Before I launch into today’s course of our ongoing banquet on author bios, let’s give a great big Author! Author! cheer for Deborah Heiligman. Why is applause in order, you ask? Her excellent Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt) has just been nominated for the National Book Award in the notoriously competitive Young People’s Literature category.
Well done, Deborah!
I love it when an author who has been doing good work for a long time gets nominated for this type of award — and not only this one, either. CHARLES AND EMMA also made it onto a lot of 2008 best lists: it’s a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Book Links Top Ten Biographies for Youth, a Booklist Top 10 Romances for Youth, and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, and Booklist, among others. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.
Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.
In addition, I now notice, she has a terrific, eye-catching author bio and one of the best author photos I’ve ever seen, or at any rate, one of the most content-appropriate. I don’t want to spoil the picture’s surprise, but here’s her bio:
Deborah Heiligman has published nearly thirty books to date on subjects ranging from bees to babies, chromosomes to Christmas, Darwin to Diwali, metamorphosis to mathematics, including From Caterpillar to Butterfly, the Celebrate Holidays Around the World series and Cool Dog, School Dog. In addition, she’s written for numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Ladies’ Home Journal, Sesame Street Parents Guide, Parents Magazine, and Los Angeles Times among many others. She is married to Jonathan Weiner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, lives in New York City, and shares her thoughts on writing, the environment, and more on her blog.
Makes her sound quite interesting, doesn’t it? Packed with professional credentials, but not dry at all. What a remarkable coincidence — we were just talking about the difference between professional and stuffy yesterday, weren’t we?
So redoubled kudos to Deborah for providing us with a good example. Before I move on with today’s business, I would also like to add: her website has some really good research tips for kids writing term papers, as well as advice for aspiring YA writers. CHARLES AND EMMA is available on Amazon, or, for those of you who prefer to deal with an indie bookseller, Powell’s.
Back to the business at hand: making yourself sound fascinating. Over the course of this series, I have, I hope, impressed upon my readers the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. In case I have by some chance been too subtle, allow me to reiterate:
Regardless of how many or few bona fide publishing credentials may grace your résumé, aim for constructing an author bio for yourself that is MEMORABLE, rather than simply following the pseudo-professional norm of turning it into a (YAWN!) list of cold, starkly-mentioned business and educational facts.
Yes, I said pseudo-professional; because droning lists are so very common, unless one’s life achievements happen to include very high-profile events (earning a Ph.D., winning an Academy Award, being elected President of the United States, that sort of thing) or previous book publications (don’t have a joke for that one; sorry), the professional reader’s eye tends to glaze over whilst perusing them.
So what should you do instead, you whimper?
Precisely what the admirable Ms. Heiligman did in the example above: have your bio reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work — and whom readers would like to know.
Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, no, but certainly doable, if you realize that the goal here is not just to hand Millicent the agency screener your CV, but to cause her to rush into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “You’re not going to BELIEVE this writer’s background!”
Yes, yes, in answer to what all of you query-weary cynics out there just thought so loudly, it is indeed entirely likely that her boss’ response will be some rendition of, “Gee, Millie, is it anything out of which we could conceivably cobble a platform for a nonfiction book?” — not necessarily the ideal reaction if one happens to be, say, a novelist, admittedly. Before you get all huffy at the idea of being pigeonholed before your time, let me ask you this: isn’t any reason someone who works at the agency of your dreams becomes excited about you good for your book’s prospects?
(Just to shatter the cherished illusions of any of you who still harbor any about the way agencies work, a successful submitter IS going to get pigeonholed, whether s/he likes it or not. Absolutely no point in trying to avoid it. The publishing industry thinks in book categories, which inevitably means shuffling even the most complex and genre-busting writers’ work into a conceptual box. This is a sad reality with which all of us pros who like to category-surf have to contend eventually, so you might want to beat the Christmas rush and get started on it now.
And if anything I said in that last paragraph caused you to think indignantly, “Well, they’ve obviously never seen anything like my historical multicultural Western romantica fantasy classic before — but by gum, they’re not going to make me pick just one!”, I implore you from the bottom of my heart to scroll down the category list at the right of this page, find the BOOK CATEGORY section, and read every post in it at least twice before you even THINK of querying your masterwork. Trust me on this one.)
Fingers have been drumming next to keyboards for quite some time now, I fear. “I GET it, Anne,” those of you just busting to get on with writing your bios already mutter. “I don’t fear being interesting, and primal screaming has done wonders to reduce my inherent hostility to describing my book in just one or two words. And believe me, I’m not in a position to bore Millicent with lists of my publishing credentials. Where on earth should I begin?
