Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bio Critique #1: Ms. Snip

image (c) Kevin Connors. url: http://mrg.bz/xzy4w6
I'm experimenting with using images more frequently in my blog posts-- okay, ever. I'd love your feedback. Do you like blog posts to have a picture, always, or do you care? Is it worth the few extra minutes on my part?

Today, I'm delighted to say, we begin our three-part series of bio paragraph critiques, from the winners of last week's writing prompt contest. I'm going in the order in which I received these, so first up is Ms. Snip.

I've edited out some of the personal information, mostly for privacy reasons, but I hope it's still legible enough to be useful to everyone.

Without further ado.

[TITLE] is a 77,000-word YA Paranormal set in [Really evocative town name], Ohio and my debut novel. A native Ohioan, I grew up not far from [Really evocative town name] and the setting is largely based on my childhood hometown. I started out writing Appalachian ghost stories in high school, and was the editor of the school's literary journal. I now live in [City], Texas, where I work for a small, private university as a Residence Hall Director. I am a member of several critique groups and online writing communites, such as the [professional writers' group, details relevant to the novel but not to my critique].

Courtney's critique: You're doing a lot of things right here. I like that you open the "bio paragraph" with the novel's specs, rather than jumping right into the personal details. Based on the rest of your query (which I haven't included here, obviously), it's clear that you've got the genre right-- a plus. The length is also appropriate for the category.

From there, you launch into your personal connection to the story (good), a bit about your writing history (mostly good-- on which more below), and a bit about your non-writerly life (which I always like to see).

My main concern about this as a bio is that it's a little bit bland, and given the way you've structured the rest of the query letter (this is basically the final paragraph), that's not really the impression you want to leave me with.

Caveat: most of what I'm about to say applies only to novels.

I think there are as many "right" ways to write a query letter as there are agents to read them (we are a rather, ahem, opinionated bunch), but when I'm reading a query from a would-be client, I want the query letter to convince me of several things:
1. This is a book I want to read.
2. This is a book I'd like to sell.
3. This is an author who's got a great career ahead of her.
4. This is a person I'll enjoy getting to know.

I think you can tell from my list that the bio paragraph carries a lot of weight. So let's concentrate, for now, on #3 and #4, as they specifically apply to your bio paragraph.

#3 is covered mostly by your professional (writing) credentials: those critique groups and that online professional writer's group. These are good, but you can go further. Even if you're really, really new to blogging and Twitter and Google + and all those other ways of avoiding your WIP, mention that you do them in your query. I'm still a total n00b at all that stuff, but it's clear to me that if I kept at it diligently for a year (about the period of time it's likely to take a publisher to publish your book), I could raise my platform considerably, particularly on Twitter. So don't worry about your blog's clout or your number of Twitter followers or any of that stuff (unless it's good news, in which case YES MENTION IT).

You're not telling me that you blog or tweet in order to brag; you're telling me that because it's a shorthand for "I understand that I, as a 21st-century writer, will be expected to participate heavily in my publisher's marketing and publicity plans. I intend to be a Team Player in this regard, and I'm doing what I can to educate myself about social media marketing even before a contract is signed."

So that's #3. We know you have a blog, or you wouldn't have been able to participate in the writing prompt contest-- so go ahead and mention it even if you generally only post pictures of your cats. Because we all know how the internet feels about pictures of cats.

On, then, to #4. This is where I would put the detail about your adolescent interest in Appalachian ghost stories. (Can we talk sometime about how messed-up it is that "adolescent" is a derogatory term in American English? Because it is, it's messed up. I of course don't mean it in a derogatory sense here.) Ms. Snip, I think you've successfully walked a fine line here, offering evidence that you've been interested in writing (and in the paranormal) for a long time, without making the mistake I once saw in a real query, where the author told me he/she was 29 years old and had been writing for 24 years. Um...

I haven't read the manuscript, obviously, but one way I would tweak this is to say something like "Parts of the novel stem from a lifelong interest in Appalachian ghost stories, which I've been playing with in my writing since my days as editor of the high school literary magazine." (I ran the lit mag too! Nerd girl high five.) This statement, if accurate, is the kind of thing that would show up in professional reviews of your novel (Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal), and interviews with you after the book is published. It also hints at a body of source material that you can draw on for your future books (aha! we're back to number 3!).

