Queryfest, part XV: selecting the elements that will grab Millicent’s attention, or was this honestly the most exciting news story of the day?

Since I’ve gone down to posting only once or twice per week — a rate I hope to be ramping up again, perhaps as soon as tomorrow — I’ve noticed something interesting, campers: reality seems to have slowed its rate of tumbling all over itself to provide me with practical or symbolic examples of whatever I plan to discuss next. The last time I delved into the fine art of querying, the world around me seemed to burst into anecdotes every time I looked up from the computer.

I’m glad to report that since Thanksgiving, the Muses have gotten off their collective tuffet and hopped back on the illustrative story bandwagon. This weekend, they provided me with a lulu — and, perhaps to make amends for their lack of productivity throughout the autumn, they seem to have gone out of their way to provide parallels to not just one, but several widely misunderstood aspects of querying. So sit back, relax, and let the girls do their stuff with today’s tale.

One of the more charming (or more trying, depending upon how one chooses to look at it) aspects of having grown up in a small town lies in the ongoing interconnectedness one feels with the playmates of one’s early years. Where the friend options are few, pickiness is a luxury. Even if you happened to loathe a particular nursery school classmate with abandon, chances are that by the time the two of you graduate from high school, you will probably have enjoyed at least a couple of moderately pleasurable collective moments along the way. Or at least having shared the often-underestimated bond of having loathed the same person in junior high and having had the town’s elders shake their heads over your respective coiffure choices in high school.

Oh, you try to find more scintillating entertainment in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard. Bucolic paradises are frequently very dull.

So although I left that delightful small town at a pace that can only be described as a dead run when I was seventeen, when my kindergarten classmate Kevin left a voice mail message last week, saying he had something important to tell me, I called him back with alacrity. We had spoken perhaps five times since we graduated from high school, but hey, we’d learned to play the xylophone together as tots: the least I could do was let him tell me something I had already heard from my mother (who had gotten the skinny via the garrulous grocery check-out clerk who had happened to scan Kevin’s mom’s Froot Loops earlier in the week), that he had proposed to a Lady From Elsewhere and was planning to move her back home.

That he chose to break the news in two short sentences should have warned me what was to come: even in kindergarten, Kev had embraced John Wayne-like levels of taciturnity; in situations both mundane and life-shifting, he has always eschewed wordiness. Nouns and verbs seldom occupied the same breath with him. Now, his sentences were not complete enough to contain his beloved’s name. By five minutes into our conversation, he was answering my polite questions about the LFE and their wedding plans with monosyllables — and seeming to enjoy it immensely.

I, on the other hand, felt as though I were cross-examining a hostile witness, the kind Perry Mason would have decided must be the murderer. “Well, I’m happy for you, Kevin,” I said, hoping to draw the teeth-pulling to a graceful close. “Do give my best to your mother — and, of course, to your lovely fiancée.”

The mention of the LFE seemed to galvanize him into action. “You should talk to her!” he cried, ignoring his beloved’s perfectly audible cries of, “Who, me?”

I’m not particularly given to heart-to-hearts with complete strangers, but sure that if not my mother, then at least the checkout clerk would be dying to hear some details about the LFE, I revved up my interview skills anew. After a startlingly brief set of exchanges, I was perfectly convinced that the LFE and Kevin were made for each other: she must make him feel like a positive chatterbox. Where he might go out on a limb with a yes or no, the lady favored non-committal humming.

I’ve conducted more productive interviews with mollusks. Actually, I’m fairly confident that your garden-variety mollusk bride-to-be might have coughed up a more substantive response to, “Tell me about your engagement ring,” than a terrified blurt of, “Um, it’s gold?” followed by thirty seconds of anxious silence.

Compared to her answers to most of my questions, that was a philosophical treatise. I might be going out on an interpretive limb here, but I suspect that the LFE is exceedingly shy.

If she was frightened to talk to me, however, she was petrified that I might get off the phone before Kevin returned. Or so I surmise, from the fact that my repeated, “Well, I really should let you get back to your evening together,” did not elicit anything that might remotely be interpreted as an invitation to hang up the phone, unless in the Far Land of Elsewhere, whimpering “No, don’t go!” is the standard way to say good-bye. I began timing the silences after her brief answers, just to have something to do.

Shortly after we’d broken the minute-and-a-half barrier, I heard something unexpected in the background: Kevin’s voice, talking to what sounded like a small child. By dint of a torturous game of 20 Questions, I managed to get the LFE to admit that she had a six-year-old (who, like her mother, was apparently devoid of a name), that she was in the room, and that Kev was playing with her. A full five minutes of motherly silence followed, punctuated only by my commentary on what I guessed the child to be saying and doing.

Having quite a bit of time on my hands, I found myself wondering if perhaps Kevin and the LFE were operating under a completely different understanding of the purpose of an interstate phone call than I had encountered before. Many of the requisite elements of a normal telephone exchange were here — two persons on the same phone line at the same time, an ostensibly exciting development to discuss, time in which to do it — but by no stretch of the imagination was this a normal telephone exchange. Was the point here to share time together, even if there was no conversation? Was having me listen to him chatter with the child Kevin’s way of letting me know that he was enjoying his new family, or did was he in another room, happy in the belief that his sweetie and I were enjoying a half an hour of uninterrupted girl talk?

Or — and this seemed increasingly likely as the seconds ticked by — had he simply forgotten that I was on the phone, and she was too meek to remind him?

Eventually, I did what any self-respecting small-town refugee would have done: I positively forced the LFE to listen to my thanking her for having made Kevin happy (“Mmmph,” she replied), wished her luck with the wedding-planning process — and faked an emergency to excuse getting off the phone. I have no idea whether she actually believed a curtain rod had fallen onto my cat, but at least she said good-bye and hung up.

And my readers heave a huge sigh of relief. “That was odd, Anne,” many of you point out, “but am I missing something here? Didn’t you at least hint that this event put you at least vaguely in mind of something having to do with querying?”

Why, yes, it did. From Millicent the agency screener’s perspective, queries that include some or even all of the required elements but seem to adhere to a different logic than she recognizes are not all that rare. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the kind of e-mail that appears in her agency’s inbox on a regular basis.

Dear Ms. Agentson,

Communication, Garbled tells the story of Ambrosia, a woman trapped between conflicting forces beyond her control. Try as she might, she can’t see a way out, until Greg opens a door for her that she thought had been closed long ago.

Please give me a chance. I have worked very hard on this, and I really, really want to get it published.

Sincerely,

Struggling B. Storyteller

This artless little missive raises more questions than it answers, doesn’t it? “What on earth is this book about?” Millicent cries, rending her garments. “What forces? Why are they beyond her control, and what are the consequences? Who the heck is Greg, and what makes Struggling think a cliché like reopening a closed door conveys any specific meaning? Is Communication, Garbled the title, or is it a review of this letter? Perhaps most perplexingly, why does this writer believe it’s my job to figure out what his? her? book is about, rather than the writer’s job to convey the premise of the story lucidly?”

Why, indeed, Millie: you’re quite right that this vague e-mail does not give you enough information to figure out whether your boss, the agent of Struggling’s dreams, might conceivably want to represent this manuscript. It doesn’t mention the book category, the intended audience, the premise — and because this description could be applied equally well to thousands of wildly different plots, a screener would have absolutely no way of guessing productively on any of these essential points. If Struggling had opened with some indication of why s/he had picked this particular agency (like, say, Since you so ably represented Competent Author’s debut novel, UNCLEAR EXCHANGES, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction project…), Millicent might have been able to make an educated guess, but since she has hundreds of queries to screen before lunch, why would she waste time speculating?

Especially for a query that doesn’t even say whether the book it is pushing is fiction or nonfiction. Heck, if it hadn’t landed in the agency’s inbox along with 1500 similar missives, Millie might not even have been able to guess it is a query intended to solicit representation.

In short, it contains some of the elements of a standard query letter, but does not bring them together in a manner comprehensible to a reader who knows nothing about the book in question. From Millicent’s perspective, Struggling has missed the point of this mode of communication.

From the writer’s side of the SEND button, though, it’s fairly clear what happened here, though, isn’t it? Struggling knows what her book is about: concerned with the brevity requirements of a query, she’s generalizing. Millicent’s boss represents books like the one she’s written, so wouldn’t anyone at the agency be able to fill in the blanks about where this book would sit in a bookstore, who the target audience is, and why Struggling approached this agent in the first place?

The short answer is that it’s not Millicent’s job to read the querier’s mind, but the querier’s job to present her work clearly. The long answer is…wait five minutes in silence, then read the first sentence of this paragraph again.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: Struggling might well have written a stellar book, but her misinterpretation of the requirements of the query letter render the quality of the manuscript a moot point at the querying stage. Most of the time, this kind of query is the result of a writer’s having based the query not upon research about what the agent in question is seeking, or even what a generic query might contain, but rather a vague guess about what a query letter is.

Such guesses mystify the pros, frankly. They believe, and with some reason, that there are enough blogs like this, reputable books aimed at aspiring writers, and writers’ conferences out there that any writer serious about landing an agent should be able to learn the basic elements of a query quite easily. Even if that were not the case — but it is — many agencies go out of their way to list those elements for potential queriers, posting guidelines on their websites. That being the case (their reasoning continues), a writer with sufficient talent to compose a good book should be able to string those elements together in a graceful and coherent style.

So when a screener is confronted with a query that appears to have been written without either a basic understanding of what the requisite parts of a good query letter are or how those parts might be fitted together into a convincing argument to request the manuscript, she generally feels more than justified in rejecting it regardless of the inherent interest of the story. A query like Struggling’s, then, might be legitimately be regarded as self-rejecting: it differs enough from what Millicent has been trained to regard as the minimum standard for a successful query letter that it is instantly recognizable as a non-starter.

Were those shrieks of rage I just heard echoing around the ether, or has my house been invaded by harpies? “Talk about misconceptions!” those of you who have been wading through the mountains of querying advice out there wail. “Clearly, these people haven’t taken a look at the welter of information out there on the subject. I’m perfectly willing to follow directions, but there are literally thousands of sources of advice out there, and half of them contradict one another!”

Of course, they haven’t taken a look at what’s out there — why should they? Millicent already knows what information a query letter should contain. But Struggling and writers like her tend not to be those who have, like you wailers, conscientiously worked their way through a number of different credible sources on how to write a query. No, Struggling almost certainly based her effort upon quite limited research, assuming — wrongly — that she understood what an agent might be expecting to see even though she had never written a query letter before.

