Tuesday, October 01, 2019

when does set up / backstory become necessary to avoid confusion?

Your recent critique on Query Shark mentioned cutting set up and backstory to keep a query lean and effective. My question is ... when does set up / backstory become necessary to avoid confusion (the great query sin)?

My current ms (should be sending queries this month!!) has an odd-but-important element that I feel would be weird if I left out of the query (don't want the agent to read the pages and feel surprised/betrayed), but to put this in the query requires a fair amount of what looks like set up / backstory (looks like it because that's what it is).

I guess my real question is this. If we do attempt to include set up / backstory, is it better to just be blunt with it and get it out of the way (avoid confusion) or try to "say as much as you can without saying it" (avoid it looking like set up / backstory)???
You say surprise like it's a bad thing.
I love twists and turns. I LOVE it when writing surprises me...in a good way.

But my guess is you mean that the agent won't understand the story without some set up.

And that's the answer to your question. You need set up if the reader won't understand the plot without the key element.

But often times writer fail to understand that your reader isn't looking for problems. We're looking for a great story. And we'll buy in to what you tell us if we can.

So, do I believe dragons fly on Pern?
You bet.
I don't need any of the backstory or explanation about how.

Do I believe there are monks from The Electric Church who will offer you eternal salvation for a price?
I don't need to know how the church started or much of anything else.

Do I believe that the Emperor can shoot electricity from his hands even though no one else in the Galaxy can?
And I want me some of that.

Do I believe that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter?
Well, ok, sure. I get that this is a novel with a wacko premise.

But do I believe you when you tell me there are tunnels in New Orleans?
Because the watertable in NOLA is so high, they can't even bury people there.
Tunnels would collapse.
So there, you need some explanation.

So dragons can fly but you can't have tunnels in New Orleans.
How do you know the difference?

Well, for starters dragons fly on Pern, which is not earth. I have no expectations of what is real on Pern cause it's all made up.

But New Orleans is real.  I'm willing to suspend disbelief for minor things, but something that is literally impossible is a deal breaker without explanation.

How can you asses? assess?**
Here's where you need a beta reader, or more than one actually.
Give them the query without the explanation or set up or backstory.
Ask one question: did you understand this.
Then ask: did you believe this could happen?

Make sure they were confused by lack of information, not lack of connection between events.

Most of your readers will be glad to make intuitive jumps with you and believe what you tell them.

Over-explaining things is one of the big problems I see in query pages.

Any questions?
Where's MY sushi, Thumbs?

**Otto the Czech speller thinks highly of all y'all I see, and did not correct that!


nightsmusic said...

I really have no comment on OP's question because Janet said it better than I ever could. The comment I do have is, The Duchess has the most unusual face...it really is striking. I'm so used to looking at Loaner Cat's pudgy, round little face and to see this sculpted...I never realized how different it is but this is a great shot.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

What a great question, OP! I'm glad you asked. Thank you OP.

Because Janet's answer is phenomenal. Not only the examples, which show me exactly how to determine what works and what doesn't work, but also the syntax in which Janet answers. That "do I believe" threesome with the unexpected twist? That kind of writing always grabs me. Thank you, Janet, for the inspiration to aspire!

Colin Smith said...

Hey, OP! What Janet said. Plus, here's a thought:

Remember, the art of the query is enticing the reader to read your novel. Your novel contains all the explanations. You just need the query to dangle a tasty enough carrot that the reader will want to know, "Wait--tunnels in NOLA? How did that happen?" Your query might have simply mentioned "a great engineering discovery in 2089." But that's not what will entice your readers to your novel. They'll want to know about the mysterious disappearances in those tunnels, and the webbed footprints that go to nowhere. You can leave the details of how the tunnels came to be to the novel. Even if those details contain the key to the mystery. In fact, BECAUSE those details contain the key to the mystery, you should leave them out of the query.

Remember: entice... entice... entice...

Craig F said...

The hardest part of writing a query is getting enough distance from your baby to properly distill the moonshine of your story arc.

