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!"


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.