Glad you asked, finger-drummers. Here are a few likely sources for author bio tidbits. Not all are necessary to include, of course, but they are likely candidates for ways that you might be interesting to Millicent.
1. Your work history, paid or unpaid
Nonfiction writers, long used to building their own platforms, tend already to be aware of this, but any consistent effort on an author’s part that enables him to say legitimately, “I have a background in the subject matter of my book,” is worth considering including in a bio. Whether you actually got PAID for that experience isn’t particularly relevant; the fact that your agent will be able to say, “Bill didn’t just guess at what la vie de lumberjack is like for his romance novel, LOOK OUT FOR THAT TREE! He spent his youth as a cook in a lumber camp.”
That is not, as they say, a credential at which Bill’s prospective publishers are likely to be sneezing.
If your job titles have not been particularly impressive or you have not remained in any one industry for very long, you’re in good literary company — Joseph Campbell used to say that one of the best predictors of who was going to turn out to be an artist was the number of different jobs he had had before he was 30.
Try not to get hung up on job titles; think about what you actually DID and the environment in which you did it. An administrative assistant at Boeing has every bit as much right as a vice president to say, “Eileen has spent the last fifteen years in the aviation industry,” if her book happens to touch on that topic, right?
Don’t forget to consider any volunteer experience you may have; for bio purposes, it is neither relevant nor necessary to mention that you were not paid for your position as volunteer coordinator of your local cat rescue. There are plenty of political books out there by people who got their starts stuffing envelopes for a city council candidate, after all.
2. Any performing you may have done, paid or unpaid.
If you have any teaching, public speaking, or just plain experience talking in front of large groups of people, consider including at least some passing reference to it. Even if you were famed county-wide for your tap-dancing prowess at the age of 10, trust me, Millicent will want to know.
Why? It demonstrates that you may be relied upon not to disintegrate into a trembling mess if asked to step onto a stage. Or onto a conference dais. Or into a bookstore to sign your latest release.
Authors who can speak well in public are astonishingly rare, as anyone who has ever heard some pour soul mumble his way through a page of his own recently-published prose at a book signing can attest. Comfort in front of crowds is a genuine selling point for a writer. So is the ability to read out loud well — which might render that college summer you spent getting stabbed onstage in as Julius Caesar interesting to Millicent.
Whatever you do, do not even consider omitting teaching experience from your bio — in terms of practical experience at keeping listeners’ attention, teachers get the gold star. There’s even an industry anecdote on the subject: when a reporter asked the late historian (and reputed plagiarist) Stephen Ambrose, author of best-selling presidential bios, how he learned to make history interesting, Ambrose allegedly replied, “I used to teach an 8 AM class.”
Speaking as someone whose lectures were unfortunately scheduled at 10 AM Fridays at an enormous football university whose fraternities hosted regular Thursday night parties, I can only concur. Think that experience hasn’t come in handy promoting books?
3. What you are doing now to pay the bills.
Regardless of whether you decide that any of your work experience is relevant, interesting, or public-speaking-related enough to include, you should mention in your bio what you are doing now for a living, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is going to be one of the things that an agent or editor will want to know about you up front.
The sole exception — and as soon as I tell you the standard euphemism used by authors who fall under its rubric, you’re going to start noticing just how common it is in bios and people in bookstores will stare at you as you chuckle — is if you feel that your current employment is not, shall we say, reflective of who you are. Stating that you are temping in order to be able to quit your job the second a publisher snaps up your book proposal, for instance, while perhaps not a bad long-term strategy, is not going to make you look particularly professional to Millicent.
Nor is I’m working in a job that has nothing to do with my interests because the unemployment rate is pushing 10%, alas. While either or both may well be true, neither is likely to be particularly memorable.
Do I hear a bit more whimpering out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out timidly, “I’m perplexed. My current job does reflect something about me as a human being — how many gas lamp lighters can there still be on the planet, after all — but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination literary. Shouldn’t I omit mention of it on that basis alone?”
In a word, no. In several words: Millicent doesn’t really expect queriers or submitters already to be making their living as writers.
The fact is, it is extremely difficult to make a living as a writer, particularly of books. (You were all aware of that, right?) It often takes years and years — and books and books — before even a great writer can afford to quit her day job. So you may safely assume that Millicent and her ilk are already aware that many excellent writers out there are supporting their art by delivering pizzas, driving cabs, and all of those desk jobs under fluorescent lights upon which bureaucracies the world over depend.
