Thursday, May 26, 2022

Backstory and set up in a query

 

As I work my way through queries and requested fulls, one problem consistently crops up: the amount of backstory and set up presented in the query or the first pages of a novel.

 

You don't need as much as you think you do.

 

Consider this "query":

 

Felix and Betty Buttonweezer live on Carolynn Lane. They've raised four (mostly) good kids, and avoided killing each other over arguments about which way the toilet paper should hang.  Sure, Betty likes to finish Felix's sentences, and Felix has been known to tune out Betty's litany of complaints about her harridan sister in law (the wife of her otherwise quite nice sister Petunia.) They vowed for better for worse 25 years ago, and so far so good.

 

When Betty rescues what Felix thinks is a yappy, neurotic, scruff bomb with minimal resemblance to a dog, now called SweetumsMyPrecious (Betty's choice of course), Felix finds himself the odd mammal out.

 

Betty makes dinner when  SweetumsMyPrecious seems hungry, not when Felix comes home from work.

 

Betty sits in the backseat with  SweetumsMyPrecious when she and Felix take drives.

 

Worst of all, she's made Felix smoke his cigars not just outside on the porch but across the street because "the smoke bothers little Precious"

 

But Betty has found something to lavish her love on. With the kids grown and gone, and Felix off to work, then perfectly content to sit in his recliner after dinner watching The Great British Bake Off or Forged in Fire, Betty has felt alone and useless. Moreover, her Facebooks stories about, and photos of,  SweetumsMyPrecious has garnered her an adoring fan club.

 

What neither of them know is that  SweetumsMyPrecious wasn't a stray. And Felix is closer than he knows in his doubts that SweetumsMyPrecious is really a dog.

 

How much of this can you take out but retain verve and voice, and enough description and plot to entice an agent?

 

There's no one right answer, but there is at least one wrong answer: "none." At 252 words, this needs to be trimmed by at least 50 words.

 

Feel free to answer in the comments section.

 

 Hack at it!

14 comments:

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I'd take out the first paragraph.

Unknown said...

For me it could be cut to one sentence. "After Felix and Betty take in a stray, Felix begins to worry it isn't actually a dog." -- follow with story.

This has happened when a family took in a stray pup only to discover it wasn't:
"A Massachusetts family was surprised to learn that a lost puppy they rescued was, in fact, a baby coyote." -- CNN 5/8/22
If I recall, there was a case of a family taking a young bear cub, thinking it was a puppy.

C. Dan Castro said...

Very excited to see so many posts! Thanks Janet.

Very disturbed by the ~200 word limit! Is the rule of thumb still <=250 words (i.e., a page)? Is the recommendation here <200 words, figuring the other 50 words cover aspects like any personal link to the agent; writing credits; and words like "Thank you for your time and consideration" and "Sincerely"?

Kitty said...

All of the 100-word contests were excellent exercises.

Felix and Betty Buttonweezer vowed for better for worse 25 years ago, and so far so good.

When Betty rescues what Felix thinks is a yappy, neurotic, scruff bomb with minimal resemblance to a dog, now called SweetumsMyPrecious, Felix finds himself the odd mammal out.

Betty has found something to lavish her love on. With the kids grown and gone, and Felix off to work, then perfectly content to sit in his recliner after dinner watching The Great British Bake Off or Forged in Fire, Betty has felt alone and useless. Moreover, her Facebooks stories about, and photos of, SweetumsMyPrecious has garnered her an adoring fan club.

What neither of them know is that SweetumsMyPrecious wasn't a stray. And Felix is closer than he knows in his doubts that SweetumsMyPrecious is really a dog.


134 words

Craig F said...

I'd dump the whole thing, until the last sentence. Then I would start over. I don't see any story arc in this thing and, to me, that is the secondary function of a query.

The primary function of a query is to light up that part of an agent's brain that wants more. You have to dole that out until you can hook'em.

That happens on the pages, though.

Amy Johnson said...

Yes to what Kitty said about the 100-word contests. Our queen/the Query Shark is both benevolent and brilliant.

Claire Bobrow said...

So much fun I couldn't resist! Here goes:

25 years ago, Felix and Betty Buttonweezer vowed for better for worse. So far, so good. But when Betty rescues a yappy, neurotic, scruff bomb to cure her midlife blues, Felix finds himself the odd mammal out. Betty makes dinner when her new sweetums seems hungry – not when Felix does. And when Betty insists on riding in the backseat with her mangy mutt, making her spouse play lonely chauffeur, things go from bad to worse. Despair drives Felix to the porch for some cigar-infused solace, but Betty banishes him down the street so the smoke won’t affect the dog! Poor Betty. She has no clue little Precious isn’t a stray -- or even an animal. If only Felix could get out of the doghouse in time to uncover the truth…before it kills them both.

