut so much of it out before submitting it to her. But luckily, I kept everything, and it was pretty simple to add a few scenes back in.

Great post, Nancy! See you Sunday. :)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Yes, interesting post. On my first novel, which was very fast-paced, I gave virtually no back-story (on purpose), but readers wanted it! On my second novel (historical fiction), I had to incorporate flashbacks to give glimpses into the MC's past. It's hard to get that balance. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on writing!

Colin Smith said...

I think the problem agents face giving advice to querying writers is that the point of the query is to sell your novel--and that is VERY subjective. The rules really are just guidelines. If the query makes the agent want to read the novel, at the end of the day it doesn't matter if the query is 90% backstory, or breaks 100 rules of querying. Likewise the novel. If your novel captures the heart and imagination of an agent and a publisher, you're in, no matter how many "rules" it breaks. But how do you teach someone how to do that? You can't. You just have to write your best work the best way you know how, listen to all the best advice, take what advice works for your story and ignore the rest. Maybe your novel isn't ready for the market right now. Maybe the market isn't ready for your novel right now.

Tough call. Great discussion point, Nancy.

Nisa said...

Interesting points. It really is so subjective. Thanks for sharing!

Sarah said...

Really interesting (re)post! I think, when agents make the backstory complaint, what they're really concerned about is pacing, which is a crucial element. They're concerned that the book trudges toward the pivotal event instead of jogging briskly. But you're totally right--different agents and writers will have different takes on it! Nice meeting you, Nancy!

DeniseCovey_L'Aussie said...

Ah, I would have liked to be a writer in an earlier time when the 'rules' weren't so blatantly cut-throat. I'd like to have time to meander more, which is hard to do in a modern novel, where 'The agent/editor won't read on if they don't get captivated by the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page - no backstory, keep it for later - give us action, blah blah blah.' Give me Ernest Hemingway's meanderings any day but I'm probably the exception. Well, some great authors still 'write slow', eking out descriptions like precious jewels laid at the reader's feet - Pat Conroy for one. Hmm. What? Sorry? I got to meander a bit here.

Denise

LynNerdKelley said...

This is an excellent post, definitely worthy of reposting and getting all those hits every week. Very cool!

Julie Dao said...

Totally agree, Nancy. I think a novel is nothing without backstory. After all, we need to know how a character got to the point he/she did, or why something is going on. I think the thing that people take objection to is the way in which backstory unfolds. If it's dumped on the reader all at once, it seems unnecessary (although it's really not, it's just not presented in a digestible way). Great food for thought here.

Margo Kelly said...

great post! I'm a new follower from the DejaVu Blogfest - nice to meet you!

Steven said...

Glad I found your blog from the Deja Vu fest. It is absolutely true that we writers need to stick together, something I am trying to work on more lately.

Jemi Fraser said...

Very interesting! I think it probably depends on each individual story more than anything else. Queries are so tough. You have to hit on all the right elements - and it's often tough to know just what these are!

mshatch said...

I agree with you that backstory is underrated. I happen to like some good juicy backstory but I've also been reading longer than a great many people and my attention span isn't dependent upon the word GO! I like a little, Once upon a time...

Laura Pauling said...

Queries are very subjective just like opening pages, just like stories! I don't always agree with critiques either. Sometimes it's just a phrase that catches the agent's attention - a phrase!

Jennifer Wilck said...

Great post, Nancy. I don't necessarily agree with everything you said, but I do believe that not all rules apply to everything--they're subjective. And if skillfully done, backstory can be essential to the regular story. Love the ice cream analogy!

MISH said...

It's so true that writers have to stick together, be supportive of each other...
Great post Nancy!
Nice to meet you *waves*

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Thought provoking post, Nancy! It really does come down to each individual story and how to make it the most compelling. If you have an intriguing opening that's what some would call "backstory," but it engages the reader and draws them in, then it's still a success. Most classics start with lots and lots of backstory and people read them for centuries. It's true, we are a instant gratification culture these days and it shows in our literature!

J.C. Martin said...

Thank you for this re-post Nancy! I do agree, backstory enriches a story, and at times is integral to the plot, as it shapes the experiences and actions of the characters. However, it may not be necessary to go into detail about this in a query letter. Very interesting post, thanks again for sharing!

Al Penwasser said...