That so many queriers don’t recognize that a query must contain certain industry-specified elements, including the imperative to include enough information about the book that Millicent doesn’t have to guess why it might appeal to her boss, is almost as frustrating to those who screen queries for a living as for those who write them and get rejected. To the pros, a query is an application to have an agent or editor take a writer’s work seriously — and part of the case to be taken seriously includes the writer’s demonstrating that she has invested the time in learning how the querying and submission process works.

Frustrating, from the writer’s point of view? Certainly — but remember, aspiring writers tend to be the ones who expect a book to be picked up right away, not agents or editors. People in the industry are well aware that it often takes a good writer years to learn the ropes, but from their perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of queriers begin the agent-seeking process before their manuscripts are ready for professional scrutiny, increasing the chances of rejection; to an experienced screener, Struggling’s query above practically cries out, “I typed THE END two weeks ago, so I have not yet had time to revise and polish this manuscript!”

Will that be a valid conclusion in every case? No, of course not, but a best-guess query and a first draft go hand-in-hand often enough that you really can’t blame Millicent for making the correlation. Or for rejecting the query in the hope that Struggling will be prompted to do the requisite homework to write a better letter next time. And if that professionalization process sucks up enough time that Struggling has a chance to do a little revision on her novel, isn’t that actually in her book’s best interest in the long run?

Yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel that way when you open a form-letter rejection. But honestly, doesn’t it make you feel just the tiniest bit better to know that form letter was not necessarily saying Give up — this book doesn’t have a chance but possibly, You haven’t given me enough information to assess this project, because you’re not speaking about your book in professional language, but I hope that you will do better next time?

Don’t like that moral? Okay, try this one on for size: it’s very much in your interest to do your homework not only on what elements should be in a query in general, but what, if any, advice any particular agent or agency you are planning to approach has put out there for potential clients. Trust me, if Ms. Agentson took the time to create a page on her agency’s website to explain what she wants to see in a query, she will expect Struggling to be familiar with it before writing the query letter.

If, after scouring agents’ guides and agency websites, you’re still not sure what the protocol is for querying your type of book, I also have a bit of advice for you. It’s short and sweet: find a credible source and ask.

What, you thought successful authors were born knowing this stuff? Would I have had material to blog for more than six years if that were the case?

To encourage the asking of trenchant questions, I shall devote the rest of tonight’s post to an exceptionally sensible question brought up a couple of years back by intelligent and thoughtful reader AM. In the course of a spirited discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, AM suggested:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

There, now — that wasn’t so hard, was it? If I can wade my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right onto AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

And while we’re on the subject of blandishment: no matter how much you want to grab Millicent’s attention, never, ever, EVER include a bribe of any sort in a query or submission packet. It will not garner positive attention for your book project; in fact, it is virtually always an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, even if it’s merely a photograph or two of the gorgeous scenery you have written about in your travel memoir or that business card you had made up for your last foray to a writers’ conference. Agencies have to be extremely defensive about this one: due to how fast rumors about the latest querying trick spread around the Internet, if even a single Millicent accepted a single box of fudge from an aspiring cookbook writer, half the agencies in the country would find themselves up to the top of their cubicles in bribery-aimed cookies, helium balloons, and fruit baskets. Not to mention something most agents have a horror story about already, videotapes of aspiring authors giving speeches about their books.

So what is the best plan for stuffing that query packet to get your work noticed positively? At the risk of repeating myself, checking the website and/or agency guide listing for each and every agent you plan to query, making sure that you are sending precisely what they expect queriers to send — no more, no less — topping it with a professional, well-crafted query letter, and mailing it off with a SASE. Or going through exactly those steps for an e-mailed query.

Given that most agencies with websites are pretty explicit about what they do and don’t want aspiring writers to send them, you would expect that query packets that conform to their various standards — because, lest we forget, every agency is looking for something slightly different — it’s astonishing just how often the Strugglings of this world send, well, something else. Every Millicent I have ever asked about it (and believe me, I ask as many as I can) complains about how often her agency receives query packets with extras.

Or — sacre bleu! — with elements missing. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is almost universally an instant-rejection offense.

Why? Well, the only message such query packets are actually sending to the Millicents who open them is hey, look: here’s a writer who can’t follow straightforward directions! Or possibly, depending upon the clarity of the agency’s guidelines, wow, here’s a writer who doesn’t read very well. (More common than any of us would like to think, alas.) Or, the most likely of all, oh, no, here’s another writer who didn’t bother to do his homework; we went to all the trouble of telling potential queriers what we wanted, yet this guy just assumed that every agency was identical.

All sentiments our Millie is prone to sum up with terse elegance as: “Next!”

So what, out of all of the possibilities a writer’s active imagination could conceive and all of the suggestions for querying techniques flying around out there in the ether, is the bare minimum that MUST be in a query? Glad you asked:

1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

Is it clearer now why Millicent would not even have considered asking for Struggling’s manuscript? Our writer friend’s query included only (1), a vague stab at (4), and, if we’re generous, (5). That’s simply not enough information for Millie to be able to make an informed decision about asking for pages.

All of those elements are required, but that doesn’t mean you can’t include a bit more persuasion. Two other highly advisable, but not strictly speaking required, elements include:

7. A BRIEF marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (Optional for fiction, but I would strongly recommend either including it or replacing it with #8.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book. (Also optional for fiction, and can be replaced with #7; it’s niftier, however, if you can manage to include both, even for novels.)

Is everyone comfortable wrangling all of those elements? Now is the time to speak up, if not.

Now that we have the notes, let’s talk about making some music. When all of these elements are pulled together into a smoothly-worded piece of correspondence, it reads something like the following. (If you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

mars query

Now that we’re thinking in terms of constituent parts vs. whole, we can see that what AM is asking about is not how to construct the entire query letter — she couldn’t be, since elements 1, 2, and 5-7 are not concerned with plot or narrative, right? #3 could be relevant here, but only if the agent had a track record of representing multiple-narrator books. (In that case, Since you so ably represented STORY IN FIFTEEN VOICES, I hope you will be interested in my multiple-narrator novel… would be perfectly acceptable.)

You look so cute with your eyes bugged out like a cartoon character’s. “What do you mean, Anne?” flabbergasted would-be queriers everywhere exclaim. “How is it possible that something as important as the narrative structure of the book could affect only a single paragraph of the query? Isn’t the voice choice the single most important thing to know about a multiple-narrator story — or a first-person narrative, for that matter? Or, if it’s not the most important, isn’t it at least the most interesting?”

From a professional point of view, the answer to those last two questions is very short: no. And the answer to the second, the one about why the narrative choice shouldn’t spill over to the rest of the query, is also pretty brief: because how a writer has chosen to tell the story in the book is not a required element in the query.

Oh, scrape your jaw off the floor. You don’t see it on the list above, do you?

Unless an agency’s guidelines specifically ask for information about narrative voice, leave it out, or as we’ve already discussed, you’ll run the risk of producing a query that reads more like a book report than, well, a query. Remember, the query is not expected to provide analysis or review of the manuscript it is pushing: it’s supposed to tell Millicent the premise.

Let’s face it: telling her how many protagonists there are, or whether the narrative talks about their experiences in the first or third person, actually doesn’t give her much of an indication of what the book is about, right? So is it really the best use of scant querying space?

In case you’re waffling on that last question, here’s a peek at what the result might be if a writer’s answer were yes.

book report-style query

Quick: what is this book about? What is the event that all of these narrators observed, and what about it is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest through 187 changes of perspective?

Beats me. So how can it be an effective query letter? Especially when — and give yourself some extra Brownie points if you caught this — Expansive made the classic Millicent-baiting mistake of referring to his work by the redundant phrase literary fiction novel. (All novels are fiction, right?) Besides, everyone knows that ol’ Pointy is a woman, and thus should be addressed as Ms. McGettoitson.

Equally damning, all of that analysis of structures and themes is going to read like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of writing in a query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince an agent that this is a story she should read. Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that.

So how would I advise Expansive to go about revising this query? Well, for starters, I would encourage him not to name so many characters in his descriptive paragraph. Not sure why? Okay, here’s pop quiz: without looking, how many can you name?

That’s the maximum he should keep. He could also make the descriptive paragraph more compelling by concentrating on the overall story of the novel, rather than enumerating as many perspectives as he can in that short a space.

Those are the big fixes. While he was at it, I would urge him to make that first paragraph a touch less off-puttingly pretentious in its phrasing. I would also advise him to throw out the second paragraph altogether.

And every multiple-perspective lover’s hand shoots into the air. “But Anne, the first thing almost any aspiring writer will say if asked to describe his multiple-perspective novel, or even first-person narrative, is something like, ‘Well, there are eight points of view.’ Are you seriously suggesting that he should suppress that information in his query?”

In a word, yes. Few professional readers would consider the narrative voice choice the most important thing to know about a book, after all.

Why? Well, think about it: how could voice choice alone possibly help Millicent decide whether a book’s plot might interest her boss? As anyone who has ever read fiction manuscripts for a living would be only too glad to tell you, there are excellent multiple-perspective novels; there are lousy ones, and there are a million different gradations in between.

Ditto with every other perspective choice. At query time, it’s just not a significant issue. It’s not as though agents are very much given to strolling into the office first thing in the morning, yawning, and saying wistfully, “You know what I’d really like to read today? A first-person narrative. Yep, that would really hit the spot. Got any of those on hand, Millie?”

Not going to happen. If the narrative choice works on the page, great, but the only way Millicent can possibly tell if it does is to — wait for it — read the manuscript. Which, by definition, she’s not going to be doing at the querying stage.

So why not let your exciting perspective choices be a pleasant surprise at submission time? Concentrate instead in the query on getting her to ask to see the manuscript.

Which leads us right back to AM’s query-editing problem, doesn’t it? She’s in luck: the only part of a query letter that could possibly require a multiple-protagonist novel to be handled differently from a single-protagonist one would be that pesky descriptive paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about.

#4 on our must-include list, in other words.

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing the descriptive paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent into asking to see the manuscript. Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query, right?

Right? Hello? Please don’t tell me that we’re heading into another minute and a half of silence.

To be fair, if you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Many writers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot to representing the book. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal she hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor and thus could reasonably be expected to attract book-buyers by name recognition alone — the assumption that it should renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder. The sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this far more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:

an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. As a fringe benefit, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant-in-a-dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, so that’s a pretty jaded response. Also, the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make for a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take a gander at what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly.

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed Uncle John and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to read the manuscript.) See how quickly the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is nevertheless the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s comeliness, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the small army of protagonists and their initial conflicts. Had the movie buffs out there noticed that I haven’t yet gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. That started two-thirds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, completely excising Lee and transforming Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a shame, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally, and pronto. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel might be, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in his place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference between them. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts.

