In which we share advice and ideas about writing, from tips on technique and practical aspects, to the experiences of other writers. (As always, take all offered writing advice with a pinch of salt. It’s often more important to understand why a writing convention exists than it is to actually follow it.)
When writers send us their short stories, one part of the submission form that often seems to present problems is the field asking for a brief author bio. This is the line or two designed to tell us who the writer is, what kind of publications they’ve had in the past, and sometimes, what credentials they have relating to the story they’re sending. It works exactly like the biographical paragraph in a cover letter. (In effect, all our form does is arrange the information into a digital cover letter and forward it to us.)
People often feel uncomfortable when called upon to describe themselves like this, and the bio section of the form is often one of the weak points of a submission, where writers come across badly, or miss opportunities to come across well. Having gone through several thousand submissions over the last year, I thought it might be worth sharing some tips on writing a good author bio. Although these are written very much from The Fiction Desk’s perspective, they should be helpful when preparing to send your short fiction anywhere.
If you have no previous publications
- Don’t be embarrassed about being unpublished. Everybody has to make their debut sooner or later. Many editors love to discover new authors, and personally I’m always keen to have more debuts in our anthologies. On the other hand…
- Don’t make a big deal about being unpublished. Writing may be your lifelong passion, and seeing your work in print may be your life’s ambition, but this is a professional communication, and pouring your heart out looks unprofessional. Don’t harp on about the years you’ve been writing without publication, as this won’t instil much confidence in the reader.
Good: I have no previous publications.
Bad: I have been writing for twenty-seven years, and love to write, but have never been published. It’s my lifelong dream. Mr Hedgehog, my stuffed and only friend, will give you a big kiss if you make my dream come true!!
Listing previous publications.
- Only list relevant publications. You may have worked on technical manuals in the 1990s, or have written greetings cards, or 2,000 search engine optimised descriptions of shoes, but none of that has any bearing on your abilities as a short story writer. You don’t want to give the impression that you can’t tell the difference between the forms of writing, so if you mention this kind of experience at all, do so in passing. Feature writing and journalism may be more relevant, so use your judgement.
- If you have a lot of publication credits, only list highlights. We sometimes receive submissions featuring great long lists of publications in all sorts of journals we’ve never heard of. After a while, this begins to inspire various unhelpful thoughts, like ‘Is the writer making some of these up?’, or ‘If they’ve had so many publications, how come I haven’t heard of them?’ Be proud of all (well, most) of your credits, but pick highlights when you’re trying to impress other people. Choose those highlights based on where you’re submitting; so in the examples below, you might mention Tin House and Postscripts to us, but point out Hippies with Inkjets and Flower Picker if you’re submitting work to a stapler-wielding hobo with mice living in his beard.
Good: My short stories have featured in several publications including Tin House and Postscripts.
Bad: I have been published in Tin House, Spatula Fun Magazine, Short Short Shorts, Photocopied Ineptitude, Staples Down the Side, Fictional Fiction, My Mate Alf’s Telescopic Love Machine, Hairy Tales for Frightened Youths, Flower Picker, Flower Picker II: More Stories we Received, Friends’ Tales, Spurious Journal, Postscripts, The Online Degree-Granting Unaccredited University Journal, Printouts in My Study, If Stories Were Horses, and Hippies with Inkjets.
Grinding an Axe
- Don’t do it. Writing – like publishing – is a personal business, and we all have things that frustrate us, or have disappointed us in the past. But your submission isn’t the place to air these grievances. Remember, you are a happy, flexible, laid-back person to work with.
Bad: I DO NOT WANT TO PUBLISH THIS ONLINE, but in a real book because computer books are rubbish, and authors are always taken advantage OF because they think we’re thick. WE DON’T EVEN Need publishers anyway, but IF I let you use my story, I do not expect to be EDITED SEVERELY, especially by a foreigner.
