Authorbiopalooza VI: formatting your bio, or, make the time, Marcel

Marcel Proust

I begin with some exciting news today, campers: remember how, back in the heady days of Querypalooza, some readers just couldn’t get enough of my concrete examples? “We want more of your patented prototypes,” they clamored. “Specifically, I would like one for an imaginary book not only in my chosen book category, but so close to mine that I could just copy borrow freely use it to inform how I constructed mine. Better yet, why don’t I just send you mine, and you could deconstruct it on the blog, so I might learn how to improve it?”

Actually, those examples were copyrighted, but that’s a quibble. As those of you who followed that quite lengthy series may recall, I am no fan of boilerplate queries: I am a tireless advocate of every good aspiring writer’s constructing his own. Yet while I am always overjoyed to help readers deal with their query-writing difficulties at a theoretical level, so everyone who cares to read along might benefit, I have historically (5 years of history, anyway) been reluctant to have readers just submit their queries for public critique. When I first began blogging, Miss Snark was in her heyday, and while my critique style is certainly kinder and gentler than hers — as, I believe, was Attila the Hun’s — it seemed redundant to offer similar query evaluations here.

I did hear all of that clamoring, however. That’s why I am delighted to report that I shall be performing live query critique at the always-lively Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. So I invite all of you to pack up your queries in your old kit bag and join me there.

I ply my analytical and teaching skills at many a conference across this great land of ours, but Words & Music has been near and dear to my heart for many years. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of craft and marketing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music within larger contexts — this year, the offerings include a whole sub-series entitled The Literature of War and Collateral Damage.

And did I mention that it all takes place smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world? Rather than withdrawing from the surrounding community, as most conferences do, the Words & Music folks embrace it, holding literary lunches at fine local restaurants, staging poetry readings in art galleries, and even hosting concerts and film events. I always return from Words and Music feeling replete and benevolent, humming with fresh ideas from good conversations with genuinely interesting writers.

Is it quirkier than most writers’ conferences? Well, let me put it this way: Marcel Proust would have felt at home there.

All right, back to the business at hand. Ever since my last post, I could have sworn I heard the muffled cries of my readers from afar, small as the mews of freshly-born kittens. “But Anne,” these wee voices called after me, “you didn’t tell us how to format an author bio…and you ALWAYS tell us how to format things…things…echo…echo…echo…”

At least, I think that’s what they were saying; wafting ghostly voices are notoriously inarticulate. It’s also possible that they were merely reading Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu as we like to do here at Author! Author!, IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

That’s my readership: so devoted to learning the ropes of the writing and publishing biz that its members remembered that no savvy querier should send out an author bio — or, indeed, any other part of a query or submission packet — without proofing it à la Author! Author! Even with a document as short as a bio (typically in the neighborhood of 250 words, although one does sometimes receive requests for bios as short as 100 or even 50), it’s simply too easy to miss a typo or missed word when proofing on a backlit screen.

How glad I am not to have to repeat that. Let’s talk formatting — or, if we want to start from the bird’s-eye level and work our way down to Millicent the agency screener’s typical level of scrutiny, placement in the query or submission packet.

That’s an easy one: it should always come last. In a novel or memoir submission, the author bio should be placed at the end of the pages you’re submitting, regardless of whether you have been asked to send a full or a partial manuscript. Ditto with a book proposal: it should come just after the final page of the sample chapter. (If you are including clippings, they should follow the bio, but often, the author bio is the last page in the packet.)

On to formatting. The author bio should always be in the same typeface and font as the rest of the manuscript or book proposal. No exceptions, regardless of how much you like that fancy script that looks like a signature. Times New Roman or Courier are what Millicent will expect to see. (If you’re unfamiliar with the typefaces the publishing industry tends to prefer, or even that such preferences exist, you might want to consider consulting the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all deliberate speed.)

The bio should never be more than a single page — unless, of course, the agent of your dreams asks for something longer, in which case give it to her, for heaven’s sake. It should neither be numbered nor include a slug line.

UNLESS it is part of a book proposal, that is. If it is the last page of a proposal, the bio should contain the same slug line as the rest of the proposal, continuing its numbering.

Everyone clear on that? No? Okay, let’s take a gander at a couple of my famous concrete examples. While an author bio tucked into a query packet or attached to the end of a requested manuscript might look like this:

Proust bio funny

Obviously, this header would not be appropriate in a book proposal. Instead, it would appear thus:

Proust bio funny 2

“But Anne,” I hear some of you eagle-eyed readers pipe up in that winsome way of yours, “I couldn’t help but notice another subtle difference between these two pages. Is it me, or does the first have an author photo while the second does not?”

Ah, there’s no slipping anything past you, readers. Apart from the proposal/non-proposal slug difference, there are two acceptable formats for an author bio.

The second example above is the more common: a single page, double-spaced, in standard manuscript format. (If that last term was a mystery to you, I can only reiterate my suggestion that you visit the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are far, far more likely to be rejected than ones that look professional. Trust me on that one.)

As you no doubt already noted in Proust #2, the author’s name should be centered on the top of the page. Let’s see that again with a bio that actually might serve as role model for content, shall we? (As always, if you are having trouble reading these, try holding down the COMMAND key while striking the + key to enlarge the image.)

Some literal souls (the type who would vastly prefer the non-Shakespearean translation of the title of Proust’s masterwork, no doubt) would argue that the text should be additionally decorated by either the first line of the page or the first line under the author’s name reading — wait for it — Author Bio.

Not a startlingly original title, it’s true, but you must admit that it’s descriptive.

This used to be fairly common, but I do not advise embracing this tactic, for the simple reason that a significant and apparently growing segment of the agent population now seems to prefer that their clients dispense with this little piece of self-evident labeling. Or so I surmise, from all of the agented writers I keep meeting whose agents have more or less ordered them to skip it. Most bio-writers are only too glad to omit it, as it permits an extra line of text in what is, let’s face it, a rather brief space into which to cram one’s charms.

Personally, I use the other type of bio format, the kind that includes a photo: half a page, single-spaced, with a 4×6 photograph (or a roughly similar size; perfection doesn’t matter here) centered 1 inch from the top of the page, above the text. In between the photo and the text, the author’s name appears, also centered.

I can feel some of you stressing out about the size of the photo, but relax: Millicent is not going to attack your bio with a ruler. This is one of the few situations in the publishing world where close enough really is good enough.

Thus, while Proust’s mug in the first example is a trifle on the small side by current author photo standards, it would be perfectly acceptable. So would an error in the other direction, as in this bio by the hero of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. (Hey, I’m on a French kick today.)

Admittedly, the LP’s picture is a trifle larger in this example than I would advise using — ideally, the photo should take up between a third and half of the page, and here, LP has opted to allow the visuals to extend considerably lower, as some less animated authors also choose to do. It’s a legitimate choice, certainly, but anybody out there notice the down side?

If you said, “By gum, that looks a whole lot like 157 words, rather than the 250 or so I was hoping to include on my bio,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Heck, give yourself two; they’re small.

Want to see a photo-including one that’s roughly the same length as Aunt Jane’s example above? While we’re at it, let’s assume that it’s the last page of a book proposal, so you may see the requisite slug line in action again:

Ste. Cecile author bio

A pretty great photo for establishing Cecile’s credibility to tell her particular story, isn’t it? Not a whole lot of doubt that we’ve got a virgin martyr here. Yet this picture suffers from a rather serious problem that the Little Prince’s did not — any guesses?

If you said that you couldn’t make out Cecile’s face well enough to pick her out of a crowd — or, more to the point, to be able to pick her out of a crowd at an airport in order to get her to her book signing on time — award yourself a medal. The author is easily recognizable in a good author photo, so avoid shots from thirty feet away. Your face should be clearly visible.

Cecile would be much better off with this bio, even at the expense of a little textual rearrangement to make it fit:

Ste. Cecile author bio2

The different photo shape is fine here — what’s important in this context is that the picture is recognizably Cecile. Why? Not only will this help her future agent pick her out of a police line-up recognize her when they meet at writers’ conferences, but Cecile’s future publishers are going to want to see what she looks like; photogenic authors are only slightly more common than telegenic ones.

So how do you slap that image onto your bio? The same way I did to produce these examples — and the only way, if you intend to e-mail your bio without first running the hard copy through a scanner. Get a friend with a digital camera take a picture that you like, save it to your hard disk, then use copy and paste the image into your author bio document.

If this sounds like far, far too close an intimacy with technology for you, take the photo to a copy center and ask the nice folks behind the counter to arrange a color copy so that the picture and the text are on the same page, so you may pop it into your query or submission packet. For a small fee, they will probably be delighted to produce a stack of snail mail-able hard copies for you.

At the risk of repeating myself, do NOT wait until you need an author photo to have your picture taken. Many, many aspiring writers hold off, assuming (usually wrongly) that their future publishing houses will take care of — and pay for — this detail for them. A last-minute scramble to blandish a talented friend with a camera ensues.

As a direct result, these well-meaning souls almost invariably end up unhappy with the author photos on their respective dust jackets. Or with snapshots taken from thirty feet away. In any case, the results seldom make anyone concerned, even the author, squeal with delight.

Why, the camera-shy gasp? Well, it often takes many tries to obtain a photograph that you like enough to want to see mass-produced — or one that will look good in the school photo-size viable for most book jackets. It’s a bit easier now than it was prior to digital photography, of course; now, even an amateur can afford to take 500 snapshots in an endeavor to find the perfect pose.

Yet when dear self is making the decision — and when a poor choice is going to haunt one for the rest of one’s literary life, smirking back at one from jackets, websites, the publishers’ catalogue, and, if you’re lucky, next to you at a packed signing in a major bookstore — believe me, dear self is going to want some time to equivocate.

Seriously, published authors wrestle with this one all the time. That’s one reason that you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings; established authors’ photos are often a decade or more out of date. It’s not merely out of vanity, in order to appear more youthful to their readers (although I could name some names here), but because the photo-selecting process can be tedious and expensive.

Another excellent reason not to leave the construction of your author bio to the last minute, eh?

I’ve been sensing some tentative hand-raising for several paragraphs now. “Um, Anne,” some of you pipe up, “could you explain a bit more about why the reasoning about the publisher’s taking care of the photo is wrong? I always thought they just kept a bunch of professional photographers on staff to handle this sort of thing.”

Oh, honey, no: publishers that have been laying off editorial assistants who worked for the proverbial peanuts seldom have the budget to keep professional photographers on staff. In fact, few publishers ever did. Posed, studio-taken photographs used to be more common on book jackets than they are today, but even those earlier photos were usually not produced in-house. At best, a publisher in the bad old days might cough up the dosh to have a pro snap some pictures, which made perfect sense: since this photo is usually also reproduced in the publisher’s catalogue, too, they were the clear beneficiaries.

But in recent years, that practice has become rare, especially for first-time authors. So guess who usually ends up paying for the professional photos you do see?

Uh-huh.

I speak with aspiring writers all the time who are shocked — shocked! — to learn that the author is responsible for obtaining the photograph that graces the dust jacket. Now, the author’s photo is often posted on his website as well, but chances are that that the publisher is still not going to pay anyone to take a picture of you until you are very well established indeed.

Yes, you’re right: this is yet another expense that the publishing world has shifted onto writers, along with quite a bit of book promotion, website construction, and, in some cases, copyediting. Sorry. But if you get your talented friends snapping now, you might just end up with a stellar photo you love at a fraction of the cost of a professional shoot by the time you need it.

I just mention.

All of this, of course, begs the question: even that it can be expensive in terms of both time and money to come up with a photo to accompany your author bio, is it really worth your while to use format #2? As is so often the case with strategic decisions, be they literary, military, or just plain office politics, the answer is: it depends.

If you happen to be outstandingly attractive, yes, it is pretty much always going to be worth your while — and not just because Millicent is shallow. (She isn’t, typically.) These days, the marketing departments at publishing houses actually do want to know if an author is photogenic — and telegenic — if a book is expected to be a big seller.

If you tend to find potential agents and editors by accosting them at conferences and/or classes, it is worth your while to shell out for the small additional expense of producing an author bio with a photo of you on it to stuff into your post-conference submission packets. The reason for this is simple: it makes it easier for agents and editors to remember having spoken to you.

Not in a “My, but that’s an attractive writer!” sort of way, but in a “Hey, I have a distinct recollection of having had a rather pleasant conversation a month ago with that person” manner.

Please do not take the fact that a nudge to the memory is sometimes necessary as a reflection upon either your book’s market chances, the quality of your writing, or your inherent memorability as a human being. The average agent speaks to somewhere between 50 and 200 eager writers at a conference. The chances of his remembering your name in retrospect are rather low, even if you and your book are genuinely scintillating.

This can be true, perversely, even if the agent in question appeared to be foaming at the mouth with greed when you pitched your project. Post-pitch enthusiasm has a nasty habit of fading on the way back to NYC; it must have something to do with the coffee served on the flight back.

Again, sorry. Let’s get back to practicalities.

It is less important to look pretty in your author photo than to look interesting, generally speaking — and here, the standard posed, gently-smiling-under-indirect-light professional shot may actually work against you. So unless your book’s subject matter is very serious indeed, try not to make your bio picture look like a standard, posed publicity shot.

Why? For the same reason that when you flip back through your yearbook, half of the senior pictures seem more or less interchangeable: just looking nice tends not to be memorable.

You may laugh, but it is amazing how many author photos look like senior class pictures, devoid of personality. Don’t believe me? Okay, which has more character, the shot at the top of this post or Proust’s static head shot on our first example?

The moral: try to not to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Write a Book.

But unless you are writing something pretty sizzling, you might not want to look as though you were voted Most Likely to Grace a Street Corner, either, if you catch my drift. Glamour shots became kind of popular in the mid-1990s, especially for female authors, but at this point, lenses that seem to have been bedewed with Vaseline make a picture seem dated.

