Friday, March 10, 2017

A novel question

[A reader] commented about 'fiction novel' and it made me think about a comment I'd gotten.

'Don't say novel, use manuscript. Agents freak out when you call it a novel and it hasn't been published.'

I had not heard or seen this anywhere. What do you think?
I think who ever told you that is an idiot.
Well, either an idiot or more likely parroting some numbskull agent who's too busy trying to feel important to actually dispense useful information like why "safety deposit box" is always wrong, and joint accounting is a tool of the Devil.

Let me be clear:

It's a novel when you're writing it.
It's a novel when you're revising it.
It's a novel when you're tearing out your hair, trunking it, and never speaking of it again.
It's STILL a novel when you dust it off ten years later, give it to your agent and she sells it for a gazillion dollars.

It's in manuscript form some of that time.
But it's always a novel, unless it's non-fiction or a memoir.

In other words, whether something is a novel is based on CONTENT not publication status.

And anyone who tries to make you feel stupid for saying novel instead of manuscript has entirely too much time on her hands, and should come to my office for refresher course in Agenting 101.

Sheesh.


44 comments:

french sojourn said...


I think a similar pair is writer and author. Or Miss. DeMeaner and Mr. Felon. Never mind that last one, Miss. Direction.

Cheers Hank.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Hank: Ha! Thank you for that.

Janet: Agenting 101?! Would you, per chance, have an Authoring 101? I'm ready to sign up. Oh wait. I'm doing that already. Right here on your blog.

Well, it's daylight and I've gotta get a move on. Leaving 3 hours earlier than I had planned to visit the parents. A medical procedure was available after all today instead of waiting until Monday.

Theresa said...

Always learning. I'd never heard anyone insist on this distinction. Sometimes I simply prefer the elegant way manuscript sounds.

Colin Smith said...

So can I call my new and very different book a novel novel?

And isn't "joint accounting" when you keep up with your elbows on Excel?

And a "safety deposit box"--isn't that where you keep your well-being when you're about to do something reckless... like post a comment like this? ;)

All these terms to keep up with...

Theresa: I agree. Manuscript sounds all posh and official. :)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I feel as though I tend to say "book" more often than not; it seems like most people I tell assume that means novel? Or they know me. Or they follow it up with "oh, what do you write?" and I tell them it's in the fantasy-scifi-horror sliding scale and where they can read my published short fiction. Just the other day I ran into a friend at the library who I don't see very often, and I was able to pull an anthology off the shelf and hand it to him, saying "My story is the last one in there." (I'm glad I remembered the call number! It's mixed fiction and essays, so shelved in non fiction)

Colin Smith said...

... of course, by saying "don't call it a novel" the person may mean that the Word Document itself is not the novel, but a digital representation of the actual novel, kind of like Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." In which case, the "novel" itself only becomes real when it's hot off the press, or its in final digital form on a Kindle. But then, are those really the reality? Is the manuscript really a manuscript, or is the Word Document in the agent's inbox only a copy of the manuscript that exists in the author's imagination, and the book on the shelf or on the Kindle mere shadows of the glorious epic that only the author sees as the images unwind like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind...?

Yep--time for tea! :)

Ceci n'est pas un comment.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"It's STILL a novel when you dust it off ten years later, give it to your agent and she sells it for a gazillion dollars."

Such a relief that the novel I just blew the dust off is going to make a gazillion dollars. I mean really, I do have confidence but I don't have an agent. Is that a problem?

Hahaha, sometimes I just crack myself up.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am tearing out my hair. It's a novel. It's trying to be a novel. I hope. It better be.

Quick apology or maybe a relief- I have meant to respond more appropriately in comments but lately life has been too distracting. My daughter moving (she's driving through Tennesssee as I write this on her way to Brooklyn). Odd that. And my "novel, it is a novel" is making me tear my hair out as I deconstruct the damn thing to fix the plot hole of despair I recently discovered. And then there's the ever present I am losing my mind just in general. But I love the Reef so much and love reading how you guys respond to our sharkly queen's brilliant and witty informative posts. Ok, more coffee and obsessively monitoring my daughter's progress up the coast.

