Monday, June 26, 2006

JC: A Line Well-Blurred

Let’s get down to some serious writing. Writing that counts. Writing that makes a difference.

I’m not talking plot or storyline. I’m not talking characterization. I’m talking about your author bio. Sooner or later, you’re going to be asked to write one, and you’d better know what you’re doing.

Not long after signing a contract, you can expect to be contacted by the publisher’s marketing department. They’re going to want two things from you: a publicity photo and an updated bio. If there is ever a place where the line blurs between fiction and reality, it’s in the area of publicity photos and author bios.

We’ve all seen publicity headshots. The professionals who create these works of art are more skilled at crafting fiction than I’ll ever be. I’ve seen some publicity photos that are so far distant from reality, you couldn’t pick the author out of a police lineup if all you had to go on was the photo.

Author bios are no better. Maybe worse, considering that in our industry the author writes his own bio. He has no accomplice to blame.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the author bio. A good bio blurb can sell a book. The opposite is also true. If I were to write a “truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God” bio, not even I would want to read my books—

Jack Cavanaugh is the original polymath who in his spare time translates Homer from the original Greek, takes college classes for no credit, and has a reputation for preaching long sermons.


So when I was asked by the marketing department to provide a bio, I decided it would be wise to do a little legwork and see how other authors portray themselves. I went to the local bookstore and pulled book after book from the shelves and read nothing but author bios.
What I discovered was…well, here…judge for yourself:

Highly acclaimed author Ellen Grenwald is a graduate of William and Mary University with a combined degree in Literature and Quantum Physics. Her first novel, Forever and Ever, Amen, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, edging out her dear friend Nelson Mandela. In her spare time, Ms. Grenwald reads to the blind, is a caregiver to her invalid mother, and runs a farm for abandoned kittens.

I put Ms. Grenwald’s book back on the shelf. Clearly, I wasn’t worthy to read this woman’s novel.

And then there are the attempts to portray the author as someone who could be your next-door neighbor:

Gladys Scribner wrote So This is Life while her infant daughter, Erika, was teething; the family dog was giving birth to a litter of puppies; and her Chevy minivan was giving up the ghost on Highway 95 while carpooling her son’s soccer team. According to Ms. Scribner, the inspiration for her novels comes from hours on her knees—picking up toys, cleaning the bathroom bowl, and chasing Cheerios that have rolled under the refrigerator.

I also found authors who swallowed the marketing myth that in order to be a successful writer you had to have a brand, and you had to live your brand:

Morgan Black wrote the spine-chilling Death of a Telemarketer after documenting 2,154 unwanted calls from telephone solicitors. His previous novel, Death of a Banker, was penned after arguing for ninety-seven hours with his bank manager over charges that weren’t his. While Mr. Black’s first two novels, Death of a Tailgater and Death at the Gas Pump, had modest sales, his publisher assures him that his latest thriller will slay readers in the aisles. At present Mr. Black is working on his next book, tentatively titled, Death of a Publisher.

For better or worse, author bios influence sales. If you write for publication, sooner or later you’re going to be asked to write your own bio. When that time comes you will find yourself standing on that well-blurred line separating fiction from reality.

Jack Cavanaugh, together with Bill Bright, is the author of Storm and its sequel Fury, to be released in September.


At 8:50 AM, Blogger Angela said...

LOL, Jack! How sharp of you to realize that writing the author bio is one of the hardest things we are supposed to do. Are we sounding too proud? Too humble? Should we mention that penmanship award from sixth grade?

The only thing harder to write (for me) is endorsements for other folks' books. How many ways can you say, "This book is not a waste of money and you really ought to read it?"


At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Robin Lee Hatcher said...

Oh, Jack. ROFLOL!!! My bio has had many different looks/sounds, from dull to funny and several points in-between. They are hard to write, especially within a given number of words. I don't want to think about some of my publicity shots! I just try to make sure they look like me.


At 7:01 PM, Blogger Ane Mulligan said...

I echo Robin's sentiments. The last thing I want is a photo that when someone sees me in real life, they think, "Boy is that photo old!" LOL And bios, oh my! I've had to write them for the drama conferences I teach at, and I hate them. Unless they give me as much room as I like - then I create a short story. ;o)

Thansk for the fun post, Jack.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Gina Holmes said...

Good stuff. I always make sure in my bio I mention all the famous authors I'm related to: Stephen King, Hemingway, Monk Kidd. (Hey we're all God's children. It's not a lie :)


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