And yes, Virginia, you should worry about what your author photo says about you — and not just because you don’t want your dear old white-headed mother to pick up your novel years from now in Barnes & Noble, clutch her chest, and keel over, wailing over your boudoir shot, “I can’t believe my baby let someone PHOTOGRAPH her like that!”

The author photo is another opportunity to express your personality – which, lest we forget, is part of what you are selling when you pitch a book, like it or not, especially if you are marketing a memoir.

Here’s a radical idea, evidently endorsed by Saint Cecile: why not strive to make the tone of the picture match the tone of the book, or have the environment echo the subject matter? You might want to surround yourself with objects associated with your book’s topic for the photo, but avoid making the picture too busy.

You want the viewer to focus on your charming face, after all. How else is the president of your fan club going to be able to pick you up at the airport?

One of the best author photos I ever saw was of an arson investigator. Far from being airbrushed and neat, his face was barely visible: he was covered in soot, crouched in front of the ashes of a burned-down building out of which he had apparently recently crawled. Did it make him look attractive? No, unless the observer happened to be turned on by smoke stains. Did I believe instantly and absolutely that he knew his subject upside-down and backwards? You bet.

I know that pulling this all together seems daunting, but trust me, the more successful you become, the more you will bless my name for urging you to put together a killer bio, with or without photo, in advance. Once you start getting published, even articles in relatively small venues or on websites, people in the industry will start asking for your author bio and photo.

At that point, when editors are clamoring to hear your — yes, YOUR — magical words, I can absolutely guarantee that the last thing you will want to be doing is sitting hunched over your keyboard, trying to summarize your entire life in 250 words. Instead of, say, seven volumes.

Okay, not the very last thing: the very last thing you will want to be doing is scrambling through your bottom desk drawer, searching for a picture of yourself that would not make you cringe ten years hence. Keep up the good work!

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!

Authorbiopalooza, Part IV: handsome is as handsome does, or, how to make a marvelous author sound really, really dull. Or even better, not.

Mario Vargas Llosa

I had to laugh today, campers: remember how just yesterday, I was bemoaning the fact that a great many of the author bios currently gracing dust jackets all over the English-speaking world were less than scintillating? Well, in my never-ending quest to bring you interesting author bio examples, so that you may be inspired to create — or improve — yours, I dutifully went and checked the Nobel Prize website, to seek out a write-up for this year’s well-deserving winner and one of my favorite novelists, Mario Vargas Llosa.

Now, in addition to being a marvelous writer and one of the rare comic novelists ever to win the Nobel Prize — he’s best known in this country for the hectic and hyper-intense AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER (1977), but for my money, his CAPTAIN PANTOJA AND THE SPECIAL SERVICE (1973) is one of the funniest satires ever written — I happen to have it on pretty good authority that this author is a pretty darned interesting guy. How many novelists run for president of Peru, for instance, and at the very height of the campaign, release an erotic novel?

But is that level of admirable quirkiness reflected in his author bio on the Nobel site? Not yet, anyway; while his official bio is under construction, here’s what greets the eager fame-seeker’s eye:

Born: 28 March 1936, Arequipa, Peru

Prize motivation: “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”

That’s it. For a guy who once married his aunt. The mind positively reels.

Not entirely coincidentally, I’ve been encouraging you — yes, YOU, you fabulous writer — to mine your background for intrigue-producing tidbits for your author bio. Not for its own sake, mind you: the creation of a lengthy list of everything about you that either:

1. Renders you the best possible candidate currently wandering the earth’s surface for writing your particular book (and no, novelists and memoirists, you may NOT skip this step), or

2. Renders you fascinating in any way perceptible to a person of at least average intelligence.

is merely the first step in the creation of a stellar author bio to tuck into your query or submission packets, grace contest winner blurbs, decorate dust jackets, and, if all goes well, provide something more interesting than your birthdate and place on your Nobel Prize bio page.

(You’re still thinking about Mario and his aunt, aren’t you? Fortunately, he wrote a very good book about it, so you may set your teeming mind at rest on the subject.)

Why bother to take the time to come up with such a list before your name has made it on the Nobel short list? Chant it with me now, everyone: an author bio that doesn’t make the author sound interesting is an author bio that’s not going to be all that helpful to Millicent the agency screener when trying to decide whether to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, invest serious time in reading your manuscript or book proposal or to reject your query or submission.

While it is necessary to be terse — 1 page double-spaced or 1/2 – 2/3 page single-spaced if you plan to include a photo — it’s also necessary to present yourself as fascinating, even if you didn’t spend your early years as a member of a then-outlawed revolutionary party. (I’m telling you, the guy’s had a life.)

And again, a bio should not be confused with a simple list of previous publications. Yes, one does see dust jacket bios that contain little more information than that, but honestly, a terse recital of magazines in which you’ve gotten articles published, accompanied perhaps by the city where you currently reside, whether you are married, and how many cats you have, is not at all likely to convince anyone that you’re a particularly interesting person. Accomplished, yes — but that’s different from being a potentially great interview subject.

Which is, at the query, submission, and/or proposal stage, actually information that’s not going to turn up anywhere else in your packet. Let’s face it, if the agent of your dreams had wanted a dry, just-the-facts-ma’am résumé, she would have requested for one when she asked for your first fifty pages and a bio; if the agency you have been flirting with perusing didn’t want to know anything about you personally, its submission guidelines would not have contained the abstruse directive tell us something about yourself.

I know: how do they come up with these confusing rules?

Contrary to popular opinion, when an agency’s guidelines or an agent who has already received a query asks for an author bio, they’re not asking to be bored to death. Nor are they asking for a tombstone-like deadpan list of a writer’s achievements, with a particular caution not to mention anything that might conceivably surprise the reader the least little bit.

I can certainly understand where so many aspiring writers picked up the idea that they should just be producing résumés in paragraph form, however — and so should you, if you have been taking my advice and wending your way down to your local bookstore to take a gander at what’s turning up on book jackets these days. To grab a random work from the shelf nearest my desk…

Scratch that: not entirely random. In honor of the Nobel committee’s finally recognizing an author whose first novel, THE TIME OF THE HERO (1963) was not only condemned by the Peruvian government, but burned in public squares — hint, hint, Nobel bio-writers — and to render the test more interesting, I’m going to limit all of today’s examples to literary fiction authors. Let’s start with Andre Dubus:

The author of nine works of fiction, Andre Dubus received the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for Excellence in short fiction, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Boston Globe’s first annual Lawrence L. Winship Award, and fellowships from both the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. Until his death in 1999, he lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Now, all of the listed facts are undoubtedly true, and they’re certainly impressive. Yet this biographical blurb doesn’t exactly make you want to leap out of your nice, comfy office chair and rush out to buy a copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, does it?

And that’s genuinely a pity, because if you’re even vaguely interested in the art of the novella, that would be a pretty grand book for you to pick up. (After you read it, consider seeking out the movie version one of the better adaptations of a contemporary literary novel I’ve seen in my lifetime.)

It’s also kind of surprising, as Mssr. Dubus was by all accounts, you guessed it, a pretty interesting guy. So, I’m told, is Paul Auster, but you’d never know it from this jacket bio:

Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University {sic} he lived in France for four years. Since 1974 {sic} he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Tell me honestly: would it even have occurred to you from that bio that the gentleman would have penned a novel opening as grabbing as the first paragraph of The Music of Chance:

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out. He hadn’t expected it to go on that long, but one thing kept leading to another, and by the time Nashe understood what was happening to him, he was past the point of wanting it to end. Three days into the thirteenth month, he met up with the kid who called himself Jackpot. It was one of those random, accidental encounters that seem to materialize out of thin air — a twig that breaks off in the wind and suddenly lands at your feet. Had it occurred at any other moment, it is doubtful that Nashe would have opened his mouth. But because he had already given up, because he figured there was nothing to lose anymore, he saw the stranger as a reprieve, as a last chance to do something for himself before it was too late. And just like that, he went ahead and did it. Without the slightest tremor of fear, Nashe closed his eyes and jumped.

Now, we could quibble about whether a writer who wasn’t already established could have gotten away with including a cliché like materialize out of thin air in the first paragraph of a submission, or induced Millicent to overlook the slips into the passive voice — remember, what an author with a long-term readership can get into print and what an aspiring writer can hope will make it past Millicent are often two very different things — but that’s a pretty great opening.

But I don’t think that’s why some of you have been shifting uncomfortably in your seats for the last few paragraphs. Let me guess why: when you looked at those two bios, all you saw were the publications and awards, right?

No wonder writing your own bio seems intimidating. With expectations like that, it must feel as though an aspiring writer would have to be published already in order to produce a bio at all.

So you should be both delighted and relieved to hear that listing professional credentials is not the point of a query or submission author bio. What is the point? To depict the writer as an interesting person well qualified to write the book s/he is marketing.

How does one pull that off, short of beginning one’s bio Penster McWriterly is a fascinating person, or, heaven help us, the dreaded Penster McWriterly was born in 1956 ? By showing, not telling, of course, and the use of creative detail.

You’re already wondering what that might look like in practice, were you not? Fortunately, I’ve found a terrific example of a well-known author’s bio that really sings, precisely because it does include unusual details over and above the professional basics. Here’s the jacket bio from The Bonesetter’s Daughter:

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and two children’s books, The Moon Lady and The Chinese Siamese Cats, which will adapted as a PBS series for children. Tan was a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club, and her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Her work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Tan, who has a master’s degree in linguistics from San Jose State University, has worked as a language specialist to programs serving children with developmental disabilities. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

That third sentence is the one that jumps out at you, isn’t it? Could that be because it’s both interesting and unexpected?

The bio on her website is even more eye-catching. I shan’t reproduce it in its entirety — although I do encourage you to take a peek at it, as a good example of a longer author bio than you’re likely to find on the dust jacket of a living author — but I can’t resist sharing its final paragraph:

She created the libretto for The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Ms. Tan’s other musical work for the stage is limited to serving as lead rhythm dominatrix, backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members include Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Scott Turow. In spite of their dubious talent, their yearly gigs have managed to raise over a million dollars for literacy programs.

Let’s face it: of the facts mentioned in this paragraph, only writing the opera libretto is actually a literary credential, strictly speaking. But don’t you like Ms. Tan better after having read the rest of it? And aren’t you just a tiny bit more likely to pick up The Bonesetter’s Daughter if you happen upon it in a bookstore?

Brava, Ms. Tan!

Including quirky details is very smart marketing in an author bio, even at the query or submission stage: memorable is good, and likable even better. Who wants to fall in love with an author without a face? Yet most aspiring writers are afraid to take the risk, calculating — not entirely without reason that dull and businesslike is more likely to strike Millicent as professional than memorable and unexpected.

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: any agent worth her proverbial salt thinks about whether a prospective client might make a good interview subject. Based upon the bio blurbs shown above, which of the four authors would you expect to give the most intriguing interview?

No fair counting any tidbits I may have happened to slip into the narrative about Mario Vargas Llosa’s late-in-life change of citizenship. Be like Millicent, at least for the moment: limit what you know about these writers to what’s actually in their bios.

Professional and interesting are not mutually exclusive. Just as a well-written, interesting query letter packed with unusual specifics is more likely to captivate Millicent than a dull, just-the-facts presentation of the same literary qualifications and book project, an author bio that shows the writer to be a complex individual with whom someone might conceivably want to have a conversation tends to go over better than the typical list of publications.

Some of you are still shaking your heads. I see that I shall have to pull out the big guns and revert to my all-time favorite example of a fascinating author whose author bio presents her, inexplicably, as dull.

What follows is perhaps the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. To render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. Her work is brilliant, magical, genuinely one-of-a-kind.

And as I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the actual writing in a book.

I don’t feel bad about using her bio as an example here, because I shall preface it with some awfully high praise: I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Ingalls’ Binstead’s Safari before s/he gets a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for some nice independent bookstore’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting, if it means you will become acquainted with arguably the best novella writer currently writing in English.)

But sacre bleu, her bios make her sound…well, I’ll let you see for yourself. This bio is lifted from the back of her most recent book, Times Like These:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.

Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer:

Okay, so I have no problem with the photo — actually, I REALLY like it, because after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which more than one protagonists was consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate. But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality than that bio?

Admittedly, U.K. author bios do tend to be on the terse side, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author?

Note, too, the offhand way in which it mentions Mrs. Caliban (1983), named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a passing mention in her bio?

I take this inexplicable omission rather personally, because I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls, a bit of routine slight-of-hand happily no longer performed on applications penned by those sporting ovaries). During my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office, filing news clippings about alumnae. Boxes of ‘em. In the mid-1980s, the Times of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide.

Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: um, who?

Really, a novel about a housewife who has a torrid affair with a six-foot salamander is not very likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, at the time, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.

Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, rapidly followed by everything else I could find by this remarkable author. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.

The Times story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. Being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir.

That was more than 20 years ago; Mario Vargas Llosa had only just made his way onto the rumored Nobel Prize short list. I find it hard to believe that Rachel Ingalls has become less interesting in the interim.

And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has always had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s Be My Guest:

Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.

I’ve seen passports with more information on them — and that were better reads. But quick: can you tell me what Amy Tan does in her spare time?

You remembered, didn’t you? So which bio do you think Millicent would be more likely to recall five minutes after she read it?

But Ms. Ingalls’ value as an exemplar does not stop there. Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of The Pearlkillers:

Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.

Better, right? But would it prepare you even vaguely for the series of four scintillating novellas within that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual spree, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves?

No: from the bio alone, anyone would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.

Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of Something to Write Home About:

Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS {sic}. In 1964 {sic} she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.

Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?

(But doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding? WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT MYSTERIOUS YEAR, RACHEL? Were you eaten by wolves — or carnivorous toads?)