Megan V said...

I've heard the distinction before. I'm glad it's not one to make much of.

E.M. -- best wishes to your daughter on her move! I imagine you're a tad nervous about it, but I'm guessing you raised a pretty great kid who will do swimmingly in the big city.

Susan said...

For me, it all depends on how I feel when I'm writing the thing.

Words coming out through an open floodgate, the characters talking nonstop, and scenes vivid and descriptive? "I love you, my precious."

Feeling mildly confident but hitting a few stumbling blocks? "Okay, novel, let's work this out."

Muses gone on what seems like a permanent vacation without me? "Take that, manuscript!" *flings it at the wall, sees what sticks.*

Then there's The Damn Novel, worthy of capitalization but not much else. I think it turns ten this year. Someday, TDN. Someday...

Elanor Lawrence said...

Thanks for this clarification, Janet. In my academic field (Renaissance drama), "manuscript" is generally used to refer to something hand-written, as opposed to something printed. I'm glad to find I don't need to refer to my typed novel as a "manuscript"!

Mister Furkles said...

For those who wonder, a safety deposit box is where the coach stores his deep defensive players. And joint accounting is the bookkeeping done your hole-in-the-wall dingy bar files its tax returns.

Okay, joint accounting means your multi-book deal sees no royalties until the total advance is fulfilled. The alternative is a multi-book deal where each book has its own advance and you receive royalties from the first book to satisfy its advance. I wouldn't know, but Nathan Bransford wrote about it a few years ago.

Lennon Faris said...

"Choose your battles" is one of my life's biggest mantras. Applies to the publishing world too, I guess!

Hank and Colin and 2Ns, you all make me laugh.

abnormalalien (Jamie A. Elias) said...

That's a weird one; I've always thought the two were interchangeable. Unless you don't write fiction in which case manuscript, project, and book seem interchangeable.

I would be interested in seeing everyone's dialogue on the writer/author parity. Personally, I've been told, "You're not an author til you're published; you're just a writer" Dunno, shelving myself with every journalist, fanfic-er, and philosopher seems like a disservice.

Colin Smith said...

Elanor: That's a good point, actually. Etymologically, "manuscript" is that which is hand-written. And while you can technically refer to any typed document as a manuscript (after all, presumably you used your hands to type--unless you used some kind of voice recognition software, in which case you used your hands to correct where it says "Parker placed fork handles in the fork handle holders and lit them" and "Johnny loved her knees as if she was his own"), it's perhaps more accurate to think of that act of pen on paper as what creates the manuscript. After all, there is such a thing as typescript, which is the typed-up version of a manuscript (yes, that's a real term--look it up!). But we're not going to be pedantic here, are we? :)

Colin Smith said...

abnormalalien: Well, clearly, a writer is one who writes, and an author is one who auths. :D Seriously, though, I think the distinction would be that a writer is someone for whom writing is a major part of their lives, either as an occupation or a hobby. Clearly, many people write, but making out your birthday wish-list, or emailing your Auntie Gertrude, doesn't make your a writer. But if you seem to spend an inordinate amount of time composing text for articles, short stories, novels, fan fiction, a blog, or comments *ahem* you are more than likely a writer.

"Author" is used often to speak of one's official capacity as the composer of a published work. Now, "published" can mean a lot of things these days. But I think the common understanding is that it's a work that has been reproduced and distributed in some official manner, with perhaps some kind of remuneration paid to the writer in exchange for his or her written work. HOWEVER, I think it's true to say that "author" is also often used simply to assign credit/blame to the writer of any piece of work. "Did you see that amazing blog article?" "Yes, I believe John Frain was the author." "Who wrote these heaping piles of verbal garbage on my desk?" "I believe Colin Smith authored those Ms. Reid. Sorry, I'll have housekeeping come with the Clorox..."