Heck, it’s not entirely beyond belief that Millicent took her desk job under fluorescent lights to feed her own writing habit. Sort of messes with your mental picture of her scowling over your query letter, doesn’t it?
So what’s the standard euphemism for under-employed literary geniuses? You’re going to laugh: it’s freelance writers.
You’ve seen that in many a dust jacket author bio, haven’t you? Perfectly legitimate: as long as you write and no one is employing you write full-time, you are indeed freelancing. You’re just a volunteer freelance writer.
4. ANY life experience that would tend to bolster your implicit claim to be an expert in the subject matter of your book.
Consider showcasing any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. Again, you need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include it in your bio, or have a academic or journalistic background to render your 15 years of reading on a topic research.
Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies. As in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.” (Don’t quote me on that one, please; I have no idea what Mssr. Clooney’s feelings or experience with woodwinds may be.)
5. Writing credentials, no matter how minor.
List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.
6. Recognition of your wonderfulness from the outside world, regardless of its relevance to your writing project.
I’m not just talking about the Nobel Prize here — do you have any idea how exotic winning a pie-baking contest at a county fair would seem to someone who has lived her entire life in New York City?
Don’t laugh; Millicent might genuinely be intrigued. If you were the hog-calling champion of your tri-county area, believe me, it’s going to strike her as memorable.
7. Educational background.
This is one of the few constituent parts of the standard, dull tombstone bio that might conceivably hurt you if you do not include. Because pretty much any North American agent or editor will be college-educated, Millicent will be looking for a writer’s educational credentials.
That’s putting it mildly, actually: Millicent probably has BA in English from a great school like Wellesley. (With honors. Not to intimidate you.) Her sister went to Brown; her brother went to Dartmouth. Higher education, even without degrees, will be meaningful to her.
Perhaps to the point of snobbery. You wouldn’t believe how much mileage I’ve gotten out of my doctorate when conversing with snobs.
So if you are older than standard college age and a high school graduate, go ahead and include any post-high school education in your bio, no matter how long ago it was or what you studied. Don’t mention your major, unless it is relevant to your book.
If you are currently in school, mention it. But don’t mention your high school by name — unless, of course, your story is about how you regularly fought your way through gunfire to make it to class or you went to a well-known elite school (see earlier reference to snobbery). If you’re still in college, though, you should definitely mention where you go.
Don’t look at me that way. Both young writers and returning students tend to be a bit shy, at least in their bios, about being pre-degree, but I think this attitude tends to underestimate just how wistfully most graduates recall their college careers. Especially if one happens to be huddled under fluorescent lights reading manuscripts until one’s Great American Novel is completed, if you catch my drift.
Anyway, if you’re REALLY young and have the stick-to-itiveness to write an entire BOOK, that’s going to be quite interesting to the adults who inhabit the publishing world. Especially if you worked on a school paper or magazine, as that will demonstrate that you have proven you understand and can meet deadlines. That’s a story you can tell excitingly in a couple of lines of text, isn’t it?
If you’re a non-traditional student, returning to the classroom after years of doing other no doubt very interesting things, you probably have an intriguing story to tell, too. When I was teaching at the university level, I was continually wowed by the trajectory many of my older students had taken to get there. YOU may not think of your sacrifices to go back to school at an untraditional age as extraordinary, but there’s a good chance that others will.
Consider mentioning any certificate programs, continuing education, or substantial training you may have, regardless of the subject matter. Prestigious and oddball programs tend to be the most memorable — in fact, a certificate from a hypnosis for horses class may well stick in our Millicent’s mind longer and more vividly than a BA in literature from Kenyon. So would an apprenticeship as a beekeeper.
I see some hands tentatively raised out there. “But Anne, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to college, the time to attend massage school, or the funds to receive training as a reiki practitioner. What do you do if you don’t have any educational credentials to wave at Millicent?”
No need to panic — you’ve got several excellent options at your disposal. You could simply not mention your educational background; fill up the page instead with your rich life experience (see above). Or, better still, turn your bio into an opportunity to show how you have schooled yourself through non-traditional means.
Millicent may be an educational snob, but she knows a good author interview story when she sees one.
Alternatively — and I’m continually surprised at how seldom this seems to occur to aspiring writers — you could sign up to take a night course in a subject that interests you. It needn’t be academic (although a few history courses related to your book’s subject matter wouldn’t kill you, would they?), or even long-term: I’ve seen a writer turn a weekend seminar on candle-dipping into some quite eye-catching author bio material.
