Querypalooza, part XII: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower

Sorry that I’m posting our latest Querypalooza installment a few minutes late today, campers. First, I overslept a bit (probably predictable, seeing as I had committed to last weekend’s post-every-eight-hours schedule before it occurred to me that such a posting regimen would necessarily preclude my ever sleeping more than, say, seven hours and twenty minutes at a stretch), then I got embroiled in answering readers’ questions on earlier posts in this series. I aspire to being more prompt with today’s 6 p.m. post.

As long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, already aware, I welcome questions and comments from my readers. They keep things lively, and frankly, without them, Author! Author! would not have grown, evolved, and some would say mushroomed over the past five years into the seething cauldron of ideas it has. Your input has transformed it from a series of editorial pieces (which is, really, what it was for the first year, when I was Resident Writer for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association; their board insisted on column format without visible comments) into a vibrant, ever-burgeoning community.

A fierce ragoût, as Charlotte Brontë would put it. Heck, even the super-specific categories on the archive list at right were initially suggested by a reader. My very first commenter, in fact. So the next time you go scrolling down that now-immense list of options, you should send mental thanks to inveterate commenter Dave.

There’s another, slightly less obvious way that your input has been — and shall continue to be, I devoutly hope — so good for this blog: every so often, someone asks a question that would simply never occur to anyone who works with manuscripts for a living. I’ll never forget the first time it happened. Someone wrote in because she was confused by something I had said in passing about how manuscripts should be formatted: how was it possible, she asked in all sincerity, to have a slug line in the top margin when the rules said there should be a one-inch border of white space all around the page?

It’s a cliché, but my jaw actually did drop. Having grown up surrounded by professional writers, not only would this question never have occurred to me — I had no personal experience that would lead me to guess that anyone else might have formulated it. My parents made me write my elementary school term papers in standard format. Typed, no less. I had never even thought about how difficult it would be for someone who had never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript to envision what it should look like.

And that, my friends, was the inspiring spark for my notoriously explanation-heavy semi-annual HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT series. So the next time any of you have a question about format, you should be thanking that early questioner.

Ditto, incidentally, for Querypalooza. My explanations have definitely been enriched over the years by readers’ comments and questions. Why, only recently, curious and insightful reader Janet raised an interesting query-related issue in the comments:

The thing that stymies me is the credentials part. If you’re trying to interest an editor (as I write mostly short stories at the moment, although I’m Working On A Novel) but you’ve only really just gotten started again and haven’t won or published anything (that’s not fan fiction), how do you deal with that?

That part stymies nearly everyone, Janet — and not only short story writers trying to interest editors in their work. It is, in fact, the classic first-time book writer’s dilemma, and certainly most queriers’.

The classic answer to this question is if you don’t have writing credentials, get some. Most aspiring writers are turned off by this, because they assume this is referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possible option in the platform paragraph of a query. The goal of including publishing credentials there is not just to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on you, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.

Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even — dare I say it? — maintaining a blog.

All of these things demonstrate professional intent — which, if you do not have professional credentials, is the next best thing. I have some tips on brainstorming more possibilities in the posts under the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category on the archive list at right, but it all boils down to be creative.

Okay, my work here is done. Moving on…

No, but seriously, folks, that is how quickly most of us who deal with books for a living would answer this sort of question. It just wouldn’t occur to us that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more. Being me — and thus having the benefit of five years’ worth of your questions and comments — I know better.

So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to talk about the query’s platform paragraph assuming that there must be many readers out there who have never seen a professional query before. Let’s start by defining our terms, shall we?

A platform is the collection of credentials, life experience, and specific expertise that forms the basis of a writer’s claim to be the best person on earth to write the particular book he is pitching, querying, or proposing. Until fairly recently, the term applied only to nonfiction: platform was industry-speak for the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book, but now, it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to speak about a novelist’s platform as well.

And you know what I mean by the platform paragraph in a query, right? It’s the third paragraph in the example below, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to…

mars query

Now that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, we’re ready to ask the $64,000 question: what kinds of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform? Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

And 85% of you just tensed up again. Not too surprising: most aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with the prospect of having to justify having sat down to write her book.

I have long suspected that part of the fear stems from that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers. That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can.

“What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would prefers to represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor. They are saving the previously-unpublished some wasted time.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are hundreds of wonderful agents out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of squandering your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again. “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

That got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t it?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game.

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies. A previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query. The previously published also tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline, a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their respective jobs significantly harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of any sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is immensely complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as actual readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you wrote periodic columns on boosting homeowners’ recycling acumen for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query. Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying.

In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate that — wait for it — the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers labor under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference held in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you? Any particular reason you wouldn’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…

Need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. But think about it: if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is indeed what some of them mean. But most of them are just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right? Keep humming it in the key of G.

I spot a few raised hands out there. “Back up a minute, Anne. What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well. Even established novelists often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. Book reviews. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with the book you are querying. Or even your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might well be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. (See, I told you to keep humming.)

Or this: you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does. Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Have you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-booter: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may easily be described very tersely — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality, not a question of literary quality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct a platform. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel they pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would might not render me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being whose perceptions of reality could be trusted.

A personal platform is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book. Whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform also demonstrates why people in the media might be interested in interviewing the author.

While your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you have written the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for book sales, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of this NF sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA-aimed book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

I may be going out on a limb here, but how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to your book’s subject matter?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — any experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading. That summer you spent following the caribou herd.

Seeing where I’m going with this? At the risk of sounding like, well, pretty much anybody else who gives advice on platform: if you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can always go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as publication-based ones. So why not spend the autumn making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: while technically, everything posted on the web is published, unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner an impressive number of hits on a regular basis (thanks again, readers!), Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se. If it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? Or those comments that in the electronic age, publication credentials are easier to come by than ever? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out one individualized query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question — in boldface, no less.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

Again, this is old hat to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident. The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: that beautifully-written descriptive paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query itself is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “But Anne, I’m worried that the writing credentials I have don’t really count. I’ve heard, for instance, that mentioning fan fiction just makes Millicent chuckle. And I’m not the only one, judging by Janet’s parenthetical observation about not having ‘won or published anything (that’s not fan fiction).’ Aren’t you being, you know, insanely optimistic?”

Not really. A publication is a publication, whether it is fan fiction or not: if someone else decided whether to put your writing in print or online, it’s technically published, and thus a perfectly legitimate credential. The pervasive rumor that fan fiction credentials don’t count does have some basis in fact, though — as writing credentials go, they are taken less seriously than print pieces, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t count at all.

So why is the caution almost invariably phrased as fan fiction and web credentials don’t count? Because like so many of the soi-disant Thou Shalt Not Do This in a Query rules floating around out there, the nuances of the true situation have fallen out of the advice as it has passed from mouth to mouth. In the usual style of rumor-based fact-checking, what almost nobody goes on to mention is that just because it’s not the best writing credential doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless.

Especially if you happen to write in that genre. If you write fan fiction in your chosen book category, you’re obviously familiar with its storylines, conventions, and current market, right?

Millicent may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness, but that doesn’t mean she will ignore it altogether. Besides, having something publishing-related to put in the platform paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there.

“Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform planks might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, AND an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph (or even two, if they’re short) pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

Is your brain buzzing like a beehive, awash in the multiplicity of options? If not, don’t panic — in my next post (roughly 6 pm PST, wakefulness permitting), I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. Keep up the good work!

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