Just what am I getting myself into? Part IV/Formatpalooza, part XXIV: the e-mailed query

Last time, if you will recall, we bent our substantial collective cranial capacity to the fascinating question of what happens to a query or submission after it arrives at an agency, with particular emphasis upon a subject endlessly hypnotic to agent-seeking writers everywhere, submission gaffes that might prompt our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to snap into instant rejection-on-sight mode. Within that context, we dwelt long and hard upon the ways in which an electronic submission — i.e., pages that the agent has actually asked a writer to send via e-mail — might be received differently than a paper submission.

In case any of you missed that discussion, allow me to summarize it for you: it’s significantly faster to reject an electronic submission or query. Not to mention immensely easier to lose one or the other accidentally.

Why, you ask? Have you tried to lift a 400-page manuscript lately? The darned things are heavy.

Which is, of course, one of the reasons that more and more agencies are permitting — nay, even insisting upon — electronic submissions: it keeps them from being buried in paper, and their Millicents are less likely to rupture a spleen while processing Monday morning’s influx of queries and submissions. Oh, and a Kindle is quite a bit lighter to tote onto an airplane than fifteen full-length manuscripts.

But lest any of us kid ourselves, electronic submissions were practically unheard-of prior to the 2001 anthrax scare; prior to that, the overwhelming majority of US-based agencies did not even have websites. Immediately after those poisoned envelopes hit the news, however, quite a few agencies abruptly began accepting e-queries for the first time.
Even in an industry where working one’s way up has long been the norm, expecting Millicent to risk her life by opening envelopes was considered a bit de trop. (Hey, she may be paid very much — heck, at some agencies, she is an intern — but our Millie is a much-valued member of the agency team.)

They’ve been on the rise ever since; indeed, some agencies (but not most, by any stretch of the imagination) now accept only e-mailed queries. Others (but again, a minority) ask queriers to fill out an electronic form instead. Most of these forms allow writers to paste a query letter into the form, but some only allow queriers to type in a limited amount of information, with perhaps a space to paste in the first few pages of the manuscript.

Have these developments been good or bad for aspiring writers? Like so many aspects of both the changing publishing industry and technological advance, the answer is both.

There are, of course, distinct advantages to e-querying, although not as many as there were five years ago: it’s a significantly less expensive option for writers querying US-based agents from other countries, for instance. When computer-savvy agents first began accepting e-queries, they did tend to respond faster than their counterparts who worked purely in paper. Then, too, junior agents frequently screened their own e-mail for queries, rather than relying upon a Millicent. And even today, if an agency does indeed accept e-mailed queries, the querier may hear back a trifle more quickly and/or be slightly more likely to reach the agent herself by sending an e-mail.

Did the Internet-lovers out there just do a double-take? Yes, it’s true: even at this late date, there are many agents who will not read e-mailed queries. Ever. Period.

So before you even consider this option, check one of the standard agency guides to make sure it’s acceptable. (If you are unfamiliar with how to use an agency guide — the shorthand can be tricky — please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category at right.) Or the agency’s website. If it has one.

Yes, seriously. Contrary to widespread writerly assumption, not every agency has a site posted on the web. This means that simply doing a web search under literary agency will not necessarily provide you with an exhaustive list of all of your representation possibilities. (For tips on how to come up with a list of agents to query, check out the HOW TO FIND AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right. How do I come up with these obscure category titles, anyway?)

But let’s assume for the moment that the agent of your dreams does indeed accept both paper and e-queries. Which is more to your advantage to send?

Well, it depends on the agency — and your timeline. You might well hear back about an e-query within a matter of hours, a most unlikely outcome for a paper query; then again, you might not. As I mentioned last time, turn-around times in agencies have gotten significantly longer over the last few years: what used to take just a couple of weeks now often takes a couple of months. Or more.

However, if an agency’s submission guidelines state point-blank that they do not respond to e-mailed queries unless they are interested, but that they do send out actual replies to mailed queries that include SASEs (a fairly common policy, amongst agencies that accept both), then it might be very much worth your while to query that agency via regular mail. Especially if you happen to be one of the vast majority of queriers who prefers to send out only one or two queries and wait until the agent(s) respond(s) before sending out any others: if that’s your strategy, you should be avoiding non-responders like the proverbial plague.

I frown upon the one-by-one strategy, by the way, and not just for electronic queries. Your time is just too valuable. Think about it: if you have six hot prospects on your querying list, and it takes two months on average to hear back on each, it will take you a year to query them all. But since practically no agencies insist upon exclusive queries anymore, why would you do that, when you could send out all six queries in the first week — and move on to another 6 if those do not garner the response you want?

Stop groaning. I would be as delighted as you if your first query happened to hit precisely the right Millicent working for precisely the right agent on precisely the right day — and not thirty seconds after she just burned her lip on that latte she always seems to be too impatient to allow to cool. However, even for beautifully-written first books by immensely talented aspiring writers, that’s exceedingly rare; finding the right fit for a book can be very time-consuming. It’s only prudent to plan to query widely.

Is that one-at-a-time strategy starting to seem less appealing yet? Or the prospect of hearing back sooner on any given query like a positive boon?

The relatively quicker response time on e-queries is not always an advantage, however. The human eye reads, on average, 70% faster on a backlit screen than on paper — not an insignificant increase, when Millicent is already skimming queries at top speed. She’s unlikely to have time for second thoughts: once her always-itchy trigger finger taps that DELETE key, that query is gone.

Which suggests a troubling philosophical question: isn’t the outcome identical whether she hits that key deliberately or by mistake — say, as an unconscious response to burning her lip on a too-hot latte? And now that so many agencies simply don’t respond to queriers (or even submitters) if the answer is no, how can the hapless writer of that deleted query letter ever know whether he never heard back due to Millicent’s determination that the book being offered would not interest her boss, her conviction that the book is inherently unmarketable in the current literary climate (not necessarily the same logic as the first), her reaction to a query that’s poorly put together — or her purely instinctive response to having spilled scalding coffee all over herself and her keyboard?

But most of you are not scared away by the possibility of having your baby rejected by caffeine, are you? “That’s right, Anne,” those of you excited about saving all of that paper (or just plain sick of licking stamps) shout. “I get most of my querying information online, and mirabile dictu, most of the agents who give advice online favor electronic submissions. So do a lot of agencies that pop up when I Google literary agency, remarkably enough. And it just seems a whole lot less time-consuming to copy and paste my query letter template — with suitable personalization for each agent, of course — into an e-mail than to print it up each time. So let’s have at it!”

Okay, electronic enthusiasts. Let’s talk about how to do this thing right.

E-mailing your query
As the shouters above indicated, e-mailing a query is pretty straightforward: it involves — wait for it — sending precisely the same query letter by e-mail that a writer would have sent via regular mail, minus the SASE. (You also don’t need to include the date or the recipient’s complete mailing address, as you would with a mailed letter. Just start with Dear Ms. Agentofmydreams, and proceed as with a regular letter.) In fact, if one composes the letter in Word, one can just copy it and paste it into the body of the e-mail.

There’s another big difference between an e-query and one that’s printed, a differential that should make business format-lovers everywhere rejoice: because most e-mail programs are hostile to indentation, it is considered quite acceptable not to indent the paragraphs in an e-query. Millicent might shake her head over the rapid decline in literacy amongst constructors of e-mail programs, but she will not blame you for it.

If you prefer to preserve the indentation (as I do, personally), go ahead and write a normal query letter in Word, then copy and paste it into the e-mail. If you find that one of the tabs disappears in transit — the last being the most prone to disappear in transit — you’ve not copied the final paragraph marker. Try this nifty trick: when you write the letter in Word, add an extra paragraph to the end of the letter. Copy and paste it into an e-mail; the actual text of the letter should arrive with the tabs all intact. Then hand-delete the extra verbiage.

Whatever you do, don’t send your letter as an attachment, or send a missive with a link to a generic query on your website. Most agencies have strict policies against opening unsolicited attachments (out of fear of downloading viruses), and I can tell you now that Millicent is not going to follow that link.

Why, you ask? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers: it’s Millie’s job to cull queries as quickly as humanly possible, to narrow down a roaring river to a manageable trickle. If she’s spending only about 30 seconds per query — probably even less on each e-query, because of that skimming-eye tendency — why on earth would she invest a couple of minutes in following a link to the website of someone too unfamiliar with how queries work to present her with a proper one?

My, we’re delving into a lot of deep philosophy today, aren’t we? Let’s lurch our way back to practicalities.

Composing the query first in a word processing program carries a couple of advantages. First, it’s easier to spell- and grammar-check. Second, it renders keeping good records of whom you have queried a little bit simpler: you can simply save each query as its own document, so you can keep track of what you have said to whom and when. (You do keep meticulous querying records, don’t you, so you will not approach the same agency twice with the same book project within a year? Repeat queries are considered quite rude in Millicent’s circles.)

Adhering to a two-step process also encourages a writer to re-read each query before sending it out in a way that simply resending the same e-mail over and over again (copy-and-paste works in most e-mail programs, too) does not. It will help you avoid some of the more common querying mix-ups: if you’re sending out a whole flotilla of queries at once, it’s pretty easy to hit SEND without realizing that your Dear Mr. Readerson missive just went to Ms. Picky. Or not to include the synopsis Ms. Picky’s agency’s submission guidelines request.

Another astonishingly common mistake in e-queries: not including any contact information. “But Anne,” computer-huggers everywhere cry, “isn’t that unnecessary? After all, Millicent could just hit REPLY if she wanted to ask me to send the manuscript, right?”

Not necessarily, no. Remember that nightmare scenario above, where her scalded hand accidentally hit DELETE? It’s also not all that uncommon for successful e-queries and e-submissions to be forwarded around an office, so the agent’s just pressing REPLY would merely send her opinion back to Millicent’s inbox, not yours.

And seriously: why wouldn’t you want to make it as easy as possible for these people to say yes to you?

Copying and pasting a query from Word can cause formatting problems, however — and not merely the tab disappearing act I mentioned above. If recent comments are any indication, many e-queriers have been horrified to discover after they have sent their e-mails (and having taken the prudent step of also e-mailing the letter to themselves, so they can see it as Millicent would), that there is an extra-large space between paragraphs.

“Hey, why is the formatting different?” they wonder indignantly. “When I pasted the letter into the e-mail, there was only a single line between paragraphs. Why the expansion? And will Millicent conclude that I am an idiot who doesn’t know how to format a letter properly?”

Since self-deprecating terms like idiot, moron, and complete dolt are a regular feature of comments by readers who have experienced this problem, I’m inclined to believe that it’s causing disproportionate chagrin. To set all of those worried (and not idiotic at all) minds at ease: no, Millicent won’t think the less of you if your e-query sports extra-wide spacing; it’s too common a problem. She’s knows that it’s the result of a rocky transition between Word and a lot of e-mail programs.

So don’t worry your smart little heads about it, okay? You’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Oh, dear — that didn’t convince all of you, did it? All right: let’s talk about how to eliminate this problem. First, you could write your query IN your e-mail program the first time around, then copy that to subsequent missives. You’d lose the advantages of composing in Word, but you wouldn’t have to worry about the formatting.

Or you could recognize that most e-mail programs and Word don’t have completely compatible word-processing bells and whistles. What constitutes a hard line break in Word (i.e., that skipped line between paragraphs) may well be a prompt for a two-line skip in your e-mail.

So how does one get around that? Don’t skip a line between paragraphs in the Word version. Just hit RETURN once at the end of each paragraph, as you would when typing in standard format. The sent e-mail will have only a single skipped line between paragraphs.

Seriously, it works. Send yourself a test query and see.

Querying via form on a website
Those forms are self-explanatory (part of their popularity, I suppose): many of them simply tell aspiring writers to paste their query letters into a form, along with a writing sample. I trust that you can figure them out on your own.

And if you can’t, I probably won’t be able to help: they’re too individualized for me to create general rules of thumb for dealing with ‘em. Sorry about that. Have you considered checking one of the standard agency guides to see if the agency with the troublesome form would accept a mailed query letter instead?

E-mailed query packets
Here again, the rule of thumb is precisely the same as for mailed queries: send precisely what the agency’s submission guidelines ask to see — no more, no less.

To tell you the truth, I’ve resisted writing much on this topic, for the exceedingly simple reason that I didn’t want anyone to confuse a query packet (i.e., the stack of things an agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides might ask a querier to send along with the query letter) with a submission packet (the array of papers an agent has SPECIFICALLY asked a writer to send after a query or a pitch).

The former known in the industry as unsolicited materials, the latter as requested materials.

“But Anne,” some of you new to the process protest, and who could blame you? “I’m confused. If the agency’s website, guide listing, or page on that always-useful resource for writers seeking agents, Publishers’ Marketplace tells aspiring writers that they should send a synopsis or the first 50 pages with a query, in what sense is that not a request? Especially when half of those listings refer to their standards as submission requirements?”

I see your logic, oh rules lawyers, but you’re confusing passive guidelines with an active request. Anyone able to track down an agency’s website or listing might discover its submission guidelines, the prerequisites to which an aspiring writer must adhere in order to get a query under one of their agents’ spectacles at all. But as any agent or editor in the biz could tell you, agencies draw a very firm distinction between preliminary materials sent out of the blue (from their perspective) and pages that they actually asked a writer to submit, based upon a successful query or pitch.

How seriously do they take that distinction? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve seldom heard anyone who has worked within five blocks of an agency refer to any pages sent with a cold query (i.e., a query letter from a writer who has had no previous contact with the agency and hasn’t been referred by someone they know) as a submission.

Judging by the knitted brows out there, that little explanation didn’t leave you unconfused, did it? “Okay, Anne,” the brow-knitters say, arms folded and all ready for an argument, “I believe that they make a distinction, but I still think I’m right to think of those 50 pages the agent of my dreams’ website told me to send as both requested materials and a submission. If not, why would they call them submission guidelines, huh? Got a glib answer for that one?”

Actually, I have several. You’d better get comfortable.

In the first place, if your dream agent’s website stated that queriers should go ahead and send sample pages, it didn’t ask you personally to do so; it asked everyone who might submit to them. Given that such a public request effectively narrows down the potential pool of querier to every writer on earth who currently doesn’t have an agent, you can hardly blame those who work at the agency for not considering those guidelines in the same light as a specific request to a specific writer.

In the second place, submission guidelines is an industry term; publishing houses use it as well, but like word count or literary fiction, the definition in use at the moment is in the mind of the speaker. It’s not as precise as those coming into the conversation from the outside might like.

For all its imprecision, the term’s use in this context performs a pretty specific function: it catches the eye of writers so new to the industry that they are unaware that they shouldn’t just mail off a full manuscript to any agent who happens to catch their innocent imaginations. (You do know that such manuscripts are simply rejected unread, right?) Understood that way, an agency’s guidelines are in fact submission guidelines — they tell aspiring writers not to submit at all, but to query instead.

In the third place, I hate to be the one to bring this up, have you by any chance compared the guidelines on the agency’s website with those in one of the standard agency guides and/or the individual agent’s listing on the aforementioned Publishers’ Marketplace?

It’s a bit time-consuming to check multiple sources, but often worthwhile: not only do guide listings tend to have different emphases than website blurbs (thus enabling you to fine-tune your query list), but it’s also surprisingly common for the various sources to ask queriers to send different things.

