L is for … Language

 

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When you’re writing a character who isn’t from where you are, one of the best ways to convey their origin is the language they use. Since I’m writing in English, my characters will always speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t add a little flavour, and  within English there are many different dialects and accents.

So how do you let the reader know that someone in a story is from a particular place, without doing the obvious and telling them, ‘hey, this character is from London,’ or, ‘this person is from Mexico?’

One way to do this is to mostly use English, but throw in the odd dialect word, or a word from another language. Use dialect, but don’t overdo the accent or it will be hard to understand.

‘E were nowt burra big babby. I telt ‘im ta sling ‘is ‘ook burre wunt. ‘E just kept on whingeing about not gettin’ enough respect.

Being from south Yorkshire, I can understand that, but others who aren’t used to the accent might have difficulty. Let’s try it with dialect but lose some of the glottal stops and dropped h and g sounds.

He was such a baby. I told him to sling his hook but he wouldn’t leave. He just kept on whingeing about not getting enough respect.

The second version is a bit easier to read, but I’ve kept the dialect words such as ‘sling his hook’ and ‘whingeing’. I also gave context for the meaning of ‘sling his hook’ by saying ‘he wouldn’t leave.

Ear mate, wotcha fink abart goin’ darn the pub forra bevy?

The above seems a bit ‘Dick van Dyke’, if you get my meaning. If we take away the exaggerated accent, it becomes:

Fancy going down the pub for a bevy?

We’ve kept the speech pattern of ‘going down the pub’ and ‘bevy’ (which, since we’re going to a pub is – by context – obviously a drink).

So now we’ve got a couple of British accents, how about someone from another country? Here’s my take on someone from Mexico.

I waved to get the flight attendant’s attention. She smiled and held up her hand, and said, “Momentito.”

I waited until she finished helping the other passenger. When she turned to me, I asked, “do you speak English?”

She held up her forefinger and thumb pinched together. “Un poquito.” She grinned.

We can see that she means ‘a little bit’ by the action she makes for ‘un poquito’ and the same goes for her putting up a hand as if to say, ‘wait a moment’ when she says,  ‘momentito’. Plus, the word sounds similar to ‘moment’. It’s enough to show she’s not English without going into too much detail or dwelling on an accent.

How about German?

Some people might make a big deal of writing every ‘w’ sound as a ‘v’, or every ‘th’ as a ‘z’ but it comes out quite stereotypical if we do that.

I gave her the moeny we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “Zis is vonderful!” she said, hugging me.  “Zank you! Zank you my friend!”

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I gave her the money we’d collected for the orphans and she was brought close to tears. “This is  wonderful!” she said, hugging me. “Danke! Danke mein freund.”

Instead of using stereotypical accents, we use the language itself. The words are commonly known, and sound similar enough to their English counterparts that we can see what she means, especially alongside the actions. Again, it’s all about the context.

This is an especially useful method to use when writing fantasy, especially if your fantasy is set in another world. Rather than make up new words for everything, it’s probably best to choose a few important words and put them in a context where it’s obvious what they mean.

I’ll leave you with a partial scene from something I’m working on. Can you tell what’s going on here? What do you think the word ‘hekesha’ means?

“I loved her, yes.” Laera hung her head. “But that isn’t why I ran away.”
“Hekesha!” Her father shrieked.
Still she did not look at him, not even at the sound of tearing cloth. She did not need to look to know that he had torn off his sleeve and cast it at her feet. The ultimate in rejection. He had disowned her in front of the entire court.

 

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Keeping it simple

I see the advice ‘keep it simple’ a lot, and it’s good advice, mostly.

It’s also often misinterpreted, or misused, when it relates to writing.

Some people say it means using only small words, to be more easily understood. Others recommend small sentences, to avoid losing the reader in rambling prose. Others still, insist that it means to write without embellishment or much description, like Hemingway.

In all honesty, all of the above might work, or it might not. It’s more simple than that. When we say, ‘keep it simple’, all we mean is ‘make it easily understood’.

There’s nothing worse than being pulled out of a story by a writer’s failure to communicate clearly. Re-reading a sentence or paragraph, trying to work out what’s going on, is one of the number one reasons I will put a story down and probably not pick it up again.

It’s not always about vocabulary. You can expect the average reader to know what most commonly used words mean, and if they come across a less commonly used word, you can expect them to look up the meaning. It’s how I expanded my vocabulary, at least. Of course, using a lot of big, or unusual words, where the reader has to resort to the dictionary too many times, might become an annoyance. My advice would always be to use the right word for the job. That word could be ‘noise’ or it could be ‘cacophony’, depending on what you’re trying to convey.

