is my definitive No Rules series on novel queries. It’s meant
particularly for writers who are new to the query process. (A series on
nonfiction book queries will come later.) Go back to the beginning of the series.
THE KEY ELEMENTS OF YOUR NOVEL QUERY BIO
For novelists, especially unpublished ones, sometimes the best bio is none at all.
Let me restate another way: You don’t have to include a bio in your query if you have nothing pertinent to share.
What Information Is Pertinent to Your Bio?
The key to every detail in your bio is: Will it be meaningful—or perhaps charming—to the agent/editor? If you can’t confidently answer yes, leave it out.
In order of importance, these are the categories of pertinent info.
1. Publication credits
You have to be specific about your credits for this to be meaningful. Don’t say you’ve been published “in a variety of journals.” You might as well be unpublished if you don’t want to name them.
What if you have no fiction credits? Then say nothing. Do NOT say you’re unpublished. That point will be made clear by fact of omission.
Many novelists wonder if nonfiction credits help. I think it’s helpful to mention notable credits when they show you have some experience working with editors or understanding how the professional writing world works.
That said: Academic or trade journal credits are tricky, since they definitely don’t convey fiction writing ability, and sometimes can be detrimental if an agent/editor stereotypes academics as bad fiction writers. Use your discretion, but it’s probably not going to be deal breaker either way.
Also: Online credits can be just as worthy as print credits. Popular and well-known online journals and blogs count!
Leave out credits like your church newsletter, small-town newspaper, or any publication that would hold little/no significance for the majority of publishing professionals.
If you self-published a novel, I would mention it in the query (with year and company). Sooner or later this information will have to come out, and I recommend being upfront about it. Lots of people have done it, and the fact you’re still actively writing and pursuing the dream is a good sign. It shows resilience.
But do not make the mistake of thinking your self-publishing credits make you somehow more desirable as an author, unless you have meaningful sales success, in which case, mention the sales of your book (needs to be in the thousands!).
If your career or profession gives you credibility to write a better story, by all means mention it. But don’t go into lengthy detail.
Teachers of K-12 who are writing children’s/YA often mention their teaching experience as some kind of credential for writing children’s/YA, but it’s not, so don’t treat it like one in the bio. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but parents should not treat their parent status as a credential to write for children either.)
3. Writing credibility
It makes sense to mention any writing-related degrees you have, any major professional writing organizations you belong to (e.g., RWA, MWA, SCBWI), and possibly any major events/retreats/workshops you’ve attended to help you develop your career as a writer.
You needn’t say that you frequent such-and-such online community, or that you belong to a writers’ group the agent would’ve never heard of. (Mentioning this won’t necessarily hurt you, but it’s not proving anything either.)
The key: Don’t go overboard and mention every single thing you’ve ever done in your writing life. Don’t talk about starting to write when you were in second grade. Don’t talk about how much you’ve improved your writing in the last few years. Don’t talk about how much you enjoy returning to writing in your retirement.
Just mention 1 or 2 highlights that prove your seriousness and devotion to the craft of writing. If unsure, leave it out.
4. Special research
If your book is the product of some intriguing or unusual research (you
spent a year in the Congo), mention it. Weird things can catch the
attention of an editor or agent.
But there’s a distinction between really interesting research that you
might reference in a line or two, and talking about a routine vacation
or life experience. (You can mention the latter, but you better be
charming about it. See point 6.)
You should also be careful of giving the agent the impression that your
novel is a thinly disguised memoir. For example, if you’re writing a
novel about a soldier in the Iraq war who has post-traumatic stress, and
your bio reveals you have the exact same qualities as your protagonist,
the agent/editor might question the quality of the work.
(That’s because so many people are writing very bad versions of their
life as fiction.)
5. Major awards/competitions
Most writers should not mention awards or competitions they’ve won—because they mention awards that are too small to matter. If the award isn’t widely recognizable to the majority of publishing professionals, then the only way to convey significance of an award is to talk about how many people you beat out. Usually the entry number needs to be in the thousands in order to impress an agent/editor.
6. Charming, ineffable you
If your bio can reveal something of your voice or personality, all the better. While the query isn’t the place to digress or mention irrelevant info, there’s something to be said for expressing something about yourself that gives insight into the kind of author you are—that ineffable you. Charm helps. But if you’re unsure of your effect, probably better not to risk it.
To remind you: It’s okay to say nothing at all about yourself.
