The Writing Life

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How to Create a “Selling” Author Bio

This is the second in Valerie Peterson's series on author marketing. You may want to check out her previous article, "7 Common Mistakes of an Author Website."

Your bio is a marketing tool, pure and simple. Properly executed, it can help you attract an agent, editors, journalists, and readers to your work. But if your current bio has you revisiting your long, long road to discovering your inner author, you're going to have to do some killing off your bio babies. I know, I know: You were weaned on Dashiell Hammett and you've wanted to pick up a pen since you were in Pampers.

My tough love to you is — that's a big club, nobody gives a dirty diaper, and that type of information is only relevant to agents and editors if that pen was poisoned, you stabbed your babysitter, and you spent your toddler years in juvie.

And — unless they're potential stalkers — even most avid mystery readers don't have the patience to slog through 2,500 words that goes back to your grade-school writing awards.

What pros care about — and, importantly, what marks YOU as a pro — is to include in your bio only what:
1. Uniquely qualifies you as a professional writer with the chops to pull off a mystery novel and the knowledge of your specific marketplace
2. Helps the pros see that you understand the need to help them draw in an audience of paying readers.

The Good News — You Can Choose
Your bio is a living "resume" and should change constantly as you grow your expertise and accolades. Whatever writerly level you have achieved, you can choose what to include, you can focus on what you do have going for you to divert people from what you might not yet have and let them dig deeper.

Sure, many pros will understand that you're dancing a bit, some will dig, and some won't — but if you present whatever credentials you do have in a professional manner (and on an appropriately established website), your bio will go a long way to showing that you understand what it takes to be a professionally published author — and that you are taking the steps to get there.

Then, as your expertise grows, you'll continuously add the most relevant "cred" for your author bio:
• Any "official" publications, writing awards & prizes, and bestseller list appearances. Regular blogs and mystery publications count. If your chops only extend to school newspapers, write "… was editor of The Crimson Tide," etc. As your "cred" grows, keep in the most prestigious and relevant, ditch the rest.

• Other "social proof" such as quotes and review excerpts from accredited publications and reviewers and established authors and booksellers. Again use reviews from "pay for play" pubs only if it's all you've got and replace as soon as you've got something better.

• Self-published or online published work. You don't have to call out that you're not traditionally published. Naming books or short stories "out there" at least shows you've had enough pro-activeness to get it there.

• Your unique expertise and/or intense research and awards for such: Your day job (you're a transit cop who's writing about accused of killing their boss by pushing him in front of the new Second Avenue subway line), volunteer work, or highlighting your passionate pursuit of obscure firearms.

• Your memberships and board positions and awards for such: MWA! Authors Guild! NRA! These show you have a community that might come to your book.

• Your readings and speaking engagements. These show you know how to get in front of an audience, and show you know the importance of building an audience of readers.

• Any other bio info that's relevant to your book plots. For example, if you're an academic, and your mysteries are set in academia, that's relevant. Ditto for stay-at-home dad / Little League coaches who are writing about a serial killer who targets the same.

• Your voice — you're a writer, for Edgar's sake! Bring your own creative sensibilities into your bio. Funny, dead calm, creepy… just make sure to also bring . . .

• An editor. Get a peer (not your mom or spouse) to look at and vet your bio for any kitchen sink or turn-off "ick factors."

Keep in mind that your bio is a mere marketing tool and an edit here is nothing personal. Honing your bio to its best will just help you attract (and not turn off) the people you most want to engage and bring to your work.
Valerie Peterson

— Valerie Peterson

Valerie Peterson is a proud member of MWA-NY, a semi-finalist for a 2016-2017 Writers Guild of America East Made in New York Writers Room Fellowship, and a 2015 Finalist for the CBS TV Writers Mentorship Program. She is currently finishing her first novel, which involves several intertwining mysteries and at least two dead bodies. Peterson is also a content strategist and book publishing consultant who ran major book marketing departments and campaigns (including for James Lee Burke and Robert Crais) and for six years ran the Book Publishing site for About.com/The Balance.