I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press (located not, as the name implies, within easy walking distance of Radcliffe Alumnae records, but a couple of bus transfers away). Could it be that I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone file-diving in a desperate attempt to round out that super-terse bio?

”Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in Middlesex, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios.

I can only repeat: if they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.

Think of the bio as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.

Meet ‘em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, readers like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance after your books get published.

Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get a hold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately. You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?

Why am I pushing my favorite authors so hard today, you ask? On the the Nobel Prize website, a dialogue box off in a corner asked visitors to answer a pertinent question: have your ever read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa? Of the 21,607 visitors who cared enough to reply as of this evening — readers most, I would assume — only 43% of us said yes. Perhaps if he had a stronger author bio…

If that doesn’t make you want to rush out into the middle of the street and tell the first fifteen people you encounter about your favorite author, I don’t know what would.

Practical advice on how to sound fascinating follows next time, I promise. Spread the word about good writers, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza, Part III: just another manic Monday, or, return with me now to the land of the giant moles

Hello, campers –

I seldom re-run a long-ago post wholesale, at any rate without significant modification, but today, due to a superabundance of medical appointments (don’t ask), I’m bringing you a post from two years ago virtually untouched. (The virtual part is important here: the hardcore editorial mind is incapable of leaving any piece of text entirely unmodified, of course.) While I can’t help but notice that I come across in it not as my usual sunshiny self, but as a curmudgeon upset by trifles, I think it works in this context: not only is the picture really, really pretty (if the photographer does say so herself), but even on a cold, blustery October day, the running analogy here made me smile.

Besides, the alternative was not to post at all today. We wouldn’t want that, would we? Besides, the advice is still quite apt.

Oh, and for the record, I have since forgiven my mother-in-law — for the Thanksgiving incident, anyway — but the World’s Worst Landscaper™ has long since vanished into whatever sunset swallows up the bad men in the black hats in a Western. So if you’re one of the hordes planning upon descending upon me for this Thanksgiving, you will kindly forebear from commenting upon the still-unfinished portions of the yard. Sometimes, cutting one’s losses is a better preservative of sanity than moving forward.

Yes, I’ll admit it: I’ve been a bad mood for the last couple of weeks. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, seems to be going as planned. Noses continue to sniffle, well-meaning distracters keep appearing on my doorstep during my writing time, people who I had thought I was paying to serve my interests have been falling down on the job in fairly remarkable ways, and my mother-in-law called yesterday to report that she’d accidentally invited five more people to Thanksgiving dinner. At my house.

Presumably, the new guests will be sitting on the piano. Or perhaps stuffed inside it, pressed against the harp. It might render the playing of Auld Lang Syne a trifle tricky.

My SO is scheduled to have a Little Talk with his mum on the subject tomorrow.

I seem to have spent the last few weeks traveling from one Little Talk to another. Case in point: remember that yard renovation that we started eons ago, the intended repair after the inadvertent destruction of my garden last March? Would it surprise those of you whose hair has gone grey in the course of similar projects to learn that it’s still not completed, three growing seasons later?

My SO is having a Little Talk with the landscaper as I write this.

Apparently, it’s a source of astonishment to the latter that anyone WOULDN’T want a gigantic hole in the middle of her patio, or that some unreasonable souls might conceivably expect the drip irrigation hoses to be hooked up to something, or that sun-loving plants moved to murky spots under drooping pine trees to get them out of the way of gigantic, soil-gouging machinery couldn’t walk by themselves back to their original plots. In our last Little Talk, he suggested with an absolutely straight face — and some asperity — that if we wanted him to do these things, we should have made sure that they were spelled out explicitly in our original agreement.

Oh, how I wish I was making that last part up. There’s a reason that I’m no longer present for these Little Talks.

Even in the midst of 8 months of my dashing outside continually, screaming, “DON’T DRIVE THE BACKHOE OVER THAT ROSE BED!” at people who, for some reason that I have not yet been able to fathom, can’t see an established plant without wanting to mash, mangle, yank, behead, or prune it to the point that my great-grandchildren will be wondering what army took a tank to that majestic Douglas fir and why, I can recognize that there’s quite a bit of beauty here, despite and often because of the ambient carnage. I took the picture above yesterday, in fact, standing on my dangerously unstable back porch.

To be specific, while the World’s Worst Landscaper™ was saying something along the lines of, “You mean you DIDN’T want your back door to open onto a yawning chasm into which your kith and kin may tumble, never to be seen again? Lady, if you’d only TOLD me…”

I have to admit, this photo stunned me after I took it. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed that there were pretty things in the yard — why, I spent an hour only last week trying to convince the landscaper that I did not now nor had I ever wanted him to cover all of those lovely leaves with beauty bark, an abomination upon the earth — but I had, I admit, become a bit myopic. I had been so focused upon what had been going wrong in the yard for so long that I had stopped looking at the big picture.

How myopic, you ask? Well, if I’m honest about it, when I looked at the area above, most of what I saw was this:

A potentially pretty space that had apparently been attacked by giant moles, in short, and ones who were rather careless in the placement of their irrigation lines at that. Had I known that the landscaper’s most consistent preference was for replicating the mole-infestation experience on a mammoth scale as often as possible, I might have placed a stipulation in the original contract that he refrain from burrowing gratuitously.

But who knew that under those coveralls lay the heart of a mole? I mean, were I gifted with insight into his psyche, I also would have had the foresight to mention that I also did not wish him to dive-bomb, set fire to, or spray-paint the Douglas fir in our front yard. But who am I, the amazing Kreskin?

Did I hear some of my long-time readers chuckle in the course of these ruminations on my conceptual near-sightedness? “Gee, Anne,” these sharp-witted aspiring writers observe, “it sounds as though you’ve been looking at your yard with your editorial eyes. What you’ve just described sounds virtually identical to how you’ve depicted Millicent the agency screener reading through queries and submissions, zeroing in on the flaws rather than searching for loveliness on the page.”

Well observed, oh chucklers. It’s also how good writers who have been revising and revising their manuscripts start to look at their own work after a while — and how virtually everyone approaching writing his own author bio for the first time views his own credentials.

Oh, you thought that I was just complaining about my yard renovation? Au contraire, mon frère. (Actually, since there are quite a few of you reading this, that should have been mes frères, but don’t stop me; I’m on a roll.)

Even aspiring writers with pretty darned good credentials — an MFA, for instance, or being a finalist in a well-respected contest — tend to shake their heads at the prospect of bio-construction, sighing, “But I’ve never been published!” And that puzzles those of us who read manuscripts for a living, frankly, because if an agency, publishing house, or literary contest wanted a list of previous publications, they’d just ask for it.

Instead, they ask for a bio. Why? Because — brace yourselves — they want to know something about your life.

Don’t believe me? I thought not. Which is why I advised yesterday, if you recall, that all of you skeptics run right out to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and take a gander at a bunch of author bios on the dust jackets of books recently released in your chosen category — not on jackets in general, but on those gracing books akin to the one that you have written or are writing.

Oh, you can think of a better way to get a feel for what is and is not considered a usable credential in bios in your chosen book category?

The most helpful bios will probably be those produced by first-time authors in your book category, but ideally, I would like you to spend an hour or so looking at every bio in every book on the relevant shelf at Barnes & Noble or some similarly immense bookstore. Not only will this help you get a sense of the tone and extent of successful author bios in the section of the publishing world in which you hope to publish, but it will give you a feel for what does and doesn’t work in a bio.

A sense of where the irrigation hoses tend to be left hanging in mid-air, so to speak. Reading each one, ask yourself, “Does this description of the author make me more or less likely to want to buy this book?”

If your local B&N is stocked like mine, you may be astonished at how often the answer is no.

Actually, I probably should have warned you about this phenomenon last time, before I sent you scurrying toward a bookstore: there are a LOT of lousy author bios out there, littering up the covers of otherwise perfectly fine books. Clearly, a boring or hastily-written bio is not a significant barrier to publication — which is interesting, because a really great bio can be such a valuable marketing tool for a manuscript.

Reading the duds may seem like a waste of your time, but you can learn a surprising amount from the bad ones. Since poor author bios typically share some common traits, you can learn what to avoid.

After you’ve read a couple of dozen, what makes the bad ones bad becomes apparent: they are too similar in their genericism, which renders 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.

For those of you who have not yet scoured your local bookstore, scores of them 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.

Yes, it lists a bunch of fairly impressive facts about the author, but it doesn’t exactly make you want to run right out and pick up McGee’s book, doesn’t it? That’s precisely the reaction that Millicent, her boss the agent, and any editor to whom they might happen to mention this book will probably have: 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.

Unsure of the difference? Okay, here’s an easy test that will make the marketing shortcomings leap right out at you. Quick, based solely on that bio, answer these essential questions:

What is Turgid’s book about?

Why is he uniquely qualified to write it?

Does he have any background in writing at all?

Does he exhibit any sense of humor, derring-do, or other desirable human characteristic?

What the heck did he do to get sent to reform school?

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’s bio fails as marketing because it does not even begin to address any of these crucial issues, all matters in which the denizens of any potential publisher’s marketing department would be vitally interested, I assure you.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, this set of questions can — and should, if you happen to be the author writing it — be applied to any author bio. if the answer to any of these questions is murky, it’s not put together very well.

Okay, so maybe the fourth question is not all that helpful on a marketing level. But wouldn’t this bio be both more interesting and more of a grabber if it did address that question, treating Turgid’s life as a story, rather than as an array of unrelated events?

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, an editor, or a me — would catch. Any thoughts?

Give yourself three gold stars for the day if you pointed out that Turgid mentions he attended the University of Oklahoma, not that he graduated from it. This means something very specific in bio-speak, something that Turgid probably did not intend: attended is the standard industry euphemism for not having finished a degree program.

Thus, 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. And this is problematic in the current case, since (and knowing dear old Turgid so well, I can say this with authority) he actually did obtain his law degree. With honors, no less.

Moral: if you graduated from a school, say so.

And as a personal favor to me, never, ever make the astonishingly common grammatical error of saying that you graduated a school, a misstatement that would put virtually any language-loving Millicent’s teeth on edge; retain the necessary preposition and say that you graduated from it.

Trust me, that’s not a mole hole you want to leave exposed. Too many aspiring writers have tumbled into it and sprained an ankle.

To his credit, Turgid pulled off this part correctly: he introduced his law school experience of indeterminate length and success with After graduating from Princeton University…. Had he utilized the unfortunately common structure After graduating Princeton… that would have meant, literally, that he handed the school the diploma, not the other way around.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been introduced as the speaker who “graduated Harvard.” It makes my molars grind together.

Speaking of my own credentials, looking at my own bio on this website, I’m not sure that I’ve avoided all of Turgid’s mistakes, but as I mentioned yesterday, as far as the industry is concerned, the 50-word bio (i.e., what’s likely to be on Amazon or most blogs, for instance) and the 250-word bio (for submission and a book jacket) are entirely different animals. What I’ve posted on this site is a specimen of the latter.

The former does tend to be rather list-like, but the extended bio 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. But if you can possibly make that 50-word bio intriguing, rather than a rote recitation of biographical facts, I, for one, would love to see it.

Before any of you shrug off the possibility of ever needing a 50-word bio, let me ask you: how’s the bio paragraph of your query letter looking these days? Are you planning to query online? Many of the agency websites that ask potential clients to fill out forms ask point-blank for this short a bio. And so forth.

If you are in doubt about whether a certain tidbit is appropriate to include in any length author bio, use this four-part test:

(1) Would you be comfortable having that fact displayed on the dust jacket of this particular book for all eternity?

(2) Even if your sainted mother were to pick up a copy?

(3) What about your sainted grandmother and her entire bridge club?

(4) More importantly, is it a detail that would help build the reader’s confidence that the author of this book is has credibly mastered its subject matter?

Note that I specified this book. It is perfectly legitimate to have different bios for different projects; in fact, it’s sometimes advisable, if your various projects have very different emphases or target markets, to highlight the relevant parts of your character in each.

I used to do quite a bit of food and wine writing (under an alter ego, now gratefully defunct). That bio emphasized the fact that I grew up on the second floor of a winery in the Napa Valley — which is true, incidentally. For the nonfiction book I sold a year ago, a serious examination of political and environmental subjects, however, the winery connection is less relevant, and my credibility more, so the bio I used for it gave greater prominence to the fact that I hold degrees from some pretty prominent and snotty schools.

I graduated from them, thank you very much.

It is perfectly acceptable to make your bio funny, especially if your book is funny. My comic novel, currently cooling its heels in my agent’s office for what seems like an awfully long time, relies heavily on my quirky sense of humor, so I was able to pull out all the stops and gear the accompanying author bio for maximum comic value. It mentions, among other things, that I learned to run a still when I was in elementary school and that when I was a delegate to a national political convention which shall remain nameless, an over-eager cameraman chasing a minor candidate knocked me over, spraining both my ankles. The next day of the convention, I covered my bandaged limbs with political stickers and propped them up on a rail; the AP spread photographs of this, billed as evidence of the dangers of political activism, all over the globe.

As impressive as some of my other credentials? No. But do you think the editors who read that bio are going to remember me?

As you may see, I think it is of paramount importance for an author’s bio not to be boring, provided that everything said there is true. (Yes, my father really did teach me to make brandy when I was in elementary school. Yours didn’t?)

If you honestly can’t think of anything memorable about yourself, try asking a couple of friends to describe you as they might to someone they wanted to impress. Chances are, they will mention the top few things that should be in your bio.

If that doesn’t work, try asking a couple of people who can’t stand you. The traits they dislike most may well enchant Millicent. (I’m only half-kidding about this; warm personal enemies can be very insightful.)

