Some Thoughts on Words

We deal in words all the time, but some words don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. In particular, many of the words associated with the business of writing books mean different things to different people.

Take cozy, for example, the term often used to describe mysteries featuring amateur detectives, mostly female and usually doing their sleuthing in small towns where the protagonist has a close-knit circle of friends and a remarkably large pool of potential villains to choose from.

I always say I write cozies, both as Kaitlyn Dunnett and when I’m writing historical mysteries as Kathy Lynn Emerson. I don’t see anything wrong with the term myself. But some folks who prefer their crime stories darker have for years made derisive remarks about the cozy. I agree that some are too fluffy even for my taste, and personally I could live without recipes or craft patterns, but overall the term cozy no more designates only one narrowly defined type of story than the term noir does. They’re guidelines to tell the reader something, but not everything, about the general content of a given novel.

Faced with all that negativity about the term cozy, many of those who once used the term now prefer the word traditional, defining a traditional novel as the sort Agatha Christie wrote, as opposed to, say, Raymond Chandler. If you look at the novels that have won the Agatha award, however, you’ll see that traditional takes in a wide variety of story lines.

Another word people quibble about is writer. I know. You’d think that one would be pretty self-explanatory. But no. There’s the whole writer/author debate. Some think that only an author writes published books. I don’t agree. For one thing, auth is not a verb. To me, a famous author is as likely to be a movie star who hired a ghost writer to write a book for him as he (or she) is to be a novelist, biographer, or true-crime writer. Note the prevalence of the word writer there.

True, anyone who writes more than an occasional letter or term paper can call him or herself a writer. It’s helpful to clarify. A published writer has something he’s written in print (or, these days, available digitally) but hasn’t necessarily been paid for his writing. A professional writer has been paid for his writing. The amount doesn’t matter. If you have sold something you’ve written and received money in return, you are and will forever be a pro. A working writer earns some or all of his regular income from writing. A successful writer actually makes a living at it. The amount it takes to be successful varies by where you live and your lifestyle. The equivalent of what you would earn at a “real” job is a good ballpark figure.

Please note that I don’t define success as a writer in terms of number of fans on Facebook, rating or number of customer reviews on Amazon, appearance on a bestseller or “best of (year)” list, or by award nominations or wins. Some writers do. For some the goal of writing is not just to be published but to make the New York Times list. I have to admit that there are times when I wish I could answer the question I sometimes get at signings (Have I heard of you?) with a confident “yes,” but in general I’m happy to be able to make a living writing books I’d enjoy reading if someone else had written them.

Sometimes, in connection with a professional writer’s writing life, the term professional comes up in another sense. It seems not every writer is as “professional” as they could be about meeting deadlines and honoring commitments. This came as a shock to me the first time someone (my agent, actually), complimented me on being so professional. I was brought up to follow through on obligations. I can’t imagine doing things any other way. On the other hand, there are some things traditionally published writers are now expected to do by their publishers as part of the package that were never included in the deal in the past. I have politely but firmly refused to be bullied into Facebook, Twitter and the rest. I blog because I enjoy it. I keep my webpages up to date for the same reason. And I write because that’s what writers do. In fact, the best definition I know of for a writer is someone who can’t not write. Publication. Income. Success. Even fame. Those are excellent side benefits, but the real joy comes from the act of creation.

One last thought: there is actually a better name than either writer or author for a person who crafts novels, short fiction, or works of nonfiction. It’s wordsmith.


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14 Responses to Some Thoughts on Words

  1. Barb Ross says:

    I’m leading the charge to take back the label “cozy,” the way some ethnic groups and minorities have reclaimed words once used to deride them.

    While it’s true some cozies are good and some are horrible, that’s true of any category of fiction (or art or entertainment for that matter). I’m convinced it’s seen as a negative in some quarters because cozies are, in general, by women and for women.

    I understand why the marketing departments need these categories to sell books, but I don’t understand why writers (or authors or wordsmiths) use them to look down on one another. Writing novels is hard enough without the sniping.

    • I couldn’t agree more. And for those who don’t know, Barb also blogs with another group of writers at a site called Wicked Cozy. In fact, she has a terrific post there today.


