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request for their book’s credentials as, “You have to prove to us that we should take you seriously as a writer, unpublished one, before we will deign to read your work.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the point of the credentials paragraph is not to give agency denizens the opportunity to laugh at the hopes of the unpublished between bouts of poking submitters of requested materials with pitchforks and feeding innovative manuscripts into large bonfires, lest someone accidentally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!

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