As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how Adam intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other perennial faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise. As is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story up front; be detailed, but leave Millicent curious to hear more.

Is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Why, that’s the advice I gave Expansive, wasn’t it? Allow me to tailor it to this case.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative, right? (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and describe that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than most omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person?
The point of the query is not to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a fringe benefit discovered at manuscript-reading time, Expansive.

Before anyone hops onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me give you another example of why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms. Tell Millicent a compelling story instead.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” Expansive and his ilk concede reluctantly, “I plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

But whatever you do, don’t make her guess what your book is about it. As I can tell you from experience, prying basic information out of a recalcitrant conversational partner is just no fun. Keep up the good work!

For writers who find the holiday table just a MITE stressful

That’s right, campers: Thanksgiving is upon us once again, and that means it’s time for my annual pep talk to all of you writers who will be reveling in the warm embrace of your nearest and dearest. As always, I am posting this as early as possible on the holiday, on the theory that any US-based writer tuned into Author! Author! anytime today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Why, those of you new to proclaiming your writing habit to the world may be wondering, would any of those states of being call for a pep talk? Simple: it’s not always so easy to act, much less feel, merry and bright while kith and kin inquire, not always politely, how that whole writing thing is working out for you.

That knowing chuckle you just heard, newbies, came from the many, many members of the Author! Author! community who, bless their creative minds, have spent holidays past fending off well-intentioned but God-awfully insensitive questions like, “Oh, you’ve written a book? When will it be coming out?”

To be fair to your sainted Aunt Grace, she almost certainly won’t mean this kind of question the way you will hear it. What makes me so sure of that? Well, I talk to a lot of writers, aspiring and established. If I have ever met even one who did not hear Auntie’s question as “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?” that sterling soul has kept quiet about it.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Some hear it as “Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

Or, “Isn’t the book any good?”

Or the ever-popular, “Don’t you have enough talent to make it as a writer?”

Because, after all, Aunt Grace loves you too much to say point-blank, “Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest to see your work in print long ago?” Although your terminally blunt cousin Ambrose may well manage it.

The Ambroses of the world aside, it’s rare that a relative will come out with any of these statements verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what has happened, we’ve been talking for twenty minutes straight about the horrors of searching for an agent in the current tight literary market, or revising a manuscript with an eye to pleasing readers who just are not buying books in the droves they used to (so you can stop regaling me with theoretically helpful but practically useless tales of how Stephen King got CARRIE published in the early 1970s, Uncle Oswald), or the three possible trajectories for the last third of the novel as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously. Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice. Even if it were, it’s not good dinnertime strategy to offend the person who will be deciding how much vanilla (or arsenic) to add to the whipped cream destined for your slice of pie.

I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey: one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that any aspiring writer will be hurt if they do not ask how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for two years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, such questions constitute support.

Yes, really. Positively aglow with sweet intentions, they will fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took hours out of your already-scent writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

It’s enough to make many a writer regret ever having mentioned that work-in-progress. Or at least having finished it. To the uninitiated, publication and subsequent sales are the only measures of success for a writer, so it’s only reasonable to expect one’s non-writer kith and kin to focus their inquires in those directions.

This kind of pressure dogs the published as well as the unpublished, by the way: no matter how well your last book did, your snarky brother is going to feel justified in grilling you about the next. Don’t kid yourself about that, or about how many of your friends and family may feel the best way to show support after you land an agent is to demand each time they see you why that agent hasn’t yet sold your manuscript of book proposal.

Oh, you think I’m kidding about that last one? I can’t even count the complaints I’ve heard over post-holiday coffee about how Cousin Blaine just can’t seem to grasp the difference between an agent and a publisher.

“I was so thrilled to hear from Mom that you’d finally found an agent for your book,” Blaine burbles while handing the yams. “When is it coming out?”

And don’t even get me started at the ’round-the-table tension endemic to Thanksgiving gatherings after blabbermouth sibling Bertrand has decided to let slip that somebody is writing a memoir. Or when the writer’s significant other, in a misguided attempt to toss some leavening into the conversation, blurts out, “Oh, don’t worry, Edith — Georgette’s not writing about you.”

I can tell you now that Edith is not going to react well to that. As much as the average memoirist may fear — and with good reason — how those about whom he has chosen to write might respond to his take on communal experience, in my experience, most people become far more offended if someone does not write about them than if he does.

“How boring do you think I am?” Edith will mutter under her breath and over the mashed potatoes. And no matter what you say or how many times you kick your SO’s shins under the table, you’re not going to make her feel any better unless you announce, against your better judgment as a writer, that you just haven’t yet gotten to the part of the story that will be almost entirely about Edith.

Under no circumstances must you say anything that remotely resembles this — and believe me, you will be tempted. Bertrand may even egg you on. But think about it: if Edith already felt that nagging you about landing an agent was appropriate, what makes you think that she won’t redouble her, um, supportive commentary if she believes your book will transform her into a public figure? Or that she won’t expect to have veto rights over what you say about her in print?

No offense to the lovely Edith, but do you really want to give her that much control over your creative process? Or — sacre bleu! — set the precedent for future holiday meals that anyone in attendance can tell you what to write?

A seat at a table does not a literary critic make. But if you let it be known that you are open to this kind of input, what’s going to stop your sociopathic fourth cousin twice removed from saying something like, “You’re still writing that book about that family of coal miners? No one is going to be interested in that. Why don’t you write a vampire romance? I hear those are selling well.”

In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at the speaker, or declining to pass the carrots until he’s taken it back, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that he’s wearing. No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.”

Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

It’s considered a bit over-the-top to burst into tears over the stuffing, after all. So if the sterling souls who gather around your Thanksgiving table are not prone to coughing up such gems of literary advice, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief. You might want to consider sacrificing, if not a goat, at least a nice, big glass of eggnog to the Muses in gratitude.

If you’re not lucky enough to be surrounded by the advice-reticent, here’s a tip that might make such inquires a bit easier to handle: 99% of the time, questions from non-writers about your work are not intended as invitations to expound at length on the trials and tribulations of the life literary. You are perfectly within your rights, therefore, to brush them off with a casual response.

I heard that indignant gasp, but honestly, isn’t “Oh, the book’s coming along fine, Uncle Keith. How’s the sciatica?” much more conducive to happy holiday memories than either “Criminy — must you ask me the same darned question every single time you see me?” or “Well, Uncle Keith, since you are interested, I have sent out queries to thirty-seven agents. I shall now list them in alphabetical order, along with their responses. You might want to sit down; we’re going to be here for hours.”

I realize that you might well feel the urge to justify yourself, but I appeal to your fine ethical sense: which is the best response to the man who taught you how to hit a curve ball?

I vote for cutting Uncle Keith a little slack. Let’s face it, unless he happens to be a writer himself, he’s probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you that the only obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Be honest now: you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, don’t you? Or that not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore.

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I do come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my older brother broke the news about the Fairy with the Funny Fetish.

Hey, a person can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself.

Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that even in the heyday of Oprah’s Book Club, only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on the show.

So when Duncan, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, Duncan just isn’t that kind of guy. He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past decade, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you had finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.

Thinking up light-hearted ripostes to dazzle the Duncans of this world may be a trying endeavor, especially if Duncan is one of those benighted souls who believes, contrary to all empirical evidence, that if a teasing inquiry was funny once, it will be hilarious at the forty-seventh iteration, but frankly, it’s good practice for being a professional writer. As I mentioned above, getting published usually does not forestall this sort of teasing: there’s always your next book. And the next. And, if you’re lucky, the next.

Remember, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially. The average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book — so much so, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor.

Or even landing an agent with landing a book contract. Yes, really: although most people may not say it outright, they will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for seven interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you begin babbling incoherently and empty your hot toddy all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right.

Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, kill such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions. No, even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to anything you have ever told them on the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after one has found one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with aspiring authorship. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be yanking on a wishbone nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice a human being, you will want to retain Aunt Grace, Uncle Keith, and neighbor Duncan on your mailing list for the happy day when you do have a book out for them to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for five months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before driving 214 miles over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)

Well, you could regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. That would, of course, require extensive discussion of who Millicent is and how the submission process works. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago — probably the period your questioner has in mind but isn’t aware of it. You might even pull helpful charts out of your back pocket, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales dropped when the economy went into decline.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your book is going. Uncle Keith’s no fool. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable holiday gathering, I would reserve major explanatory speeches for conversations with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Serena, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I even begin to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Serena may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Serena may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your half-brother Morton told you that if you’d only generated 37 rejection letters, you just hadn’t been trying hard enough to sell your book? Or when you threatened Cousin Aida with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. It makes for great interview copy, as long as you’re willing to downplay the decade these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this line; we’ve all heard it often enough. It has real-world consequences, though. Due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. Placing a book can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

As if you would have sold — or finished, or released — your book but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love, as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief — when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for years do to lawsuit threats, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one, after all — but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way, and it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Gregor, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success. Hear me out on this one.

This is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest bestseller-to-be. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it back in the days when Oprah had a book club, “You know, your book would be a natural for Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A little Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that IS what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

That doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely, of course. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility fending off these questions may raise in you: this is the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they know you.

Something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author often pays for those give-away copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as freebies for their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

What half of you just shouted is quite correct: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics. So the sooner you can get your loved ones to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more joyful you will be at future holiday gatherings.

Hint, hint. Tell Grandpa Gregor you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies he buys, and leave it at that.

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community? Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now?

I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. I suspect I am not alone in that.

Oh, you may smile, but realizing that other writers routinely find themselves on the receiving end of these questions can be very helpful in maintaining a smile while passing the cranberry sauce. Trust me on this one: every single author you admire has been through something similar. It’s a very common way for writers to suffer for their art.

Try not to take it personally; it’s an avocational hazard. Have a lovely Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Bark at the Moon by Great First Pages Made Even Better third-place winner, David Fuller

100819 David Fuller 0001
Photo: Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press

Didn’t think I would post twice today, did you? Well, I was up late, preparing some handouts for my querying class this Saturday afternoon at the Words & Music conference in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there; the per-class rate is exceptionally reasonable.

Back to long-delayed business. Back in September, if you will recall, I devoted an array of posts to the Grand Prize, first place, and second-place winners in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest. Since there were so many third-place winners in the YA category and the YA author originally scheduled to provide the feedback to those winners dropped out at the last possible second, I had hoped to rustle up a bona fide YA author to comment instead. A couple of months and a plethora of polite regrets later, and I seem still to be going it alone.