Remember, this is the document your agent will be using in order to describe you to editors, and editors to other editors at editorial meetings while arguing in favor of buying your book. If your full-fledged author bio doesn’t give the impression that if the reader were trapped in a snowstorm for three days with you, you would be capable of keeping the reader entertained with anecdotes the whole time, your 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, or to poke you in the ribs at a party and urge you to pitch an on-hold project.

That’s the kind of thing that happens to interesting people.

Whatever you do, though, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the credentials that people typically think of as résumé-fodder for an author: prior publications, awards, the blessings of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a hug from a grateful president or prime minister after s/he has hung a medal around your neck and declared you a national treasure. The fact is, the vast majority of the authors who have sold first books within recent memory did not have those credentials when they first began querying.

Yes, really. Unless they happened to be blessed with a self-confidence that would make your average messiah blush for shame, you can bet your next-to-bottom dollar that at some point early in their writing careers, they all spent at least a few bad hours staring ruefully at their lifetime of achievements, seeing only the mole holes and missing the beauty of the landscape.

Don’t worry; I’m far from finished with my suggestions about where you might want to start looking in your yard. But don’t ask me to recommend a landscaper in Seattle; clearly, I’m not qualified.

Present-day Anne again here with an update. The comic novel remains unsold, for the simple reason that (as I did not know at the time) my agent had simply stopped sending it out some months before I wrote this post; somehow, it slipped his mind to tell me for nine or ten months. That’s actually not all that unusual in agent-client relations, unfortunately, especially when the agent is excited about the client’s next project. Let’s just say Millicent is not the only person at the average agency shouting “Next!”

Her boss agent is just barking it at different people.

I have a different novel circulating now. Had I mentioned lately that two of the most important personal characteristics a career writer can cultivate are flexibility and a sense of humor? And that it’s really, really important to keep moving forward on new projects after one lands an agent?

All three are also excellent goals for anyone trying to renovate anything with the assistance of professionals to pursue: my yard is still a work-in-progress. Little Talks continue. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t looking pretty good these days, largely because I lost my temper. I just started planting things and erecting statuary myself:

yard renovated

The landscaper, of course, claims it all as his own work. There are even pictures of my yard in his latest brochure. And no, it isn’t your imagination — the lawn in the picture from eleven months ago has in fact vanished. If only we’d told the landscaper that we’d expected it to live…

What was I saying about the advantages of having a sense of humor — and of not taking professional hype too seriously? Keep mulling over what makes you fascinating, everybody — and keep up the good work!

Authorbiopalooza, Part II: crossing the bio bridge sooner rather than later, or, let’s face it, the impossible will take a little while

billie

My, but we’ve been spending a hefty proportion of this fall on the potential contents of the query and submission packet, have we not? First Querypalooza, then Synopsispalooza, and now Authorbiopalooza. Why, it’s almost as though I were reluctant to send the dedicated members of the Author! Author! community out into the cold, hard world of manuscript marketing unprepared.

Was that massive wind that just blew my cat sideways a collective gusty sigh from those of you not currently operating under a I-must-have-it-by-Friday deadline for an author bio? “Okay, Anne,” sighers across the English-speaking world groan, “I can understand why I would need to polish my query into professionalism, and I’m grateful for the guidance on the synopsis. But honestly, why should I take the time now to compose a bio no one has yet asked to see? I’m happy that you have a clearly-marked HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list conveniently located on the bottom right-hand side of the page for me to rush to the moment I actually need to write the darned thing, but hey, I’m an exceedingly busy person. Can’t I just, you know, cross the bio bridge if and when I come to it?”

Well, I suppose that you could, sighing groaners, if you were a procrastinating sort. (Not that I believe that you are. I mean, come on — a procrastinating writer? Who has ever met one of those mythical creatures?) But believe me, your life will be substantially easier down the road if you put some thought into at least drafting a bio now.

Why? Well, think about it: if your queries and submissions are successful, it will be a matter of when you will need a bio, not if. Like a well-crafted synopsis for one’s current book project, the author bio is a document that any professional writer of book-length works for the U.S. market is simply expected to be able to produce on demand. Unless you happen to enjoy last-minute scrambling around — which you might, if you are that rara avis, the procrastinating writer — I cannot sufficiently emphasize how good an idea it is to start working on your author bio well in advance of when you will need it.

The sighing groaners are rolling their eyes now, I see. “Well, obviously, it would be nice if I had the time to construct a bio before I need it. Heck, it would have been nice if I’d had a beautifully-crafted query letter just lying around before I worked up nerve to query, or a stellar synopsis lingering on my hard drive before the agent of my dreams asked to see it. But since brownies are apparently not in the habit of dropping by my writing space in the dead of night to provide me with book marketing material, I guess I shall have to — wait for it — cross that bridge when I come to it.”

You’re more than welcome to do as you please, of course, but I would be remiss if I did not reiterate something already familiar to those of you who read your way through yesterday’s long-but-I-hope-entertainingly-persuasive post already know, the necessity of writing an author bio is often sprung upon an aspiring writer our of proverbially clear blue sky. Not in a delightful, playful, hands-over-the-eyes way, but in brusque, business-like manner.

“You’ll have it to me in the morning, right?” requesting agents, editors, and the fine folks who organize literary contests are prone to say. “Or you can just e-mail it to me right now, if you like.”

Some writers never get the resulting lump out of their throats again.

Those of us who have been at the writing game for a while have learned not to voice dismay at this kind of request. Surviving in the ultra-competitive literary environment is just easier for be an upbeat, can-do kind of writer, the sort who says, “Rewrite WAR AND PEACE by Saturday? No problem!” than the kind who moans and groans over each unreasonable deadline. Or reasonable one, for that matter.

It’s all a matter of mindset — and time management. The energy that you expend in complaining about an outrageous request could be put to good use in trying to meet that deadline, after all. If one thinks about energy expenditure over the course of an entire writing career, it’s clearly more efficient — and substantially less time-consuming overall — to plan ahead, rather than wait until the deadline is already imminent.

In a business where it’s routine for the deadline the writer thought was months away to get moved to next Thursday, as well as for next Thursday’s deadline to shift without warning to the end of November (“But you wouldn’t mind redoing Chapter 6, would you?”), it’s far, far more efficient to start, at least, composing anything that you know you’ll have to submit eventually. Believe me, you’ll want the time that you had planned to spend pulling a panicked all-nighter for other things.

For revising Chapter 6, for instance. Possibly in a panicked all-nighter.

Hey, tight deadlines are just a fact of a working writer’s life. The most annoying part, typically, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in your best interest to squander energy in resenting it. Trust me, the agent of your dreams will want you to embrace the axiom 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”? Or will you simply assume that Billie must have spent a lot of time hanging out at my agency?

Seriously, though, writing a compelling author bio is not something that most writers can toss off in an afternoon, especially if they haven’t thought about it before — or if, as we discussed last time, they aren’t altogether sure what in their respective backgrounds would be of interest to an agent, editor, or even the general reading public. Which is why, if memory serves, I spent yesterday 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.

And a good two-thirds of you groaned audibly. Don’t think I didn’t hear you.

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. But, again, when that happy day comes, you may not have the time. At that point, you’ll be asked to write more for your publisher’s marketing department, a whole lot more –heck, if you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll be asked write the rest of the book you proposed — so you’ll be ecstatic to have even one task already checked off the list.

And yes, I am going to say it again: it would behoove you to get the bio out of the way now.

Even if juggling the demands of your publishers’ many departments seems impossibly far away to you, think of bio-writing as another tool added to your writer’s toolkit. Not only the bio itself, although it’s certainly delightful to have one on hand when the time comes, but the highly specialized skills involved in writing one.

You’d be surprised at how often just knowing in your heart that you already have the skills to write this kind of professional document can be marvelously comforting. Every time I have a tight deadline, I am deeply, passionately 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’) over the last decade or so.

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

Which book, you ask, since I have several in progress? Well, which one would you like to acquire for your publishing house, Mr. or Ms. Editor?

Another reason to start penning the thing well in advance of when you need it (and had I mentioned that you absolutely will need it, if your writing career is even moderately successful) is that it will give you time to experiment with how you would like to present yourself to the literary world — and to your future fans. And I’m not merely talking about the many, many tries it takes most of us to come up with an author photo we like enough to want to see on a dust jacket.

Oh, didn’t you know that you should be starting to work on that, too? Publishing houses almost never pay for photo sessions for first-time authors anymore; in the age of digital photography, it’s not at all unusual for a friend’s snapshot to end up on a book cover. Do you honestly want to bet that your best friend who has been dabbling in photography for the past couple of years is going to catch the real you on the first try?

But the author photo is not the only part of the author bio page (yes, many do include photos; we’ll be getting to that in a couple of days) that shows readers who you are — or, more important at the querying and submission stage, shows your future agent or editor what you’re like. And I’m not just talking about the startling revelation that you are an amateur pigeon-racer, either.

I’m talking about you as a writer. As those of you who have been following the pageant of ‘Paloozas will probably not be entirely astonished to hear, your author bio, like any other promotional material for a book, is a writing sample. The bio is also 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 nonfiction 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. Contrary to popular opinion (including, I was surprised to learn recently, my agent’s — I seem to be talking about him a lot today, don’t I? — but I may have misunderstood him), the formula for a nonfiction proposal is not

good idea + platform = marketable proposal

regardless of the quality of the writing, or even the ever-popular recipe

Take one (1) good idea and combine with platform; stir until well blended. Add one talented writer (interchangeable; you can pick ‘em up cheaply anywhere) and stir.

Well might you snort in disbelief. Just as which justice authors a Supreme Court decision affects how a ruling is passed down to posterity, the authorship of a good book proposal matters. Or should, because unlike novels, which are marketed only when already written (unless it’s part of a multi-book deal), nonfiction books exist only in the mind of the author until they are written.

That’s why it’s called a proposal, and that’s why it includes an annotated table of contents: it is giving a picture of the book that already exists in the author’s mind.

For those of you who don’t already know, 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.

Since what the senior President Bush used to call the vision thing is thus awfully important to any book, particularly a nonfiction one, the author bio that introduces the writer to the agents and editors who might buy the book is equally important. Why? Well, think about it: the author bio is the stand-in for the face-to-face interview for the job you would like a publisher to hire you to do: write a book for them.

The less of your writing they have in front of them when they are making that hiring decision — which, again, is usually an entire book in the case of a novel, but only a proposal and a sample chapter for nonfiction, even for memoir — the more they have to rely upon each and every sentence that’s there, obviously. Do you really want the words that describe your background to be ones that you wrote in 45 minutes in the dead of night so you could get your submission into the mail before you had to be at work in the morning?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you don’t. In fact, the very notion should make you break out in a cold sweat.

Are you chomping at the bit to get at your own author bio yet? Good. Then you are in the perfect mindset for your homework assignment: start thinking about all of the reasons you — yes, you — are far more interesting than anyone else on the planet.

I’m not talking about boasting, mind you; I’m talking about uniqueness. To put it another way, what makes you different from anyone else who might have written the book you are trying to sell?

And your mind went directly to writing credentials, didn’t it, even after yesterday’s lecture on the subject? Yet another reason that writing a compelling author bio usually takes a while: it’s not always self-evident to the writer what will or will not be memorable in a bio.

So don’t think about that for the moment. Just make a brief list of the most interesting things about yourself without worrying about how, or even whether, these things have any direct connection to the subject matter of the book you’re writing or don’t sound like very impressive credentials. Just get ready to tell me — and the world! — how precisely you are different from everybody else currently scurrying across the face of the planet.

Don’t tell me that you’re not. I shan’t believe it.

“Aw,” the former sighers and groaners say bashfully, scuffing their shoes on the floor, “you’re just saying that to give me confidence. What makes you so sure that I’m so gosh-darned interesting?”

Actually, I can answer that one right off the top of my head, scuffers: I know, as surely as if I could stand next to one or more of the muses and take an in-depth reading of each and every one of your psyches, that there is no one out there more truly interesting than someone who has devoted her or his life to the pursuit of self-expression. I’ve met writers I didn’t like, certainly, but I’ve never met a genuinely boring one.

Which is saying something, as I’ve certainly met plenty of writers more than eager to talk at length about book projects that made me long for the sweet embrace of sleep. If not death. But as people, even the ones with stultifying plotlines tend to be pretty interesting.

Let me guess, though: you think that you’re the exception. “But Anne, I’ve always heard that agents just laugh at non-writing credentials in a query letter or bio. People say that if you don’t have articles or an MFA, you should just shut up.”

That gust of wind you just heard was I sighing this time. As long-time Author! Author! devotées are no doubt already aware, I have mixed feelings about the utility of much of the traditional old chestnuts. I often advise all of you dear folks to take the usual old writing truisms with a massive grain of salt.

Write what you know, for instance, has been radically over-used, and not always to good effect. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Or that although the real-life story was about a girl, both she and Perkins thought the book would sell better if it were about a boy?

Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor. She approached editorial critique with a can-do attitude, you see. The impossible will take a little while.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into an editor who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today — other than the obvious reason that the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you?

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about: 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. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed during Querypalooza (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 personal 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 logistics out of the way. An author bio should:

(1) be written the third person, not the first.

(2) Open with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with the extremely old-fashioned The author was born…

(3) 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.

(4) Bring up any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it. (I’m looking at you, Marjorie.)

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

#6, at least, should sound bit familiar. In case it doesn’t (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 – 1 full page (double-spaced) in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some conscientious rule-followers murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rules lawyers: this is indeed the rare exception to the general axiom. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: 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.

“Wait!” the camera-shy shout. “Does that when mean I could dispense with the photo altogether?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it: unless an agent, editor, or contest rules specifically request a photo, a bio doesn’t necessarily need one. A query bio seldom does, but as always, check submission guidelines carefully: the expectations vary from agency to agency.

You also might want to check out the bios of first-time authors in your book category. Like pretty much everything else in a query or submission packet, the tone and parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable content in an author bio vary by book category.