Yes, really. It’s not at all unheard-off for the most recent Guide to Literary Agents to suggest querying with a synopsis, the agency’s website to ask for a query plus the first ten pages, and the individual agent’s Publisher’s Marketplace page to specify a query plus the first chapter and an author bio. Heck, it isn’t even all that unusual for one source to say that an agency welcomes paper queries, while another insists that it will only accept queries via e-mail and the website has a form to fill out and submit electronically.

No wonder writers are confused. I’m not bringing this up, however, to criticize agencies — heaven forbid! — but as part of my ongoing quest to convince agent-seeking writers that being hyper-literal and rules-lawyerish is not necessarily helpful at the querying stage.

Why, you ask? Well, remember how I had mentioned earlier in the summer that conference-goers sometimes confuse an individual agent’s personal preferences with an industry-wide norm? Sometimes, what guidelines end up in an agency guide are a function of the preferences of whoever happened to fill out the form — or of no one at the agency’s thinking to go back and update its Publishers’ Marketplace listing when the guidelines on the agency’s website have changed.

It doesn’t really matter why it happens, does it? If a particular agency has two or three sets of guidelines floating around out there, it follows as night the day that its resident Millicent must be seeing two or three different kinds of query packet on any given morning.

What were you saying about taking a guide listing or website’s guidelines as a request?

In the fourth place (yes, I’m still working on that pesky question), just because if an agency’s site/listing/representative at a writers’ conference expresses a generic interest in seeing extra materials — a synopsis, for instance, or a bio, or even pages — that doesn’t mean its Millicent will necessarily read them. If the query doesn’t spark her interest, she’s extremely unlikely to give the book project a second chance just because additional materials happen to be in front of her.

Before you get all huffy about that, brow-knitters, allow me to add hastily: this is largely a function of time not being infinitely elastic. It’s Millie’s job to weed out queries, right?

“But wait,” my brow-knitting friends ask hesitantly, “is it possible that I’m misunderstanding you here? From what you’re saying, it sounds as though my being able to send pages along with my query isn’t necessarily an advantage — all it really does is save Millicent the trouble of asking to see them.”

Well, if that’s the conclusion you want to draw from all this, I would be the last to stop you. I can only advise: do your homework before you send out that query. And send precisely what the agent expects to see.

How might one figure out just what that means, in the face of conflicting guidelines? Generally speaking, although the Publishers’ Marketplace and the Herman Guide listings tend to offer the most information (again, useful for figuring out which agent at the agency to approach), agencies’ websites usually offer the most up-to-date guidelines. I’d advise following them — but checking another source or two is always a good idea.

Especially if you’re not especially fond of copying and pasting your first few pages into the body of an e-mail or into a miniscule box on an online form. It can wreak havoc with formatting.

Ah, we’re back to formatting, after that long digression. Can we actually talk about how to put together an e-mailed query packet now?
If (and only if) the agency’s submission guidelines (wherever you found them) ask for additional materials, check very carefully to see if the guidelines tell you how to send them. Most of the time, they will ask that you include them in the body of the e-mail, not as an attachment.

Which is to say, unless the submission guidelines SPECIFICALLY ask you to do so, do not, under any circumstances, include attachments in an e-mailed query, for precisely the reason we discussed above: virtually every agency in North America has an iron-clad policy against opening unrequested attachments. They’re just too likely to contain viruses.

Hey, I’m not casting aspersions upon your no doubt squeaky-clean computer. I’m just reporting what the process looks like from the other side of the desk.

If the agency’s website SPECIFICALLY asked for attachments, send them in Word (the industry standard), but as we discussed yesterday, send them as .doc files; do not send them as .docx. Many, many agencies are running older versions of Word (on PCs, usually) and will not be able to open .docx files.

Like any file-transferring snafu between an agency and a writer, this is considered the writer’s fault. And no, Millicent won’t necessarily e-mail you back, asking you to send a different version. Nor will the agency call upon its crack computer support staff, for the simple reason that, as astonishing as this may seem to those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, NYC-based agencies seldom have an in-house computer expert. (Possibly because s/he would be so like to tell them to upgrade what version of Word they’re using.)

I’m telling you: a little foresight will go a long way toward getting her a document someone at the agency can actually open.

If you happen to be running a recent version of Word, your document may be saved as a .docx automatically, so use the SAVE AS… function to save your document as a Word 97-2004 document (.doc). Mac users, do be aware that your system may allow you to give your documents longer names than an older PC’s system might recognize as valid.

How do you include additional materials without attachments? Copy and paste them into the body of your e-mail, a few skipped lines after the end of your query.

Fair warning, though: as I mentioned above, formatting often gets lost in the transition. Particularly vulnerable, for some reason: double-spacing. Even if you have to change the spacing in the e-mail by hitting the RETURN key at the end of every line, make sure any manuscript pages you send are double-spaced.

If formatting disappears in transit, you’re probably not copying all of the formatting codes. The trick I mentioned above usually solves this problem: add an extra paragraph above and below the text you want to transfer, copy and paste the whole shebang into your e-mail, then hand-delete the extra words. Usually works like a charm.

And don’t worry your aforementioned smart little head about reproducing the exact format of your manuscript page; Millicent isn’t expecting text within the body of the e-mail to reproduce the printed page. She’s been around e-submissions long enough to know the havoc most e-mail programs can play with Word’s formatting. Just start with the first line of text on page 1 of your manuscript — the chapter title isn’t particularly necessary, but you may include it if you wish — and include as much of the text as requested.

Oh, scrape your jaws off the floor. The point of asking for those pages is not to see if you can produce a manuscript in standard format, after all — if an agent wanted to see that, the submission guidelines would ask for a Word attachment. (As some of them do: make sure to check every time.) What Millicent will be casting her bloodshot eyes across that writing sample for is to see if you can write.

You don’t mind that, do you?

No matter what other materials are specified in the guidelines, always start an e-mailed query packet with the query letter itself, then move on to any requested materials in the order they were listed in the guidelines. As I mentioned above (but it always bears repeating), unlike a paper query, an e-mailed query need not include date and full address of the recipient, but do open with a salutation: Dear Ms. Smith…

Why? Well, think about it from Ms. Smith’s perspective: wouldn’t a mass e-mail be the most efficient way of broadcasting 2,000 generic Dear Agent queries? Do you really want your e-query mistaken of one of those?

Most of you probably knew most of this, though, right? Let’s move on to a little-known trick o’ the trade — located in the part of the e-mailed query to which writers tend to give the least thought.

The subject line of an e-mailed query
The subject line is key to an e-query’s ending up in the right place, so you are going to want to make that space count. Or at any rate, prevent your e-mail from getting relegated to the spam file.

Most agents prefer writers to include the word QUERY in it, presumably so they don’t mix up your e-mail with that invitation to their high school reunion. If you just heard the agent speak at a conference, include the name of the conference in both the subject line and the first line of your query; many agencies will give priority to post-conference queries.

Conversely, if you already have an in with the agent, make sure to include that in the subject line, too. If you met the agent at a conference and she told you to send her a query (as opposed to sending materials; it happens), write REQUESTED QUERY and the name of the conference in the subject line; if you were lucky enough to garner a referral from an existing client, type QUERY — (Client’s name) REFERRAL.

Getting the picture? Good.

Like so much else in writer-agent relations, the practices were much more streamlined back in the days before the rise of the personal computer, much less the Internet. In fact, a case could be made, and a cogent one, for the popularity of the Internet’s being the cause of each agency’s specifying that it wants different materials in query packets: back when the standard agency guides and word of mouth were the primary ways that writers found out what standards were, pretty much everyone just asked for a query, or query + synopsis.

In fact, the industry truism of yore dictated that a writer should NEVER send manuscript pages or a proposal unless and agent had specifically asked him to do so. Frankly, I think that expectation was a bit easier on writers: there was far less stressful guesswork involved.

So are agencies asking for more materials up front just because they can — or because there now isn’t so much paper involved? Maybe, or maybe some of them just wanted to streamline the rejection process by arranging to have a writing sample on hand as soon as Millicent read the query letter: that way, she can rule out promising book concepts whose writing doesn’t deliver in one contact with the writer, rather than the former two.

Or perhaps — and I’m not saying this is true; I’m merely speculating — providing guidelines that are unlike those of other agencies may be a clever means of discovering just how good a prospective client is at following directions; if every agency asks for something slightly different, the Dear Agent queriers who treat every agent on earth as identical are going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs, right?

Just in case I’m right on that last one, follow the individual agency’s directions. To the letter. And if that means choosing from amongst several sets of guidelines, pick one and cling to it like a leech.

Trust me, both you and Millicent will feel better if you do. In an often confusing and alienating process, concrete direction can be very reassuring. Keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VII: framing Jack O. Lantern’s smiling authorial face

grinning pumpkin 2

I’m smiling myself this morning, campers, although not quite as widely as Jack. Congratulate me, for I am officially the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, a title I hope to hold until next Halloween rolls around. How did I score this enviable title? Well, I am usually in the running: ours is the only house within a multi-block radius that gives out full-size candy bars. (You should see the look on the little ones’ faces when they first clap eyes on our candy tray.)

This year, however, we also had the dubious distinction of being one of the only houses in the neighborhood giving out candy at all. Blame the economy, not the neighbors, I say, but naturally, it was hard for the kids to understand. So I told them that if they went away for half an hour and came up with a story about the characters they were impersonating for the night, they could each have another three candy bars. One especially creative ninja reappeared three times, each with a different tale to tell.

I heard some great stories. Score one for the future writers of America, and a big loss for dental hygiene.

Back to business. I’m going to be wrapping up author bios and photos today, tying up a few loose ends and answering a few perennial first-time autobiographers’ lingering questions. Since this is my last Authorbiopalooza post — presuming that no one posts a magnificently insightful follow-up question as a comment over the next few days, hint, hint — I’m going to seize the opportunity to say something vital just one more time, for the benefit of all you procrastinators out there.

broken-recordPlease, I implore you, do not put off writing at least a viable first draft of your bio until the day after an agent or editor has actually asked you to provide one. Set aside some time to do it soon.

Why? Because unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask for a bio up front, chances are, the request to provide one is going to come swooping down at you out of a pellucidly blue sky. Tossed out as an afterthought just after you’ve given the best pitch in the history of Western civilization, for instance, or when the agent who fell in love with your first 50 pages asks to see the rest of the book. It will seem like good news — until you realize that you need to come up with a bio within the next forty-eight hours.

On that happy day, you will be a much, much happier human being in every way if you already have at least the beginnings of a great bio sitting on your hard drive. Trust me on this one.

To that end, may I suggest that those of you involved in writers’ groups — critique-based or support; in either case, good for you — devote part of a meeting to brainstorming about and giving feedback on one another’s bios? Or query letters, for that matter? And what about synopses?

Don’t look at me so blankly. Why wouldn’t a success-oriented group of writers want to invest time in mutual critique of marketing materials? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: every single sentence on every single page in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. It all needs to be polished.

It also, at the risk of starting up that broken record player, all needs to be interesting — and that’s where a little outside perspective can be very helpful. Yet even very market-focused critique groups seldom set aside time for mutual bio critique. A trifle mystifying to me, as a session devoted to it can be a whole lot of fun, as well as very useful indeed.

Besides, how much do you really know about that sharp-eyed person who keeps barking at you to show, not tell?

Speaking of great questions (yes, I know; I was speaking of it several paragraphs ago, but humor me here), let’s get right to the promised answers to past reader questions on bio-related points. Yes, shorter versions of these answers are already available elsewhere on this site, but since the comments are not searchable from your side of the site and not everyone reads the comment strings — especially, I notice, whilst perusing the archives — I wanted to have all of this information gathered in one place, all ready to pop up in a site search using that nifty search engine located in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

I love readers’ questions, because, frankly, you clever souls often come up with angles it would not otherwise have occurred to me to pursue. Those of us who have been staring at bios, queries, synopses, and professionally-formatted manuscripts for years may be able to tell in an instant how the page in front of us is not right, but since we have such a strong mental image of what the right format, for instance, is, we seldom invest time in considering how someone who had never seen a successful author bio formatted for submission, for example, might picture it.

That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I so often encourage my readers to ask challenging questions of agents and editors at conferences: the question that’s been bugging you for months might not be one a speaker would know to include in her talk. So for heaven’s sake, ask; it’s good for everybody concerned.

To illustrate, here is a question from intrepid reader Doug about how a writer using a pen name might approach the bio. Specifically,

Is the author’s name one’s pseudonym (when applicable)? Both in the heading and in the text?

This is a great question, Doug, one that I’m positive perplexes many a pseudonymous writer. To make sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, what Doug is inquiring about is the boldfaced author name at the top of the bio, as well as how to refer to the author within the bio itself. To borrow an example from last time, so we may see how the author’s name dots the page:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

In the bio, the author’s name should be the same as it is on the title page and in the slug line; it’s confusing if they’re different. So if you’ve decided to use a pseudonym under the By… part of the title page (as opposed to the contact info, which should use the name to which you’d prefer to have your royalty checks made out), be consistent throughout your query or submission packet.

You want to see that in action, don’t you? Fair enough.

pen name title page

If Arthur Worrieswhathisrelativeswillthink were to write an author bio — and he would definitely need to do so, even for a memoir, despite the fact that the entire manuscript could be construed as a bio — he has a choice: he can either show his real name on the bio, or he can list his pen name, Unabashed R. Pseudonym, as long as it is the name he uses (a) appears on the title page, as we’ve seen above, and (b) is the name in the slug line at the top of every manuscript page. In a first book, it’s usually more prudent to use one’s real name, so that contracts — like, say, the representation agreement Arthur wants the agent of his dreams to offer him — are made out properly.

One’s agent does, after all, have to know one’s real identity. So unless you are an international man of mystery fleeing justice (which would look terrific in a bio), it doesn’t really make sense to use a pseudonym at all at the querying or submission stage.

Think about it: a writer using a pen name doesn’t actually have to commit to it until after a publisher has already acquired the book. Both the representation contract and the publication contract are under the author’s legal name (although the publication contract may well stipulate the use of a pseudonym), so unless you feel that

(a) using your real name might somehow harm the book’s chances with the agent of your dreams (Begrunga Nevercleansherkitchen would be a lousy name for a cookbook writer, for instance),

(b) you already have something published in a different book category under your real name and want to avoid confusion, or

(c) you don’t want to tip Interpol off to your whereabouts,

you don’t really need to stress about the pseudonym issues until later on. Give your pretty little head a rest; you wouldn’t want your eyes to look tired in your author photo.

Everybody clear on that? Excellent. Here’s a thought-provoking question from long-time reader Gordon:

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try – should an author bio written by an unpublished (in any media) writer include what you call ‘promotional parts’? Meaning life connections with the novel’s subject matter. As a youngster in his seventies there have been many twists and turns in my life. Should one’s bio chronologically hit the high points or mainly focus on the ones pertinent to the novel being submitted?

You did fine on the self-expression front, Gordon. The short answer is yes, on both counts.

Well, glad to have cleared THAT up. Moving along…

I didn’t really fool you there, did I? Especially since those of you who have been following Authorbiopalooza closely undoubtedly immediately cried, “Wait, Anne dealt with this in an earlier post. Perhaps she is trying, albeit clumsily, to drive home the point that good questions from readers help to expand the range of her posts.”

Well, I like to think so; I am, after all, the Nicest Lady in the Neighborhood, and this is an extremely common writerly conundrum. Let’s tackle it directly.

The direct answer: it depends.

To be specific, which way one should fall on the choice between devoting one’s bio to a chronological account of the highlights of one’s life as, say, an obituary might tell it (sorry, but it’s the obvious analogy) vs. creating the impression that every significant event in one’s life was leading inevitably to the writing of this book and no other depends largely upon several factors, including:

a) whether there are events in one’s life that are legitimately related to the subject matter of the book in question — and if they are easy for the reader to follow without too many logical leaps.