I'd also try to work in one more detail about yourself. I can't tell you what this should be, because of course I don't really know you yet-- but if this were my query letter, I'd be trying to recapture the quirky, humorous tone you've used in the plot summary paragraphs of the query. (Which I haven't included here. Sorry, everybody.) You don't need big achievements or crazy hobbies, either. Something that ties it back a little bit to the novel would be nice. If I wrote a sports novel, for example, I'd note in my bio paragraph that the only "athletic" trophy I won in childhood was for a beanbag toss in the Brownie Girl Scouts. (True story. And don't think I didn't display that trophy proudly in my room for years afterward, too.)

It's not always about the "wow factor," in other words. Sometimes it's just about impressing me with the quality of your writerly voice.

If I get to the end of your query impressed with both you and with the pitch for the book you're querying me about, you've done everything right.

Up tomorrow, schedule permitting: Christi Corbett's bio critique. See you then!


Sara Rayne said...

Thank you so much for the critique!It was chock full of useful info.
I do have a question - can I include the blog and twitter information with my contact info, or does it need to have it's own line in the bio paragraph?

Courtney Miller-Callihan said...

I'm glad you liked it! I'd put it in the bio paragraph, honestly-- I tend to not spend a lot of time looking at the author's contact info under the signature unless I'm about to get in touch. That sort of thing, I don't think it's a problem to double-up on, especially if your bio needs a little "oomph."

Anonymous said...

This was a very thorough critique and you were very generous with your information.

And now I know I should include my blog/twitter/FB info in my bio :)

Looking forward to mine!

Christi Corbett

Sara said...

Thanks for this critique! (And well done, Ms. Snip!) It's really helpful. I hadn't thought to put the social media information in the bio (instead had it under contact info as Christi, above, does).

As for the picture question: I say, don't bother. I come here for the content and I'd rather have those extra few minutes of CMC-time spent on that aspect instead of the aesthetics. :)

Thanks again!

Shoshanna Evers said...

Out of curiosity, what number of Twitter followers would you say is "good news"? Is there a minimum you'd like to see for a writer to mention it?

Also, I love images in blog posts - but usually only if they correlate to the subject matter. So for a post like this one, for example, a pic of your slush pile would be awesome (if anyone has physical slush piles anymore, LOL), or perhaps an LOL Cat with your own little saying on it - I made one once where a cat was sitting on a computer and glaring and it said "Literary agent cat rejects ur query" :)

Anonymous said...

About the pictures, I'd say post one if you think it's really relevant, but don't worry about finding a picture for every post just for the sake of having a picture. I've tried that before on previous blogs and it's just not worth it. Your time is more valuable than that, IMO.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yeah, I would never think to include my networking stuff in the bio so appreciate that tip.

And let's see...pics. I think pics are attention-grabbers--and sometimes, I'll stop and read a longish post with a pic because it *feels* shorter than just a bunch of words. Makes no sense, but there you have it.

Sara Rayne said...

One more question (and this is a little embarrassing), what if you have no followers? On the blog or on twitter? Building is one thing, but if you are literally at ground zero, does that speak poorly of you?

Courtney Miller-Callihan said...

Ms. Snip, it's a good question-- and honestly, everyone starts somewhere. I'd frame it as an "I am new at this" kind of thing-- it's more important that you're clear in your bio that you're willing to learn and to participate in anything the publisher wants you to do to help the book. The results are really mixed about how much difference this kind of thing actually makes to book sales (see my note about bestselling authors' twitter numbers in the next post), so I wouldn't get too wound up about it. You're trying to self-educate, and that is a great thing. (Along these lines, I have a copy for Twitter for Dummies that I still haven't read-- maybe I'll do a giveaway on the blog after I finally read it, so someone else can reap the benefits.)

Barbra said...

You make a good point about the importance of the author bio. It's become an expected part of the submission.