So before you launch into writing your own bio, you might want to 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 recent releases in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours. 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 tends to be: 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 Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius 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.

Yet if you read their bios 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 — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting. REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, 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 than a simple, straightforward list of past publications?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us creative types are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: 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 that juicy tidbit out of his bio? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — 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.

So I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong signal 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.

Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio, well, less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own. Because like so many other things worth doing, writing a good author bio isn’t something that should be done at the very last minute — or the very last hour.

Like the impossible, it will take a little while. Keep up the good work!

Just when you thought we were ‘Paloozaed-out, here comes Authorbiopalooza!

tickertape parade

Okay, so maybe the masses aren’t rejoicing to quite this extent. But back in the heady days of Querypalooza, a number of you fine people asked for a similar fiesta devoted to preparing for that usually unexpected request, the author bio. And since many, many more of you did not raise violent objection when I suggested I might take a run at it this fall, it’s been on my agenda.

Actually, I’ve moved it up on my agenda — and not only because my annual quick perusal of a few hundred agency websites (oh, you thought I didn’t check how submission guidelines change between my yearly querying series?) revealed that a higher percentage of query packets are expected to contain something bio-like than in times past. I had intended to devote an intervening week or so to close textual analysis of more winners in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — I haven’t forgotten about you, third-placers! — now that we’ve had a few refreshing, synopsis-filled weeks to catch our breath and get excited about craft issues again. However, that’s the kind of post that requires an upbeat attitude to write well, and since I had yet another crash-related health setback this week, I probably won’t be my trademarked chipper self for another week or so.

Don’t ask. Just pile up more pillows on the bed and hope for the best.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Specifically, about how you’re going to portray yourself in your author bio.

And half of you just tensed up, worried that you might not have enough professional credentials to render you interesting to an agent or editor, didn’t you? I recognize the symptoms: the same proportion of my readership drew in its collective breath sharply when I first broached the issue of composing the credentials paragraph for your query letters.

Back then, the whimpering ran a little something like this: “But Anne, this is my first book! I don’t come from a magazine or newspaper background, so I don’t have previous publications to cite. Therefore, nothing I could possibly say about myself has any potential whatsoever for impressing Millicent the agency screener. Hadn’t I better just avoid saying anything autobiographical at all?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOO. Why? Well, in the first place, it’s a myth that the only personal information worth noting in a query letter or author bio is previous publications. They help, obviously, but they certainly aren’t the only things a potential agent or editor might want to know about you.

It’s actually kind of surprising how pervasive that myth is, given the glaring logical fallacy it contains. Think about it: for it to be true, all agents would have to (a) prefer previously-published authors to the exclusion of all others, (b) not understand that even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, and/or (c) be unaware that writers occasionally draw upon life experience to construct their narratives. Obviously, selling memoir would be more or less impossible if (c) were true — and as any of you who have read an interview with an established author recently, disregarding life experience would render many novels harder to market as well.

But let’s zero in on the core of the concern: agencies that harbor the (a) prejudice will come right out and say prefers to represent previously published writers or obtains most clients through recommendations from others in their agency guide listings and websites; if neither states that up front, it’s safe to assume that while writing credentials might help your query get through the door, they’re not required for admission.

Why? Because even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, silly. (You might have seen that one coming, after (b), right?) While first books typically make up only about 4% of the literary market in any given year — yes, really — in the current tight market, it can actually be easier for an agent to sell an editor on a new writer with an exciting (read: easy-to-publicize) bio than on an author whose first two books did not sell well.

So it would be financially misguided for an agency that did not adhere to (a) to instruct its Millicents to rule out any query or bio that did not list past publications. Yes, even for fiction. Platform matters these days, of course — in the current tight book market, any selling point is bound to help — but contrary to popular believe among aspiring writers, platform need not consist solely of previous publications and/or celebrity in a non-writing field.

Even a cursory peek at the dust jackets of any randomly-selected group of new releases will demonstrate otherwise. Dust jacket bios virtually always contain non-publication information, for the exceedingly simple reason that it might interest a potential reader in the person who wrote the book.

Which is, incidentally, one of the reasons agency guidelines ask aspiring writers to include biographical info in their queries and/or a bio in their query or submission packets. Not only are they curious about what you’re like — they want to know if there’s anything in your background that would make a publishing house’s marketing department swoon with joy.

“Hey!” the marketers shout, linking arms to engage in raucous dancing. “This new writer is going to be a terrific interview on a subject other than his book! How often does that happen?”

Still not convinced that it might be in your best interests to make yourself sound like an interesting person, one who perhaps has at some point in the course of a lifetime done something other than sit hunched in front of a computer, typing feverishly? Okay, I’ll pull out the big gun, argumentatively speaking: (d) for non-publication credentials not to matter, agents whose submission guidelines or requested materials letters ask for biographical information couldn’t possibly mean their requests.

Which would be a trifle strange, considering how many query guidelines include tell us something about yourself or similar verbiage. And it would render all of those requests for query or submission packets to include an author bio downright bizarre.

That being the case, why would a savvy querier or submitter even consider not providing them with this information?

Does this sound vaguely familiar to those of you who followed Querypalooza and/or Synopsispalooza? It should: for the last — yow, has it been a month and a half already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Throughout that worthy endeavor, I have mentioned early and often that the guiding principle of constructing a query packet, submission packet, or contest entry is give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less. If an agency’s submission guidelines say to query with a synopsis, the first five pages, and an author bio, that’s precisely what the savvy querier’s envelope should contain, along with a SASE. By the same token, if an agent responds to a query with a request for the first 50 pages, the submission packet should contain a cover letter, the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-laden enough to get the whole shebang back to you.

That’s it. No home-baked cookies, even if you’re marketing a cookbook; no synopses for the other five manuscripts lying dormant in your desk drawer, and certainly no page 51. Remember, part of what you’re demonstrating in a query or submission packet is that you are that surprisingly rare aspiring writer capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Thus, as a clever between-the-lines reader might have already figured out, if an agency’s guidelines specify that they want to see a bio paragraph in your query or an author bio in your query or submission packet, it would behoove you to put ‘em there. Ditto if a request for pages asks for a bio.

All that being said, my next piece of advice may come as a bit of a surprise: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages in a submission packet. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if an agent asks to see even as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Oh, if you could see your faces; did Frankenstein’s monster just walk into the room? “But Anne,” you shriek in horror, ducking swiftly behind the nearest large piece of furniture, “that might look as though I (pause here for hyperventilation) were disregarding the submission guidelines! Why in heaven’s name would I take a risk like that?”

Good question, panicky ones. Try breathing into a paper bag while I answer it.

Quite simply, it’s such a common professional practice that it’s unlikely to raise any eyebrows. When an agent circulates a novel to editors, it’s generally with an author bio as the bottom page in the stack; it’s also the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than an amateur’s attempt to slip additional information in under the wire.

Just between us, though: if some additional information might slip under the wire this way, is that such a bad thing?

Before those of you who currently have requested materials floating around agencies or small publishing houses begin to freak out, I hasten to add: including an author bio in a submission packet is most emphatically not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, though, they are asking — even at the querying stage, which would have been unheard-of just a few years ago. Now, agents routinely request author bios with submissions, especially for nonfiction, agents will often want to know up front who this writer is, what s/he does for a living, and what else s/he’s writing.

That set some of you hyperventilating again, didn’t it? Relax — you can do this.

Soothingly, author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, eh? Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because twos things about the author bio have changed in recent years. First, the author is now expected to write it, rather than the publisher’s marketing department. (Although they may well tweak it.) Second, the author needs to provide it increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Well, I don’t want to disturb your plans for the weekend, but do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Come out from behind that large piece of furniture; the monster can see you perfectly well back there. Procrastinating about this particular professional obligation won’t make it go away.

Besides, you knew this day was coming — or that it would once you successfully sold a book, right? Although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it can hardly come as a surprise that you’d have to come up with one eventually. Any of you who has ever read a hardcover book with a dust jacket must have at least suspected that your bio was somehow relevant to the process, right?

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” those of you on your way out the door to mail requested materials whimper, “I’m aware that I’m going to need to construct one sometime, but need it be this very second? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until, say, somebody in authority actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could get away with doing just that. It wouldn’t be the wisest course, however.

Why? Well, writing an eye-catching author bio isn’t easy; just as it’s much less stress-inducing for an aspiring writer to cobble together a synopsis almost anytime other than immediately after an agent or editor has asked her to produce one, tossing together an author bio when you’re frantically trying to proofread your novel at 3 AM and figure out how much postage to slap on your SASE for its safe return is quite a bit more challenging than, say, devoting a free afternoon to the task three months before you’re planning to query at all.

I just mention. The results also tend to be — if not better, than at least of a quality that would not make the writer cringe should a shortened version ever turn up on a dust jacket to linger there until the end of recorded time. (Or longer, perhaps: most of the end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve seen have paper and cockroaches as the happiest survivors of nuclear activity.)

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air, despite the potential for attracting roving monsters’ attention. “Shortened version?” the confused shout in unison. “Wait, isn’t the author bio identical to that 50-word paragraph I’ve been seeing for years inside the back flap of book covers, a belief apparently corroborated by your crack above about how we all should have expected to have to write one eventually?”

Touché on that last point, and it’s a good question in general: many, if not most, aspiring writers simply assume that what they see in print is precisely what the publishing industry expects to receive. But just as a professionally-formatted manuscript does not resemble a published book in many respects — and if that’s news to you, hang on: there’s a Formatpalooza in our collective future — the kind of author bio appropriate to the query or submission stage differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. The standard in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, one double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (And yes, Virginia, I shall be inundating you with concrete examples of both later in this series. How can you even doubt?)

“Um, Anne?” the time-pressed pipe up again. “That sounds as though you’re about to ask me to rattle off my selling points as an author, and, as we discussed back in Querypalooza, I don’t feel that my credentials are all that impressive. Besides, it’s awfully difficult many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents. I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only might need if one of those agents asks to see the book — and asks to see a bio?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries well before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry slows W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions from those of you who do not happen to be U.S. citizens: I do mean after January 27th, 2011.

Why wait so long, you howl in frustration? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors.

Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together his tax information?

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you really want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks, so her February is not nearly so hectic as her January. But for those resolution-fueled few weeks, she’s not likely to be an exceptionally good mood, if you catch my drift.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that the foregoing could have been summarized quite adequately as, “Start getting those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself. Ideally, sometime really, really soon, even if you are not planning to query an agency that asks for a bio up front.

Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For some very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is focused upon other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: the one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yes, yes, I know: over the years — and frequently throughout the course of Query- and Synopsispalooza — I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask, cynicism hardening your comely eyes? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened more than once. Heck, it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, my background is pretty unusual (and detailed, conveniently enough, in my bio, if you’re interested). My cult of personality aside, a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is precisely what most aspiring writers facing a bio request do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between devoting 20 minutes to dashing off a synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the manuscript — or, heaven help us, the writer — also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that she should know best; if she can’t write about that lucidly, how can she write well about anything else?

That made you dive behind the sofa again, didn’t it? Sad but true, Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based solely upon the evidence on paper in front of them. If only a writer had any control over how they might perceive her personally…

Oh, wait, she does: she can write her bio so she comes across as fascinating.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. That’s important, because — chant it with me now, long-time readers – “What’s your platform?” is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask a NF writer.

Think about it: your platform consists of the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed at length when you were thinking about the credentials paragraph of your query letter. For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

“Hey, Anne,” some of you ask suspiciously, clutching your paper bags and keeping an eye out for any monsters who might be about to jump out at you, “why was that last bit in boldface? I’m a novelist, so I was preparing to zone out on that bit about platform, but the amount of ink in the type makes me wonder if I should be internalizing a lesson here.”

Well reasoned, paranoid novelists: just as the author bio is an alternate venue for the NF writer to demonstrate his platform, the bio provides Millicent similar information about a novelist.

Aren’t those of you fiction writers tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge glad that you already had your hyperventilation bags in hand? “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

If this comes as a nasty surprise to you, you’re not alone. The tendency to assume that someone else will take care of the bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is most assuredly not the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s post, absorb this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: if you want to gain practice in being an agent’s dream client, train yourself not to equivocate whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work. Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week is.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, post a comment here to inquire. That’s what Author! Author! is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent in your bio so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer can’t list in an author bio. A bio is not a self-praise session, after all: it’s a collection of facts, organized to make it clear to Millicent that you are either extremely credible, personally fascinating, the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, or, ideally, all of the above.

And no, you may not simply tell her any of those things directly. Self-aggrandizing statements look pretty silly on the page, after all. See for yourself:

Bart Smedley is a consummate professional writer. He’s up every day at 4:30 AM, hard at his writing. Instead of taking the lunch hour most ordinary mortals do, he hies himself to the local library to read past issues of Publishers Weekly, in order to understand his future agent’s lot better. An undeniably wonderful human being, Bart is a delight to know, funny, insightful, and personable. Also, he is physically attractive: he is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Admit it: you’d laugh if you were Millicent. To most people in positions to bring your work to publication, self-praise regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Again, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others. They are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel, though, that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before in this forum, is demonstrated in many ways. Via manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times. Also to have a paper bag and monster-repellant spray handy.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences? Or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer after perhaps 7 seconds?

And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium. Or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to relax.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration — or momentary hesitation — for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush. Go ahead and become one with those shoes.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us who live out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks. Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt by light provided by a squirrel-run generator. Or so I surmise from his tone.

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes. Not entirely coincidentally, I shall be spending the next week of posts on helping that happen.

And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. Oh, and six AA batteries on rye for the monster lurking in the background. In a paper bag, if you please, so we’ll be prepared for any contingency.