It’s not always about sentence length, either.  In fact, varying sentence length is a good idea – it stops the prose from becoming monotonous. Don’t believe me?

This paragraph is made up of sentences of ten words. Not nine words, or eleven words, but exactly ten words. Count them if you don’t think I’m telling the truth. Tell me, have you noticed anything about the sentences yet. They’re all starting to become a little boring, aren’t they?

If we use sentences of a uniform length in an effort to keep them short, they start to sound the same and it’s harder to keep our attention focused. If we vary the length, it’s less noticeable. We can keep focus for longer. We follow the story instead of noticing the writing.

Sentence length can also be used as a narrative tool. If you want a relaxed, calm atmosphere, you can use longer sentences to convey a sense of tranquility, or of lingering in a moment. Your characters aren’t in a hurry if they’re stopping to admire the scenery and noticing small things like initials carved into a tree, or the way the tips of a willow’s branches brush the surface of the pond, like a caress. If your character is in danger, or angry, then short, terse sentences are key. They carry the action. They set the tone. Fragments work too. Especially. Just. One. Word.

Keeping it simple is not about using less description, either. How much description to use depends a great deal on the story itself and the mood you want to set. If you want to create a picture of a stark room, you’ll use language that conveys that picture. White, unadorned walls. A couple of bare wooden chairs. A cold tiled floor. No curtains, bare bulb, etc.  If you want to create a picture of opulence, you’d probably go into more detail and talk about how the rich fabric of the curtains hung, or the sparkling chandeliers, polished marble, lavish upholstery.

Perhaps we mean the plot? Well, yes and no. Some plots are quite linear, some twist and turn all over the place. Both are enjoyable and both have their good and bad points. What all kinds of plots have to do, however, is make sense. Don’t show the character having a fear of deep water in act one and then have them swim across a river in act two, unless there’s a good reason for doing so (like their arch nemesis has chased them to a river bank and they have nowhere else to go).

So, how do we ‘keep it simple’?

We use the right tools for the job. The right words to paint the picture you want the reader to see. The right amount of description to set the scene, the right sentence length to set the pace. Make it understandable. Read the sentence aloud – if you trip over it, your reader is going to trip over it. Make sure the punctuation is correct. Make sure the word you use conveys the exact meaning you want to give. Make sure that you, the writer, don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell.

I can imagine that you’re reading this and thinking ‘this isn’t simple!’ and you’re right, it’s not. But that’s the trick. We, the writers, do all the hard work so that all the reader has to do is read.

J is for … Journal

penThere’s something satisfying about writing things down. Not typing onto a computer; the act of physically, taking a pen and writing something down. I used to do this a lot when I was younger, before I had a computer, or a typewriter (yes, I’m old enough to remember those). I would sit and write in notebooks all the time. Writing stories, or just my thoughts.

 

Even those terribly emo poems I wrote as a teenager, about love and death, and how miserable life was.

It wasn’t just creative writing. It was a way of taking the emotions I was feeling deep inside and examining them in the light. Why did I feel that way? Was it me? Or was my reaction to something justified? Sometimes, simply writing it all down allowed me to get it off my chest and move on. It allowed me to talk through the things I didn’t feel I could discuss with anyone. Most of the time, though, it helped me to work through my issues and realise they weren’t as bad as I thought, or simply not worth the attention I was giving them.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that I could write more with a computer because my fingers flew over the keys and I could write as fast as I could think, and that was that. I stopped writing journals. I would write emails or forum posts to the people who made me angry, and then delete them without sending. That became my catharsis. Sometimes, I’d actually hit send, or post. This is never a good idea, because you always end up being the jerk, regardless of how justifiable your anger felt at the time. Nine times out of ten, the other person isn’t trying to wind you up, or deliberately stamp all over your feelings. They’re simply oblivious, and you having a melt down in their inbox, or on a forum, is the first clue they get that there’s a problem.

It’s the same on social media. You say exactly what you think at the time and ‘boom’, it’s out there. Often before you’ve had the opportunity to examine why you feel that way. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. In fact, once it’s out there, it’s out there forever. Even when it’s embarrassing.

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Especially when it’s embarrassing.

 

 

Where was I? Oh, yes. Journals. I’ve started writing by hand again.  I explained my reasoning in this Medium post but in a nutshell, I discovered that writing by hand helped me follow a conversation better while taking notes for work meetings. I then discovered that writing by hand helped my creativity while writing fiction.  I’ve started writing new scenes by hand in a notebook and then transferring them to the computer to edit them there. It’s working well so far, as I plough through a major rewrite of my novel. Where I’d been struggling to keep the momentum going before, I’m writing at a good pace at the moment.