Personal Experience & Credentials
- List anything relevant to the specific story under submission. For an editor who doesn’t know you from Adam, it’s reassuring to hear if you have credentials or experience relevant to the subject matter of the story. If the story is about a meteorologist, and you’re a weatherman, a pilot, or a sailor, say so. If the story is set in some remote African village, and you’ve worked in that area, that’s good to know. If it’s historical fiction, mentioning your credentials in that area will give the editor confidence. Don’t panic if there’s nothing relevant to mention, though: we’re dealing in fiction, after all.
- Say something about who you are. A few words (and no more) to say where you live and what you do can really make a good impression. If it’s not relevant to the story then don’t dwell on it, but it’s still worth a mention.
- Mention academic qualifications, but don’t dwell on them. If you have a writing qualification or certificate, again this is something that you should mention, but don’t give the impression that you think it’s all you need.
Good: (Especially when submitting a story about a farmer) I run a small holding in Devon.
Bad: I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Tinyborough University. [And nothing else to say about myself.]
Bad: When I was sixteen I got a job part-time in a newsagent, but it was really full-time, because there was this guy who was supposed to work Thursdays and Tuesdays, only he couldn’t always come in, and so they’d call me, and that was fun but then later I moved for university, and I did some bar work, which I didn’t enjoy much although there were some good tips. After college I entered a graduate position at a local company specialising in IT analysis and visited businesses in the area giving information and advice on transitions from Windows to Mac, although Apple’s recent prioritising of the consumer market has led to…
Putting it together
- Make it brief and professional. The bio really just needs to be two or three lines. Stick to the point, don’t repeat yourself, and try to avoid any spelling mistakes (yes, even though this site is full of them). Remember this isn’t for publication, so it doesn’t have to be entertaining. You’re essentially just introducing yourself to a prospective business contact.
- Make it targeted. Although it’s good to have a couple of basic bios ready to go, on individual submissions take a few moments to make sure that they’re relevant to the publication you’re submitting to and the story you’re sending.
Good: For the last three years I’ve been living in Iceland with my family. The enclosed story draws on my own experiences driving a taxi in Reykjavík. I have had stories published in Ploughshares, Stinging Fly, and several other magazines.
Short, to the point, and shows that the writer is drawing on his personal experience for his writing.
Good: I recently completed a Creative Writing Master’s degree with Colborough University, and now live in Ohio where I keep chickens. I have no previous publications.
This may not be exciting, but it’s simple, to the point, and professional.
Bad: I prefer not to talk about myself.
That’s all very well, but talking about yourself is part of being a writer. Is this a sign that the author would be unprofessional or difficult to work with?
Ultimately, the author bio may be a small part of the submissions process, and I’ve certainly turned down work from authors with great bios, and accepted stories from authors with lousy ones. But if you get good at writing your bio, and tailoring it to each submission, it’s going to be one more thing in your favour, and might just help to put the editor in the right frame of mind when they turn to the story itself.
In the early days of planning our anthology series, I worried about whether we’d have the resources to find enough writers from abroad, allowing us to feature an international blend of stories. In the event, I’ve been surprised to find that we have the opposite problem: despite being based in the UK, it’s been a real challenge for us to find British short story writers. We’ve been working hard to increase awareness, getting in touch with all sorts of different organisations around the country, but just 10% of our submissions come from the UK.
As this is National Short Story Week in Britain, it seems like a good time to ask: where are our new short story writers?
I’m not talking about famous, established, or dead writers, you understand. Let’s not get sidetracked by shouting ‘Somerset Maugham’ and ‘Graham Greene’ and, I don’t know, ‘M R James’ at each other. (Although we maybe should save that for another time.) I’m concerned with the new writers: the ones who are maybe just producing their first publishable material, or who have begun to make a name for themselves with longer works, and are now starting to take an interest in the short story. I’m thinking of the people who might be publishing their first collections in two or three years’ time, and who should now be placing their first stories and starting to get their names in front of readers. These are the kinds of authors that we’ve been featuring in our anthologies, and these are the kinds of authors that it’s hard to find in the UK.
