There’s more than one English


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!

Making writing fun

Joe’s Post #130

writers tearsOr rather, making it fun, again.

When did I lose the fun of writing?

Being me, I want to quantify, analyze, decipher why. I want to get to a solution and a haul my sorry butt back into that magical place where I loved sitting in a chair and making sh*t up.

So I go back in time (in my head, not a hot tub). Back, long ago, when the earth was not yet formed and there were no cell phones, when the Canucks had those horrible yellow uniforms and when I would sit down and actually write for fun.

You know, to tell a story.

I had no delusions of being published. I didn’t have a critique group. I didn’t even have a fancy-schmancy laptop. I just had a story in my mind that I needed to write about. Needed to tell.

Looking back, I see myself sitting at my desk, listening to Every Rose Has A Thorn (or secretly bobbing around to Straight Up), and I realize I had one thing that I don’t have now. I had faith in myself.

I think that’s where it’s all gone wrong. I’ve not only lost the fun, but faith.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. I can see how I got there. The first rejections led to me wanting to know more about writing, to do better. That led to books and conferences and workshops and exercises and rewrites and critique groups and…

elements of fictionI worked on plot, pacing, voice, character, theme, structure, description, and setting. I learned how to writer better dialogue, to hook readers in and out of a chapter, to create tension and suspense. I tried my hardest to be the best writer I could possibly be.

And yet, I still failed to get published.

It’s bummed me out, man, and I lost faith.

Oh, hey, don’t get me wrong. All those things taught me to be a better writer. But the simple truth is, that’s not enough. Certainly not enough now.

One key ingredient was missing. A good story. Something that would grab other people’s imaginations. Something that they’d want to read about.

I remember pitching a book I loved, the book I wrote for the 5/5/5 challenge. No one was interested. Not even a little. No one cared if I could write a great paragraph or had all sorts of tension. The decision was made quickly based on how well I sold the story idea.

But that didn’t stop me. I went back to the drawing board and tried to learn how to write EVEN BETTER, to write a story everyone would love to read and one that would have all sorts of plot and themie-things and epic dialogue and steamy sex and wonderful descriptions and all of that.

And therein lies the problem. You can probably see it.

I got too much into my head. Too many voices. I was trying to do too many things. Trying to satisfy other people.

Back in the day, long ago, I wasn’t in my head thinking, gosh, I need to make sure my character arc is complimented by the theme. Or that I need to make sure I have a whammo opening line.

I just wrote.

For fun.

For myself and a few friends.

IMG_2145It’s why I love to blog so much. I just write. I make mistakes in grammar or spelling and I’m not even convinced anyone but my friends are reading the blog, but I do it because I love it. I love exploring my life in the justjoe blog. (Oh and please, please, please check it out!!!) I love writing about writing in the 5/5/5 blog.

So I haven’t really lost the love of writing, have I? What I’ve lost is the love of novel writing.

I’m still not sure how to get back there, but I do know one thing.

Writing, for me, is only fun when I’m not over-thinking it, when I have faith in myself.

Now, how do I get back to that place?


saulBest show last week – OMG, so many great shows on this week. But the winner had to be Better Call Saul. It’s from the writers of Breaking Bad and it does not fail to impress. It’s horrific, funny, intelligent, and engaging. I wish I could write this well.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Just about to start a book. For fun. Not to learn from or study or pick out details. Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows.

Pages written on new book  50? (I know I need to start adding these pages up. They’re all in chapter folders, but it’s progress, right?)

Social media update – I did not feed the beast at all this week. It is angry and feeling forgotten. I suspect it’ll try to get back at me somehow.

Health  Crappy. Ok, who has a cold for 3 weeks straight? Anyone? Anyone?

Best thing last week  Bought new hockey gear for the youngest boy in my new family. Being me, I blogged about it.

Worst thing  Can’t seem to write a good query letter for my last novel. (Can you say, ‘stuck in your head, again?’)

Until next week, please check out these websites…

Elizabeth Lyon – some great books on writing

Alison and Don’s Amazing Travels – Oh what an incredible nomadic life they lead.

bev's booksBev Cooke – A link to her books!






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!

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.

The amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector


Silk’s Post #46 — Not one of the 5 writers failed to get dinged for it in our June retreat. “It” is that often hard-to-define whiff of something in a character’s words or actions that made at least one of the critiquers call “foul!”

Often, it was something a character said that seemed … well, out of character. Or out of the story timeframe. Or a regionalism from the wrong region. Or something too young or too old for their age.

A super-modern teen uses an expression from the 1960s, for instance, but doesn’t mean it ironically or seem to coin it as a new, cool, retro term. A normally refined character says something too slangy or crude for the circumstances. A teen suddenly sounds like an adult, or a tween’s talk regresses to that of a third-grader. A minor character becomes an instant caricature by using hammy dialect or saying something hammily smarmy (try saying that fast three times).

