Writers Workshop:

(Original version published by Writers.com)

If, as a writer, you haven't already encountered the "short bio" (AKA "bio blurb") you will one of these days. It may be one of the more important bits of nonfiction you'll ever craft. No matter where bio blurbs appear -- book flaps, an "about the authors" section, convention programmes, promotional materials -- they act as an important introduction to you and your work. They are a chance to connect with and (one hopes) make a favorable impression with readers. Since bio blurbs can lead readers to more of your work, they can be a promotional tool in and of themselves. In the case of anthologized short fiction or that published in a periodical, a short bio can be an introduction to other editors.

The bio blurb is also a constantly evolving creation. Not only must you keep it factually current, but you'll discover that one blurb does not suit all needs. And yes, expect to write your own. There's an advantage in this -- you will spell your name correctly, know your credits accurately, and you may be the only one who can handle the subtle details. (We'll soon get to what those are.) Sometimes the subtle and not-so-subtle details will get screwed up anyway, but if you start with the person who cares the most about your writing career -- you -- then screw-ups are less likely.

Let's look at two nicely done bio blurbs for two horror writers:

STEPHEN KING is the author of more than thirty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. Among his most recent are Hearts in Atlantis, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, Bag of Bones, and The Green Mile. On Writing is his first book of nonfiction since Danse Macabre, published in 1981. He served as a judge for Prize Stories: The Best of 1999, The O. Henry Awards. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

LORELEI SHANNON writes and edits dark fantasy and even darker horror. She co-edited the e-anthology Hours of Darkness and her fiction collection, Vermifuge and Other Toxic Cocktails was published in 2001. Her previous career as a game designer produced (among others) A Puzzle of Flesh (a groundbreaking horror game that saw her interviewed by Cosmopolitan Magazine and banned in Sears stores everywhere). She lives in the woods of western Washington with her husband, Daniel Carver, sons Fenris and Orion, and three big hairy dogs.

What can we learn from these examples?

  • Both are written in third person
    This is standard practice, but it's also simple psychology. Even if readers *knows* the bio was written by the author, they tend to trust what is said by others about a person more than what a person says about themselves. Third person also provides some space between author and reader; the reader feels less imposed upon.
  • Both are concisely and clearly written
    The reader wants only a few lines about the author. More than that is irritating. These both are under 90 words -- Shannon's 84, King's 77. Shannon's, if needed, could be cut down further: deleting *and three big, hairy dogs* and changing *the woods of western Washington* to *near Seattle* would bring it down to 76 words. Sometimes you will be asked to keep a bio blurb under a certain word count. Try to comply. It will save your blurb from being hacked into an inaccurate and possibly senseless jumble. (You'll also find the need for a "medium"-length version and well as a "long bio.")
  • Both are accurate and factual
    There are no overblown (or outright false) credits or hyperbole. Neither author blows his/her own horn. The reader must be allowed to discover if a writer is excellent (or not). Using superlatives reduces the reader's confidence in the bio's objectivity and, by extension, respect for your writing. They also make the reader wonder who the "authority" is: Who says she's the "hottest new talent in horror"? Or "the best" anything? Her mother? Valid honors and awards (or bestsellerdom), however, can be mentioned as the authority is inherent. If you have room, a short quote is permissible: "The Washington Post called her debut novel, GHOST GRRL, "spectacularly spooky."

    As for blatant lies -- this bio business is all about building trust and respect, lies are not a good foundation. And yes, they will be found out.