Let the discussion begin! :)

Dena Pawling said...


Hey Colin! I have a BOATLOAD of written works, many of them bumping up against the court's word limit, available to the public for a small fee. Unfortunately the small fee is paid to the court to obtain copies, not to me. Oh well. But I was paid to write them. This means I can call myself an author, yes?

What about my MG which will top out at 40-45k words? It's still a manuscript, and it's within the word count for MG. But somehow it doesn't seem like a novel. It's novella length, but MG. Maybe just book?

Colin Smith said...

Dena: Good point! Let's add to our definition of writer: "one who composes text for pleasure, and seeks to improve their linguistic skills for the mere enjoyment of expressing his/her thoughts and sharing them with others." I think that discounts most documents produced by the legal profession. ;)

As for your MG text, 40-50K might count as a MG novel. But if you typed it out, it's not a manuscript. It's a typescript. Or a house in Malibu if it sells. :D

Colin Smith said...

Dena: That said, it's true that you are an author, in that you are the author of those works. If a plaintiff cites one of those marvelously crafted pieces of legal literature in a case, and the judge stares at him in confounded amazement and exclaims, "Bless my sainted robes, who was the astonishing attorney, the genius of jurisprudence who wrote that?" will not the plaintiff respond, "Why, I believe Dena Pawling was the author"? So, yes, I think you can call yourself an author. :)

BJ Muntain said...

This pile of papers is the manuscript of my novel. This other pile is the manuscript of my non-fiction book. Manuscript is a format, generally an unpublished work. Preferably completed.

I had to google joint accounting. I'd heard the term, but my memory isn't what it used to be. I was envisioning all kinds of double entry crap... then saw it was actually a publishing term. Oh right. *big sigh of relief* I tried to learn double entry accounting once. My sister and my mum both tried to teach me. I just couldn't get my head around it. I've written novels and computer programs. I've even taken calculus. Could I understand double entry accounting? No. I am a dunce.

abnormalalien: A writer is someone who writes. An author is someone who writes specific things - books, articles, etc. I don't consider people who write copy for websites or catalogues to be authors (though I've written website and other copy.) Maybe the best way to explain it is: If your name appears on it, you're the author of that piece. If your name doesn't appear on it, then you're a writer. (Notice I don't say, "just" a writer. There's no "just" about it. You're still working at that writing thing.)

BJ Muntain said...

Of course, since I'm not yet finished my first coffee, I'm going to elaborate a wee bit. I believe that 'author' is a term specific to a piece. I am the author of a science fiction series. I am the author of that website copy. I wrote that science fiction series. I wrote that website copy. Authors are the writers of whatever piece is being spoken about.

Okay. Time to finish my coffee and see if I still think I'm making sense here...

Kate Higgins said...

"Gazillion Dollar Dust"
by Onewho Auths

A typescript about an wanna-be author (aka writer) who blew him/herself up trying to find his fictional novel in the burps of the pit of Carkoon.

(it's still early in the morning for me; I can't wait to see how this comment plot evolves throughout the day)

Dena Pawling said...


Hey again Colin! A long time ago in what feels like a galaxy far far away, I once wrote a complicated brief while I had the flu. A few weeks later I appeared at the formal hearing, and here's roughly how it went, after giving my opposing counsel time to argue his position:

Judge, looking at me: Counsel, I advise you NOT to use this brief as a writing sample.

Me: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: I did, however, find a few reasonably coherent paragraphs on page 12.

Me: Thank you, Your Honor.

Judge: And surprisingly, I actually agreed with the law as stated in those paragraphs.

Me: Thank you, Your Honor.

So I won that hearing with a brief that was so bad it merited a comment not to use it as a writing sample.

At least I won. That's the bottom line most of the time.

Casey Karp said...

Mister Furkles, thank you for the definition.

Here I had been thinking joint accounting had something to do with counting the days until they let you out of the slammer.

