Having previously worked for Writer’s Digest Books, I came across a lot of literary terms — both the common and uncommon. Because it’s healthy for writers of all levels to be familiar with terms they may come across in articles, conversations and contracts, here are some literary terms defined for your enjoyment.
Boiler plate contract (also know as a “standard contract”) – (n.) This term usually refers to an agreed starting contract between a literary agent and publisher. If Agent X sells a book to Putnam, for example, their next deal with Putnam will likely have the same royalty rates and subright splits as the first deal.
Denouement – (n.) French for an untying. The denouement of a novel or story follows the climax; it represents the unraveling pf the complexities of a plot, and the clarifying of the story’s details and misunderstandings.
Galley – (n.) A bound version of just the text of the book (or article, if writing for magazines). There is little to no illustration and the cover is a solid color with release data printed on the cover. Used for the same purposes as ARCs (advanced reader copies).
Kill fee – (n.) A fee paid to a writer who has worked on an assignment that, for some reason, is not published. For example, you’re contracted to write an article for a magazine and you turn it in. The article itself is satisfactory. But then the editor calls you and says they are changing the focus of the upcoming issue and they can’t use your article as part of the package anymore. They have no more need for it, so they pay you a kill fee (a percentage of the original promised price — usually 25–50%) and all rights to the article revert back to you. Your best bet is to try and sell it elsewhere.
Logline – (n.) A one-line summary of your story. For example: “A treasure hunter searches for a fabled artifact in the Himalayas.”
Narrative nonfiction – Nonfiction that uses the devices of fiction. You’re telling a true story, but using things such as character development, dialogue and cliffhangers. Think about it like the movie Apollo 13. The whole story is true, but it’s told in a dramatic fashion, like a fictional story would be. Oft-cited examples of narrative nonfiction include The Perfect Storm, Seabiscuit, In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff.
New adult – a new and growing genre that features protagonists aged 18-26. This age of main character was previously a “no man’s land” area between young adult fiction and adult fiction. Characters in new adult fiction are usually in college or just out of school starting their post-education lives.
On spec – Writing a complete assignment before money is assured through a contract. When you compose an original screenplay not commissioned by anyone, it is known as a “spec screenplay.” If you query a magazine or newspaper with an article idea, they may ask you to write it on spec, meaning they want to see the finished product in its entirety before making a decision to purchase and publish it.
Sic – Latin for thus or so. Usually [enclosed in brackets] or (parentheses), sic is inserted after a word, phrase or expression in a quoted passage to indicate that the word or phrase has been quoted exactly as it was written, even though it may seem strange or incorrect (e.g., there was a spelling error in the quote).
Simultaneous submission – (n.) A submission where the writer submits his work to multiple editors or agents at the same time. Submitting to more than one agent is common (and encouraged). Some agents will only review queries or manuscripts exclusively; however, they should be upfront about this quirk in their online writers’ guidelines, and they should have a limited amount of time to be the only ones reviewing your work (one month, for example).
Stet – Latin for let it stand. Editors and proofreaders place the word stet in the margin of a manuscript to indicate that a marked change or deletion should be ignored, and the copy typeset in its original form.
Vet – (v.) A term used by editors when referring to the procedure of submitting a book manuscript (usually a memoir or exposé) to an outside expert for review before publication. A manuscript is usually vetted at the publisher’s expense.
F&G: stands for fold & gather – (n.) The picture book version of a galley. They are not bound but show the picture book in all its four-color glory. It’s then sent to reviewers and the like.
MG: stands for the genre of middle grade fiction.
MS/MSS: stands for manuscript/manuscripts – (n.) The typed, double-spaced, in-a-standard-font version of an author’s work submitted to a publishing house.
PB: stands for picture book – (n.) A book for younger children that has sparse text and big, colorful (or occasionally black and white) pictures. They generally have 32 pages.
YA: stands for the genre of young adult fiction.
ATTRIBUTION LEVELS (JOURNALISM):
On the record – When everything in an interview is fair game to be printed and attributed normally. This accounts for 99.9% of interviewing for most writers.
Off the record – When a source explains something not for publication by any means, but just as a personal explaination to the interviewer. To be truly off the record, both the source and writer must agree to it. If a source simply says “Off the record” and gives their thoughts without the writer agreeing to stop reporting, then the conversation is not truly off the record, and the writer must determine whether to use the material.
Unattributable – This is the current term for when you quote a source but keep their identity anonymous.
On background – What’s said cannot be quoted nor can the source be identified, but the gist of what’s said may or may not be printed. For example, “A source inside the McCain campaign, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this information, hinted that they may be as few as only two names on McCain’s short list of potential vice presidential candidates.”
Got any terms you want defined? List them in the comments. If I do another edition of this type of column, I will try to includes yours.
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