I would have liked to have some YA-attuned eyes on today’s Great First Pages Made Even Better prizewinner, David Jéan Fuller. His entry, page 1 of a paranormal entitled Bark at the Moon, was entered in the contest’s Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir. The judges felt, however, that not only was the subject matter better suited to YA fantasy, but the voice was as well.

See if you can tell why. Here’s the brief book description. Extra credit if you spot the formatting gaffe.

Fuller synopsis

Could go either way on the subject matter, right? The dashes, however, cannot: in a synopsis, as in a manuscript, dashes should be doubled, with a space on either end (my blog program won’t permit me to show you a doubled dash in action, but here’s how to do it: wordspacedashdashspace). What we see here is an emdash, the super-long version the autoformat function in Word likes to use as a substitute for the doubled dash. Don’t let it — change it back.

But I digress from the book category issue. From the book description, this could be a book about 20-somethings — or 200-somethings, given the paranormal element — but remember, Millicent the agency screener tends to read a synopsis after a query (if it’s in a query packet) or the opening pages (if it’s in a submission packet). In a submission especially, the voice on page 1 is probably going to be the determining factor in whether she says, “Oh, this is a good voice and story for the specified book category — which is fortunate, because my boss, the agent, insists that I reject even very good submissions in categories she does not represent,” and “Oh, that’s too bad: this voice is clearly YA, and my boss represents adult fiction. Next!”

So, perversely, the strength of David’s voice here — and it is quite a strong, believable teenage voice — might actually end up being its rejection trigger. See for yourself — and as usual, if you’re having trouble reading the text, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to increase the image size.

Fuller page 1

Did you form an opinion, or did the formatting problems distract you? Here it is again, correctly formatted; see if you can spot all of the revisions.

Fuller revised

Let’s start at the top, literally. In the original version, the slug line — the author/title/page # bit at the top of the page — appears at the bottom of the header, 1″ down, rather than in the middle of the header, .5″ from the top. The first title should be on the top line of the page, and there should have been two spaces after the colon.

Did you notice that I was able to get an extra line onto the bottom of the page, too? That’s because in my version, I turned off the Widow/Orphan control; if it is on (the default in most word processing programs), the bottom margin is not the same on every page? Why? Well, this function prevents a paragraph’s breaking so only its first line gets left behind on the previous page (the widow) or its last line gets stranded all by itself on the next page (the orphan). In a manuscript, however, you should allow those widows and orphans to fend for themselves; a submission isn’t a PowerPoint presentation, after all.

There was another spacing problem, but someone would probably have to have read manuscripts professionally for a while to have caught it in hard copy: some periods have a single space after them; some have two. A submitter may pick either format, based upon the stated preferences of the agents to whom one is submitting — although purists would prefer two spaces, they are less likely to be vocal about their desires than the fans of the newfangled one-space-only convention — but once that choice is made, the manuscript must be absolutely consistent in implementing it.

Speaking of consistency, while the second song title is rendered correctly, in italics, the first is not: it’s in quotes. Actually, if all of the song titles were in quotes, that probably would not be a deal-breaker for Millicent; she would just make a note for later on, after her boss signs this writer, to remind him to change the song titles to italics.

While these consistency issues might seem like very small things, hardly worth bothering about, to a professional reader’s eye, a couple of oversights appearing on the opening page of a manuscript says something more than the writer’s simply changing his mind about presentation. It says that the writer is not proofreading his work very carefully, which means in turn that he might be a more time-consuming client than someone who does.

Hey, nobody ever said that getting a first page past Millicent was easy.

Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” magnifying glass-wielding Millicents-in-training everywhere point out, there’s a Canadian spelling in line 7. While we’re talking about consistency, shouldn’t we be discussing the imperative to change metres to meters — or even changing them to good old American yards?”

Well spotted, nitpickers of tomorrow, but actually, I would leave the spelling as is, provided that David is planning to submit this manuscript only north of the border. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. More to the point, when in Winnipeg, write as the Winnipegians write. It lends a certain air of verisimilitude to the page.

Does that mean that no NYC-based Millicent will sigh over the spelling? Oh, she probably will. It’s just a risk that every non-U.S.-based writer querying and submitting to U.S. agencies has to weigh for herself.

Technicalities aside, what do you think? YA or adult paranormal?

To my eye — and the judges’ — the language alone would lead us to steer this toward YA. Perversely, for the older teen market, limited profanity is fairly routine. Especially as it is used here, where it’s apparently for its own sake, rather than…how to put this delicately…describing an act. That’s far more often a function of teenage speech than of adult narrative.

Also, the tone here is most definitely teenagery — quite authentically so — as is the subject matter. Since it’s hard to picture an adult protagonist caring, at least deeply, about what the protagonist finds engrossing on this page 1, Millicent’s automatic assumption would tend to be that the presumed reader is a teen, too. Although naturally, there is adult fiction where the protagonist starts out as a teenager and moves into adulthood throughout the course of the book, generally speaking, the voice and perspective is geared toward an adult audience.

There’s are a couple of other reasons that this first page just cries out YA, though — and not just because, rather charmingly, the narrator simply assumes that any conceivable reader will be familiar enough with the album he cites that he describes neither the song nor the band; the reader is simply supposed to see the song’s name and instantly picture the album cover.

I see three marketing problems with that. First, ask your parents what albums were, children. Second, if David decides to market this as YA, younger readers won’t catch the reference — and neither will Millicent, who is usually under 26. (Heck, I’m roughly the right age to have known the songs, and I had to look them up.)

Third, if he pitches the book as adult fiction — as, from the category of his entry, I believe he intends — readers old enough to catch the reference may become impatient with the teenage narrator. I tremble to mention it, but they may have teenage children. In any case, 40-somethings do not typically make up the target market for paranormals.

Have you figured out yet what the other YA giveaways might be? No? Okay, let’s take a peek at how Millicent might respond to this page.

David Fuller's edit

Did you catch them this time? First, the occasional slips into the second person, either addressing the reader directly or using it in the colloquial sense, as a substitute for one, as in everyone knows everyone else and riding your bike into the bush is the only was to get out. That’s far more typical of YA narration than narratives aimed at adults — in most adult fiction categories, that your would be considered breaking the fourth wall, as theatre types day: it shatters the illusion that the reader is not, well, reading about this, but actually there.

The other narrative structure here much more common in YA than adult fiction is the frequent use of the passive voice: It was June; there was tall grass. In adult fiction, the passive voice is actively eschewed; many a literary fiction-screening Millicent is trained to regard it as inherently weak writing, more conducive to telling, not showing. The norms of YA, however, permit the occasional lapse into the passive voice, to echo more accurately teenage speech.

There’s one other misstep here that dogs both YA and adult fiction submissions. Again, it’s a subtle point, so I’m going to focus a giant magnifying glass on it myself:

“What?” I said.

 

See the logic problem? Technically, of course, said could be applied to anything spoken out loud, but practically any editor would change the sentence above without a second thought to this:

“What?” I asked.

 

Kudos, though, David, on an extremely believable teenage narrative voice — there are few things that annoy YA-reading Millicents more than a young person’s voice that does not sound legitimately young. (You’d be amazed at how many YA narrators come across as 42 — and a preachy 42 at that.) Congratulations, too, on a great author photo for a paranormal; I wouldn’t want to meet those blazing eyes in a dark alley, even under a full moon.

Perhaps especially under a full moon.

Just in case I’ve been too subtle here, were the I — or the judges — to sneak up behind David as he was preparing his query list, I might well murmur in his ear, “Add a few YA agents — and pitch it to them as YA. Oh, and while you’re at it, consider at least a handful of agents who represent both YA and adult authors, to give yourself a shot at the broadest possible market.”

And while I was murmuring, I would tell him — and all of you — to keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XIV: I’m back, and in celebration of that, shall we all agree to strike the phrase worthless credential from the language, please?

Before I launch into either an explanation of my recent unanticipated hiatus from posting or the much-anticipated next installment in Queryfest, a brief announcement for Seattle-area members of the Author! Author! community: this coming Sunday, November 20th, I and fellow editors Kyra Freestar and Sarah Martinez shall be answering writers’ questions on matters editorial from 2 -3 p.m. (and longer, if the questions run hot and heavy) at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle — and it’s free, free, free, folks. How did this delightful event come about? In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, my very own Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild is sponsoring a panel straightforwardly entitled, Okay, I’ve Written a Novel — What Do I Do Now?

So if you have some stored-up questions or just would like to learn a bit more about what happens to manuscripts after writers type THE END, come on down. Although we will be concentrating on NaNoWriMo participants’ concerns, all writers are welcome, and I always like to meet my readers. After the panel, I would be happy to help you wrangle with any query-related concerns you might have.

Heck, I’ll even sweeten the deal: I’ll give query feedback to the first 15 Author! Author! readers who come up and introduce themselves to me at this editing extravaganza. (I’ll be the one wielding the sign-up list.) So come early, stay late, and don’t forget to print out a draft of your query!

Now, then, back to business — or rather, back to why I haven’t been open for business for the past couple of weeks. Remember last year, when my vehicle was the meat in a car pile-up sandwich? Well, every couple of months, a new symptom emerges, just to keep things interesting. The latest and perhaps the most irritating, although there’s certainly some competition for the latter honor: extended perusal of a back-lit screen made me feel as though I’d been doing loop-de-loops in a World War I-era biplane.

Curse you, Red Baron!

Not the optimal state for blogging, as you might imagine — and did I just hear some ambient tittering? Yes, long-time readers, I thought of that one, too: there is a certain dramatic fitness to your humble correspondent, a writing guru famed for urging aspiring writers to read their manuscripts — and their queries — IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD before sending them out to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, suddenly being forced to read everything in hard copy. Once again, the Muses prove they have a sense of humor.

Are those of you who didn’t titter scratching your heads? Since clean queries and submissions — i.e., pages free of typos, misspellings, grammatical difficulties, and the type of gaps in logic common to multiply-revised prose — are the minimum expectation of the publishing world, not an optional extra, it would behoove you to proof your query and any accompanying materials very, very carefully before sending ‘em off. Many Millicents are specifically instructed to stop reading after the second misspelled word — and are you positive that when you moved the eighth sentence from the first paragraph to the third, you didn’t accidentally lop off a word? Or repeat one?

It’s much, much easier to catch typos, logic gaps, and other professional reader-annoyers on the printed page than on my recent nemesis, the back-lit computer screen. Why? Well, most people read about 70% faster on a computer screen; it’s easier for the eye to gloss over punctuation, words, or even entire lines. On a printed page, you’re simply more likely to catch a typo — and if you take the time to read your missive out loud as well, you’re substantially more likely to notice a skipped or repeated word or concept.

