Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writers & Jargon

When I attended my first meeting for a local writer's guild, I did a lot of nodding and smiling. A default reaction to feeling dauntingly obtuse. There I was in the middle of the largest gathering of kindred spirits I'd ever experienced (well, outside of church or a comic convention), and I wasn't sure I understood their language. We were all speaking English, of course, but I was tripping over enough buzzwords, acronyms, and iconic phrases to make me question whether I knew anything about writing at all.

This wasn't any sort of intentional exclusion, mind you. I'm reasonably sure that most passions and professions claim their own set of specialized vocabulary, to one extent or another. Coming from a nursing background, I'd seen many an eye glaze over when I start throwing around medical terminology. It didn't take me too long to draw the obvious parallel. Before you can effectively talk shop, you need to know the lingo.

It seemed to me that I had two choices. I could either risk my pride by admitting ignorance, or risk missing out on an invaluable information base.

Well, I was there to learn outside of a vacuum, wasn't I?

Pride lost the argument. I looked around until I found a sufficiently non-threatening face, and promptly recruited myself a translator. I wish I could recall exactly who it was I had whispering hasty explanations to me throughout the rest of the meeting. I owe them a coffee--and my eternal gratitude. They gave me a much needed boost onto the learning curve.

Over the next several months, a number of my new guild-mates were kind (and patient) enough to continue answering random questions, pointing me to books and web sites, and otherwise filling in gaps in knowledge where Google searches had failed me. In that time I've kept track of a number of definitions I wished I would have known starting out. So for those new to the organized writing world, I wanted to offer a few of the orienting basics--in some semblance of a logical progression.

For those of you who've been navigating these literary waters for some time now, I would appreciate any suggested additions to the list! :)

MS = Manuscript.

WIP = Work In Progress (typically in reference to one's current manuscript.)

MC = Main Character.

= Point of View (Refers to the character(s) and/or perspective from which you decide to tell your story.)

GMC = Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Your character wants ______ because ______, but they can't have it because _______. (A way of reducing the essence of the book's plot down to 2 sentences. A critical ingredient to an effective query.)

TSTL = Too Stupid To Live (When one of the writer's objectives in a story to get the reader to care about what happens to their primary characters, you don't want them thinking this about any of them.)

'Show! Don't tell' = Writing in such a way that the reader is able to experience the story through a character's thoughts, words, actions, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's summarization. (Often used as an admonishment, or as a warning that you are starting to sound like a text book writer instead of a storyteller.)

Beta Reader = A secondary reader who previews a work with an eye to spotting errors, offering feedback, and/or suggesting improvements. (Typically a volunteer.)

Copy Editor
= Someone who edits a manuscript for grammatical errors, along with pointing out inconsistencies and repetitions. (Typically a hired professional service.)

Novella = Between 17,500 and 40,000 words.

Novel = 40,000 words or more.

Single Title = Novels more than 80,000 words in length, not published as part of a publisher's category.

Voice = The distinct style, personality, and perspective of a piece of writing. When authentic, it serves as a literary 'fingerprint' -- made up of the author's innate diction preferences, sentence patterns, world-view, disposition, mood, personal experiences, etc.

Pantser = Writing style named for those who prefer to write 'by the seat of their pants' -- have the tendency to start writing with little or no plot in mind and without knowing exactly where they're going. They allow their characters to dictate where to go; and enjoy the spontaneity of this kind of writing.

Plotter = Writing style of one who MUST compose a detailed outline of their story before they feel like they can begin the real writing. Plotters tend to painstakingly plan out the beginning, middle, and end their story in advance; along with all parts in-between. Character sketches, fleshed-out backstory, and formulaic story-arcs appeal highly to them.

Quilter (sometimes called 'Plotser' or 'Plantser') = You guessed it, this writing style is a hybrid of the 'Plotter' and 'Pantser'. Quilters know their story and characters ahead of time, along with most major plot points, but remain flexible to character-driven changes as they go. They may or may not write scenes in actual order of progression.

