Sunday, June 13, 2010

“I am just starting out and have never been published. What should I put in my bio?”


"First of all, thank you so much for all of your posts and your free e-book. I have learned a lot and I greatly appreciate it.


Anyway, I recently read your HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER and I had one question. You mention that a writer should not mention his smaller accomplishments, because it makes him seem like an amateur. I was wondering then, if a writer is just starting out, has never had anything published, and doesn't have a lot of notable things to put in a bio section of a query letter, then what should he put? What can a beginning writer add into the section that will both attract the agent and not make him doubt the writing abilities of the writer? Basically I am young and I have written one novel (which I have tossed) and I am half way through my second one (which I hope to publish one day). Unfortunately I don't have a lot of writing experience that would make an agent interested in reading my manuscript. I don't feel this takes away from the quality of my work but I understand that it may be harder to get someone to look at it in the first place. So anything that you could tell me would be of great help.


Thanks again for all of your work. It helps immensely!"

--Jake


This is a good question, and one which gets asked frequently.

Aspiring authors who don’t have any writing credentials, writing-specific education and/or publication credits (or who only have minor credits), wonder if there exists some magic language that they can add to their query letters to make up for this fact—unfortunately, there is not. No matter how eloquently you phrase your bio, if you do not have the credentials, an agent will know right away; no fancy language will be able to hide this fact, or make up for it.

Thus it’s best to just say it like it is, and state that you have no credentials and that this is your first work (this is not necessarily a strike against you, as there always remains the thrill of discovery). Even better, you can keep the query letter short and not mention anything at all, ending the letter abruptly after your synopsis and concluding sentence. This at least demonstrates self-awareness and word economy.

The alternative (and unfortunately, more common) approach, is for writers to use up several sentences to either list very minor credentials and/or to dance around the fact that they have no credentials, which can end up comprising a good deal of the letter—and, ironically, serves to emphasize a fact you’d prefer to avoid. It also demonstrates lack of word economy, and wastes the agent’s time. The only time it might make sense to elaborate on non-writing related experience is you have had unique life-experience which is directly related to the subject matter of your book (for example, if you have written a crime thriller and spent 30 years working for the FBI).

So, again, if you don’t have credentials substantial enough to impress an agent, then simply don’t say anything, and allow yourself a shorter query letter.

That said, in the big picture, ultimately the solution is for you to make a sustained effort towards gaining those very credentials which will indeed impress an agent. Just because you’ve never been published in a major literary magazine, or attended a prestigious writing program, or hold endorsements from famous authors, doesn’t mean that you can never attain those things on your own: indeed, many authors who land agents have already managed to attain these things on their own.

This points to a greater issue, which is that many first-time authors approach agents with no credentials whatsoever, expecting agents to build their career from scratch. More seasoned authors understand that a successful publishing career is more often a collaboration between agent and author, with the author already bringing much to the table (and continuing to all throughout his career), with the agent there to take him that final step and land him the book deal. Most agents can’t, for example, be expected to devote years to building your resume for you by sending out your short stories to magazines, or applying to writing programs on your behalf, or networking on your behalf for endorsements; there is a certain amount the author must take into his own hands. This proactive, go-getting mentality tends to be present in many successful authors, whereas it tends to be absent in many unsuccessful authors, particularly those who approach agents for the first time (without any credentials).

You can attain major credentials on your own, but first you must prepare for a sustained effort. Instead of a three or six month plan to attain all the credentials you need, why not give yourself a three or six year plan? With that kind of time, you can attend writing programs, workshops, conferences, colonies; spend extensive time networking and build an endorsement list; get stories published in magazines and online; begin to build a platform; and most importantly, hone your craft extensively. This doesn’t mean you need to refrain from approaching agents before you accomplish all of this; on the contrary, as I said, there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials whatsoever, and you can work to achieve all of this concurrently with your approaching the industry. But you should always be working to this end, regardless. There are many specific, concrete steps you can take to help get you there (which I explain at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent), but perhaps the most important step of all is your willingness to devote a sustained, multi-year effort to building your bio on your own.

19 comments:

  1. Excellent input. Thank you for your blog and for your extremely helpful books. Here's a question which I have yet to find on any agent's blog, or internet search: My novel has been submitted to a contest which offers a publishing contract as first prize. The contest rules specify that contract terms are negotiable, and the winner won't be announced for months. As an agent would you recommend that folks who've entered contests wait until winners are announced before querying?

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  2. As for credentials, should you list the conferences or workshops you have attended, or any online courses you have taken to improve your writing skill? I was under the impression that Agents only want to know about publishing credentials, or an MFA, and if you have none of those to offer, just leave that section blank. Especially with the online query submissions, where the agent only wants to spend 2 minutes or less reading about your novel.

    So far, I haven't put anything about myself in my queries. My novel is a women's fiction focused on the effects of drugs/alcohol on domestic violence, but I haven't even put in my social worker or substance abuse degrees

    Jake this is such a controversial question, how and what to list as credentials. I appreciate you submitting it.