  • Earlier relevant works (and reputation) are cited (within reason)
    In King's case, the list would be lengthy. In Shannon's case, it wouldn't be as long, but it might still be too long for this context. Both mention recent work. King mentions his previous nonfiction (and thus relevant to this blurb for nonfictional ON WRITING) book. King does not emphasize that he is known as a horror writer. He chooses to very subtly highlight his acceptance as a "real literary writer." This is, after all, a book about writing, not horror. Choosing to mention his O. Henry judging gives him "legitimacy" as an expert. He might have mentioned he had won the prize himself, but that would have only confirmed him as a writer, not an expert on writing. However, he does mention all his books are bestsellers and thus must know something about writing them. (In contrast, the cover copy on his book about horror, DANSE MACABRE, points out he is the "bestselling horror author of all time.") Shannon identifies herself as a horror writer. She also supplies a sentence that shows her creativity is professionally established in another media (gaming), but mentions only a horror game, not other games she worked on.
    Along with her gaming credit, Shannon makes an amusing comment that tells you something about her and is suggestive of something slightly wicked -- very appropriate for horror. King is playing it straight this time. Being witty or original is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. What you consider wit might not be. Be cautious. Here's another blurb from Lorelei Shannon:
    Lorelei Shannon was born in the Arizona desert and learned to walk holding on to the tail of a coyote. She was a strange, fey child who kept to herself, and could often be found feeding flies to a big praying mantis in her mother's rose garden...
    This is great, but she'd probably not want to use it if she wrote a Regency romance novel.

    Quite a bit can be telegraphed with "color" about relationships, offspring, and abodes. Both our example authors bring up where they live and their spouses. King notes his wife, Tabitha, is a novelist. Shannon mentions her children. King's children are now adults, so a moot point for him.

    Now we get to those "subtle details" we mentioned before. King might mention he is a grandfather if he wanted to be warmer and fuzzier. Shannon might not want to mention hubbie and kids if she wants to promote a more sizzling sexy persona or she may want the "protection" of being a happily married mother -- who is still sizzling. Both may keep the home-front happy by mentioning their spouses or sincerely feel the spouse is a partner in their writing. And yes, publicists, editors, and others have delivered major faux pas in this area: naming a former spouse instead of the current one, getting the gender of a child wrong (getting the gender of a partner wrong for that matter), etc.

    Of course, you also wonder just what an author is sharing with us when a fifty-ish male mentions he "lives in Florida with his wife, Tiffany, and their young son." You can trace some writers marital history through their flap copy bios while others reveal nary a clue. Whatever you want it to reveal, let it be your choice -- not someone else's.

    Pets are often featured more prominently in bios than spouses or offspring and I'm not sure why. Perhaps this is psychology again? Maybe readers respond well to animal lovers. Maybe it reveals more: Danielle Steel has five miniature Brussels Griffon dogs; Andrew Vachss is often pictured with a Neapolitan Mastiff and his character, Burke, has a long relationship with the same; Rita Mae Brown and has a feline co-author, Sneaky Pie. It's up to you.

    Where one lives can be simple, yet exotic:

    • "Jonathan Carroll lives in Vienna, Austria."
    • " Sir Arthur C. Clarke has lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka since 1956."
    It can enhance one's authenticity as a writer:
    • "Tony Hillerman resides in Albuquerque, NM." (His novels are set in the Southwestern US.)
    • "George P. Pelecanos was born in Washington, D.C. and currently lives in Silver Springs, MD." (He writes crime/noir set in D.C)
    It can also say *something* about an author":
    • "Woods lives on the Treasure Coast of Florida, on a Maine island, and in New York City."
    • "Cussler divides his time between the deserts of Arizona and the mountains of Colorado."

    Interests, Education & Other Work:
    Neither of our example writers mentions educational background and Shannon mentions only game-writing as other work, but both can be pertinent in some contexts.

    • "Robinson has a doctoral degree in anthropology with specialization in archaeology from the University of Texas." (She writes romance and mystery novels set in Ancient Egypt.)
    • "Marano began studying alchemy and Kabbalah while pursuing a degree in Medieval history at Boston University." (He writes horror.)
  • HOOK 'EM
    The best short bios have a quality that hooks readers and makes them want to read your work. Here's a short blurb on the author of a newly released novel that captured my interest:
    JAMIE O'NEILL is the author of two previous novels, DISTURBANCE AND KILBRACK, or WHO IS NANCY VALENTINE? He was brought up and educated in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, then lived in England, and has now returned to Galway, in Western Ireland. For the past ten years O'Neill worked as a night porter in a London psychiatric institution while writing and researching AT SWIM, TWO BOYS.

Concise, clear, fascinating, informational -- just as your bio blurb should be. Get blurbing!

-- Paula Guran

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.