We’ve got to build up our energy for some hardcore bio-writing, after all. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: while I’m in nagging mode, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? If you can’t remember, wouldn’t now be an excellent time to rectify that?

Synopsispalooza, Part XX: taking those hurdles without breaking your stride, or, what’s black and white and read all over?

herd of zebra b & wskunk on a rampage
glasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car
strawberries b & wpenguin

Answer: not a query packet, synopsis packet, or even contest synopsis, necessarily. All of those are read only sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified, but before I elaborate on that rather lame joke, allow me to begin today with some completely wonderful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: congratulations to Kate Evangelista, who just landed an agent for her YA novels. Well done, Kate!

Keep that good news rolling in, everybody; there are few things I enjoy more about blogging than announcing my readers’ literary triumphs. It’s a long, long road from initial bright idea to publication, campers, and the more we can enjoy other one another’s successes, the happier we shall all be as we keep pushing forward.

Back to that double-take you did at the top of the post — and had I mentioned that it was well-justified?

“You drive me to distraction, Anne,” synopsizers across this fine land of ours wail, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending post after advice-heavy post on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that after all of that blood, toil, tears and sweat I’ve expended, no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here in this autumn of Paloozas??”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency submission guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do. At least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries.

As in less than 30 seconds. You’ve already shredded a few outfits over that one, I’m assuming, and come to terms with it.

If you haven’t, before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math: If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time every week just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money at all from reading queries; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. So while they might eventually see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case those of you who have been thumbing through one of the standard agency guides recently had been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing the dosh in setting at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their current agents into switching.

Oh, you’d be surprised at how many agented authors are looking to switch at any given time. Particularly recently, given the difficulty of selling adult fiction over the last couple of years. There’s only a certain number of times even the most patient among us can hear, “This is great — can you turn it into YA, preferably with the inclusion of vampires and/or zombies, within the next few weeks?” before beginning to cast longing eyes elsewhere.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing another 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, devoting a full-time employee, rather than a half-time one. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically understandable, I’m afraid, in the aforementioned tough sales environment.

So how will Millicent decide which to read and which to skip? Glad you asked:

1. The ones that are obviously incorrectly formatted.

The vast majority that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to ignore, if she’s in a rush. For a busy Millicent, the more of these, the better. In fact, a Millicent working for a very popular agent might well adopt the even higher standards typically utilized by literary contest judges: the reject-on-sight group would include synopses not in standard format (and if you were not aware that there is a standard for such submission-packet inserts, by all means, keep reading), those in odd typefaces, and those in business format (i.e., single-spaced and without indented paragraphs).

Before any of you e-queriers panic: if an agency’s submission guidelines ask queriers to include a synopsis of any length in the body of an e-mailed query (it’s exceedingly rare that any will ask for it as an attachment, due to the likelihood of computer virus transfer), it’s okay for that synopsis to be formatted like an e-mail, with single spacing and non-indented paragraphs, although you are also welcome to insert it in standard format. However, if the guidelines specify imbedding a writing sample or the first few pages of the book, that text should be in standard format.

Everybody clear on that? Yet another reason, if you needed one, to read every agency’s submission guidelines very, very carefully before you send them so much as a syllable of your writing.

2. The ones that she can tell at first glance need work.

Typos can really cost you here, as can those dropped words that so often result from repeated revision. Yet another reason to both spell-check and read every word in your packet or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why print out an e-query before sending? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because it’s much, much easier to miss a typo, missed word, or logic problem when proofing on a backlit screen.

3. The ones attached to query letters that have already prompted a rejection response

Many, if not most, queriers operate on the rather sweet assumption that Millicents — or, in most of these pretty mental pictures, their bosses, the agents to whom the queries are addressed — will conscientiously read every comma and exclamation point in a query packet before making a determination whether to ask for the manuscript or not. They simply don’t have the time.

Or, to put it as Millie herself might: if already decided to give the project a pass, why spend even a few more seconds on the query packet? She has dozens more to get through before lunch.

I hear you grumbling about that. In practice, though, that incentive not to agonize too long over a decision can work in the writer’s favor. Like so…

4. The ones attached to query letters that have already prompted a positive response

This, too, is a time-management issue: Millicent doesn’t have a tremendous reason to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why invest an additional unnecessary minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where Millicent is genuinely on the fence about requesting pages — or Mehitabel the contest judge is trying to break a tie between a couple of promising entries.

Which means, in practice, that in that relatively small fraction of cases, the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by Jove, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis

Or:

Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but a harried Millicent probably would not read even so much a line of that second one. An understandable choice, right: there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “By jingo, YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

Unfortunately, on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it.

Is that loud rapping sound echoing out there in the ether a good third of your tapping your feet impatiently? “You can stop bludgeoning that equine corpse anytime now, Anne,” a few of you snort, and with some justification. “I already know that presentation counts. I’m looking for more insight into how to improve my synopsis here.”

I was just getting to that, foot-tappers, when you jumped the proverbial gun. But since you are so eager, I’m going to turn the question back to you: setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and oddball typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. Yes, the first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease. Not only that, but by showing her something unusual in the synopsis, details that she won’t have seen in any other synopsis that day, week, or, ideally, year, the first version might give her the impression that this Shakespeare person might actually be able to write.

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is hardly an adequate character-identifying phrase. And where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

My point, should you care to know it: Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been quite accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her ultimate yea-or-nay decision is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. Again, most aspiring writers simply assume that the quality writing and the marketability of the book’s premise are the only decisive factors, but that’s not true: like agents, agencies specialize. If neither already has the connections in place to sell a particular book project — or, more commonly in this market, the agent doesn’t believe she could sell it right now — Millicent will be under instructions to pass.

Sort of changes how you look at any rejections your book may have racked up recently, doesn’t it?

Because she does have to consider fit for the agency and the current market, the synopsis can be a make-or-break document. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about, after all, or she may be a trifle skeptical about how the premise offered in the query would play out over the course of an entire book. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping to aspiring writers everywhere on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into one last iteration of a principle that has reared its helpful-but-ugly head throughout the entirety of Synopsispalooza: what makes a good synopsis for one type of book will not necessary work for another book category. That being said, all synopses should share some species similarities. Feel free to shout them along with me:

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on all that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a final few concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author, in this instance, since I’m the one who wrote this little gem, but play along with me here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s next take a peek at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? That’s extremely useful for Millicent: if the query letter falls into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or failing to state up front that it’s based on real events, she could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? Please pipe up, if not: this is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way, but it not the only way it can be done. Personally, I prefer lower-case — in the e-mail age, all caps comes across to some readers as shouting — but feel free to use either that looks best to you. Just make sure be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but also an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

Oh, you hadn’t thought beyond the synopsis for this book? Why, you are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Before I wrap up this post — and Synopsispalooza — I want to tackle one other common synopsizer’s concern, a puzzlement particularly likely to strike writers of SF, fantasy, and YA. Let’s let intrepid archive-comber Brian express it in his own terms.

I’ve more or less finished polishing up my synopsis and am wondering about a nitpick. The book ending doesn’t sound particularly like an ending in synopsis form, for the reason that the book is intended to be part of a series and the ending leads directly into the beginning of the next book. And it sort of ends on a cliffhanger too. I’m worried that Millicent may mistake this as my having committed the cardinal sin of leaving out the ending. I mentioned in the query letter that the book was part of a series, but should I convey this in the synopsis as well?

Thanks for bringing this up, Brian — you are entirely right to be worrying about omitting an ending, at least in a synopsis longer than 1 or 2 pages. And why might that be a problem in a longer novel synopsis, campers?

If you immediately bellowed, “Because part of what a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis is expected to demonstrate is that I can indeed plot out an entire book!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Nay, the series: you’ve obviously been paying close attention.

Even in the face of that imperative, though, a series-writer should not make reference to the next book in the synopsis. To an agent or editor considering only the first book, it would necessarily come across as a touch presumptuous, not to say irrelevant. Besides, the synopsis is not the proper place for this information.

Where is, you ask? Well, that’s kind of a tough question at the query or submission stage. In theory, the fact that the book is part of a series should be irrelevant: if they’re not grabbed by the story in Volume I, they’re not going to be interested in seeing Vols. 1-6, either.

In practice, however, there are many book categories in which a premise having series potential might in fact be quite relevant to Millicent’s assessment of its marketability. If you happen to be writing in a category where series are quite common — say, SF, fantasy, or YA — you might want to work the information into your query letter. Try working it into the marketing paragraph: The first book in a three-volume series, MARS ON A BUDGET will appeal to readers interested in intergalactic travel.

But under no circumstances does should you mention the other books in the synopsis. Concentrate instead upon showcasing what renders this book unique — and making its plot in book sound like a good story, beginning to end. To pull that off, you’re going to have to find away to tell the story of Book #1 in a way that is dramatically satisfying.

Which the first book of a series would need to be in order to prompt readers to want to rush out and buy the next, right? It’s a common misconception that a cliffhanger alone will achieve this effect, but let’s face it, unless the reader is drawn into the story long before the end, he’s not going to read as far as that suspenseful ending.

One reader most assuredly will not: Millicent. Thus, the series-writer’s goal in a query or submission synopsis for the first book should be to find a way to make the ending of Book #1 sound like

(a) it wraps up the plot of this book (not the series) in a satisfying manner, even if the manuscript itself does not tie up all of the loose ends,

(b) if the reader did not immediately pick up a sequel (which he will not be able to do right away, since most series are published sequentially, not simultaneously), the story could stand on its own, and

(c) you’re not counting on subsequent books in order to make sense of the storyline in Book #1 retroactively, as surprisingly many series synopses imply.

In other words, pretend it’s not the first book in a series, but a stand-alone novel, and write the synopsis accordingly.

There’s no other sensible way to go about it, really. Remember, while an agent or editor may base her decision whether to read Book #1 upon the synopsis (or, more likely, whether to ask for the rest of Book #1 after having read a partial), she will be basing her decision to read Book #2 upon Book #1, not upon a synopsis for Book #1.

Concentrate on garnering interest in one book at a time. When your adoring new agent is clamoring for you to produce synopses for the next five books in your series because an editor fell in love with Book #1, that will be the time to worry about showing how all of the stories tie together.

And that’s it for Synopsispalooza, folks. Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now figure out how it’s done.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon: this weekend, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

Hint, hint. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XIX: a few more thoughts on synopsis length, or, aren’t you glad not to see yet another picture of Hamlet?

long stairway down

Before I launch into today’s post: what if the black thing in the photograph above?

No need to answer right away, of course; as is my wont, I have selected a thematically appropriate image from my snapshot collection. I shall be referring back to it later in this post, never fear. So go ahead and take your time settling on your final answer.

Back to the business at hand. As I sincerely hope is pellucidly clear by this point in Synopsispalooza, at the querying stage, there is no such thing as a standard-length synopsis; it’s the writer’s job to check each individual agency’s website and/or agents’ guide listing for guidance on just how long the synopsis part of send query + synopsis should be. The same holds true for a requested synopsis in a submission packet: if the requesting agent (or, more likely, her query-screener, our old pal Millicent) does not ask for it to be a specific number of pages, it’s incumbent upon you to hie yourself to the agency’s submission guidelines information to make sure that there isn’t a generic preference listed there.

Whatever you do, don’t make the common rookie mistake of assuming that every agency adheres to a single standard — or the even more common first-time conference-goer’s mistake of taking an individual agent’s expressed preference for what he wants to see in query or submission packets for his chosen book category as a rule inviolable for what all agents want. Even a cursory glance through five or ten randomly-selected major agencies’ websites will demonstrate abundantly that, contrary to popular opinion on the writers’ conference circuit, not only do different agencies mean wildly different things by the term synopsis; each has its own very distinct notion of what should and should not be in a query packet.

And don’t even get me started on how much contest rules’ standards for synopsis length and content vary. There’s just no getting around the imperative to seek out and read every set of individual guidelines before you submit any of your writing to a professional reader’s scrutiny, anywhere, anytime.

If that wasn’t enough diversity of expectation to strike fear into the querier or submitter who wants nothing more than to be able to sit down, crank out a single synopsis that is applicable to every conceivable synopsis-requiring situation, and calling it good for a lifetime, what works in one book category’s synopsis may well not work in another. As we have been seeing in practice over the past few days, what shines in a 1-, 2- 3-, or 5-page novel synopsis might not work in a 1-, 3-, or 5-page memoir synopsis, nor will the strategy and structure of a memoir synopsis necessarily make a nonfiction synopsis sound exciting. Then, too, what might fly in a 1- or 2-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel won’t necessarily be beefy enough for a longer synopsis for the same work.

One would have thought, after all of those posts positively crammed to the gills with concrete examples, that I had covered most of the possible synopsis length-related bases, wouldn’t one? Alas, no: as frequent, plaintive comments from readers abundantly illustrate, there is in fact another length problem:

But what if the directions don’t give a specific length? Are you expected to include a 5-pg or the 1-pg version? (I’m assuming the 1-pg is this mysteriously vague “brief synopsis.”)

Could you mention again what each {length of} synopsis is used for? So many agents on my list ask for a “brief synopsis” and I have no idea how many pages “brief” is supposed to be.

I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

Is there some sort of epidemic of vagueness suddenly striking agencies’ websites, or are aspiring writers not reading submission guidelines as carefully as they were in olden times? Or is that pernicious rumor going around again, the one that maintains that agents have started deliberately adding misleading guidelines to their websites in the hope of confusing aspiring writers into being afraid to query, and thus reduce the volume of mail Millicent is required to open from bins and bins every day to perhaps a civilized handful?

