Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Common Language

THE SAILOR’S WORD BOOK, a copy of which sits on my shelf, is crammed full of marvelous terms relating to sailing in 1867 when the book was published. Bran, for example, means to lie under a floe edge, in foggy weather, in a boat in Arctic seas, to watch the approach of whales.

Before I read THE SAILOR’S WORD BOOK, I had never heard the word bran outside of discussions of cereal and roughage. Now I yearn to bran.

In writing, too, terms take on meanings specific to our craft. At the last Hamline MFA residency the faculty discussed how we could create succinct definitions of the most frequent, and sometimes confusing, terms that keep cropping up in our conversations about writing. A few weeks ago when Marsha Q asked what words readers thought we’d do well to define, suggestions included psychic distance, emotional life of a character, and texture. Here are some additional terms I jotted down:


emotional line

endowed object



hero’s journey

intrusive narrator


talismanic word

ticking clock


unreliable narrator

world building

Anything else you’d add?

And by the way, if you perchance are planning on branning, I would love to come along.


  1. In the Hamline guide to common language, I would love to see entries on "filter," "writing behind your back," and "what does your character yearn for." Also would be nice to have an "official" guideline to points of view as agreed upon by the faculty--e.g., what is the difference between third person close and regular third person.

    I'd also love to see definitions of what makes a book middle-grade, a chapter book, YA, etc.

    Many times at residency we hear off-hand references to Gardner, Donald Maas, Robert Olen Butler. Are there books on craft that Hamline MFA students should read and have in common?

    Thanks so much, Phyllis, for starting this thread. I look forward to seeing what my classmates would add to the mix.

    Also, thank you for introducing me to the word bran. It seems to aptly describe the writing process--most days it seems like I am shivering in the fog, watching for the approach of whales. "Argh. Just Argh."

  2. As a newer student, I second the POV definitions (as well as all the rest) AND the common craft books.

  3. Our class has done some brainstorming on both of these questions. Here's our starter craft book list:

    * Aiken, Joan -- The Way to Write for Children
    * Burroway, Janet - "Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft"
    * Burroway, Janet -- Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (any edition)
    * Checkoway, Julie - "Creating Fiction"
    * Gardner, John -- The Art of Fiction
    * Gardner, John -- On Becoming a Novelist
    * Hacker, Diana - "A Writer's Reference"
    * Lamb, Nancy--Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children
    * Lamott, Anne -- Bird by Bird
    * LeGuin, Ursula - "Steering the Craft"
    * The Little, Brown Handbook (or whichever college grammar you still own)
    * Maas, Donald--Writing the Breakout Novel (book and workbook)
    * McKee, Robert - "Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting"
    * MLA Handbook, 7th edition
    * Stein, Sol--Stein on Writing
    * Strunk and White -- The Elements of Style
    * Wood, James--How Fiction Works
    * Yolen, Jane -- Take Joy: A Book for Writers

  4. Two or three semesters ago, Phyllis and I agreed to come up with a list of craft books for the program and we still haven't done it. Bravo to your class for this terrific list! If others want to add titles, post them here or send them to me and we'll try to be more organized about compiling them. Thanks.