Friday, 3 May 2013

Backstory Done Right

This isn't actually part of the JuNoWriMo Prep series but it totally fits. Check it out:

Sara Megibow, an Agent from the Nelson Literary Agency - found on twitter @SaraMegibow - was kind enough to stop by and talk about Backstory. I've mentioned this before but in my opinion, shoving backstory into the opening of a story is one of the fastest ways to lose your readers. So, I decided to get an expert opinion on the subject and naturally I thought of Sara. Way back in December I talked about her old twitter hashtag #10queriesIn10tweet and I am so excited to get her back here. Thank you Sara!
1. You've said that there is no rule for backstory but you must have some advice on avoiding info dumping (especially right at the beginning of the novel).

You are correct - there is no rule. My suggestion would be to make sure the inciting incident happens quickly in your novel. What's the inciting incident? It's the moment in your book from which the whole story unravels. In CATCHING JORDAN by Miranda Kenneally, we see the arrival of Jordan's rival football player within the first two pages. In CRASH INTO YOU by Roni Loren, the heroine must ask her former lover for help finding her missing sister - and that happens in the first chapter. So, if it's backstory, leave it for later. Instead, dive right in to the story itself.

This is, of course, different if you are writing literary fiction. I only represent genre fiction (young adult, middle grade, romance and SF/F for adults), so this is my best suggestion for those writers. Get right to the story - avoid backstory and data dump by taking the reader directly into the action.
2. In terms querying what are some dos and don'ts about including backstory - in fantasy AND in other genres.

Great question! Make sure your query is short. If it's short, then by default it doesn't have too much backstory or extraneous data. Pick up 10 novels in your genre, published by major NY publishing houses in the past 2 years and read the back cover copy. THAT is exactly how your query letter should read. The rules are the same for fantasy and any other genre - short, keep it short. We want (generally) a one sentence pitch and 1-2 paragraphs of data. Don't include the names of the town or the particular kinds of magic in the story - simply show me who, what, where, when, why and do it quickly.

For example, "In a world in which the ultra wealthy can clone their children, our heroine's sister is a clone framed for murder." That's the pitch sentence I used to sell FALLS THE SHADOW by Stefanie Gaither (science fiction thriller for young adults, Simon & Schuster, spring 2014). Another example? "A young woman, healing from the car crash that killed her boyfriend, is hiding the secret that before his death he had been abusing her." That's BREAKING BEAUTIFUL by Jennifer Shaw Wolf (contemporary young adult mystery, Walker Books, April 2012).

If your query letter is wordy, we will assume your manuscript is wordy. If your query letter relies heavily on explaining your fantasy world, we will assume the manuscript relies heavily on explaining your fantasy world. When a query letter is short and compelling we ask for sample pages and, although this process may feel counterintuitive and difficult, it works for us. All my clients (except one) came from a query letter.

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