How to Write a Perfect Bio for Your Journal Submissions*

unfold-here-craneWriting the perfect bio to accompany your submissions is essential—and it can be tricky. After all, a bio offers insight into you as a person; it alerts the editors and your readers about other places you’ve published, and reveals some of your interests—points of connection that can humanize you. You are your words on the page, certainly, but you’re also more than that.  Your bio accomplishes this work for you.

So you might wonder, “How do I summarize my background in a way that is intriguing, meaningful, and appropriate?” Maybe you think,“How do I balance astonishing people with my literary accomplishments while remaining down-to-earth and approachable?”  Good questions, glad you asked.

Because altruism is second nature to me, I have developed the following list of bio-writing tips based on my many years (off-and-on) serving on editorial boards and as editorial assistants to a variety of journals.  I guarantee that if you keep these suggestions in mind, you will craft a Bio to Amaze ™, one that will endear you to editors and readers alike.  Fortunately, the list of tips is short, so you can implement them quickly:

1. Emphasize your credibility as a writer.  Editors want to know that your work has been published in at least a hundred journals, so include the names of every last one of them in your bio, and hope that editors actually have to retype them from your cover letter, because it’s thrilling to see just how many places have published you.  And hey, have you won literary prizes?  Be sure to list all the prizes you’ve ever won, including the Blue Ribbon you got in your kindergarten class for your story about the kitten and the puppy who visited New York.  We’re really impressed by that.

2.  Make it personal.  Editors feel connected to writers who share personal details.  We love to know that you have a deep, abiding affection for the Dallas Cowboys, that you can’t make it through the day without a cup of Earl Grey, that in your off time, you like to read your poetry naked to the pigeons in your local park while doing yoga, and that, were you a tree, you’d be a live oak, reaching your knobby hundred-year-old limbs in prayer to God.  We get a deeper sense of you as a person with this information, and it makes us feel really creepy close to you.

3.  Name-drop.  Have you studied with Famous Short Story Writer at a Really Hard to Get Into Summer Writers Workshop?  Or attended a conference where the current Poet Laureate was reading and you bumped into her later on at the Overpriced Fancy Coffee Bar, getting the same Pumpkin Spice Mochaccino Latte Frappe that you ordered?  Include this trivia, by all means.  We too like to hobnob with greatness, even vicariously, and it’s a mark in your favor when you can list the celebrity writers you’ve met IRL who have influenced you.  Bonus points if you make us editors jealous in the process.

4.  Experiment with form.  Why go with the conventional format of…

[Writer Name] has work published or forthcoming from [Journal A], [Journal B], and [Journal C].  She works as a [Job Title] in [City], and is the author of [Book Title] from [Press Name, Year].  You can read more of her work at [Blog Name.]

…when you could go with a racy picture of a woman that you’ve sketched in charcoal, adding a speech balloon to list your credentials?  Or maybe an origami paper crane that you write the word “unfold here” on a wing, so the editor can open it up to see where you’ve scrawled your bio?  Or, my personal favorite, record the bio as a YouTube video, and link to it?  Not only will a video demonstrate you’re A Totally Creative Special Snowflake of the First Water, it could kick-start your whole YouTube career. You might decide to give up traditional publishing altogether and just record all your poems and stories on a channel, counting the precious thumbs-up “likes” from all your new fans.  Instant gratification.

5.  Be thorough, but to-the-point.  Honestly, I can’t emphasize this enough.  Six hundred words should suffice.

Bios are important, and they should enhance your submission, not detract from and thwart it.  Remember, editors look for any excuse to reject your work—even if they say they read bios and cover letters last, can you really be sure that’s the case?  Of course not.  A bad bio can do real harm—and can negatively influence an editor as she reads.  You might have sent an awesome story, but if your bio offends, sayonara journal publication.

Writing the perfect bio takes some time and thought.  But it’s not difficult, once you’ve mastered the simple five-part process I’ve laid before you in this post.   Give it a try, and let me know in the comments how everything works out!

 

 

*Please note, the author of this blog shall be held blameless if oblivious readers fail to recognize the snarky sarcasm contained herein.

