Or: Writing the Author’s Bio
Although many agents and publishers are happy with a brief ‘about me’ paragraph in the body of the cover letter, some ask for a bio as a separate document. It’s not only agents and publishers who ask for them either. Some journal editors like them to accompany short story or non-fiction article submissions. In these cases, the bio is published in the journal, sometimes in an ‘About the authors’ section, or beside the published piece.
Three reasons not to sweat it when you sit down to write your author’s bio:
- It’s short – around 50 to 100 words.
- It’s written in the third person. That helps you distance yourself from what you include. Don’t think of it as bragging. How can it be bragging when you’re fabulous? Think of it as bigging up someone you know. Someone who looks just like you and has your name.
- You’ll probably spend fifty times longer writing it than anyone ever will reading it. Yes, that is a good thing.
One Sauce, Many Recipes
It’s OK to have a standard bio running two or three sentences followed by a list of credits or accomplishments. However, think of this as the basic recipe.
Any cook will tell you the basic recipe is only the starting point. Imagine tomato sauce: It’s perfectly fine as it is, but maybe you want to add some chilli to spice it up. Or some garlic. Perhaps some onion or red wine… It all depends on what the sauce is going to accompany.
It’s the same with your bio.
Start out with your standard blurb: “GJ Schear is an award-winning novelist and short-story writer…” but add different ingredients for various submissions. If you’re pitching an article about innovations in renal transplants it’s appropriate to mention your years as a nurse working on a kidney unit. On the other hand, there’s no reason to mention that fact if you’re submitting a literary short story about the loneliness of old age.
If you’re submitting to some sort of specialist journal offer some nugget of information that will really appeal to the editor. Let’s imagine you’re sending a story to The Edgar Allan Poe Monthly, maybe you could mention that you’ve had a pet raven since you were twelve. Or that a Poe story interested you in amontillado wine and you’ve become quite the connoisseur. But only if it’s true, of course.
Don’t be famous for being famous
This week, a sixteen year old boy achieved some buzz because he happens to bear a slight (very slight, in my opinion) resemblance to a famous actor. If I were his mother I’d worry that this is the apex of achievement the kid is ever likely to attain. An accident of physiognomy that required no effort on his part whatever, but by riding on the swishy coat-tails of another man’s hard work and talent, this boy is being mentioned from Bradford to Beijing.
Mum must be so proud.
There are others out there, I’m sure you can think of a half-dozen right of top of your head, who have never actually achieved anything except to have slept with someone famous, stayed in the guest house of a famous American footballer / murder suspect, or who just attend all the right parties. That’s all right for kids, wannabe actors or socialites, but it’s not good enough for you. You’re a writer, dammit!
So, quick, right now, make a list of ten things that make you unique. You have thirty seconds. Go!
OK, we can probably cross off the spelling bee you won when you were eight. And that you know all the lyrics to American Pie. But the month you spent living in a monastery, your desire to see all the remaining wonders of the ancient world, the class you took with Raymond Carver… depending on what you’re submitting, any of these items might set you apart from Mr sixteen-year-old-Cumber-wannabe.
Even if you live a fairly humdrum life (in which case, what on earth are you writing about?) and have never traveled further than the supermarket, you can make it sound exciting if it’s exciting to you.
Beware the Pathetic Modifiers
Don’t tell us you’re “Just a housewife / student / pensioner…” There’s nothing wrong in any of those things – or wasn’t until you shoved the “just” word on top of them. What if you wrote it this way instead: “Billy Peters is a short story writer and blogger extraordinaire with 816 posts and 5027 followers. He’s currently studying creative writing at London University…”
Avoid words like, “Unfortunately” or “Sadly.” As in, “I really thought I’d win the Fish Short Story Prize but unfortunately I never made it past the long-list…” Or “Sadly, my submission was rejected…” In literature as in life, people love a winner. The pathetic loser thing only works if you’re a famous American actor or comedian in which case that persona is ironic.
Keep the glass half-full. You’re not just a pensioner. You’re a pensioner! OK, don’t use the exclamation mark, but do use that attitude. Now drop the label and make it real: “Alice Murdoch has survived a world-war, multiple assassinations of world-leaders, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and diet Coke…” Alice is no longer one of the faceless masses but is a real person with a sense of humour.
Add a Splash of Razzmatazz…
Speaking of humour, know when it works and when to leave it alone. My years as a nurse have really darkened my sense of the hilarious to coal black. Sometimes I need to be reminded that not everyone finds death hilarious. Go figure.
Unless you’re sending a humorous story out, you probably need to go easy on the gags. A light touch is fine in most cases, but leave the Bozo routine to real clowns or, you know, politicians.
You can be too Fabulous!
I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true. Here’s how:
Every sentence reads like it comes with an exclamation mark at the end. Or. As. If. William. Shatner. Was. Reading. It. Don’t do that.
You list every single credit you’ve ever had. Three pages worth. Single-spaced. From your poem about butterflies that your teacher loved when you were eight to your letter to the editor in the local paper. And you’re submitting a story to The New Yorker. Eek!
The real fiction isn’t your short story but your bio. Keep it real.
Other dos and don’ts:
Try to avoid the term ‘freelance writer’. Some editors see this as a synonym for amateur.
Keep it brief, certainly no longer than a page.
Don’t include a picture unless you’re requested to do so.
Only list your most prestigious credits.
Include the address of your website or blog and how readers can follow you on twitter.
Don’t bludgeon us with the fact that you’ve never had anything published. Instead, dazzle us with your fabulousness!
The most important tip of all. In the words of Sherlock: Don’t be boring.
Next Week: What to do when you’re between books.