If mentioning a particular life experience would tend to make you a more credible source, it’s usually to your advantage to include it in your bio, to differentiate yourself from any other yahoo who might just have been guessing what that particular experience was like. Expressive Q. Author visited the Statue of Liberty once, when Expressive’s protagonist passes through Ellis Island briefly in Chapter Two, is a stretch; Expressive Q. Author spent twenty years as a merchant marine, when his entire plotline takes place on a pirate ship, is not.

b) whether one has genuinely lead a life that would produce a couple of entertaining paragraphs, regardless of connection to the book.

It never hurts to sound darned interesting in your bio. However — and in practice, this is a BIG however — writers of purely chronological bios often…how shall I put this delicately…overestimate the detail in which a rushed industry type might want to hear the life story of someone she has never met.

Remember, Millicent the agency screener reads a lot of bios; keep yours snappy.

If you’re in doubt whether yours is leaning toward overkill, hand your bio to someone who doesn’t know you particularly well (having asked politely for his assistance first, of course; don’t just accost a stranger) and have him read it through twice. Buy the cooperative soul a cup of coffee, and around the time that your cup begins to seem light in your hand, ask your guinea pig to tell your life story back to you uninterrupted.

The points that he can’t reproduce without prompting are probably inherently less memorable than the ones he can recount in glowing detail. Ask yourself about the ones left out or garbled: they honestly helping you look interesting and/or credible?

c) in the lucky instance where both (a) and (b) are genuinely true, whether the wealth of interesting biographical detail threatens to render the connections to the book less memorable.

When in doubt, lean toward the directly applicable; it’s more important information for the marketing department.

Remember, the point of an author bio is not to tell your life story — that’s what post-publication interviews and memoirs are for, right? — nor to include all of the things that you would like total strangers who pick up volumes in a future bookstore to know about you. The goal in a query or submission bio is to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question. Or, in the case of nonfiction, to write the book being proposed.

Everyone clear on the relevant distinctions? Good. Let’s move on to another question. Another long-term reader, Cerredwyn, wrote in to ask,

Does an author photo need to be a head shot?

No, it doesn’t — as long as you are identifiable (“That’s she, officer. That’s the author of the book!“) and the background isn’t too busy, you can certainly use a broader shot.

In fact, as Elinor Glyn’s author photo for IT clearly demonstrates, a head-and-torso shot is perfectly acceptable, and actually a bit more common on jacket flaps than the pure headshot.

However, 1/2, 3/4, and even full standing shots are not unheard-of. John Irving’s early works tended to have particularly hunky-looking shots from the waist up, for instance.

Not that I noticed as a teenager or anything. I was reading his books for the writing and the stories, I tell you.

If you’re having trouble deciding between different ranges of shot, spend some time in a well-stocked bookstore, taking a gander at the author photos published in books in your chosen book category within the last few years. Not in every new release, mind you, but in books like yours. If you notice an overall trend in styles, you’re not going to offend anyone by submitting something similar.

Oh, and speaking of styles, unless you have written something ultra-hip or happen to be a magazine writer (whose material by definition changes constantly), it’s usually not a great idea to dress in the latest fashion for your author photo — and it’s DEFINITELY not the time to sport a hairstyle that’s not likely to be around a decade hence.

Don’t believe me? Ask any 80s author who embraced a mohawk. Or Elinor Glyn, a decade after the photo above was taken.

Remember, if your book is successful, it will be gracing shelves in private homes, libraries, and book exchanges for even longer than it will be hanging out in Barnes & Noble. A too-trendy style will date the photo. So as a general rule, adorning yourself for your photo with the expectation that the resulting photo will dog you for the rest of your natural life is a good plan.

You also might want to give some thought to how certain colors and patterns photograph — and how a checkered jacket that works beautifully in an 8 x 10 glossy might just look dusty in a 3 x 5 or 2 x 3 (both fairly common sizes for jacket photos). Generally speaking, solids work better than prints, and strong, dark colors on the body are distract less from the face. Bear in mind, too, that black, white, and red sometimes look quite different in print than in real life, and that the eye tends to zoom in on the red and the shiny.

If that’s your lip gloss, great; if it’s your belt, less great. Unless you are trying to find an agent or publisher for a book about belts, that is.

The answer to the next reader question, posed by Jaepu, could be extrapolated from the last paragraph but one, I notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trenchant question. Let’s revisit it, just in case anyone out there was wondering:

Must the author photo be in color?

No, it may be in black and white — in fact, until fairly recently, that was the norm. However, with the rise of digital photography, color author photos have become more common. Do be aware, though, that a black-and-white photo won’t tell an agent whether you might look good in a television interview as well as a color picture would.

The more important issue is photo clarity. You’d be surprised at how many author photos are actually out of focus, presumably because the writer prefers the blurry shot to other, clearer ones. (Either that, or he moves around too quickly to be caught easily on film.)

Nor is this a time to make a funny face, even if you write humor; this is, after all, a photo intended to present you as a professional to be taken seriously. Let’s face it, even if a less-sharp image is genuinely cool, this image of trick-or-treating expert Jack O. Lantern

jekll hyde pumpkin

is simply not as effective a marketing tool as this comparatively mundane smile.

Rick's pumpkin

My apologies to those with low self-esteem, but the author bio photo actually does have to look like you. Not some idealized, air-brushed ideal version of what someone who spends hours on end frantically tapping her thoughts on a keyboard, but you.

Pop quiz: what is good about both of these photos of Jack? (Hint: it has to do with his area of expertise.)

If you immediately cried, “By jingo, he’s depicted in a context that is relevant to the subject matter of his book!” take a candy bar out of the jar. Since Jack is writing about trick-or-treating, what would be a more natural background than his Halloween locale?

In fact, he could even take it a step farther, sacrificing a bit of facial close-up range for a photo that unquestionably establishes him as someone who knows his Halloween doorsteps. As long as his face is clearly visible, a slightly farther-away shot is fine.

cat and pumpkin

Speaking of low self-esteem, a reader apparently too shy to be comfortable with self-identification asked:

I’m all excited about my next book, but I’m marketing my first. Would it be completely tacky to mention what I’m working on now in my bio? What if the books are in different genres?

It’s far from being tacky, Anonymous One; in fact, it’s downright common for a bio to end with a mention of the author’s next writing project. Try to keep it to a single sentence, however, so it does not overpower the rest of the bio.

Lincoln lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife, eight sons, and golden retriever, Manifest Destiny. He is currently working on his second book, Hey! Where Are You Taking Half of My Country?, a comic memoir covering the Civil War years.

“Yeah, right, Anne,” I hear some of you scoff. “Stop pulling our collective legs. I’ve never seen an author bio on a book jacket that covers future work, or even unpublished work. Bios, like tombstone epitaphs, are always backward-looking, aren’t they?”

Actually, jacket bios that mentioned future projects used to be fairly standard; in the mid-70s, the last line of most dust jacket bios was some flavor of Smith lives in Connecticut, where he is working on his next novel. Gradually, this has been falling out of fashion, perhaps because it implies some faith on the publisher’s part that Smith’s current release will sell well enough that they will WANT him to bring out another. (It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that this particular last sentence fell out of fashion at approximately the same time as multi-book contracts for first-time novelists.)

However, the author bio that an aspiring writer tucks into a query or submission packet and the one that ends up on a dust jacket are not the same thing — as we discussed earlier in Authorbiopalooza, they are intended for the eyes of two different audiences, to create two different impressions. The dust jacket bio is promotional copy aimed at the reader, designed to pique interest and answer basic questions like why should I believe this guy’s NF account of life on the moon? The query or submission bio, by contrast, is designed to impress agents, editors, and their respective Millicents with the author’s claim to be an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Is there an echo in here? I could have sworn that I’ve heard that last bit somewhere before.

Because the submission bio is geared for industry-savvy eyes, mentioning completed book projects in categories other than the one to which the currently-submitted manuscript belongs (try saying THAT three times fast), as the Anonymous Questioner suggested, is a perfectly legitimate use of page space. No need to hawk the other projects; simply mention the book category within the course of a single-sentence description that describes the project as still in progress. As in:

Now nicely recovered from his contretemps with an assassin, Garfield lives in retirement, working on his next book projects, a YA baseball romance and a historical retrospective of his own brief presidency.

Why would Pres. Garfield speak of his completed YA book as a work-in-progress? Strategy, my dears, strategy: it neatly sidesteps the question why isn’t it published? Clever, eh?

Finally, reader Rose inquired:

I’m at a whole single-spaced page, no photo. I have a pro photo, recently taken, that looks great. Would it be better to reduce the bio and add the photo?

I’m querying for a novel, btw — and I’d been under the impression that you shouldn’t submit an author photo when trying to pitch one.

Contrary to the impression Rose has, by her own admission, picked up she knows not where, there is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a fiction writer’s submission bio should to include a photo. No Millicent who has found a submission engaging enough to read all the way to the last page, where the author bio lurks, is going to cast her latte aside in a petulant fit at the sight of a photo, screaming, “Oh, darn — now I have to reject it. I liked that manuscript, too.”

The reason photos are often not included in novelists’ bios is not because they’re unwelcome, but because the burden for gathering marketing materials prior to selling a novel has historically been significantly lower than for a nonfiction book. (If any of you novelists doubt this, take a gander at a book proposal sometime; its many, many pages of marketing material will make you feel much, much better about having to write only a query letter and a synopsis.)

If your photo is pretty ravishing, Rose, I say go ahead and include it. A nice photo does make the bio look a touch more professional, after all, and it’s never a bad thing for an agent or editor to think, “Hey, this author is photogenic!”

Even without the picture, though, it sounds as though Rose’s bio is a bit long for professional purposes: the norm is one DOUBLE-spaced page, or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced under a photo. Yes, one does occasionally hear agents mentioning that they’ve been seeing more single-spaced full-page bios lately — but as I’ve virtually always heard this pronounced with a gnashing of teeth, I’m inclined to regard such statements as complaints, not cries of rapture.

Call me zany, but I tend to interpret moaning as an indication that the moaned-about activity is unwelcome. I’d stick to a more standard length. As with a query letter, when in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Believe me, if your bio is too short, the agent of your dreams will be only to happy to tell you so –after she signs you.

(Don’t cringe: she’s going to want you to change a lot of things after she signs you, no matter how much she initially loved your book or book proposal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

One last thought on the subject before I sign off for the day: stick to a single page, unless you are specifically asked for something much longer or shorter. (Requests for 1- or 2-paragraph bios aren’t that uncommon.) Beyond that, try not to obsess too much about length. Concentrate instead on sounding fascinating.

Seriously, if, over the years I’ve been a book doctor and particularly over the 5+ years I’ve been answering questions online, someone had given me a nickel for every time an aspiring writer asked me whether the spacing or length of the bio — or query, or synopsis — REALLY mattered, I would have been able to build my own publishing house.

I don’t mean that I would have been able to buy one; I mean that I would have been able to construct the necessary buildings and offices entirely out of coins.

Would it surprise you to hear, then, that even after that many repetitions of the same question, my answer has never changed, no matter how much aspiring writers might have wished it to do so? Or that if I could wave my magic wand and remove all formatting requirements, I probably wouldn’t do it?

Why, I hear you gasp? Because when an author bio — or query letter, or synopsis, or manuscript — is properly formatted, the only bases for judging it have to do with the quality of the writing, the premise’s marketability, whether the professional reader likes it, and so forth.

You know, the bases upon which aspiring writers WANT to be judged.

So yes, agents really tend to hold aspiring writers to the standards of the industry, just as they hold their clients to them. (See earlier comment about one’s dream agent making demands upon one.) They don’t do this to be mean; it’s just that when someone — like, say, Millicent — spends hour after hour, day after day, month after month staring at manuscripts, she’s unlikely not to notice if one is formatted differently than the norm.

As in, for instance, an author bio that doesn’t look like the ones I showed you last time. Even if a single-spaced bio sans photograph does indeed fit onto the requisite single page, thus meeting the bare minimum standard for professionalism, it’s not going to resemble the bios Millicent’s boss is sending out with her clients’ submissions.

Or at least, it probably will not. Naturally, as with any group of human beings, some agents have individual preferences that deviate from the industry standard — the source, I suspect, of Rose’s impression of unspecified origin — and if you can find out what these quirky desires are, you should definitely adhere to them in your submissions to that particular agent. It seldom pays, however, to assume that any one such preference is universal to the industry.

My point is, as annoying as it may be to bring your bios — and queries, synopses, and manuscripts — into line with the most common professional standards is so that Millicent may ignore the formatting and concentrate on what you are SAYING. Because, after all, your aim in your submission bio is not to cram as many facts as you can onto a single page, but to make the case that you are an interesting person well qualified to have written the book in question.

Yes, you have heard that somewhere before. See, I don’t recommend sticking to the general standards just to be mean, either.

Congratulations, campers: I don’t know whether you have noticed it, but since Labor Day, you have completed a crash course in all of the standard elements of the query and submission packet. Which, in case you are the kind who likes to track such things, makes you more knowledgeable about how to market your writing to agents than roughly 97% of the aspiring writer population.

You should be very, very proud of yourself for taking the time — let’s face it, many of these posts have been hefty — to learn how to present yourself professionally. Keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza VI: formatting your bio, or, make the time, Marcel

Marcel Proust

I begin with some exciting news today, campers: remember how, back in the heady days of Querypalooza, some readers just couldn’t get enough of my concrete examples? “We want more of your patented prototypes,” they clamored. “Specifically, I would like one for an imaginary book not only in my chosen book category, but so close to mine that I could just copy borrow freely use it to inform how I constructed mine. Better yet, why don’t I just send you mine, and you could deconstruct it on the blog, so I might learn how to improve it?”

Actually, those examples were copyrighted, but that’s a quibble. As those of you who followed that quite lengthy series may recall, I am no fan of boilerplate queries: I am a tireless advocate of every good aspiring writer’s constructing his own. Yet while I am always overjoyed to help readers deal with their query-writing difficulties at a theoretical level, so everyone who cares to read along might benefit, I have historically (5 years of history, anyway) been reluctant to have readers just submit their queries for public critique. When I first began blogging, Miss Snark was in her heyday, and while my critique style is certainly kinder and gentler than hers — as, I believe, was Attila the Hun’s — it seemed redundant to offer similar query evaluations here.

I did hear all of that clamoring, however. That’s why I am delighted to report that I shall be performing live query critique at the always-lively Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. So I invite all of you to pack up your queries in your old kit bag and join me there.

I ply my analytical and teaching skills at many a conference across this great land of ours, but Words & Music has been near and dear to my heart for many years. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of craft and marketing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music within larger contexts — this year, the offerings include a whole sub-series entitled The Literature of War and Collateral Damage.

And did I mention that it all takes place smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world? Rather than withdrawing from the surrounding community, as most conferences do, the Words & Music folks embrace it, holding literary lunches at fine local restaurants, staging poetry readings in art galleries, and even hosting concerts and film events. I always return from Words and Music feeling replete and benevolent, humming with fresh ideas from good conversations with genuinely interesting writers.

Is it quirkier than most writers’ conferences? Well, let me put it this way: Marcel Proust would have felt at home there.