As for the writer/author thing, my take more or less parallels Colin's. If somebody asks me what I do, I say I'm a writer. Three months from now, if someone asks, I'll feel entitled to say I'm an author.

Though if receiving pecuniary recognition is the key distinction, I ought to be able to say "author" now. I mean, I've already received the first half of the advance. Heck, I've already spent the first half of the advance! So there's more to it than just pictures of dead presidents.

Maybe I should wait until I have to decide which term to use on a tax return.

Colin Smith said...

Dena: So, if that brief (and I contest the use of the term "brief" for something more than 12 pages long, but that's by-the-by) was a query, it was successful! Way to go!! :D

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

OMG. Help me... the hilarity here is killing me. I completely missed Jamie using the blog name abnormalalien. As I'm reading a few of your comments referencing "abnormalalien" I'm thinking, "What the hell are they talking about?!" Is abnormalalien some newfangled word for an author of sci-fi? So I scroll back through the comments and find Jamie. Oh, my...

Colin Smith said...

Casey: I believe the correct term to use on your tax return is, "Deceased." ;)

Beth said...

I had to look up joint accounting. Yes, I'd agree it must be a tool of the devil, used to torture starving authors and/or writers, as well as their agents.

It's important for writers to use words precisely, but I've found the dictionary often defines certain words much more broadly than their usual context. For example, one never hears of a non-profit head who spent all the donations on nice offices and elaborate parties described as prodigal. Which is a long way of saying I don't know the difference between authors and writers, and the dictionary doesn't seem to offer much help. But I once had a job that included granting access to safe deposit boxes and I understand that all novels are works of fiction, so maybe I'll get by.

french sojourn said...


Colin: A house that sells in Malibu...Sandscript?

Writer / Author:
An Author I consider to be someone published. A writer is someone unpublished, but even after being published could still refer to he/r self as a writer. (see 1887 Manhattan Superior Court ruling for Scratch vs. Itch)

my 3 cents worth?

Colin Smith said...

Hank: Sandscript!! Excellent! :D

An author is someone who is published? How do you define "published"? Or is that more than your 3 cents will buy? ;)

Casey Karp said...

Colin, my current case of the flu inclines me to agree with you. However, there's an electronic pile of manuscripts here that I'd have a hard time selling if the IRS revokes my SSN.

(Or would that be "pile of electronic manuscripts"?)

Dena, if that's the typical size for MG novels, then I wouldn't have any problem using "novel" to describe it. At least until you decide to add a new character and subplot and market it as a Muddle Grade for those experiencing their second childhoods. At that point, you're either going to have to bump the word count or redefine it.

RosannaM said...

Fun comment thread here today. Oh, the things we worry about! I will throw one more out there. How about calling yourself a novelist?

In general we are all writers. I tend to agree with the premise that you are the author of a particular body of work (be it legal brief, article, or unpublished mound of hair encrusted pages).

And I'm not even going to google joint accounting! Those of you who did have reported back. I will trust you.

Susan--Maybe TDN is the one that will sell for a gazillion dollars! I love the name, BTW.

EM Best of luck to your bold and adventurous daughter. I'm sure she'll be fine, although understandably you will worry.

french sojourn said...



Colin, I think published can be agented, self, periodicals, pterodactyls, and other paid avenues.

But the resident expert could always shed her light on it, as well as your take obviously. Gotta run, Cheers Hank

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I just jumped on after a morning of writing and a nap. Skimmed comments...did somebody say briefs?
Is that as in boxer or briefs?
Wait a minute, I don't mean as in what is actually IN boxers or briefs, I mean, I don't know what I mean. I better go back and read.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

My bold daughter got a speeding ticket in Virginia. Lord, there are too many more states for her to cross on her way to New York. Of course, she is driving there like a bat out of Hell

BJ Muntain said...