  2. Gram says:

    Nice word – wordsmith. Dee

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I’ll step in to disagree. First, count me among those who prefers the term “traditional” to the word “cozy.” I think it’s primarily because of the number of “cute” mysteries published. I have nothing against them — each to his own! But I think using the label “cozy” classifies all amateur sleuths in a very motley mix, as Barb pointed out, and I also, from a marketing perspective, feel it discourages some readers (men, particularly) from picking up a book advertised as “cozy.” And, just to make me sound like a real curmudgeon today — I also hate the term “wordsmith.” When I wrote professionally (as an executive speech writer and then doing – not just writing abut – strategic planning for a major corporation) whenever I was turned down for a promotion it was because, no matter what I was doing, I was labeled “just a wordsmith.” Just someone who could make more important people’s words sound good and make sense. In a world of engineers and PhDs in physics, being called a “wordsmith” was a put-down. Just sayin’. I think I’ll stick with calling myself an “writer” or “author” — someone who writes traditional mysteries.
    ‘t (and I have nothi, most of which are

    • Good points, Lea. But I do write cozies, complete with the requisite cats, although without recipes. I guess I look on the cozy as a subgenre of traditional. Then again, I wrote category romance for years, so I’m used to put downs.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Not curmudgeonly at all, Lea. I do admit the category is a muddle. My first book The Death of an Ambitious Woman was not considered a cozy (and had trouble finding a home) because it was a professional sleuth–a female police chief. But it otherwise met all the criteria of a “village mystery.”

      So I am not anti the term traditional at all. But I am writing a cozy series (yes, complete with recipes!), so in that sense I believe, say it loud and say it proud!

      In reality, I am the world’s least cozy person. Don’t cook, no cats, swear like a longshoreman.

  4. The term cozy used to be a way for me to identify a mystery with no sex, swearing, or gore. They were safe books for someone who doesn’t want to encounter any of that in a book. Today, the word seems to have lost its meaning. I no longer know, without sitting in a bookstore for a long term reading random pages, if that will be the case. It may be time to create a range of terms to describe various amateur sleuth mysteries so we know what we’re getting when we pick up the book.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Ooh! That sounds like a fun project!

    • Becky Deming says:

      I agree with Terrie in that I use the cozy term to weed out the books with sex for the sake of sex and gore for the sake of gore. . . I like the term cozy and the definition used by Kathy above. I also like traditional mysteries and police procedurals. I know when I pick those up they may be a little darker per se. . . but will still be good mysteries. Any writer, reader, publisher willing to make a definitive decsion on what the different terms mean for us readers? (And is it a publisher’s ploy or not?) 🙂

  5. Lea Wait says:

    I didn’t mean to put anyone down! I just disagree. And the range of cozies does vary greatly … from cats to supernatural to recipe-laden (I have nothing against a good recipe or pet, you understand) to downright funny, to chick lit mysteries … to mysteries that actually do involve law enforcement folks to some degree. (Usually a friend or spouse.) So there really are no easy definitions. Except — I do think — the “no graphic violence” and “no on-camera sex.” Although … definitions of both of those do vary …

    • Not to worry, Lea. I didn’t take your comments as a put down. I was thinking of the put downs by folks who look down their noses at anything that they think has less value than the type of fiction they prefer. Sadly, there are lots of them around. Some folks even think it’s bad to hope to make a living from writing!!! One thing is sure . . . words are tricky things. Obviously a simple word like cozy carries a lot of baggage.

  6. John Clark says:

    I’m discovering the same thing with Christian fiction. A couple years ago, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading anything so designated. Then came Travis Thrasher, followed by Lisa Bergren and more recently, Jenny B. Jones. These folks can hold their own with anyone when it comes to creating addictive and extremely well-crafted teen fiction. Yes the stories have a religious/spiritual component, but it fits and that makes a huge difference over something sorta slapped on like cheap paint.
    On a different note, Kate and I joke about writing a crime/fluff series called the bodice repair mysteries. Who knows 2014 might be the year.

  7. Nancy Miller says:

    Interesting discussion. As a reader I look for the cozy category in order to find stories with interesting characters but minus the unnecessary “blood and gore”. I’m not into the recipes or cats but do enjoy the solid family interaction, police procedurals and different cultures. (I finally got around to Tony Hillerman this year and really enjoy his style.) Hillerman probably doesn’t fit the cozy category but what’s the category for something that doesn’t jangle the nerves or keep you awake at night when real life already does enough of that? Oh yes, I guess that’s “escape”.
    P.S. By the way, I enjoy this blog.

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