AWPost Mortems

It’s no secret I didn’t want to go to AWP.  In fact, when Karen Head announced to me that she had arranged it, fait accompli, that I was going to the conference, I pretty much decided to permanently take to my bed with the vapors.  My attitude wavered between considering how amputation of all my limbs or a lobotomy without anaesthesia would be preferable to flying out to Los Angeles (a city I was happy to be rid of the last time I left in 2002) and being thrust into a situation where I always have to be “on” and charming and cheerful, like a carnie, trying to tempt people to part with their cash.  (Although, of course, buying poetry is a better deal than any carnival game—and at least you don’t get snookered.)  But I’m always fine once I get to a place.  It’s the getting there, and the pre-anxiety (and the fact that I had a raging case of bronchitis—can I ever get through a Spring without it?  Geez!), that always cast a pall.

2016-03-31 08.53.04But I had a great time at AWP.  While I missed some interesting panels (being married to the booth for the entire time), I made up for it by being excellent at getting people to subscribe to the Atlanta Review.  Among the three of us—Dan Veach (now Editor Emeritus of AR), Karen (the new Editor), and me—we sold 42 or 43 subscriptions, sold out of all the journals that Dan brought with him (he brought 120 copies!), and met and encouraged lots of poets to send us their work.  I expect we’ll have quite the slush pile once Karen and I take over!  And that’s good because the more people who know about the Atlanta Review, the more we can spread our influence and get new readers and conquer the poetry world, Mwahahahah!  (Ah, sorry, I lost my head for a minute.  But you take my point.)  We want to continue Dan’s success with the journal, and between Karen and me, I think we waded into this new endeavor with aplomb.  And Collin Kelley was at the table off-and-on, and he is always one of my favorite people.

write buttonsOf course, what I always forget about AWP is how much fun the Book Fair is.  Especially when the swag is so good.  And it was pretty good this year.  The hot giveaway was buttons—everyone was giving away buttons, and so my AWP lanyard was bespangled with them from all manner of journals, the London Review of Books, PoetLore, Five Points, Sierra Nevada College’s “This Sh*t Is Lit,” “Poetry Changes Everything,” and nearly two dozen more. (I was all about the buttons—and even got several compliments from random peeps about my lanyard.  The best one sported a picture of a catalope (cat with antlers)—of course I can’t remember what journal I picked that one up at—I really wanted to buy a tee shirt from them, but they were out.)  (Also, we’re totally giving away buttons next year at the AR table—we totally need to swag it up.)

write poetry fresher

 

Other swag of note:  Poetry gave away car air fresheners.  I am totally mystified by this choice.  It smells vaguely piney, and also like antiseptic.  And ass.  Not really the smell your car longs for.  But on the back is the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, published in Poetry in August 1913, which is kind of nice.  Permafrost gave away a squishy stress-ball in the shape of a polar bear (awesome) as well as free copies of their journal.  There was one booth that as I was leaving the Book Fair for the day had some earbuds lying around.  I’m pretty sure they were giving them away…they had several pairs sitting on the table… but if not—if I accidentally liberated them—then I can add kleptomania to my list of skills, along with poetry and sarcasm.  (It’s good to diversify, you know.)

write bear

 

Then there was the booth with this one woman who apparently is a self-publishing machine. (I’m withholding her name in case my ridicule gets out of hand—but she shares a name with a famous early 20th century woman poet.)  I mean, she was probably 80, wizened like the Southwest—she looked like New Mexico—and draped in scarves and flowing skirts, and had stacks of her books in front of her like a fortress—all published through Amazon.  No matter how I tried to extricate myself from her clutches, she would not let me leave—she kept wanting me to purchase her books.