Similar sour notes were called out when a character’s inner thought processes didn’t seem to match either the character, or the character’s expected appreciation of the circumstances. For instance, a character we thought of as smart and perceptive seems to have inexplicable difficulty figuring something out. A “dumbout”, you might call it. Sometimes, characters appeared to learn something from experience, then immediately forget it – like a rube falling for the same old parlour trick over and over.

In contrast to the times when previously sharp characters had trouble adding 2+2 and arriving at 4, other situations had characters zooming to conclusions on scanty or complex information like savants, leaving readers still scratching their heads.

Of course, the sh*t detectors clanged the loudest when a character acted in a way contrary to our expectations. A character we’ve come to know as fussy and feisty suddenly goes all laissez faire, for instance, becoming compliant when we’d expect them to kick and scream. Or a highly principled character with a reputation to uphold decides on a whim to break the rules in a particularly risky manner without thought of consequences (or ethics). Or a heroic character sits around moping and feeling sorry for himself.

Of course, we were doing critiques, not just reading for pleasure. Could it be that the 5 writers were just being especially sensitive to such inconsistencies? After all, even the characters in bestselling books occasionally fall “out of character”. We’ve all noticed it, haven’t we?

Yes. My point exactly.

It is amazing how skilled human beings are at “reading” people and developing expectations about them. And how fast they do so. I’m no psychologist, but I believe this is a deeply ingrained survival skill. We all learn to distinguish our friends from our enemies early in life – or suffer the consequences. What was it George Bush once tried (and failed) to say? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We learn these lessons well, and sometimes painfully.

What’s even more amazing is the subtlety of the cues we learn to judge people by, and anticipate their actions from. Even micro-expressions, incredibly fleeting facial tics that one is unaware of perceiving, give us a “feeling” about someone’s mood. A slight modulation in tone of voice or a tiny hesitation before a word tell us whether we can trust what we hear. Not only that, once we have categorized a person (usually very quickly, whether we mean to or not, notwithstanding the old saw about not judging a book by its cover), we tend to “read” their words and actions as evidence supporting our first impression. When they deviate, we notice.

Why would it be any different when we’re assessing a character in a book? I believe readers very quickly judge the literary characters they are introduced to, and thereafter hold them to strict account for behaving as expected.

This amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector works both to a writer’s advantage – and disadvantage. It either attracts readers to, or repels them from, a character very quickly. So lesson #1 is: be thoughtful, precise and crafty about how you introduce your characters. You can hook readers very quickly. However, they will not allow you to change your characters except through carefully-constructed character arcs. And they will notice (and will not like it) if you allow your characters to talk, or think, or act out-of-character.

Exceptions? Well, of course. Psychopaths or sociopaths, who are conscience-free and can hide their true (evil) selves, are certainly pathological exceptions. But these are, presumably, limited to villains in your story.

Another exception is the character in disguise – for instance the powerful king who hides his identity behind a commoner’s cloak, or a wizard whose magic is kept secret for tactical reasons so he can save the world later in the story. There was even an interesting real-life “case” in the news this week, triggered by a Facebook post about a supposed pastor named Jeremiah Steepek who disguised himself as a homeless person among the worshippers at his new parish to test their Christian charity (this viral tale has now been debunked, although it appears to have been derived from a real-life, if less dramatic, story). The examples of powerful kings, wizards and urban legends should suggest that characters in disguise are probably most at home in fantasy types of genres.

Writers are smart, though. We understand the sensitivity of character integrity intuitively, don’t we? So why do we sometimes make our characters say, think or do things that are out of character? Do we not know our characters well enough? Are we just being sloppy? Are we carried away by our imaginations? I don’t think so, at least not usually.

The ugly truth: we do it most often to serve the plot.

This is the terrible writer’s sin that is easily discovered by the reader’s sh*t detector. The reader doesn’t even have to try hard to find out our dirty little secret. It sticks out like an especially egregious typo.

But what about those bestsellers I mentioned, the ones where popular writers have a character act inconsistently – and their editors let them get away with it? Yes, I’m sure it does happen. But read the book again. Most times it’s a deliberate clue – a foreshadowing of something that comes later in the plot. Something that the most highly-skilled writers understand will be picked up by alert readers with finely-honed sh*t detectors and will set them to wondering …

Circus promotor P.T. Barnum is often misquoted as saying: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the public,” but in fact he was not referring to their intelligence. The actual quote was: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” (He also said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one,” which kind of tells you where he was coming from.)

When it comes to readers, however, I believe writers underestimate their intelligence and their sh*t detectors at their peril.

If your plot demands that your characters act out-of-character, change the plot. I will be doing quite a bit of that myself in rewrite.