Miss Snark is the Russian judge

Dear Miss Snark,

I've searched and read your blog for references on backstory, and it's evident that you much prefer action in the first few pages of fiction.

Surely, all agents (and publishers) can't share your aversion to a novel that begins with backstory, or writers like Anne Tyler, William Trevor, Anne Lamott, or Anita Shreve wouldn't succeed.

Appealing to your sense of reason, can you explain why backstory clearly has worked in so many cases? Although it may have been addressed somewhere in your blog, I haven't found you to point out an example of backstory that works in an opening. Is it simply not your taste in opening a novel?

The writers you cite are wonderful.
A lot of the writers in my slush pile and Crapometer aren't.
A lot of them are unpublished, and seeking representation for their first novels.

I don't think it's bad to open with backstory; I just find most people can't do it very well.

Think of writing a novel as a gymnastics or diving competition. You can attempt a triple back flipschitz with a 3.0 degree of difficulty but if you go splat, you get a major deduction or disqualification. OR you can try a double back flipschitz with a lower degree of difficult, execute it perfectly and win. I'd like you to win even if you aren't a triple flipschitz quite yet.


Cynthia Bronco said...

Ow! I think I just sprained my flipschitz.

kathie said...

I always think the same thing as this person when I read books by those authors. But then I hit myself with the clue stick and remember, they are successful, famous, etc. They can backstory the entire book and it'll be good enough to sell. I'm not them. (Well, okay, I'm sort of them--just in the tadpole stage...)

Maria said...

I started hearing about this backstory shortly after I started writing. I felt the same was as the person that sent this in, wondering what the big deal was and thinking how wonderful the details were on backstory and how necessary. Then I started studying the blogs, and my own reading habits.

To a great extent, if I know the author, I'll read through an entire chapter, maybe even two, of stuff that doesn't seem to work for me. For an author I don't know, especially if I am standing in the library aisle...I might read a page or two. If it doesn't grab me, I don't take it. If it's okay, but I'm not quite sure I take it. If I'm in the bookstore, it MUST grab me if it is a new author.

The bar is just higher for an unknown.

Simon Haynes said...

I thought flipschitz went splashz?

The Unpretentious Writer said...

*cue Olympic-type music, cue 80's sports guy*

YOU CAN DO IIIIIIT! Yeah, great! Go for the gold! Work that sentence structure! Feel the burn!

verif = owwwfeko (what you say after you go splat from that triple flipschitz)

yossarian said...

Also, I would argue that just because Anita Shreve and Anne Tyler don't start out with flame-throwers on page one, doesn't mean they start out slow. Take a look at the first chapter of THE PILOT'S WIFE by Shreve. Talk about getting jerked right into the story. That's one of the best first chapters I've read in a long time. Absolutely riveting.

Zany Mom said...

I've had the opposite problem from some of my critiquers (not agents or editors -- I'm not there yet!) who, while they like that backstory is dribbled in over time, some want me to delve into the head of the character and have a running monologue going, not only with backstory, but how the character sees the world.

They don't like to read it and figure out what's going on for themselves.

Somewhere out there is balance.

Kim said...

flipschitz - another new word for my increasingly bizarre vocab...

Start with action. Pull the reader in. Sprinkle the backstory throughout. Now repeat...

angie said...

I'm with Maria...established writers/ones I KNOW I love have more leeway. I know they can deliver. If I'm gonna plunk down my cash for a writer that's new, you better grab me on page one, line one. And that usually translates to starting with action or a really interesting/unusual situation or viewpoint.

I'm always amused by writers who insist that "the rules" are broken all the time. Of course they are. The difference is in knowing why the rules are there and how to break them well. And no, most newbie writers, no matter how fabulous they think they are, can break the rules well.

OTOH, it's your book. Do what you wanna. Just don't be shocked if it doesn't get you the agent and book deal you've been dreaming of.

Talentless said...

I have a different but related problem. I can start with action, but because I am introducing characters etc I find the my 3rd person pov is more distant and only becomes more intimate as the story progresses. I worry that though the first chapters have plenty of action they don't show the intimacy of the characters thoughts as I can later - does that make sense - does anyone have similar probs and will an editor agent reject for a lack of intimacy immediately?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hmm. Wonder if the whole backstory issue is the reason I don't care for any of those authors. Or at least their books; I can't comment on their personalities.

Maria said...

Dear talentless (geez, you're making me feel bad calling you that!)

Action should be what shows the character's personality--what they do and their reaction to events tells me what they are thinking without the author telling me what they are thinking.

Of course I'm not sure I know what you mean either. But:

He swung the knife and winced as the mouse died.


He swung the knife and screamed victory as the mouse died.

See in the first one, the character is a bit squeamish or maybe reluctant over killing the mouse. I sense what he is probably thinking without being told.

In the second, the guy is thrilled to kill the mouse and there could be a sense that the mouse has long been a thorn in his side...

You know. Show. :>)

Julia said...

I thought a flipshitz was a figure skating move.