Thursday, June 28, 2007

Literary Lingo

Posted by Lynne

If you ask for feedback on your writing from your mother, sister or friend and you get, "It was wonderful" or "I didn't understand why your character did that," that's not difficult to interpret. If you turn to an English teacher and she says she loves how you used internal parallelism, you might have to go look that up in a dictionary of literary terms. But where do you turn when you need to understand the critique you get from an agent, editor, or reviewer?

In today's post, I'm going to take a shot at defining the latest industry buzz words, words that are nothing if not vague, often leaving a writer left scratching her head. Here's my attempt to clarify.

Literary: Literary fiction is characterized, by most, as more character-driven than plot-driven fiction. Some say it's more about the writing than the story. Others say it has a stronger social-emotional message. From a market standpoint, it's harder to sell, but gets reviewed more often.

Commercial: Commercial fiction is more often plot-driven fiction. Often it has a faster pace, a stronger hook and sells more than literary fiction.

Genre: Genre fiction is commercial fiction that fits into specific categories such as romance, mystery and science fiction, to name a few.

Upmarket: Upmarket fiction, defined by my agent, is work that bridges literary and commercial fiction. Publishers like upmarket work because novels tend to do well when they contain the best of both genres. For more on the difference between upmarket and downmarket, visit our old friend Miss Snark. She has an old post that illustrates the difference between the two, including examples.

Downmarket: Downmarket fiction usually refers to genre fiction. This is fiction with a solid fan base that tends to sell well to specific audiences.

High concept: High concept fiction is generally work with a solid hook. Agents and editors like high concept work because it's easier to sell a novel when the book can be described in a phrase or sentence.

Organic: Organic fiction (or characters) is a literary term used to describe writing that is authentic, not contrived. An organic character might also be referred to as pitch perfect, the character rings true.

Voicey: A voicey piece is writing that is voice-driven. A wonderful example of a voice-driven novel is Catcher in the Rye. Reading it, you can hear Holden talking to you, his tone, his demeanor.

Quiet: When a work is referred to as quiet, it means it's more literary than commercial, and often judged for not having a lot going on from a plot perspective. In today's marketplace, a quiet novel is harder to sell.

Compelling delivery: You are a good writer if anyone says you're novel has been delivered in a compelling way. This is a term that refers to the craft of writing.

Low impact: This term means the agent or editor wasn't left with that loving feeling. The reader must be moved by the characters, the story and of course the overall writing.

Doesn’t distinguish itself: This is a marketplace term that refers to a concern that the work isn't unique enough to stand out among the thousands of books that are published each year. These days, a novel that doesn't distinguish itself--even if the writing is gorgeous--doesn't tend to do well with readers.

No legs: This funny little phrase means much the same as "doesn't distinguish itself." The agent or editor believes it won't stand out among the competition.

Didn’t sing: First a novel must stand up and then it must sing? Yes, you must aim to wow your readers. It's a tall order for a novel, but agents, editors and reviewers know readers are first and foremost consumers. Word of mouth sales come when a novel sings.

Not fresh: Again, this means the novel doesn't bring anything new to the shelf. Readers want fresh.

If you've ever heard any of these terms from your agent or seen them written in a rejection letter, you're likely left to wonder what to do with your feedback. Sometimes an agent or editor will use these terms and it's a compliment, (Compelling delivery). Sometimes they're simply stating a fact, (Your novel is upmarket). Other times the feedback is a criticism and you'll have to mull it over and decide what you'll do with the feedback, though how in the world one sets out to make a novel sing is a mystery.

While you may define these terms differently, (and if you do, please share in the comments section) I hope my definitions help you sort through the myriad of feedback you're receiving. If you have another term you'd like defined, let me know. If I don't know, I'll ask my agent, editor, or the wonderful ladies at The Writers' Group to help me define it for you.


Wet Ink said...

Lynne, I just want to say how helpful this is! A big thank you.


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


I'm so glad it was helpful. It's like learning a new language, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by.


Larramie said...

Thank you, Lynne, this post was fascinating. And I discovered that although I read a variety of genres, my favorite is usually quiet novels with compelling delivery.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


I'm with you, I love quiet compelling fiction. Too bad even readers are in a rush these days.


Travis Erwin said...

Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

I don't have words to say what a small and shining gem this is.
Thanks Lynne.

I tend to describe my genre as 'literary/mainstream'. Should I write 'Upmarket' in my query letter. Or I leave that to the agent/editor (sigh).

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Hi Reality,

Thank you for the kind words. As for your genre, I would use the term upmarket. It means the same thing as literary/mainstream, but would demonstrate how current you are--you're potential agent would know you've done your homework.

Good luck with your agent search--my fingers are crossed for you.


astairesteps said...

This is one of the most enlightening posts I've read. It was easy to understand, needed (and wanted), and very helpful.

Thank you!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Why, thank you! I'm so glad you found it helpful.


Therese Fowler said...

Brilliant guide, Lynne! It's astounding how difficult it is to find such a comprehensive glossary in print OR online.

So how, then, would you characterize your novel?

Mine is upmarket...but, interestingly enough, my UK publisher is making what by these definitions (and Miss Snark's) would have to be called a downmarket marketing effort. Pretty fascinating how the approach can vary by marketplace...

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


I'm glad you found the list helpful. Inside industry information is hard to come by, but oh so valuable.

Both my agent and I agree my novel is upmarket womens fiction. We shall see what others deem it. I can't wait to read Souvenir, especially since I read an excerpt on your site. It is so compelling and fresh!


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