Author bio, Part II

Hello, readers —

I missed posting yesterday — no, not because of a miraculous breakthrough with my memoir, alas, but due to one of the nice-but-stressful phenomena intrinsic to life represented by an agent: on Tuesday afternoon, I was asked if I was still interested in writing a book I had mentioned casually, almost in passing, months ago. (One of the cocktail party tricks one rapidly learns as a working writer is to propose any idea for a publishable work to one’s agent as soon as it occurs to one.) Well, apparently, this one stuck, and now, a publisher is moderately interested in it. Interested enough, at least, to ask to see a proposal.

For the sake of giving you an accurate impression of what to expect from the publishing industry, let me also add: it is my understanding that a certain amount of this interest stemmed from the publisher’s anticipating being confined to bed for some time with a lingering head cold, and thus bored; he wanted something to read. Hey, we take our opportunities as we find them.

In any case, my agent and the publisher’s both being New Yorkers, they asked if they could have the proposal by the end of business (East Coast time, natch) Wednesday, to catch the publisher’s cold-induced reading time before it expired. So, being a good little writer, I sat down and churned out a proposal in a day.

For the record, I do not recommend this. Thank goodness, I caught myself thinking while my fingers blurred across the keyboard, that I already have a usable author bio!

I had to laugh, remembering how I spent Tuesday’s blog haranguing you about the vital importance of being an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” Here was a perfect real-life illustration of the importance of conveying that kind of attitude. It enabled my agent to jump on an opportunity as soon as it appeared, for both of our potential benefits.

As 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”?)

While I was writing like crazy yesterday, I also thought about how lucky I was to have enough experience with the trade to be able crank out the requisite pieces of a formal book proposal with the speed of a high school junior BSing on her English Literature midterm. That facility is definitely a learned skill, acquired through having produced a whole lot of promotional materials for my work over the last decade. 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.

The Code of Hammurabi, you will be pleased to know, was written partially with my book in mind.

A word to the wise: any promotional material for a book is a creative writing opportunity. Not an invitation to lie, of course, but a chance to use your writing skills to paint a picture of what does not yet exist, in order to call it into being. For those of you new to the game, 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.

That I have this skill in my writer’s tool bag is very valuable to my agent — because actually, she is too prudent a character to have told the publisher he could have the proposal that quickly if she didn’t know from past experience that I could pull it off. (Agents tend to be prudent people; the publishing world is surprisingly full of risk-averse souls, as you may already know if you’ve been querying with a particularly innovative book lately.)

I mention all of this not for self-aggrandizement purposes (although I am pretty pleased with myself for finishing it in time, I must confess), but as inducement to you to write up as many of the promotional parts of your presentation package well in advance of when you are likely to be asked for them. This is a minority view among writers, I know, but I would not dream of walking into any writers’ conference situation (or even cocktail party) where I am at all likely to pitch my work without having polished copies of my author bio, synopsis, and a 5-page writing sample nestled securely in my shoulder bag, all ready to take advantage of any passing opportunity.

Chance favors the prepared backpack.

Okay, so after all of this build-up, I hope you are chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio. First of all, let’s define it: 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.

Let me get the standard advice out of the way: use third person. Start with whatever fact is most relevant to the book at hand, not with “The author was born…” 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. Mention any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). If your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this is the place to mention it.

To put the length in easier-to-understand terms (and so I don’t get an avalanche of e-mails from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), this is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 — 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 — 1 full page (double-spaced). And, as longtime readers of this blog have probably already anticipated, it should be in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

Yes, you read that bit in the middle of the last paragraph correctly: 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. I shall talk about this contingency tomorrow.

Got that length firmly in your mind? It should seem familiar to you — it’s the length of the standard biographical blurb on the inside back flap of a dust jacket. There’s a reason for that, of course: increasingly, the author, and not the publisher’s marketing department, is responsible for producing that blurb. So busy writers on a deadline tend to recycle their author bios as jacket blurbs.

Before you launch into writing your own bio, 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. If you write funny novels, read a few dozen bio blurbs in funny novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there is: 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.

Now, I should warn you now about a disappointment you are likely to encounter as you read through book jacket blurbs: there are a LOT of lousy bios out there, littering up the dust jackets of otherwise perfectly fine books. Reading these may seem like a waste of your time, but actually, you can learn a lot from the bad ones, which typically share some common traits. You can learn what to avoid.

What makes them bad quickly becomes apparent. The bad ones are too similar, which makes them inherently dull. At their worst, they are merely lists of where the author went to school, if anywhere, what the author did (or does) for a living before (or besides) writing, where they live now, and their marital status. So scores of writers end up sounding something like this:

“Turgid McGee was born in upstate New York. After attending the Albany Boys’ Reformatory, he served a term in the U.S. Air Force. After graduating from Princeton University, McGee attended law school at the University of Oklahoma.

“Now retired, McGee now lives in Bermuda with his wife, Appalled, and his three children, Sleepy, Dopey, and Sneezy. He is currently working on his second book.”

Yawn. But inducing boredom is not ol’ Turgid’s worst offense here — the biggest problem with this blurb is that it’s poor marketing material. Quick, based solely on that bio:

What is Turgid’s book about?

Why is he uniquely qualified to write it?

If you picked up this book in a used bookstore years from now, would you have any interest in checking the shelves to see what his second book was?

Turgid also made a subtle mistake here, one that perhaps only those who have read a whole lot of author bios — such as, say, an agent or an editor — would catch. Turgid says he attended the University of Oklahoma, not that he graduated from it. This is the standard industry euphemism for not having finished a degree program, and thus problematic, since (and knowing dear old Turgid so well, I can say this with authority,) he actually did obtain his law degree. But when a publishing professional reads “Daffy Duck attended Yale University” in an author bio, she is automatically going to assume that poor Daffy dropped out after a year.

Moral: if you graduated from a school, say so. (And as a personal favor to me, never, ever say that you graduated a school; retain the necessary preposition. I can’t tell you how many times I have been introduced as the speaker who “graduated Harvard.” It makes my molars grind together.)

Looking at my own bio on this website, I’m not sure that I’ve avoided all of Turgid’s mistakes, but as far as the industry is concerned, the 50-word bio and the 250-word bio are entirely different animals. The former does tend to be a list, but the latter is the author’s big chance to prove to the publishing industry that she is not only a talented writer, but a person who might actually be interesting to know. My personal rule of thumb: if the full-fledged author bio doesn’t give the impression that if you were trapped in a snowstorm for three days with the author, the author would be capable of keeping you entertained with anecdotes the whole time, the bio isn’t interesting enough.

And, perhaps, if you’re lucky, something in your bio will stick in your agent’s mind enough down the road that it will occur to her to pitch your offhand reference to it to a sniffly editor in an elevator. That’s the kind of thing that happens to interesting people.

I’ll go into the mechanics a bit more tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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