There’s more than one English

language-bubbles

Silk’s Post #122 — Is English the world’s viral language? It’s spoken by 400 million people as a first language, and by another 800 million as a second language. It’s the official language, by international treaty, for aeronautical and maritime communications. It’s the dominant language on the Internet (55% of top websites compared to less than 10% for the next most-used language). It’s the global language of international business, with one study by the British Council reporting that by 2020, two billion people will be studying it. Some have charged English with linguistic imperialism because of its impact on other languages, including language death.

How the language of a tiny nation-state with only .009% of the world’s current population became the lingua franca of the planet is a subject for history scholars. What I’m interested in is what English’s ungovernable spread and variation means to English language writers today.

It doesn’t take an English professor or student of linguistics to make this simple observation: the English language is a bit of a mess.

In its odyssey from the colonial era that spread it like a virus across the continents to its modern predominance, English has evolved in hundreds of different directions. Perhaps it is the language’s ability to mutate in Darwinian fashion that has made it the fittest survivor. It has adapted to different tongues and climes to become a whole family of variants, each unique but all (relatively) comprehensible to each other.

There is a movement to corral all these dialects, to reshape them to conform to a standard “International English,” also called “Global English” or (in one of the least elegant words ever coined in the language) “Globish.”

But good luck on that. Despite the best efforts of grammarians and lexicographers over the centuries, living languages love to defy rules the way children love to jump in mud puddles wearing their best shoes.

So, when an English speaking writer sits down to write a novel, it’s a fair question to ask: Which English will be used?

I don’t just mean the spelling difference between “colour” and “color” or “programme” and “program”. As an American-born writer transplanted to Canada 45 years ago, spelling variation has been a continuing hitch in my writing style, like a small limp. Canada, forever caught between the old world and the new world, has retained some aspects of the Queen’s English while adopting others from American usage. So: colour, not color. But program, not programme. You just have to memorize them, like the times tables. Then there are many Canadianisms – eh, hoser, pogey, zed, serviette, loonie, toonie, double-double, kerfuffle, give’r, and the picturesque fill your boots – which I now forget sound foreign to my friends in the US.

But those are more the punchlines of jokes about the difference between Canucks and Yanks than fundamental differences in culturally-specific syntax. Yet, real and profound differences do exist, and they are critical to the story world and voice of a book. Because when people talk differently, they also think differently. See differently. Even act differently.

Language usage – whether narrative or dialogue – telegraphs the world view on which the story is built, reveals setting and social structure, hints at history and backstory, conveys lifestyle and belief systems, and sets the pace and mood of the book.

Sometimes it’s stylistically obvious, like the antiquated language of a historical novel, the dialect of an ethnic or cultural group, or the street slang of an underclass. All these are harder to do than they seem, the most common mistake being a heavy hand. The natural voice in the reader’s head is likely to “speak” in relatively standard English, and readers can get annoyed or exhausted when continually forced to interpret a “foreign” language. If they have to keep stopping to figure out what the patois means, you’ve gone too far and they’ve probably already escaped to water their geraniums or turn on their TV.

Sometimes, however, it’s the subtle shading of English usage that creates a unique and vivid theatre of the mind. These are the books that transport readers and make them feel they’ve slid into a different, memorable, world. A world where they’re both a visitor and a native at the same time. These are the stories that make readers say I felt like I was right there.

It’s easy to assume that this is achieved mostly through skillful description and those telling details the writing books try to teach. But a lot of it is how the writer uses language.

I think of the languid pacing and reflective mood that characterize many of the best novels set in the South, for instance. There’s a kind of underlying nostalgia, a sense of past days of glory contrasted with the humid dissolution of the present, that colours stories by authors like William Faulkner, Pat Conroy or James Lee Burke. You can hear it in language that flows like slow beads of sweat on a hot day. In Gillian Flynn’s spectacularly successful Gone Girl, the change in mood from the fast-paced New York setting to the drowsy Missouri small town where the characters’ world comes apart is subtly enhanced by the shifting texture of the language the writer chooses, like a suit of clothes, for each place.

Or think about the indelible mark left on modern literature by the revolutionary use of language introduced by the “hard boiled” detective story. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – and later natural successors like Mickey Spillane, Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard – crafted a whole genre that was characterized as much by its spare, brutal use of language as by its subject matter.

Am I really just talking about style? Well, maybe. That’s a big term and it covers a lot of territory. But I do think the mutations that have allowed the English language to adapt to different cultures, and different perceptions of reality, may go deeper than the term “style” might suggest. When does the elasticity of English stretch beyond its “standard” form and spawn truly distinct versions? Versions one needs to be conversant in to truly understand the stories of its speakers?

