Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Platform

There are two buzzwords in the publishing industry today. One is vampires. The other is platform. If your work doesn't include the former, the latter is even more essential. Basically, a platform is a writer's ability to demonstrate expertise in the subject matter he or she is writing about, as well as proof of an already-established audience of followers who would be willing to buy what the author writes. Expertise can be proven by previously published articles, lectures given, or media interviews granted; followers are compiled through blogs and other social media, readings and other events, and, in my case, having a large family.

When I originally set out to write my novel, I figured that all I needed was a bunch of words on paper that taken as a whole comprised a pretty good story. Now that the novel is completed (plus four separate phases of top-to-bottom tweaks and rewrites) and has been summarily rejected by a couple dozen agents, I find myself in need of a platform. Initially, I resisted the idea. A "good story well told" was good enough for Mark Twain, I croaked with fists waving like a crotchety old fogie sitting on an orange crate in a rural general store railing against insolent whippersnappers and their newfangled ideas. Unfortunately, though, Twain is a dead author rather than a living literary agent.

And yet I persisted in my scattershot ways by jumping on a variety of diverse opportunities: a one-act play competition where the subject matter must be related to the end of the world; an application to be a children's writer in residence at the Boston Public Library; poetry submissions; and a work in progress about bad dreams. I was desperate to stay busy, desperate to pursue any and all chances to live, work, and act as an author. They all became piles on my desk and burdens on my shoulders, while my manuscript sat in my hard drive waiting for a platform to bolster its profile.

And then a cold slap of reality hit me, in the form of a colleague who started me on this psychotic roller coaster in the first place when she challenged me to enter NaNoWriMo, the annual initiative in which aspiring writers are encouraged to write a 50,000-word novel throughout the month of November. Even though I had a three-month-old daughter at home, I accepted the challenge. Because I had a three-month-old daughter at home, I had barely 25,000 words written as of November 30.

Now that three-month-old girl is three years old and the novel, now an economical 50,600 words, is done. My colleague's cold slap of reality, therefore, was not the first I've received. But it was useful. She told me about someone she knew who collected rare knives. He was an expert on these knives and was known in the collector community. A publisher who specializes in titles about collectibles approached him and asked him to write a book about these knives. He didn't even want to write a book but here was a publisher with money and a contract.

The reason, of course, is that the guy has a platform. It's something he's knowledgeable and passionate about. That's what you need to do, said my colleague to me. You're all over the place but you have a platform already: music. You need to focus on music and claim that as your platform.

I have to admit it made sense to me. I am a music nut. I'm a player and a listener, with a large and varied collection, and an insatiable appetite for sound. Furthermore, my novel is based on "Matty Groves," a 17th-century English folk song. My work in progress is littered with musical references. Another story I want to write someday, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was inspired by a song by Cassandra Wilson. A work I began years ago and abandoned concerns a group of friends who'd been in a band in high school and now want to reform to play their 25th reunion. What inspired that was Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, which is almost the story of my life, as the denizens of used record shops seek love and meaning in a grown-up world.

In the past, I founded a progressive rock newsletter that I ran for a few years on my own, and have written record reviews for Gentle Giant's website and promotional materials for professional local musicians. And, of course, I've written frequently about music in this blog. Someday, I'll blog about my experiences as a roadie for a harpist.

So voila, it looks like I actually do have a platform — the makings of one, anyway. At a minimum, it will help me to focus my thinking and prioritize my projects; hopefully, it will develop to an extent where I can successfully articulate and support it to an agent's satisfaction. I'm still working on the act-play, though. Even that relates to a favorite old song: "End of the World" by Skeeter Davis. Maybe there's something to this platform business after all.

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