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Backstory Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Trends are popular in all things–fashion, food, books and even queries. The latest trend in queries does not seem to be a good one. Lately I’m reading more and more that just don’t thrill me. Queries from people who desperately need a query workshop or at least a query beta-reader or two.

One consistent problem is backstory. Backstory has little to no place in a query. When I read your query I need to know what this book is about. What’s the conflict, climax, action, hook (not necessarily all of those things), but I need to know the highpoint of your story. If I’m reading a query and it goes on and on through the life of the protagonist I wonder what the story is really about. Is it really about this protagonist’s entire childhood, marriage, and widowerhood? Or is the focus of the book actually about life after he’s widowed and the rest is just what makes him who he is?

When telling someone about The Hunger Games no one is interested how this Dystopian world was created or how Katniss came to be who she is. What they want to know is the key information that’s going to intrigue them, what is this book really about. Hunger Games is not about how Katniss learned to hunt in the wood or became friends with Gale, it is about a girl who is forced to fight in a battle to the death. In a nutshell. The query would need a little more.

Once again I will repeat myself, and maybe you should repeat after me, the query is how you’re going to describe your book to someone at a cocktail party. Drink in hand, less than three minutes on the clock, what is your book really about.

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8 comments

  1. This is good advice for query writers: the three minute cocktail party rule. I can understand how it’s far easier said than done, but a necessary step for authors to be successful.

    I’m sure there are many reasons for the frustrating trend in your recent queries, but maybe one of the big reasons is that authors aren’t taking the query letter as seriously as they should? Perhaps the short length of the query fools some authors into thinking it’s a quick effort to write one. Big mistake!

  2. I started my writing career doing 30 and 60 second commercials for a country western radio station back in 1972. When I’m having trouble with a blurb and can’t find the heart of the matter, I think back to those commercials selling calf manna…

    Set a timer and a recorder going, and tell your story in sixty seconds. Write it down, embellish where needed, but keep it under three minutes.

    I need to remind myself to do that because I’ve gotten lazy!

  3. It’s funny you should post about this. I’ve been wondering about backstory in general.
    How much, when and where. All the normal questions, but more because I haven’t felt the need to put in backstory anywhere.
    But it’s not something I would consider putting in a query or pitch. Maybe if I wanted to sell the ‘world’ for a series.
    Otherwise wouldn’t I be telling you about a prequel I hadn’t even written?

    1. Holly, I think that writing backstory is often the way an author organizes her thoughts about the story and the characters. I learned a long time ago to write that first chapter with the backstory I need (not the reader, me) and then by the time I get to the third chapter, I can usually toss the first one altogether. It’s sort of the launch platform for the rest of the book.

      1. Thanks Kate, that explains a lot.
        I’m doing a re-edit, so I did a lot of the world back story in attempt 1.
        That’s the only thing that hasn’t changed in anyway, but the characters are opening up slowly so (if I’m doing it right) not really any backstory needed.

  4. Great advice! Most authors I know write and polish their blurbs to the last letter. These people are really pro, so their queries are kick-as$$. In order to one day become as good I write not one, but three or four blurbs, usually 150 words max. I polish them for weeks. It’s such hard work. I wonder – are these writers you’re talking about mostly one-book authors, or people who aim for a career in the industry?

  5. Kate, I love that idea of giving yourself 60secs to speak it (and recording it while you do so).

    I’ve read all the files at Query Shark so I think I have a pretty good handle on the “theory” of writing a query letter. Although it can still take me a week to write those 250 words!

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