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between an English professor at Eton and a Chicago hip-hop street dancer. Are they really speaking the same language at all? Could they carry on any sort of meaningful conversation? I realize that such a scenario in a novel is, well, remote at best. It sounds more like a comedy sketch. But some of the best storytelling happens when people from “worlds apart” get smashed together on the page.

Telling stories like that – even when the language contrast is more subtle – is the job of the writer-as-translator.

So, be deliberate when you pick your language from the many Englishes that exist.

Or drive the language police nuts, and make up your own!

Communication depends on the relationship of the characters

Karalee’s Post # 94

One of my running friends sent me this cartoon and it struck me that what is being communicated is completely dependent on the relationship between those speaking.

The characters in this cartoon have an intimate relationship and what the man says and what the woman perceives he is saying don’t match at all. As readers we laugh at the interchange, but it is a technique (subtext) that writers often use to add depth to their characters and stories.

cartoon it never ends

In writing, we can take advantage of the relationships between our characters whether through family connections, professions, how well they know one another, and what their motivations are in the conversation.

The above cartoon would be different if these two people had just met and were starting to date, or if it were between two women or two men. It would also depend on how well they knew one another, if they worked together, if they have mutual friends etc.

Another way a character can communicate is by saying one thing when he/she really means something else. In other words, the character is lying. There are a million reasons why a character may do this. For it to be effective the author must let the reader be aware of the lie and the reasons behind it (although not necessarily at the same time).

How do you take advantage of subtext in your writing?

Happy writing!

10 best things I learned at Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writers' Conference banquet

Surrey International Writers’ Conference banquet

Silk’s Post #106 — I’m still coming down from a three-day weekend up in the cloud where writers live. Sometimes that cloud is a lonely place. Sometimes it rains for weeks. Sometimes thunder and lightning make you want to crawl under your desk.

But at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – #siwc2014 or #siwc14 – the sun is always shining when hundreds of writers and their gurus come out to play for three days every year. It rocks!

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

While I’ve been recovering (okay, the late nights in the bar and various social gatherings did have something to do with that), Joe has already done two excellent posts on his SIWC experience, and he only came for a day. I better get with the program.

This was my eighth SIWC. So here are a couple of fair questions:

  1. How come I keep going back – haven’t I been-there-done-that?
  2. How come I don’t have a book published by now?

First answer: I keep going back because every year I learn new stuff I need to know, and because it recharges my writing batteries, and because I’ve come to know and love the citizens of SIWC, and because it’s one of the best writers’ conferences in the world (even the big-dog presenters from New York say this).

Second answer: I don’t have a book published yet because I’m still a learner and I haven’t yet achieved a polished manuscript that’s ready to put in front of an agent or publisher. When I embarked on this second career after I wound up my design/advertising agency, I came to the party with 35 years of writing experience. I thought I’d be churning out a novel a year in no time. HAH! I must have missed the Steep Learning Curve Ahead sign when I turned onto that road. Oh, alright alright, my questionable post-retirement work habits and tendency toward procrastination does factor into it too.

That’s why I love the SIWC log line: This Day We Write! This came from a conference keynote a couple of years ago by bestselling author Robert Dugoni, who graciously let SIWC adopt it as their own. It’s the perfect rallying cry in this nebulous writers’ cloud we all live in, tucked away by ourselves most of the year, but connected to each other in a kind of virtual community.

This year at SIWC I attended one 3-hour Master Class, 4 keynotes, 3 panels, 5 workshops, 3 luncheons, 2 banquets, 1 agent pitch, 1 blue-pencil session, 1 theatrical presentation, 1 cocktail party, 1 book fair, and a late night book launch. Plus bar time.

Seriously, I really did need a day to recover.

I also took rather voluminous notes, and will share some of this rich trove in more detail in future posts, but today I want to give you my 10 top take-aways – some new things I learned, some things I thought I knew but now finally understand, and some things that just resonated with me.

1. Emotional impact trumps everything else in fiction. Story, setting, premise, characters, action, plot, voice, style, and subject are all important ingredients – but the real magic only happens if you can cause the reader to experience a powerful emotion. (Thanks to Don Maass for this insight from his Master Class “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.”)

2. To avoid obvious and clichéd emotional reactions in characters, evoke rather than report. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell”. This is a kind of corollary. Make big emotions – the ones with a lot of gravity – like dark stars that affect everything around them without being overtly visible. (Inspiration by Don Maass, weird planetary analogy by me.)

