Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 11.49.53 PMGIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: jenniferkirkeby won.)

In my opinion, a good query letter is broken down into three parts – the quick intro, the pitch, and the bio. Strangely enough, the third section (the bio) often generates the most questions and uncertainty with writers. In fact, when I speak at writers’ conferences on the topic of how write a query letter, there are typically a ton of questions about this small paragraph. So with that in mind, I have tried to cobble together some notes on what to include and what not to include in a query letter at the end when you’re talking about yourself and your writing.

FICTION VS. NONFICTION

Before you read on, you need to realize that the bio section of a query letter is a completely different beast for fiction vs. nonfiction. If you’re writing nonfiction, the bio section is typically long, and of the utmost importance. This is where you list out all your credentials as well as the greatest hits of your writer platform. The importance of a nonfiction bio cannot be overstated. It has to be fat and awesome. Fiction bios, however, can be big or small or even not there at all. Most of the questions and notes I address below are discussing the murky waters of fiction query bios.

YES: INCLUDE THESE ELEMENTS IN YOUR BIO

  • Mention prior traditionally published books. This is the top bio credit you could have — past traditionally published books. Always mention the title, year and publisher. Beyond that, you could quickly mention an award your previous book won, or some praise it received.
  • List any published short stories. If you got paid for them or they ended up in a respected journal, that is always a great thing to mention. It immediately proves you’ve got fiction writing cred.
  • Discuss self-published books that sold well. If you had past self-published books that sold well, feel free to quickly discuss them. Such discussion will show you already have a small (or big!) audience and know how to market. Concerning what number of sales is impressive, I would say you should sell at least 7,500 e-books before an agent will be impressed. Truthfully, the number thrown around at a recent conference was 20,000, but I believe that’s pretty high. (Note that your target number of book sales must represent true sales — not books downloaded when you gave them away for free as part of some kind of promotion.)
  • Tell if you’ve penned articles for money. Feel free to skip titles and just list publications. For example: “I’ve written articles for several magazines and newspapers, including the Cincinnati Enquirer and Louisville Magazine.” Brevity is appreciated here. The agent can inquire if they want more info.
  • Divulge awards won. The bigger and more impressive, the better. For example, if your manuscript was a finalist for the RWA’s Golden Heart Award, that’s a big deal. If you won third place in a local writers group contest where the group was so small that there is no chance to agent has heard of it, that award is likely worth skipping in the bio. Use your best judgment here.
  • Share if you’re active in a recognized, nationwide organization – such as the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the American Medical Writers, etc.
  • If you have an MFA. However, simply having a basic degree in English is common enough that a mention will likely not help you.
  • State your profession if it connects to the book. I wasn’t sure about this one until I heard several agents saying they wanted to know. What this means is that if you’re writing a legal thriller and you’re a lawyer, say so. Same thing for doctors writing about medicine/hospitals, musicians writing about musical protagonists, and so on.
  • Your research — but ONLY if it involves travel and seems like something amazing. If you’re writing a book with a Native-American protagonist, it’s not worth mentioning that you have done “heavy research on the subject.” (That makes it sound like you’ve scoured the web and read a few books — nothing that will knock anyone’s socks off.) But … if you spent two years living among the Sioux people on a reservation, then is that worth mentioning? I say yes. It’s research on a whole new level. If your novel is set in Paris and you worked there for 10 years as a translator, then say so.
  • Explain your platform if you feel like certain elements are impressive. Nonfiction writers must discuss platform at length. Fiction writers don’t need to discuss such elements, but certainly can if they believe they’ve made notable progress in an area. If you’re a blogger for a big YA Authors blog, say so. If you contribute to The Huffington Post or other websites/newsletters of note, say so. If you run a local writers’ conference, say so.