Yes, pretty much everyone makes this kind of typo in e-mails these days. And no, Millicent is not going to cut your query any slack for reflecting that trend.

And if you are scratching your head afresh over how I managed to transform an explanation of my disappearance for a couple of weeks into an admonition to pay attention to the little things in your query, well, I’m a professional advice-giver. Don’t try this at home.

Last time, if you can remember that far back, I embarked upon a list of suggestions for plumping up that perennial plaguer of the previously unpublished, the credentials or platform paragraph of the query. All too often, those new to the game assume — wrongly — that the only relevant credential in an agent’s eyes would be a previous publication, preferably a book appealing to more or less the same target audience as the one being queried. But since it’s been true for a long time that having an agent is a prerequisite to getting published by a major U.S. house (or, indeed, even having one’s work considered for publication there), that kind of logic would result in a vicious circle: only the previously-agented and the darlings of literary magazines could possibly catch Millicent’s eye.

Simple observation of first-time authors’ jacket bios will tell you that’s not the case. Most first-time novelists and memoirists do not have previous publication credentials — and you’d be surprised by how often even platform-conscious nonfiction agents will take on book proposals from writers without so much as a book review in a college paper to their credit. As agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Which is not to say that a well-crafted platform paragraph cannot substantially increase your query’s chances of wowing Millicent. It can — but constructing the right array of credentials to boost your credibility as the writer of your particular book may well require thinking in broader terms.

And I can already see some of you rolling your eyes — and based upon the ever-churning query rumor mill, I can’t say I am surprised. The writers’ conference circuit and the Internet are stuffed to the gills with blistering admonitions against breathing so much as a word about one’s less-than-National-Book-Award-winning literary efforts in a query; the usual argument is that if the credential in question didn’t involve national exposure, or at the very least hard cash in exchange for having typed out the relevant poem, article, or short story, Millicent will simply laugh her head off and reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

In practice, that’s often not true — so why it this rumor so pervasive? Heck, the very last time I posted on this topic, incisive reader Elizabeth brought up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:

My sister is in marketing, and was a recruiter and hires writers all the time and told me the story credit in my resume from my school literary mag is worthless. “I would see that and assume you are still in school and trash your resume,” she said cruelly.

I left it out of the last query. In fact, I left out my two college degrees, one of which is in criminology (crime novel) also. Ironically, it contains the BEST descriptive stuff I’ve ever written for this book.

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)

As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, on writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in many aspiring writers’ psyches. Practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction.

When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.

“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know all of that is only filler, a desperate attempt to slap a Band-Aid over the fact that I’ve not published a book before. I’d best not mention any of it.”

That would be a serious mistake: you, my well-rounded friend, are a previously-published author, and it’s very much in your interests to let Millicent know about it. (What are those articles, chopped liver?) And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.

Heck, if she knows her business, she’ll know that you might have a potentially gripping memoir in you. (When did you write all of those theses? While you were in mid-air?)

In the face of the barrage of advice about querying (and marketing, for that matter), it’s so easy for aspiring writers to lose sight of the fact that the platform paragraph is about you. It’s a conceptual container for information that might make Millicent say either, “Wow, this writer knows whereat she speaks,” or, “Wow, this writer knows her way around the writing process.”

Or even, “Wow, this writer sounds like someone my boss, Picky McAgentsdottir, would absolutely love to work with on a long-term, mutually-beneficial basis.” You would argue with that?

Unfortunately, many queriers do. Take the talented Elizabeth above: in excising her two best credentials, she fell into the all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. So did her probably well-meaning sister, apparently: like so many queriers, they were thinking of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.

Basically, this conception turns the platform into a Who’s Who entry: if you happen to have garnered one of the small handful of achievements for which there are boxes on the form, you have a listing. If you don’t, you don’t. Which means, in practice, that if all the available boxes are publications — or, in most first-time queriers’ minds, book publications with major houses — virtually no aspiring writer would have any credentials worth mentioning in a query letter.

Anybody see a logical problem with this? Like, for instance, the fact that if Millicent actually did take umbrage at non-literary (or even non-book literary) credentials, she would have to reject 99.99% of what crosses her desk?

That’s ridiculous, of course. It’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk. And it’s your job to convince her in your query letter that you and your book project are in the top 2%.

Following the common wisdom — that old saw that tells us that if you don’t have any of the narrowly-defined credentials, you should leave the platform paragraph out of your query altogether — may not be the best strategy. And it would be a suicidal strategy for writers of nonfiction, including memoir: just as part of what a nonfiction book proposer is marketing is her expertise in the subject matter of her book, part of what a memoirist is marketing is her personality.

So why on earth would a savvy querier want to pretend that she doesn’t have one? Or a background?

To a lesser extent, the same holds true for fiction: remember, any sensible agent seeking new clients is going to be looking for a career writer, not the proverbial author with only a single book in him. If you have traveled extensively, she might want to know that: you may have a travel memoir in you, or she may have a memoirist with a great story who could use a co-writer. And let’s not forget the fact that interesting people tend to do better at book readings, giving interviews, and other necessary promotional events in a successful author’s life.

She’s also going to want to know what you do for a living, not only because it will tell her more about you, but because your ability to take time off work will have a direct effect upon your ability to drop everything and make revisions. (Sorry to break that to you, ER-doctors-who-write.) On the flip side, if you travel for work, you’ll already be in a position to do book signings in multiple cities without your future publishing house’s having to cough up any dosh for traveling expenses.

Again, the down side to alerting Millicent to any of these selling points is?

Please don’t let yourself get talked out of — or talk yourself out of — including this kind of information in your query. If you find yourself tempted, think of Elizabeth’s example: what did she gain by cutting her two best credentials, ones that are absolutely germane to her current project? My police procedural is informed by my degree in criminology is, after all, precisely the kind of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC) Millicent deliberately scans those platform paragraphs to find.

Let’s get down to brainstorming sources for your ECQLC. Last time, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

Today, we move on to less obvious stuff. You know, the things in your background that render you such a fascinating person. Stop hiding that medal under a bushel.

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coal-mining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Have you noticed in your book category research that virtually every other book that has dealt even glancingly with life in a traveling carnival seems to be based upon conjecture about what goes on behind the Tilt-a-Whirl, while you know?

Mention it. There’s a reason that agents and editors habitually ask aspiring nonfiction writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

And don’t discount how much more credible your life experience might make you if you write fiction about it, either. Which author do you think would be easier for a publisher’s marketing department to convince a magazine writer to interview, one who has written a book whose protagonist is a day trader, or a great new author who’s just distilled her six years as a day trader into a behind-the-scenes novel?

Quite different, isn’t it? The amazing thing is that both of these statements could quite easily refer to the same book.

Make sure, by the way, that if your life experience is your most important credential, it appears first in your platform paragraph. If you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, Millicent needs to know that right away. Don’t be coy — the connection with your book may seem self-evident to you, but remember, Millie will not be able to guess whether you have a perfect platform for writing your book unless you tell her about it.

What you should not do under any circumstances, however, is say that your novel is sort of autobiographical. To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed; I simply wasn’t brave enough to write it as nonfiction. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications. Oh, and someone I know may later come along and try to sue my future publisher. Please read my manuscript anyway.”

No wonder, then, that the words autobiographical and fiction appearing within the same sentence so often prompt Millicent to shout, “Next!”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly: basically, I’m urging you to say FALLING CINDERS draws upon my twenty years as a working firefighter instead of FALLING CINDERS is semi-autobiographical or — sacre bleu!This novel is partially based on my life.

To a well-trained Millicent, the first statement is completely different from the second two. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. Nor is it particularly surprising as a credential: industry professionals tend to assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.

Possibly because so many queries include phrases like, this story is semi-autobiographical.

But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not automatically make it more appealing; in practice, it may merely mean potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco — and they have not yet, by a long shot — it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your query. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the sentiment, Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here: these people are already demonstrably into what you’re writing about, right? If it’s a large organization, go ahead and mention its size. (Left to her own devices, Millicent’s guesstimate would probably be low.) Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, you might want to bring that up — although you might want to clear make sure first that your group is in the habit of such promotion. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter; I have already contacted them about speaking at their national and regional conferences about my book, HEY! SPEAK UP, HARPO!

My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease. Although roughly 200 Americans are diagnosed each week, relatively few recent novels have addressed the diagnosis and treatment process.

Oh, and before I forget, I should reiterate my admonition from last time: I pulled the examples on this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em in your queries, therefore.

Speaking of statistics yanked from the ether, do make absolutely certain than any statistics you cite are true. Long-time readers, chant along with me now: just because an assertion appears on the Internet does not necessarily mean that it is true; there is no Fact-Checking Fairy wafting from website to website, correcting exaggerated claims or false assertions. Remember, “But I read it online someplace!” is not going to strike people who produce books for a living as unassailable research.

Because so many queriers do include wild claims — if Millicent had a dime for every time she’s seen this book will interest every woman in America!, she would have started her own publishing house years ago — it’s an excellent idea to proof your query for anything that might conceivably be mistaken for such an unsubstantiated assertion. Generally speaking, you’re better off avoiding superlatives altogether: presenting your book as the best, the most original, or the only is pretty easy for our Millie to dismiss.

Not sure why? Okay, here is a rather popular query assertion. If you were Millicent, would you be swayed by it?

My book is the only novel ever written on the subject of competitive bowling. Although many left-handed women bowl, I am the first ever to put pen to paper about it.

Even if Millicent is entirely unfamiliar with the history of the bowling novel, the claim that this author is the only one to write about it is not particularly plausible. Not only do agents and editors tend not to find this kind of argument convincing — they’re far more likely to assume that the writer has just not bothered to do much literary market research.

And no, they would not consider a quick Amazon search exhaustive. Besides, manuscripts often spend a couple of years in press prior to publication: how does this writer know that fifteen such books have not been acquired by major houses within the last six months?

Dialing back the superlatives is safer. Better yet, back your assertions with concrete numbers.

Although over a hundred million people currently bowl for pleasure or profit, and bowling organizations have more dues-paying members than any sport other than football, novels set against a bowling backdrop are relatively rare.

Okay, why is this stronger ECQLC than our earlier example? It makes the point about how few novels there are about bowlers, but it does so by establishing the size of a group already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. It also, cleverly, shows that many of these people are already spending money in pursuit of this interest. Even if only a fraction of that 100,000,000 read, that’s a pretty hefty target market — and that’s not even considering all of the people who know and love bowlers and thus might conceivably be looking for books to give them as birthday and holiday presents.

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. (Don’t mentally shake off that last sentence. Not everything on your brainstorming list is going to end up in your query letter; give yourself some creative leeway.) If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it.

Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years, by the way. JAWS was indeed one of the biggest sellers of the 20th century, but what was selling in 1974 will not necessarily sell today.

I hate to break it to writers of long experience, but Millicent probably had not been born by 1974 — or 1984, for that matter. Agency screening tends to be a young person’s game; select your pop culture references accordingly.

Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: while TV stars’ memoirs tend to sell well, due to their wide name recognition, not everyone who watches Mad Men would necessarily knock over another bookstore browser to grab a novel about people who work in advertising. Then, too, even the least experienced Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace for a book about something other than current events. )

Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Remember, Millicent’s not a demographer: leaving her to guess how big your target audience is may not help your query’s credibility.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

As the recent Occupy Wall Street protests have demonstrated, many Americans are suspicious of the influence of money in politics. HEY! I WANNA RUN FOR CONGRESS! provides a step-by-step guide for those wishing to build a grass-roots political campaign.

(8) Proof that you are writing about a topic that already interests a bunch of living, breathing potential readers
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences; heck, our constitution actually requires that we count everybody every ten years.

Take advantage of that affection for the concrete number. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.

Formby the Ferret may be an unusual protagonist for a cozy mystery, but popular interest in ferrets has been on the rise. Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, the condition afflicting this book’s protagonist.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market potential for MASSAGE YOUR WAY BACK TO BUSHINESS.

(Had I mentioned that the statistics cited here are not to be relied upon — or quoted as fact?)

(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned last time, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered. If you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it.

So far in 2010, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

See how impressive that last one was? And that’s not easy to pull off, considering that by virtually everyone’s admission, the Harding Administration was one of the least interesting, ever; Silent Cal was no Rudolf Valentino, after all.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening then. Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your query to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

And, let’s face it, unless you happen to be able to convince Millicent that you are the reincarnation of the Amazing Kreskin, arguing that your book will serve the immediate factual needs of readers a couple of years hence is typically a pretty hard case to make. It’s easy to stray into the kinds of hard-to-verify claims (Ten years hence, we will all get around by hovercraft — and readers of my fantasy trilogy, UP IN THE AIR, will be well prepared to glide into the future.) or black-and-white superlative abuse we discussed above (Everyone who will fill out a birth certificate in years to come will want to read WHAT YOUR BABY’S NAME SAYS ABOUT YOU AS A PARENT.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward.

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2011, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2015, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in the last two decades to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone who has been suffering from kneecap dysplasia over the last year, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist.

I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny: when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were consistently pointing in the right direction.

Ask yourself: what is my book’s primary distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: if you engage in a direct comparison with an already-published book, avoid cutting it down. Try to stick to pointing out how your book is good, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the Millicent or her boss didn’t go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or, in the agent’s case, represented the book himself.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently.

While Andre the Giant’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care for the non-wrestler.

Lest those of you who write literary fiction think that this one does not apply to you: have you given any serious thought lately to how many queries claim that a book will interest readers simply because it is well-written?

Which you should avoid saying, by the way: few things turn agents, editors, and the Millicents who screen for them faster than a query in which a writer reviews his own book. Let your fine writing speak for itself; your job in the query is to make the case that the subject matter of the book and/or something in your background, either as a writer or in the rest of your life, will make readers want to grab your book off the shelf, as opposed to any other.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter This is the best book in the Western literary canon! must necessarily be a bad writer — and one whose literary intake is probably fairly meager at that.

“What on earth must this writer think is currently on the market,” Millicent says under her breath, reaching swiftly for the form-letter rejection stack, “if he thinks he can make a claim like this. I’d bet a wooden nickel that he hasn’t read any literary fiction that’s come out within the last seven years. Next!”

Cast your selling points as marketing realities, though, and she’ll be pleasantly surprised — as long as what you say is true. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features a sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old, and thus will speak to the parents of the 4-7% of children who are dyslexic, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Yes, yes, I know: many of you have written perfectly lovely literary novels difficult whose audiences are difficult to pin down in this manner, but to Millicent, a statement like my protagonist’s challenges will appeal to college-educated women is practically tautological: college-educated women form the overwhelming majority of literary fiction readers. How, then, would such an assertion make your book sound any different — or any more appealing to literary fiction readers — than all of the other books seeking to capture that group of readers?

If you genuinely cannot come up with any subject-matter-related way to set your book apart, well, your topic must be pretty abstract. But even then, you could still come up with some selling points by asking yourself: how does my book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach my novel in an English literature class?

Remember, that you need to express these traits in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary — that’s industry-speak — but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is. That’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform.

Ricky Martin has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Tiger Woods interviewed over 6000 women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE PERFECT.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Why? Well, first-time authors are increasingly expected to do most, if not all, of their own book promotion.

Oh, should I have warned those of you new to the biz to sit down before I said that? Any dry cracker should help clear that nausea right up.

Seriously, think about it: a writer already poised to promote her book would be a boon to an agent or editor. Nor need you be the principal idea-monger of a marketing firm to be able to make a pretty good case that you’re already getting your promotional machine warmed up. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.

(Note to the 11% of you who just cried out in anguish, “But my local library doesn’t have such a program!”: has it occurred you to start one yourself? Speaking as both someone who grew up surrounded by working authors, half the librarians in the country, community and school alike, and fully two-thirds of the authors would line up to kiss you on the lips if you would volunteer to coordinate such a program in your town. And can you think of a better way to meet your favorite authors?)

Don’t engage in wishful thinking here, though; the point is not to speculate about what you might do in future, as nonfiction writers must in the marketing plan portion of their book proposals, but to talk about what you could do if your book dropped, say, now-ish. For platform paragraph purposes (try saying that three times fast), only include promotion that does indeed already exist. Or that you are positive that you can make exist by the time you are having your first honest-to-goodness conversation with an agent who wants to represent your book.

Establishing a website for your writing is a good start — and it’s something practically any aspiring writer with Internet access can do, even with the most minimal resources. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry, because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

A word to the wise, though: don’t even consider listing your website in your query along with a suggestion that Millicent take a gander at your work there. I can tell you now that she won’t; she simply doesn’t have time.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
I like to see every brainstormed list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what is already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

So what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category? Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (This is the best book on sail boarding since MOBY DICK!), but content-filled comparisons (Currently, there is a sad dearth of how-to guides on the market for the reader interested in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard. HERE, FISHIE, FISHIE! will bring the most up-to-date technology to bear on this difficult challenge.)

Finished brainstorming? Terrific. Now you can write your platform paragraph.

After you do, though, don’t throw out your list of selling points — that’s going to come in handy down the line. Even more so if you take the time now to put it in a format you can use again and again.

How? Start by going through your list and figuring out what are the best points, from a marketing point of view. Cull the less impressive stuff. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10 selling points, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or hand to your agent when she’s ready to start pitching to editors. Or pull it out when you are practicing answering the question, “So what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to use it as a study guide before you give interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points is a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

It’s great to be back, campers. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XIII: showing off your qualifications (over and above the obvious)

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Still hanging in there, Queryfesters? Traditionally, this is the part of my annual review of the mysteries of querying that my readers seem to find most challenging: in-depth discussion of that most-dreaded part of a good query letter, the section known as the platform paragraph.

Why dreaded? Because many, many fledgling writers mistakenly hear a professional request for their book’s credentials as, “You have to prove to us that we should take you seriously as a writer, unpublished one, before we will deign to read your work. Dance, fool, dance!” Or as, “We’re not interested in writers who don’t already have arm-length lists of published books, so by all means, doom yourself by admitting that you haven’t published before.” Or even, “Who the heck do you think you are, believing you should write a book at all? You have your nerve, disturbing us with your letter! Begone, and never let your manuscript darken our inboxes again!”

Naturally, writers querying about their first manuscripts would find such expectations threatening — if those were the actual expectations. As we discussed last time, the point of the credentials paragraph is not to give agency denizens the opportunity to laugh at the hopes of the unpublished between bouts of poking submitters of requested materials with pitchforks and feeding innovative manuscripts into large bonfires, lest someone accidentally discover and publish them.

‘Fess up, veteran queriers: that’s not very far from the way you envisioned the inner workings of the first agency that rejected you, is it, on the day you received that form-letter rejection?

The truth is nowhere near that threatening, I’m happy to report. The reason Millicent the agency screener likes to see credentials is that it makes it easier for her to recommend your work to her boss: a previously-published writer is likely to have some experience working with an editor; her manuscript is likely to be formatted professionally and be relatively clean; she might even have some idea how books are marketed. All of these are selling points for a writer, from the agency’s point of view.

But I’m not going to lie to you: if a query mentions that the writer has performed his own essays on NPR, or published a handful of short stories in specific literary magazines, or was a semi-finalist in a prestigious writing competition, Millicent also has some reason to believe that this person can write pretty well. That’s not necessarily self-evident in a credential-free query; the structure tends to render even very talented stylists’ voices dry. A solid platform paragraph is like a row of tap-dancing baton-twirlers, singing in five-part harmony, “Millie! We know you’re in a hurry to get though that waist-high pile of queries you needs to read before you can catch the subway home, but this one will abundantly justify your stopping that process dead in its tracks long enough to engage in the comparatively lengthy process of asking this writer for pages.”

Do I hear some chortling out there? “Oh, come on, Anne,” adherents of the pitchfork-and-tail view of agencies cry. “How much time could that possibly take? All Millicent’s got to do is type a couple of simple lines, requesting materials, and stuff it into the SASE that I provided. Heck, the agency probably has a form letter for that, too, as well as for rejections.”

Why, yes, chortlers, what you describe — and rather well, too — would take only a couple of minutes. However, rejecting the query in front of her would take only about thirty seconds. Less, if it’s an e-mailed query: then, all she has to do is hit DELETE.

Be honest, now: if you had another 150 queries to screen before you could go home for the day, knowing that there would be another 500 waiting for you when you came in tomorrow, wouldn’t you be rather careful about how often you invested the extra couple of minutes?

All the more reason, then, to include previous publications (book-length or short), writing awards, and writing degrees in your platform paragraph. However, if, like the overwhelming majority of first-time novelists agents sign to representation contracts every year, you do not have publishing-related experience to your credit, do not panic, even for an instant. All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but there are plenty of other possible selling points for your manuscript.

So rather than kicking yourself for not having devoted your college years to interning for a literary journal so its editors would have owed you a few dozen favors, how about not writing off your past non-writing experience? Instead of assuming that there is only one credential that will catch Millicent’s eye, why not devote your platform paragraph to answering the question, “Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book, tell this story, and/or make this particular argument?”

Substantially less stressful to think of it that way, isn’t it? Believe me, your query-writing process will be much, much easier if you try not to get too bogged down in worrying about the standard prestige points.