As soon as I’d inch away, she’d thrust another of her books into my hands, telling me how her life had been changed and how these poems represent her experience.  She gave me one book to take with me—which I totally thought was a catalogue describing her various books, with a few poems in between ads for her other books—and when I got back to the hotel, it turns out she was actually selling that book—there was a price of $18.95 stamped on the back.  (I was like, dafuq?  Really? Who would buy that??) Anyway, when she saw she could not entice me to purchase her whole corpus of books, she foisted her most recent one on me—which actually, from a graphic design standpoint, seems really kind of nice—the cover is lovely, and it looks like a real book of poetry, not something from a vanity press.  But I mean, how good can these poems be?  The first line of copy on the back cover states, “These new poems were all written during the first two months of 2016…” and the pub date is March 5.  I guess I am being a poetry snob.  I haven’t read the book yet—it could be wonderful.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Another book that was given to me for free was Jessie Carty’s Practicing Disaster (Kelsay Books/ Aldrich Press 2014).  I have a bit more faith in this book, although its title on the cover is written in shitty Comic Sans.  (Really?  Like who thought that was a good idea?)  The inside cover has the author’s name signed and the line “Not a joke—free poetry” with a smiley face.  And the acknowledgements list at the front of the book is quite impressive—among the places that Carty has published work include Eye Socket Journal, The Dead Mule, Blue Fifth Review, and Poet’s Market 2013.  So, I’ll try to read through it at some point.

write booksAs far as purchased books, I bought Parades by Sara Deniz Akant (OmniDawn 2014), and Hungry Moon by Henrietta Goodman (Colorado State 2013) (which kind of got banged up on the flight home—c’est la vie).  And the stack of journals I picked up is impressive—Moon City Review, New South, Southern Indiana Review, Rock and Sling, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sugar House Review (which has a beautiful cover), the Laurel Review, and several others—all of which will be seeing submissions from me in the near future—hahah.

write journalsOf course one of the things people flock to AWP for is all the famous people, as well as catching up with old friends.  I didn’t meet any famousy-famous people, though I did get to meet Kelli Russel Agodon, of Two Sylvias Press (a press that makes lovely little books), who is one of my heroes (I love her as a poet and as an editor), and who tweets great material always (follow her if you don’t:  @KelliAgodon).  So meeting her at the Two Sylvias table was so nice—I was fulsome enough in talking to her, I think she felt like she had to hug me.  But we had a nice little convo.  And I did get to see some old Nebraska alums—Liz Ahl, who I always forget how divine she is (we had drinks with her at Tom’s Urban, in L.A. Live, across from the Convention Center), and Darryl Farmer, who was here at Georgia Tech too for a little while, before moving off to the wilds of Alaska.  But overall, not as many Nebraska folks as I expected to see.  (I went over to the Prairie Schooner table, thinking there might be someone from the old days, but I didn’t know any of those people.)  I would have liked to see a few more, at least.  (I did see another UNL alum, who, as always, looked right through me, the putz.  I refuse to mention him by name, but a pox on his head.)

2016-04-01 16.41.19

View from the Santa Monica Pier

Not at the conference, I met up with my old best friend/ enemy/ boyfriend-ish/ not boyfriend-ish/  “I’m gay” “No kidding” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I thought you knew” / best friend again from back in my USC Trojan days.  We spent late Friday afternoon and Friday evening walking all over Santa Monica—we walked from Wilshire Blvd. to the Pier, and up and down the Pier, and along the beach for a long stretch (geezus, the water was cold as fuck), and then up and down the Third Street Promenade about three or four times, tried finding a movie to watch (we went to the movies all the time when I lived out there), went out to dinner, ate liquid nitrogen ice cream at Creams & Dreams, and then hung out at his place in Venice to watch Brooklyn—a great (if slow-paced slice-of-lifey movie… about 10 minutes into it, I thought, “This is so my Mom’s kind of movie”).  I didn’t get back to the hotel till well after midnight.  But it was so good to see him… and fun to tool around L.A. like we did when we were younger.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back, I won’t lie.  I need to recharge my introvert batteries which were sadly depleted while I was away.  And mostly I need to…

write like a mofo          …And so do you.

