The thirty-minute quick win

When I say go, I’m going to set a timer for thirty minutes and make a pitch. I don’t know what yet. But a friend has sent me a bundle of things that are so interesting, I want to do them all. And I’ve felt a bit blinded by which to pitch to first. Plus I’ve been a wee bit busy. So the result is that I’ve had the list for few days now and nothing is happening.

Let’s make something happen. Especially as today was a rubbish day. Got barely anything done and if I can whack out a pitch now, in front of you, I’ll feel better. I like feeling better.

So, here goes:

ME: Set a timer, thirty minutes
SIRI: Okay, your timer is set for thirty minutes. Remember, a watched iPhone never boils.

(It really said that.)


And… stop.

With 15 minutes and 28 seconds to go, I’m done. Read the pitch list, found one I fancied – it didn’t have to be the best, it just had to be there and be one I liked. No selection, or at least as little selection as I could manage. (There was one about poetry, for instance. Nice opportunity, lovely idea, completely outside my capabilities. So I moved on. But only a bit.)

Read the detail, did a swift email to them, gone.

And it worked, I feel better.

Writer’s Notes: how to write a bio

Your editor wants one, the festival you’re appearing at wants something for their brochure, you’re mocking up a new website, the list goes on and each one demands a bio. What a good thing that writers are ego-machines able to trot out a swift self-praising eulogy at the slightest hint of a request.

It is egotistical to write your own biography, even when you’re just talking of a paragraph for a theatre programme. But it is also a writing job. More than that, it’s a selling job. Now, this won’t exactly help you when you sit down to write one but each time you are asked for a bio or you see a place you can send it, you are not actually writing a bio. You are writing a pitch and you are writing a sales proposal and you are writing an advert.

There’s nothing like putting the pressure on you, is there?

If you’re sending a bio to someone along with material, if you’re pitching yourself and your material then your bio is very much part of that. It is factual in the sense that it must be true but it isn’t factual in the sense that it has to be a dry chronological chronicle of your career. I think schools and universities have a lot to answer for with the damage they do to how people write CVs.

Whether you regard yourself as a commercial writer or not, your bio is commercial. It is selling you – and then it is selling them, the editor and the organiser and the producer. Bios need to be something they can pop straight into their brochure or programme and forget about. Know that they will make them, the editor and the organiser and the producer, look good for having got such an interesting writer.

Oh, and it has to look different to the place down the road where you appeared last year.

As with all things sales, too, you need to do every bit of this selling business quickly. The fewer words, the stronger the words – though this is a family show – the better. Twitter is great practice for writing with flair but precision. Poets are fantastic at loading words with enough meaning to fill books. Scriptwriters are superb at dialogue that sounds natural yet conveys immensely important information.

It’s only novelists and academic text writers who are screwed.

For them and for every type of writer, though, do the Three Strikes Bio. I’ve mentioned this before, including in the book The Blank Screen but have only this moment thought of a name for it.

Here’s what you do to dash off a Three Strikes Bio.

1) Decide what and who you need the bio for. What is it selling? Your latest book, your first play, their workshop?

2) With that in mind, look through your CV for two things that are in some way relevant. If you need the bio for your workshop on teaching nuns to write about the ocean, that novel you wrote set in a convent has got to go in there. And so has your round the world yacht trip.

3) Look through your CV for one thing that is not relevant. Not relevant to the thing you’re pitching and not relevant to writing, either. Something that is so not relevant, it is far, far away from anything even approaching relevancy. For that nun ocean workshop, if you’ve once been bodyguard for a daytime TV celebrity, that’s the one.

Write these three things down and do it simply, do it straight. No embellishments, no quotes, no detail. Just third person you did this, you did, you do the other:

Susan Hare wrote first hit novel Convent Sunset while cruising the Mediterranean during her charity round-the-world race. She has also been a bodyguard for Cash in the Attic star Curt Jaw.

That’s a pretty good bio: you’d go see her, wouldn’t you? But it’s straight, factual, easy. I wanted to embellish the first line with the name of her boat but I was just after telling you not to add details, so I didn’t. But between you and me, I think her boat would’ve been called the Pink Baracuda.

Seriously, there is something about being concise that is strong. Too much detail means desperation, I think. It’s like CV: we think a CV has to get us a job but it doesn’t and actually it mustn’t. The job of a CV is to get us an interview. No less, sure, but certainly also no more. People must not be able to consider and then reject you on the information you’ve given them on the CV, they must be tempted to bring you in for a chat.

Bios are true but they are not evidentiary or documentation, they are sales.

Don’t wait

Yes, it’s easier to put that phone call off and yes, you’re probably right that you wouldn’t get the work. Everybody is calling, everybody is more qualified than you.

Just promise me that the next time something like this comes up, you say yes or you phone immediately to ask about it. This is easy for me to say because I suspect I have more faith in you that you do, you daft eejit, but because it’s easy for me to say, I’m saying it. Maybe you won’t get the gig but you can do it, you can do it in the way that only you can. Don’t write off an opportunity.

This is also easy for me to say because most of the time, I do it. It is hard, I grant you. Especially the phone call part: for some reason that is a killer for me. If I’m doing a job for you, fine. And I’ve been a journalist for years, it’s natural and second nature to pick up the phone then. But for myself, calling about something I want, it’s tough.

But whenever I haven’t called or I have hesitated, I’ve got nothing.

And whenever I’ve said yes, it’s worked out. Sometimes better than others. Occasionally I’ve looked around wondering what in the world I’m doing here and how will I make it through another two days of this. But usually, it works and works out well.

I can see where I was when I got a round-robin email from a colleague on the Writers’ Guild committee saying he wasn’t able to go to a thing, would one of us want to do it instead? I said yes and filling in for him at one single meeting has led to nearly a year so far of very many and varied jobs that all sprang from there. I get to work and have a really great time with people I’d not heard of before I said yes.

It is true that there are better qualified people than me, there are simply better people than me. But so long as they hesitate and I say yes, I’m okay with that.

This is how to pitch yourself to a magazine

I had 200 unsolicited submissions when I was features editor on a magazine and I rejected 199 of them. This one would’ve made it 198: this is so much how a terrific writer should and did pitch that I’m recommending it to you even though it failed.

Eighty-one years on, I hope The New Yorker magazine is ashamed of its stupidity.

March 15, 1933


I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

From Letters of Note (UK edition, US edition) via Brainpickings