The third part of your fiction book proposal is your biography: who are you and why should a literary agent care?
To recap, a great fiction book proposal essentially breaks down into five elements:
- About Your Book and the Target Market (What can you do for us?).
- Your “Comparables” (What’s your niche?).
- Your Biography (Who are you and why should we care?).
- Marketing and Publicity (How can you help me to help you?)
- Sample Pages
Today, we’re going to talk about how to write an effective biography.
Arguably, this should be the easiest part of your fiction book proposal. You’ve known you your whole life, after all! No one knows you better!
And that’s precisely the problem. You have about a page (typed, double-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman font) to tell the agent/publisher everything about your life that is relevant to them.
This section of a fiction book proposal provides detailed information about you, in relation to your book, and serves to communicate your credibility as an author. Why should the agent, the publisher, and ultimately the reader believe that you’ve written a book that will keep them riveted until the last page and not regret having ever heard of you?
Be confident, you can do this.
No, let me be clear. You have to do this!
- Have you published any of your writing?
- What other writing have you done in the past (e.g. journals, letters, stories, articles, blogs, column, speeches, workshops, seminars, training curriculums, books, etc.), and… how much?
- List any of the following that might be relevant: education; professional accomplishments; volunteer, community, and business affiliations; honors, awards, and prizes; associations, professional groups and/or other organizations that you’re part of; avocations, hobbies, and/or enthusiasms.
- Have you attended any writers’ groups, retreats, seminars, workshops, or conferences… or, have you ever worked with a professional book coach, consultant, or editor?
- Provide a 50-250 word bio.
Get Over Yourself
People often feel uncomfortable when called upon to describe themselves like this, and the bio section of the form is often one of the weak points of a submission, where writers come across badly, or miss opportunities to come across well.
If you’re a debut author, don’t be embarrassed about being unpublished. Everybody has to make their debut sooner or later. Many editors love to discover new authors. I think every editor has the secret dream of being Maxwell Perkins and discovering the next great F. Scott Fitzhemingway. So being unpublished is nothing to be ashamed of.
But on the other hand, don’t make a big deal about being unpublished either. Writing may be your lifelong passion, and seeing your work in print may be your life’s ambition, but this is a professional communication, and pouring your heart out looks unprofessional. Don’t harp on the years you’ve been writing without publication, as this won’t instill much confidence in the reader. The famous Beatles song, “Paperback Writer” is a perfect example of how a debut author should not to write a bio. “It took me years to write, will you take a look?”
If you have previous publications under your belt, only list relevant publications. You may have worked on technical manuals in the 1990s, or have written grant proposals, or 2,000 search-engine-optimized descriptions of women’s lingerie, but none of that has any bearing on your abilities as a novelist. If you mention this kind of experience at all, do so only in passing.
And if you have a lot of previous publications, only list the highlights. Be proud of all of your credits, but pick highlights when you’re trying to impress other people, and choose those highlights based on where you’re submitting. A fantasy agent may not care about the many short-stories you’ve placed with romance magazines and anthologies, unless there’s some fantasy angle to those publications.
For an agent who doesn’t know you from Eve, it’s reassuring to learn of credentials or experience relevant to the subject matter of the story. So list anything relevant to the specific story under submission. If the story is a military thriller, and you’re a soldier, a pilot, or a marine, say so. If the story is set in some historical period, and you’ve studied in that area, that’s good to know. Mentioning your credentials in that area will give the editor confidence. Don’t panic if you’ve nothing relevant to mention, though: we’re dealing in fiction, after all.
Say something about who you are. A few words (and no more) to say where you live and what you do can really make a good impression. If it’s not relevant to the story then don’t dwell on it, but it’s still worth a mention.
Mention academic qualifications, but don’t dwell on them. If you have a writing qualification or certificate, again this is something that you should mention, but don’t give the impression that you think it’s all you need. Many an MFA program is really just designed to be a cash-cow for the sponsoring university, and many great writers have never had a specialized fiction writing course. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” A university degree is no guarantee of success.
Keep it focused. Although it’s good to have a couple of basic bios ready to go, on individual submissions take a few moments to make sure that they’re relevant to the agent or publisher to whom you’re submitting and the story you’re sending.
Keep it brief and professional. The bio really just needs to be 50-250 words, no more. Stick to the point, don’t repeat yourself, and avoid any spelling mistakes.
And absolutely, positively never grind your axe. Let me repeat that: Don’t do it. Writing—like publishing—is a personal business, and we all have pet peeves that frustrate us, or disappointments in our past. But your fiction book proposal isn’t the place to air those grievances. Your potential editor or agent does not want to hear about your dislike for electronic books, or what a crap-sack life falls to the lot of poor, woe-begotten writers such as yourself. Remember, you’re a happy, flexible, laid-back person, and everyone considers you a joy to work with, damn it.
So go ahead, practice writing your official author biography! For once, it really is all about you!
Next week, we’ll take a look at one of the most difficult pieces of the fiction book proposal puzzle: the Marketing and Publicity plan. But until then, write well and write on!