Authorbiopalooza, Part V: all the wonderful things you are, or, oh, my aching (but interesting) head

odd orange plant2

My apologies for going AWOL mid-series yesterday, campers: I had a migraine, so everything was jumping out at me like the flower in the photo above. Even now, the backlit screen is strobing at me a little. If you have never had the misfortune of experiencing how bright lights and vivid colors affect a migraine-afflicted brain, well, good. Long may it continue. Although truth be told, there’s surprisingly little good literary treatment of this phenomenon: surprising, because in my experience, writers tend to be rather more prone to these nasty headaches than the general population.

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. Which makes this the perfect moment to point out that I have just inadvertently provided a sterling example of the kind of personal detail that, while undoubtedly true, would not make an especially good addition to an author bio. Can you imagine?

Anne Mini lives in Seattle, running a book doctoring business. An avid reader and noted gourmand, she suffers from occasional migraine headaches.

Unless the book I was circulating (or publishing) was about migraines — in which case it would be a very good idea to include — harping on the headaches would be entirely inappropriate in a bio, right? It might make Millicent the agency screener (or, in my case, her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) feel a bit sorry for me, or even feel kinship with me if s/he happened to be similarly afflicted, but otherwise, it’s neither relevant to the book nor inherently interesting.

I sense a certain amount of eye-rolling out there, do I not? “At the risk of sounding dismissive, Anne,” those of you who have been working feverishly on your author bios point out, “well, duh. Why would anyone even consider including that kind of personal detail in a bio, anyway?”

Oh, you’d be astonished, eye-rollers — writers frequently include inexplicable personal details in their bios. I like to call this the kitchen sink phenomenon: unsure what to include, some writers just toss in everything. The result can be an unholy mish-mash:

An avid golfer, Angelo Pince-nez studied astronomy at the University of East Anglia. By day, he is an accountant specializing in the estates of shipping magnates. His favorite football team is the San Francisco 49ers, because he is descended from Gold Rush prospectors. When he is not hunting truffles with his faithful pig, Boris, he is pursuing his twin passions for molecular gastronomy and butterfly collecting. His dream is to be the first man to tap-dance upon the peak of Mt. McKinley.

Now, I’m as fond of a complex human being as anyone, but huh? What is the common thread tying all of this together, other than the bare fact that Mssr. Pince-nez is the subject of every sentence?

And if that isn’t a troubling enough question, let me ask another: what, amongst all this welter of apparently random personal information, is likely to make Millicent, Maury, or a bookstore-browser think hey, this writer sounds fascinating. I want to read some of his work, pronto?

The sad fact is, in Angelo’s case, it’s not beyond belief that one or more of those details might actually equal life experience relevant to the subject matter of his book. Or — brace yourselves — his last book.

Seriously, both established authors and aspiring writers fall into this trap all the time, if they happen to be prolific: they keep adding to their bios over time, rather than tailoring them to each individual book project. It’s not inconceivable that Angelo’s first novel was centered around a golf tournament, written while he was shopping around a nonfiction book proposal on stargazing. Then, discouraged by the difficulties of landing a fiction agent, he took a foray into a family memoir, followed closely by a cookbook and a how-to manual for netting monarchs.

I have no idea where the tap-dancing fantasy fits in. What were you thinking, Angelo?

It’s also extremely common, especially for established authors, to write a meat-and-potatoes bio filled with generalities applicable to any conceivable book project — and then never change it. Often, the immortal bio is among the least interesting:

Raised in eastern Pennsylvania, Rachel Smith-Horner graduated from Penn State. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children.

Again, probably true, but wake me up when it is finished. There’s little here to catch the reader’s imagination — and that’s a problem in a document whose primary purpose is to give the reader a bit of insight into who this writer is as a human being.

And, if it happens to be a bio intended to snuggle in an envelope with a query or submission, to make that human being seem, well, different from anybody else. Or, to phrase it as an axiom…

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, educational, and/or marital/procreational 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.

That caught you eye-rollers’ attention, didn’t it? “So what should I do instead, Anne? Could you perhaps crank out a second axiom that dealt with the issue more positively?”

Well, the strain on my poor head would be considerable, but since you asked so nicely, I shall give it the old college try:

Your bio should reflect your personality, as well as the book’s. 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 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. But 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?

At the risk of shattering the cherished illusions of any of you might harbor any about the way agencies work, a successful submitter is inevitably going to get pigeonholed, whether s/he likes it or not. The publishing industry thinks in book categories, which inevitably means shuffling even the most complex and genre-busting writers’ work into a conceptual box. From a publisher’s point of view — and thus an agent’s — nailing down precisely what kind of book and what species of author a new writer is falls under the rubric of marketing, not creativity-limitation.

Absolutely no point in trying to avoid being pigeonholed, in other words. This is a 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. There are definite benefits for you: if you read enough books like yours that you can accurately predict where your manuscript will be pigeonholed — hey, no bookstore places volumes on its shelves willy-nilly — you can streamline your query list to include only agents who already have a track record of pulling birds from that particular dovecote, so to speak.

