More terms you should know

Last week, I started a glossary of terms that every book-loving, agent-seeking aspiring writer should know, phrases that are tossed about in writer-oriented publications with a blithe disregard of whether those new to the field might not know them. (And not just the newbies: I have been a professional writer and editor for over a decade, and I still run across terms I do not know from time to time.) So it’s time to bite the bullet and learn what those phrases mean.


Again, if there is a term that you were really hoping I would define here that did not make the list, please send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, now or at some point in the future. I am always happy to track down definitions for my readers.


My apologies to readers of my last posting: alphabetically, the first listing of today’s should have been in last Friday’s. However, someone suggested over the weekend that I include it, and I’m not about to let the tyranny of the alphabet deprive my dear readers of a necessary definition.


ELEVATOR SPEECH, n.: The three-minute version of a book, designed to be spoken aloud while in transit, containing the essential PREMISE, the target MARKET, and hitting all of the MARKETING POINTS of the book. All too often, aspiring writers walk into conferences with a PITCH (the three-sentence version) all prepared, but neglect to develop this longer selling tool. As a result, authors often run out of steam a minute into an all-important first meeting with an agent. The essence of a good elevator speech is knowing when to stop talking. (The more I define this, the more I think it deserves a blog of its own – watch for it in the coming week.)


JACKET BLURB, n.: The short synopsis of the book typically printed inside the flaps of a hardback’s dust cover. Generally runs about 100 words. (Not to be confused with BLURB, defined last week.)


LITERARY FICTION, n.: (1) Another ambiguous category of prose. Depending upon whom you ask, it can mean either character-driven fiction where the writing style is more important than the plot or character-driven fiction that assumes its target audience has a college-level vocabulary. (The average book published in North America assumes a tenth-grade vocabulary, by contrast.) If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider John Irving’s work literary or mainstream. (2) Any work of fiction that contains a semicolon.


MAINSTREAM FICTION, n.: The vast majority of fiction sold in North America. Conforming to none of the standard genre classifications, mainstream fiction appeals to readers from across demographic groups. When mainstream fiction is well-written, or when it receives either a significant prize or critical adulation, it tends to be categorized as literary fiction. If you want to start a lively controversy at any literary gathering, start asking people whether they consider Alice Walker’s work mainstream or literary.


MANUSCRIPT, n. (often abbreviated MS): An unbound, single-sided complete draft of a book, for submission to editors and agents. Manuscripts differ from published books in a number of important ways: for instance, they always have at least 1-inch margins, are double-spaced, and are in 12-point type. For other ways in which manuscripts differ from published books, see STANDARD FORMAT.


MARKET, n.: (1) The demographic group most likely to buy a specific book, as in “Wow — your book would do really well in the YA market.” You should know the target market of your book, and why your book will appeal to that market, BEFORE you start pitching your work. (2) The current selling environment for books, as in “I can’t place this book in the current market.”


MARKET, v.: To present work to people who might buy it. Thus, a novelist markets his work to an agent; the agent then markets it to an editor; the editor markets it to the rest of the publishing firm, and the publishing company markets it to the public.


MARKET ANALYSIS, n. (also known as a COMPARATIVE MARKET ANALYSIS): A semi-objective view of the other books currently available on your topic AND an examination of the demographics of who might buy your book. For nonfiction, this is a formal section of the book proposal; for fiction, it’s just a good idea to for the author to conduct. In a conversation about your work with a publishing professional, under NO circumstances should you EVER admit that you have not performed a market analysis, because from the point of view of an agent or editor, the FIRST thing an author should do upon coming up with a great idea is to find out who else has written something similar.


MARKETING POINTS, pl. n.: Any facts about you or your book that will make it easier to sell. Make sure that your query letter AND your pitch both include the major marketing points for your book.


OUTLINE, n.: For nonfiction, an outline is essentially an expanded table of contents: a list of chapter or section titles, with each title accompanied by a 2-3 sentence summary of what that chapter or section will contain. Generally, when discussing fiction, the person using this term actually means a SYNOPSIS. Double-check.


PACKET, n.: An array of materials about a proposed book, used to attract interest within the publishing community. For fiction, this might include a synopsis, a bio, and the first chapter of the novel; for nonfiction, it would include the BOOK PROPOSAL and a cover letter.


PITCH, n.: (1) Verbally, your 30-second synopsis of your book. Frequently, agents and editors at conferences will prefer to hear pitches from authors, rather than reading any of the author’s work. (2) In writing, the three-sentence teaser for a book. (3) The second paragraph of most query letters to agents. (See my earlier postings about how to write query letters, if this is news to you.)


PITCH, v.: To recite your pitch to an agent or editor. If you are really doing your job at a conference, you should be pitching at least several times an hour, to anyone who will listen. It’s great practice.


PLATFORM, n.: For nonfiction, the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic of your book. Generally, the first thing an editor will want to know about a prospective NF author.


PREMISE, n.: The underlying logical proposition of a piece of fiction; often synonymous with the HOLLY WOOD HOOK. Usually, the premise is easier to identify for genre fiction (“hardboiled detective with a soft spot for curvy dames gets embroiled in city hall intrigue”) than for MAINSTREAM or LITERARY FICTION. In the latter case, the premises of, for instance, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (“A butler butles for years on end.”) or THE ENGLISH PATIENT (“A severely burned man lies still and has flashbacks.”) must have required considerable embroidery upon the underlying premise to pitch successfully.


PRESS KIT, n.: An array of materials used to convince newspapers, radio stations, and television stations that you and your work deserve attention. It used to be that publishing houses put these together for authors, but now, most authors need to assemble and distribute their own press kits. (Don’t worry; it will be the subject of a future blog.)


That’s all for today – I should be able to finish the rest of the alphabet tomorrow.


But while I still have your attention, I am going to digress from my very serious subject matter to pursue the shade of the lovely and talented Ralph Fiennes. This weekend, I took a MUCH-NEEDED break from manuscript revision to see THE CONSTANT GARDENER and CORPSE BRIDE, a double feature with a whole lot of dead women in it. Has anyone but me noticed that, cinematically speaking, the mortality rate of any female character that gets romantically involved with a Ralph Fiennes character in a movie is 100%? This film, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, SCHINDLER’S LIST… What’s next, ANNA KARENINA? I’m sure women worldwide would have much happier fantasy lives if his love interests were occasionally allowed to survive the final frame. If I met him in a dark alley – or, still worse, in a desert – I would instantly run in the opposite direction.


All right, there is your dose of serious career-building information AND total whimsy for the day. Go out and enjoy the first days of autumn.


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini


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