Contests, & Waiting, & Rejections, Oh My

What does it take to get a book of poetry published in this country?  I wish I could write a blog where I list out all the steps a person needs to follow to help ensure success in this process.  These are the things I would mention:

  1. Write a book of poetry.
  2. Get friends to read it and make suggestions for revision.
  3. Edit and polish the hell out of it.
  4. Send it out to publishers.
  5. Get published.
  6. Become the latest darling of the poetry world.
  7. Repeat for Books 2, 3, 4…

Except, it hasn’t worked that way.  Well, I mean, I’ve got Steps 1-4 down pat.  I’ve sent out my manuscript (at this point) 42 times (which as you know is the answer to life, the universe, and everything), so you would think that perhaps the universe will come calling for me pretty soon.  (And to be fair, after a hiatus of several blues-ridden months where all I was getting was rejections, I’ve sent it out 10 places in the last month, 5 of which are contests. I guess you could say I’m feeling hopeful again—so technically speaking, it’s only received 32 rejections.)

And I get rejection is part of the gig.  Your manuscript has to find the right person who loves, loves, loves your writing, someone who will pass it along to the next reader, who also needs to love, love, love it.  And so on.  And contests aren’t the best way to ensure that your manuscript finds a loving audience, because readers simply don’t have the time to invest—particularly if your book is a little odd. (Which I fully admit mine is.)  Readers barely have time to invest even if the poetry they read is something they expect and understand. I know this.  On an intellectual level, I know this.  Everyone is getting rejected (well, except for one person).  Most contests report that they’ve had anywhere from 600-1000 entries.  Lots of people are getting told to take their manuscript and go bite the big wienie.  I get it.  I just wish that the process didn’t suck so hard.

I have a writer friend who told me that he knew someone for whom it took 70 times before her book won a contest and got published.  70 times.  Considering that most contests only award $1000 and run $25 a pop to submit, that times 70 contests comes out to $1750, meaning the contest cycle put her $750 into the hole.  (I don’t even want to think about how much into the hole I am.)  (Not that anyone goes into poetry to earn a living.)  (Honestly, what kind of business model is this, where the poet has to take it on the chin, nose, or other body part to get her work into the world?)

Of course, railing about it here is not going to change the status quo.  For whatever reason (because hardly anyone reads poetry anymore and contests are one of the only ways that publishers can make any money), this is how the process goes if one wants to be published by a reputable press and hopefully receive accolades for it.  And I buy into the system (literally and figuratively), which makes me complicit, and I have to be ok with that.   I am ok with that. Because, hey, who doesn’t want to win the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award and spend 6 weeks lounging around and poeming in Italy plus get their book published and sent out to everyone who is on the rolls of the AAP?  If you won that, the $35 fee you invested (for me $70, since this is my second time around) when you submitted your manuscript would be hella worth it.

I could just wish I knew what the magic number of submission times for my book  to get published would be.  Because that would so alleviate my anxiety.  Like, let’s say the Goddess of Publication were to come down from On High and whisper one night when I’m asleep:  64 times, JC!   Then I would know that I only have 22 more rejections to go.  That would be great.  I could send them out all on one day and get it all done, knowing that soon I’d hear the good news.  Ah well.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I haven’t been working on Hecate Applebough.  I was thinking about why this is, and it’s a combination of factors—the weirdo exhaustion, a preponderance of tennis matches in the evening when I would normally write, and a renewed vigor about writing poems.  But actually, those aren’t the biggest reasons.  I think the biggest reason is because I’m waiting to get notes back about the first book…and so I’m kind of feeling like I don’t want to write any more on the 3rd book in case there are repeated mistakes in the 1st one that I could prevent myself from writing in the 3rd book if I just knew to avoid them.

That’s certainly a true enough statement.  Avoiding mistakes if they’re preventable is always preferable to making a bunch more and having to go back and fix them.  But if I’m honest, another thing making writing the 3rd one a pain right now is I’ve dug myself into plot hole and I really don’t know how to get Cate out of it.  When I sit down at the computer and see that last chapter., I’m like, “Bleah” and then I get up and do something else.  It’s the first time since starting to write this series that I’ve just felt like I’ve lost control over the story and over Cate’s life.