Oh, yes, one does hear that little gem from time to time. It’s one of the great writerly urban legends, second only to the whopper about every agency in the country’s subscribing to a secret record-keeping service that tells them at a click of a button whether any other agency has already rejected the query in front of them. That way, the legend goes, the most recent agency’s Millicent doesn’t have to read the query at all; she, and her counterparts all over the country, can simply reject it unread. Another popular myth: agencies keep such meticulous records of queries that if an aspiring writer queries, spends five years completely revising the manuscript, then queries again, the agency screener will instantly recognize it as a book they’ve been offered before and reject it accordingly.

Those of us whose job it is to translate between writers and those on the other side of the submission desk spend a lot of time quelling those sorts of fears. No matter how many times we bash them with the stick of truth — down, Cujo! — they rise again to trouble the sleep of aspiring writers.

Even if the questions above were in response to a new set of urban myths or a fad in submission guideline-writing, it would have been tempting to assume that they weren’t: since none of the askers showed the ambiguity in context (by including more than a couple of words they found confusing in quotes, for instance), I’m basically having to guess what they find objectionable about the phrase brief synopsis.

Is the disturbing element the fact that the term is conceptually redundant, because synopses are, by definition, brief? Or are the questioners just miffed because not every set of agency guidelines gives specific length restrictions for synopses?

Experience tells me that it’s almost certainly the latter. How do I know? Because not only am I constantly hearing from writers panicked because they’re not certain that they are following rules correctly — sometimes because the guidelines are genuinely ambiguous, sometimes because they’re simply uncomfortable with not having their work checked for accuracy before they submit it, both completely legitimate reasons to consult a freelance editor — but I hear almost as often from agents and editors who complain that writers these days just can’t seem to follow directions.

Why, there’s a perfectly clear set of guidelines posted on the agency’s website, right? Or isn’t there? Chances are, the complaining agent won’t have checked his own website to double-check; that’s his Millicent’s job.

Actually, while the popularity of this particular question may be new, the essential tension isn’t. Especially since the rise of the Internet, aspiring writers have always wanted far more guidance about what agents and editors expect than the latter tend to take time to provide, and those on the business side of the business believe that anyone seriously interested in writing professionally either knows the ropes already or can easily find out what to do.

Having recently done a virtual tour of a few dozen agency websites, checking out submission requirements, my sense is that they haven’t changed much recently; there are simply more agencies with websites than five years ago. The fact that they display less uniformity of expectations between sites than aspiring writers might like isn’t new — it’s just better-advertised.

Nor was have I noticed a particularly strong trend toward using either the dreaded term brief synopsis or asking for treatments of any length. (The latter is a movie industry term, not a publishing one, though, so it may well pop up in the guidelines of those relatively rare agencies that represent both screenplays and books.) Oh, plenty of agencies did not specify a particular length for the synopsis, but since the 5-page synopsis is so commonly used in agencies and publishing houses, and since agency guide listings have been asking for 3-5 page synopses for decades, everyone would just know to be in that ballpark.

Which is the short answer to all three of the questions above, incidentally: if the guidelines don’t give a firm length, the agency does not have a firm expectation on the subject. As long as it’s in the general ballpark of what’s expected, you’ll be fine. Next question?

I heard that vast collective moan. Who could blame you: just then, I sounded like an agent or editor who was asked at a conference how long a synopsis should be, didn’t I?

Well, not completely, but not merely because I didn’t automatically roll my eyes at the question — which, to save all of you conference-enthusiasts the trouble of trial and error, half the folks on the agents’ and editors’ forum dais would automatically do at this particular question. What they would actually say is, “Read the agency’s submission guidelines,” then call on the next would-be questioner, pleased at having evaded helping out someone who just hadn’t bothered to learn how the game is played.

Which would miss the point of the question entirely, right?

Let me run through the underlying logic here, because being able to place oneself in an agent or editor’s shoes is a really, really useful professional skill for a writer at any stage of her career. As I mentioned above, it’s rare that you’ll meet one who doesn’t believe that a writer’s knowing how agencies work is a pretty good indicator of professionalism; that’s the basic justification for automatically rejecting Dear Agent letters and queries that run longer than a page, right? Clearly, the sender of a Dear Agent letter — or 10-page, single-spaced synopsis — hasn’t bothered to do his homework. A writer who sends a three-page query is not only unlikely to be able to follow directions, they reason — her writing probably isn’t very polished, either.

Unfair to the talented individual who just doesn’t happen to know the ropes yet? Undoubtedly. But statistically provable, based upon the tens of thousands of queries and submissions the average agency receives over the course of a year? Absolutely.

So to them, the ability to follow an agency’s stated submission guidelines is not only a prerequisite for a writer’s getting her work read by an agent — it’s an indicator of how much effort that writer has put into learning the ropes, and thus a pretty good measure of seriousness about getting published. Thus, when a writer stands up at a conference and asks to be told how to write a synopsis, what they tend to hear is, “I haven’t bothered to learn anything about how the industry works. Because I’m lazy, I’m coming to you for a quick answer.”

Is that assumption disrespectful to the questioner? Of course. But doesn’t the habitual terseness and even sometimes downright anger many agents and editors display at being asked such questions make more sense now? They’re not responding to the question so much as the perceived tell-me-a-secret-so-I-don’t-have-to-do-my-homework attitude.

I hear all of you gnashing your teeth. “But Anne,” frustrated queriers and submitters across the English-speaking world wail, “don’t they realize that half of the agencies out there seem to be calling for something different? Or that many of their guidelines are, at best, vague? How am I supposed to know whether what they have in mind by a brief synopsis is 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, or 117? What’s next — are they going to ask me to guess what color they’re thinking?’

Before I answer that, take a nice, deep breath. Not that wimpy, shallow one you just took: a real one.

Feeling calmer now? Good, because it’s going to make what I’m about to tell you much, much easier to accept: if they don’t ask for a specific length for the synopsis, it’s because they don’t care how long it is — unless it is wildly out of keeping with professional standards.

See why I wanted your brain nice and oxygenated for that one? Given how many aspiring writers to fall into the trap of believing (inaccurately, as it happens) that submission guidelines are just a bunch of arbitrary tests designed to trick writers, I’m betting that the last paragraph came as a great, big surprise to quite a few of you.

Especially to those of you who have stared at an agency’s website until your eyes blurred with tears, muttering, “What length do they want me to guess? And is the color they have in mind red?”

Seriously, they’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not expecting you to read their minds. These are people who spend their lives nitpicking over comma placement; believe me, if seeing a 4-page synopsis rather than a 3-page synopsis would ruin their days, they’d specify. So here’s a rule of thumb in which you may absolutely place your trust:

If the agency’s guidelines ask for a particular length of synopsis, send one of that length; if they don’t specify, then it’s up to the submitter how long it should be. Just don’t go over 5 pages — or less than 1 full page.

Oh, dear — that last bit sent your arbitrariness-sensors blaring, didn’t it? Actually, this is a matter of aesthetics: as I mentioned earlier in this series, in a synopsis, fuller pages tend to look more intentional to the pros than those less than half-full of text, probably because professional authors are used to having page limits. A synopsis that just sort of peters out 3 lines into page 4 is likely to strike Millicent as a first draft, rather than something tightly edited.

That was catnip to the paranoids out there, wasn’t it? “Aha, Anne — we’ve caught you. If that’s a secret handshake sort of thing, how do I know that the term brief synopsis isn’t some sort of code? How do you know that every agent who uses it doesn’t have a specific length in mind?”

Um, experience? Not to mention a strong understanding of probability.

Think about it: what precisely would be the benefit to these folks in coming up with a secret definition of a term that is on its face deliberately ambiguous? (No, neither sadism nor deep-seated hostility toward writers are adequate answers to that question.) And why on earth would people who spend their lives in cutthroat competition with one another waste their all-too-precious time getting together to conspire on something that couldn’t possibly do them any good?

Look deeply into my eyes and repeat after me: there is no secret definition here. 100% of the demand for standardization of submission guidelines comes from aspiring writers, not agents. No matter how much aspiring writers might like for there to be absolute standards, agencies have different expectations for a lot of parts of the query packet — that’s why they post guidelines.

Again, think about it: if there were actually only one set of expectations governing the entire industry, why would individual agencies bother to post submission guidelines at all?

Trust me, everyone has something different in mind by the term brief synopsis. They each want what they want, period; if they care about a specific length, they will say so up front. If they just want a synopsis to try to find out what the book is about, and they don’t want to get sent a 20-page diatribe, they may well employ the adjective brief.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, honest.

I realize that the explanation above may seem a bit out of character for me — usually, I encourage in-depth analysis, not bottom-lining things. But in my experience, aspiring writers usually ask this sort of question because they believe (sometimes rightly) that their queries and submissions will be rejected on sight if they guess wrong, essentially, in gray areas. They want all of the grayness removed.

That’s understandable, of course. But remember how I showed above how differently folks in the biz sometimes hear writers’ questions? That perfectly legitimate longing to be told precisely what to do tends to be interpreted on the other side of the querying desk as either a lack of confidence or — brace yourselves; this one’s nasty — as a lapse in creativity.

Seem odd? Consider it from an agent’s perspective: writers are constantly going out on interpretive limbs in their manuscripts, right? So why should it be scary to apply their own judgment to something that could be seen as a creative decision, the length of the book’s synopsis?

So when she omits mention of how long the synopsis should be from her guidelines, she doesn’t merely misunderstand the writerly terror of doing something wrong — she doesn’t get why any sane aspiring writer wouldn’t consider the freedom from length restrictions a gift. Queriers’ angst on the subject might even strike her as a trifle arrogant: is this writer really so sure that everything in his query or submission packet is so marvelous that the ONLY reason she might reject it is the length of the synopsis?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s really quite rare that a rejected submission — or even a query — has only one red flag. There’s a bright flip side to that: if a writer follows all of the actually posted guidelines and adheres to standard format, interpreting a request for a brief synopsis in as 4 pages rather than the 5-page version the agent might secretly have had in mind is not going to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

95% of the time, the writing and the content determine that. Honest. Don’t squander your valuable energies, as so many aspiring writers do, in obsessing over how best to second-guess Millicent.

Seriously, an aspiring writer’s energy would be better invested in polishing the actual writing, rather than obsessing over whether there’s a secret handshake imbedded in the submission guidelines. Follow what directions are there, use standard manuscript format as your guide where an individual agency’s rules are silent, and accept that agents tend to assume that writers are intelligent people, not psychic ones.

Do your best to follow the guidelines you’re given, then move on. Because, frankly, to a Millicent who works at an agency where no one particularly cares about synopsis length, as long as it isn’t more than 5 pages, the picture above and this

the long way down

look pretty much identical; they’re just two views of the same set of things. But it’s much, much easier to tell from the second one that the black object is the handrail for a descending staircase, isn’t it?

I don’t really need to belabor that analogy further, do I?

Besides, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is great training for working with an agent or an editor: it’s not at all uncommon for an editor to expect an author to revise an entire book based upon just a couple of sentences of commentary, or for an agent to expect a client to structure a submission one way for submission to editor A and another for editor B without having to hold the client’s hand every step of the way.

Try to think about navigating every agency’s slightly different expectations as a dry run for those more glamorous challenges.

I’ll be wrapping up Synopsispalooza next time, thank goodness, and then we can get back to more of our ever-popular in-depth analyses of first pages of manuscripts. Keep me abreast of those new writerly urban legends, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVIII: the story’s not just about that melancholy Dane, is it?

Ophelia's mad scene

All aglow with excitement, writers of multiple-protagonist novels? I sincerely hope so, because last time, we whiled away an autumn Sunday evening discussing an array of strategies for folding spindling mutilating gently compressing a work of literature told from several distinct points of view — or by several different narrators — into (gusty sigh) the 1-page synopsis that so many agency guidelines and contest rules seem to be requiring these days.

And what did the golden rule of not driving yourself crazy in a valiant attempt to squish 400 pages of narrative told from 8 perspectives into 1 page of readable text? Not those panicked 40-pages-boiled-down-to-a-sentence generalizations so popular with first-time synopsizers everywhere, but not even trying to replicate the narrative complexity of the book in a space that scanty. Instead, in a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective book, tell the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

I suspect that conclusion did not altogether astonish those of you who had been following the rest of last weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza posts: as we saw in Saturday morning’s post on 1-, 3-, and 5-page novel synopses, Saturday evening’s dizzying array of memoir synopses, and Sunday morning’s multiple takes on a nonfiction synopsis, a 1- or 2-page synopsis has different goals than its longer counterparts.

Oh, the primary purpose of any query or submission synopsis, regardless of length, is to generate a great longing in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to see all or part of the actual manuscript, of course, but in a 1-page synopsis, all a novelist really has space to pull off is to demonstrate the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it. Preferably entertainingly, and ideally, in a voice and tone similar to that of the book.

Or, to put it in the checklist format we’ve been embracing throughout Synopsispalooza, a 1-page synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist(s), and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Those expectations remain basically the same, regardless of how many protagonists or narrators any given manuscript might happen to be able to boast. It’s not as though a querier, submitter, or contest entrant can shout at Millicent or Mehitabel, “Wait — my manuscript has more narrators than all of those other queriers/submitters/competitors for a blue ribbon in your fine literary contest. It’s only fair to give me more space for my synopsis, since I have more to summarize. About ten times as much should be about right,” and expect her to waive any pre-set length restrictions.

Oh, s/he can shout it until s/he is blue in the face, if s/he wants to give Millicent and Mehitabel a good laugh. That one should have ‘em rolling in the aisles. But the instant they stop chuckling, either will say, “No, but seriously, where’s your 1-page synopsis?”

So just tell the story of your book, as any other novelist would. As we saw last time, a successful 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective novel need not — and should not — contain any discussion of the narrative choices at all. To revisit our favorite plotline:

1-page Hamlet

Yes, this 1-page synopsis would work equally well for a single-voiced telling of HAMLET as for one that followed Hamlet, his father, his mother, Ophelia, and Horatio around in the tight third person in alternating chapters, now that you mention it. Or even, since a novel synopsis should always be in the third person, no matter what the narrative voice of the book might be, a version where Ophelia and Hamlet narrate in the first person, Hamlet, Sr. and Gertrude’s perspectives are presented in the third person, and the reader is implicitly drafted into operating as both a castle guard and Greek chorus throughout versions told in the second person plural.