    Thanks for your indepth answer Noah. Though it still leaves me with questions, at least I know my efforts at becoming a more skilled writer will benifit me in the "bigger picture".

    .........dhole

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  3. Is any agent, by the rules of the profession, obliged to inform you specifically of where your work has been submitted and give you copies of responses?

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  4. My question has nothing to do with the post.

    What are your thoughts on an author using multiple genres to tell their story, or series? For example, dark fantasy with sub-elements of crime, romance and the paranormal.

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  5. Thanks for the post Noah.

    I didn't realize until after reading your post how much writers have to try to promote their work and themselves before contacting an agent.

    You see, though I want to write novels, I've never had the desire to be a journalist or to write magazine articles. I have written short stories before but they were just for fun. Even my poetry I don't take seriously and was always for personal enjoyment.

    That's why it wouldn't occur to me to try and get something published in a literary magazine. I do want to get my novels published if it means I can write full time.

    The only thing I could put down in my bio is the fact that I did a literary degree. There was a creative writing component taught by author Blake Morrison. Even then I'm not sure if this would constitute as something worth pointing out in a query letter.

    Your post made me think.

    It reminded me of what I had to do to get my first acting agent. Like with the writing, when it came to the acting, I knew nothing and knew no one in the industry. But sometimes knowing nothing about an industry, gives you the foolish courage to pursue it. I didn't go to drama school or could afford to when I looked into it. What I did was I got out there and spoke to anyone who would speak to me about their passion for film. I acted in short films back to back and got a showreel from that. I had gone as far as I could without an agent. By the time I tried looking for one - I had a website, a showreel and some acting credits.

    Now, from your post, I'm beginning to think I may have to try and get something published no matter how small.

    But why dabble or force myself to write short stories when it's not what I want to write? Like with acting, theatre acting was something I wasn't keen on so I concentrated on screen acting. I just want to write novels.

    Thanks for making me think.

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  6. I was in the same situation and had to push myself into achieving a few credentials in the first place. You're right- not having them can be a great motivator

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  7. Hi Noah,

    Great blog. I have a question unrelated to this post - after firing an agent, can she use the options clause in your publishing contract between you and your publisher to claim a commission on future works?

    Thank you.

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  8. Hi Noah,

    I have few creditentials as a screenwriter and director (I even won an award with a short movie), but I have no creditentials as an author. Sometimes I have the sense that these creditentials means nothing in the book business, but maybe I'm wrong. Do you have any advice how should I approach literary agents with this background?

    Also, I'm a qualified graphic artist and I love to create sketches and draws for all my works and my new novel is not an exception (It's website is in my signature.). So, my second question is: do you have any advice how to present this website effectively in our query?

    Thank you for your answer.

    Regards,

    Istvan

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  9. I'm new to your blog, Noah, but I do have your book, The First Five Pages. (It's sitting behind my laptop.)

    Thanks for being specific in your answer about bios. I have been perusing the magazine submission lists, in order to attain some clips, so this is very timely for me. It encourages me to get focussed with my writing.

    I'm starting to review books on my blog, in a monthly format, purely for information (not an Amazon venture). Do you have any objection to my posting a review of your book on my blog?

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  10. Thanks for the email and link to this blog. I check it fairly often but saw I hadn't officially "followed."

    I assume you found me from my blogpost on avoiding bogus agents. If you left a comment, it was eaten by Blogger, which has munched on a most of my comments today. A new and crazymaking form of glitch.

    I look forward to your newsletter. I assign your classic book The First Five Pages to all my editing clients so they'll understand the principles of good writing. It's an elegant little book.

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  11. Thank you for the insight.

    Many agents now accept email queries. Generally speaking, however, agents who accept email queries want only a query via email, whereas the same agent is often willing to accept a synopsis and/or sample when queried via snail mail.

    In light of this trend, I wonder whether an aspiring author does him or herself a disservice by querying an agent via email. It seems to me that not only is a hard copy query more likely to catch an agent's attention, but the opportunity to get your material, either in part or in whole, in front of the agent from the get-go would provide an author with a greater chance of success. That said, the snail mail query is obviously more labor intensive and costly.

    What are your thoughts on query methodology?

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
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  13. Great blog and a very helpful post here. I was wondering what you thought of listing a blog as a credential? I write one about gardening and my children's' book is about a friendly insect. Does that count as a writing credential? or should I just leave it out? Many thanks.

    Kate

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  14. Hi, Noah. I'm new to your blog but have found it very insightful and informative. I'll soon be beginning the query process and was planning to deal with my lack of experience by keeping things short and to the point. I'm glad to see that this approach seems sound.

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  15. Question on queries. There seems to be 2 schools of thought:

    The business-like query that sums up the story in one graph, descibes the potential market for the work in a second, and author bio (if there is one) in the third; or...

    The 'show the hook, and some interesting details; the agent will decide if it hits the market window' type of query.

    Is one more appropriate than the other, is it an agent-by agent matter of preference...any guidance here appreciated!

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