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.