Remember, great author bios don’t just happen by themselves, any more than interesting lives do. They are built.
8. Personal quirks.
You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements in your quest to sound interesting. Including a reference to a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line.
Don’t have a quirky hobby? Do what PR agents have historically told would-be celebrities to do just prior to launching interview tours: acquire an off-beat hobby or interest now, so you may talk about it.
Then write your bio a week later. A tad rule-lawyerish, perhaps, but essentially truthful — and certainly a recognized trick of the trade.
9. Past travel and residence.
If you’ve traveled extensively — or even not so extensively — or lived in the part of the world where your novel is set, that will actually add to your credibility as a storyteller. Yes, even if that part of the world happens to be rural Oregon, because — come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret — Millicent and her ilk are often not all that familiar with the geography outside the fabled isle of Manhattan. Even if she is from somewhere else originally — and she often isn’t; my agent likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the NYC hospital where he was born, and apparently I was the first person he’d ever encountered whose response was, “Oh, you should get out more.” — she’s likely to be working some awfully long days for very little pay.
Travel can be quite expensive, you know. Give her a micro-vacation at her desk by mentioning your familiarity with exotic climes.
If you were a great traveler — say, after a career in the Navy — consider mentioning your sojourns in your bio even if they’re not relevant to the book you’re promoting. Give Millicent a vicarious thrill.
10. Family background.
This is always legitimate if it’s relevant to the subject matter of the book — if, say, our pal Bill spent his childhood watching his dear old white-headed mother cook for those lumberjacks, instead of doing it himself — but even if it’s not, if your family tree harbors an interesting wood owl or two, why not mention it?
For instance, my great-grandmother was an infamous Swiss-Italian opera diva. Was the fact that a relative who died three decades before I was born could wow ’em with a spectacular rendition of Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici actually relevant to what I write? Seldom.
But incredibly memorable? Definitely. And have I been known to include it in a bio, along with the highly dubious distinction that I made my television debut singing Adeste Fideles on a 1978 Christmas special? Wearing a blaring yellow leotard and equally subtle peasant skirt my mother drew swearingly from our antiquated sewing machine the night before, no less? You bet.
Consider, too, mentioning your ethnic background, if it’s remotely relevant to the book. Many, many aspiring writers chafe at this suggestion, but think about it: didn’t your family’s history have SOME effect upon constructing your worldview? Might not your background in fact render your take on a story fresh? Has it affected your voice?
See where I’m going with this? Bringing up relevant background is not asking for your writing to be judged by a different standard; it’s just one of many means of explaining in the very few lines allowed in an author bio how precisely you are different from any other writer who might happen to have written this particular book.
I have to admit, I’m always surprised when a writer who has, say, just polished off a stunning first novel set in colonial India fails to mention that she was born in Darjeeling, but all too often, writers new to the biz will leave out pertinent life facts like this. “Why should I include it?” the writer will say defensively. “It’s not as though I was alive during the time period of my book, and anyway, I don’t want to get pigeonholed as an ethnic writer.”
In the first place, in the English-speaking publishing world as we currently know it, a non-Caucasian author is inevitably going to be regarded as an ethnic writer, rather than a mainstream (read: white and Christian) one, just as anyone who writes a book while possessing ovaries is going to be labeled a woman writer unless she’s had some pretty extensive plastic surgery and/or has written a memoir under the name of Jim.
Unfair to the vast majority of writers who would like to be judged by the quality of their writing, rather than the content of their DNA? You bet. Something your are going to be able to fight successfully at the query and submission stages of your career? Not a chance.
See my earlier comment about pigeonholing.
Take heart: we may not like it, but it can occasionally work for us rather than against us. The author bio is one of the few places where the tendency to regard any writer who isn’t a white, male, straight, college-educated, middle- or upper-middle class English-speaking North American as outside the norm can actually help those of us who, well, aren’t any or all of the above. Especially if your book would be the kind that Millicent might expect only a white, male…etc. to write.
I leave it to your fertile imaginations what she is likely to say when she carries the bio of what the industry might regard as a non-traditional author into her boss’ office.
Noticing a theme here? Anything about yourself that might make a good story is potential material for an author bio, really. It’s up to you to select and present it intriguingly. If only you already had some experience with an endeavor like that.
Oh, wait, you’re a WRITER. You have devoted your life to telling interesting stories.
Not used to thinking of an author bio that way, are you? Give it a good ponder, have a nice weekend, and keep up the good work!