I don't understand why people think an 'author' needs to be published. You are always the author of anything you write. That's the meaning of author. That makes you an author. I like to think that you need to have completed something to have 'authored' it, but that may be personal. I'm the author of several unpublished novels (only one of which is completed to the point that it can be queried.)

John Williamson said...

From what I’ve seen, some people do make the distinction between a manuscript, which may or may not be complete, and a book, which is complete, printed, bound and ready to be shipped. Both of course would be considered to be novels. Same ingredients in terms of content, but in a different form.
Similar to the distinction between dough and bread: same ingredients, different form.
To reinforce the idea of there being a difference between an ms and a book, agents usually ask for the name of the ms to be capped in a query: THE SHARK-BABES OF CARKOON. This versus the way published books are usually represented: Turning Over A New Leaf or “Turning Over A New Leaf”.
As for author vs. writer, a clue may be lie in the Latin origin auctor, which derives from the v. augere, one of whose meanings is ‘to originate’. In the modern sense, an author authorizes publication. (Thus, a plagiarist could never be an author of the material plagiarized, since he neither originates it nor does he have a right to authorize it.)
When Senator John F. Kennedy had his book “Profiles in Courage” published, there was a scandal when he was accused of not being the author. Leaving aside the fact that he was a Harvard graduate with a high IQ, he was the true author because he originated the concept and the plan for the book. He may or may not have had co-writers to help him refine it, but it’s irrelevant to his authorship. The same with his inaugural address: it was certainly crafted by Ted Sorensen, who had superior oratorical skills, but the president is regarded as the author because the speech represented his ideas.

french sojourn said...


BJ and Colin.

After mulling over Colins question, I thought that an Author to me is an older phrase, like an attorney that has esquire after their name. I think, as a for instance an Artist is someone that makes their living in the Arts, however I would also consider myself an artist because I do oil painting. (On a canvas and on my renovations.)

It took me the longest time to consider myself a writer as I had such respect for the written word. I don't think I would ever call myself an author after being published. To me it sounds a little to full of one's self. But that's just me. There are quite a few authors in this community, and they deserve the title, as the road there is long and arduous.

My third and final?

Colin, it was nice chatting with you, I missed it dearly.

Cheers Hank.

Susan said...

Roseanna: Thanks! One can hope! I tend to think of it as my magnum opus--everything else I'm writing seems to be teaching me what I need to know to be able to do it justice.

Author versus writer: Coming from a literary background wherein I studied Austen and the Brontes, I'd really liked to be called "authoress." If not, "Susan's" fine.

=P

abnormalalien (Jamie A. Elias) said...

You guys (and gals) are awesome. I think perhaps my offense at the teen "Just a writer," comes from that silly "Just." Like it takes nothing to be a writer.

Melanie, I nearly choked on my mac-n-cheese. Abnormalalien has been my moniker since my first AOL account. I'm strangely nostalgic enough to keep it.

Craig F said...

I am the purveyor of fine fiction. I ain't just some stinking writer. I am not the author of anything notable enough to claim to be the author of. At least to the general population. 20,000 of my closest friends have the BLUEBERRY PICKER now. I am an author to them but not to polite company.

I always thought a manuscript was what your were still working on. A novel is a finished manuscript. Same with novellas and short stories. Revisions, seconds and all of that can have a proper name and not just be a manuscript.

WIP is dependent upon who you talk to. Around here it means something I am writing, which is sci-fi that I need to find an ending for. For my regular way of making a living a work in progress is a fish of a different color.

Timothy Lowe said...

When the goal is to write 1000 words a day, and not just words but the right words, quibbling between "manuscript" and "novel" in a query seems nutty. Quibbling aside, I'll bet an agent would request a grilled cheese sandwich if it had the potential to sell for six figures at auction.

(Said grilled cheese sandwich would need to contain some mighty good words, and in the right order, of course...)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Theresa, say "manuscript" too often and you'll summon John Frain.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Dena made the point i wanted to make.

"You can't call it a novel. "

Sure I can. It's over 60K words.