May I make a slight modification? Good stories don't happen in a vacuum.
Bad stories do, though.
Because then they suck.
Good thing yours are good.

Your post really makes me think. Which is something that doesn't happen a lot with me.

Julius Cicero said...

A prime example of backstory driven books is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, all three books were driven by the initial backstory of the why and what. Not to mention that The Hobbit was also a pre-backstory backstory. I say tell the story you want the way you want it, don't compromise the integrity of your art form just because one person doesn't catch on quick enough. Stay true to yourself.
Julius

julie fedderson said...

Lol @ Al above.

I think reader were more forgiving--less instant gratification--in the past. Backstory doesn't bother me, and I may be one of those bizarre people who don't want the story to begin with a great big bang. Hard to feel something for a character in dire straits when you don't even know them yet.

Nice post!

Empty Nest Insider said...

I enjoy a good backstory, and your example of Forrest Gump is such a fitting one. Thanks for re-posting this thought-provoking article. Julie

Tara Tyler said...

i like your addendum, it doesnt really fit in a query, even if its necessary to the story. agents read so many queries they have to see the spark of the story right away to judge if its right for them or not...
where o where is my perfect fit agent!
nice replay!

Pk Hrezo said...

Hey Nancy! I agree %100. When I read, it's not because I want to be compelled to get to the end... it's because i want to enjoy the journey. But that's not the market today.
I've found most queries work that give a brief sentence or two about who the MC is, then right into the conflict, goals, and stakes.

Joylene said...

What you're alluding to is why I quit querying. I know it was cowardly of me, but trying to come up with a great query letter was beginning to hurt my head. My hat's off to you for persevering, Nancy. Because honestly it's a toss of the coin. Bet those guys are killing themselves over rejecting Harry Potter.

Medeia Sharif said...

I don't focus on backstory, but I don't ignore it either. Also, every story is different. Some stories have more flashbacks and ruminations of the past, which may fit the story.

The Golden Eagle said...

I really like your point about buildup. Readers are eager to get the end of a story, but the end has a lot less meaning if there isn't something behind it.

Madeleine said...

Interesting point. I guess modern TV and film has become so much faster that people have become bored with the old fashioned styles of narrative. I remember reading about Robert Ludlum's approach to Bourne that he researched what people wanted and that's why his stuff were best sellers because of the action and pace. I did a writing course that told us to start with the action rather than before it 'in medias res' and so I have always tried to follow that guidance. It's a case of if you don't you won't I guess!

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LD Masterson said...

I've followed you back across the blogfestand I'm glad I did. I'm bookmarking this post to re-read when I have time to get its full value. Good stuff here.

LTM said...

the biggest thing that stood out to me in this post is the part about Winston Groom. And not b/c I used to live near Fairhope... :D No, it's true that there is a serious grip on what's making it through these days, and it's too bad that backstory is getting cut so badly. But at the same time, there's a delicate balance to handling backstory in a way that isn't laborious to read, you know? (And I agree w/your edit. Keep it out of the query. ;o) <3

M Pax said...

In sci-fi, we have to balance backstory/worldbuilding in a query. Or no one will know what we're talking about. It's tricky.

Great post, Nancy. When I read that a query should read like the back of the book, it made it a little easier. A teensy, tiny bit. :)

Man O' Clay said...

I liked this:

"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 don't think the publishers want that, or at least that's the message I'm getting. In fact, they want a reader to finish what they're reading and get on to the next book. And aren't we blessed to have the Kindle and the Nook? Now you can pack your electronic gadget with so many books you might just have to skim them to GET THROUGH them all!

Theresa Milstein said...

Queries are so hard to write. And everyone has an opinion on how to improve them. I read Query Shark too. I've learned a lot, but I still don't think I'm an expect when it comes to writing my own.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Great post. I think I remember it. And I agree that in order for readers to care about the protagonist and her journey, they (we) need to know and understand at least of some of the background and history.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Fabulous deja vu post! I heart back story. It's like the person's / group of people's history that tells the story about WHY they are the way they are now. Those are the gems of a story!

Kelly Dexter said...

It took me a long time to find the line between necessary exposition and infodump. I'm in the camp that likes to know what happened beforehand.

Thanks for stopping by my blog during the blogfest last month!

Vennz said...

backstory is the backbone of a story.