3. A writer’s number one platform on the Internet is his/her own website. It’s the one thing in cyberspace that’s totally in your control, where you own the space and content. Think of it as the centre of your own online community. Use whatever social media and other channels you are comfortable with – and have time to keep up – to steer people to your website. (This point was driven home repeatedly by multiple social media experts, including two of the best: Sean Cranbury and Sarah Wendell.)

4. The most powerful social media tool a writer can use is (wait for it) … email. There are 3 times more email accounts than Twitter and Facebook combined. 92 per cent of adults use email, and 61 per cent of them use it every day. Email is 6 times more likely to get a click-through (to your website or blog) than a tweet, and 40 times more likely to generate new clients/relationships. (Thanks to Sarah Wendell for doing the math).

5. The 3 most important things that build your social media currency are: generosity, consistency and authenticity. Joe already mentioned this, but it’s so important that it can’t be said too many times. Social media are, first and foremost, about relationships and sharing – not marketing opportunities. Don’t be the person who only reaches out to others when you want something from them. Do more giving than receiving. If you support and share with people 90 per cent of the time, you get to talk about yourself 10 per cent of the time. What a surprise … cyber life is just like real life! (This theme was universally emphasized by experts Sarah Wendell, Sean Cranbury and Chuck Wendig in their “Social Media Smackdown” panel).

6. Characters drive story. Characters need to have agency. Active characters push the plot around, they don’t just get pushed around by the plot. Every character has to have a problem (a want) to be solved (fulfilled). In the gulf between the character’s problem and its solution is the story, which must wind its way from the problem to the solution through a minefield of complications. (While these principles have been repeated by many, in many different ways, Chuck Wendig in his “Kick-Ass Characters” workshop, brought terrific clarity and insight to these essential concepts).

7. To create tension, the writer has to walk a tightrope between withholding and revealing information to the reader. Tension occupies the space between what the writer allows the reader to know, and what the writer allows the character to know. The reader always needs to be slightly ahead of the character, which stimulates worry … but not so far ahead that the character seems slow-witted. (A great panel of suspense writers, Hallie Ephron, Robert Wiersema and Chevy Stevens illuminated this dark corner of writing in their discussion, “Tension: More Than the Edge of Your Seat”).

8. Planting questions makes readers turn pages. While this seems like the simplest and most obvious piece of advice in the writing world, it is a deliberate technique that’s hard to remember when you’re in the flow of writing, and easy to make too obvious when you strew questions around retroactively. The compelling need to know “what happens next” is the most delicious form of tension for the reader. (Another trick of the trade from the “Tension” panel).

9. Dialogue should only consist of things that need to be said, or are inherently interesting. Another seemingly obvious principle that gets wantonly violated by throwing all sorts of debris into dialogue such as backstory, pointless conversation meant to mimic “real life” and other content the author didn’t know what else to do with. (Thanks to Outlander author, Diana Gabaldon – the mistress of dialogue – for this reminder).

The one and only Jack Whyte

The one and only Jack Whyte

10. Read aloud. SIWC’s favourite Scottish icon, author Jack Whyte, is probably the best reader I’ve ever heard. With his rich baritone and dramatic flair, he can make the telephone book sound like gorgeous literature. Listening to him read the finely-crafted opening of his new book, The Guardian, at a special pre-release book launch on Saturday night, I was reminded of another excellent piece of advice that I’ve often received and always forget to do. Read your book to yourself out loud, especially key passages or dialogue that needs to be “just right” to the reader’s ear. It’s amazing how every awkward turn of phrase, bit of unnatural dialogue, misplaced word and run-on sentence will suddenly become obvious.

To wind this post up, I want to share the best word I heard at the conference, and its context:

Avoid online douchebaggery.

Writing progress

Karalee’s Post #76

 

I’m in the East Kootenays for the next couple of weeks helping a friend on her hobby farm. I’m busy feeding horses and walking dogs and taking care of the house while she is away.

 

 

I’ve time to write and have been making headway on my new story. For the first time I have an overall feel of how a book needs to come together as I’m writing it. It’s like a breath of fresh air and I see it as a breakthrough for me. All the hard work learning this craft called writing is starting to become general knowledge that I can pull from instead of trying to learn it all as I go.

It feels similar to when I was learning to be a physical therapist in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. Learning every peripheral nerve, muscle and bone took months, but at some point became part of my general knowledge. This was the foundation though, upon which I could then start problem-solving orthopedic injuries, etc. and apply treatments and recommendations to clients.

I feel I am at this point in learning the writing craft and that I finally have a good foundation to build upon.