All right, back to the business at hand. Ever since my last post, I could have sworn I heard the muffled cries of my readers from afar, small as the mews of freshly-born kittens. “But Anne,” these wee voices called after me, “you didn’t tell us how to format an author bio…and you ALWAYS tell us how to format things…things…echo…echo…echo…”

At least, I think that’s what they were saying; wafting ghostly voices are notoriously inarticulate. It’s also possible that they were merely reading Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu as we like to do here at Author! Author!, IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

That’s my readership: so devoted to learning the ropes of the writing and publishing biz that its members remembered that no savvy querier should send out an author bio — or, indeed, any other part of a query or submission packet — without proofing it à la Author! Author! Even with a document as short as a bio (typically in the neighborhood of 250 words, although one does sometimes receive requests for bios as short as 100 or even 50), it’s simply too easy to miss a typo or missed word when proofing on a backlit screen.

How glad I am not to have to repeat that. Let’s talk formatting — or, if we want to start from the bird’s-eye level and work our way down to Millicent the agency screener’s typical level of scrutiny, placement in the query or submission packet.

That’s an easy one: it should always come last. In a novel or memoir submission, the author bio should be placed at the end of the pages you’re submitting, regardless of whether you have been asked to send a full or a partial manuscript. Ditto with a book proposal: it should come just after the final page of the sample chapter. (If you are including clippings, they should follow the bio, but often, the author bio is the last page in the packet.)

On to formatting. The author bio should always be in the same typeface and font as the rest of the manuscript or book proposal. No exceptions, regardless of how much you like that fancy script that looks like a signature. Times New Roman or Courier are what Millicent will expect to see. (If you’re unfamiliar with the typefaces the publishing industry tends to prefer, or even that such preferences exist, you might want to consider consulting the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all deliberate speed.)

The bio should never be more than a single page — unless, of course, the agent of your dreams asks for something longer, in which case give it to her, for heaven’s sake. It should neither be numbered nor include a slug line.

UNLESS it is part of a book proposal, that is. If it is the last page of a proposal, the bio should contain the same slug line as the rest of the proposal, continuing its numbering.

Everyone clear on that? No? Okay, let’s take a gander at a couple of my famous concrete examples. While an author bio tucked into a query packet or attached to the end of a requested manuscript might look like this:

Proust bio funny

Obviously, this header would not be appropriate in a book proposal. Instead, it would appear thus:

Proust bio funny 2

“But Anne,” I hear some of you eagle-eyed readers pipe up in that winsome way of yours, “I couldn’t help but notice another subtle difference between these two pages. Is it me, or does the first have an author photo while the second does not?”

Ah, there’s no slipping anything past you, readers. Apart from the proposal/non-proposal slug difference, there are two acceptable formats for an author bio.

The second example above is the more common: a single page, double-spaced, in standard manuscript format. (If that last term was a mystery to you, I can only reiterate my suggestion that you visit the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are far, far more likely to be rejected than ones that look professional. Trust me on that one.)

As you no doubt already noted in Proust #2, the author’s name should be centered on the top of the page. Let’s see that again with a bio that actually might serve as role model for content, shall we? (As always, if you are having trouble reading these, try holding down the COMMAND key while striking the + key to enlarge the image.)

Some literal souls (the type who would vastly prefer the non-Shakespearean translation of the title of Proust’s masterwork, no doubt) would argue that the text should be additionally decorated by either the first line of the page or the first line under the author’s name reading — wait for it — Author Bio.

Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but you must admit that it’s descriptive.

This used to be fairly common, but I do not advise embracing this tactic, for the simple reason that a significant and apparently growing segment of the agent population now seems to prefer that their clients dispense with this little piece of self-evident labeling. Or so I surmise, from all of the agented writers I keep meeting whose agents have more or less ordered them to skip it. Most bio-writers are only too glad to omit it, as it permits an extra line of text in what is, let’s face it, a rather brief space into which to cram one’s charms.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format, the kind that includes a photo: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 photograph (or a roughly similar size; perfection doesn’t matter here) centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, the author’s name appears, also centered.

I can feel some of you stressing out about the size of the photo, but relax: Millicent is not going to attack your bio with a ruler. This is one of the few situations in the publishing world where close enough really is good enough.

Thus, while Proust’s mug in the first example is a trifle on the small side by current author photo standards, it would be perfectly acceptable. So would an error in the other direction, as in this bio by the hero of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. (Hey, I’m on a French kick today.)

Admittedly, the LP’s picture is a trifle larger in this example than I would advise using — ideally, the photo should take up between a third and half of the page, and here, LP has opted to allow the visuals to extend considerably lower, as some less animated authors also choose to do. It’s a legitimate choice, certainly, but anybody out there notice the down side?

If you said, “By gum, that looks a whole lot like 157 words, rather than the 250 or so I was hoping to include on my bio,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Heck, give yourself two; they’re small.

Want to see a photo-including one that’s roughly the same length as Aunt Jane’s example above? While we’re at it, let’s assume that it’s the last page of a book proposal, so you may see the requisite slug line in action again:

Ste. Cecile author bio

A pretty great photo for establishing Cecile’s credibility to tell her particular story, isn’t it? Not a whole lot of doubt that we’ve got a virgin martyr here. Yet this picture suffers from a rather serious problem that the Little Prince’s did not — any guesses?

If you said that you couldn’t make out Cecile’s face well enough to pick her out of a crowd — or, more to the point, to be able to pick her out of a crowd at an airport in order to get her to her book signing on time — award yourself a medal. The author is easily recognizable in a good author photo, so avoid shots from thirty feet away. Your face should be clearly visible.

Cecile would be much better off with this bio, even at the expense of a little textual rearrangement to make it fit:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

The different photo shape is fine here — what’s important in this context is that the picture is recognizably Cecile. Why? Not only will this help her future agent pick her out of a police line-up recognize her when they meet at writers’ conferences, but Cecile’s future publishers are going to want to see what she looks like; photogenic authors are only slightly more common than telegenic ones.

So how do you slap that image onto your bio? The same way I did to produce these examples — and the only way, if you intend to e-mail your bio without first running the hard copy through a scanner. Get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, save it to your hard disk, then use copy and paste the image into your author bio document.

If this sounds like far, far too close an intimacy with technology for you, take the photo to a copy center and ask the nice folks behind the counter to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page, so you may pop it into your query or submission packet. For a small fee, they will probably be delighted to produce a stack of snail mail-able hard copies for you.

At the risk of repeating myself, do NOT wait until you need an author photo to have your picture taken. Many, many aspiring writers hold off, assuming (usually wrongly) that their future publishing houses will take care of — and pay for — this detail for them. A last-minute scramble to blandish a talented friend with a camera ensues.

As a direct result, these well-meaning souls almost invariably end up unhappy with the author photos on their respective dust jackets. Or with snapshots taken from thirty feet away. In any case, the results seldom make anyone concerned, even the author, squeal with delight.

Why, the camera-shy gasp? Well, it often takes many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced — or one that will look good in the school photo-size viable for most book jackets. It’s a bit easier now than it was prior to digital photography, of course; now, even an amateur can afford to take 500 snapshots in an endeavor to find the perfect pose.

Yet when dear self is making the decision — and when a poor choice is going to haunt one for the rest of one’s literary life, smirking back at one from jackets, websites, the publishers’ catalogue, and, if you’re lucky, next to you at a packed signing in a major bookstore — believe me, dear self is going to want some time to equivocate.

Seriously, published authors wrestle with this one all the time. That’s one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. It’s not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I’ve been sensing some tentative hand-raising for several paragraphs now. “Um, Anne,” some of you pipe up, “could you explain a bit more about why the reasoning about the publisher’s taking care of the photo is wrong? I always thought they just kept a bunch of professional photographers on staff to handle this sort of thing.”

Oh, honey, no: publishers that have been laying off editorial assistants who worked for the proverbial peanuts seldom have the budget to keep professional photographers on staff. In fact, few publishers ever did. Posed, studio-taken photographs used to be more common on book jackets than they are today, but even those earlier photos were usually not produced in-house. At best, a publisher in the bad old days might cough up the dosh to have a pro snap some pictures, which made perfect sense: since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too, they were the clear beneficiaries.

But in recent years, that practice has become rare, especially for first-time authors. So guess who usually ends up paying for the professional photos you do see?

Uh-huh.

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. Now, the author’s photo is often posted on his website as well, but chances are that that the publisher is still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers, along with quite a bit of book promotion, website construction, and, in some cases, copyediting. Sorry. But if you get your talented friends snapping now, you might just end up with a stellar photo you love at a fraction of the cost of a professional shoot by the time you need it.

I just mention.

All of this, of course, begs the question: even that it can be expensive in terms of both time and money to come up with a photo to accompany your author bio, is it really worth your while to use format #2? As is so often the case with strategic decisions, be they literary, military, or just plain office politics, the answer is: it depends.

If you happen to be outstandingly attractive, yes, it is pretty much always going to be worth your while — and not just because Millicent is shallow. (She isn’t, typically.) These days, the marketing departments at publishing houses actually do want to know if an author is photogenic — and telegenic — if a book is expected to be a big seller.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it to stuff into your post-conference submission packets. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you.

Not in a “My, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “Hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

Please do not take the fact that a nudge to the memory is sometimes necessary as a reflection upon either your book’s market chances, the quality of your writing, or your inherent memorability as a human being. The average agent speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers at a conference. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low, even if you and your book are genuinely scintillating.

This can be true, perversely, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Post-pitch enthusiasm has a nasty habit of fading on the way back to NYC; it must have something to do with the coffee served on the flight back.

Again, sorry. Let’s get back to practicalities.

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking — and here, the standard posed, gently-smiling-under-indirect-light professional shot may actually work against you. So unless your book’s subject matter is very serious indeed, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot.

Why? For the same reason that when you flip back through your yearbook, half of the senior pictures seem more or less interchangeable: just looking nice tends not to be memorable.

You may laugh, but it is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Don’t believe me? Okay, which has more character, the shot at the top of this post or Proust’s static head shot on our first example?

The moral: try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

But unless you are writing something pretty sizzling, you might not want to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Grace a Street Corner, either, if you catch my drift. Glamour shots became kind of popular in the mid-1990s, especially for female authors, but at this point, lenses that seem to have been bedewed with Vaseline make a picture seem dated.

And yes, Virginia, you should worry about what your author photo says about you — and not just because you don’t want your dear old white-headed mother to pick up your novel years from now in Barnes & Noble, clutch her chest, and keel over, wailing over your boudoir shot, “I can’t believe my baby let someone PHOTOGRAPH her like that!”

The author photo is another opportunity to express your personality – which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not, especially if you are marketing a memoir.

Here’s a radical idea, evidently endorsed by Saint Cecile: why not strive to make the tone of the picture match the tone of the book, or have the environment echo the subject matter? You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your book’s topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy.

You want the viewer to focus on your charming face, after all. How else is the president of your fan club going to be able to pick you up at the airport?

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator. Far from being airbrushed and neat, his face was barely visible: he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did it make him look attractive? No, unless the observer happened to be turned on by smoke stains. Did I believe instantly and absolutely that he knew his subject upside-down and backwards? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo.

At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 250 words. Instead of, say, seven volumes.

Okay, not the very last thing: the very last thing you will want to be doing is scrambling through your bottom desk drawer, searching for a picture of yourself that would not make you cringe ten years hence. Keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza, Part II: crossing the bio bridge sooner rather than later, or, let’s face it, the impossible will take a little while

billie

My, but we’ve been spending a hefty proportion of this fall on the potential contents of the query and submission packet, have we not? First Querypalooza, then Synopsispalooza, and now Authorbiopalooza. Why, it’s almost as though I were reluctant to send the dedicated members of the Author! Author! community out into the cold, hard world of manuscript marketing unprepared.

Was that massive wind that just blew my cat sideways a collective gusty sigh from those of you not currently operating under a I-must-have-it-by-Friday deadline for an author bio? “Okay, Anne,” sighers across the English-speaking world groan, “I can understand why I would need to polish my query into professionalism, and I’m grateful for the guidance on the synopsis. But honestly, why should I take the time now to compose a bio no one has yet asked to see? I’m happy that you have a clearly-marked HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list conveniently located on the bottom right-hand side of the page for me to rush to the moment I actually need to write the darned thing, but hey, I’m an exceedingly busy person. Can’t I just, you know, cross the bio bridge if and when I come to it?”

Well, I suppose that you could, sighing groaners, if you were a procrastinating sort. (Not that I believe that you are. I mean, come on — a procrastinating writer? Who has ever met one of those mythical creatures?) But believe me, your life will be substantially easier down the road if you put some thought into at least drafting a bio now.

Why? Well, think about it: if your queries and submissions are successful, it will be a matter of when you will need a bio, not if. Like a well-crafted synopsis for one’s current book project, the author bio is a document that any professional writer of book-length works for the U.S. market is simply expected to be able to produce on demand. Unless you happen to enjoy last-minute scrambling around — which you might, if you are that rara avis, the procrastinating writer — I cannot sufficiently emphasize how good an idea it is to start working on your author bio well in advance of when you will need it.

The sighing groaners are rolling their eyes now, I see. “Well, obviously, it would be nice if I had the time to construct a bio before I need it. Heck, it would have been nice if I’d had a beautifully-crafted query letter just lying around before I worked up nerve to query, or a stellar synopsis lingering on my hard drive before the agent of my dreams asked to see it. But since brownies are apparently not in the habit of dropping by my writing space in the dead of night to provide me with book marketing material, I guess I shall have to — wait for it — cross that bridge when I come to it.”

You’re more than welcome to do as you please, of course, but I would be remiss if I did not reiterate something already familiar to those of you who read your way through yesterday’s long-but-I-hope-entertainingly-persuasive post already know, the necessity of writing an author bio is often sprung upon an aspiring writer our of proverbially clear blue sky. Not in a delightful, playful, hands-over-the-eyes way, but in brusque, business-like manner.

“You’ll have it to me in the morning, right?” requesting agents, editors, and the fine folks who organize literary contests are prone to say. “Or you can just e-mail it to me right now, if you like.”

Some writers never get the resulting lump out of their throats again.

Those of us who have been at the writing game for a while have learned not to voice dismay at this kind of request. Surviving in the ultra-competitive literary environment is just easier for be an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” than the kind who moans and groans over each unreasonable deadline. Or reasonable one, for that matter.

It’s all a matter of mindset — and time management. The energy that you expend in complaining about an outrageous request could be put to good use in trying to meet that deadline, after all. If one thinks about energy expenditure over the course of an entire writing career, it’s clearly more efficient — and substantially less time-consuming overall — to plan ahead, rather than wait until the deadline is already imminent.

In a business where it’s routine for the deadline the writer thought was months away to get moved to next Thursday, as well as for next Thursday’s deadline to shift without warning to the end of November (“But you wouldn’t mind redoing Chapter 6, would you?”), it’s far, far more efficient to start, at least, composing anything that you know you’ll have to submit eventually. Believe me, you’ll want the time that you had planned to spend pulling a panicked all-nighter for other things.

For revising Chapter 6, for instance. Possibly in a panicked all-nighter.

Hey, tight deadlines are just a fact of a working writer’s life. The most annoying part, typically, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in your best interest to squander energy in resenting it. Trust me, the agent of your dreams will want you to embrace the axiom the late great Billie Holiday so often sang:

The difficult
I’ll do right now.
The impossible
will take a little while.

Will it vitiate my moral too much if I add that the name of the song was “Crazy, He Calls Me”? Or will you simply assume that Billie must have spent a lot of time hanging out at my agency?