And so in your endless wisdom, you might say, just throw out that chapter and start fresh.  And that’s really good, practical advice.  But the thing is, I don’t know what to replace it with.  I don’t know how I can make it better.  I have a blind spot right now.  So I kind of thought it might be ok to just set Hecate aside for a little while, and focus on writing poems and sending them out.  Maybe when I get the notes on the 1st book, it will help me see the 3rd one with a fresh eye too.  (There is no pressure on the person reading the book right now to hurry up and make those notes… I need some down time from Cate, so it’s totally ok.  Take as long as you need.  Srsly.)

And maybe this weekend, I’ll get a bee in my bonnet and suddenly figure out how to proceed with Hecate.  Or maybe I’ll write three more poems.  When it comes to my writing, it’s always just a mystery what will happen.  I kind of like it that way.

And, as a total non sequitur, please enjoy a photo of Jenny, who has been keeping me company:

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Queen of Analog

I am a huge proponent of index cards.  I have been tracking my submissions to journals and contests on alphabetized index cards for years.  Some years, there are fewer cards in the box than others (though last year and this year, there are a ton).  I like that I can thumb through them, find what I’m looking for, and move on.  I like their tactile quality, that I can hold them and smell their papery-ness, that I have tangible proof at all times that I am working on publishing.

I keep my pack of cards with me in my purse or bag—I sometimes joke, à la Gollum, that the cards are “My Precious.”  They are precious to me, like a talisman or a charm, and I don’t like to be far from them.  It sounds a little wacky, but then, writers are by definition, wacky folk, so I don’t let my little partiality to (I won’t say “obsession with”) the cards bother me.

The red plastic case that holds them has the space for about 120 3x5s.  Inside, there’s a tab for Sent, Rejected, Accepted.  When I’m feeling like I need a boost, I just look through the cards and tell myself, “JC, you are working it.”  Seeing the Sent and Accepted piles is naturally pleasing (and self-affirming), but I even like the Rejected tab, because after I look for some new journals, I will mine the cards in there for submissions that I can send somewhere else.  And I don’t have to think about what pieces go with what, because the submission groupings have already been created—I’m just reusing the card with new journal title on the top.  Easy peasy.

But this is all by way of saying, that in February, I bit the bullet and got a Duotrope subscription, due in part to a young writer friend who mentioned that he was going to subscribe in order to take his writing more seriously, and that getting a subscription to Duotrope was one way he could feel “professional” about the work.  I thought about that and could see his point.  For myself, I wondered if I could justify the expense; after all, I already subscribed to Allison Joseph’s CRWROPPS list in Yahoo Groups, and got a weekly digest from the New Pages website.  So did I really need a Duotrope subscription?  It turns out, I did.

Now, let me be very clear, that I am in no way shilling for Duotrope—they haven’t promised me a free subscription for next year if I tout all their great qualities or anything.  But I like Duotrope for a number of reasons (and not just for the submission tracker element): I like to see the Response List—it’s quite illuminating about the journal process because people who subscribe are really serious about entering this data.  So you’ll see, for instance, one day, BOAAT will have accepted one person’s work, and there will be 15 rejections, or 32Poems will have accepted one or two pieces, and there’s a ton of rejections.  What it helps to do, in my mind, is to let me see the reality of the journal process—I’m not the only one getting rejections here.  It helps to see that other people’s work also is rejected—not from a “ha ha haha ha” schadenfreude perspective, but more like a “we’re all in this together” perspective.

The other thing about Duotrope that I like is that it is constantly updating when markets are open or closed as well as listing new markets that are available.  Having an academic background (and having worked as a reader on Prairie Schooner back in the day), you kind of have a sense that a lot of journals at university presses take the summer off.  But other journals have different submission cycles, so Duotrope is handy in that they let you know when these cycles are happening.

And finally, Duotrope offers metrics for lots of stuff—because people take a few minutes to record data about their submissions, I have an idea about how long it takes some markets to respond.  I’ll give you an example.  Last May (of 2014!!), I submitted poems to a journal and I just never heard from them–until I queried them in December and said, hey, what’s the deal?  I was told by a very harried editor that this was a Name Brand Journal, and they were Very Busy, and I just needed to wait.  And so I did.  Wait, wait, wait.  I finally got a rejection from them on June 10th—a 384 day wait, according to Duotrope.  The average response time for this market is 155 days; the longest reported was 401 days.  I wouldn’t know that, except that Duotrope offers that data.