OP it sounds like you are still too close and mired in the details, sub-plots and background of your story. Those aren't important until the agent gets to the pages.

The query is a unique and terrible beast.

JulieWeathers said...

Yes, beta readers are awesome. Trust me on this. I have some great ones. Do not do anything until you go through beta readers. Not your manuscript. Not your query. Not your synopsis.

lynneconnolly said...

But we have aristocratic spies, aristocratic pirates and matchmakers in Regency Britain, none of which ever existed, or could have.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Such good advice/input. Thank you, as always, Janet (and Reiders).

I was invited to speak at a writer's group about my journey to publication (nonfiction). Near the end of the session we had open time for members to discuss their own writing. One woman expressed her frustration over word count. It was too high. I asked her to read several random paragraphs out loud, providing she felt comfortable. She did, and my immediate response was, "You're explaining too much."

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Like a lot of the others, Janet has said all there is to be said apart from Colin's 2089 engineering underwater tunnel scenario in New Orleans. Wonder how all the vampires will adapt to this feat?

And Julie is right about beta readers - great to have. Less embarrassing to realize your ridiculous continuity error with a beta than an agent reading your full.

As for the query, I never considered putting a lot of world-building there - it should be all about the story which is always a stranger comes to town apparently, regardless if the town happens to be NOLA sans underground tunnels or Alpha Centurion or Hobbiton in Middle Earth.

A writer must somehow convince agent or editor why they should care that the stranger came to this particular town even if the stranger has lived in said town their entire existence.

Easy, yeah? Not even a little bit :(

Mister Furkles said...

There may be no tunnels under Nau Or'lens now. There can be but it would be expensive. And to what purpose? There are tunnels under the English Channel and the water table is kind of high in the channel.

Brittany said...

In a query it's probably not so much about making sure the reader can understand the plot as it is to make sure they can understand the stakes.

Like with Lord of the Rings, we need to know that Sauron can use the One Ring to control and destroy Middle-Earth. If we don't know why the Ring is important, we don't know why Frodo is risking his life to destroy it. How or why it has that ability, the other rings, the other forces in play, the specific obstacles he'll face? Not terribly important at the query level.

The best thing I've learned from Query Shark: your primary job in selling your book is giving us a specific and interesting person to glom onto. The rest gets filled in from there.

Fearless Reider said...

I have a couple of writer friends who delight in nit-picking every plot hole, continuity error, and botched detail in books and films. There’s no joy in that for me — much of the time they strain at gnats while swallowing camels. If you can make me care about your characters and their dilemmas, I’ll overlook almost anything, maybe even tunnels under New Orleans. But I’m a softie that way.

Lennon Faris said...

"Believable" vs. "Real" has always fascinated me. Imaginary things still have to follow some logical rules.

And yes, beta readers are amazing. Sometimes they keep you from sending something really, really embarrassing!

Lennon Faris said...

Also, speaking of these things, I think this might be a typo:

"How can you asses?"

Unless Janet is addressing us with some edgy humor.

Swimmin' outta here!

Colin Smith said...

Lennon: ROTFL
Janet: Please don't correct it. Just add a comma. ;)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Brittany, I think your point is spot-on. Tolkien is a great example of this. Think of how much backstory he could have put into the hobbit or the LotR. If you look at it with fresh eyes, it seems crazy that he didn't really ever explain Sauron's backstory, how the whole Ringwraiths thing actually works, where the Fell Beasts came from, etc.

He had the information (enough to fill a truckload of appendices), but he knew what was vital to include (Sauron bad, ring bad, Gandalf good, Samwise very VERY good) and what to exclude.

Janet Reid said...

Oh my fricking godiva.
Just ignore me, over here in the corner, weeping with mortification.

Colin Smith said...

Janet: Watch us over there in the other corner, weeping with laughter and owning the critique. ;D

Dena Pawling said...

I tend to blame the “typo” on your distraction with visiting her sleekness tomorrow =)

Fearless Reider said...

I’m with Colin —I would have much preferred seeing that typo perfected with a well-placed comma instead, but I guess we can’t have everything.