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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.

Mug Shot: Lorenzo Carcaterra

Lorenzo Carcaterra is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Sleepers, A Safe Place, Apaches, Gangster, Street Boys, Paradise City, Chasers, and Midnight Angels. He is a former writer/producer for Law & Order and has written for National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, Details, and Maxim. His most recent novel is The Wolf. He lives in New York City with Gus, his "Olde English Bulldogge."

What are you working on currently?
Currently, I'm working on my new novel, Tin Badges, for Ballantine Books. It's a crime novel featuring an ex-cop leading a rogue team in a hunt for a killer. They are joined in the chase by his recently orphaned 15-year-old nephew, a budding Sherlock Holmes. It is the first in a planned series and will quickly be followed by The Widow Maker, the sequel to The Wolf.

I also sold a spec script for a TV series to [producer and director] Joe Roth, and we are working to gear up the pilot. The series is called The Prosecutor.

When and how do you find time to write?
You make time. I usually work on the books in the mornings and the scripts in the afternoon. Layered in between are walks with my dog; a workout and reading — papers, books, magazines. I make my own hours and luckily don't need much sleep, so if you total it all up — I probably write for about 8 hours a day; read about 2-3; workout for 2; and watch as many movies and TV dramas as needed — it's all part of the job.

How much and what kinds of marketing do you personally do? How do you feel it works for you?
I have a web site, I blog occasionally for it; Facebook and Twitter — which everyone does. Someone does Instagram for me from photos I send her. It's like chicken soup — it can't hurt. I have to decide to devote more time to social media — making a bigger footprint in that arena. I notice it does pay off for some writers I know and, while I plan to do more, I don't know how well it works for me. I still believe the best way to sell a book to a reader is by word of mouth. I do enjoy going out and speaking to groups — I prefer speaking to reading — and those I find very useful, fun, and productive. Last year I spoke to 500 folks at Boeing headquarters in D.C., had a blast and sold over 600 books and ended up on the Washington Post bestseller list — that's effective marketing.

What fictional detective would you like to be and why?
Lt. Columbo — smart, funny, sharp, and always caught his suspect.

In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read everything. Watch everything. Pray.

Photo by Kate Carcaterra.

Panster vs. Plotter: The Definitive Answer

flying_pants-2“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans. There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone. He was speaking ex cathedra. This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.

The interviewer tended to agree with him. Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination.

“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.

I have 17 years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents. I flew in the face of it all. I could not stay in my seat. From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose, I called out the names E.L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.

Mr. Bestseller looked confused. Mr. Interviewer offered that E.L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night. I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline. They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it.

How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?

For those of you who don’t know the terms: In writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book. A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.

Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way. I have never heard a pantser say such a thing. At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above. But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since. Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.

Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller. You plotters need a map. We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers. We journey forth and draw the map as we go along. We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.

Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever. The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book. How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story? Answer me that!

Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing. When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book. Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book. One way is NOT better than the other. All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.

—Annamaria Alfieri

Originally published on Murder Is Everywhere.

MWA-NY Chapter President Emerita Annamaria Alfieri’s first novel, City of Silver, was named one of the best debut mysteries of the year by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Her short stories have been published in Queens Noir and Sunshine Noir. She is the author of Blood Tango and two other historical mysteries set in South America as well as a new series set in East Africa in the early 20th century, beginning with Strange Gods. Its sequel, The Idol of Mombasa, was published this fall.

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