John Davis Frain said...

I think Precious is AI, and moreover, secretly loves cigars. That will be Precious' downfall and allow Felix to regain his stature in the house until Betty unwittingly stabs him in the heart when she confuses her two housemates.

But edit Sharky's query? Yeah, right, like I'm gonna fall for that one-way ticket on the express train to Carkoon.

E.M. Goldsmith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E.M. Goldsmith said...

I drop the whole thing - what is the inciting incident- what choice has to be made? What are the stakes? I have no idea from this. It's quite funny and that is good. But it's not a query. That said - this is what I do when I write a query because I freeze and then I panic.

This reads more like a short synopsis than a query. A proper query tells about something that happens causing the protagonist to make some kind of choice with consequences (stakes). Grab the agent's interest so they will bother with whatever pages they allow. If any.

Is that right? If it is, why can't I do this better? Why do I know exactly what a query is supposed to do and yet I can't write one. I can write a lovely 100K + word epic fantasy, but the 250 word query. I am more adept at shooting monkeys out my backside than this writing of an agent-ensnaring query.

AJ Blythe said...

No stakes. Not even completely sure who is the protagonist. No sacrifice. But for all that, it still sounds like a fun read.

Panda in Chief said...

Here's mine.

When Betty rescues what Felix thinks is a yappy, neurotic, scruff bomb with minimal resemblance to a dog, now called SweetumsMyPrecious (Betty's choice of course), Felix finds himself the odd mammal out.

With the kids grown and gone, and Felix off to work, then perfectly content to sit in his recliner after dinner watching The Great British Bake Off or Forged in Fire, Betty has felt alone and useless. Moreover, her Facebooks stories about, and photos of,  SweetumsMyPrecious has garnered her an adoring fan club.
 
What neither of them know is that  SweetumsMyPrecious wasn't a stray. And Felix is closer than he knows in his doubts that SweetumsMyPrecious is really a dog.

Lennon Faris said...

OK, I'll play...I guess I did not chop off much but if I don't post now I will tinker with it all day.


After 25 years of marriage, Felix finds himself replaced.

Sure, he and Betty bicker over which way the toilet paper hangs. And maybe Felix tunes out Betty’s litany of complaints when he’s watching the Great British Bake Off. But they vowed for better or for worse. Nothing was supposed to mess that up. Especially not this yappy, neurotic, scruff bomb of a rescue that has minimal resemblance to a dog, which Betty lovingly calls ‘Fluffy, My Love’ (or to Felix, FML).

Now Betty makes dinner when FML is hungry, not when Felix comes home from work. When they take drives together, Betty sits in the backseat with FML. Worst of all, Betty makes Felix smoke his cigars across the street because “the smoke bothers little Fluffy.”

It might be time for little Fluffy to ship itself to Australia.

The problem is, Betty seems happier. With the kids grown and gone, she’s found something to lavish her love on. Fluffy ain’t just a toilet paper argument. If something happens to FML, and especially if it’s his fault, Felix will be doomed to a lifetime in the doghouse.

What neither of them knows is that FML wasn’t a stray. Or even a dog. And when Felix watches his bake-off shows, they just might be watching him back. Felix needs to decide how much his routines mean to him…before FML f’s more than just his mediocre marriage.

Susan Alice Bickford said...

When Betty Buttonweezer rescues a yappy, neurotic, dog, her husband, contented suburban salaryman Felix, soon realizes this is much more serious than a middle age crisis. His very existence is now threatened by SweetumsMyPrecious, and if he doesn't take control of hearth and home, he will soon find himself the odd mammal out.

Felix finds few allies in his effort to convince Betty that life should continue as it has for the last 25 years. Why should he have to smoke his cigars outside AND across the street? Can't the dog be fed on regular schedule--just like Felix--and not on demand? Just because Precious gets carsick riding in the back seat, why can't Felix sit in the front passenger seat anymore? And he'd like to drive sometimes. He's tired of being told sit and stay.

But Betty has found something to lavish her love on. Besides, her Tiktok videos of SweetumsMyPrecious have turned Betty into a rising influencer star.

With their marriage headed down the tubes, what neither of them know is that SweetumsMyPrecious wasn't a stray—and may not really be a dog.