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!

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