We’ve been pretty active about encouraging more submissions from British authors. Aside from some online appeals (which have done very well), we’ve also worked with more than a dozen universities around the country, providing books to creative writing courses for workshopping, hopefully to encourage students to work with the short story. We’ve also contacted independent writing groups to encourage their members to send in material.
One problem is that short stories, especially new short stories, just aren’t widely read in the UK. Often, an otherwise keen reader will tell me that they simply “don’t read short stories”. For obvious reasons, this makes it hard for British publishers to maintain a regular, quality publication: when stories are published, it’s often with very limited resources, meaning the stories aren’t great, or are only by big names, or are Worthy rather than entertaining. As a result, readers don’t come back for more, and the momentum never builds.
(British short story publishing may be at its healthiest today not in mainstream fiction but in genre publishing, where the editors and writers still keep in mind—more often than not—the ability of short stories to entertain.)
It’s sometimes said that the short story is more an American form than a British one, but I don’t really believe that. The UK has produced some terrific short story writers in the past, and there are some around today too. I do think though that the Americans are better at promoting short stories: they have more magazines and journals, which they take more seriously. As a result, they have more opportunities to write and read quality short fiction.
I hope that The Fiction Desk’s anthology series will in its own small way help to improve the situation in the UK. By giving the country a decent quarterly publication dedicated to new short fiction, I hope we can encourage writers to write short stories, and encourage readers to buy and read them. If you’re a writer and you think you might have a story for us, you’ll find our submissions information here.
And if you’re a reader, please consider taking out a subscription to the anthology series, because the best way to support new writing is to read it, and because you might just be surprised by how much you enjoy it. You’ll find subscription information here.
Friday, 24th April 2009. There are 4 Comments.
If you are planning to write and publish books, or if you’re engaged in any kind of activity that would make an online presence useful, one thing you should do right now is get your name as a domain. It doesn’t matter if you’re not quite ready to start a website yet: you don’t need to do anything with the domain. The important thing is to make sure it’s yours. (more…)
From paid critiques to writing workshops and courses, there are a lot of good ways to spend your money on improving your writing abilities. Fortunately, there are also a lot of good ways to work on your writing without spending a penny. I’ve listed ten (well, technically nine) below. (more…)
As a rule, I’m highly mistrustful of software that targets itself at fiction writers. While the elaborate formatting conventions of screenplays mean that Final Draft is a useful tool for screenwriters, there’s a large part of me that believes the only things prose writers need are something to write with, something to write on, and a dictionary. Software that, for example, allows you to input a number of aspects of your novel—character name, inciting incident, plot twist 2b—and then arrange them into a pre-formatted structure, is a bad thing. Writers need to be do these things for themselves; if they can’t, they’re very likely going to have deeper problems that a piece of software isn’t going to fix.
So, when I read on the BBC Website that Neil Cross does most of his writing on a piece of specialist software, I was a little sceptical. Still, I thought I’d take a look. As is so often the case when I overcome one of my many prejudices, I’m glad I did. (more…)(more…)
Saturday, 20th September 2008. There are 3 Comments.
Although it’s sometimes necessary to whisk a character in and out of a story without drawing too much attention to him, it’s generally worth remembering that a forgettable character can be a wasted opportunity. One book that really shows how much can be achieved with minor characters is The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. (more…)Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, that august publication that lists publishers, agents, etc., along with juicy advice on everything from taxes to how to prepare your manuscript. It’s been around for years—over a century, in fact—and back in the day, everybody seemed to know that this was the place you went to if you wanted to get yourself informed.
Sure, there were those dodgy “Authors: publish your book!” ads in the pages of literary and writing magazines, and we were warned about vanity publishing, but there wasn’t the level of misinformation then that there is now; because, for really powerful misinformation, we had to wait for the Internet to arrive. (more…)(more…)
I often get emails from teenagers and younger writers looking for advice (or simply moral support) on their writing. For a while I’ve had a sort of generic advice email that I’ve sent them, but I thought it might be worth expanding on that and posting it here in the blog. (more…)