I can write anywhere with a notebook. Sometimes it’s just to jot down a thought before it’s forgotten. Others it’s to write a whole or partial scene. A character sketch. An overheard snippet of a conversation that might work well in a story (or spark a story). Anonymised, of course. Or a reminder of an idea that could turn into something bigger when I get the chance to mull it over.

I keep a notebook with me all the time now, along with a pack of those little note tags, so I can mark the spot where I wrote about a new idea, alongside a spot where I wrote a new scene for the novel.

I have a special notebook at home for writing down those things that bother me. It’s a purpose-made one that a friend bought me and it’s especially for those ‘why are people like that?’ moments. Some days I use it more than others.

I also have a notebook that I keep in my desk at work for work-related things: to-do list, upcoming things to think about, reminders to check for responses to my questions, notes from meetings.

Writing by hand is also having another beneficial effect; it’s improving my handwriting. I’ve been using fountain pens to write with instead of ball-points, and it slows me down and makes me write more carefully. After a couple of decades of typing virtually everything, my handwriting was awful. It’s still not the best but it’s improving all the time.

Being off the computer more, is also helping my peace of mind. Less social media, less procrastinating, fewer opportunities to get drawn into a futile argument with someone I don’t know over something I have no control over. I know things are awful, politically, but arguing with people on the Internet isn’t going to make any difference. I’m not going to change anyone’s political outlook with a pointed tweet, no matter how pithy I think it is. That doesn’t mean I don’t think I can do anything, just that I should focus my energies where I can achieve something.

So yes, I heartily recommend buying notebooks and journals. Take your writing with you wherever you go. Write wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. And get those negative thoughts out where they can’t fester. Examine them honestly and work through them.

Thanks for reading. Now I’m going to go write in the sunshine.

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I is for … Improper use (in this case, me, myself, and I)

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I know the title sounds like it doesn’t make sense, but bear with me.

Something’s been bothering me for a while now – ever since I came back from living in the United States. My dear fellow Brits, there’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’m just going to put it out there.

Most of us are using ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’ incorrectly.

There, I said it. Please don’t hate me.

It’s particularly prevalent in contact centres and I’m not sure why they do that, but it drives me up the wall.

I will call my bank and the lovely, friendly person on the other end of the line will say something like:

“Hello Cheryl, what can I do for yourself today?”

And, being polite, because I know how rough it is to be on the receiving end of a rude customer, I will say:

“Hello, lovely friendly person on the other end of the line, I’d like to talk about my account please.”

On the inside, I’m screaming.

I wonder if somewhere along the line they’ve been told that saying ‘you’ and ‘me’ is bad? Or, perhaps someone heard someone else say it and thought it sounded cool and it spread through the contact centres like a plague of norovirus. Or a plague of people using ‘impact’ as a verb (don’t even).

Whatever the reason, I’d like to do a quick tutorial on when to use me, myself, and I.

The easiest way to remember for ‘me’ and ‘I’ is to use I for the subject of a sentence and me for the object.

The subject is the one who performs the action; the object is the one who has the action performed on them. So, for instance:

I walked the dog.

I am the subject because I performed the action to the dog, the object.

She threw the ball to me.

She performed the action, so she is the subject and the action is being done to me, the object.

Myself comes into all this when I (the subject) refer back to myself.

I gave myself a treat for passing the test.

I bought myself a chocolate cake.

When it comes to you and yourself, it’s much the same, except ‘you’ works for both the subject of the sentence and the object.

You ditched me.

In the above sentence, ‘you’ becomes the subject because ‘you’ did something to me, the object.

I gave you a call, after the party.

In the above sentence, ‘you’ becomes the object, because I, the subject, did something to ‘you’.

However, when the sentence tells you to do something on your own behalf, we use ‘yourself’.

Give yourself a break.

Have a word with yourself.

Ask yourself where you want to be in five years.

We do say:

I’d like to introduce myself.

We don’t say:

You can give the information to myself. (we say, you can give the information to me).

We do say:

Make yourself comfortable.

We don’t say:

We’ll get the information over to yourself this afternoon. (we say, we’ll get the informaton over to you this afternoon.)

I hope that helps you tell the difference between me, myself, I. And you and yourself, of course.

Why don’t you give yourself a pat on the back for reading this far!