Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Write a Bio Paragraph in Your Query Letter

I'm trying out a new technique in the blog post title today-- the "On" was starting to get a little cutesy, and maybe this will help SEO results, or something. (I have no idea what I'm talking about there.)

Ms. Snip asked a great question in the comments on last week's post about Brian's query letter: what do you put in a bio paragraph if you have nothing relevant to say? In Ms. Snip's case, she writes SF/fantasy/paranormal, but without any credits to her name yet, it's hard to come up with much that's really going be "pertinent" for query letter purposes.

You still need a bio paragraph, though. So what do you write?

Start by looking at your bookshelf (or the "About the Author" section of the book's page on the B&N or Amazon site, if you're a power Nook or Kindle user. [I have a Kindle but I am e-platform agnostic.]) What do your favorite authors in your genre include in their bio?

Brian Selznick's new book Wonderstruck happens to be sitting at my elbow as I write this (a carrot for finishing enough of my work-related reading!), so let's take a look at his bio. I'll skip the stuff about his Caldecott medal and other awards, since if you had a Caldecott to your name you wouldn't need my advice on what to put in your bio. But after the description of his books and awards, it says:

"He has worked as a set designer and a puppeteer. When he isn't traveling to research and talk about his work all over the world, he lives in San Diego, California and Brooklyn, New York."

If you know Selznick's work, you know the puppeteering actually is relevant, but in any case it's a compelling detail, don't you think? That's the kind of thing I want you to include.

I got a really terrific query last year which included the detail in the author's bio that she had attended clown college. No, really. It had nothing to do with the novel, but doesn't that make you want to know more about the author as a person? That's your goal. Get me interested in you, so I get interested in your work.

You're probably getting the idea that I want everybody to have something really out there or circus-related in their bios. You don't have to take up stilt-walking to impress me, but a detail that really makes you stand out in a crowd is a great thing to have. That pun in the last sentence was unintentional but I am leaving it in anyway. Sorry.

Other ideas: if your novel is historical fiction, and you have some relationship to the material (my author Pamela Schoenewaldt lived in Italy for ten years before writing the immigrant novel When We Were Strangers), tell me that in the bio.

If you're a member of a professional writing organization, such as SCBWI or SFWA or the Historical Novels Society or RWA, tell me that in the bio. Note that not all of these organizations require you to be published before becoming a member, so it can be a good way to underscore your ambition and your sincerity, as well as your professional commitment. It can also be a great way to find a local or online critique group of fellow writers. (Disclaimer: I am an associate member of RWA, but I am not involved in the governance of any of these organizations, and nothing I say here should be taken as an endorsement of any of them. Do your own research and make your own decisions.)

I mentioned critique groups in the previous paragraph. If you're a member of a critique group of writers in your genre, tell me that in your bio. The critique group says to me that you're serious about your craft. In the case of picture books, for example, I can't tell you how many queries I receive from people who made up a story for their children/grandchildren/kindergarten class and decided to publish it-- and all of that is great, but a critique group or an SCBWI membership would hint to me that the author has done his or her homework on what's actually selling in the picture book market right now. (The butterfly who learns to share her toys? It's been done.)

Do you live somewhere? Tell me that in the bio. If and when your work finds a publisher, there will always be a built-in local audience for the work. The local papers will feature you, the local bookstore will probably want to do a reading, the local writing groups will want you to come and tell them the story of how you "made it." Furthermore, there are several cities in the U.S. that are reading meccas, with a high concentration of book buyers. Seattle is one. New York is another. San Francisco, L.A., Denver, Portland OR, Atlanta, and Chicago also all make the list. It is no bad thing, from a publisher's perspective, if you live in or near one of these places.

About your pets and your kids: use your discretion. I think a lot of people really like this detail in their favorite authors' bios, because it helps to humanize the author in their minds, but I also think this can cross the line into weirdsville. I admit to shuddering a bit when someone refers to their "furbabies" (though I've always adored my own pets), and if I learned that someone had seventeen kids, that's probably moved me from "I can identify with this person" to "I can't IMAGINE" territory. I say mention it if you want to, especially if you don't have a lot of other things to say in this section of your query. But if you have a pet capybara, you better send a picture.


Ms. Snip said...

Thanks for this - that was incredibly helpful!! :)

Anonymous said...

Very helpful, as always. And thanks, too, to Ms. Snip for requesting it.
I'm off to enjoy the day with my seventeen furbabies. >:D

Courtney Miller-Callihan said...

Give those furbabies lots of smoochies from me! ;)

Tone said...

I found this article via Google because I was trying to write a bio. Interesting stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write it out. Now all I have to do is go to clown college!

Emma Glour said...

Wow, great post.

Emma Glour said...

Thanks Miller for this homepage. You talk about rules writing the biography in the letter. I have read this rules and Now I am clear about biography writing. I am waiting for next post.

Shapath Das said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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