And if anything I said in the last two paragraphs 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 — I included Angelo’s fearsome example for a reason — but they are likely candidates for ways that you might conceivably be fascinating 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 her 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. It would also be mighty decorative in his author bio.

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. Trust me, any agent or editor who has been hanging out around creative people for a while would be able to come up with a dozen examples to prove old Joe right.

Try not to get hung up on job titles; think about what you actually did and the environment in which you did it. After all, 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. Trust me, there are plenty of political books out there by people who got their starts stuffing envelopes for a city council candidate.

2. Any performing you may have done, paid or unpaid.
If you have ever done any teaching, public speaking, or just plain have 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 baton-twirling prowess at the age of 10, 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.

Oh, you may laugh, but 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 every night as Julius Caesar interesting to Millicent.

At minimum, informing her of it will cause her well-educated mind to murmur, “Et tu, Millie?” when she is considering rejecting your submission. That’s more of an impression than most submissions will make upon her.

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 several 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 my books?

3. What you are doing now to pay the bills.
Regardless of whether you decide that any of your work experience is relevant, fascinating, or public-speaking-related enough to pique Millicent’s interest, 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 any editor will want to know about you up front. The agent of your dreams will definitely want this information at her fingertips.

The sole exceptions — 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; people in bookstores will stare at you as you chuckle — is if you are unemployed or under-employed. Many, many aspiring writers feel that their current employment is not, shall we say, reflective of who they 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 life 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 sense more eye-rolling out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out, rubbing your tired peepers fretfully, “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 expect queriers or submitters already to be making their living as writers.

Let’s face it: it is extremely difficult to make a living as a writer, particularly of novels. (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; most novelists of my generation just keep theirs.

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 a un- or under-employed literary genius? I warn you, you’re going to laugh: it’s freelance writer.

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 merely 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.
Bookstore browsers love this kind of info in a bio — and you’d be surprised how often professional readers do as well, even for novelists. Because of the importance of platform, many a Millicent is actually instructed to keep her eyes peeled for good interview fodder.

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, in which you have placed, or in which you have been named a finalist. Ditto with any substantial writing or editing programs you may have completed. An MFA is nice, certainly, but so is a certificate. And if you may legitimately claim that a major writer mentored you over a period of years — as opposed to, say, over the course of a weekend seminar — consider including it.

Naturally, 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 indeed wrote those articles.

6. Recognition of your inherent 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, if not the holder of an advanced degree, 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 or anything.) Her sister went to Brown; her brother went to Dartmouth. Her boss will most likely be from a similar background, and the editor to whom she will be pitching your book might even have been working on her dissertation for the last 13 years. (While professors manqués used to be downright common in the publishing industry — so much so that a pseudo-degree was coined: ABD, for All But Dissertation — going into publishing is still a frequent Plan B for graduate students.)

Suffice it to say: higher education, even without degrees, will be meaningful to these people. 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 undergraduate major, though, unless it is relevant to your book. (It is considered acceptable, though, to mention what your master’s degree was in. Go figure.)

If you are currently in school, mention it — by name, if you are in college. 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.)

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 a fellow alumna happens to be huddled under fluorescent lights reading manuscripts until her Great American Novel is completed, if you catch my drift.

If you’re REALLY young and have the stick-to-itiveness to write an entire BOOK — I’ve been hearing from some pretty fascinating 14-year-olds recently — that’s going to be quite interesting to the adults who inhabit the publishing world all on its own. 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 returning 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, so you could legitimately say Muzzy Van Hosmere is a student at the University of Colorado. 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. 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 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 — NYC-based Millicents are often not all that familiar with the geography outside the fabled isle of Manhattan. Or at any rate, the northeastern United States.

Oh, you laugh, but I’m serious. 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 really 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.

So why not give her a micro-vacation at her desk by mentioning your familiarity with exotic climes in your bio?

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 had drawn 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 in some way helped form 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? Potentially. 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, and keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Authorbiopalooza, Part V: all the wonderful things you are, or, oh, my aching (but interesting) head”

  1. Hello Anne,
    I’m trying to write myself an author bio, and while this post was very helpful, my main problem is that most of the things you listed to include don’t yet apply to me–I’m a teen writer, you see. As a nineteen-year-old, I have no real work experience and little other relevant experience; it seems silly to include awards I won in high school. I think that my youth helped me write my novel–which is YA–but I can’t write 250 words about that.
    Can you offer any advice?
    Thank you!

    1. It’s not silly at all, Danna — actually, a teen writer’s including high school achievements in a bio is done all the time. 19 is definitely not too old to be trumpeting achievements from a couple of years before; no one faults a 40-year-old writer for mentioning college achievements, after all. An award’s an award.

      And I wouldn’t underestimate the appeal of a teen writer writing for teens — it’s probably how a publisher would market the book, and it definitely sounds relevant here. You don’t need to make the case that your youth helped you write for this audience, though: trust the pros to be able to read that between the lines.

      Just be up front about your age, present yourself as an interesting person who would be fascinating to know, and let your writing speak for itself. Remember, the bio’s goal is to tell agents and editors about you as a person. Anything that shows who you are (within reason) is fair game.

      If you try that and it still feels silly, let me know. I have a lot of advice up my sleeve.

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