Now, it’s probably obvious that I’ve become a fan of Duotrope.  I record my submissions and responses there; I look up new markets (and have had some acceptances directly because I found them on Duotrope)… but I still keep my cards.  Because they’re mine.  Because they’re easy to hold onto and easy to maintain, and I don’t need a computer to check on them.  I can keep My Precious with me at all times, and remind myself when I need to, that I’m doing what I can to get my writing out into the world.

I Need a Hit

I’m jonesing–yes, jonesing–for an acceptance.  For the last few months, it seems like I was getting an acceptance every other week or so, and it’s been 15 days since my last acceptance (a piece of flash non-fiction).  True, it’s been only 3 days since a rejection, and really, I should be grateful for that, because it means that even if the journal didn’t like what I sent them, at least they read it.  That should count for something, right?

Let’s be honest–the “hit” I want… is for someone to tell me they want to publish my book.  And that it will be a great hit with the publishing world.  That it will get a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a National Book Award, Georgia Book of the Year Award, and various other accolades that proves that all the time I spent working on it wasn’t time wasted.  It’s hard waiting to hear back from book contests.  I want to know NOW.

So while I’m waiting more or less reasonably patiently about the book, I feel like every journal I have stuff out at should just agree to publish my work to make my wait more tolerable.  What do you think?  Seems fair, right?  😉

And again, I hope your writing and publishing are going well.  (I know we writers are all in this together.)

 

So, Productivity Can Pay Off…

I haven’t totally maintained my goal to be sending out at least two submissions every day, but I’ve been pretty good about sending out several a week these last few weeks.  And today, Flyover Country Review published my poem “Stegosaurus.”  I’m so happy!  It’s my first publication in 2 years!  (Not counting being 25% co-author [with Karen Head, Blake Leland, and Bob Wood] of the anthology On Occasion:  Four Poets, One Year, which came out in March.)

I also have a couple of poems coming out in Kentucky Review.  As soon as they do, I’ll let you know!

And Now a Word from She Who Is Soon-to-be Published

I’ve been thinking about cover art and blurbs and such, and I can’t tell you how stressful that is.  I’m beginning to think writing the book was waaaaay easier than all the stuff that comes after.

Karen says I ought to hold a contest and have my students come up with possible cover art.  Which I could do, and maybe give like a giftcard or something to the winner.  However, there’s a little part of me (alright, a BIG part of me) that thinks that rates a 10 on the Gouda Scale.  But what are my options, otherwise?  I can’t take a photo to save my life, and let’s not go into my painting skills.

And then there’s the whole “author picture” thing.  That’s a debacle in waiting.  I’m about as photogenic as roadkill.  (And no, this is NOT a call from my devoted friends to protest otherwise, well-meaning and lying as you would be.)  Ugh.  I don’t even want to think how obnoxious getting a professional-looking photo will be.  It’s not like I can ask Chris to take it.  He takes ghastlier pictures than I do.  Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

And Goddess save me, I have to find people to blurb my book?  If there’s one thing I despise (but secretly crave it anyway) is affirmation and notice from others about my writing.  The thought of approaching anyone and asking them to read La Petite Mort and say how great it is, fills me with absolute blood-freezing dread.  I go out of my way to be unnoticed, quiet, fade-into-the-woodworky.  Asking someone to read my book and hoping they’ll like it enough to say some kind words is like a nightmare to me.  I think I’d rather extract every last tooth from my mouth, sans Novacaine.  I don’t even know who to ask.  Who even really wants to blurb a book?  Isn’t it kind of phony anyway?

Ugh.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking I’m the most ungrateful, idiotic, ridiculous person in the world, who just got her book accepted and ought to be hella grateful, and instead, here is she is bitching about it.  You’re damn right I’m bitching about it.  I am grateful–I’m not a complete moron–but is it wrong to be just a little freaked out about the extra associated crap that goes with the acceptance of the book?  The pictures, the blurbs, feeling like a big bleah-head??

(Not that feeling like a big bleah-head is new for me.  I feel like that quite often.)