My foundation also includes an outline so I have an idea of where my story is going and I know where to aim for at the end. Some parts of my outline are in great detail as I visualize the scenes, but others are sketchy and open to my creative juices as I get there.

It is wonderful to have a feel for how the structure works, how the plot can unfold, and how my characters have to be realistic and have the reader care about or relate to them on an emotional level as I’m writing. Now I am more cognizant of not having the amateur information dumps and fillers like I have had before. Note Silk’s last post on this topic. Thanks Silk!

I’ve been concentrating on dialogue lately and this week Brian Klems, the Online Editor of Writers Digest, wrote a column The 7 Tools of Dialogue that is well worth the time to read. I am very glad to say that I am using some of these techniques automatically and that is also good for my confidence.

As I write I’m also keeping in mind what James Scott Bell put so succinctly in his book Plot and Structure. He says that the questions below are what all agents, publishers and readers think about when they open a book:

  • What’s this story about?
  • Is anything happening?
  • Why should I keep reading?
  • Why should I care?

Happy writing!


More surprises await

Joe’s Post #87 –

signSo, there I sat in a restaurant – laptopless and writing notes by hand – when who should sit down behind me, but three construction workers. Hard hats. Rough hands. Dirty faces.

Being me, I listened in on the conversation. You just never know what you’re going to pick up. I was expecting talk about boobs or hockey or the latest jackasses in government. All good topics. I hoped to pick up a little bit of their tone, their language, their thoughts, and file it all away somewhere in my cob-webbed filled brain.

Instead, I heard a reasoned and well-informed debate on pensions. All of them were well spoken, well thought-out and knew not only the economics of how pensions worked but how they are actually invested.

What a surprise!

But should it have been? Should I have been so quick to believe a cliché?

And therein lies the surprise. I expected something gruff, something typically blue-collar, something profanity-laced. I based this on their looks, my own experience working in that environment, and the fact they had hard hats. Bad of me, I know. Never judge a book by the cover and all of that. But I didn’t really judge so much as assume and my assumptions were all wrong.

Delightfully WRONG!

don maass workbookI immediately thought of something Donald Maass had asked in one of his workshops (and I’m sure it’s in one of his books.) He asked, “What would your character never do?”

I wrote, he loves his wife, he’s loyal and honest and would never ever cheat on her.

“So what would happen to your character if he did what he’d never do? Does that make him a little more deep? A little more dark? Understandable? Vulnerable?”

And he was right. He usually is. Thinking about what your character would never do, having the reader understand that and then, then have that character do what he’d never do adds a whole other level of layering to that character. Right?

So, that memory and those construction guys combined to make me think about how to play with expectations. What would I least expect a character to do, then have to them do it. For me, it makes for much more interesting reading. Makes for a nice little surprise. And hey, haven’t we all read about construction guys saying crude things? Of course we have. I may have even written something like that.

Instead, then, what if they were more like the guys who sat behind me?

That has to be much more interesting that regurgitated clichés.

Justified does this really well. Imagine Kentucky hillbillies. Imagine what they would look like. What they would say. How they would dress. Now, here’s a snippet of dialogue from that show. From Huffington Post

justifiedIn Season 4, look at (Hillbilly) Boyd’s style of speech, when a competing criminal, Nicky Augustine, holds him at gunpoint.

Nicky: I got to ask. Where’d you get all those teeth?

Boyd: Courtesy of the American taxpayer while serving our great nation in Desert Storm.

Nicky: Man, I love the way you talk… using 40 words where four will do. I’m curious. What would you say if I was about to put forty bullets through that beautiful vest of yours?

Boyd: What’re you waiting for?

Nicky: Oh, you’re cool, huh?

Boyd: I tried to keep it to four words. You’ll allow the contraction as one

Awesome right? I mean, really, really freaking awesome, but a good part of that comes from the fact that Boyd just isn’t what he appears to be. His language, his word usage, his humor is a surprise. In fact, the whole show probably has the best dialogue on TV and is a great example of how to do surprises, be they in characters or actions or dialogue.

And that made me think about how I’m going to have to kick up my game a bit more. I need to look for those moments where you’re thinking oh, hold on, it’s the street-wise hooker… and I give you something else entirely.

Every little surprise adds up to a great story.

I hope.

**************

Blogs Done This Week: 1

Movies Seen in Theaters: 0 (too busy!)

Times I Muttered, “Where did the time go?” Just under a billion.

Queries out this week: 5

Rejections for the last week: 0

Queries Still Out there: 0

Hope Meter: 25/100 Down a bit from last week. Lack of laptop hurt my writing and time management. Procrastination hurt my queries. A small-brain-that’s-easily-confused hurt my outline.