Hook = The all important first paragraph of your query letter or article, meant to 'hook' the reader's attention.

Blurb = A short summary, usually referring to the words on the back of the book jacket.

Query = A sales letter through which you attempt to market your idea to an agent or editor.

Pitch = Same concept as a query, but often used in reference to a session with an agent or editor in person (or live chat/skype, if done via the internet).

Slushpile = An accumulative 'pile' of unsolicited manuscripts that have been sent to a publisher or editor.

= Happily Ever After


  1. Great post, RedPeril! It's been so long since I first joined my writer's guild that I'd forgotten how lost I felt when I first attended a meeting.

    One of our jobs as members of a writing organization is to reach out to new members who seek to boldly go where no writer has gone before. ;) As I jest, I truly mean these words. I'm sorry you were so lost when you first came to a meeting, but I'm so proud that there was someone who could make you feel at least somewhat at ease. We all go through the newbie period. We should all realize how overwhelming this business can be for someone who is just learning about it.

    This is a good lesson for all of us. Reach out to those who need a helping hand. No matter the situation.

  2. Thanks Kathy! :D

    I can't remotely complain about how the RWA welcomes new people. I drove an hour to a strange town and attended that first meeting because a handful of sweet, beautiful strangers took the time to be so warm and inviting to me. And I kept coming back because of the overwhelmingly kind and encouraging membership.

    But as it seems to be with many writers, I'm comfortably introverted and have an aversion to crowds. Add to that the fact that I probably seem a bit young to be so serious about the craft, and I let my self-consciousness run away with my confidence. ;) I'm better now. I just thought I'd try to spare a few new people a little anxiety, before I forget what it felt like.

    That's right, newbies--I got your back!

  3. I am still trying to figure out some of the terminology. (Hanging my head in shame I type this next part) Do you know how long it took me to figure out HEA meant Happily Ever After? I think everyone gets so used to using industry specific terms, that it is easy to forget that the meanings aren't immediately apparent. Thank to good Lord above for Google and Bing!

  4. Thanks much Heather!

    I'd forgotten all about the HEA. >.< I'll be adding it to the list, for sure. Though, I'm pretty sure it's usage is more prevalent in the Romance genre. Nobody seems to expect an HEA out of Stephen King. ;)

  5. Hey RP! Great post! I too felt lost and alone at my first meeting. I didn't understand much of what was being said. I am glad one of us translated for you! We're glad you stuck it out and stayed with us too!

    Great List! Maybe we should print it out and give it to new members in their new member packet!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Cheryl!

    You know, I almost suggested making up a little newcomers pamphlet or something to cover the basic definitions. I know it would have helped me! Not to mention the prevention of a subtle-but-persistent degree of disruption/distraction to those around me! ;)

  7. Thanks to Cheryl for mentioning this today at HOD. It's a great post! Sorry if we confused you with the lingo. Like others who've been in RWA for so long, I forget that others don't know what these things mean. Because it's all so familiar to me, I can't even think of things you might have left off. Maybe PRO and PAN? That's RWA specific, but PRO are the members who've completed at least one ms and submitted it, and PAN is short for Published Authors Network. There are specific monetary criteria to join PAN.

    You can ask me at any time if you don't understand something. :) I'm always happy and willing to answer, because I truly do forget that someone doesn't know. Ask me about my experiences as a published author, too, if you want. I don't mind sharing. I'll tell you everything pretty much. :)

  8. Thank you, Lynn!

    That's very generous or you. ^_^ And I'm likely to take you up on it, as questions come to me. With the industry being so competitive, I'm always eager to learn from the voice of experience! :)

  9. Not a problem! Happy to help. I didn't get where I was without a lot of help and advice. :) Never be afraid to approach me. If I seem unapproachable at times, it's because I am (like so many of us) an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. And sometimes I forget the extrovert part, LOL.