How to Write an Author Bio When You Don't Feel Like an Author…Yet

Maybe you've got a novel finished and you’ve been sending out queries. Lots. And you’re getting rejections. Lots. Or worse, that slow disappointment of no response at all.

Or maybe you write short fiction and poetry and you've got a bunch of pieces you've been sending out to contests and literary journals. You've won a few local contests, but so far you haven't had much luck getting into print.

You may still be afraid to tell more than a handful of people you're a writer. You'd feel pretentious calling yourself an "author."

But it might be time to start—at least privately.

Because one day, in the not too distant future, you'll open your email and there it will be:

The response from an editor: "You're the winner of our October 'Bad Witch' short story contest. We'd like to publish your story, Glinda: Heartbreaker of Oz in our next issue. Please send us your Author Bio."

Or just when you were giving up hope, you get that reply from your dream agent: “I’m intrigued by your novel Down and Out on the Yellow Brick Road. Please send the first fifty pages, and an Author Bio.”

You're so excited you're jumping out of your skin, so you dash something off in five minutes and hit "send."  Wow. You're going to be in print! Or maybe get an agent. Let's get this career on the road!

Whoa. You do NOT want to dash off an author bio in five minutes. Every word you send out there is a writing sample, not just those well-honed pages or stories.

So, write it now. Yes. Right now. Before you send off another query or enter another contest. Even though you've never published anything but the Halloween haiku that won second prize in your high school newspaper.

Actually, you want to write two bios: A paragraph suitable for a magazine byline, and a longer one-page version for sending to agents and later posting on your website, blog, etc.

How to Write an Author Bio

Title it only with your name. Write in third person. Keep to about 250 words: one page, double-spaced--or 1/2 page single-spaced, if you include a photo above it. (I advise against this unless it’s specifically requested or you have a great, up-to-date, professional photo that makes you look like a contestant on one of those Top Model shows.)

You’re aiming for a style similar to book jacket copy. The purpose is to make yourself sound professional and INTERESTING.

This may be perfectly accurate:  “Mrs. H. O. Humm is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Middle America with her dentist husband, 2.4 children and a dog named Rex.”

But a bio is all about making yourself stand out. “Hermione Oz Humm was born in the Emerald City and is an expert balloonist, ventriloquist and voice-over performer.”

Things to consider including:

1) Whatever might make you newsworthy: OK, so you aren’t the baby who got rescued from that well forty years ago, and you never cheated on Robert Pattinson, but whatever is quirky or unusual about you, trot it out. Keep homing pigeons? Run marathons? Cook prize-winning chili? Put it in.

2) Work history: Here’s where you say you’re a welder or a fourth grade teacher or whatever, even if it isn’t related to the subject matter of your book.

NB: Don’t call yourself a “novelist” if you haven’t published one.

If you’re seriously underemployed and want to keep it to yourself, you can call yourself a “freelance writer,” but consider saying what else you do, even if it’s less than impressive. I remember when Christopher Moore’s first book, Practical Demonkeeping, came out and all the Central Coast papers ran stories about how a “local waiter” had just sold a book to Disney. If he’d called himself a “writer” there would have been no story.

3) Where you live: Your hometown might make a good focus for marketing. Plus people like to be able to picture you in your native habitat.

4) Education: This includes Workshops or Writers Conferences as well as formal education—especially if you worked with a high-profile teacher. If you took a playwriting workshop with Edward Albee, even if it was 30 years ago, go ahead and say so.

5) Life experience and hobbies
 that relate to the book, or fascinate on their own: If you collect vintage Frisbees, and the book is about angsty teen werewolves at a Frisbee contest, include it. If you invented the Frisbee, it doesn’t matter what your book is about: toot that horn!

6) Travel/exotic residences: “Rudy Kipling once took a two-week tour of Asia,” meh. But “Mr. Kipling was born in Bombay and spent a year as the assistant editor of a newspaper in Lahore,” is something you want them to know.

7) Writing credentials/prizes: Here’s where you can list some of those credits in small presses and prizes that didn’t fit in your query. Include any books you’ve published, even if they were in a different field.

If you're writing this for an agent or publisher, remember books that didn't sell well are going to work against you with a marketing department, so you might want to leave out self-published books if your sales weren't in the thousands. You should also skip older books self-published with a vanity press, unless your sales were spectacular.

8) Family: Use discretion here. If you write for children and have some of your own, it would be useful to mention them. If your family has an interesting claim to fame (like your sister just won an Olympic medal) or if family history has made you uniquely qualified to write this book (Your grandfather was Dwight Eisenhower's valet and you're writing about the Eisenhower/Kay Summersby affair.)

9) Performing history: It’s helpful to show you’re not paralyzed by the thought of public speaking. You can mention you’re the president of your local Toastmasters, or host a jug band program on a public access station, or you played the Teapot in last year’s production of Beauty and the Beast at the local community theater. 

10) Your online presence: This is where you can mention your blog. Also put in your twitter handle and list what other social media you participate in.

How to Write a Short Author Bio

Again, write in third person. For the first sentence, this format works pretty well:

 "Name is a ______ who lives in ______ and does ______. "

Then you can add one or two of the following:

1. S/he is a member of _____ (if you're a member of any writing organizations like RWA or SCBWI)

2. S/he has won_____ (writing awards—yes, you can mention the Halloween haiku.)

3. S/he has been published in _____ .

4. S/he has a degree in _____ from_______.

Then add something interesting and unique about yourself, preferably something related to the piece, like:

"S/he played Glinda the Good Witch in a Middle School production of The Wizard of Oz."  

When writing these bios, think like a reporter. What would make good copy in a news release? Think unique, quirky or funny.

All set? Good. Now go look in the mirror and say, "hello, author!"

Then sit down at the computer and write those bios. Right now!

NOTE to queriers: neither of these author bios should automatically go into a query letter.

Only send a bio if it's specifically requested.

The paragraph about yourself in your query letter should be as short as possible and written in the first person. Unlike an author bio, a query shouldn't include any mention of what you do for bucks (unless it relates to the book.) Also leave out the fun stuff about family, pets, and personal history. 

Give only your most significant publishing credits plus your writing organizations or recent writing conferences you've attended*. Mention education only if it's directly related to your writing. ("I have a degree in creative writing from Pomona College, where I studied novel structure with David Foster Wallace.")

How about you, scriveners? Do you have those bios ready? Have you ever dashed off a quick bio and regretted it later? At what point do/did you start calling yourself an author?

Just off the presses! The ebook of Shirley S. Allen's second novel, Roxanna Britton is now available on Amazon in the US and the UK. It's based on the true story of how my great, great grandmother pioneered in the American West, and it's also a charming romance and great women's fiction. Little House on the Prairie meets Jane Austen.

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