What should you consider instead? Glad you asked. Today, I shall be going through a long list of potential selling points for your book. But I’m not going to be doing all of the work here, folks. Dig out your trusty pad and pencil; you’re going to be coming up with a list of your manuscript’s selling points.

Why am I urging you to concentrate on your particular manuscript’s specific selling points, rather than simply handing you a generic list of usually-acceptable items to include as credentials? Well, just as there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query template that will please every agent, every time, the elusive perfect platform to sell any conceivable book simply does not exist. Great platforms are seldom the result of multiple choice; they are cobbled together by their authors.

Great platform paragraphs are also not always simply bios of their illustrious authors — they often talk about the book’s appeal to its target audience. Any guesses why?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because as we discussed yesterday, the purpose of the platform paragraph is not merely to provide a curriculum vitae of the author’s previous publications, but to give Millicent a sense of the already-existing audience clamoring for this book,” take a gold star out of petty cash. You are quite right: while listing your fourteen international bestsellers is one means of demonstrating who might be prepared to ante up some loot to read your next book, another might be to talk about your blog’s extensive and devoted readership. Yet another: a brief discussion of how eagerly the roughly two million Americans who sprain their ankles every year might embrace a novel about a semi-professional tennis player whose ankles alternate swelling to the size of a grapefruit.

See what I just did there? Not only did I establish why the target audience might be interested in this book; I used statistics to alert Millicent to just how big that audience might be.

Remember, a strong selling point consists of more than a vague assertion about why an editor at a publishing house would find your manuscript an sterling example of its species of book destined to set the literary world gasping — that much is assumed, right? Instead, try to come up with reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you query, but as we discussed this summer during Pitchingpalooza, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if you know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with anyone in the publishing industry. Nor is the astonishingly common, “But I want to get published so much!” And don’t even get me started on the ever-popular between-the-lines assertion, “Well, it’s not my problem to figure out how to market this darned thing. I’m sure that my future agent will simply intuit who my target demographic is and why my book will appeal to it.”

To head off some rejection at the pass: none of these is likely to prompt Millicent to miss her usual train home so she can shoot you an e-mail, asking for the first fifty pages of your manuscript. Think about it: pretty much everyone who queries has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly. Sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of queriers make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to talk about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, how many times they have revised it, and so forth.

In case you are tempted to follow suit: don’t. I’m quite certain that all of these things are true, and believe me, I understand the urge to talk about them. Allow me to suggest, however, that a query — your first contact with the agent of your dreams, potentially — is not the most strategic place to air these concerns.

Over coffee with a fellow writer, feel free to vent. But when you have such a limited amount of space to impress Millicent with the inherent strength of your book’s plot or argument and your great qualifications to write it, is it really the best use of a few lines?

First-time pitchers are even more likely than queriers to tumble down this rabbit hole, alas. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously many pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, both pitchers and queriers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Oh, how I wish I were making that up.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn how and why books get published.

In other words: “Next!”

Why is this an instant-rejection offense? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to these self-revealers, but this is not the way to gain an agency screener’s sympathy, or even her attention. Even in a business that tends to regard writer and hyper-sensitive as essentially synonymous terms, such emotional outbursts in a first approach to an agency are almost universally considered a waste of Millicent’s time.

Why? Well, you tell me: what, if anything, could a litany of complaints about how difficult it is to break into the biz possibly tell Millicent about the book being queried that might encourage her to conclude that she should request the manuscript?

I’ll answer that one for you: nothing. But it does give her some indication of whether the querier has done any homework about how agencies work, or how books get published.

A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyper-emotionalism.

The same holds true, of course, for queries. Sadly, queriers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the writers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that querying is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of teardrops staining the letter), this approach typically does not work. Millicent simply sees this strategy used too often to experience even the slightest qualm in rejecting it.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

Aspiring writers’ hearts are notoriously brittle. Why else would anyone query only once, or twice, or a small handful of times, then give up altogether, assuming (wrongly) that if his book were really meant to get published, it would have been snapped up instantly?

The common misconception that good writing will inevitably and immediately attract an agent, regardless of how unprofessionally it is presented, can be even more damaging at query-writing time: when believers in the Agent-Matching Fairy sit down to write their queries, they often become depressed at the very notion of having to make the case that their manuscripts are worth reading. Frequently, these poor souls mistake the need to market their books for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, many writers shrink away from this perfectly reasonable question. So much so that they become positively terrified of querying at all. “They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because — feel free to sing along with me now, Queryfesters — the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that sits in a drawer, unqueried. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Did that little diatribe fill you with heart, miles and miles and miles of heart? Good. Let’s start generating your list of selling points, so you may comb through it for ECQLC to decorate your platform paragraph.

Before I start making suggestions, let’s be clear on what you’re going to want on your list. A selling point should show (not tell) why you are the best person to write this book, what about your book is likely to appeal to readers in your target market, and/or that the intended audience is larger (and, ideally, demonstrably more interested in your subject matter) than Millicent might have previously been aware.

To be most effective, you won’t want to make these arguments in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based reasons that they will clamor to read it. For instance, while “This book will appeal to every woman in North America!” is far too vague to be a convincing argument, “Although the PGA estimates that there are 26.2 million golfers in the U.S., there have been relatively few novels that portray the steamy behind-the-scenes realities of the golf cart repair shop.”

It helps, of course, if there actually have been very few novels published recently on the subject. It’s worth your while to check — you’d be astonished at how many makers of such claims evidently don’t.

“What does this querier mean, this is the first novel ever written about shark attacks?” Millicent exclaims, reaching for the ever-present stack of form-letter rejections. “I seem to recall a small, little-known book called JAWS.”

Don’t skimp on the brainstorming stage; the more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your platform paragraph will be. Remember, no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

It’s worth including on your list any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter. Why? Because it will make your query look professional — and, I must say it, better than the 134 queries Millicent has already seen today that did not talk about their books in marketing terms.

Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who whose entire query was devoted to how frustrating it is to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days. Especially when it’s the first novel ever written about an old lady who spends her retirement years wandering around, solving murders.

Everybody got those pencils sharpened and ready? Okay, here goes: why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story or make this argument, and why will people who are already buying books like yours want to read it?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to Millicent is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

Literary fiction writers, why have you flung your pencils down? “But Anne,” literary novelists protest in dulcet tones, “you astonish me. I always thought that the primary benefit of writing fiction was that I wouldn’t ever have to sully my art with sordid marketing concerns. Surely, if any book category should be exempt from being marketed on anything but the beauty of the writing, it’s mine. Yes, aspiring nonfiction writers have to produce book proposals, and thus are forced to brainstorm about marketing, but until fairly recently, fiction writers could concentrate on storytelling, craft, and, of course, lovely writing. I’ve been nervously watching as more and more, genre fiction writers are being expected to market their own work, but gosh darn it, I write for a relatively tiny target audience deeply devoted to beautiful writing. Please, please tell me that I can just leave the platform paragraph out of my query, and thus don’t have to let you drag me kicking and screaming toward the list below!”

Here, borrow my handkerchief. Hadn’t I mentioned that emotional outbursts aren’t adequate substitutes for well-reasoned selling points?

Seriously, literary novelists, I think you’re missing the point here. No Millicent can possibly be bowled over by the beauty of your writing unless she reads it. And she will only read it if she is impressed by your query.

There’s just no way around that. So it behooves you not only to craft your descriptive paragraph to be as lyrical and moving as humanly possible, but also to use your platform paragraph to make your book sound different — and easier to market — than all of the other literary fiction books Millicent will see queried that day. It will cause your query to jump out of the stack at her: your tribe’s collective reluctance toward thinking about marketing virtually guarantees that if you do it well, your letter will shine out as preeminently professional.

In other words: no, I’m not willing absolve you of the necessity to include a platform paragraph in your query, no matter how many times or how nicely you ask. It’s just too likely to help you.

Where should a literary fiction writer start in coming up with selling points? Precisely where every other writer does: the subject matter. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So ask yourself: why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

Or, if you prefer to put it in highbrow terms: if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of a television show in order to convince her to book the author?

For fiction, the subject matter you choose as the focus of your platform paragraph need not be the central issue of the book, by the way. Even if your novel is about post-apocalyptic government restructuring, if a major character is the gardener charged with replanting the White House’s Rose Garden in newly-toxic soil, and you’ve been a landscaper for a decade, that’s relevant. (It informed what you chose to have that character plant, didn’t it?)

Some prompts to get you — and everybody else — brainstorming. Some effective selling points include…

(1) Experience that would tend to bolster your claim to be an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of most nonfiction platforms, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Conan the Barbarian has been a quilting enthusiast for thirty-seven years; all of the stitches described in his Civil War romance are historically accurate.

Napolèon Bonaparte’s extensive travels around Europe have equipped him to provide unique insights into his travel guides.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.

While I’m on the subject of claims that shouldn’t be taken at face value, this seems like a dandy point to repeat a piece of general Internet wisdom: just because a statistic appears online doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. It’s not as though the Fact-Checker Genie whirls his way through every website every day, cleaning up inconsistencies and correcting misstatements. Heck, even the Spelling Fairy fails to make her rounds on a regular basis.

So while you are looking for statistics to decorate your platform paragraph, make sure you are lifting them from a credible source. Remember, to people who create books for a living, a ten-second Google search does not constitute research; they will expect you to have taken the time to track down verifiable facts.

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a novelist writing about something unrelated to your field of study: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Elmer Fudd holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on the effects of atomic bombs upon wascally wabbits.

Charlton Heston was granted an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his efforts to further gun usage.

Cleopatra completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College. She also claims descent from the goddess Aphrodite.

Okay, so that last bit isn’t really a selling point for a cookbook. But you must admit, it would make Millicent do a double-take when reading Cleopatra’s bio.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work or volunteer efforts, this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

And it need not be recognition for your writing, either: the point here is to demonstrate that there are people (translation for Millicent: potential book-buyers) who already have positive associations with your name. Some possible examples:

Sweeney Todd was named Baker of the Year four years running.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Yes, yes, I know: I spent the top of this post convincing you that you needn’t despair if you had no previous publications. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to urge those who do to bring them up in the platform paragraph — are you crazy? Millicent has a reverence for the published word the borders on the devout.

So if you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT HAS ABSOLUTELY NO RELATION TO THE BOOK YOU ARE CURRENTLY QUERYING. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

And please, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only fiction credentials count if you’re pushing a novel, or that your published short story won’t help you get your memoir past Millicent: a publication is a publication is a publication. Some editor took a chance on you; Millie needs to know that in order to assess your query properly.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it renders you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. (And if you doubt that, you aren’t going to enough author readings. You’d be amazed at how many of ‘em never lift their eyes from the page, or who read in a drab monotone, or seem unfamiliar with the words on the page.)

