“Please send us a short biographical statement and, if relevant, a few words about your story.”
Words that ring joy and fear in any writer’s heart. You see that line when you’ve sold a story to an editor – that’s the joy.
Then you realize: you now have to talk about yourself. To an audience. Ah. There’s the fear.
So what’s a joyfearful writer to do?
Behold: several advice-snippets from writers and editors who’ve been here before. (The words ‘funny’ and ‘cheeky’ came up more than once when I asked for tips. But be careful – humor is tough and tone doesn’t always carry over into text. No ironic font for you.)
- Author Blair Macgregor: Tell me something that says you’re alike enough to relate but different enough to be interesting, *then* tell me accomplishments.
- Editor and author Michael D. Thomas: Informative with maybe one or two short, cheeky lines. Avoid extreme overselling or underselling of accomplishments. (Michael adds more helpful tips, below.)
- Author Bethany Powell: I like ones that match the tone of the piece, if a poem, or give a sense of the writer’s style on a story, but show sense: if you’re not funny*, keep it brief but interesting. Long lists of accomplishments are always boring. Use cool ones as garnish, not meat.
I’ll tell you straight, my bio attempt for the first sf story I sold was a disaster. The kind of disaster when you show it to your friends they pull you aside and say ‘oh, honey, no.’ I’d been going for funny and tripped right into confusion. Took a couple steps back and … well, it still wasn’t all that funny, but it was better. A few versions later, and I’ve got a stripped-down couple of sentences that I can adjust based on the market.
Fran Wilde is a writer and technology consultant. She can also tie various sailing knots, set gemstones and program digital minions. She blogs at franwilde.wordpress.com.
Sometimes I add in recent publications. Sometimes I add a snappy opening (when I can think of a good one). Sometimes I talk about Cooking the Books. It depends. Always, I keep it short, and true.
My feeling on bios is that this is the chance to introduce yourself to a new reader. You have to assume that this is the first time they’ve heard of you. You need to cater your bio to the project and audience, but in general I believe that this is the ideal:
- Snappy opening.
- Noteworthy works and awards.
- Latest Projects.
- Personal, slightly cheeky last sentence. This is the time to also talk about any personal links to that project.
Where I see things go wrong:
- Too much self-deprecating humor. If you playfully slam yourself or your work too much in your bio, the reader will just agree with you.
- Underselling your accomplishments. You and many others might think you’re well known, but you always have to assume the reader has never heard of you. Being a SFWA Grandmaster with 20 Hugos doesn’t mean you should just say, “Author x writes things.” Trust me, not everybody is aware of all of the greats of the industry.
- Overselling your accomplishments. I realize that you may want to promote yourself and prove you belong in that project, but your work will do that for you. Don’t list too many of your self-published books, minor ‘zine sales, or minor awards. It’s nice that you placed second in a local newspaper writing contest, but most reader won’t care, especially if your bio is included next to an accomplished writer’s.
The tricky thing with bios is you want to sound charming, which leads you to trying to sound funny, which can lead you to sounding desperate or worse, and we obsess over them as if everyone will read them which of course isn’t true. People read the writer’s bio if they like the story (in which case, don’t sweat it; you’ve already done the hard part), or if they’re trying to get a sense of the magazine’s quality by examining where the authors have published before in which case they go straight to the italicized words. Or they’re recently accepted writers who are trying to figure out how to write a bio…
I like forms, and I like simplicity, so I think you can’t go wrong with: [Name] graduated from [school] with a degree in [field]. [Pronoun] lives in [place] where [pronoun] [verb] [short phrase]. [Pronoun] work has appeared or is forthcoming in [Journal], [Journal], and [Journal].
It also seems to be a trend to list the other occupiers of one’s living space: cats, spouses, mutant animals with preternatural martial arts skills. Overall I’m not fond of any pet mention unless the pet is really special in some way. Like the pet actually wrote the story or is certified in biomedical physics. Hobbies are equally popular though again, I’d only stick with unusual hobbies. Scrapbooking is boring, and expected of an artistic person. Competitive scrapbooking at least has an air of mystery to it (is it a full contact sport?). But beware letting it become your “thing.” I’m not sure I’d want to be known as the writer who collects blown tires from NASCAR races, and I’m sure one day we’ll find out that Mary Robinette Kowal didn’t become a professional puppeteer until she made it up for a bio and then had to go out and actually learn an entire profession from the ground up because at conventions people kept saying “Oh! It’s Mary! The professional puppeteer!” and Mary, ever the dedicated artist, learned to make bear heads and to voice act and all that other stuff just to keep up the pretense. Or something like that.
All excellent points – thank you Michael and Helena!
And you, dear reader, since you’ve read so far, have earned a prize: The Psuedo-Biographical-Generator.
So now what about you? How do you write your bio? (or what did your biographical mad-lib produce?)