Seriously, though, writing a compelling author bio is not something that most writers can toss off in an afternoon, especially if they haven’t thought about it before — or if, as we discussed last time, they aren’t altogether sure what in their respective backgrounds would be of interest to an agent, editor, or even the general reading public. Which is why, if memory serves, I spent yesterday encouraging you to put together an author bio for yourself as soon as possible, against the day that you might need to produce one, immediately and apparently effortlessly, in response to a request from an agent or editor.

And a good two-thirds of you groaned audibly. Don’t think I didn’t hear you.

I know, I know: we writers are expected to produce a lot on spec; it would be nice, especially for a fiction writer, to be able to wait to write something affiliated with one’s first book after an advance was already cooling its little green heels in one’s bank account. But, again, when that happy day comes, you may not have the time. At that point, you’ll be asked to write more for your publisher’s marketing department, a whole lot more –heck, if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be asked write the rest of the book you proposed — so you’ll be ecstatic to have even one task already checked off the list.

And yes, I am going to say it again: it would behoove you to get the bio out of the way now.

Even if juggling the demands of your publishers’ many departments seems impossibly far away to you, think of bio-writing as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Not only the bio itself, although it’s certainly delightful to have one on hand when the time comes, but the highly specialized skills involved in writing one.

You’d be surprised at how often just knowing in your heart that you already have the skills to write this kind of professional document can be marvelously comforting. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply, passionately grateful that I have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite marketing materials with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. It’s definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work (and my clients’) over the last decade or so.

Frankly, at this point, I can make it sound as if all of human history had been leading exclusively and inevitably to my acquiring the knowledge, background, and research materials for me to write the project in question. Any project. The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

Which book, you ask, since I have several in progress? Well, which one would you like to acquire for your publishing house, Mr. or Ms. Editor?

Another reason to start penning the thing well in advance of when you need it (and had I mentioned that you absolutely will need it, if your writing career is even moderately successful) is that it will give you time to experiment with how you would like to present yourself to the literary world — and to your future fans. And I’m not merely talking about the many, many tries it takes most of us to come up with an author photo we like enough to want to see on a dust jacket.

Oh, didn’t you know that you should be starting to work on that, too? Publishing houses almost never pay for photo sessions for first-time authors anymore; in the age of digital photography, it’s not at all unusual for a friend’s snapshot to end up on a book cover. Do you honestly want to bet that your best friend who has been dabbling in photography for the past couple of years is going to catch the real you on the first try?

But the author photo is not the only part of the author bio page (yes, many do include photos; we’ll be getting to that in a couple of days) that shows readers who you are — or, more important at the querying and submission stage, shows your future agent or editor what you’re like. And I’m not just talking about the startling revelation that you are an amateur pigeon-racer, either.

I’m talking about you as a writer. As those of you who have been following the pageant of ‘Paloozas will probably not be entirely astonished to hear, your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is a writing sample. The bio is also a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to show what a fine storyteller you are.

This is true in spades for nonfiction book proposals, by the way, where the proposer is expected to use her writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. Contrary to popular opinion (including, I was surprised to learn recently, my agent’s — I seem to be talking about him a lot today, don’t I? — but I may have misunderstood him), the formula for a nonfiction proposal is not

good idea + platform = marketable proposal

regardless of the quality of the writing, or even the ever-popular recipe

Take one (1) good idea and combine with platform; stir until well blended. Add one talented writer (interchangeable; you can pick ‘em up cheaply anywhere) and stir.

Well might you snort in disbelief. Just as which justice authors a Supreme Court decision affects how a ruling is passed down to posterity, the authorship of a good book proposal matters. Or should, because unlike novels, which are marketed only when already written (unless it’s part of a multi-book deal), nonfiction books exist only in the mind of the author until they are written.

That’s why it’s called a proposal, and that’s why it includes an annotated table of contents: it is giving a picture of the book that already exists in the author’s mind.

For those of you who don’t already know, book proposals — the good ones, anyway — are written as if the book being proposed were already written; synopses, even for novels, are written in the present tense. It is your time to depict the book you want to write as you envision it in your fondest dreams.

Since what the senior President Bush used to call the vision thing is thus awfully important to any book, particularly a nonfiction one, the author bio that introduces the writer to the agents and editors who might buy the book is equally important. Why? Well, think about it: the author bio is the stand-in for the face-to-face interview for the job you would like a publisher to hire you to do: write a book for them.

The less of your writing they have in front of them when they are making that hiring decision — which, again, is usually an entire book in the case of a novel, but only a proposal and a sample chapter for nonfiction, even for memoir — the more they have to rely upon each and every sentence that’s there, obviously. Do you really want the words that describe your background to be ones that you wrote in 45 minutes in the dead of night so you could get your submission into the mail before you had to be at work in the morning?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you don’t. In fact, the very notion should make you break out in a cold sweat.

Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good. Then you are in the perfect mindset for your homework assignment: start thinking about all of the reasons you — yes, you — are far more interesting than anyone else on the planet.

I’m not talking about boasting, mind you; I’m talking about uniqueness. To put it another way, what makes you different from anyone else who might have written the book you are trying to sell?

And your mind went directly to writing credentials, didn’t it, even after yesterday’s lecture on the subject? Yet another reason that writing a compelling author bio usually takes a while: it’s not always self-evident to the writer what will or will not be memorable in a bio.

So don’t think about that for the moment. Just make a brief list of the most interesting things about yourself without worrying about how, or even whether, these things have any direct connection to the subject matter of the book you’re writing or don’t sound like very impressive credentials. Just get ready to tell me — and the world! — how precisely you are different from everybody else currently scurrying across the face of the planet.

Don’t tell me that you’re not. I shan’t believe it.

“Aw,” the former sighers and groaners say bashfully, scuffing their shoes on the floor, “you’re just saying that to give me confidence. What makes you so sure that I’m so gosh-darned interesting?”

Actually, I can answer that one right off the top of my head, scuffers: I know, as surely as if I could stand next to one or more of the muses and take an in-depth reading of each and every one of your psyches, that there is no one out there more truly interesting than someone who has devoted her or his life to the pursuit of self-expression. I’ve met writers I didn’t like, certainly, but I’ve never met a genuinely boring one.

Which is saying something, as I’ve certainly met plenty of writers more than eager to talk at length about book projects that made me long for the sweet embrace of sleep. If not death. But as people, even the ones with stultifying plotlines tend to be pretty interesting.

Let me guess, though: you think that you’re the exception. “But Anne, I’ve always heard that agents just laugh at non-writing credentials in a query letter or bio. People say that if you don’t have articles or an MFA, you should just shut up.”

That gust of wind you just heard was I sighing this time. As long-time Author! Author! devotées are no doubt already aware, I have mixed feelings about the utility of much of the traditional old chestnuts. I often advise all of you dear folks to take the usual old writing truisms with a massive grain of salt.

Write what you know, for instance, has been radically over-used, and not always to good effect. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Or that although the real-life story was about a girl, both she and Perkins thought the book would sell better if it were about a boy?

Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor. She approached editorial critique with a can-do attitude, you see. The impossible will take a little while.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into an editor who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today — other than the obvious reason that the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you?

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey: if your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed during Querypalooza (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your personal quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the logistics out of the way. An author bio should:

(1) be written the third person, not the first.

(2) Open with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with the extremely old-fashioned The author was born…

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Bring up any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it. (I’m looking at you, Marjorie.)

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

#6, at least, should sound bit familiar. In case it doesn’t (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 – 1 full page (double-spaced) in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some conscientious rule-followers murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rules lawyers: this is indeed the rare exception to the general axiom. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio. Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author.

“Wait!” the camera-shy shout. “Does that when mean I could dispense with the photo altogether?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it: unless an agent, editor, or contest rules specifically request a photo, a bio doesn’t necessarily need one. A query bio seldom does, but as always, check submission guidelines carefully: the expectations vary from agency to agency.

You also might want to check out the bios of first-time authors in your book category. Like pretty much everything else in a query or submission packet, the tone and parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable content in an author bio vary by book category.

So before you launch into writing your own bio, you might want to slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at recent releases in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours. If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two fabulous examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an amazing job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting. REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of past publications?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us creative types are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left that juicy tidbit out of his bio? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.

So I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong signal about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio, well, less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. Because like so many other things worth doing, writing a good author bio isn’t something that should be done at the very last minute — or the very last hour.

Like the impossible, it will take a little while. Keep up the good work!

Just when you thought we were ‘Paloozaed-out, here comes Authorbiopalooza!

tickertape parade

Okay, so maybe the masses aren’t rejoicing to quite this extent. But back in the heady days of Querypalooza, a number of you fine people asked for a similar fiesta devoted to preparing for that usually unexpected request, the author bio. And since many, many more of you did not raise violent objection when I suggested I might take a run at it this fall, it’s been on my agenda.

Actually, I’ve moved it up on my agenda — and not only because my annual quick perusal of a few hundred agency websites (oh, you thought I didn’t check how submission guidelines change between my yearly querying series?) revealed that a higher percentage of query packets are expected to contain something bio-like than in times past. I had intended to devote an intervening week or so to close textual analysis of more winners in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — I haven’t forgotten about you, third-placers! — now that we’ve had a few refreshing, synopsis-filled weeks to catch our breath and get excited about craft issues again. However, that’s the kind of post that requires an upbeat attitude to write well, and since I had yet another crash-related health setback this week, I probably won’t be my trademarked chipper self for another week or so.

Don’t ask. Just pile up more pillows on the bed and hope for the best.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Specifically, about how you’re going to portray yourself in your author bio.

And half of you just tensed up, worried that you might not have enough professional credentials to render you interesting to an agent or editor, didn’t you? I recognize the symptoms: the same proportion of my readership drew in its collective breath sharply when I first broached the issue of composing the credentials paragraph for your query letters.

Back then, the whimpering ran a little something like this: “But Anne, this is my first book! I don’t come from a magazine or newspaper background, so I don’t have previous publications to cite. Therefore, nothing I could possibly say about myself has any potential whatsoever for impressing Millicent the agency screener. Hadn’t I better just avoid saying anything autobiographical at all?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOO. Why? Well, in the first place, it’s a myth that the only personal information worth noting in a query letter or author bio is previous publications. They help, obviously, but they certainly aren’t the only things a potential agent or editor might want to know about you.

It’s actually kind of surprising how pervasive that myth is, given the glaring logical fallacy it contains. Think about it: for it to be true, all agents would have to (a) prefer previously-published authors to the exclusion of all others, (b) not understand that even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, and/or (c) be unaware that writers occasionally draw upon life experience to construct their narratives. Obviously, selling memoir would be more or less impossible if (c) were true — and as any of you who have read an interview with an established author recently, disregarding life experience would render many novels harder to market as well.

But let’s zero in on the core of the concern: agencies that harbor the (a) prejudice will come right out and say prefers to represent previously published writers or obtains most clients through recommendations from others in their agency guide listings and websites; if neither states that up front, it’s safe to assume that while writing credentials might help your query get through the door, they’re not required for admission.

Why? Because even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, silly. (You might have seen that one coming, after (b), right?) While first books typically make up only about 4% of the literary market in any given year — yes, really — in the current tight market, it can actually be easier for an agent to sell an editor on a new writer with an exciting (read: easy-to-publicize) bio than on an author whose first two books did not sell well.

So it would be financially misguided for an agency that did not adhere to (a) to instruct its Millicents to rule out any query or bio that did not list past publications. Yes, even for fiction. Platform matters these days, of course — in the current tight book market, any selling point is bound to help — but contrary to popular believe among aspiring writers, platform need not consist solely of previous publications and/or celebrity in a non-writing field.

Even a cursory peek at the dust jackets of any randomly-selected group of new releases will demonstrate otherwise. Dust jacket bios virtually always contain non-publication information, for the exceedingly simple reason that it might interest a potential reader in the person who wrote the book.

Which is, incidentally, one of the reasons agency guidelines ask aspiring writers to include biographical info in their queries and/or a bio in their query or submission packets. Not only are they curious about what you’re like — they want to know if there’s anything in your background that would make a publishing house’s marketing department swoon with joy.

“Hey!” the marketers shout, linking arms to engage in raucous dancing. “This new writer is going to be a terrific interview on a subject other than his book! How often does that happen?”

Still not convinced that it might be in your best interests to make yourself sound like an interesting person, one who perhaps has at some point in the course of a lifetime done something other than sit hunched in front of a computer, typing feverishly? Okay, I’ll pull out the big gun, argumentatively speaking: (d) for non-publication credentials not to matter, agents whose submission guidelines or requested materials letters ask for biographical information couldn’t possibly mean their requests.

Which would be a trifle strange, considering how many query guidelines include tell us something about yourself or similar verbiage. And it would render all of those requests for query or submission packets to include an author bio downright bizarre.

That being the case, why would a savvy querier or submitter even consider not providing them with this information?

Does this sound vaguely familiar to those of you who followed Querypalooza and/or Synopsispalooza? It should: for the last — yow, has it been a month and a half already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Throughout that worthy endeavor, I have mentioned early and often that the guiding principle of constructing a query packet, submission packet, or contest entry is give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less. If an agency’s submission guidelines say to query with a synopsis, the first five pages, and an author bio, that’s precisely what the savvy querier’s envelope should contain, along with a SASE. By the same token, if an agent responds to a query with a request for the first 50 pages, the submission packet should contain a cover letter, the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-laden enough to get the whole shebang back to you.

That’s it. No home-baked cookies, even if you’re marketing a cookbook; no synopses for the other five manuscripts lying dormant in your desk drawer, and certainly no page 51. Remember, part of what you’re demonstrating in a query or submission packet is that you are that surprisingly rare aspiring writer capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Thus, as a clever between-the-lines reader might have already figured out, if an agency’s guidelines specify that they want to see a bio paragraph in your query or an author bio in your query or submission packet, it would behoove you to put ‘em there. Ditto if a request for pages asks for a bio.

All that being said, my next piece of advice may come as a bit of a surprise: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages in a submission packet. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if an agent asks to see even as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Oh, if you could see your faces; did Frankenstein’s monster just walk into the room? “But Anne,” you shriek in horror, ducking swiftly behind the nearest large piece of furniture, “that might look as though I (pause here for hyperventilation) were disregarding the submission guidelines! Why in heaven’s name would I take a risk like that?”

Good question, panicky ones. Try breathing into a paper bag while I answer it.

Quite simply, it’s such a common professional practice that it’s unlikely to raise any eyebrows. When an agent circulates a novel to editors, it’s generally with an author bio as the bottom page in the stack; it’s also the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than an amateur’s attempt to slip additional information in under the wire.

Just between us, though: if some additional information might slip under the wire this way, is that such a bad thing?

Before those of you who currently have requested materials floating around agencies or small publishing houses begin to freak out, I hasten to add: including an author bio in a submission packet is most emphatically not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, though, they are asking — even at the querying stage, which would have been unheard-of just a few years ago. Now, agents routinely request author bios with submissions, especially for nonfiction, agents will often want to know up front who this writer is, what s/he does for a living, and what else s/he’s writing.

That set some of you hyperventilating again, didn’t it? Relax — you can do this.

Soothingly, author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, eh? Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because twos things about the author bio have changed in recent years. First, the author is now expected to write it, rather than the publisher’s marketing department. (Although they may well tweak it.) Second, the author needs to provide it increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Well, I don’t want to disturb your plans for the weekend, but do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Come out from behind that large piece of furniture; the monster can see you perfectly well back there. Procrastinating about this particular professional obligation won’t make it go away.