The possibilities are endless. A very flexible document, that 1-page synopsis.

Actually, since the synopsis is not the proper place to be discussing point of view choices, anyway, all of you multiple perspective-mongers could extend the same logic to a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis: tell the book’s story precisely as you would if the manuscript did not feature interestingly different point-of-view choices. Seriously, it could work, and very well, too.

Do those hundreds of pencils, pens, and wadded up pages of synopsis draft flying in my general direction mean that some of you don’t believe me? Okay, let’s try an experiment: take a gander at this 3-page synopsis of the same story — and, as always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

All through? Excellent. Now let me ask you: how does the manuscript described in that synopsis tell the story? Is it written in the tight third person? A distant third person? Is it in the voice of an omniscient narrator, or the voice of one of the characters?

Come on, admit it: it’s possible that the book is told in the voices of several of the characters, isn’t it?

Again, that’s not entirely accidental, since a novel synopsis for any of those narrative choices would need to be written in the third person, rather than the voice(s) of the book, and eschew English Lit-class discussion of protagonists and antagonists, right? In fact, any 3-, 5-, or even 8-page novel synopsis could share essentially the same structure — and definitely shares the same goals.

All together now — a longer synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist(s),

(4) show the central story arc(s) through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(5) show how the plot’s primary conflict(s) is resolved.

(6) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

#6 just put some wind back into some diversity of voice-lovers’ sails, didn’t it? “But Anne,” the full-sailed crow triumphantly, “aren’t you hoist with your own petard? How can I possibly demonstrate the voice of the book in my synopsis when my novel is written in 14 distinctly different voices? Obviously, I’m going to need to reserve some page space to explain that — because, equally obviously, I don’t want my beautifully differentiated array of perspectives to be mistaken for some manuscript told entirely from (ugh!) one point of view.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Millicent expects voice and perspective choices to be a pleasant surprise not revealed to her until she actually starts reading the manuscript. So no matter how cleverly constructed your 14 voices might be — and kudos if you’ve managed to make each distinct; after 2-3, multi-voiced narratives often begin to blur a trifle — the synopsis is not the right place to bring them up.

I feel your pain, though, former crowers: this approach probably sounds an awful lot like being told to ignore all of your protagonists but one. “Here we go again,” you’re probably muttering under your breath, “expecting my book to be just like everybody else’s: the story of an interesting person in an interesting situation. By definition, though, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations! How can I possibly choose?”

How about by not choosing to privilege one protagonist over the others? Even in a 3- or 5-page synopsis, your best bet is to tell the story of the book, not the various stories of the characters.

Hey, you did it for the 1-page synopsis, right?

Stop wincing; repeating that nifty trick for the higher dives of the longer synopses may not be as hard as you think. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — necessarily, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried and submitted as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That commonality makes far more sense as focus of your synopsis than many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell the story in your book. Strip the story to its basic elements, and talk about that for 3-5 pages. To be absolutely blunt about it, at the synopsis stage, you’ll probably have an easier time pleasing Millicent with a simplified version of a complex storyline, anyway.

Why, you demand in horrified tones? Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason.

Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from Millicent’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie. That’s even more likely to happen in a pitch — unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear right off the bat how all of those names are all tied together, the pitch-hearer’s eyes will begin to glaze over.

How might that affect even a very careful synopsizer of a multiple-protagonist plot? As I mentioned earlier in Synopsispalooza, it’s actually fairly common for novel synopses to talk about several characters in some detail, leaving Millicent to guess which is the main character. As a matter of expedience, then, most experienced Millicents will simply assume that the first character mentioned by name in a synopsis is the protagonist.

Well might you gasp, writers of multiple points of view. If a synopsis for a multiple protagonist novel were written to be purely reflective of the order of events in the plot — the most popular means of structuring a fiction synopsis, always — and the person who happens first to take action on page 1 is not the primary plot-mover in the rest of the book, Millicent is likely to wonder where he’s gone. She’s also, unfortunately, prone to stop reading if the welter of names gets too confusing.

Yes, yes, I know: for writers of character-heavy prose, this may seem grossly unfair, but try to picture what’s going through Millicent’s head just before she makes the decision to move on to the next query or submission packet. She’s been reading packets for hours on end; if all of the named characters from all of those synopses suddenly rushed into her office, the floor would collapse. Then, with all of those proper names and premises swirling around in her head, her next synopsis begins like this:

Hamlet chronological synopsis

Come on, own up: all of those names had your head spinning by the middle of the second paragraph, didn’t they? Even the most open-minded professional reader would be likely to zone out at that point. There’s just too much to remember.

To those of you who are chortling at the notion that remembering twelve names in two paragraphs might strike anyone as being a heavy intellectual burden, I have a question for you: if you didn’t already know what the play was about, which of those 12 characters would you think was the most important to the story, based upon this account?

Not so easy when you’re on the other side of the submission packet, is it? The play’s not called FRANCISCO, GUARD OF ELSINORE, campers — but I think we can all begin to appreciate why a weary-eyed Millicent in her fifth hour of opening query packets might leap to that conclusion.

Still not convinced that a laundry list of plot points is not the best synopsis strategy for a complex narrative like yours? Including that much detail is an incredibly inefficient use of space. Lest you doubt: the full page above takes us only up to midway through Act I, Scene V; HAMLET has five acts.

At that rate of summation, how many pages would the synopsis have to be to contain the whole plot? 15? 20?

No wonder so many writers of multiple POV novels find themselves banging their foreheads against their computer monitors in frustration over requested synopses, shrieking, “5 pages? That’s impossible! I mean, if they allowed me 10, I might have a chance, but…” A completely understandable reaction, if the goal actually were to boil down the entire plot and narrative choices of a 500-page novel down to those 5 pages.

Fortunately, it’s not. While I sympathize heartily with the angst those head-bangers experience, the problem here isn’t really the length of the synopsis — it’s the writer’s insistence upon seeing the plot and the narrative structure as so inextricably interwoven that story cannot be broken out from it. Thus the frustration: the task of summarizing everything in the manuscript is, in fact, an impossible one.

First-time pitchers often set themselves the same mile-high hurdle, by the way. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake. And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 4.

Out of 27.

How does this happen? Thinking of the book as an integrated whole incapable of dissection, mostly — that, and not having much practice talking about their work with professionals, or even other writers. I’m perpetually astonished by how often first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before approaching an agent. Not having had the experience of observing just how quickly the average hearer’s eyes glaze over, they think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that, in either a pitch or a synopsis. If you ramble on too long in either, the person on the receiving end may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, and emphasize the storyline.

If you are totally at a loss about how to begin to figure out what is essential, enlist the assistance of a sympathetic friend who has not yet read your manuscript. (No fudging on this point, or the exercise won’t work.) Ideally, you’ll want to choose someone with a fine memory and a good sense of humor, as the favor you are about to ask is likely to try her patience.

Find her a comfortable seat, hand her a pad of paper and a pen, and ask her to take notes on the story you are about to tell. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and start talking about your book.

If the time runs out before you have finished with the story, have her tear up her notes before your doubtless watering eyes. (Yes, it’s cruel, but nobody ever said trimming a complex plot was easy, right?) Then reset the timer and start again at the beginning of the book.

Once you have made it all the way through the plot in the allotted time, take a quick glance at her notes, your handy highlighters in hand. Mark every reference to perspective; do the same with any bottom-lining summary statements about characterization along the lines of Bertrand was a busy man. Hand the pad back to your long-suffering friend, grab your own notepad, and ask her to tell the story back to you, leaving out the highlighted parts. Make a note of every major plot point and scene she mentions — and no fair correcting her if she leaves out elements you consider essential.

After you have praised your helpful friend to the skies, promised to heap her with appropriate tokens of your undying gratitude, and sent her home for some well-deserved rest, take a long, hard look at your notes. If someone unfamiliar with the book heard just those bullet points, would he be able to follow the story? If not, what patches would be necessary before he could?

If your list of plot points does not yield an outline that you can use as a structure for a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis, don’t be downhearted — that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The goal here is to help you become comfortable of thinking of your manuscript as a story, not as a collection of words on paper.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? I freely admit it: this is not the kind of practical exercise I usually assign, but it’s essential for anyone tackling the daunting task of writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel to stop thinking of the book as a collection of disparate characters’ stories. There’s a communal story there somewhere. The more often you tell your story out loud beginning to end — and, I must say it, the more sensitive you become to the points at which your hearer begins to fidget with impatience because you’re going into too much detail — the more prepared you will be to sit down and write a synopsis that focuses upon that story, not the narrative tricks.

I know that it’s counterintuitive, but in a synopsis for a complex plot about complex characters, the fewer the narrative tricks, the better, generally speaking. Remember, yours is almost certainly not going to be the only synopsis that Millicent has read recently, and if she is even remotely backlogged, she will be skimming: drawing your plot in broad strokes is more likely to draw her in than super-intense blocks of minute twists.

One of the simplest ways to steer her in the right direction is to talk about only one or two characters in the opening paragraph, setting the stage, as it were, for the rest of the synopsis to be about those people. Clearly, this may not be a viable solution for a novel about, say, 7 or 8 people, unless there happens to be a scene near the opening of the book where they all appear.

In practice, the opposite is often the case: many, many multiple perspective manuscripts don’t bring all of the protagonists together until the final chapter or scene. Yet another reason that organizing the synopsis to be slavishly reflective of the book’s running order, including each and every plot point, may not be helpful at all. In fact, it might even be harmful to the story’s clarity.

But before any of you run rushing I hasten to add: that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to open your synopsis with, Once upon a time, there were 18 protagonists…, either. Or even, in the case of our last example: My version of the Hamlet legend is told from the points of view of five protagonists: Prince Hamlet, his father, his mother, his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Oh, I realize that stating the perspective rules up front might seem like the most straightforward way to minimize the probability of Millicent’s spending the first three pages of your 5-page synopsis waiting for Francisco and Bernardo to dominate the plot once more. I also, from years of teaching pitching and querying classes, am aware that to most writers of multiple-protagonist novels, the point of view choices are the very first thing mentioned when describing their books.

If the number of voices is not the most important fact for Millicent to grasp about the manuscript, this emphasis seems to imply, it’s certainly the most interesting. Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to think of a multiple POV manuscript in this manner: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.

From the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are indeed monumentally important. But from a marketing point of view — which is to say: the view of anybody who has worked at an agency or publishing house, ever — they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

Yes, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written — and yes, that would be a problem, if Millicent genuinely expected a 3- or 5-page synopsis to provide her the same experience as reading the book. Fortunately for the sanity of synopsizers everywhere, however, she knows the difference between a 450-page manuscript and a 5-page synopsis of it.

When I say that a good synopsis gives some indication of the voice and tone of the book, I’m not referring to the literal voices that make up a multi-narrator narrative. I’m talking about literary voice: the way of using words, the rhythm, the vocabulary choices, the sentence structures. In a smoothly integrated multi-voiced narrative, the authorial voice carries over into each and every protagonist’s narration, right?

What I’m suggesting, then, is that for the purposes of writing your longer synopsis, you should mentally separate the overall story from how you have chosen to tell it in the book; continuing to think of them as inextricably linked will render writing a compelling overview significantly more difficult. Instead, try creating an new character — an omniscient third-person narrator who stands outside the story, yet knows everything that’s going on.

Why, that’s you, isn’t it? Who better to tell the book’s story to Millicent in the synopsis?

What’s that you’re wailing, campers? That this advice would require you to come up with yet another narrative voice? Why is that problematic, when part of the point of shoving this synopsis into your query or submission packet is to show Millicent that you can write. If you can — and you can, can’t you? — telling the book’s story in your own voice as the novel’s creator, rather than from the POV of any individual character, should be, if not a walk in the park, at least a doable jog several times around the duck pond.

And, honestly, isn’t it a more interesting challenge than either trying to show each protagonist’s initial situation and conflict in succession in such a short amount of page space or just listing the book’s events in chronological order? It’s certainly more likely to show off your writing talents than the usual first-time synopsis-writer’s method of just summarizing everything in the book as bluntly as possible.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise. Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it make for a strong synopsis tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a paragraph on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on? We tried that yesterday, recall; it looked a little something like this:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

All of those perspectives are distracting from the story, are they not? Not only is the plethora of characters likely to confuse Millicent, but the structure here is repetitious: in granting each protagonist a separate set-up, the synopsis necessarily revisits the premise of the book over and over again. Is that really the best way to convince Millicent that here is a strong story by a writer worth reading?

Don’t let the innovative structure and perspective choices of your book become a liability in your synopsis; you want your storytelling skills to shine. Instead, highlight the major characters by ramping up the character development. And why not show off your good writing and trenchant insights through the inclusion of unexpected little details here and there that she won’t have seen before?

You’re expecting me to toss off a 5-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist version of HAMLET abounding in such details and character development, aren’t you? Well, I’m not going to do it — and not merely because this post is running awfully long, even by my standards. After all, those charming little touches, vivid images, and startling insights into the human condition are going to be different for each authorial voice, aren’t they? So I won’t encourage you to copy me; I’m sure your own literary voice is just itching to come out and play.

Next time, we shall once again be discussing synopsis length — and, if I know myself, probably a few more concrete examples as well. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVII: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

Again you ask why? Veteran synopsis-writers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk about the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent or end up crushing the last two or three into a single sentence at the bottom of the page, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses.

I really do mean it this time, honest. Tune in tomorrow, everybody, and keep up the good work!