Thursday, October 18, 2007

Literary Lingo Recap

Lynne is on tour for her book Negotiation Generation, but will be back nex week. In lieu of a new post, here's one of Lynne's most popular:

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.