NO: SKIP THESE ELEMENTS IN YOUR BIO

  • Don’t say the work is copyrighted. All work is copyrighted. Saying so makes you look amateurish.
  • Don’t say the work is edited. All work should be edited. Saying your work is edited is another sign of an amateur.
  • Don’t say how long it took you to write it.
  • Don’t mention past, autonomous self-published books that did not take off. If the book you are pitching is the sequel to a released e-book, then you will have to disclose such info. But if this new book you’re pitching has nothing to do with previous self-published works that sold poorly, then just skip any mentions of those books. Elaborating on them will only hurt your chances.
  • Don’t say anything about a desired movie adaptation. And especially don’t say that you should play yourself in the film adaptation of your memoir.
  • Don’t mention you have a website or blog. Neither is a big deal, unless they’re huge in size. You can always paste the URL of your blog or website (or both) below your name in the e-mail signature for the agent to investigate if she wishes.
  • Don’t say this is your first novel.
  • Don’t say your age. The people who mention their age are typically very young or seniors. This will do you no good.
  • Don’t say you’re part of a small writers group at the local bookstore. Only membership in big organizations is worth noting.
  • Don’t say that family or friends or writing peers or your goldendoodle loved it. Their opinions will not sway an agent.
  • Don’t say God or aliens told you to write the story. This will get you the wrong kind of attention.
  • Don’t list your favorite writers. The only time to do this is if the agent put a call out for something specific, like “more fiction in the style of William Faulkner,” and your favorite write is indeed Faulkner.
  • Don’t say how many drafts of the novel you’ve went through.
  • Don’t talk about your personal life or what you like to do for fun: “I’m going through a nasty trial separation right now. Besides that, I just LOVE ‘Arrested Development,’ don’t you? Buster is my favorite character! Anyhoodles, thanks for considering my manuscript…”
  • Don’t say that the book was rejected by other agents.
  • Don’t say that the book is fiction, but partially based off your own life.
  • Don’t say that you have children, and that qualifies you to be a writer of kids books.
  • Don’t discuss pen names. If you want/need a pen name, that is definitely something that needs to be addressed, but you can tackle that subject when an agent calls you to offer representation and all topics are aired out appropriately.

THE MOST COMMON QUESTION PEOPLE ASK ME

“If I do not have any writing credits to my name, what should I put in the letter?” My answer: Nothing. As long as you are not writing nonfiction, then the bio paragraph is just gravy. If an agent gets two dynamite pitches on Tuesday morning, and one of the letters is from a writer with some short publication credits while the other lacks said credits, I bet you there is a 99% chance the agent will request pages from both scribes. If you create a great pitch and show you’ve got voice on your side, then agents will want to read more — period.

If you have nothing impressive to say about yourself, then just end your query with the standard finale, which is, “Thank you for considering my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.”

OTHER FAQs TO HELP YOU

  1. What if you have nothing about yourself to discuss, but the agent specifically requests a “bio sheet” or “bio paragraph” or something like that? If that’s the case, then this would be the one time to simply fill white space and talk about lesser things of importance. It’s a tough situation; just write whatever you can.
  2. I know you said I shouldn’t mention that my book was edited, but does an agent want to know if the edit took place by a professional writer acting as my mentor? My guess is that this will still not help you. The only time this will act as a boon is if you’re positive this literary agent knows the writing mentor personally. (Perhaps they’re friends on Twitter.) If the agent knows the mentor, then such name-dropping is a good idea. Otherwise, you’re just listing a person’s name that the agent has never heard of.
  3. Should mention nonfiction writing (articles/books) even if I’m pitching a novel? I say yes. These credits won’t be a magic carpet to getting your work bought, but any such accomplishments do convey the sense that you are a professional writer who has experience with content, deadlines, and dealing with editors. It also shows you’re in touch with members of the media, which equals platform.
  4. I’ve done writing in the past, but it was way in the past — like 20 years ago. Can I mention these credentials? Simply don’t mention the years. Just have a sentence like “I have previously contributed articles to the San Francisco Chronicle.” Done.
  5. Is this “bio” section of the query the best place to mention series potential for the book? There is no perfect place to bring up series potential, so it’s fine to write it here, if you like.
  6. Last piece of advice for composing a query bio? A cover-all piece of advice I have is this: No matter if you are discussing something notable (perhaps a past book that sold well) or something that is small (a local award), my best advice is to mention the point quickly, and then back off. If you blabber on about an impressive accomplishment, it may come off as egotistical. If you yammer about something not impressive, then it may look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mention things quickly and humbly.

WAIVER

Please note that all agents (and editors) are different. They all have their quirks and “likes” and opinions and eccentricities. Some may even pop up in the comments here to say “But I really ADORE it when writers list their influences.” You need to keep in mind that these comments are the opinions of one individual, not a collective whole. If an agent’s webpage requests that you explain in your query all about how long it took you to write the book, that is their style — their bag, their quirk. That does not mean it’s a good across-the-board principle. My job is not to listen to the likes of one agent, but rather consult 20 different opinions and synthesize the best answer for you. And with that said, I think the above guidelines are pretty solid for aspiring authors. Good luck!

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: jenniferkirkeby won.)

Photo credit: Megan Myers/Flickr.

 

About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.