Yesterday, I was 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!” 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”?)
I was also, if memory serves, 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. 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.
Trust me, you’ll be asked to write more at that point; get this out of the way now. And if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be writing the rest of the book at then, so you’ll be even happier to have one task already checked off the list.
Think of it as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply 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’, but SHHH about that) 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: your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is 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 NF 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. 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.
I mention all of this 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.
Hey, chance favors the prepared backpack. Once you’ve been asked to give an unexpected pitch at 3:30 in the morning to a bleary-eyed editor at an industry party, believe me, you never go near walk out the door unprepared. (The request, incidentally, was made by my agent, who is apparently always looking out for our joint interests, bless his book-mongering heart.)
Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good.
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.
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. While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed earlier in this series (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 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 nitty-gritty out of the way.
Use the third person, not the first. 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. Also toss in 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 comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), I’m talking about 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 felt the photo-shy amongst you just seize up. Don’t worry; it’s optional at this stage, and 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.
Chance favors the prepared keyboard, apparently.
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.
Don’t just look at books in general; be category-specific. 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 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.
For two FABULOUS examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) 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.
And yet if you read them 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. Sure, Bob Tarte could have just listed his animal-related background, 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?
One of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios is that 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 it off? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers, after all — 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.)
In short, I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong single 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.
Happy bio hunting, folks: ferret out some good ones. Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. In the meantime, keep up the good work!