Besides, you knew this day was coming — or that it would once you successfully sold a book, right? Although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it can hardly come as a surprise that you’d have to come up with one eventually. Any of you who has ever read a hardcover book with a dust jacket must have at least suspected that your bio was somehow relevant to the process, right?

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” those of you on your way out the door to mail requested materials whimper, “I’m aware that I’m going to need to construct one sometime, but need it be this very second? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until, say, somebody in authority actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could get away with doing just that. It wouldn’t be the wisest course, however.

Why? Well, writing an eye-catching author bio isn’t easy; just as it’s much less stress-inducing for an aspiring writer to cobble together a synopsis almost anytime other than immediately after an agent or editor has asked her to produce one, tossing together an author bio when you’re frantically trying to proofread your novel at 3 AM and figure out how much postage to slap on your SASE for its safe return is quite a bit more challenging than, say, devoting a free afternoon to the task three months before you’re planning to query at all.

I just mention. The results also tend to be — if not better, than at least of a quality that would not make the writer cringe should a shortened version ever turn up on a dust jacket to linger there until the end of recorded time. (Or longer, perhaps: most of the end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve seen have paper and cockroaches as the happiest survivors of nuclear activity.)

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air, despite the potential for attracting roving monsters’ attention. “Shortened version?” the confused shout in unison. “Wait, isn’t the author bio identical to that 50-word paragraph I’ve been seeing for years inside the back flap of book covers, a belief apparently corroborated by your crack above about how we all should have expected to have to write one eventually?”

Touché on that last point, and it’s a good question in general: many, if not most, aspiring writers simply assume that what they see in print is precisely what the publishing industry expects to receive. But just as a professionally-formatted manuscript does not resemble a published book in many respects — and if that’s news to you, hang on: there’s a Formatpalooza in our collective future — the kind of author bio appropriate to the query or submission stage differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. The standard in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, one double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (And yes, Virginia, I shall be inundating you with concrete examples of both later in this series. How can you even doubt?)

“Um, Anne?” the time-pressed pipe up again. “That sounds as though you’re about to ask me to rattle off my selling points as an author, and, as we discussed back in Querypalooza, I don’t feel that my credentials are all that impressive. Besides, it’s awfully difficult many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents. I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only might need if one of those agents asks to see the book — and asks to see a bio?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries well before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry slows W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions from those of you who do not happen to be U.S. citizens: I do mean after January 27th, 2011.

Why wait so long, you howl in frustration? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors.

Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together his tax information?

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you really want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks, so her February is not nearly so hectic as her January. But for those resolution-fueled few weeks, she’s not likely to be an exceptionally good mood, if you catch my drift.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that the foregoing could have been summarized quite adequately as, “Start getting those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself. Ideally, sometime really, really soon, even if you are not planning to query an agency that asks for a bio up front.

Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For some very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is focused upon other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: the one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yes, yes, I know: over the years — and frequently throughout the course of Query- and Synopsispalooza — I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask, cynicism hardening your comely eyes? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened more than once. Heck, it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, my background is pretty unusual (and detailed, conveniently enough, in my bio, if you’re interested). My cult of personality aside, a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is precisely what most aspiring writers facing a bio request do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between devoting 20 minutes to dashing off a synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the manuscript — or, heaven help us, the writer — also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that she should know best; if she can’t write about that lucidly, how can she write well about anything else?

That made you dive behind the sofa again, didn’t it? Sad but true, Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based solely upon the evidence on paper in front of them. If only a writer had any control over how they might perceive her personally…

Oh, wait, she does: she can write her bio so she comes across as fascinating.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. That’s important, because — chant it with me now, long-time readers – “What’s your platform?” is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask a NF writer.

Think about it: your platform consists of the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed at length when you were thinking about the credentials paragraph of your query letter. For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

“Hey, Anne,” some of you ask suspiciously, clutching your paper bags and keeping an eye out for any monsters who might be about to jump out at you, “why was that last bit in boldface? I’m a novelist, so I was preparing to zone out on that bit about platform, but the amount of ink in the type makes me wonder if I should be internalizing a lesson here.”

Well reasoned, paranoid novelists: just as the author bio is an alternate venue for the NF writer to demonstrate his platform, the bio provides Millicent similar information about a novelist.

Aren’t those of you fiction writers tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge glad that you already had your hyperventilation bags in hand? “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

If this comes as a nasty surprise to you, you’re not alone. The tendency to assume that someone else will take care of the bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is most assuredly not the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s post, absorb this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: if you want to gain practice in being an agent’s dream client, train yourself not to equivocate whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work. Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week is.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, post a comment here to inquire. That’s what Author! Author! is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent in your bio so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer can’t list in an author bio. A bio is not a self-praise session, after all: it’s a collection of facts, organized to make it clear to Millicent that you are either extremely credible, personally fascinating, the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, or, ideally, all of the above.

And no, you may not simply tell her any of those things directly. Self-aggrandizing statements look pretty silly on the page, after all. See for yourself:

Bart Smedley is a consummate professional writer. He’s up every day at 4:30 AM, hard at his writing. Instead of taking the lunch hour most ordinary mortals do, he hies himself to the local library to read past issues of Publishers Weekly, in order to understand his future agent’s lot better. An undeniably wonderful human being, Bart is a delight to know, funny, insightful, and personable. Also, he is physically attractive: he is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Admit it: you’d laugh if you were Millicent. To most people in positions to bring your work to publication, self-praise regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Again, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others. They are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel, though, that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before in this forum, is demonstrated in many ways. Via manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times. Also to have a paper bag and monster-repellant spray handy.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences? Or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer after perhaps 7 seconds?

And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium. Or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to relax.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration — or momentary hesitation — for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush. Go ahead and become one with those shoes.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us who live out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks. Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt by light provided by a squirrel-run generator. Or so I surmise from his tone.

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes. Not entirely coincidentally, I shall be spending the next week of posts on helping that happen.

And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. Oh, and six AA batteries on rye for the monster lurking in the background. In a paper bag, if you please, so we’ll be prepared for any contingency.

We’ve got to build up our energy for some hardcore bio-writing, after all. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: while I’m in nagging mode, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? If you can’t remember, wouldn’t now be an excellent time to rectify that?

Synopsispalooza, Part XVI: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

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hamlet ghost drawing5hamlet ghost drawing6

So far in this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza series — or, as they’ve been calling it chez Mini, “your insanely time-consuming weekend of synopsis examples” — we have taken a gander at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a novel and 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a memoir. This morning, as promised, I shall be showing you several different versions — and different types of platform — for a nonfiction book. Or rather, to keep the examples interesting, for several different kinds of nonfiction book.

Why mix it up more this time than in the previous posts? Well, there are quite a few kinds of nonfiction book: what might work beautifully in a synopsis for, say, a journal’s account of a sensational murder case might not present a historical analysis of the same case nearly as well.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s return to our by-now-familiar example and compare how a synopsis for a true crime version of Hamlet by a writer with a journalistic background would differ from how a historian would present his case for a book on the Elsinore murders. Beginning with the journalist:

Hamlet true crime synopsis

Ace journalist Walter Winchell certainly makes the his take on the well-worn Hamlet story sound like a grabber, doesn’t he? A fresh take on a demonstrably popular subject is always popular with Millicent the agency screener. Wisely, Mssr. Winchell also makes it quite plain what kind of evidence he has to offer in support of his challenge to the prevailing wisdom on the subject.

But you don’t need to take my word for this being a winning synopsis. We’ve already established criteria for success in a nonfiction synopsis of any length, right? To recap, a nonfiction synopsis that’s not for a memoir should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;

(3) mention who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject, if applicable;

(4) give some indication of how the writer intends to prove the case, showing the argument in some detail;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

Actually, those are the goals of a longer synopsis — say, 3-5 pages — but Mssr. Winchell has managed to hit most of these points in a single page. (Well done, Walt!) Fringe benefit: since he has embraced our earlier premise that a good nonfiction synopsis is a miniaturized book proposal, all he would need to do in order to lengthen this 1-page wonder into a longer synopsis, should he need one, would be to add more specifics and beef up his credentials as the obvious person to break this exciting story.

Let’s take a peek at a synopsis for straightforward historical account of the famous murders. To make the task a trifle more challenging, let’s remove the conceit of present-day headline value.

Hamlet as history synopsis

Doesn’t sound as though it has nearly as large a target audience as the first version, does it? That’s not necessarily a drawback in a nonfiction synopsis, by the way: in this case, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the book’s probable appeal. The Mad Prince of Denmark is not, after all, likely to be a natural for Oprah.

Appropriately, then, everything in this synopsis is geared to the readers most likely to be interested in this book: the academic tone, the intensive level of proof in the argument, the largely theoretical stakes all proclaim a college-educated audience. Yes, college-educated readers interested in tracing the historical and literary background of centuries-old plays is a niche market, but as any Millicent working at a history-representing agency would be aware, it’s a readership that buys a heck of a lot of books. No reason for Herodotus to risk compromising his credibility, then, by claiming the potential audience implied in — wait for it — “It’s a natural for Oprah!”

I bring this up advisedly: all too frequently, nonfiction writers turn Millicent off by pretending (or even just implying) on the query or synopsis page that their target audiences are much, much larger than they actually are. This is a strategic mistake, one that’s likely to get a synopsis rejected on sight.

Seriously, agents who habitually sell manuscripts in your book category have a very clear sense of how big the general audience for that type of book is. While including demographic statistics for the specific target market for the specific subject matter of your tome is a good idea — as we discussed earlier in this series, Millicent may not be aware of just how many drive-in movie enthusiasts are out there; if your book happens to be about drive-in theatres, you might want to mention the size of the Drive-in Fan Club — exaggerated general claims are extremely unlikely to convince a professional reader that your book is marketable.

So kudos to Herodotus for being savvy enough not to claim that every English teacher in America will rush to buy this book!. Instead, he stuck with the much more believable assertion that pretty much anyone who stumbled upon his volume in a bookstore would be at least vaguely familiar with the story of HAMLET.

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

Yes, readers who have had their hands in the air since the top of the second example? “But Anne,” the sharp-eyed point out, “the formatting of the title is different for these two synopses. In the first, the subtitle has its own dedicated double-spaced line, but in the second, both title and subtitle are on the first line of the page. What gives?”

Well caught, patient hand-raisers. Either version is correct in a nonfiction synopsis. Generally speaking, longer subtitles tend to have their own lines, but unless either the title or subtitle is so long that it would be impossible to contain both on a single line, the choice is up to the writer.

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

Oh, and you know how I keep urging all of you to read every syllable of your synopses IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, rather than merely relying upon your word processing program’s spell- and grammar-checker, and to double-check that all proper names are spelled correctly? That last example provides an excellent reason to follow this advice religiously: because I was tired, I didn’t notice until after I posted the original version of this synopsis that Word’s spellchecker had changed Gesta Danorum to — I kid you not — Gestapo Decorum.

Which, while it would be a great title for a history about manners during the Second World War, was not what I meant. Thank goodness I did a dramatic reading of all of today’s examples at the brunch table, eh?

Just for fun, let’s take a peek at how a psychologist might synopsize the same basic story. Note how cleverly Dr. Welby works in his credentials.

Hamlet self-help synopsis

It’s fascinating how different these three takes on the same story are, isn’t it? From Millicent’s perspective, although they all draw on the same source material, each makes a beeline for its own book category.

And that’s how it should be. Signing off for now…

Still more hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” those of you who believe that I don’t have anything else to do this weekend point out, “for both the novel and memoir synopses, you showed not just a 1-page version, but 3- and 5-page renditions as well. So where are the extensions of these, huh? Huh?”

Well, first, you might want to do something about that aggression you have going there; perhaps Dr. Welby’s self-help book could offer a few suggestions. I’m aware that there’s a common Internet-based assumption that every answer to any given searcher’s question should be instantly available on a single webpage — or, in this case, a single blog post — but as is so often the case, complex reality isn’t easily compressible into just a few hundred words.

That’s particularly true in this case — and for reasons that should be apparent to anyone in the throes of constructing a book proposal. While, as I mentioned above, expanding any of these 1-page synopses could be achieved by the simple expedients of beefing up the writer’s platform, adding statistics to back up claims about the target readership and the book’s importance to that readership (although Dr. Welby has already done an excellent job of demonstrating both), and telling more of Hamlet’s story as it relates to their respective arguments, my blowing up the first two of these useful text-bolsterers in order to fill the larger space allotment would involve my just making up background for the authors.

Fictional platform does not carry much example value, in my experience. Nor do made-up statistics, although since I did some actual research to construct the examples above, much of the content of the second and third examples is true. (Don’t quote it in your term papers, though, children: do your own archive-diving.) So while it would be amusing to expand these three examples — especially the first — the exercise probably would not help all of you nonfiction synopsis-writers a great deal. Sorry about that, truth-tellers.

In this evening’s post, I shall be tackling the ever-burning issue of how to write a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XV: alas, poor Yorick; I knew him in his 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions

hamlet and yorick

Is everyone excited about this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza schedule, or, as I like to think of it, the Saturday and Sunday of Synopses? In this morning’s post, I provided you with concrete examples of 5-, 3-, 2-, and 1-page synopses for the same story, so you might see the different level of detail expected in each, as well as how the content selection and tone might be varied to fit the story into a couple of other book categories.

To that noble end, I borrowed from a story most of you were likely to know, a little number called THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, by an up-and-coming writer named William Shakespeare. This evening, I am going to use that same storyline to come up with examples of 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for memoir.

Hey, if you weren’t familiar with it before this morning’s post, you’ve certainly seen enough versions of it to be conversant with it now, right?

Why go over memoir synopses in their own post, since a savvy memoirist could use the same storytelling techniques as a novelist does to shape a compelling narrative? (For some tips on how to pull that off, please see my previous Synopsispalooza post on the subject.) Several reasons, actually.

First, as I mentioned in this morning’s post, the vast majority of aspiring writers in general — and, it’s safe to conclude, first-time memoirists in particular — have never seen a professional synopsis for their type of book. As, indeed, I surmised from plaintive-yet-practical questions like the following, posted by intrepid memoirist Pamela Jane on an earlier Synopsispalooza installment:

Is there any place where we can view an successful memoir synopsis? That would be wonderfully helpful.

As an experienced writing teacher, I make bold to interpret requests like this as an indication that I might not have been generating enough practical examples of late. Surely, that alone would make for an excellent second reason to devote an entire post to making up the shortfall. (And don’t worry, nonfiction-synopsizers who do not write memoir: I shall be churning out concrete examples for you tomorrow a.m.)

Third, and perhaps most important for instructive purposes, while memoir synopses share basic formatting and goals with novel synopses — chant them with me now, campers: any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format, and the primary purpose of a query or submission synopsis is not to summarize the book so well that every question is answered, but to prompt Millicent the agency screener to ask to see the manuscript — there are some essential differences. To name but three:

(1) A memoir synopsis should be written in the past tense, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the present tense.

(2) A memoir synopsis should be written in the first person singular, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the book.

(3) A memoir synopsis should tell the story of the book in standard manuscript format, without special formatting for the introduction of new characters, whereas a novel synopsis should alert the reader to the first appearance of a character (but only the first) by presenting his name in all capital letters, preferably followed by his age in parentheses.

I suspect that none of those will come as a complete surprise to any of you memoirists out there, but as I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve covered #3 explicitly in a previous Synopsispalooza posts (hey, cut me some slack — do you have any idea how many pages of text it has already run?), let’s talk about it now. Although the capitalization convention is specific to fiction, Millicents (and their contest-judging aunts, Mehitabels) do frequently see memoir synopses with characters introduced as JOAN OF ARC (19). Heck, they occasionally break open submission envelopes to encounter memoirists introducing themselves as I, ARNETTE (7 at the beginning of the story).

