Monday, May 09, 2011

How to Write a Bio--for SF/F/H writers

I realized something the other day: most of the writers I know hate writing their bios. Every time a friend makes a sale, I hear a round of misery and sympathy on Twitter as they share their struggles to create a concise blurb that will encapsulate their career and draw readers' interest. But it doesn't have to be that hard! Writing your own biography is one of the easiest tricks you can put in your nonfiction writing magic kit. (And just so you know--I'm going to focus on nonfiction tips and tricks for my next blog post over at If there's anything in particular you'd like to know, let me know and I'll try to address it in that 5/20 post.)

Start by collecting your material.
Many spec fic writers like to begin exploring their work's characters by filling out a character sheet, very like the sheets role-playing gamers use to create their gaming character. When you begin writing your bio, you need to construct yourself as if you were the character. (If you think about it, your persona as a writer is a fictional character. You're drawing this persona out of your real life experiences, but you're not selling yourself. You're selling Writer You. It's like an alternate universe self!)

Check out the character sheet I've linked to and think over some of the answers. Answering someone else's questions can really help reinvigorate your sense of perception. When I think about my personal identity, I think of my family, my core values, my favorite activities. But honestly, these are really, really boring. A bio about me would include: "Wendy Wagner is a mom who is constantly riled up about social causes and therefore must restrict her consumption of all news, save for Vogue and Boing Boing. 80% of the time, Wagner is thinking about coffee or eating sweets." Kind of a dud.

But when I look at the character sheet questions, I come up with thoughts like:
I was born in Eastern Washington. Great. Nobody cares.
I grew up in a town so small the Bookmobile came only ever two weeks. Quirky--and life-changing.
Our house sat across the street from the cemetery. Hey, I can use that for horror markets!
I don't have any pets. I better leave that out or no one will believe I'm a writer.
I have practiced using a shotgun in order to better prepare myself for zombie attack. If I rephrase that, that could be perfect for horror markets!
I used to believe the back door of our house opened into Narnia. Hey, I can use that for fantasy markets!

Focus on audience and market.
You'll notice that many of my thoughts about my character material were focused around markets. That's because there are different kinds of bios, and they all their different size and tone, depending on where you'll be sending your work. Here are some examples:
  • Basic bio, added to bottom of story or article. This bio usually runs 3-4 lines. It will have a clever opener, a line about your writing credits, a second line that includes any awards or critical praise, and a final line about where you live, where you blog, and/or something witty.
I write a new basic bio for every author spotlight I do for Fantasy Magazine, because I think it's fun and clever. My latest reads:
Wendy N. Wagner grew up in very rural Oregon, where she dreamed her family would abandon her to be raised by wolves. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard and Rigor Amortis; her interviews and poetry have run in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine,, and Abyss and Apex. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her very understanding husband and daughter, and blogs at
Because the author spotlight is nonfiction, I thought it was worthwhile to include my nonfiction writing credits in that second line. If I was doing a basic bio for a short story, I would leave that out. If I wanted to sound like a blow-hard, I could have said "Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (this piece is actually forthcoming, but it will be out before anyone reads the bio) and the anthologies Rigor Amortis and The Way of the Wizard. Publishers Weekly described Wagner's story 'The Secret of Calling Rabbits' as 'melancholy and deeply affecting.'"

I made sure that the hook--the clever first line--of that bio connected to the theme of my article. You don't have to do that, but I think it is a good idea to write a hook that is in the tenor of the market you're writing for. If it's a horror market, I'll usually reference growing up next door to the cemetery. If it's fantasy, I'll mention the Narnia connection. If it's for more general consumption, I'll talk about the summer I read 125 books in two weeks.

  • "I am a human" bio. This is the bio you'll use on your blog or webpage to make people like you, and it can short or long. The master of the short human bio is Blake Charlton, whose "About" paragraph on his webpage says it all:

Debut novelist and medical student, Blake Charlton is a new face in both fields working to establish a dual career in fiction and medicine.