Some possible examples:

Bigfoot writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I’m going to hold off on the rest of the list until tomorrow, to give everyone a chance to ruminate on the possibilities we’ve discussed so far. While you are pondering, try not to talk yourself out of listing any particular selling point: remember, this list is for you, a tool to help you construct your platform paragraph, so don’t over-edit here. And don’t invest too much energy in phrasing; we shall be talking later in this series about how to work these points gracefully into your query.

Oh, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XII: you want me to talk about my writing credentials? The horror! The horror!


I had intended to broach the subject of writing credentials yesterday, campers, as a Halloween treat. But honestly, I was afraid that even a lighthearted treatment might scare some of you to death.

Oh, you thought you were alone in feeling this way when an agency’s submission guidelines or querying form ask for your credentials? Far from it. To your garden-variety aspiring writer, the mere notion of having to come up with writing credentials, much less including an entire platform paragraph in a query, induces a level of spontaneous terror that would have made the late, great Vincent Price groan with envy — and a level of anxiety over what does or does not count as a credential that would have caused suspense-monger Alfred Hitchcock to say, “No kidding? All of that, just from a set of query guidelines?”

Even now, I can hear previously unpublished writers everywhere moaning and casting their gazes wildly about for the nearest fainting couch. “What do you mean, credentials paragraph?” they demand, clutching at their tightening gullets. “All that bone-chilling set of query guidelines asked for was a mention of whether I’d published anything before. And I thought only nonfiction writers had to worry about coming up with a platform!”

At the risk of causing your windpipes to close entirely, I shall show you an example. Don’t be scared: it’s something you’ve undoubtedly seen before, at least if you have been following Queryfest. As always, if you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

mars query

Just in case anyone had trouble finding it, it’s the entire third paragraph, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to… As Aspiring’s query demonstrates, the credentials paragraph need not contain only publishing credits; it can contain an array of relevant experience.

In fact, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, a platform need not be made up of previous publications and/or television appearances. What renders a writer qualified to write any given book is — wait for it — specific to that book.

Ah, there’s nothing like dropping one’s jaw onto the floorboards for restoring normal breathing patterns.

Before we proceed, let’s define our terms. 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 — or, at any rate, one of the best persons currently inhabiting the earth — to write the particular book she 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 a forest of hands sprouts up in the ether. Go ahead and ask the question on your minds, frantic wavers. “It’s all very well to say that what will work to make that case varies from book to book and writer to writer,” writers everywhere point out, “but that doesn’t necessarily help me figure out what to put in my platform paragraph. I know what I bring to this book, but 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 can I dredge up from my past that’s guaranteed to impress Millicent the agency screener?

Good question, hand-raisers, but 85% of you just tensed up again, didn’t you? 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 had the audacity to sit down to write her book in the first place.

But let’s stop the self-defeating interior monologue right there: the purpose of the credentials paragraph is not to justify daring to be a writer. You’re a writer because you’re a writer; everyone in the publishing industry understands that, so you don’t need to explain it to Millicent. And, frankly, if your book description hasn’t already caught her interest, it’s unlikely that even a pretty stellar platform will make up for it.

What the platform paragraph gives you an opportunity to do is bolster the case you have already made to have your writing taken seriously by demonstrating that you have a background that renders you an expert in the book’s subject matter. Or that others have noticed you for your writing, in the case of publications or awards. Or even, in the case of academic degrees, that you are a person who finishes what you start.

All of these are desirable traits in an author. But you hadn’t been thinking of your credentials in these terms, had you?

To be fair, this is seldom the way agency websites and speakers at writers’ conferences tend to talk about platform; their definitions are often pretty cut-and-dried. It’s not unusual for a fledgling writer to walk away with the impression that he cannot possibly land an agent unless he happens already to have (a) published several books with major publishing houses, yet somehow managed to avoid picking up an agent along the way, (b) won a major literary contest, (c) published a plethora of short stories in The New Yorker, or (d) had the foresight to have become a celebrity in his spare time. While none of these are actually prerequisites, no one in the industry would deny that they are mighty decorative in a query.

And what is the hapless writer who cannot legitimately claim (a) – (d)? I’m afraid the classic professional answer is a trifle on the callous side: if you don’t have writing credentials, get some.

Most aspiring writers are turned off by this advice, because they assume it could only be referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possibility here. Admittedly, people who have never tried to write for publication sometimes do think it’s easier for a good writer to break into print than it actually is — you’d be astonished at how many agents and editors can still be heard urging literary conference attendees to start their careers by trying to get short stories and poetry published in small journals, as if the number of publication slots (and, indeed, of small literary journals) had not dropped precipitously in recent years. There’s even a fairly substantial school of thought that the rise of the Internet has rendered getting one’s writing in front of others so much easier than it used to be that a print-ready writer’s not having some sort of previous publication is actually surprising.

Oh, you didn’t know that writing posted online is technically published? Sort of changes how you think of your blog’s value as a writing credential, doesn’t it?

Does that widespread snorting out there mean that some of you have heard different? “Yeah, right, Anne,” some of you scoff. “I’ve heard agents say at conferences that Internet publications are completely worthless as writing credentials.”

Actually, it would be a trifle surprising if you had heard those very words. As so frequently happens with brief snippets of querying advice that fly around the writers’ conference circuit, this often-heard truism is a radical oversimplification of a much more complex concept. What the pros actually tend to say when cornered on the subject is that online publications are not the same as print publications. As credentials go, they are usually taken less seriously. But that’s not the same thing as a credential’s being worthless, or even irrelevant, is it?

Stop nodding; it isn’t. By that logic, a dollar is worthless because it isn’t a hundred-dollar bill.

At query time, a writer has to work with the background he actually has, not what he would like to have in order to impress Millicent. (Assuming, of course, that he has not had the leisure to follow that advice about going out and getting some publication credits.) If a web-based award, featured article in an online publication, or regularly-maintained blog is the writing credential you have, it probably will not wow Millicent as much as a short story published someplace like the aforementioned New Yorker, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t help establish that your writing is already being read by somebody.

Oh, you hadn’t thought of your writing credentials in terms of an already-existing audience? You should: the goal of including publishing credentials in your query is not merely to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on your writing, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.

Why is that important? Well, people in agencies, like inhabitants of publishing houses, harbor a well-documented prejudice in favor of writers whose books might conceivably sell to an admiring public. They enjoy seeing evidence that an otherwise unknown writer’s name might ring a bell with some readers down the road, when the book being queried is released.

Why do you think they regard celebrities as having inherently strong platforms? It’s not just that those people are household names; they have names readers would recognize on a bookshelf.

Millicents also frequently appreciate credentials that imply some experience writing under a deadline. 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 that posts on a regular basis.

(Unlike, say, mine in recent weeks; sorry about that. This car crash recovery thing honestly is very energy-sapping. I shall try to plow through the rest of this series with more regularity.)

“This makes sense,” my former scoffers observe, “and frankly, this logic isn’t all that complicated. So why don’t agency guidelines and speakers at conferences just tell us to list what’s relevant to the book, and leave the credentials at that, instead of running down online publications?”

That’s an excellent question, ex-scoffers. Would you like the cynical answer, or the non-cynical one?

Let’s begin with the latter. To folks who deal with queries all day, every day, what is and isn’t a useful credential is pretty self-evident: a solid platform consists of facts about the author that will render the book easier to market, first to editors, then to the reading public. It just wouldn’t occur to them that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more than that.

If you happen to be querying a book in a genre with a well-established, vigorous online readership, darned right that your fourteen juried submissions to that respected online ‘zine would be worth including in your platform paragraph. So would a blog that caters to readers in your chosen book category, as well as your third-place ribbon from that highly competitive online literary contest.

But a vague reference to posting a short story on a website of which Millicent has never heard? Unlikely to help your case much.

The cynical answer, I warn you, carries a bit of a sting: like so much of the professional advice for would-be queriers floating around out there, complaints about queries that include online publications are not, generally speaking, uttered with the expectation of being treated with the force of law. Surprisingly often, the frustrated souls who produce them are thinking of a specific query offender. Or at any rate, a class of them whose queries tend to read a little something like this; see if you can spot the subtle agent-irritants throughout.

See why a query like this might stick in the mind, if not the craw? Even if Millicent could bring herself to overlook the peculiar typeface and the oddly-colored paper (“I want it to stand out in the stack!” — Casual), she’s unlikely to read beyond the hard-selling, boast-laden, practically information-free opening paragraph. While the book description does apparently lay out at least part of the book’s central conflict, who is the target reader here? Young people, after all, is a trifle non-specific. And while you may think I made up the bit about the six-figure advance and how much the writer wants to get published, screeners see these sort of assertions all the time in queries.

Don’t believe me? I lifted those two sentences directly from the last conversation I had with a screener; I had just asked her what a querier could say to put her off the book immediately.

Did you notice, though, how thoroughly unimpressive the online publication looks on this page of purple prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) That’s not necessarily any reflection of the publications themselves — Casual has simply not told Millicent enough about them to judge their worth as credentials. It’s simply a vague assertion, leaving her to wonder: published what online? Published where online?

Starting to make more sense that her boss might complain about online publishing credentials the next time she’s asked about it at a writers’ conference?

Some of you remain unconvinced that any non-publishing credential will do, though, don’t you? I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised; I have long suspected that part of many writer 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 and a month or two of chagrin 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 literally 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 haven’t won any online awards lately.”

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 for the last few paragraphs, 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. (10,000 sales is the usual threshold for impressive for the latter, by the way.) 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 approach your work like 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 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: 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.

Oh, 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, if 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 downside 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 the very concept of a deadline, 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 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? She may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness as some others, 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,” 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 more than one book category. 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.

A few of that forest of raised hands seem to have regrown. “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 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 in theory, but occasionally, it does in practice. 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, 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.

Don’t believe me? Okay, how many lines of text would it take you to tell Millicent that you used to be a Monkee?

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 literary assessment. 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?

You’re dubious, are you not? 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 in a criminal trial: 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. (Perhaps because they don’t count as many academics among their acquaintance as I do.)

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.

If memory serves, however, Amy Carter, 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 undesirably pleasure-seeking 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.

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, documenting its — ahem — dating patterns.

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 next few months making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, which is 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.

Oh, you wouldn’t?

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. (Where have I heard that before?) Do be aware, though, that unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner a significant number of hits on a regular basis (thanks, 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.

That being said, 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.

“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, I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. Keep up the good work!