That’s neither necessary nor expected in a memoir synopsis. Thus, while a memoir synopsis would mention that Milton Sedgwick sat next to me in my first-grade class. Evidently, he intended to major in yanking my pigtails, a novel synopsis might herald ol’ Milton’s advent in the story with MILTON SEDGWICK (6) devoted our first-grade year to yanking Janelle’s pigtails.

Yes, yes, I know: some of you have probably heard otherwise, but having sold a couple of memoirs, I know whereat I speak. Trust me, both Millicent and Mehitabel may be relied upon to understand that the perpendicular pronoun appearing frequently throughout the memoir synopsis refers to the author/protagonist; neither is at all likely to confuse you with your constantly-weeping track coach or your sociopathic sister just because you haven’t capitalized their names on the synopsis page.

Everybody clear on that? Please chime in with questions, if not; I would hate to have Millicent or Mehitabel perplexed by a half-capitalized set of characters on the synopsis page.

The fourth reason — yes, I’m still justifying, thanks — is the first cousin the first: since very few aspiring writers ever get a chance to take a peek at a professionally-formatted synopsis, some of you might not be aware that under no circumstances should a synopsis of any length be in business format. Or, to put it in terms every user of e-mail can understand, unless an agency’s guidelines, requested materials letter, or contest’s rules specifically ask you to include your synopsis in the body of an e-mail, a synopsis should NEVER be single-spaced, devoid of indentation at the beginning each paragraph, block-justified (i.e., with straight margins on both the left and right sides of the page), or contain a skipped line between paragraphs.

Again, is everybody clear on why that is the case? Not all aspiring writers are: Millicent and Mehitabel shake their heads on a daily basis at synopses formatted as though the writer were unaware (as is, indeed, often the case) that indenting paragraphs is not optional in English prose. Save the non-indented paragraphs and single-spacing for business letters and e-mail, where such barbaric practices belong.

Don’t you tell me that a query letter is a business letter. Part of presenting yourself professional entails adhering to the formatting standards of the industry you are seeking to join. Believe me, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses think of their business as exceptional.

So what should a properly-formatted memoir synopsis look like, whether it will be gracing a query packet, livening up a submission packet, or increasing your chances of winning in a contest entry? A little something like this 5-page synopsis for HAMLET — written, for your educational pleasure, from the melancholy Dane’s own point of view. (As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key while pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Hamlet memoir 5.1a

Hamlet memoir 5.2

Hamlet memoir 5.3

Hamlet memoir 5.4

Hamlet memoir 5.5

See how easy it would be for Millicent to tell from a quick glance at the first couple of lines that this is a synopsis for a memoir, not a novel? Or for Mehitabel to notice that an entry in the memoir category of her contest had accidentally ended up in the fiction category pile?

While we’re straining our eyeballs, trying to read like these two worthy souls, did anyone catch the gaffe on page 4? (Hint: it’s in the first line of the third full paragraph.)

Spot it now? To Millicent or Mehitabel, it would be fairly obvious what happened here: this synopsis was originally written as if it were for a novel, in the present tense. In the rush to change it over to the proper presentation for a memoir — possibly because the writer had only just learned that the past tense was proper for memoir synopses — one verb got missed.

And what’s the best preventative for that kind of Millicent-annoyer, campers? That’s right: reading your synopsis IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button.

As you may see, a 5-page synopsis (or the rare one that’s even longer) permits the memoirist to tell his story in some fairly complete detail. Like the novel synopsizer, he’s usually better off describing individual scenes within the story than simply trying to summarize huge chunks of activity within just a few quick sentences.

The same principle applies to the 3- or 4-page synopsis. Obviously, though, since there’s less room, Hamlet can describe fewer scenes:
Hamlet memoir 3.1

Hamlet memoir 3.2

Hamlet memoir 3.3

Admittedly, there are a few more summary statements here — the first paragraph contains a couple of lulus — but for the most part, this synopsis is still primarily made up of descriptions of scenes, not just hasty summaries of activity. Cause and effect remain clear. Notice, too, that the sentence structure varies throughout: none of the repetitive X happened and Y happened and Z happened that dog the average mid-length synopsis here.

As we saw in this morning’s post, quite a different strategy is required to pull off the dreaded 1-page synopsis. Here, our boy is going to have to rely pretty heavily on summary statements — but that does not mean specificity need be abandoned altogether.

Hamlet memoir 1 page

Still a pretty gripping yarn, isn’t it? That’s because Hamlet managed to retain the essential story arc, even when forced by length restrictions to jettison most of the scenes upon which his longer synopses rested.

If you’re still having trouble either seeing the difference between these levels of detail and/or are having trouble translating from theory into practice, don’t start out trying to synopsize your own book. Pick a story you know very well and try writing 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions of it. Repeat as often as necessary until you get the hang of it, then go back to your own opus.

Hey, writing a synopsis is a learned skill. What made you think you would be good at it without some practice?

Why start with somebody else’s book, you ask? If you’re not close to the story, it’s often easier to catch its essence — and that goes double if your story actually is your story.

Remember, the key to writing a great memoir synopsis of any length is to treat yourself as the most interesting character in the most interesting story in the world. Tell that story — but don’t leave either why you are fascinating or why your situation is compelling to Millicent or Mehitabel’s imagination. Make sure both show up on the page.

Hey, if Hamlet can compellingly retell the five-hour play of his life in 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions, so can you. Join me tomorrow for some nonfiction synopsis examples, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XIV: to be or not to be — 1, 3, or 5 pages

olivier hamlet

Welcome to this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza offerings. For those of you who missed yesterday evening’s teaser, I shall be posting twice per day this weekend (at roughly 10:30 am and 7:30 pm Pacific time) in order to cram as many practical examples of solid synopses of various lengths in front of my readers’ astonished eyes.

Why go to such great lengths? Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but my bet is that most of you have never seen a professional synopsis before, other than the few fleeting glimpses I’ve given you throughout Synopsispalooza. So while I’ve given you formatting examples, a few 1-pagers, counterexamples, and a whole lot of guidelines, some of you may still be having difficulty picturing the target at which you are shooting.

Amazing how often that’s the case with the pieces of paper commonly tucked into a query or submission packet, isn’t it? The overwhelming majority of queriers have never seen a successful query; a hefty proportion of synopsizers have never clapped eyes upon a professionally-written synopsis; herds and herds of submitters have never been within half a mile of a manuscript in standard format, and a vast multitude of newly-signed writers have absolutely no idea even how to begin to organize an author bio on the page.

And some people wonder why I keep blogging on the basics. I’m not a big fan of guess what color I’m thinking submission standards.

Since my brief for this weekend is to generate a small library of practical examples, contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect each synopsis immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze. In the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

I can already feel some of you beginning to panic, but fear not — you already have the tools to analyze these yourself. We’ve just spent 13 posts going over what does and doesn’t work well in a synopsis, right? I’m confident that you are more than capable of figuring out why the various elements in these examples render them effective.

My goal here today is to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to three commonly-requested lengths of synopsis. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness, of the O, that this too too solid text would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a shorter synopsis! variety. Trust me, unless you actively long to be complaining that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
, you don’t want to venture down that primrose path.

Besides, the ever-popular cram-it-all-in strategy isn’t likely to produce a successful shorter synopsis. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What might those different expectations yield on the synopsis page? Glad you asked; read on.

A quick caveat or two before you do: these are not intended to be the only possible synopses for this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours while icing my knee. (I overdid this week; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this.) So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent the agency screener asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. Nor will her boss, the agent of your dreams, or a contest judge. In fact, there is literally no point along the road to publication, except perhaps in a writing class, that anyone with the authority to yell at you is at all likely to perform a compare-and-contrast between your synopsis and your manuscript, checking for discrepancies.

Again, absolute literal accuracy is not expected in a synopsis; the pros are aware that plotlines will change slightly with subsequent revisions. What’s important here is presenting the story arc well — and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch minor chronological rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if the story being presented is one with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

With those broad hints, and the assistance of that moody pick of Sir Larry above, most of you have probably tumbled to it already: you’re about to read several synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a cliché for a reason. As any Millicent working in a LF-representing agency would happily tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens in a manuscript, the more literary it is.

That’s a misconception: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership (whereas most mainstream fiction is pitched at about a 10th-grade reading level), and often engages in experimental storytelling practices. Let’s face it, the kinds of sentences that Toni Morrison can make sing most emphatically would not work in other book categories. But I digress.

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word. You’ll feel as though you’ve spent a month watching it, but there is a lovely Hamlet-Horatio scene that I’ve never seen performed in any other version.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little. That should prove helpful in understanding what I have chosen to include and exclude in each version.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small and a bit fuzzy at the edges; that’s the nature of the format. To get a clearer view, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly, to enlarge the image.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material, buddy. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Caveats completed; time to leap into the fray. Here, for your perusing pleasure, is a 5-page synopsis of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet-5-page-2

Hamlet-5-page-3

Hamlet-5-page-41

Hamlet-5-page-5

Pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice when tossing together a synopsis in a hurry. Did anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t believe how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses — or forget that between the time they originally wrote the synopsis for that contest that sounded so promising and when an agent asked for the first 50 pages and a 5-page synopsis, the protagonist’s best friend’s name had changed from Monica to Yvette, because Monica might strike a skimming reader as too similar to Mordred, the villain’s name.

And what’s the cure for that type of gaffe, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before you send it anywhere, anytime. And do it every single time you are asked to send it out; things change.

The 5-page synopsis was the industry standard for many years, and probably still the one you will be asked to produce after you have signed with an agent. In these decadent days of wildly different submission guidelines across agencies and contests, however, aspiring writers are asked to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, read the guidelines several times over before you submit or enter so much as a syllable. If the requester doesn’t specify how long the synopsis should be, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail. Like so:

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the goal is different. While it is perfectly acceptable to depict the entire story arc, introducing the major characters, central conflict, and what’s at stake will do very nicely.

Which is to say: don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage. Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and their main conflicts — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided incorporating clichés about procrastination. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did the writer’s job: I wrote a 1-page overview of the plot. Ta da!

Or rather, I wrote a 1-page synopsis geared toward convincing a literary or mainstream fiction-representing agent to ask to see the manuscript. If I were trying to market HAMLET as, say, a paranormal thriller, I would present it differently.

How differently, you ask? Take a gander. Just to keep things interesting, this time, I’ll do it as a 2-page synopsis:

Hamlet ghost page 1

Hamlet ghost page 2

Reads like quite a different story, does it not? Yet all that was required to pull that off was a slight tone shift, a tighter focus on the grislier aspects of the story, and an increased emphasis on the ghost’s role in the plot, and voilà! Paranormal thriller!

That was rather fun, actually. Want to see the same story as a YA paranormal? Here you go:

YA Hamlet page 1

YA Hamlet page 2

The moral, should you care to know it: although most first-time novelists feel utterly controlled by the length restrictions of a requested synopsis, ultimately, the writer is the one who decides how to present the story. Only you get to choose what elements to include, the tone in which you describe them, and the phrasing that lets Millicent know what kind of book this is.

Makes you feel a bit more powerful, doesn’t it?

Tune in this evening for more empowering examples. Enjoy the control, campers, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part IX: for those who are beginning to feel overwhelmed, or, there is a proper time and place for primal screaming — and the synopsis page isn’t it

orangutan_yawn

I meant to post yesterday, honestly; blame my physical therapist’s fondness for crying out, “Just lean on your hands for another few minutes while we try X…” I use those hands for other things, as it turns out. I even had this half-written before PT yesterday, but all of my hand and wrist strength had been used up for the day.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: life is no respecter of deadlines.

As we’ve been working our way through Synopsispalooza, I’ve been worrying about something over and above my aching wrists: has my advice that virtually any aspiring writer will be better off sitting down to construct a winning synopsis substantially before s/he is likely to need to produce one coming across as a trifle callous, as if I were laboring under the impression that the average aspiring writer doesn’t already have difficulty carving out time in a busy day to write at all? Why, some of you may well be wondering, would I suggest that you should take on more work — and such distasteful work at that?

I assure you, I have been suggesting this precisely because I am sympathetic to your plight. I completely understand why aspiring writers so often push producing one to the last possible nanosecond before it is needed: it genuinely is a pain to summarize the high points of a plot or argument in a concise-yet-detail-rich form.

Honestly, I get it. The newer a writer is to the task, the more impossible — and unreasonable — it seems.

And frankly, aspiring writers have a pretty good reason to feel that way about constructing synopses: it is such a different task than writing a book, involving skills widely removed from observing a telling moment in exquisite specificity or depicting a real-life situation with verve and insight, the expectation that any good book writer should be able to produce a great synopsis off the cuff actually isn’t entirely reasonable.

So it’s probably not utterly surprising that the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:

the-scream-detail

Rather than the way we feel when we polish off a truly stellar piece of writing, which is a bit more like this:

singing-in-the-rain

There’s just no getting around it: synopsis-writing, like pitch- and query-writing, is not particularly soul-satisfying. Nor is it likely to yield sentences and paragraphs that will be making readers weep a hundred years from now — fortunate, perhaps, because literally no one outside of an agency, publishing house, or contest-judging bee is ever going to see the darned thing. Yet since we cannot change the industry’s demand for them, all we writers can do is work on the supply end: by taking control of WHEN we produce our synopses, we can make the generation process less painful and generally improve the results.

Okay, so these may not sound like the best conceivable motivations for taking a few days out of your hard-won writing time to pull together a document that’s never going to be published — and to do so before you absolutely have to do it. Unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores wailing under time pressure, though, procrastinating about producing one is an exceedingly bad idea.

But as of today, I’m no longer going to ask you to take my word for that. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one – taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you have an actual conversation with an agent (either post-submission or at a conference) is going to make it easier for you to talk about your book professionally.

Don’t sneeze at that advantage, perennial queriers — it’s extremely important for conference-goers, e-mail queriers, and pretty much everyone who is ever going to be trying to convince someone in the publishing industry to take an interest in a manuscript, because (brace yourselves) the prevailing assumption amongst the pros is that a writer who cannot talk about her work professionally probably is not going to produce a professional-quality manuscript.

I know, I know — from a writer’s point of view, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: we all know (or are) shy-but-brilliant writers who would rather scarf down cups of broken glass than give a verbal pitch, yet can produce absolute magic on the page. Unfortunately, in contexts where such discussion is warranted, these gifted recluses are out of luck.

Why? Well, it’s sort of like the logic underlying querying: evaluating a 400-page manuscript based solely upon a single-page query letter — or, even more common, upon the descriptive paragraph in that query — is predicated upon the assumption that any gifted writer must be able to write marketing copy and lyrical prose equally well. (Cough, cough.) Similarly, conference pitching assumes that the basic skills an agent must have in order to sell books successfully — an ability to boil down a story or argument to its most basic elements while still making it sound fascinating, a knack for figuring out how it would fit into the current market, the knowledge to determine who would be the most receptive audience, editorial and reader both, for such a book, the bravery to tell someone in a position to do something about it — are lurking in the psyche of your garden-variety brilliant writer as well.

Come to think of it, querying and synopsizing effectively require most of those skills as well, don’t they? Particularly synopsizing, if you think about it like a marketer, rather than like a writer.