7 Common Mistakes of an Author Website

Your author website is the cornerstone of your media platform, and it's the one piece of real estate that you can (mostly) control. Your author website is the thing that:

1. Validates you as a professional writer with a knowledge of the marketplace (even before you publish)
2. Substantiates your ability to draw in an audience - which is what agents and editors and publishers really care about

The cold, hard marketing fact is that, upon reading your name on a query or cover letter or discovering it on a free first chapter or article anywhere else, all of the people below WILL Google you. Your author website will determine whether or not:

• Agents consider your query seriously
• Editors bring your manuscript into an editorial board meeting
• Journalists and periodical editors take your work seriously enough to review
• PR folks consider you an authority enough to tap you for insights or quotes about your genre or the writing process
And, most importantly of all . . .
• Readers consider investing (yes, investing) their precious resources of time and money and energy on something that you wrote.

The less well-known you are, the less you can afford to risk doing anything to turn off these important audiences, the less you can afford to make these . . .

Common Author Website Mistakes
1. You don't have a website.
If you even aspire to finish a novel, you need a website. Start modestly, but start. You need to set up your author persona and brand, and chops as an author, well before you start approaching those agents and editors and others mentioned above.

No website? If you're an MWA member, please get cracking on it! The earlier the better, but I recommend at least a year before you plan on publishing as part of your pre-publication marketing plan.

And it doesn't have to be complicated. The most important factors to start with are: readability, easy navigation, and appropriate genre branding.

2. You rely on Facebook to be your author "website."
YIKES! Facebook is useful, but not as a website substitute. There is much danger to relying on a platform that you have no ownership of, no design control. Think about the efforts of all those Vine stars who had the video ripped out from under them before they made it big. All that effort, gone, because they had no control over their main platform.

3. Your author website looks like it was built in 1995.
Some authors seem to put a lot of resources into promoting their books, but have websites that looks like they were created at the dawn of the Internet by a moderately HTML-savvy high school friend. This immediately brands you as someone who does not know how the world actually works. For pity's (and PR's) sake, get yourself a decent website!

4. Your author website is not mobile responsive.
There are plenty of attractive sites created just a couple of years ago that are not mobile responsive (user friendly on phones, tablets, etc.). Today the majority of people are searching on their phones or tablets and you must keep up with the audience that you're trying to engage.

I personally like StudioPress templates for WordPress because the blog/content management system is organic and the support is responsive and timely. Plus, they don't seem like a start-up that's about to go out of business. But there are others, so do your research.

5. Your "social proof" is not smack dab on your home page.
Again, I've seen a number of author sites where they try to draw readers in with just book jackets or lengthy synopses of their plots. WRONG! Readers are more effectively won over — and will click further — if you give them "social proof," i.e., third-party corroboration. This is hugely important because agents, editors, and readers all want to know you and your books are worth their time and, quite frankly, as this is the Internet, they have no reason to believe you. Examples of social proof include:

• Awards, prizes, bestseller list stats
• Review excerpts from accredited publications and reviewers. I personally hate "pay for play" reviews, but if you've got nothing else, use 'em.
• Quotes from established authors (the more name recognition, the better) and booksellers.

6. You have too long of an "About Me"/Bio section.
Most pros really don't care that you wanted to be a writer forever and got an award for your story in first grade — unless there was a dead body in it. Focus on biographical information that positions you as:

• A competent writer — i.e., publications and all the stuff from your social proof
• A specialist who is uniquely qualified to write about your topic – e.g., career and hobby experience relevant to your book's topic
• An author who is building an audience in relevant communities — through social media, regular publications, and associations like MWA.

7. Your author website highlights Amazon.com.
Bookselling today is a very competitive business — and for Barnes & Noble and the independent bookselling community, Amazon is Public Enemy #1.