Currently, Blake is writing fantasy novels, science fiction short stories, and academic essays on medical education and biomedical ethics.

Blake's extended bio is also a great example of the human bio, although he leaves out his writing credits. He has a bibliography page--which you should have on your webpage, too--but your bio will often be lifted wholesale from the about section of your site. So do yourself and anyone writing about you a favor: have it put together tidily in one spot.

I need to update my human bio now that Her Dark Depths is no longer forthcoming, but you can still read it here. It mentions a bit more about my past and how I got interested in writing, and the hooks are less focused on the particular market, and more on general interest items in my life.

  • The really big bio for guest appearances. You probably won't need this one until you win some awards and get invited to be the guest of honor at a convention or workshop. Most of these run 300-500 words, a full page about yourself. You'll want to focus on creating three or four paragraphs, instead of three or four lines. You can include more about your non-writing life, as well, so if you have an interesting day job that you feel okay talking about, this is a great place for that information. If you have a quirky hobby that has helped your writing career, mention it. If you were mentored by a famous author, mention it. If you went to an awesome workshop ... hey, you get it.
Now that you've got a sense of what each kind of bio requires, and you're certain about what flavor and tone your bio will need, it's time to begin crafting your piece. And like all nonfiction works, you'll need to focus on mechanical details. They are your only hope to be interesting.

What do I mean? Well, when we write spec fic, we have the advantage of creating a special, unique world populated by fascinating characters. When you're writing your bio, you are writing about a chump who can never, ever compete with the people you make up. I mean, think about it: who's more interesting, you or Wolverine? Or anybody from Game of Thrones? Even the most caricatured spec fic bad guy is about 95% more interesting than your average writer.* But you are lucky. Unlike that bad guy, you have words on your side. And there are some cheats that will can you sound much, much better those muscle-bound fictional heroes you're writing about right now.
  • Use active verbs. It's the same advice you've been struggling with in your prose, but it can make a huge difference. Look at my bio. I've got grew, dreamed, appeared, runs, lives, and blogs. There's not a lot of "she was," "she is" action. And that's good. Those constructions aren't bad, but in a short space, you don't have room for not bad. You're trying to make people share their beds (hey, most folks read in bed!) and hearts with you. Rock them!
  • Use a little colorful language. It's okay to sneak in a drop of alliteration or a fun idiom. In a short story, colorful language can be too distracting from the action. But remember, there's nothing going on in your bio. It's not an adventure. A dab of colorful language will not hurt. That's why I shared about being "raised by wolves" or I've talked about "preparing for the zombie apocalypse." These phrases sound fun. In real life, I'm not actually entertaining, but I'd really like my readers to think I am. Maybe I'll sound so fun to be with, my readers will buy me a drink at a con!
  • Variate sentence constructions. Easily the most important factor. If you start every line of your bio with "He was xyz. He does abc. He likes def," your bio will be boring. Make sure you have a variety of sentence structures: "A constant thrill-seeker, John Remy finds himself drawn to high risk rock-climbing. His work draws on his adventurous life, and his thrilling short fiction has appeared in Y & W. He lives in Town X, State, and blogs at blah blah." That's variety. That's the spice of life.
It's not hard to write a bio and you shouldn't be frightened of the process. It's a simple matter of doing your research, focusing on your market & audience, and playing your best tricks--which are the three base-points of writing non-fiction. It's actually pretty fun!

* Average writer. People like Blake Charlton and Mary Robinette Kowal are not average. Their regular lives are actually cool. I mean, CNN did a feature on Blake. I totally wish I could write his bio instead of mine.


LV Cabbie said...

A very good piece of advice.

I try to do similar things for each piece I write. I never thought of using the Bio outline I use for my novel characters. So, I guess I'll get it out and do some work.


L.J. Sellers said...

You've clearly put more thought into this than I have. Great post.

Cate Gardner said...

Excellent advice, Wendy. My bio needs an injection of fun. Maybe I could make things up.