And yes, you should try to do that from time to time: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, being market-savvy does not necessarily mean compromising one’s artistic vision or selling out. As any working artist could tell you, one can be a perfectly good artist and still present one’s work well for marketing purposes. Refusing to learn professional presentation skills does not improve one’s art one jot; all it does is make it harder to sell that art.

So force yourself to think like a marketer for a second, rather than the author of that 380-page novel: if you were the book’s agent, how would you describe it to an editor? Perhaps like this:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Or, if you were the agent for your nonfiction book, you might go about it like this:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter,

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it,

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject,

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points,

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the known universe to write the book.

In short, you would be describing your book in professional terms, rather than trying to summarize the entire book in 1-5 pages. In fact, try thinking of your synopsis as the book’s first agent: its role is not to reproduce the experience of reading your manuscript, but to convince people in the publishing industry to read it.

Tell me: does thinking of the pesky thing in those terms make it seem more or less intimidating to write?

Although it may feel like the former, in the long term, taking the time to do this well usually helps a writer feel less intimidated down the line. Investing some serious time in developing a solid, professional-quality synopsis can be very, very helpful in this respect. The discipline required to produce it forces you to think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of complex art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating.

Not only will it be easier for you to sit down and write a synopsis for your next book (and the one after that), but by training yourself not to answer the question, “So what do you write?” with a short, pithy, market-oriented overview of the plot or argument, you are going to come across to others as much more serious about your writing than if you embrace the usual response of, “Well, um, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Again, that progress is nothing at which to be sneezing. An aspiring writer who has learned to discuss his work professionally is usually better able to get folks in the industry to sit down and read it. That’s not a value judgment — it’s a fact.

Half of you are shaking your heads in resentful disbelief, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those of you annoyed by the brevity of a requested synopsis point out, “you keep saying that every syllable an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample. So how can I NOT think of the 3-page synopsis they want me to send as a super-compressed version of my book? Let me be all stressed out over trying to fit 100 pages into a paragraph or two, already.”

I can tell you how: because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you think of it that way. The purpose of a synopsis is not to summarize the entire book; it is to give a swift overview of its high points. Thus, the synopsizer’s problem is not compression — it’s selection.

Does the sound of a thousand pairs of eyebrows crashing into hairlines mean that some of you had never thought of it that way before? Cast your eyes back over those lists of what is supposed to be in a professional synopsis: do any of those steps actually ask you to summarize the book?

No, they are asking you to hit the high points — but to present those high points like a readable story or single-line argument.

Don’t get too upset if you hadn’t thought of it that way before. Even writers who are absolutely desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. As I have mentioned earlier in this series, in the throes of resenting the necessity of producing a query letter and synopsis, it is genuinely difficult NOT to grumble about having to simplify a beautifully complicated plot, set of characters, and/or argument.

But think about it for a second: any agent who signs you is going to have to be able to rattle off the book’s high points in order to market it to editors. So is any editor who falls in love with it, in order to pitch it to an editorial committee.

See why they might want to have a synopsis by their sides? This is not a pointless hoop through which agents, editors, and contest rule-mongers force aspiring writers to jump in order to test their fortitude; a synopsis is a professional requirement, necessary for any of these people to help you bring your writing to your future reading public.

You’re feeling just the teensiest bit better about having to write the darned thing, aren’t you?

Here’s another good reason to invest the time: by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that perennial bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die.

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? Everyone who has hung out with either pitchers or pitch-hearing agents has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that. Your manuscript has many, many other high points, doesn’t it?

For those of you who haven’t yet found yourself floundering for words in front of an agent or editor, allow me to warn you: the unprepared pitcher almost always runs long. When you are signed up for a 10-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters.

You know, mundane little details, such as whether the agent wants to read the book in question.

Contrary to the prevailing writerly wisdom that dictates that verbal pitching and writing are animals of very different stripes, spending some serious time polishing your synopsis is great preparation for pitching. Even the most devoted enemy of brevity will find it easier to chat about the main thrust of a book if he’s already figured out what it is.

Stop laughing — I have been to a seemingly endless array of writers’ conferences over the years, and let me tell you, I’ve never attended one that didn’t attract at least a handful of aspiring writers who seemed not to be able to tell anyone else what their books were about.

Which, in case you were wondering, is the origin of that hoary old industry chestnut:

Agent: So, what’s your book about?

Writer: About 900 pages.

The third inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, or to tuck into your submission packet with your first 50 pages, or to send off with your query packet, you will look like a star, comparatively speaking.

You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission or query letter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off in the ten minutes prior to the post office’s closing, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all. I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect lack of preparation.

Hmm, wasn’t someone just talking about unprepared pitchers always going long?

I also suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all; to them, it’s just busywork that agents request of aspiring writers, a meaningless hoop through which they must jump in order to seek representation.

No wonder they hate it; they regard it as a minor species of bullying. But we all know better than that now, right?

All too often, the it’s-just-a-hoop mentality produces a synopsis that gives the impression not that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, but rather that he is deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all.

And that’s a problem, because to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up beautifully against the backdrop of a synopsis. It practically oozes off the page.

Unfortunately, the peevish synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent who screens queries and submissions would be more than happy to tell you, it’s as though half the synopsis-writers out there believe they’re entering their work in an anti-charm contest. The VAST majority of novel synopses simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents to see aspiring writers suffer.

(You’re chortling at this attitude by this point in the post, aren’t you, even if you were one of the many who believed it, say, yesterday? If not, you might want to go back and reread that bit about why the agent of your dreams actually does need you to provide her with a synopsis. But back to the resentment already in progress.)

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just do the bare minimum they believe is required, totally eschewing anything that might remotely be considered style. Or, even more commonly, they procrastinate about doing it at all until the last possible nanosecond, and end up throwing together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

It’s the query letter and the manuscript that count, right?

Wrong. In case you thought I was joking the other 47 times I have mentioned it over the last couple of weeks, EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample.

If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand. It honestly is that important to your querying and submission success.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or to crank it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit represents your best writing.

Realistically, it’s not going to help your book’s progress one iota to engage in passive-aggressive blaming of any particular agent or editor. It’s even less sensible to resent their Millicents. They did not make the rules, by and large.

And even if they did, let’s face it — in real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole darned book, if you liked my pitch or query, because the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING! AAAAAAAAH!”

Okay, so it’s mighty satisfying to contemplate saying it. Picture it as vividly as you can, then move on.

I’m quite serious about this. My mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length. Be as specific as possible about your complaints, but try not to repeat yourself; the goal here is to touch upon every scintilla of resentment lodged in the writing part of your brain.

Then find the nearest mirror, gaze into it, and tell yourself to get back to work, because you want to get published. Your professional reputation — yes, and your ability to market your writing successfully — is at stake.

I know, the exercise sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen — but I’ve never seen it work to the venting writer’s advantage. I’ll spare you the details, because, trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

Next time, I shall delve very specifically into the knotty issue of how a synopsis folded up behind a cold query letter might differ from one that is destined to sit underneath a partial manuscript. In the meantime, try to indulge in primal screaming only when nobody else is around, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VIII: not all horn-tooting is sweet music, at least not to Millicent’s ears

dizzy-gillespie

I shall be striving for brevity this evening, campers. This is the height of deadline season for many of my clients, and virtually the only thing that the small army of doctors and physical therapists who seem to have kidnapped my various body parts since the accident agree upon is that working a second over 16 hours in a day isn’t good for my recovery.

So I’m going to make a valiant attempt to be uncharacteristically terse this evening — no, make that morning. (Please don’t tell the doctor.) And while what I shall be saying at such a rapid clip will be primarily addressed to nonfiction synopsizers, please don’t tune this post out, novelists: our pitfall du jour has swallowed up many an otherwise promising fiction synopsis, too.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform. Why? Well, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent even on her most rushed day (and even in her worst mood) that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are describing. But that does not mean that the platform should overwhelm the book’s content in your synopsis.

Before I move the carnival parade that is Synopsispalooza down the block to more concrete how-to advice, I want to devote this evening’s morning’s post to the single most common pitfall into which Millicent sees nonfiction synopses tumble — and a significant proportion of fiction synopses, come to think of it. Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, sees it even more.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes. (If you are not, be grateful. There used to be only a handful of television stations, so sometimes, tuning in to those roasts was well-nigh inevitable.)

How might such platitudes turn up in a synopsis, you ask? In the midst of a cacophony of one’s own horn-blowing, typically. We’ve already talked about the nails-on-a-chalkboard annoyance factor of the dreaded This book is a natural for Oprah! claim in a query letter, but believe me, reviewing one’s own work is equally Millicent-irritating in a synopsis.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every fiction synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… — or every memoir synopsis that mentioned gratuitously, based on my real-life story… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the surviving members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it (self-aggrandizement, that is, not Eric Idle) in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies friendlier to first-time authors. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.

And believe me, you people are lumpy. No wonder I don’t get as much restful slumber as my doctors advise.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it? To Millicent, it is approximately as distracting from an otherwise well-written synopsis as this is from the rest of this post:

funnywalk

Go ahead — try to keep your eye from straying back up here as you read the paragraphs to come. Walk a mile in Millicent’s moccasins.

I hear some of you chortling out there, do I not? “Oh, Anne,” those of you confident about your descriptive abilities tell me gently, “you’re sweet to worry about my query and synopsis, but I know better than to waltz into that obvious a bear trap. My book is a sensitive, lyrical story of a fascinating person…”

Stop right there, unjustified chortlers. What was that last sentence, if it was not self-review?

Half of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? A good trick, given all of the gymnastics going on above.

Well might you: the average synopsis-writer tends to confuse qualitative description of the book with content-based description of the book. To professional eyes, the former is boasting; the latter is a professional synopsis.

“What’s the difference?” truculent former chortlers demand. “A synopsis is supposed to describe the book, right? I’m just making it sound good.”

Not to Millicent or Mehitabel, I’m afraid — and for very solid reason. Tell me, which gives a stronger idea of what a book is about, this synopsis opening:

Ripped from today’s most explosive headlines, EXPLOITATIVE TRASH is a searing indictment of a world gone mad. Told from the perspective of RONNIE LEGUME (14 going on 90), a beautifully-drawn headstrong street kid with a hidden heart of gold — she must conceal it, because where she comes from, nothing valuable is safe for long — the reader breathlessly follows the day-to-day pulse of life on the mean streets of an upper middle-class suburb. Cul-de-sacs have never seen such horror before.

or this one for precisely the same book:

Recent transplant from reform school RONNIE LEGUME (14) does not fit in with the other kids in her mom’s cul-de-sac. Try as she might to blend into his new, upper middle-class surroundings, the tough act that helped keep her safe for seven long years is just too helpful in keeping bullies at bay here. These people might pretend to be respectable, but behind closed doors, Ronnie keeps discovering levels of depravity that would have made her former warden blush.

Honestly, which one would you rather read? It’s really not a very difficult choice, from a professional reader’s perspective: the first is essentially a review; the second introduces an interesting character in an interesting situation. So which gives the better sense of the subject matter? The first distances the reader from the story; the second thrusts the reader right into Ronnie’s world. Which gives the better sense of the book’s tone and focus? The first peppers the reader with clichéd phrases that make this story seem like a hundred others; the second uses unexpected phrasing to make the story appear more original. Which makes the writer seem like the more gifted storyteller?

The sad thing is, the writer of the first might very well believe that he IS giving a just-the-facts-ma’am description. After all, he is using the synopsis to tell what the book is about, right?

That’s precisely the problem: he’s talking about the book, rather than telling the story. In a fiction or memoir synopsis — and often in a nonfiction synopsis as well, if it has a strong historical narrative — it’s vital to tell the book’s story in a compelling manner. All qualitative statements about the book do is take up space that could have been used to tell the story more vividly — and to make it come across as more original.

Originality is key in good synopsis storytelling — why should Millicent request a manuscript if its query synopsis made it sound similar to 27 out of the last 50 manuscripts she read? Emphasizing the surprising parts of the story or argument is always a better strategy in a synopsis than making it sound like any other book she’s likely to have read recently, published or otherwise. Or like a movie, TV show, graphic novel, or any other writer’s production other than your own.

Speaking of originality, don’t underestimate just how much the frequency with which synopsizers attempt the first approach or its first cousin, the back-jacket blurb synopsis, contributes to what turn-offs they are for our pal Millicent — or Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week or even 25 contest entries in a sitting, commonalities between ostensibly unrelated stories can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, similarities can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

So I ask you: if 11 of those contest entry synopses contained similar boasts about the quality of the writing, 8 shared at least one plot twist, and you could send only 5 on to the next round of judging, which would you send? Common gaffes make both the contest judge and the agency screener’s decision-making process so much easier.

“But Anne,” some now-chastened former chortlers ask politely, “I understand why I should not toot my own horn. But above, you said that I should not reproduce somebody else’s trumpet solo on my behalf, either. if my writing teacher actually did tell me that I had written the best comic novel since CATCH-22, why shouldn’t I shoehorn that information into my synopsis? It’s not as though I’m the one reviewing my manuscript.”

True, but the synopsis is not the proper place for anyone to review the book in question. Even if David Sedaris, S.J. Perlman, and Dorothy Parker all laughed themselves sick at your wry witticisms, stick to demonstrating that wry wit — and your storytelling ability — in the synopsis. Trust me, you’ll be able to find other opportunities to work other people’s opinions about your work into your marketing copy.

May I suggest, for instance, the back jacket of the book?

Within the context of a synopsis, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the appropriateness of the comparison to CATCH-22 — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, or how apt a descriptive statement that implies an evaluation of quality may be, none of these forms of self-compliment are going to impress Millicent or Mehitabel. On the whole, they prefer to make up their own minds about the quality of the writing in front of them.

Remember, a good fiction or memoir synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one heck of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned last time, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of nonfiction synopses (and even more memoir synopses) go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. These misguided documents tend to run a little something like this:

I wrote this heart-wrenching memoir over the violent objections of my mother, my father, my maternal grandmother, my great-aunt, my six siblings, and my parakeet, Ralph. Despite their begging me not to tell the story of our family’s sordid seven years as goat-smugglers, I felt that this story must be told. The truth shall set us free, and besides, the goats had already gotten their side of the story out to the media.

Well, of course, a memoirist’s relatives are going to kick up a fuss at the prospect of long-buried family secrets being revealed. That’s practically a given (and a reason that so many memoirs are the objects of lawsuit threats; I speak from experience). You have every right to be concerned, personally, although it’s rare that such threats come to fruition. Hurt feelings are rarely actionable, and even when they are, truth is a pretty good defense against a charge of libel.

But none of that is remotely relevant to any situation in which someone in an agency, publishing house, or judging a contest might be reading your synopsis. Why should Millicent care about the hurt feelings of people she has never met — or their literary opinions, for that matter?

Don’t bore her with your reservations in the synopsis; save those qualms to thrill your biographers. Instead, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — intriguing specifics that Millicent is unlikely to see in any other synopsis this week.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

(2) Within the context of an interview after the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?” (Okay, so maybe this one applies only to me.)

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

And yours is, isn’t it? I sincerely hope so, for your sake: a writer who honestly believes that the story of how you came to write a book is more interesting than the story in the book is going to have a devil of a time figuring out how to market it. As much as the writing process fascinates those of us in the throes of it, frankly, it doesn’t tend to be all that interesting to non-writers.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely ever to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book.

Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that most of the eyes in the room don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the publishing industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to get a trend like that past an agent or editor.

From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after the ink is dry on your contract.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

All right, I really must get some sleep now. Keep those trumpets in their cases where they belong, everybody, and keep up the good work!