The reality is, Amazon sells a lot of books for most authors and any book sold is a good thing for us. So the trick is not to show favoritism — or you risk never getting asked to sign in your local indie. You can link to B&N and indie bookseller buy buttons, as well as Amazon and at least show your broad support for all booksellers so that when the time comes, they'll support you.
Valerie Peterson

— Valerie Peterson

Valerie Peterson is a proud member of MWA-NY, a semi-finalist for a 2016-2017 Writers Guild of America East Made in New York Writers Room Fellowship, and a 2015 Finalist for the CBS TV Writers Mentorship Program. She is currently finishing her first novel, which involves several intertwining mysteries and at least two dead bodies. Peterson is also a content strategist and book publishing consultant who ran major book marketing departments and campaigns (including for James Lee Burke and Robert Crais) and for six years ran the Book Publishing site for About.com/The Balance.

Crime Fiction in the Age of Trump

AP PhotoI planned my Trump novel a year ago, back when Trump was funny. It was to be the third in my Travel Writer mystery series, published by Alibi, Random House's digital imprint for crime fiction. The premise was that my protagonist, Jacob Smalls, would be reviewing a Bahamas cruise sponsored by an outrageous rightwing dilettante tycoon who liked being on TV so much he decided to take up politics. The cruise was his way of rustling up support and money for a run for office that not even he took seriously. An unexpected crime onboard would expose him as a fraud; his supporters would be outraged to the point of mutiny. The jokes would write themselves.

Ha ha.

As the real-life Presidential campaign went on, I kept having to reshape the premise. By around January of this year, it was obvious that Trump was no longer or a joke, or not just a joke, but a serious candidate. Just a few months after that, it was clear that he'd win the nomination. Trump had become a real force in American politics, and my satirical cracks at his expense were no longer funny. Obviously, I had to change the premise of my novel.

So I did. My tycoon-politician protagonist became a candidate who had just run for President and barely lost. The purpose of the cruise was no longer to drum up support, it was to rally his forces for another run at office—one that he planned to win. His new determination would inspire the crime at the novel's heart.

When, early this summer, I wrote to my editor at Random House, Elana Seplow-Jolley, to discuss the new premise I said, "I may have rethink all of this if Trump actually becomes President, but I figure if that happens we'll all be living in caves and fighting each other for matches and basic foodstuffs anyway."

She replied, "Can they burn ebooks?" (As I said, Alibi is a digital imprint.)

Ha ha again.

We all know what happened next.

Amid the general disaster of Trump's election, I've been faced with a minor, personal disaster — I've had to rethink my crime novel yet again. I'm still determined to stick with the Trumpian theme, but now I have to imagine something that my crazy rightwing dilettante tycoon would do after becoming President. No one wants to read a story about a failed Trump when the crazier true story about a triumphant Trump is in the news every day. History has so far surpassed my attempts at satire. My job as a crime writer is to get ahead of it, or at least catch up.

What happened to me is what happened to so many people, particularly liberals, and more particularly Northeastern liberals. We never dreamed Trump could ever be elected. Collectively, we suffered a massive failure of imagination.

It wasn't just that we underestimated Trump. We misunderstood millions of Americans. Their grievances, their disdain for traditional politicians, their distrust of social institutions, their implacable hatred of Hillary Clinton — I failed to fathom all that, and I wasn't alone. How could a Mexican-financed wall become a serious campaign promise? How could an Obama birther become President? How could so many tens of millions vote for him?

It's not that we should have known it, but we should have imagined it. We feared a Trump victory like we fear a nightmare or a horror film. We never believed it was possible.

That's where we failed. Some of us may want to fight Trump by marching, organizing, or contributing to political opponents. Others will want to stand up for him. But as crime writers, all of us should take up the job of imagining what will happen in the years to come — or what could happen.

I don't mean we should turn to writing dystopian fantasies like 1984 or The Road. We should ground everything in what's possible in the coming few years, keeping in mind that the range of the possible is far broader than we once suspected. We should ask all the questions journalists ask: What does Trump mean for crime and policing in America? What can we expect from the resurgent "white"-pride movement? And from businessmen politicians proudly doing business in office? And from the new online communities spreading lies and fomenting hate in its oldest forms?

And after we ask those questions, we should bring the answers to life in our fiction. To make the possible seem real, because it might well become real. Crime fiction depends on social insight as much as on psychology and plot. Our setting is one of our main characters, and most of us set our books in contemporary America.