If you have no meaningful publication credits, don’t try to invent any. If you have no professional credentials, no research to mention, no awards to your name—nothing notable at all to share—don’t add a weak line or two in an attempt to make up for it. Just end the letter. You’re still completely respectable.
Don’t bother mentioning these things
Unless you know the agent/editor wants to hear about these things, you don’t need to talk about:
- Your social media presence
- Your website or platform
- Your marketing plan (only needed for nonfiction)
- Your years of effort and dedication
- How much your family/friends love your work
- Your inspiration for writing (or your life story)
- How many times you’ve been rejected or close accepts
EXAMPLES OF SOLID BIOS
A professional writer for more than 30 years, I’ve had short stories published in literary journals such as Toasted Cheese, Long Story Short, and Beginnings. My first (unpublished) novel was a finalist for a James Jones Fellowship. I am co-founder and editor of the online literary journal Cezanne’s Carrot, and also write the blog Writers In The Virtual Sky.
[Bio indicates long and serious focus on writing. I don’t normally advise mentioning a blog, but in this case, it works fine. Along with the rest of the bio, it reveals someone who’s active in the writing community.]
My short story “Crown Royal” was published in the Sofa Ink Quarterly in 2006. In addition to writing YA fiction, I work as a publicist for a small press. I earned a BA in Creative Writing from Pacific University, and am a member of SCBWI.
I have a BA in English literature from the University of Iowa, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. I own a manufacturer rep business specializing in security products for video surveillance and related technologies, and this allows me to blend in some technical detail and insight on the future of a world where someone is always watching.
[Relevant career experience that ties into novel’s protagonist and plot.]
I am the author of CARAVAN (1995) and JOURNEY HOME (1998), two award-winning picture books published by Lee & Low Books, still in print, here and overseas.
[Presumably this author could have said a LOT more about herself, but having books professionally published and still in print is usually so compelling you don’t need to add to it.]
I have published articles in The Globe and Mail and community newspapers. I am the coordinator for the Fiction Writers’ Group of the Canadian Authors Association (Niagara chapter), as well as Membership Chair. In 2010, I had a short story published in a literary newsletter with 5,000 subscribers.
[Shows community-minded writer who has a level of professional experience. The publication is worth mentioning here because the circulation can be given; many literary journals don’t reach 5,000 readers!]
I have worked on this novel in writing workshops, including a writing intensive with author Craig Clevenger. Currently, I am working on a second novel, and several short stories, related to 82 Days.
[I don’t normally recommend saying you’ve workshopped your manuscript, but when you can point to a notable person who has worked with you, mention it.]
In 1997 Human Kinetics published my book, Time Saving Training for Multisport Athletes, which is still is a boring read for anyone sane. But within triathlon circles, I was almost well-known. I’ve written numerous sports and fitness related articles for a wide range of national magazines and regular real estate financing pieces during the boom.
[This is a wonderful example of charm & personality!]
EXAMPLES OF REVISED BIOS
I’m an aspiring author with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Old Dominion University. After snorkeling on the island of Cozumel, the idea for Triopenpec was born. Triopenpec made it into the second round of Amazon’s 2010 Breakthrough Novel competition, and I’ve had creative nonfiction pieces published in Splurge! magazine.
I continuously have my eye on the young adult fiction market and read as many books as I can lay my hands on in this selected genre. Triopenpec will give fans of this genre a unique world to fall into, a fresh set of dynamic characters, and a new heroine to route for. I admire the works that have been promoted by the Mrs. Smith Literary Agency and would love the opportunity to be considered.
[Be careful mentioning competitions unless further context can be given; e.g., would this placement put you in top 10% of entrants? Also, no need to state you’re an avid reader, or editorialize about how great your work is. Do not say you love the clients/works of an agency unless you can be specific and authentic about it.]
My return to playing the piano and five years instructing fourth graders on how to write has awakened a creative side in me that I didn’t realize I possessed. Currently, I am also writing articles for our school newsletter. And recently, I won authored the winning entry to a short story contest, hosted by two of the region’s largest newspapers. While I am still unsure which task is more difficult, writing my own stories or teaching young people how to write with enthusiasm and confidence; to my credit, I have learned that I can do both and look forward to growing as both an author and a teacher.
[While these aren’t bad things to say in your bio, they aren’t needed. I would probably say nothing. Err on side of brevity.]
Next up: your closing
Looking for more great query letter advice? Check out the Writer’s Digest official guide to queries, which includes examples and instruction by genre.