Trump is no longer a joke. We all have a lot of work to do.

—Jeff Soloway

Formerly an editor and writer for Frommer’s travel guides, Jeff Soloway is now a book editor in New York City. In 2014 he won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His Travel Writer mystery series is published by Alibi, Random House's imprint for digital crime fiction. The second novel in the series, The Last Descent, which takes place in the Grand Canyon, just came out in November.

Photo courtesy of AP.

5 Reasons to Join NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo 2016

Commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month.

In just a few short hours, the global madness known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) begins. This year marks the 18th for the literary phenomenon, and organizers expect nearly 500,000 people to accept the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

To give you an idea of the success rate, last year 431,626 participants on six continents signed up, and more than 40,000 crossed the 50K finish line. At a minimum, NaNoWriMo 2015 prompted the creation of more than 2 billion words in 30 days. (Just so you know, some of the participants routinely go way, way beyond 50K.)

So if you're on the fence about participating, consider the following reasons why I've embraced this insanity seven times since 2003:

1. You commit to your writing. NaNoWriMo started when a small group of folks in San Francisco decided to make the move from "people who wanted to write a novel one day" to "people who had written a novel." Life has an annoying, consistent way of interfering with creative endeavors. For one month, you tell the world that you're putting your writing first. The kids can eat take-out. The laundry can pile up. But for these 30 days, your free time is accounted for. This deadline also reassures your nearest and dearest that you will be back among them December 1. You, and they, can do this for four weeks.

2. You turn off your inner editor. Many aspiring writers struggle because they can't help but judge the quality of their fledgling manuscripts as the words leak onto the page or screen. Guess what? With only 30 days to crank out 50K, you don't have the luxury of waiting for perfect prose to manifest in your gray matter. The single mandate is quantity, not quality. In fact, when you validate your word count, you have the option of converting your text to gibberish (for those paranoid folk who fear someone will steal their brilliant brainchildren). So go with it. Grimace if you must. Feel free to vomit occasionally. Just keep writing.

3. You will amaze yourself. We all have self-imposed limitations, whether or not we recognize them. Once upon a time, I was convinced my maximum hourly output was 500 words. (In case you haven't done the math, NaNoWriMo requires an average pace of 1,667 words per day.) Last year I pounded out 1,800 words in a single hour, taking breaks, as part of a group writing session. Check out the NaNoWriMo forums and messaging boards, and you'll see many stories of superhuman noveling feats: from people who have written nearly 10,000 words in a single day to overachievers who wrote their first 50,000 words in 72 hours, in ballpoint pen, on toilet paper... (Okay. Scratch the TP.)

4. You won't be alone. The national MWA organization sends out weekly pep talks from bestselling authors to help you keep keepin' on. Nearly 1,000 volunteers around the country (including yours truly) cheerlead their regions, by email, in chatrooms, during in-person writing events. We may all be different in terms of background, age, ethnicity, experience, genre, but we are all earning our stripes as writers. Whether the words we scribble or type ever see the light of day (and let's be honest, most of them should never see the light of day, unless it's in a very gentle, supportive critique group), we. Are. Writing.

5. You win (even if you don't "win"). Hey, it happens. The dog gets sick. Your laptop self-combusts. Extra-terrestrials kidnap you for 72 hours, and it takes a full week to find your groove. For various reasons, the vast majority of NaNoWriMo participants don't cross the finish line. But don't beat yourself up if December 1 rolls around and you're still sitting at 35K. Or 15K. Those hard-fought words wouldn't exist if you hadn't had the guts to take on this challenge, and you never know where those partial drafts may lead. You committed to your writing, and you wrote, by gum. No one can take that achievement away from you.

If you decide to take the plunge, check out our Facebook page and join us for a write-in. Also, drop in and say "hi" in the Northwest New Jersey Regional Forum. (Residency in the Garden State is by no means required.)

Mistina Picciano is a content marketer by day, eclectic novelist during every other moment. Favorite genres include mystery, suspense, romance, and horror, and most of her work includes elements of at least three of the four. This year marks her second as a NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison.

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